HC Deb 06 January 2004 vol 416 cc155-6
20. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

When he next expects to meet the chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force to discuss employment regulation. [145856]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

I have regular meetings with the chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force to discuss all aspects of the better regulation agenda.

Mr. Bellingham

When the Minister next meets the chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force, will he discuss with him the UK's individual opt-out from the working time directive? Does he agree with the CBI and the Forum of Private Business, which have recently stated that the opt-out is vital for the UK's competitiveness? Or does he agree with his Socialist colleagues in the European Parliament and Commissioner Diamantopoulou, who both want to scrap the individual opt-out as soon as possible? On whose side is he?

Mr. Alexander

I certainly agree that the working time directive opt-out is important, not just for the United Kingdom but for several member states. The recent European Commission communication does not say that the opt-out should go; it identifies some abuses, and asks how those can be addressed. On the point of view of the CBI, however, I would certainly agree with its director-general in his concluding interview of the year, in which he stated: I am very pleased, well done to the Government you know, low inflation, low unemployment and some sustainable growth in an area of low interest rates. So probably the most successful economy in the developed world all up".

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Is it not important that when we look at removing burdens, we do not equate that with removing worker protection, because many Conservative Members equate the two?

Mr. Alexander

I find myself in full agreement with my hon. Friend. This Government make no apology for paid holidays, time off to attend to family matters, and, of course, the national minimum wage and the working time directive.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

The Minister will be aware that the TUC has today spoken of the massive hidden unemployment in Britain and has called on the Government to get a grip. Is not the reason for that that the Government are moving people from unemployment on to sickness benefits, thereby hiding the true extent of unemployment? Is not the background to that that the Government have so laden businesses with extra regulation that they are not producing the extra private sector jobs that are necessary?

Mr. Alexander

I hardly know where to begin in answering that question. First, on the point of taking lessons from the Opposition on employment, they will of course be aware that there are historically high levels of employment in this country at this stage. Secondly, it is of course a matter of record that we have both low inflation and high employment at this stage. In relation to moving people off unemployment and on to disability benefit, again, the last people to lecture the Government are the Conservatives.