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European Social Policy

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th February 1995.

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Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray 12:00 am, 7th February 1995

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what recent discussions he has had with his European counterparts on the European Commission's Green Paper on European social policy options for the Union; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

The Council of Ministers discussed the Commission's White Paper on European social policy on 6 December. I argued that the Social Affairs Council should concentrate its efforts in future on a positive agenda designed to help member states in their fight against unemployment, rather than on unnecessary and potentially damaging employment legislation.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray

Given that the Government's papers change colour as often as their policy on Europe, does the Minister recognise that the veto that he used at the Council in December has left the UK very isolated in various areas of important legislation? Is it not a fallacy on his part to peddle the myth that the competitiveness of other countries is being damaged because of regulations? The reality is that the competitiveness of those countries is much greater than that of the UK.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

I am surprised that the hon. Lady chooses to make that argument in the week when the head of Mercedes-Benz has made the point that he may have to pull out of Germany precisely as a result of the high social costs that are imposed by the social chapter.

The hon. Lady is quite wrong to think that the United Kingdom is isolated. The United Kingdom is following policies that are now recognised as being in the main stream around the world. In Korea, in Japan, in the United States, in South America and in Australia, Governments are following policies directed at making their economies more competitive. Specifically, they are putting the emphasis on keeping the burden of costs on employers light. This is a world-investing, world-trading and world-conscious country, and we shall not be browbeaten into imposing costs on our employers that would make us uncompetitive in that world.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

Is not most of European social policy supposed to be built around the protection of people's health and safety at work? Is it not a paradox that we have the best health and safety record in Europe, and one that builds on a tripartite voluntary system which requires no imposition from Brussels?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

We have high levels of health and safety protection, and I am proud of them, but I cannot agree with my hon. Friend that the social policies of the European Community are built on health and safety matters. The social chapter is an ambitious attempt to build a social dimension into Europe—that is, to impose very high costs on employers for Governments to develop social policies that they cannot afford and to impose them on employers, and to achieve that by a massive extension of qualified majority voting. Only when they have not been able to achieve that by the social chapter, because of Britain's opt-out, have they resorted to health and safety chapter headings. In at least one case, I thought it to be so wholly inappropriate that I am contesting it in the European Court.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Given the concern expressed by the President of the Board of Trade about the threat to employment growth caused by the divisions in the Government over the European single currency, will the Employment Secretary tell the House whether he continues to believe what he said on GMTV last year—that he does not want a single currency and that the 1999 timetable is unrealistic? Is that still his opinion, or does he agree with the Chancellor, who said last Thursday that Britain might have a single currency by 1999?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

I can tell the hon. Lady that that was not discussed at the meeting of European Ministers which was referred to in Question 7. The Prime Minister has made it perfectly clear that, if a single currency is recommended in 1996 or 1997, the United Kingdom will not be part of it and we will not make a recommendation about it to Parliament. I believe that people around the world are concerned about Britain's membership of a single European market, and that is not in doubt.