I declare an interest, having been part of the origin of the negotiations. Perhaps I may remind the House how the Social Chapter works. Ten years ago, a framework agreement in Brussels meant that all the European trade unions and employers were able to come together to deal with the matters in the social action programme. We can take some satisfaction from the fact that this is the third such measure to come before Parliament after a number of years of negotiation in Brussels.
When the Labour Government signed the Social Chapter, to the regret of the Conservative Party, they were in a position to catch up on some of the matters that had taken time in Brussels. In that process, some of the topics have reached this Parliament in a tight timetable. However, the House should take confidence from the fact that the broad framework was agreed by the CBI, which is part of the European Employers Federation. It is therefore reasonable to infer that this is a modest proposal in a series dealing with atypical work.
We ought to reflect on the fact that during recent months we have had many debates in this House about the rapidly changing nature of the labour markets. What is in Brussels jargon called "atypical" work--part-time work, fixed-term contract work and agency work--is in some industries becoming typical work. Therefore such employees need to be covered pro rata and these regulations are a modest way of dealing with the problem.
It is worth making the point that of the 6 million part-time workers in Britain, 80 per cent are women. In recent years it has been most difficult to deal with such problems by way of collective agreement, and the regulation is a half-way house between a detailed statutory scheme and a collective agreement. It was written in the form of a collective agreement in Brussels and it was signed by the trade unions and employers in Brussels. If five or six years ago people in this country or in any other part of Europe had said that many of these issues would be the subject of successful framework collective agreements in Brussels, it would have been thought most unlikely. A great deal of progress has been made and because of the way in which the matter was handled in Brussels there is a preparedness in industry to take this step forward at this stage. If we had made the move on our own, we would have been open to the charge that we would have lost competitiveness and so forth.
The measure means that we are operating on a level playing field in Brussels. We are not losing competitiveness against any other European country; we are going forward together. These high standards for part-time workers will stand us in good stead of integrating atypical workers into the labour force. I am pleased therefore to associate myself with the regulations before the House tonight.