HC Deb 19 February 1997 vol 290 cc917-20
12. Mrs. Helen Jackson

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what proportion of British and foreign firms operating in the United Kingdom currently conform to the employment standards set by the social chapter. [15033]

13. Mr. Mark Robinson

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what recent representations he has received on the impact of United Kingdom adherence to the social chapter on United Kingdom industry. [15034]

Mr. Lang

The social chapter is not in itself a set of employment standards. It is an open-ended mechanism that could be used to impose any number of damaging burdens on business. That is why British industry overwhelmingly shares our view that the social chapter would harm competitiveness and cost jobs.

Mrs. Jackson

Is the Secretary of State aware that large, responsible companies in this country conform happily with the articles in the social chapter? For example, British Steel, which has a large plant in my constituency, believes that it has nothing to fear from the social chapter as it has long-established systems of consultation, with joint shop stewards committees and a works council. It is more than happy to continue those arrangements. Is it not a fact that the Secretary of State is on record as supporting company works councils? Is he not aware that the majority of prospective Tory voters support signing the social chapter? Is it not true that, when a Government cease to listen to either business or the public, they will soon be out of office?

Mr. Lang

We do indeed listen to business. That is one of the reasons why we strongly oppose the possibility of placing social burdens on the British workplace that are handed down from the bureaucracy in Brussels. We oppose them, first, because we believe that those decisions should properly be taken in the workplace in this country; and, secondly, because the social chapter is not simply a finite list of impositions, but a mechanism through which innumerable further burdens could be passed down to British business. The social chapter would impose on Britain precisely those burdens that are so damaging to employment and prosperity in the countries of Europe.

Mr. Robinson

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor are giving the impression that it is possible to cherry-pick from the social chapter. Will my right hon. Friend tell the viewers that it is not like a "Masterchef" programme, that Ministers cannot behave like Loyd Grossman saying "Yahm, yahm", and that British workers will choke on the diet of the social chapter as they lose their jobs?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. Opposition Members do the public a great disservice when they pretend that they can pick and choose from the social chapter. A substantial number of measures would be decided under that chapter by qualified majority voting, and once we signed the social chapter, we would be unable to resist them. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, one signature on the social chapter could lead to half a million signatures on the dole.

Mr. Harvey

If the social chapter is as shocking as the Minister and his faithful chorus make out, why is France, which has signed up to it, attracting more inward investment than the UK? Why is Ford willing to divert production to countries that have signed up to it? Why can Toyota and Unilever anticipate circumstances in which they would divert investment to countries that are part of it? Is everyone out of step but the British Government? The social chapter is so bland in its terms, and all parties are committed to retaining unanimity on the majority of them. Why, then, is it so objectionable? Is it not a demon that the Tories have invented to frighten British voters?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman is singularly ill informed. France does not have more inward investment than the United Kingdom. France enjoys around half the inward investment of the UK. The UK attracts more than 40 per cent. of all investment from Japan, Korea and the United States into Europe.

Far from being isolated, the Government's view is shared by business organisations and business men all over Europe—for example, Ivano Spalanzani of the Confartigianato, who says: In Italy, businesses should be allowed to follow the British system"; or Dr. Harald Mahmile of the German-based BASF, who says: It is only the British who tend to forget just how impressive they are"; or Guus Broos, the head of a major Dutch business association, who says: The British way is best.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we were to join the social chapter, it would be a trojan horse for every politically correct social employment measure that might emanate from our socialist partners in the European Union, and that that would destroy all the competitiveness gains that we have made in the past two decades? That would be a disaster for the United Kingdom, and would involve us losing our veto over social employment measures.

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. The contrast in unemployment levels is dramatic. In Germany last month half a million Germans lost their jobs in one month. That is why German business men are investing in this country rather than in Germany, and why German business organisations are calling on their Government to abandon the European social model that is so damaging to industry.

Mrs. Beckett

Why does the Secretary of State go on repeating such nonsense? Did he not see an article by Stewart Steven in The Mail on Sunday this week, which described the Government's case on the social chapter as straightforward untruths, and accused them of comprehensively lying to the British people? How does the right hon. Gentleman square all the stuff that he has been reciting with Ford's decision to take investment from Britain to Spain and Germany, or with BMW's statement that our opt-out from the social chapter is irrelevant to its decision to invest in this country? Is not the biggest danger to 3.5 million British jobs the fact, as Toyota recently highlighted, that under this Government Britain seems increasingly likely to opt out of Europe?

Mr. Lang

The right hon. Lady is completely wrong. Ford is not moving investment from Britain to Europe. It has 30,000 employees in this country and has recently extensively extended its investment in the UK. It plans to invest £1 billion in this country between now and the end of the century. BMW has also invested heavily in the UK.

What I am saying about the social chapter and the social model from Europe is the same as is being said by business leaders in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Italy. In almost every country of Europe, the business community recognises the damage to jobs that is caused by the European social model. Only by resisting the Labour party's policies to impose it on us shall we sustain the success of our employment record and our creation of enterprise and jobs in this country.

Lady Olga Maitland

Is my right hon. Friend aware that German businesses are desperate to escape the heavy add-on social costs of employing people, and are coming to this country? In the past year alone, 58 German companies came to the UK, and more will be coming. Is that not a lesson that we should learn—that to sign up to the social chapter would be death to jobs in the UK?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why inward investment is coming to this country, not just from America, Japan and Korea but from within Europe, in record amounts.

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