In the debates in the run-up to the last general election, I was in the habit of saying that there would be four ways of dealing with the deficit. The first would be to make cuts. The second would be to introduce tax increases. The third was the method that dare not speak its name but which would be employed by every Government around the world: inflation, which would involve paying money back at a lower value than that at which it was borrowed. The fourth would involve growth. This Government have been pretty good on the first three, but they have been very poor on growth.
The Government are now, as ever, turning their attention to holding down the living standards of people on middle and lower incomes. There is now talk among the Tories about restricting the legal rights of people at work and of paring back the minimum wage. There is also talk of reducing job security, and they have certainly done that for practically everyone in the country. We have also heard them say today, and yesterday, that they want to slash regulation, because it is a burden on business. In fact, good regulation is vital. It protects employees, consumers, the environment, public health and the taxpayer. Some regulation is unnecessary, and some of it is out of date. Some of it is cumbersome and time consuming, and some of it is out of proportion, but we have to accept that virtually all of it has been passed by this House, so we should not go blaming other people; we have introduced it over the years.
Another argument put forward by the Government is that British business is over-regulated. The Chancellor was quoting the OECD with approbation in his Budget speech, but he obviously does not read, or approve of, everything that the OECD does. It produces a league table of employment protection. Are we, according to that league table, the most over-regulated country in the world? No, we certainly are not. The United States is the least regulated country. Canada is the second least regulated, and the United Kingdom is the third least regulated. The Chancellor also referred favourably to Germany, so I looked Germany up in the league table. It is the 19th least regulated country. The German economy is far more regulated than ours, yet it is recovering more quickly. There has always been higher investment in plant and equipment in Germany than in this country, and a lower turnover of employees.
What we really need is better regulation, and, in some cases, more and newer regulation, particularly to help agency staff. Let us look at how the Tories are always trying to create a great fuss and fear. When the great Michael Foot introduced health and safety measures, which I have to say were welcomed from the Front Bench by that decent old Tory, William Whitelaw, there were dire predictions from a lot of Back-Bench backwoods Tories that it would lead to all sorts of terrifying consequences. Well, there has been one massive improvement. When people talk about reducing the “burden” of regulation in health and safety, I point out that before the Health and Safety Executive was set up, 651 people were killed in accidents at work; the comparable figure is now 152—and it ought to be lower still.
It was obviously good for employees that there were fewer injuries and less pain and suffering, fewer people suffering from bad health and fewer people losing income because they were out of work as a result of what had happened to them. However, it was also good for employers. The employers did not lose vital staff to accidents; they did not lose the value of the training that vital staff had received before they were injured; they did not lose a great deal of production; they did not lose money; and if they obeyed the law, they were not in a position of facing court action.
The health and safety regulations were also good for taxpayers, because they reduced the demand on the national health service and meant that benefits did not have to be paid. People were not off work so they continued to pay tax and we did not lose production in the British economy. I hope that the Tory party, including the Prime Minister, will therefore stop all this scaremongering about regulation and health and safety, and take a much more careful and thoughtful approach to the problem. Conservative Members should try to make sure that when people are working in this country, they are safe from accidents and safe from illness caused by the conditions in which they work.