HC Deb 08 April 1998 vol 310 cc347-9
Q5. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given the right hon. Gentleman's admission that a minimum wage will destroy jobs and the Trades Union Congress forecast of 200,000 job losses in manufacturing industry, how does he reconcile the rhetoric of welfare to work with the reality that the Government are set to deliver work to welfare on an horrific scale?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is amazing that the hon. Gentleman talks about small numbers of manufacturing jobs, important though they are, when the Conservative Government were responsible for the loss of 2 million jobs in the manufacturing sector, which we have to deal with.

Under the wages councils legislation, before the previous Administration abolished wages councils, I was one of those who received the minimum wage when working as a commis chef in hotels. So that Conservative Members do not misunderstand, I should explain that a commis chef is a trainee chef and has no political significance whatever, although I am not sure that that is what the hotel manager thought. We should remember that what we are doing about fair employment rights will be welcomed by millions of workers.

The advice that the hon. Gentleman has been given to ask that question is probably as inaccurate as that which he gave Jonathan Aitken when he was his adviser. He expressed himself in the exaggerated language that he used as chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students before it was disbanded by Norman Tebbit for being too right-wing.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

How can I follow that?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the channel tunnel could and should carry much more freight traffic? If so, will the Government consider every practical means of increasing such traffic through the tunnel?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Yes, I certainly believe that. I see a great future for freight, especially through the channel tunnel to Europe. In the past six months, I have been actively involved in renegotiating the channel tunnel agreement—it is not very good; it was negotiated by the previous Administration. We shall make announcements about those matters shortly, in the White Paper and on the channel tunnel rail link, as I promised the House.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and the Deputy Prime Minister's answer on manufacturing, has the right hon. Gentleman read the rather alarming report published by the Engineering Employers Federation on manufacturing in the west midlands? Will he join me and his hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), the parliamentary private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, in saying that interest rates must be reduced to preserve manufacturing? The only way to reduce interest rates is by ending the political situation whereby the Bank of England is a halfway house: it is neither independent, nor fully controlled by the Government, as interest rates and the inflation rate have been set for purely political ends.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The previous Administration's record on manufacturing leaves a lot to be desired.

As to interest rates and the independence of the Government, I recall when interest rates doubled in a night under a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the Conservative Government desperately tried to stave off exit from the exchange rate mechanism. We are more concerned with the long-term running of our economy than with the short-term boom and bust that we got for 18 years under the Tory party. That argument was well tested in the election; the hon. Gentleman had a majority of 238, with a notional 10 per cent. swing to Labour. It may be a case of "hair today, gone tomorrow".

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

With the Greater London referendum fast approaching, will my right hon. Friend do his utmost to ensure a massive yes vote in London—yes for a mayor and yes for an authority? Does he agree that it was typical and historically appropriate that Tory hereditary peers voted against the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill, and therefore snubbed the idea of democracy for Londoners?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I strongly support returning choice to Londoners so that they can decide on their own government. Under the last Administration, they had no choice. The last Administration abolished the local government—the Greater London council—with no consultation whatever.

My hon. Friend's point is entirely valid. It is a bit of a cheek for Tory backwoodsmen in the House of Lords to vote against giving the people of London a right to vote on the issue. I believe that, on 7 May, the people will vote for an elected mayor and an elected local government. That is the choice that we are giving them—a radical choice. I look forward to a resounding yes on 7 May, and another U-turn from the Tory party as it begins to support us.

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