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Mr. Brandreth: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the City of Chester has a remarkable record for attracting inward investment in recent years? Will he confirm that, in the year to last November, some 238,000 days were lost in this country through industrial action, compared with 1979, when 29 million days were lost in that one year? Does he see a direct correlation between those two startling facts?
Mr. Portillo: I congratulate the City of Chester on attracting inward investment and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his part in that. He has always been positive and welcoming and has looked for opportunities for his constituents. I see a direct correlation between that and our performance in industrial relations. To put it graphically, in the first month of 1979, we lost five times as many days through strikes as we lost in the whole of 1993. Those who want the bad old days of industrial relations and disorder restored by returning the Labour party to Government need their heads examined.
Mr. MacShane: The Secretary of State will be aware that inward investment and industrial relations will be discussed at the United Nations social summit next month in Copenhagen. Will he confirm that neither he nor the Prime Minister will be attending that summit, and that a flunky or a flunkette will go instead? While the majority of European, OECD and third- world countries will be sending heads of state and Ministers
Column 135of Labour, is not Britain once again snubbing the summit and sending a message of patronising indifference to the third world?
Mr. Paice: During the 1980s, the Government legislated to make it easier for businesses to give people jobs and to restrict trade union privileges. In the 1990s, unemployment is falling at an early stage of the recovery. I believe that those two facts are inextricably linked.
Mr. Garnier: Has my hon. Friend noticed that in Harborough, unemployment has fallen consistently over the past few years and is now between 25 and 30 per cent. lower than it was at the general election? Is that not a direct consequence of a deregulated and flexible labour market, the absence of the social chapter and national regulations on the minimum wage?
Mr. Paice: Unemployment in Harborough has fallen by 739 in the past year--a fall of 28 per cent. It has followed the trend that has occurred throughout the country. That is happening because the Government have deregulated the labour market. We have a higher proportion of the work force in work than any other major economy in the European Community. In the past 15 years, the Government have radically altered the face of the British industrial scene. We have restored the rights of trade union members, returned democracy to those members and ensured a much better environment for job creation.
Mr. Clelland: Is the Minister aware that the British people no longer have any faith in the Government's unemployment statistics or in statistics which compare unemployment in Britain with that in other European countries? Is it not time that we had a common standard across Europe for measuring unemployment so that statistics could be more reliable and the comparisons more valuable?
Mr. Paice: We have a standard OECD system and its standardised unemployment rates show that unemployment in the United Kingdom is lower than in Spain, Finland, Ireland, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia. Whatever statistics the hon. Gentleman wants to use, the Government's record on reducing unemployment is better than most in the rest of the world.
Mr. David Shaw: Is my hon. Friend aware that those countries that have been most successful in reducing unemployment are those which do not have a minimum wage? Is he further aware that in the United States of America, where the minimum wage has not been increased since 1990 but has been allowed to wither on the vine and is now below United Kingdom benefit levels, employment has increased by some 6 million?
Column 136increasing the minimum wage, which he has clearly failed to do. Robert Reich, his finance minister, has admitted that to raise it would dampen the recovery and the fall in unemployment that America has seen.
Mrs. Ewing: Since the Government's policy has virtually destroyed the manufacturing base of the north of Scotland--including industries such as our pulp mills, oil fabrication yards and a smelter--and, more recently, led to the mothballing of three distilleries, is the Prime Minister prepared to allow the Cabinet to sit back and watch the destruction of our tourist industry as a result of the axing of rail services, both sleeper accommodation and Motorail facilities, to the north of Scotland ? Will he, as a courteous man, now instruct the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Scotland to afford the representatives from the north of Scotland a meeting--a request for which was submitted some six weeks ago--tomorrow to discuss those vital issues?
The Prime Minister: Of course I shall look carefully at what the hon. Lady has to say. We are keen to see a successful tourist industry in the north-east of Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. If the hon. Lady looks right across Scotland as well as the rest of the United Kingdom, she will see that manufacturing industry is expanding, doing extremely well, making many things that just a few years ago were simply not made in Britain, and exporting at record levels around the world. In the past year there have been eight successive new monthly records in exports alone.
Mr. William Powell: Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government's support for British agriculture in order to assert that farmers are as entitled as any other of Her Majesty's subjects to earn their living under the law, and that includes selling their young veal calves at a proper market price if they so choose? Will he confirm that causing mayhem at British ports and airports is no way to stop practices in other countries that we have banned here, and that those who do so should take their cause to other countries in the Community and to the European Parliament, not pursue it here?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of the farming industry and entirely right to stress the fact that farmers have a right to carry on their trade within the law, as does everyone else. I think that my hon. Friend and the House know our opposition to veal crates and of the measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture,
Column 137Fisheries and Food to try to ensure that they are taken out of commission not just in the United Kingdom but right across Europe.
The Prime Minister: I set out in detail the conditions for a single currency, originally as long ago as 1990. I reaffirmed them in some detail last Friday. I made it clear last Friday that not only must the specific Maastricht criteria be met, but that in addition we would require other criteria to be met before we thought it appropriate to consider a single currency. Some years in advance of those being met, it is unwise to say either, "Yes we will proceed," or, "No, we will never proceed."
Mr. Blair: On Friday, of course, the Prime Minister was generally facing both ways. Indeed, Conservative central office was briefing one message on Friday and Downing street another yesterday. If he will not slap down his Chief Secretary, will he say whether he agrees with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is a supporter of monetary union, and who can foresee circumstances in which Britain would join and wants to do so by the end of the century?
The Prime Minister: I have just set out in great detail precisely the circumstances in which we would find it appropriate to consider whether we should proceed to a single currency. The right hon. Gentleman has not yet indicated that for his own party at all. As to unity, we know that 50 of his Members of Parliament defied the Whip on Maastricht, 40 of his Members of Parliament defied the Whip on the European Communities (Finance) Act 1995 and the Labour party has had seven twists and turns over recent years as to whether or not it is in favour of the European Union. I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that, as far as a single currency later this year is concerned, we would first require all the specific Maastricht criteria to be met. In addition, we would require other criteria to be met- -for example, relative flexibility of employment markets. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor will set those out later this week. When those other matters are set out, we shall then consider whether it would be appropriate economically or constitutionally to proceed. I hope now that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, having learnt what the right answer is to that question, will fashion his own policy.
The Prime Minister: I have just told the right hon. Gentleman. When and if those circumstances are met, we shall look to see whether it is appropriate and in the British interests to join. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us now whether he would join, yes or no? Does he know whether it would be in the British
Column 138interest? No, he does not. All that he is concerned to do is to trail along the path behind the Euro-federalists, where he feels most happy.
Mr. Blair rose --
Mr. Blair rose --
Madam Speaker: Order. I believe that the hon. Gentleman has had his third question. If he wants to reply-- [Interruption.] The Prime Minister has asked him to reply. In that case, I call the Leader of the Opposition.
Mr. Blair: I think that it is excellent that the Prime Minister is getting into the habit of asking us questions rather than answering them himself. Can I tell him this, though? Until he decides where he stands on that issue as the Prime Minister of the day, his leadership will remain weak, his Cabinet divided and Britain effectively disabled in Europe.
I have set out for the right hon. Gentleman the conditions in which it would be right for us to consider the interests of the United Kingdom. I will not make a judgment that is crucial to the constitutional and economic future of this country until I see the economic circumstances of the day-- and, frankly, only a dimwit would ask me to. [Interruption.]
Mr. Streeter: Does my right hon. Friend accept that his concept of a European Union of nation states co-operating and working together for their common interests is in touch with the majority view in the country? Does it not contrast starkly with the policies of the Opposition parties, which can be described as a total sell-out to Brussels?
The Prime Minister: I think that this country has a very deep attachment to the nation state. The European Union that it seeks is a European Union based on nation states--a wider European Union, a free market European Union, a decentralised European Union, and not the federal European Union that the Opposition wish for and their Members of the European Parliament clamour for.
Mr. Ashdown: Is the Prime Minister asking us to believe that it is none of his business, and not his Government's responsibility, that school governors across the land are being forced to cut school budgets and sack teachers? Or is he saying that that is a price that our children should be prepared to pay so that he will have room for tax cuts at the next election?
Column 139and equipment. He will also see that the Audit Commission regularly identifies significant scope for savings by local authorities--not least Liberal Democrat-run local authorities--and their freedom to transfer more resources to education. The right hon. Gentleman may also learn that authorities are maintaining some 1 million surplus school places. Perhaps next time he asks a question, he will have ascertained some of those facts before doing so.
Mr. Waller: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the publication of new guidance relating to appointments to quangos is an extremely positive and welcome advance? Is not the constant criticism directed at members of such bodies bound in time to become a disincentive, and to prevent public- spirited persons from putting their names forward for membership?
The Prime Minister: Yes, I think that the review will prove extremely useful. It also emphasises that both the number and the real cost of non-departmental bodies have fallen significantly since 1979. As everyone who has examined the matter knows, the Opposition's criticism of such bodies is really based on their dislike of parent choice in schools, their dislike of patient choice for fundholding general practitioners and their dislike of patient choice in hospitals. That is local choice, but they call it quangos. They wish to retain choice centrally now, as they always have.
Column 140of between 7,000 and 10,000 teaching jobs and a spiralling increase in class sizes? How does that square with what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said at lunchtime today--that extra cash is not available and is not needed? Who speaks for the Government on this matter? More important, who speaks for the children in our schools?
The Prime Minister: We speak for the children in the schools. That is why we have given their parents choice, why we have given greater choice in schools, why we have produced performance tables, and why we have produced testing. That is why our crusade is for choice not to close city technology colleges, not to close grant-maintained schools, and not to close every element of choice that parents want and children need.
Mr. Bill Walker: Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the Scots favour the Union between Scotland and England and the rest of the United Kingdom because the Scots, with less than 9 per cent. of the UK's population, enjoy far more positions of importance--for instance, in the Cabinet, the proportion is in excess of 20 per cent., whatever the Government--in the military, in trade unions and in industry? That is what the Scots will not give up.
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend speaks in a tone that many people will recognise. There is no doubt about the advantages, both to the UK and to Scotland, of Scotland being a full part of the UK. I do not believe that anyone who has studied the problem doubts that for a single second. The talents-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) clearly has not studied it because he does doubt that. That is because he wants an independent Scotland disunited from the UK, in the middle of a European Union where it would have little or no influence, and that would damage the interests of Scots, the interests of Scotland and the wider interests of the UK. That is why his party must never be put in power in any way in Scotland or elsewhere.
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