Previous Section Home Page

Column 527

deals and translate them into Community law, over the heads of individual workers and without the involvement of the British Parliament.

Mr. Ashdown rose --

The Prime Minister : I will spare the House another quotation from the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown).

Above all, the social chapter would mean that many who are now employed would be likely to become unemployed. Many without jobs would stay without jobs. The main right that workers would get would be the right to become unemployed.

I strongly support our membership of the Community, but I support a Community which does not intrude into areas that are properly the domain of the member states. That, I believe, is what the social chapter does. There is already concern across the House, not just on the Conservative Benches, at the Commission's attempts to use health and safety powers for social legislation. We will oppose any abuse of those powers. We shall, if necessary, challenge the Commission's legal base--as we are doing over the working time directive. In the social protocol, through the opt-out that I negotiated with the consent of the House and a massive majority to do so, I have preserved the right of the House to decide. Yet, in the amendment to the Government's motion, the Opposition seek to remove that right. They are supported by the Liberal Democrats. On the social chapter, as on defence, value added tax and much else, the Liberal Democrats say one thing and do another. They change their principles from doorstep to doorstep, week to week and issue to issue.

This week, the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and for Truro (Mr. Taylor) were both parroting the facile proposition that, without the social chapter, Britain would have a sweatshop economy. Good slogan ; rotten argument. The Labour party says it. So does the Liberal party, naturally. That is nothing surprising--they are usually indistinguishable, and usually both wrong.

The truth is that Britain has the best health and safety record in Europe, the best occupational pension scheme in Europe and the best system for caring for vulnerable people in Europe. Rather than talking such nonsense, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should talk to business and learn what he is talking about. Business knows that the Community must compete or contract. If we add to social costs, we will not compete and we shall contract. We shall lose jobs in the short term and the long term. The one certain impact of the social chapter is that jobs will be lost and unemployment will be worse. That is what is at stake.

Is it worth it? Go and ask our industrialists. Will it help them to grow? Will it pay high wages? Will it guarantee jobs? Ask good investors whether the social chapter will attract them to Britain. Listen to the Confederation of British Industry, the Engineering Employers Federation, the British chambers of commerce and the Institute of Directors--every single British organisation. They know that playing games on the social chapter is a dangerous game with the British economy. Everyone knows, except Opposition Members who would impose those burdens on British industry and the British work force.

Column 528

Uncertainty about Britain's commitment to the Community is damaging to the country. It would undermine our standing, our influence and our national interests. That uncertainty undoubtedly will arise if Parliament does not now implement the Act that we have approved in Parliament. It must clear the way for the treaty that I signed at Maastricht. I believe that the treaty embodies the genuine will of a parliamentary majority, not the will of a coalition of disparate minorities simply to obstruct.

As the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said : "we should not consort with"


"who are just completely, fundamentally anti the European Community."

I hope that he stands by that.

During the past few years, Britain has had an increasingly strong voice in the Community. As never before, we have influenced its future direction. So long as we remain a fully committed member, we can have an even stronger voice in the future.

That does not mean accepting everything wanted by our partners. It means being in there in the Community ; arguing, debating, shaping the future of our Community and carrying alliances with us. Europe is beginning to move in our direction. In France, in Germany and in Britain, a large majority looks not to a super-state, not to a united states of Europe, but to a Europe of nation states. Those states co-operate closely and enjoy a single market embracing 340 million people, but they retain their identity and sovereignty.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) : My right hon. Friend will know of my strong opposition to and reservations about the Maastricht treaty. I have been greatly encouraged by what he has said about how he envisages Europe's future and the influence that he can bring to bear on Europe from within Europe. In his speech this afternoon, will my right hon. Friend help me by assuring the House and me that this country will not move towards a single currency and return to the exchange rate mechanism as long as he is in power? Will he assure us that we in this country, who are proud of our sovereignty, integrity and place in the world, will be able to continue to have control over our foreign and security policies?

The Prime Minister : I have repeatedly said to the House on a number of occasions that I do not envisage that we shall be able to move towards a single currency--a matter on which the House makes the decisions--in anything remotely like the time scale previously set out. That is increasingly becoming the view of other people. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has said on several occasions, there is no prospect of our returning to the exchange rate mechanism in the near future, as the conditions are simply not right. I do not envisage that they will be right for some considerable period of time.

Britain's interests demand that we play a leading part in the Community. Common sense demands that we retain the freedom of action which I secured in signing the social protocol. That is why the Government are determined to ratify the treaty I signed and to oppose last-ditch efforts to delay or distort it. It is a matter of national interest that we proceed in that fashion, and it is upon that basis that I ask the House to put aside and reject the Opposition amendment, and to adopt the motion.

Column 529

4.54 pm

Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East) : I beg to move, to leave out from That' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof : "in the opinion of this House, Her Majesty's Government should not deposit the Articles of Ratification of the Treaty of European Union with the Government of the Italian Republic until such time as it has given notification to the European Community that it intends to adopt the Agreement attached to the Protocol on Social Policy.'. The Prime Minister made a curious start to the debate when he complained about the fact that we were debating the resolution and the amendment at all today. We are having the debate because of section 7 of the very Act to which he drew attention. He claims that the Act has been passed by both Houses of Parliament, which is certainly true--it has received Royal Assent. Section 7 makes it clear that the Act cannot come into force until the House of Commons comes to a resolution.

The Prime Minister described the debate as if it were an irritation to the Government--a devious ploy by the Opposition. However, the debate is a requirement of the Act of Parliament which he used to justify most of what he said. In addition, when discussing the Bill in Committee, the Foreign Secretary said that the Government had no difficulty in accepting new clause 74--which became section 7 of the Act. The Foreign Secretary said that the Government accepted the challenge presented by the proposals contained in the new clause. On 22 April he said :

"It is reasonable that the House should want the opportunity to vote on the principle of the social protocol."-- [Official Report, 22 April 1993 ; Vol. 223, c. 548.]

I have discovered why the Foreign Secretary is not winding up today's debate. It would be too inconvenient to have a Government apologist who had agreed to the procedure which we are now adopting speaking alongside a Prime Minister who is seeking to condemn it. It is nothing other than a requirement of the Act which both Houses of Parliament have passed, but it gives the House the opportunity which the Government sought to avoid in Committee--a vote on whether we should have the social chapter and the social protocol as part of the British version of the treaty.

It took the Prime Minister a little while to get round to it, but once again he today advanced the startling proposition that measures of social protection which are thought to be desirable by all 11 of our partner nations in the European Community are in some curious way a threat to British prosperity. As the argument has continued throughout the Bill's consideration, the Government have persistently sought to misrepresent the content and effect of the social chapter provisions. A deliberate campaign of misrepresentation by the Government has reached new peaks of exaggeration as each day passes. Therefore, it is vital for the House to consider what the social protocol is and what it is not. The other 11 states have agreed that there should be a modest extension of the Community's competence in social affairs--matters such as the protection of the health, safety and working conditions of people at work, workers' rights to information and consultation, and equality for men and women in relation to work opportunities and treatment at the workplace. The argument is all about those sectors where qualified majority voting applies.

There are other extensions of competence to social security and social protection where unanimity would still

Column 530

be required. There are sectors--which the Government have consistently failed to acknowledge--which are specifically excluded from the agreement. They include pay, the right of association and the right to strike.

Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking) : I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a man who is concerned about unemployment--he has often told the House that. Will he tell us straight that he is convinced that the social chapter will not cost a single British job? If so, can he give the calculations on which his belief is based?

Mr. Smith : I am wholly convinced that adopting the social chapter in this country will improve, rather than undermine, employment opportunities. What is more, I shall develop the argument as I proceed with my speech.

I shall remind the House just what the social protocol is about. I do not make any enormous claims for its proposals, which are fairly modest. But the Government say that the proposals are a sinister threat to our economic future, a deadly plot by the Brussels bureaucrats to destroy jobs and economic growth from which, in the nick of time, our heroic Prime Minister has rescued us all. The irony of the Prime Minister posing as a job protector will not be lost on the millions of people who have been victims of the economic policies for which he has been responsible as Chancellor and Prime Minister. That self-styled saviour of jobs and growth has the worst record on jobs and growth of any British Prime Minister since the war.

It is when one examines the provisions of the social protocol that the absurdity of the Government's claims is revealed. In what sense and in what way does the improvement of the working environment to protect workers' health and safety or the improvement of working conditions impede economic growth? How on earth can equality between men and women in labour market opportunities and treatment at work be considered economically harmful in a civilised, modern state? Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr) rose--

Mr. Smith : I shall not give way.

It becomes even more absurd when one appreciates that the purpose of the agreement is to have similar rights and opportunities in every Community country to create a level playing field of social opportunity. We hear much about level playing fields from Conservative Members who mention them nearly every day in the Chamber. It is odd that they will not adopt that concept in relation to the rights of working people, and men and women.

That concept is fully understood by the rest of the Community, which is why all the other 11 member states readily agreed to the social charter of 1989 and the social action programme that flowed from it. It is why they have consistently resisted British Conservatives' attempts to prevent further progress in the social sphere. They agreed to the protocol because they all understand what the British Conservative party is incapable of appreciating --that economic success and social progress go hand in hand.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley) rose --

Mr. Gallie rose --

Mr. Smith : I think that the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) is going to become a nuisance, so I shall give way to him now.

Column 531

Mr. Gallie : I realise that it is a long time, if ever, since the right hon. and learned Gentleman participated in the industrial scene. Will he therefore take it from me, as one who has recently come from industry, that the health and safety issue is a preoccupation of British industrialists these days and is already considered to be of prime importance ?

Mr. Smith : I had not, I must confess, envisaged the hon. Gentleman as a British industrialist. [ Hon. Members-- : "Cheap."] Nor do I think that he was. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us why industrialists in every other Community country do not understand it in precisely the same way ? I should like to know--

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Hunt) : Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Smith : Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish this point.

I should like to know why the hon. Member for Ayr only ever talks about employers. Why does he never talk about emloyees ?

Mr. David Hunt : Earlier this month the director general of the Confederation of British Industry said--I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will concede this--that

"Every single employer group, like the CBI, in Europe, in Germany and in France are against the social chapter and only our Government has actually had the courage to say that we don't want any part of it."

Mr. Smith : It will come as a matter of total astonishment to this House to hear that a bunch of Tory business men say that they are on the side of the employers. [Interruption.] What is more, if the Secretary of State for Employment wants us to have the evidence from Europe, why does he not quote what was said by the general secretary of UNICE, the employers' organisation in Europe, which wants the social chapter to be incorporated ?

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford) : Perhaps I can help the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The chairman of the European Employers Federation, Mr. Ferrer, who comes from a socialist country that believes in the social chapter, like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but that has an unemployment rate of 23 per cent., turned up at the last European Social Affairs Council and begged Ministers not to go on introducing legislation of this kind which destroys jobs.

Mr. Smith : I shall quote to the right hon. Gentleman the precise remarks of the general secretary of UNICE, the employers' organisation, on precisely this subject. [Interruption.] I hope that we are not going to disregard the general secretary, who was appointed by UNICE. The right hon. Gentleman wants to pick the remarks that he agrees with and ignore all the others.

Mr. David Hunt indicated dissent. [Interruption.]

Mr. Smith : We should make more progress if Conservative Members were to calm down a little. They get very excited when remarks of the employers are quoted, but they never think of consulting the employees about any of their rights. The general secretary said :

Column 532

"If we look at the costs of employment only or social costs only, we're looking at one very small part of the picture So it's really a gross over simplification to reduce the whole thing to the costs of labour."

He is right. That is the view of UNICE, just as it is the view of the European TUC.

If the Conservative party is so right on this subject, why is it that the only political party in the rest of the Community that supports it is Mr. Le Pen's National Front? [Interruption.] Why is it that even right- wing Governments do not perceive the menaces and the threats which the Prime Minister and his colleagues see on all sides? Can it really be true--

Mr. David Hunt : The right hon. and learned Gentleman-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. It is about time that hon. Members settled down-- [Interruption.] --in all parts of the House. [Interruption.] Order. If hon. Members do not want to hear what is being said, I do.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Am I correct in believing that when a Member seeks to address the Chamber for a second time during a sitting, he or she is able to do so only with the permission of the House?

Madam Speaker : That is not the case.

Mr. Hunt : Opposition Members are not going to stop us putting the record straight. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that I quote from the opening statement of Mr. Carlos Ferrer, speaking on behalf of UNICE--

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Secretary of State for Employment is misleading the House. He has-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. Let us have a little calmness. No one is misleading the House. If, however, the hon. Gentleman has a point of order, I shall be pleased to hear it.

Mr. Grocott : The point of order is this : as we try to listen to the debate, the intervention by the Secretary of State for Employment is not an intervention by him but the result of information acquired from civil servants sitting in the Box--from panic-stricken people, who are running up and down. Why do not Ministers come to the House with their own arguments?

Madam Speaker : As far as I am concerned, there is a Minister at the Dispatch Box who is speaking on behalf of the Government and responding to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Hunt : The Leader of the Opposition purported to voice the views of UNICE. I quote from the opening statement of Mr. Carlos Ferrer, at an informal meeting of employment and-1e"I want to finish my statement with an urgent call for negative action. This is an appeal from the heart on behalf of the millions of companies which UNICE represents. Governments and the Community expect those companies to produce wealth to invest and to create jobs." He concluded with these words-- [Interruption.]

Column 533

Madam Speaker : Order. If the House will come to order, it will hear what is being said-- [Interruption.] --and what is said will be over with quickly.

Mr. Hunt : I am quoting from a statement made on behalf of UNICE. I finish with the general secretary's words--

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Since you have been in the Chair, I have often heard you rightly tell us that interventions should be interventions, not speeches. This is almost a wind-up speech by the Secretary of State for Employment. I hope that you will correct him, just as you have corrected many Back Benchers.

Madam Speaker : It is true that interventions should be short and to the point. [Interruption.] Order. When the House has settled down, I shall speak again. The point that I made earlier was that if hon. Members did not shout so much, whoever was intervening would be able to make his point quickly.

Mr. Hunt : I do not know why Opposition Members are trying to destroy the Leader of the Opposition's speech. I shall quote directly from the statement made on behalf of UNICE. The president-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. I shall wait until everyone is finished. This is now becoming very repetitive. We know what is being quoted ; may we have a direct quotation now?

Mr. Hunt : The president said to the Council of Ministers : "Then please stop taking measures"--


Madam Speaker : Order. I am waiting for the House to settle down. We cannot make progress unless the House settles down. I ask the Secretary of State to come to his conclusion.

Mr. Hunt : He said :

"Then please stop taking measures which unnecessarily destroy jobs."

Will the Leader of the Opposition now withdraw his earlier comment?

Mr. Smith : If the right hon. Gentleman, and those making noisy interventions on his behalf, was not seeking to destroy a speech, it is hard to work out what he was trying to do. I quoted exactly and precisely what the general secretary of UNICE said. [Interruption.] He said it in answer to a question on a BBC programme called "Analysis" on 6 June 1993, just a month ago. It was not a good point that hon. Members shouted at me.

I also remind the Secretary of State that UNICE is actively involved not only in the social protocol but in the machinery to implement it. It is in a special arrangement with the trade unions, about which I think the Prime Minister complained, but it can hardly be against the social chapter when it is in the middle of it, helping to operate it and make it work.

The fundamental point is why, if the employers were so compelling in their arguments, they have not been able to persuade Chancellor Kohl, Mr. Balladur and Mr. Lubbers, the right-wing Conservative figures in Europe, to listen to them. It passes belief that these people are involved in a nefarious plot to destroy their own

Column 534

prosperity. Are these right-wing Conservative leaders so muddled and confused that they have become socialists by accident? Do we really believe that, when the Prime Minister goes to meet these colleagues at meetings of the European People's party and other such gatherings, he bangs the table in his commanding style and warns them that they are closet socialists?

Is it not passing strange that 11 Governments of many and different political complexions are all incapable of discerning the weaknesses in the social protocol? Why is it that not one of the four countries seeking entry into the European Community wants to opt out of the social chapter? Fifteen countries in Europe--those in the Community and those wanting to join--are all of one opinion ; only one party and one country is on the other side-- all out of step except our John. The Prime Minister must believe that they are all deluded.

Surely the truth is that it is the Prime Minister who is deluded about the nature and effect of the social chapter which elsewhere finds such widespread favour. Afterall--

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby) rose--

Mr. Smith : I have given way generously. I do not think that the Conservative party deserves very much indulgence from me in terms of giving way, in view of the behaviour of the Secretary of State for Employment.

Mr. Alison rose--

Madam Speaker : Order. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that he is not giving way.

Mr. Smith : After all, it requires quite an acute form of delusion to claim a triumph of negotiating skill in getting one's country isolated and excluded from a decision-making process of great importance to the Community and, inevitably, of importance to this country. What kind of success is it to have engineered a situation in which, when social affairs are on the Community's agenda, British Ministers have to leave the room, bereft--

Mr. Garel-Jones : Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith : I have already given way to the right hon. Gentleman. British Ministers will be bereft of influence over legislation which many believe will come to apply in Britain as a result of decisions by the Court of Justice, whether or not there is an opt-out.

Mr. Garel-Jones rose--

Mr. Smith : I have already given way to the right hon. Gentleman. Only in the Walter Mitty world that the Prime Minister increasingly inhabits could such nonsense be thought to be an achievement. Of course, we know that the Prime Minister wants the country to believe that, whatever the mess at home, he is really an ace negotiator abroad. Like the comic strip hero, Clark Kent, as soon as he leaves our shores behind, the Prime Minister is transformed into a diplomatic megastar. There he is, Britain's diplomatic megastar, his Superman shirt tucked neatly into his underpants ; there he is, a very special kind of hero, shaping the very destiny of Europe, clutching his Maastricht optout as his colleagues gently take him to the door marked "Sortie".

Column 535

What the Prime Minister does not understand- - [Interruption.] I do not think that the Conservative party will gain very much by making rowdy noises throughout my speech. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order, Mr. Richards.

Mr. Smith : Conservative Members sometimes forget that there is a wider audience for our proceedings than that in the House. The Prime Minister and the Government do not understand that their opt-out is Britain's lockout--a lockout from decisions. I could not understand how the Prime Minister could argue that we had to be involved in decision making in the Community while also arguing the justification for an opt-out. Once again, decisions will be arrived at and policies forged in Britain's absence.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recall what was said in the press when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister returned from his negotiations? In France, it was said :

"Holding his own"--


Madam Speaker : Order. The House must come to order.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : It was said :

"Holding his own against his eleven partners, the Prime Minister can show that he has fought a tenacious battle and resisted the interference of socialist Brussels technocrats and demonstrated his devotion to economic liberalism."

That was said in Liberation in France.

Next Section

  Home Page