HC Deb 13 June 1995 vol 261 cc581-3
3. Mr. Thurnham

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what assessment he has made of the employment implications for Britain of agreeing to the social chapter. [26471]

Mr. Portillo

The social chapter of the Maastricht treaty would have reduced firms' competitiveness and destroyed jobs. That is why we could not—and will not—accept it.

Mr. Thurnham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of the British public increasingly recognise the value of the opt-outs that we successfully negotiated at Maastricht? Should we not seek to repatriate powers to this country and this House, where they belong, instead of giving more and more powers to the Brussels bureaucrats, as Opposition spokesmen would like us to?

Mr. Portillo

President Chirac has commented that there is disquiet throughout Europe about the way in which the European Union appears not to have dealt with unemployment. People look to Europe to help them to create jobs. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), the single European market has helped the creation of employment; but putting burdens on employers which make them reluctant to employ people, or which raise wages so that fewer people are employed, does not help to deal with unemployment in Europe.

There are 20 million people in the EU without work. I shall continue to emphasise to my colleagues in Europe that we need to tackle unemployment—we are not there simply to pander to trade union interests.

Ms Harman

How can the Secretary of State boast to the House and to other European countries about Britain's unemployment record when, over the past five years, 11 million people have been unemployed at one time or another? Is not the Tory party the party of high unemployment? Why does he continue to oppose a national minimum wage when he has now taken to saying that he cares about the low paid? Is he prepared to justify the fact that one third of a million people in this country are on £1.50 an hour or less? How can he justify the fact that more than 1 million people are on less than £2.50 an hour? Does not his opposition to the social chapter have nothing to do with the interests or concerns about British people at work but everything to do with the splits in his party?

Mr. Portillo

None of us in Europe can boast, because none of us is doing well enough, but countries that have adopted the policies advocated by the hon. Lady have done terrible things to their populations. In Spain, which has a minimum wage, youth unemployment is three times higher than in the United Kingdom. In France, which has a minimum wage, youth unemployment is twice as high as in the United Kingdom. Jobs are being destroyed by minimum wages across Europe. The Labour party knows that. It knows, too, that the unions are demanding that differentials are fully maintained, so that most of the money that is spent on a minimum wage will not be spent on helping people at the bottom but on remunerating people at every wage level. We know that, according to the sums that have been advocated by the unions, 800,000 jobs would be lost, even if only half the differentials were restored. The hon. Lady is not straightforward or honest with the House. [Interruption.] She knows that a minimum wage—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will reflect on what he said and rephrase his remarks.

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Lady is not being straightforward because she will not tell us at what level the minimum wage would be set. Everything depends on that level. She knows that the minimum wage would destroy jobs, which is why she is not prepared to tell us at what level it would be set.

Mr. Yeo

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the acid test of whether any socialist party can call itself modern lies in its attitude towards whether individuals are free to offer their labour to an employer who wishes to employ them? Does he further agree that there is no hope of the Opposition modernising their attitude while so many of their members remain in the pay of the trade unions?

Mr. Portillo

The extraordinary feature of Labour's employment policies is that new Labour has dreamt up ways of destroying jobs that even old Labour had not discovered. The minimum wage was not introduced by old Labour; the social chapter was not advocated by old Labour. They are inventions of new Labour, presumably as a result of the domination of the Labour party by the trade unions and its willingness to bow the knee and to grovel to them.