HC Deb 26 November 1991 vol 199 cc762-3
2. Mr. Michael Brown

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what assessment he has made of the effect implementation of the EC social charter would have on unemployment in the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Howard)

Much of the proposed legislation under the European Commission's social action programme would be very damaging for the United Kingdom. The working time directive alone would impose crippling costs of more than £5 billion on United Kingdom employers. That assessment is confirmed by analysis from business and independent academic organisations.

Mr. Brown

In view of my right hon. and learned Friend's comments about the £5 billion cost of implementing that programme, will he give a categorical assurance that there is no way, in any circumstances, in which the present Government—or any Government if they were acting responsibly—could possibly accept the social charter? Would not it be a recipe for disaster in the offshore oil industry, in agriculture and in the hotel and catering industry? Would not it be a disaster for part-time workers, women workers and, indeed, all workers in Britain?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is right. I assure him that the Government will do all that they can to resist the imposition of such measures on this country. However, I must tell him that it is a draft directive, which has been brought forward by the Commission, utterly spuriously, on grounds of health and safety. As such, it is alleged that it is appropriate to be dealt with on the basis of qualified majority voting. Although we shall do our utmost to resist it, I cannot give my hon. Friend a guarantee that we will be successful in that endeavour.

Ms. Quin

Is the Secretary of State concerned that some workers in Britain get such low wages that they are forced to apply for social security benefit? Does he believe that bad employers should be subsidised by the state in that way? If not, why will not he accept the provisions of the social charter which would attack the problem of low pay?

Mr. Howard

In fact, the social action programme does not contain proposals related to low pay, as the hon. Lady suggested. Family credit is one of the great advances of social legislation. It is one of the ways in which we ensure that, so far as possible, people are better off in work than out of work. If the hon. Lady would read some of the reports from the OECD and other reputable organisations, she would see the extent to which those organisations commend our practices in those matters.

Mr. Irvine

My right hon. and learned Friend said that he would do all that he could to resist those directives. In view of his assessment of the damage that they are likely to cause to employment in this country, will he say under which article of the treaty of Rome they have been proposed? If the Government do not have the power of veto and we risk having those directives imposed on us, it is an extremely serious matter.

Mr. Howard

I agree that it is a serious matter. The directives are proposed under article 118A, which is subject to qualified majority voting. I am doing my utmost to persuade my colleagues in the Council of Ministers that it would make no sense, for the European Community as well as this country, if the directives were promulgated in their present form.

Mr. Blair

Is not the real reason why the Secretary of State makes those absurd and fictitious claims about the effect of the social charter, which bears no resemblance to the reality of the proposals, that he dare not admit that the Government are opposed, not just in detail but in principle, to the idea of binding employment standards across the Community? Will he now answer the question of the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) and confirm that when the Prime Minister goes to Maastricht he will sign no treaty that allows qualified majority voting on any aspect of employment law?

Mr. Howard

What the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his question was entirely wrong. I refer him to the independent Centre for Economic Policy Research, where Professor Denis Snower recently published a document saying: Implementing the social charter may be expected to hurt precisely those workers it seeks to help, in addition to raising unemployment and reducing investment". This year's Employment Institute economic report on the social charter found that attempts by the Government to foster labour market flexibility … will be undermined by the directives presently contained within the Social Action Programme. As for the hon. Gentleman's question, the Prime Minister made the Government's position entirely clear in a debate on that matter in the House last week.