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Mr. Streeter : The hon. Gentleman, who has complained several times about the time that this debate is taking, constantly makes spurious and irrelevant interventions. If he wants us to get on to other business, he will learn to keep his counsel.
I have mentioned the impact of our being outside the social chapter. I feel so strongly about this--it is not
Column 909merely words, or a totem pole around which Conservative Members dance. It means something ; it means jobs in Britain compared to our European competitor countries.
We must not put off foreign investors by discussing and describing European legislation and our role in Europe so that they gain the impression that we do not see our future as being in Europe. Not many Members are by instinct more sceptical about European integration than I, but I recognise the economic reality. It behoves all of us, when we discuss such subjects, to take care to explain that we do not see our future outside the European business community, but very much within it, so that we continue to attract United States and Japanese investment, which we have been so successful in doing during the past few years.
Secondly, it is important that we do not give employees the impression that we are denying them some benefit. I believe with every ounce of my body that that is not true. Therefore, let us explain to people carefully that it is in their interests that we to continue to say no to the social chapter, so that those 40 families in Plymouth and thousands more in the nation are not denied the jobs which they so desperately need and so richly deserve.
Let us continue to persuade our European allies that it is in Europe's interests to shake ourselves free from the inflexibility and the suffocating nature of the social chapter. We are not just competing with Germany and France, but with America and Japan. For the sake of the future of Europe, let us continue to make our arguments in the European marketplace and in the corridors of power in Europe that it is in their own best interests to rethink the provisions of the social chapter, and to shake themselves free from it.
I have much more that I was going to say, but, in view of the time and of the fact that other hon. Members want to speak, I shall curtail my remarks. It is abundantly clear that, as we talk to business people in our constituencies, the economic framework for companies to compete abroad is now in place thanks to the policies of the Conservative Government. The thing that gives us the edge on our European competitors is our freedom from the suffocating and stifling provisions of the social chapter.
Now is not the time--just as we are coming out of recession and into prosperity, and just as enterprise is stirring again in this nation--to weaken our resolve and to go back to the bad old days of over-regulation and bureaucracy.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There are hon. Members here this morning who are obviously filibustering to stop the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill being discussed again. I asked Madam Speaker earlier this morning whether she could introduce a time limit on speeches. I do point out in aid of that plea that, following the Government's leaving of the European exchange rate mechanism in disarray, the Prime Minister only spoke for 27 minutes and the Leader of the Opposition for 41 minutes. Today, on this Bill, there have been longer and longer speeches from Government Members to filibuster and to do down disabled people in this country.
Column 91047 minutes and has intervened on a number of occasions, often with spurious and pathetic points. I yield to no one in my concern for the disabled. I am making a speech which I believe to be in the interests of my constituents, and I resent implications to the contrary. In conclusion, now is not the time for us to blur our vision for the future or for us to yield to faint hearts, academics and theorists who want to enter into social legislation. Now is the time to stand firm and continue the economic regeneration of this nation.
Mr. David Willetts (Havant) : This debate is very important, and demands careful and considered discussion because the Government's White Paper on competitiveness is one of most significant that they have produced.
One of the particular strengths of the White Paper--I am pleased to see the Minister on the Front Bench--is that it is frank about the problems that Britain faces in improving its competitiveness ; it is not simply a document announcing that everything in the garden is rosy. The document contains some criticisms which we must accept are significant in explaining Britain's poor industrial performance since the war.
In the discussion on management, for example, it says that an attitude survey of more than 1,000 managers in Europe's smaller companies found that
"UK managers thought they were the best in Europe and their companies second only to Germany. Other countries disagreed, placing both UK managers and companies third out of five . . . this perception gap' was greater for UK managers than for any others". We have a problem of complacency about the standards of management in this country.
On training, the document says :
"technical qualifications tend to be less common and less well rewarded in UK industry than in . . . other countries".
The Government's meaty and substantial White Paper forces us to accept that we need to do more to improve the competitiveness of British industry.
It is admirable that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) decided when she won the ballot to raise this subject. I am sorry that she is not in her place, but I believe that she is upstairs with Hansard , ensuring that her speech is as elegant to read as it was satisfying to hear. She made a point which I thought was particularly significant when she addressed the old canard about whether something is special about manufacturing industry.
My hon. Friend reminded us that many of the arguments about manufacturing industry turn on the completely bogus assumption that physical products are wealth-creating, while non-physical products are not. One of the great difficulties that one has in explaining to people from, for example the Soviet bloc--particular victims of that fallacy--is that the physical box of a computer may be much less valuable than the software programme which enables that computer to generate useful conclusions. In future, I can well imagine a world in which computers are given away free provided that the purchaser buys the software. Value increasingly rests with those services, not with physical products.
We are often told that we have suffered from a relative decline in our manufacturing industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye did not mention the fact that that claim is often based on a statistical artifice. If a motor manufacturing company decides, instead of employing its
Column 911own staff in the canteen, its own security guards or its own in-house design team, to contract out the functions to an external caterer, security firm or design company--that is a widespread trend in British industry and a very healthy one--that is shown up in the statistics as a decline in manufacturing employment and a rise in services industry employment. The changes in employment that we are supposed to have seen in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s could well be statistical changes rather than real changes in the relative size of manufacturing and non- manufacturing industry.
Mr. Willetts : I am sorry that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)--the only representative of the Labour party present--does not accept that possibility, which the Confederation of British Industry has pointed out in the past.
Mr. Sheerman : I speak as someone who represents a true manufacturing constituency. I disagree with the hon. Member because, according to all the other criteria, the number of people employed in the manufacturing process for engineering, chemicals and everything else declined steeply during the 1980s. I am sure that the Minister must agree with me.
As a result of what has been achieved since 1979, it now takes two people to manufacture the same thing that it took three people to make in 1979, when the Labour Government were in power. We can take pride in that achievement.
That intervention from the hon. Member for Huddersfield offers me a good opportunity to draw attention to some of the distinctions between Conservative and Labour policy on the subject. Perhaps the most important is that we care about the competitiveness of British industry--unlike the Opposition, as is all too apparent ; the empty Opposition Benches bear eloquent testimony to the Labour party's apparent lack of interest in our competitiveness.
One of the arguments so often adopted by the Opposition--and, sadly, by some people in the media--is that the fact that we believe in competitive and flexible labour markets means that we believe that Britain can survive and thrive only as some sort of sweatshop in which people earn low wages so that they can compete with the poorest countries of the third world. A flexible labour market involves much more than just wages, as several of my hon. Friends have explained. Havant is home to an IBM factory and I am pleased to report that that factory's employees are well paid. When it competes for big manufacturing contracts with IBM factories elsewhere in Europe, the fact that its staff can work three 12-hour shifts a week-- whereas 12-hour shifts
Column 912are impossible in many continental countries --and can work on Saturdays without having to go through complicated negotiations through multi-tier consultation procedures, gives that factory, like other manufacturing plants in Britain, a competitive advantage. That is what real flexibility in the labour market is about. It has nothing to do with cutting the last 10p an hour off people's wages ; it enables managers and work forces to operate together in the way that they think best.
Another crucial distinction between us and the Labour party is that we understand that open markets and free competition represent the best way in which to improve the performance of our industry. Too often in the past we have been tempted by the idea that by picking a winner and concentrating industry on one particular firm of international size we will be able to face the competition. All the lessons from the serious analysis that has been done shows that that is the exact opposite of the truth. The best way to have an industry that is competitive internationally is for it to face intense competition domestically from rival domestic manufacturers and also from imported products in a free trading environment with the lowest possible tariffs. That is the best way to stimulate local industry to be as successful as possible.
Various gurus have written about business success. I confess that I have long been an admirer of Michael Porter of the Harvard business school, who has written on that subject. In his publication, "The Competitive Advantage of Nations", he says :
"Intense local rivalry is one of the most significant pressures on companies to innovate and upgrade. Companies almost never succeed abroad unless they compete with capable rivals at home. Such rivalry forces competitors to lower costs, improve the quality of their products and services, and create new products and processes . . . Vigorous domestic competition ultimately pressures domestic competitors to seek global markets and toughens them to succeed there."
The dangerous illusion that, if only we had big British firms of an international size that could look to a large domestic market, we could deliver industrial success, did much damage to British industry in the 1960s and 1970s as Governments set themselves up as marriage brokers, bringing together disparate firms in large organisations, which, sadly, could not thrive internationally.
Too often, the Opposition draw the wrong lesson from the Japanese experience. We are told that Miti has somehow steered Japanese industry along the route chosen by Japanese officials. Far from it. Miti's strategy for Japan in the post-war period was to have one Japanese car manufacturer, but the entrepreneurial spirit of Japanese car manufacturers would not allow that.Three, if not four, significant domestic car manufacturers were fighting for a share of the Japanese domestic market. That is what gave Japan its enormous competitive advantage in motor manufacturing, not grand strategies formulated by Japanese officials.
The recognition that domestic competition drives competitiveness is a crucial distinction between the Conservative and Labour parties. Another distinction lies in our view about the significance of inward investment. We all understand that one of Government's great successes has been to attract nearly half the American and Japanese investment in Europe to this country since 1979. Because of the success of that investment, one of the few predictions that one can confidently make, in a changing world, about the structure of the British economy in the
Column 913next decade is that manufacturing industry will increase as a proportion of British gross domestic product, as Japanese car plants and colour television factories come on stream and increase our manufacturing output.
How have we attracted international investment to this country ? My right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry kindly visited a conspicuous example of that inward investment earlier this week when he opened an extension to the plant run by Wyeth, an international drug company, in my constituency. Wyeth has made a £20 million investment in manufacturing and packaging over-the-counter medicines for the entire European market. It carried out the review which many international firms carried out as the single market loomed. Having looked at its various factories dotted around the European Community, it decided that it was silly to continue to manufacture in so many places. In order to concentrate its manufacturing, it decided to close several plants but took the strategic decision to expand its British plant.
I took the opportunity of Tuesday's meeting to ask members of the firm's senior management from America why they had taken that decision. They said that it was because Britain had lower tax rates, a well-trained work force and an environment that was favourable to business. They said that, although the British regulatory regime that applied to pharmaceuticals was tough--they had no objections to tough regulation--it was also stable and predictable, and one could get decisions out of the regulators fast. Those are the keys to competitive success and the reasons why we have attracted investment to this country. I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for coming to Wyeth on Tuesday to open that plant--I know that he had to speak in a debate on GATT later that day.
Mr. Flynn : The hon. Gentleman refers to inward investment in industry. Does he not think it a rather one-eyed approach to disregard altogether the outward divestment of jobs, such as the jobs at INMOS in my constituency ? One of the most brilliantly successful state-of-the-art computer companies in the world went from this country and resettled in Italy and France, just as Parke Davis went to Germany and other jobs go to the continent. Does not he agree that we cannot make a rational judgment if we not only disregard the outward divestment of jobs to Europe but do not even count them ? If he would like to check on that, he can ask Ministers, as I have done, how many British jobs have been siphoned out of this country to Europe. No figures are collected about those jobs.
Mr. Willetts : In a modern world economy, of course businesses will move in and out. There is no point in trying to pretend that the British industrial base will remain fixed. The important thing is the net flow, and the net flow has been very successful.
Although I bow to the hon. Gentleman's expertise in relation to INMOS, as it is in his constituency, I regard the story of attempts by successive British Governments--and especially the last Labour Government--to prop up British industry in that respect as another warning of the way in which picking winners can easily go wrong. We do not hear in those stories about the higher taxation borne by employees and companies to finance Ministers picking the firms that they wish to subsidise. We have a sophisticated capital market, allocating resources into micro-electronics
Column 914and chip manufacturing. I see no reason why the decisions of industry should be interfered with by Government in that respect. I shall now discuss one or two things that Governments can do, because Governments obviously have a responsibility in improving industrial competitiveness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye rightly said. One of those things relates to education and training.
I believe that education is much more important as a Government responsibility than training. I become worried by demands for big increases in Government expenditure to subsidise training. Training is a matter, above all, for employers and their employees : at the training level, it is for the firm to work out what skills it needs to thrive.
It is a responsibility of Government to ensure that people emerge from school well educated. Often that does not involve their being masters of the latest technical fad, because that may change in a few years. It is a matter of giving people a rigorous education so that their minds are sufficiently well trained to enable them to keep up with scientific and intellectual developments in the decades ahead. I hope that it does not sound too old fashioned to argue that a rigorous training in the classics, English literature or mathematics may well be a better basis for creating a highly skilled work force in future than trying to run after the exact state-of-the-art keyboard techniques, which will change.
I suspect that a traditional British education has been crucial in the success of British service industries such as advertising. It is important that subjects that have a history, a discipline and a rigour are not displaced by various studies that are not difficult enough to guarantee that the children who are educated in them emerge with a sufficiently rigorous education.
"In most continental countries most people would have no problem in declaring that the broadest possible general knowledge is an integral part of education. Vague concepts of personality formation . . . seem to dominate in Britain."
That is one of our key problems.
The Government have further responsibilities. One aspect, which is discussed eloquently in the White Paper, is public purchasing. The discussion in the document recognises the significance of public purchasing. I am slightly worried about some of the ways in which public purchasing is developing.
One of the liveliest debates that is going on at the moment--it has already cropped up this morning--is about British standard 5750. I must confess to being--I am afraid that the Minister might not agree with this--a bit of a sceptic about BS 5750. One of the things that worries me is the way in which Government Departments, local authorities and public bodies now say that the only way to get on to their list of approved suppliers is to have BS 5750. We know what happens. An artificial market is created in which consultants pop around and say, "If you pay us £1,500, we will get you BS 5750." Many of the industries and services involved do not seem to me to be suitable for BS 5750. Perhaps I can give one example of that.
Column 915A junior trade of my own is that I undertake a modest amount of pamphleteering. I was surprised the other week when a think tank--the Social Market Foundation--published one of my pamphlets on health policy, which was priced, if I remember correctly, at £7.
Mr. Willetts : Who knows whether it was worth that or not ? A health authority wrote in and ordered the pamphlet, and it was sent off with an invoice. A few weeks later, we had a request from the purchasing side of the health authority saying that, as part of the process of securing BS 5750, it needed to investigate the quality of all its suppliers, and asking the Social Market Foundation to fill in the enclosed form so that it would know that it was dealing with an approved supplier. I thought that that was taking the BS 5750 approach to public purchasing just a little bit too far.
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon) : I am extremely interested in what my hon. Friend says, and it should be noted that his latest pamphlet, just produced by the Social Market Foundation, is now priced at £10. As it was only a short time ago that his pamphlet on health policy was priced at £7, what are we to conclude from that ? I take it that the quality of my hon. Friend's thinking and the ideas that he has to offer by way of policy have continued to appreciate by a quite remarkable extent. I am very ready to believe that. Will he confirm that that is the case ?
Mr. Willetts : My hon. Friend is quite right. I have to confess--and I am grateful for the plug--that my latest pamphlet, "Civic Conservatism" is indeed priced at £10. It is a larger and fatter pamphlet, and we price it by the yard. That is the explanation. The final area in which there is Government responsibility is, of course, regulation and deregulation, to which several of my hon. Friends have already referred. We must ensure that the burden of regulation that industry faces is not too heavy. That is why the deregulation initiative is so crucial. Although we all support it in general, the test of the success of the deregulation initiative will be the individual difficult decisions that have to be taken. In particular, it will come whenever there is a panic about some particular problem ; as democratic politicians, we all find ourselves under pressure from the people in our constituency surgeries and from people in the media who say, "Why won't the Government legislate to do something about that ?" The next time there is a salmonella scare, we should not rush into something like the Food Safety Act 1990, because policy making by panic, in which we suddenly impose a new set of regulations after the latest accident and disaster, is something in which to engage in haste and about which to repent at leisure. That requires discipline on all of us. It will require tough decisions in future.
I hope also that it will be possible to ensure that the regulatory regime remains simple and stable. We now have industries, such as broadcasting, where the number of regulators with an interest has multiplied so much that it is difficult for an individual television company or
Column 916broadcaster to know exactly whom they have to deal with. There are roles for several different regulatory bodies, and that can cause confusion.
I hope that, in education and training, public purchasing and deregulation, the Government can pursue the admirable initiatives that they have already launched to ensure the crucial objective in which Conservative Members believe--making the British economy and British industry as competitive as possible.
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon) : I shall concentrate on one aspect of the competitiveness of the United Kingdom--the contribution that disabled people can make to our economic competitiveness. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) on her choice of subject for debate. I believe that she made that decision imaginatively and tactfully, because it enables us to discuss an issue with which she--in her capacity as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for the Disabled--is very much concerned.
I hope that there will be time to debate the second motion on the Order Paper. Perhaps we will have an opportunity to do so, because I am sure that my hon. Friends recognise the desirability of the House having an opportunity for a further debate on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.
The subject for debate now is the competitiveness of the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that in the rapidly emerging world of global interdependence and global open trade which the new GATT agreement has done so much to bring closer, the competitiveness and quality above all of nations' work forces will be at a premium. At a conference on equal opportunities organised by the CBI last September, Mr. Howard Davies, the director-general of the CBI, observed that
"unless we secure the best contribution from all the talent that is available to us we will simply not be able to compete effectively." That is right, and at the moment, to too great an extent, our society is denying itself the contribution that disabled people can make to our economic performance.
Disabled people are three times more likely to be unemployed, and they are unemployed for longer. When they are in work they are in lower-paid jobs and worse working conditions. A survey by the Spastics Society found that a third of employers who were willing to interview would not interview an applicant for a job who had qualifications equal to other applicants but was registered as disabled. But all the research evidence shows that disabled people are good workers. Nobody should be surprised at that because they appreciate the fact that they have an opportunity to work, and they are determined to hold their jobs and to make the best contribution they can. The survey evidence demonstrates that disabled people are average or better job performers and average or better in attendance.
The booklet produced by the Department of Employment which is entitled "Employing People with Disabilities" states :
"People with disabilities are likely to have had a lot of practice in converting day-to-day obstacles into opportunities. They often develop extra skills because of their disability, such as effective communication, good concentration, dealing positively with change and the ability to recognise and use opportunities imaginatively."
Column 917Those are, indeed, among the most sought- after qualities in employment and it is good to see the Government recognising that reality.
We know that the potential of people who have the misfortune of some impairment to be able to overcome it so that it is not, in effect, a disability has been greatly enhanced by the development of information technology. People with serious disabilities are none the less frequently able to make an extremely valuable contribution to economic activity through the use of computers and working at keyboards.
The contribution that disabled people can make to the United Kingdom's competitiveness is before us all because of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, but in any case it is an issue which we should address. The Government have started to think about the economics of it because they have produced a compliance cost assessment in relation to the proposals in the Bill. The figure that they have produced for compliance is £17 billion. A compliance cost of £17 billion for a measure before the House is an extremely important issue in relation to the competitiveness of British firms and the British economy. But I have to say that regard that figure as very implausible. I believe that a Department of Social Security official was quoted anonymously as going so far as to say that the figure was plucked out of the air.
It is certainly true that the time scale for implementing and complying with the provisions of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is not limited to the five-year period that seems to be supposed in the compliance cost assessment. It is strange that a document, produced by the Government after Committee proceedings on the Bill had concluded, ignored the important all-party amendment, which was readily agreed in Committee, to provide that the timetable for compliance with aspects of the legislation would be at the discretion of the relevant Secretary of State. The assessment tells us that compliance costs for transport services will amount to £6 billion. It assumes that compliance would be required over a maximum period of five years, but the Bill does not contain such a proposition. The Bill would allow the Secretary of State for Transport to require implementation over a much longer period. He could follow the model of the United States of America, where the federal Government have said that a 20-year period is appropriate. Plainly, all vehicles will be replaced over 20 years. That £6 billion figure, therefore, disappears from the compliance cost assessment.
It is incumbent on the Government carefully to analyse the realities of the costs because much is at stake. Enormous benefits and opportunities for our economy and our international competitiveness will result if we mobilise the talents and abilities of so many disabled people, who as it is are denied the opportunity to make their contribution to society and to our economic performance, often because of simple misunderstanding, but too often still because of prejudice and discrimination.
Ministers should address themselves systematically and open-mindedly to the potential benefits of the Bill. In the document, the Department of the Environment invites us to contemplate construction costs of £10 billion, a very round figure that it has conjured out of the air. Ten billion pounds of additional construction activity would be very important to the economy. Such economic activity would create enormous benefits in employment, tax flows to the
Column 918Exchequer, national insurance contributions and the modernisation of buildings and plant, which would improve the competitiveness of the British economy.
The Institute of Directors considers that the benefits that would be conferred on the economy and our competitiveness if the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill were introduced are tangible and quantifiable. It no doubt draws some encouragement from evidence offered by the National Federation of Small Business Owners in America, which has said that the introduction of comparable legislation--the Americans With Disabilities Act --has led to new business opportunities. That is not surprising if one considers what a large consumer market there is among disabled people. There are 6.2 million disabled people in this country. If they are better enabled to avail themselves of the opportunity to participate in a range of economic activities in our society, all sorts of new business activities will result. It will lead to a strengthening of the economy's domestic base, which, as a number of my hon. Friends have argued, is an essential precondition for our international competitiveness and our export capacity. That factor cannot sensibly be ignored.
Even if the compliance costs that the Government have crudely and exaggeratedly estimated at £17 billion were to prove correct, we have to net off against that figure the benefits to the economy and to competitiveness of enabling disabled people to have the fullest opportunity to be workers and consumers. That is a large amount to be deducted from the £17 billion. If we bear in mind the fact that the £17 billion should be spread over, say, 20 years, we are talking of compliance costs averaged at less than £1 billion a year. If the economic benefits are then taken into account, I strongly suspect that we would be left with minimal or perhaps zero net costs. There would be the benefit of enabling a significant element of our population to be employed and to make the contribution of which they are potentially capable.
I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends who are Ministers, and especially those at the Department of Trade and Industry, will make a new, more careful and, if I may say so, more open-minded study of the issue. I have been slightly disappointed with the response so far when I have tabled questions for written answer. Only this week, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury once again declined to undertake a cost- benefit analysis. He said that the relevant information was not easily available and that the cost of undertaking the exercise was disproportionate. I recognise that it would be a difficult and sophisticated exercise. I recognise also that it is not an exercise which could be carried out with absolute precision. At the same time, I feel that the potential benefit of ending discrimination is so great that it would be worth the investment of time and energy and resources within the Treasury and the Departments of Trade and Industry and of Employment--the economic Ministries--to make a thorough and systematic study of the issue. There are huge benefits for us if only we know how to avail ourselves of them.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : I am enjoying my hon. Friend's speech. He has spoken well about the contribution that disabled people could make. Does he agree that the public sector could play a greater role in providing further opportunities for disabled people ? Although the Department of Employment has fulfilled its
Column 919quota, not many other Government Departments have done so. Some public bodies, such as the BBC, employ hardly any disabled people.
Mr. Howarth : My hon. Friend makes a helpful point. The Government have suggested that the £17 billion cost of compliance would fall entirely on "private industry". I think that that was the term used in answer to a question not long ago. That is a misconception and my hon. Friend has given me the opportunity to draw attention to it. The cost of compliance would fall extensively across the public sector as well as the private sector. It is incumbent on the public sector--especially the Government, who should take a lead--to ensure that it does everything that it can to maximise opportunity while minimising its costs. We must recognise, of course, realistically and responsibly, that costs will be incurred. I reiterate, however, what I consider to be the profoundly important argument that there would be major benefits in the long term. In unlocking economic potential, there would be major benefits to the public sector as well as to the private sector.
The Government have made the welcome announcement that they are embarking on consultation in a number of relevant sectors such as financial services, transport and access with a view to considering what policies might be brought forward. The Government have gone so far to say that that will be done with a view to preparing a Bill that would focus, to the satisfaction of employers, of the Government and of disabled people, on discrimination and on providing opportunities for disabled people to make their contribution to our national life, including, importantly, our national competitiveness. The Government have promised that the consultation will be completed within six months of the announcement. I think that the announcement was made a month ago. It is exciting and encouraging, as we are clearly moving forward quite rapidly in the development of policy, with the Government playing a major part in a constructive approach to the matter. Notwithstanding the reluctance to date of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to cause his Department to consider the economic benefits of anti-discrimination legislation, the Government will inevitably have to consider the matter. It is not too soon to consider the methodology of such an inquiry.
We must consider the matter on a micro-economic level, to discover the implications of equal opportunities for disabled people at company level. A great deal of evidence could readily be made available. Some of this country's leading and best-established firms, including British Telecom, British Gas, Boots and McDonald's, are members of the Employers Forum on Disability. Those companies can demonstrate to other businesses that good practice in relation to disabled people is good business. They can show that disabled people can make a distinctive and particularly valuable contribution to business activities. Those companies would be able to offer useful advice by way of detailed case studies and show the benefits as well as the costs in their operations. They would be able to offer evidence about policies that they have chosen to adopt at company level to encourage disabled people.
Far from the costs being significantly disadvantageous, I believe that we will find that those firms have gained enormous benefits. I am sure that they could also provide
Column 920evidence to show that equal opportunities for disabled people, just like equal pay for women where they do work of equal value, is not ruinous for companies, as many feared at the outset.
I hope that my right hon. Friends will be willing to consult organisations such as the Employers Forum on Disability and the CBI. The CBI has told me that it is anxious that the benefits of the policy change, which it must anticipate is going to come, should be assessed seriously and responsibly.
A cost-benefit analysis would also have to consider the macro-economic benefits, but we have already discussed those. In this intensely competitive open-trading world which is so rapidly unfolding, our competitiveness will depend above all on the quality of our work force. The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have already recognised that they cannot afford to deny themselves the contribution that disabled people can offer. They have realised that they must avail themselves of that large, latent source of strength. Most of the countries of continental Europe are lagging in that respect, as are countries in south-east Asia, so we have a good opportunity now.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that there is no future for the British economy in chasing labour costs down market. We will never succeed in competing on wage costs with the Chinese or the Brazilians. We must develop and release all the best potential of the people in our society. That is right in moral and humane terms, and it is at the least prudent economically.
We must find the best ways to get disabled people into work. I welcome the improvements in the disability working allowance. As we are discussing this aspect of competitiveness and what the disabled can contribute, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People on what he has been able to achieve here. Perversities remain in the social security system which must be addressed. It is absurd that if a lone mother with two children increases her earnings from £80 a week to £180 a week she keeps only £20 out of that increase. Much more work remains to be done to ensure that all our people encounter no more discouragement to enter work and to earn more or to contribute than is absolutely unavoidable.
Of course, we need to invest more in education and training. Referring again to the contribution that disabled people can make, training and enterprise councils need to do more than many of them are currently doing. TEC performance in that respect is variable. Some are imaginative, enlightened and forward looking, but the Spastics Society survey entitled "Wasted Opportunities" showed that there are too many wasted opportunities in that aspect of TEC responsibility. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will use all possible leverage to ensure that TECs offer the best training opportunities that can be provided for disabled people. The Department of Employment has leverage in this because it must approve TECs' corporate plans and provide their funding.
We must encourage and enable all our people, including disabled people, to make the best contribution that they can to our economy. It is for us to decide how to do that at national level, and we should do so.
Column 921Notice being given that strangers were present, Mr. Deputy Speaker,-- pursuant to Standing Order No. 143 (Withdrawal of Strangers from House), put forthwith the Question , That strangers do withdraw :
The House divided : Ayes 0, Noes 51.
Division No. 265] [1.15 pm
Tellers for the Ayes
Nil Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Dennis Skinner and
Mr. Martyn Jones.
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Deva, Nirj Joseph
Fry, Sir Peter
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Grylls, Sir Michael
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)
Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Derek Conway and
Mr. Andrew Mitchell.
Question accordingly negatived.