HC Deb 30 November 1993 vol 233 cc904-6
4. Mr. Streeter

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what assessment his Department has made of the effects on British industry of a statutory maximum 35-hour week.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Hunt)

It would be highly damaging to British competiveness and jobs.

Mr. Streeter

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this afternoon he has confirmed my worst fears about the 35-hour working week? It would lead to a dramatic increase in the employment costs of British businesses, which in turn would have a major impact on our competitiveness throughout the world. Would not that mean thousands of British workers being thrown on the scrap heap of unemployment? What does my right hon. Friend think of any party leader who would sign up for that package?

Mr. Hunt

A compulsory 35-hour week would mean passing legislation in the House of Commons that would prevent 14 million employees from working the hours that they now work and want to work. It would also impose costs of £20,000 million on British employers, as well as asking those 14 million employees to take a £20,000 million pay cut. It is the politics of despair, and I am shocked and surprised that the Opposition should sign up to such a damaging policy.

Ms Eagle

Is the Secretary of State aware of what is increasingly going on at the other end of the labour market? There is an increasing prevalence of zero hour contracts, which mean that an individual is given a contract of employment with zero hours to fulfil and is then expected to be on the end of a telephone, to be called in at the whim of the employer, not knowing from one day to the next how many hours they will be expected to work. What effect does the Secretary of State think that that will have on British industry?

Mr. Hunt

I must tell the hon. Lady that, in the UK, there has not been a substantial increase in casual or temporary working. Those are the facts. [Interruption.] There has not been a substantial increase. The increase—[Interruption.] Listen to the facts. The increase has been only 6 per cent. The number of permanent jobs in the United Kingdom now exceeds 20 million. The hon. Lady will not succeed in trying to portray a different picture from the one that is reality: that a greater proportion of the working age population are in work in the United Kingdom than in most other countries in the rest of Europe; and that they do so at an average gross weekly wage of £316. That is because we are competitive and are winning new markets all the time.

Mr. Churchill

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite difficult enough already for British and other EC workers to compete with Pacific rim countries, without putting the added shackle of a ball and chain around the ankle of every British employee? Will he and our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister carry on spearheading the fight against this 1950s socialist mentality, typified by Mr. Delors and those on the Opposition Front Bench?

Mr. Hunt

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is positively ridiculous that, in this day and age, the Labour party and some socialists in the rest of the Community should believe that there is a definite parcel of work that can be divided between the available work force. We benefit in the UK because we have a flexible labour market. Why is it—as my hon. Friend has pointed out—that, in the UK, unemployment is falling, while in mainland Europe, in every country, unemployment is rising?

Mr. Prescott

Will the Secretary of State accept my official copy of the European socialist manifesto, which makes it absolutely clear that any such changes in the working week will be imposed not by legislation but by agreement with the social partners? Is he not aware that, in companies in the Netherlands, Germany and France, where such 35-hour agreements have been agreed, they have led to increased productivity and an increased work force, without a reduction in pay? That is one reason why they have a higher level of pay and a lower level of unemployment than Britain.

Is it not true that, only last week, the Secretary of State himself refused to vote against the 48-hour week European directive, which means that it will be he who introduces legislation to reduce the working week? Will that be in his European Tory manifesto?

Mr. Hunt

First, I welcome the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) to the Front Bench. I also welcome the hon. Members for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and also the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile).

Mr. Canavan

Answer the question.

Mr. Hunt

I will. The trouble with the Opposition is that they do not know a compliment or tribute when it hits them in the face.

I have to say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East that I know that he has been doing his job for only a short time, but I have spent some considerable time reading through the manifesto that was distributed at the press conference.

Mr. Prescott

Here is the official one.

Mr. Hunt

I know that the hon. Gentleman is trying to pretend that the French version is the more authoritative one, but I rely on the English version. Paragraph 32 says: These measures must include a substantial cut in working time to ensure a better division of the available work. Several approaches are possible: a working week of 35 hours or four days".

Already, the deputy leader of the Labour party in the European Parliament has said that the party will campaign on a 35-hour week. Either the document to which the Labour party signed up is not worth the paper that it is written on, or it is the most damaging document for the United Kingdom that I have ever seen. Instead of reducing unemployment, it will spread unemployment.

Mr. Jenkin

Is not the evidence clear that, where legislation of this type is imposed on a working population, higher levels of unemployment result? Is not the evidence also clear that Britain is winning respect from its European partners by stating the case clearly, negotiating firmly and not backing down until we get the deal that we want?

Mr. Hunt

I agree with my hon. Friend. First, no country in Europe has a statutory 35-hour working week at present. Secondly, we are winning respect from our partners in Europe in seeking to contest any rigid regulatory measures which would only stiffen up the labour market and stop unemployment coming down. Thirdly, it is a fact that, in the United Kingdom, unemployment is coming down. It is down 137,000 so far this year, whereas on the mainland of Europe, it is rising in every country. My hon. Friend is right that people are listening more and more to the United Kingdom Government's message and the message of the Conservative and Christian Democratic parties, not the socialist message from the past.

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