HL Deb 27 March 2000 vol 611 cc512-26

3.43 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"With my right honourable friends the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I attended a special meeting of the European Council in Lisbon on 23rd and 24th March.

"Ever since this Government took office, my right honourable friends and I have consistently advocated the need for comprehensive economic reform within the European Union. From the first European Council I attended at Noordwijck, through the launch of the British presidency and since, we have made clear that the central European economic issue for Britain in this Parliament is reform: how we modernise the European social model; how Europe embraces the enterprise agenda and seeks to match the dynamism of the United States, while at the same time preserving our commitment to social justice.

"The idea of holding a special summit at Lisbon on economic reform was originally put forward as a joint British/Spanish initiative. The Portuguese presidency has been rightly praised for the energetic and thorough way in which it took the issue forward.

"The challenge facing Europe today is fundamental. In many aspects of the new knowledge economy, the United States has established a clear lead. Seventy per cent of all e-commerce business in the world is presently conducted in the US; less than 20 per cent in Europe; and despite the gathering strength of Europe's economic recovery and the advances we have made in some key areas— for example, mobile telephony—15 million European men and women are without jobs.

"The Council marks a sea change in European economic thinking. It points Europe in a new direction—away from the heavy-handed intervention and regulation towards a new approach based on enterprise, innovation and competition.

"As part of this fundamental reorientation of economic policy, the Council agreed a whole series of concrete measures, with clear deadlines, including: rapid agreement this year on an effective legal framework for e-commerce within the EU; a fully liberalised and competitive telecoms market by the end of the next year; access to the Internet for all schools by 2001; electronic access to the main basic public services by 2003; the introduction of a European diploma for basic IT skills; a Community-wide patent by the end of 2001, making European patent protection as simple, inexpensive and comprehensive as anywhere in the world; and government and community procurement to be fully on line by 2003.

"The need for reform is not confined to the "new economy". We agreed at Lisbon on the need for urgent measures to make the European economy as a whole more competitive, flexible and dynamic. To support this objective, the Council concluded that: there must be faster liberalisation of previously protected sectors like gas, electricity and transport; there should be further support for European R&D, with the EIB making an additional one billion euro available for venture capital to support SMEs over the next three years; there should be a general reduction in the level of state aids throughout the Union; the financial services action plan should be implemented in full by 2005, with earlier progress in priority areas; for example, the introduction of a single prospectus for companies raising capital across the EU and the elimination of barriers to investment in pension funds; and a European charter for small firms should be developed, to clear away the obstacles to the growth of small businesses.

"In these and other areas, we agreed to benchmark each member state's performance and progress, not just against other countries in Europe but, where appropriate, against the best in the world.

"We also agreed that EU social policy must be modernised to respond to changing employment patterns, increasing life expectancy and deepening social exclusion. Again, the European Council agreed on a number of specific measures to take this new agenda forward: we agreed action to combat social exclusion, with member states setting targets in specific areas—unemployment, youth unemployment, overall employment, child poverty and so on; we agreed to halve by 2010 the number of 18 to 24 year-olds excluded from the labour market because of low educational qualifications; we finally opened up the issue of the long-term sustainability of member states' pension systems and the need to reform them across the EU; we agreed to establish a new Europe-wide database on jobs and learning opportunities; we agreed to put life-long learning at the centre of job creation, and to monitor each member state's progress against a series of agreed aims; we agreed to improve equal opportunities, increase the provision of childcare and promote greater flexibility in the management of working time. Each year, the European Council will meet to examine progress and agree further action specifically on economic reform.

"The Lisbon European Council represents a turning point in Europe's approach to economic and social policy. With a sound macro-economic framework in place and the euro safely introduced, the concrete actions agreed at the Council should help to deliver an increase in the EU employment rate over the next 10 years, from an average of 61 per cent today to something close to 70 per cent. I have no doubt that this is achievable. In the last three years, we have created over 800,000 new jobs in Britain; in Spain there have been over a million new jobs; and in France, too, employment has risen by over 800,000 in the last two years, in part reflecting new measures to cut the cost of labour.

"Above all, the European Council agreed that once again in Europe we can seriously contemplate a return to full employment. That post-war goal, achieved 30 or 40 years ago, but then abandoned, is back on the agenda and quite right too. Each citizen unemployed is a resource wasted.

"But we have the courage to recognise that the aspiration cannot be met unless we are prepared to make the fundamental reforms necessary to equip our countries for the modern age, a new 21st century economy. It is in the combining of traditional aims and values with modern means and reforms that the true significance of Lisbon lies.

"We had a full discussion of the situation in the Balkans, including the continuing problems in Kosovo and Montenegro. We agreed that the countries of the region need to be brought more into the European mainstream, and committed ourselves to enhance economic assistance, including through early trade liberalisation. The Lisbon Council recognised the immense progress made since the Kosovo conflict began a year ago, but agreed that a more coherent approach by the international community was needed. We asked the Council Secretary General and the European Commission to come forward with early recommendations on how to strengthen the impact of the European contribution and enhance co-ordination of the overall international effort. We believe this will enable Javier Solana and Chris Patten to promote a more coherent international strategy for Kosovo and the region.

"Finally, we discussed relations with Russia on the eve of the presidential elections, agreeing on the need for a full partnership between the European Union and Russia, and emphasising our concerns again about the situation in Chechnya.

"I spoke to President Putin this morning to congratulate him on his emphatic election victory. He was very conscious of the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, both to restore order and democracy in Chechnya and to rebuild the Russian economy.

"Lisbon was a highly successful summit. By getting our way in Europe, we are standing up for Britain's economic interests. Making Europe more dynamic benefits Britain. More competition in Europe means new markets for British business. More enterprise in Europe means more jobs in Britain. More e-commerce means more opportunities for British companies. More jobs, cheaper goods and easier access to the Internet are good for Britain.

"Once again, constructive engagement has been shown to be the right policy for Britain and for Europe".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. Will the noble Baroness will join me in welcoming the presence in Lisbon, with such strong popular backing, of Prime Minister Aznar of Spain? Does she agree that his influence on future discussions is likely to be far more constructive than the rather outdated attitudes of M. Jospin?

We welcome the fact that at last some EU leaders seem to accept the need to reduce regulation and increase competitiveness. We welcome the fact that the EU has realised that it is not internationally competitive and that the crucial services sector is underdeveloped. But we do have to ask why it has taken so long. We have been saying this for decades. And has anyone told the EU Commission, which still seems to be working with undiminished zeal on measures for harmonisation and regulation?

There are many fine words in the Lisbon communiqué. In fact, I have rarely read such a torrent of aspirations—the small print of which amounted to the Prime Minister and his colleagues confessing, "We"ve over-regulated, overspent and overtaxed". But words are not enough. The commitment to deregulate must be matched in action. Small business people in Britain and throughout Europe are crying out at the cost of the regulation and nannying interference that they now face in running their businesses. In the spirit of the Lisbon summit, can the noble Baroness undertake to review all those regulations imposed on small businesses in the United Kingdom since the signing of the Social Chapter by the Prime Minister?

We welcome the commitment in principle in Lisbon to deregulate in the fields of telecommunications and utilities. But how does that sit with the Government's plans to introduce more regulation on these industries in the current parliamentary Session? Will the Lisbon discussions affect that legislation in any way? And, when will all this happen? Were target dates set for the liberalisation of markets in gas, electricity, water, postal services and transport? If so, what were those target dates? Will the Utilities Bill currently before Parliament be dropped?

Why did the Prime Minister commit himself to the so-called "pending tax package"—tax harmonisation by another name?

On research, where again there are worthy aspirations, most of them are best met not by states, but by the private sector. What is meant by giving the Commission powers to "build a European Research Area", including mechanisms for monitoring research and using tax policies to promote research? I wonder whether this represents an extension of Community taxation competence. It sounds as though it does.

We read in paragraph 21 of the conclusions that the Ministers want to, eliminate barriers to investment in pension funds". How does that sit with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's smash-and-grab raid on pensions investments with his massive increase in taxation of dividends?

We welcome the commitment to lower taxes on low-paid workers. But does not the American model point to the urgent need to lower taxes in the European economies overall? Therefore, will the Government set a lower tax target for the UK? Does not this commitment at Lisbon suggest that the huge increase in the tax burden since May 1997—now of course admitted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—is taking Britain in precisely the opposite direction to what is needed?

We welcome another Lisbon aspiration, which is to facilitate cross-border investment. We need and support such a free market. But when will the Government wake up to the fact that unless sensible action is taken this could represent a threat as well as an opportunity to our most vital national interests in the City of London? Will they reconsider their decision in the Budget not to reduce or eliminate stamp duty on transactions in shares, given the fact that UK rates are now becoming increasingly uncompetitive in Europe? We do not want to wake up to a world in which business drains away from the London market because of the determination of the Chancellor to cling to stamp duty.

As usual, a number of initiatives were suggested at Lisbon. Perhaps the noble Baroness will indicate to us how she believes they will be paid for. Will any addition be requested to current EU funds?

Perhaps I may turn briefly to foreign affairs. We welcome what is said about securing the stability of south-eastern Europe. But when do the Government expect navigation on the Danube to be opened, as called for in paragraph 51? What part will the UK Government play in this? Do the Government envisage any further burdens falling on our magnificent servicemen and women in the Balkans?

Finally, the most absurd part of the summit was the body language of the Prime Minister when sitting next to the Chancellor of Austria. For how long do he and his EU partners intend to go on with the futile boycott of the democratically elected government of Austria? Will he still be boycotting Austria while congratulating Mr Putin, who has presided over a catalogue of human rights abuses in Chechnya, or feting President Jiang Zemin, who has done the same in Tibet? Was not the "musical chairs" in Lisbon another example of the frankly rather adolescent Blair doctrine on human rights: hector the weak, but lick the boots of the strong? Is this now the policy of the British Government?

What is needed in Europe following Lisbon is not what we were presented with—a further addition to the mountain of Euro-rhetoric—but a radical shift of direction, to lower tax, less regulation and more open competition. There can be no sense of a sea change in European economic thinking until we see less interference from Europe in the nooks and crannies of business and our private lives.

3.59 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister's Statement. Despite some discussion of Kosovo and of Russia, the Lisbon summit has been given the convenient title of "the Internet summit". That is what I shall address my remarks to.

As the House will recall, the whole question of the preliminary paper for the Lisbon summit was discussed by the Select Committee on the European Union, which reported to the House in its sixth report. If I were to summarise the tone of that report, I would say that it was a healthy scepticism about what the summit might achieve. It referred to the uncertainty of the underlying rationale of the special council and to the danger that it would be long on objectives but short on the means to achieve them. That was very much the mood when, on the initiative of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire in tabling an Unstarred Question on 15th March, the House debated the Lisbon summit. In reply to that debate the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, said: This summit is ultimately about making Europe the best place in the world to do business".— [0fficia/ Report, 15/3/2000; col. 1674.] That was a very good summary and we should attempt to judge the achievements of Lisbon against that criterion. I prefer to use the word "criterion" because I am still not quite sure what a "benchmark" is. Indeed, the verb "to benchmark" finds no place in the Larger Oxford English Dictionary, but I take it to mean "to measure against objectives". In a sense, that will be the test of Lisbon: whether, given the aspirations of Lisbon—that is what they mainly were—we will be able to measure achievement positively against what was discussed and agreed last weekend. As a result of Lisbon, will Europe be the best place in the world to do business?

Put like that, on the basis of the communiqué itself, the answer is plainly "no". I do not think that the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House would claim that Lisbon has solved the problem of how to make Europe the best place in the world for business. The most it has done is to take some steps in that direction. The achievement will depend on a persistent will on the part of the Union itself and its member countries over a long period. Very many decisions will be required—most of them not by governments and most of them not yet taken—if we are to achieve the aspirations of Lisbon.

On my part, I have divided thoughts: welcoming what was achieved but perhaps suspending judgment on whether history will show that it was mainly rhetoric or there was real substance behind it. Certainly, in historical terms, it is too soon to sustain the Prime Minister's main claim that it is a turning point. It may be. It could be a turning point for the better, but we cannot even say that for the moment.

The emphasis in the Statement is on modernisation and liberalisation. Those are the fashionable "buzz words" but they are not the whole language of politics.

I have two principal mainstream reservations about the Statement. First, I cannot share the passionate belief in markets solving all problems. Liberalisation is not all good. For example, would it get rid of poverty; and what would be the cost in dislocation and personal security? That is what we have to set against the advantages of liberalisation, although they can be recognised. Secondly, I found no reference in the communique to the danger that Europe may become a rich island in a poor world. If it is successful, if the aspirations of Lisbon are fulfilled, we shall be very rich indeed. We shall be growing at 3 per cent per annum. We shall be a competitor to the United States. But where does that leave the rest of the world? Will the rich be getting richer and will the poor be getting poorer? If that were to be the case, it would be right to have reservations on whether Lisbon has been a turning point or at least a turning point in the right direction.

Although we broadly welcome the Lisbon communiqué and congratulate the Prime Minister both on writing the Lisbon agenda and the communiqué in Downing Street—that is precisely what I think happened—I hope that there will be no attempt to lecture other European Union countries on the way we would want them to run their own economies. Even for those of us who are strong Europeans, that is further than any European Union communique should go. Perhaps it would be a good time to say again that if Britain is to play its full part I hope that the strong, clear leadership that was the theme of the Prime Minister's own statement about his achievement will soon lead to Britain's participation in the single European currency.

The noble Baroness will be very glad to know that I have only one question on the Statement. Although there was no reference to it in the communiqué,will she say whether there was any discussion of the single currency—if not in the Council itself then in the margins—and whether the Government have moved any further forward to taking a more positive view on this issue, which is central to the part that Britain will play in the Union in the years ahead?

4.6 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have, I think it would be fair to say, broadly welcomed the Statement. I am glad that both noble Lords acknowledged that the Statement was the result of the positive leadership role played by the United Kingdom Government on the agenda. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, of the scope of the agenda which, I am sure the Government would acknowledge, did not include all of the global picture which he rightly identified as being of relevance to the Union. But, as the title or "theme", if one wants to so describe it, of the particular meeting was employment, economic reform and social cohesion within the Union, perhaps that broader global context, although it would be relevant to discuss it in another forum, was not the main subject of the agenda for today.

The noble LOrd, Lord Rodgers, also said that many of the decisions and items for discussion within the context of the Statement and the agenda at Lisbon were not those to be taken necessarily by government but were in a sense more relevant to the private market place. But he is right in saying that the underlying theme of the summit, at least from the UK Government's perspective, was to ensure that the European Union is the best place to do business. That was particularly relevant to the e-commerce agenda and all of those issues that flow from that.

Both noble Lords were somewhat sceptical about the precise points that had been agreed by the summit and any form of action that had been set out on a specific timetable. It is right to say that in the conclusions and in the Statement there is indeed a new emphasis both on deadlines and specific objectives. For example, it has been agreed that a fully integrated and liberalised telecommunications market should take place before 2001. The charter for small firms, which is particularly relevant to the new economy, is to be agreed by June of this year. A financial services action is to be implemented by the year 2005. There is to be procurement on-line by 2003. There is to be a Community-wide patents agreement by 2001 and teachers are to be skilled in the Internet and multimedia resources by 2002. Those are all specific objectives with specific timetables which do not stand up to the criticism that the Statement or the conclusions of the summit were related only to rhetorical ambition rather than a specific programme.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked whether what had been agreed would make any difference to the Government's position on tax in the European Union. I am sure the noble Lord is aware that Her Majesty's Government have long made it clear that we will not sign up to EU tax measures which bring any form of tax regulation under the QMV arrangements or any that are harmful to the City. Those positions were protected at Lisbon and the conclusions demonstrate that.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, mentioned Austria and asked whether what was said was simply symbolic. As the noble Lord will be aware, the UK Government and their European partners have said clearly that the Austrian Government must be judged by their record in government. It is still too soon to draw any conclusions. We shall continue to monitor developments and implement the measures agreed, and see what comes out of that in the long run.

Overall, it is true that the constructive leadership given by both the United Kingdom and Spain—the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rightly drew attention to the role that the Spanish Government had played—and by the Portuguese presidency, together with the very good preparation achieved by a large number of bilateral contacts and statements by various European partners before Lisbon, have produced this very practical outcome. I challenge both Lords that this is a sea change. As a result of Lisbon we have seen riot only the specific set of goals and programmes for change that I have listed, but also the important achievement of a different approach to the liberalisation of certain important matters. I have already mentioned the telecommunications and utilities issue. Maintaining common issues of social justice has also been important in the bilateral discussions. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me refer to my portfolio as Minister for Women. I am particularly pleased, for example, that the conclusions contain references to an improvement in equality of opportunity and improvements in the numbers of jobs for women within the European Union; they contain also a specific reference to childcare.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend two questions. First, perhaps I may rebut slightly the scepticism expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, in regard to the Select Committee report. My noble friend will be aware that the report was produced only on the basis of the presidency paper, and that subsequent to the presidency paper there were seven further Commission papers, three Council papers and four others which substantially improved input to the European summit and made it more focused and much clearer, especially in regard to macro-economic objectives.

One point that is lacking in both the Statement and in the presidency conclusions is any interface between the decisions at Lisbon and the future enlargement of the European Union. If this Lisbon Statement is to produce real actions—as I believe it should and can—does it not somewhat alter the goal-posts of the acquis communautaire for those countries seeking to join the European Union? Is it not therefore necessary for the Government to address at some future stage, with ministerial colleagues from the rest of the European Union, the question of what support there will be for the applicant countries aspiring to join the European Union, in order that many of the high objectives agreed at Lisbon can be partly implemented in those countries so that they are not further behind us when enlargement takes place?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important question. It is right that the matter of the IGC should be seen along the lines developed at Lisbon. My noble friend makes more specific the general point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about seeing the conclusions of the Lisbon summit in a broader context. The broad context of the IGC process and the applicant countries is the more precise and immediate one.

Clearly the objectives of the discussions and the proposals at Lisbon must not, as it were, take existing members of the European Union so far out in front in such matters as e-commerce arrangements that it becomes impossible for other countries to come alongside them in terms of Community regulations and understandings. My noble friend is right on that point. I am sure that that matter will be taken under the umbrella of the IGC as discussions progress. That process is only just beginning.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, can the noble Baroness help me to solve a puzzle? First, if Lisbon really is a turning-point, leading Europe in new directions of flexibility and liberalisation, why on earth was there no review of the Working Time Directive or the provisions of the Social Chapter—which everyone recognises have been a major force of paralysis in European reform?

Secondly, did it occur to Ministers assembling at Lisbon that the major explosion in recent years in e-commerce and Internet enterprise has come about in areas that are so far removed from government that they have had nothing to do with government? I refer, for instance, to enterprises in Silicon Valley and Bangalore which have prospered almost despite government, and which are in great fear of the worst slow-down on these developments—namely, too much regulation. Was that idea in the minds of leaders at Lisbon? If so, might it not have been wise for them to demonstrate a little more candidly that they understood that the e-commerce revolution lies outside the realms of government control?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I made it clear in my initial response to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, that it was understood—possibly not as explicitly as the noble Lord might have liked—that many of the matters discussed at Lisbon were indeed the prerogative of the private markets and of private enterprise. I believe that the noble Lord will agree that there are many ways in which governments, acting collectively or individually, can support much of the new investment and activity needed to stimulate, for example, small business investment in e-commerce. That was precisely the direction that was intended from the point of view of the specific arrangements made.

In regard to directives under the Social Chapter, I am afraid that I disagree with the noble Lord. For example, I should have thought that the introduction of the minimum wage and the discussions now being negotiated about the part-time working directive were achieving precisely what the Prime Minister described in his Statement; namely, an improvement in the economic direction of Europe for the new economy while at the same time retaining the appropriate attention to social justice.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that the Lisbon Council has been big for small businesses— not only because of the 1 billion euros provided for small businesses through the EIB but also because of the European charter for small businesses? Will she take this opportunity to repudiate the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the Government are trying to snarl up the single market for small businesses? Indeed, my noble friend mentioned the minimum wage. It is the subject of a report today indicating that British businesses have demonstrated an enormous welcome for the minimum wage and wish to see the amount raised. Finally, does my noble friend agree that there is still much work to be done to complete the single European market—the inspiration of the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield—which will be the best solution and opportunity for British businesses and for jobs and prosperity?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. In replying to his specific point, it may be helpful if I reply to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, which I did not do in replying to his general remarks. The noble Lord asked whether the proposals would cost a great deal of money. That is not the case. The conclusions make it clear that achieving the strategic and specific goals that I have mentioned will depend on mobilising resources available on the markets. I emphasis again that this is predominantly a matter for the private sector. Naturally, the UK Government and their partners hope that, where appropriate, public/private partnerships can also he utilised.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to return momentarily to the question of Austria. In his interesting intervention, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said that he hoped we should not get into the habit of interfering in the internal economic arrangements of other countries. I should like to add that I hope we shall not interfere too much in the internal political arrangements of other countries.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the noble Baroness said that we would keep an eye on the behaviour of the Austrian Government to see how well they did. Is that not the same as saying that the Austrian Government are assumed to be guilty until they have proved themselves innocent? If so, is that the right way to treat a sovereign government? Perhaps I may repeat the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde: how long is this period of probation to last? Do we wait until the Austrian people change their government? What are the criteria? For how long is Austria to be cast into the outer darkness because of a democratic decision taken by its own people?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I hesitate to argue with the noble Lord on questions of international law or relative constitutionality. However, I believe that a distinction should be drawn between the internal democratic processes of a member government of the European Union, as the noble Lord suggests, and the requirement that member governments fulfil their obligations along the lines of what may be described as the values to which the European Union in general has collectively agreed. The noble Lord asks me how long the process will take. All I can do is repeat what I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. The view of our European Union partners is that sufficient time has not elapsed to ensure that there is a consistent commitment to European Union values by the new Austrian Government, and that is something that they will wish to continue to monitor.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, paragraph 50 of the Council's conclusions state: The European Union…will … continue to support the democratic opposition [in Serbia], but will also develop a comprehensive dialogue with civil society [in that country]". In view of the continued presence of Mr Milosevic, how is that support being given, and how will that dialogue be developed?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as I believe was fairly clear from the Statement, there is some disquiet within the European Union about the need for, a more coherent and action-oriented strategy", to quote the conclusions dealing with the Balkans. That means that there are ways to achieve that particular form of dialogue other than those agreed under the Stability Pact and other bilateral interventions by individual European countries. I do not have details of the specific methods of engagement with the Serbian Government. I can only express the general understanding about trying to extend the existing channels with the Serbian Government. Obviously, there is a belief within the European Council that something more pro-active must be done to establish a better situation there. If I receive any more specific information about the particular channels with the Serbian Government, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the EU high level group on benchmarking. l t may assist if I explain what that is, given that the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said that he had to look it up in a dictionary. This was an initiative taken more than a year ago by the European employers' organisation UNICE as a new half-way house between over-regulation and simply letting free markets operate. It has been widely welcomed by the Council as a means of introducing best practice in Europe. Does my noble friend agree that in Lisbon a new philosophy in regard to both the public and private sectors has been developed so that we can emulate best practice in different parts of Europe to try to improve the performance and competitiveness of Europe's economy? In that connection, does my noble friend also agree that that initiative has strong support? For example, the leader of my group was the chairman of Ericsson in Sweden; another member was the director-general of the organisation of small businesses in Germany. This is not a concept that is opposed by small businesses. Does my noble friend agree that the Social Chapter is compatible with that, in that minimum standards are one of the results of benchmarking? For example, one finds minimum standards in connection with the percentage of women in the labour force. Requirements in relation to such matters as the protection of those in part-time work and fixed-term contracts pro rata with men are exactly the concepts which emerge from this kind of analysis.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord, but perhaps I may remind him that we are here to ask questions, not to make speeches.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend did ask a general question. I hope that he also helped the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, in understanding the concept of benchmarking. I am inclined to sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about the infelicity of the verb "to benchmark". However, benchmarking as a concept is probably well understood. I agree with my noble friend that the process of assessing best practice is very well understood in the public and private sectors in this country. I was grateful for my noble friend's authoritative experience of the engagement by both small and large EU businesses in this subject. That again demonstrates, particularly to noble Lords opposite, that this is something with which the free market, the private sector and business in Europe agree.

Lord Dahrendorf

My Lords, while I appreciate the Statement repeated by the Leader of the House and the language of the Lisbon Summit, there is one small technical question the answer to which interests me, although perhaps it is the subject for another debate. It seems to me that this is the first time that the objective of raising the employment rate from 61 per cent to nearly 70 per cent has played an important part in Statements of this kind. Why has this particular benchmark entered the debate, especially in view of the fact that one of the main instruments to fight unemployment in many European countries is the extension of primary education and early retirement?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords. I should not like to challenge the noble Lord on his statement that this is the first time the matter has been mentioned in this form. The noble Lord is probably right; I do not know otherwise. The point about the relative rates of employment was simply to put into context the overall attempt to increase the number of jobs, particularly those in the new knowledge economy. The noble Lord is right to mention the relative value of what we in this country call "lifelong learning". That is specifically mentioned in the conclusions as something of very great importance to the successful implementation of much of the policy. I believe that what is conveyed by the Statement is that employment has risen significantly in the various member states of the Union, and therefore it is perfectly legitimate to attempt to aspire to (to use a fashionable phrase) a percentage rise in employment to achieve the 20 million extra jobs, to which the Prime Minister referred. To put on my hat as Minister for Women, one of the UK's economic predictions is that probably 1.7 million new jobs will be created in this field in the next decade, of which 1.3 million will be for women. Therefore, it appears that the overall percentage is an aspiration that is worth setting down.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Leader of the House on two of the answers that she has given, one to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and the other to my noble friend Lord Howell. I thought I heard the noble Baroness say in reply to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde that the Government would not sign up to any tax harmonisation measures which they did not like. Presumably, the Government have signed these conclusions of the presidency. In the fourth part of paragraph 21 one sees that they have agreed, to conclude, in line with the Helsinki European Council conclusions, the pending tax package". In paragraph 22 one also sees that they have signed up to the statement: The opportunity provided by growth must be used to pursue fiscal consolidation more actively". As regards red tape, I heard the answer the Minister gave my noble friend Lord Howell. However, in view of what is said in paragraph 14 of the presidency conclusions, can the noble Baroness tell the House unequivocally whether the Council agreed to withdraw any of the acquis communautaire or whether they remain sacrosanct? If so, how on earth can one possibly hope to meet the aims of paragraph 14?

Finally, I refer to another item which is not included in the somewhat rosy Statement of the Prime Minister. These Statements always appear to be the triumph of bureaucratic hope over what will certainly turn out to be the bitter experience dictated by the world market. I note in paragraph 21—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the Government have agreed, to make rapid progress on the long-standing proposals on takeover bids". How can that be good for the British economy?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord did not mishear me or that I did not mis-speak. In relation to the tax issue, I thought that I said that the Government have made it clear over a long period that those matters of tax relating to our own tax situation will not be subject to qualified majority voting. If I said something different, I apologise; that is what I meant.

Tax was not explicitly discussed at Lisbon. The noble Lord is right to refer back to the conclusions at Helsinki. As he will know, discussions on the broad package are under way with our European partners.

On the paragraph relating to the acquis—the noble Lord referred, I think, to paragraph 14—it relates specifically to small and medium-sized enterprises. I do not have the information about whether there has been specific change to the acquis on that. I doubt it very much or it would have been made explicit. I can only refer the noble Lord back to the point I made to the noble Lord who asked me whether it was possible to align that with the existing acquis and IGC process. It is a live issue which would have to be set under that umbrella.

The noble Lord raised the tight timetable on the financial services action plan.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I refer to the takeover directive.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sorry; I have misunderstood.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, the takeover directive appears to be being pushed ahead with Prime Ministerial support.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, in that case I am not sure to which paragraph the noble Lord refers.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, paragraph 21.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I was emphasising the previous part of paragraph 21.I apologise to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord is right to say that the issue will have to be considered in the broader context of the tax package. It was not specifically addressed at Lisbon. I refer the noble Lord back to the Helsinki arrangements which establish the package for tax reform.