Speech opening the No Confidence debate following the Government's defeat over Maastricht.
John Major, 22/07/1993
I beg to move, That this House has confidence in the policy of Her Majesty's Government on the adoption of the Protocol on Social Policy.
After yesterday's motion, the Cabinet thought it right to bring this motion immediately before the House. I said yesterday to the House that European policy had created a division in British politics for 20 years. We have seen the effects of that vividly over recent months. If asked, most people in the country would say that the House has spent most of its time in the past year doing nothing but debate the European Communities treaty. It has, indeed, been fully debated, but the House has done a great deal more. In one parliamentary Session, it has passed a large number of reforming Bills - on education, asylum, housing and urban renewal, trade union reform, and personal pensions. One third of our manifesto at the last election will have been enacted by the end of this parliamentary Session, and that is much to the advantage of the British nation.
Most of that will have been masked from public gaze by the disputes over European policy. Not only has that legislation been passed, but, over the same period, we have moved clearly from recession to growth. It is now clear that growth prospects for the year are likely to exceed earlier forecasts.
Those are some of the realities of what has occurred over the past year. Britain is now moving back into recovery, ready for significant sustained growth with low inflation. At the general election, that was the prescription which we promised and it is now becoming clearer day by day that that is what is being delivered to the British nation.
Against that background, it is in our national interest that we keep up the pace of reform and the pace of recovery. Parliament must put this stalemate over Europe behind it. I am not prepared to let it poison the political atmosphere any longer. The boil must be lanced, and it must be lanced today. Therefore, I shall set out in the clearest possible terms the implication for today's debate. We have before us a motion of confidence in the Government, with all the implications that flow from that. Lest there be any doubt in the mind of any hon. Member, the issue of confidence also extends to the Opposition's amendment. No hon. Member should be under any misapprehension about that, even though its terms are intended to entrap the unwary. It is precisely the amendment that was defeated yesterday.
At the conclusion of this debate, either the Government will have won the vote of confidence and we can proceed with our policy, subject to one outstanding court case, or we shall have lost and I shall seek a dissolution of Parliament.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Will the Prime Minister give way?
The Prime Minister : I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman later. I want to make a little progress now.
This debate is about the Government's policy of rejecting the social chapter. I shall spell out the disadvantages so that no one can misunderstand me. Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) quoted from the social chapter. He made it sound innocuous, harmless and even benign. If he wants to keep his blinkers on, so be it - but let Conservative Members be in no doubt about the costs and the implications of the social chapter. Measures that the Community has already brought forward, which abuse health and safety provisions, show us the scale of the costs likely to be involved in the social chapter's provisions. The working time directive orginally would have cost British industry £5 billion; by our efforts, that figure has been substantially reduced. The part-time directive orginally would have cost £1 billion; largely by our efforts, that directive has been stalled. The young workers directive would cost up to £150 million. Those are just three provisions, but they add up to more than £6 billion in potential costs. I could add to that list. If the social chapter came into being, those costs would be added to for every single business in this country, with the inevitable effect on jobs.
Even the right hon. and learned Gentleman must realise that employers would have to meet those costs, and more, under the social chapter. There would be higher prices, lost jobs and less competitiveness. That is the policy which the right hon. and learned Gentleman espouses. He may wish to indulge himself by voting for the social chapter - he has the luxury of being able to strike attitudes - but we must deal in realities. He would not have to pay the price of his attitudes. The price would be paid by millions of men and women working hard to hold down jobs, bring up families and improve their working conditions.
At any time, the social chapter would be an unwarranted intrusion into British life; but now, just when recovery is beginning to emerge, it would put recovery at risk. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not want to take my word for it, perhaps he will take the word of the chairman of ICI - [Interruption.] Labour Members may choose to scoff and sneer at the chairman of ICI, but it is his company which provides jobs in their constituencies. It is the policy of Labour Members which would cost their constituents those jobs. What the chairman of ICI had to say - perhaps the Opposition would care to listen to and reflect upon it - was :
"Continental Europe is currently in deep recession while the UK has the beginnings of an economic recovery It is ... absolutely vital that business does not have imposed upon it additional costs which are unnecessary and which, in turn, could hinder the recovery." Those are not my words, but the words of one of the most senior businessmen in this country.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman want to hinder the recovery, or does he think that he knows more about British industry than Sir Denys Henderson, who runs ICI? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman really want to impose the social chapter and hazard the recovery now coming through, especially the five consecutive monthly falls in unemployment? It is self-evident that that is exactly what he wishes to do. The most fatuous comment this House has heard for months was his assertion yesterday that the social chapter would create jobs, not cost them. Only in the unemployment offices would it create jobs.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : What does my right hon. Friend say in response to the argument put forward by many respectable businessmen that if we ratify this wretched treaty but we do not have the social chapter, things will be done through the social chapter by the other 11 countries which, through other aspects of the treaty, will then be imposed on the United Kingdom? If we are not there, we cannot control and restrain them.
The Prime Minister : I would say what many businessmen would have said to my hon. Friend had he asked them - that he is talking nonsense. The businessmen of this country have made it absolutely clear that they support ratification of the Maastricht treaty without the social chapter. I fail to understand why my hon. Friend wishes to impose extra costs on companies in his constituency of Northampton, North and put his constituents out of work. I hope that he can justify that to them.
I repeat that the Government cannot afford to, and will not, throw away the recovery. The social chapter is a risk which we will not take.
Mr. Benn : In making this debate a vote of confidence, the Prime Minister and other Ministers have said that if the Government lose there will be a general election. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a straightforward question: has he asked the Queen to grant a dissolution? Has she agreed to grant a dissolution? Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the possibility that - as has happened in the past - she might say, "It is only a new Parliament. There are other leaders who might take it on"? She might refuse a dissolution.
The Prime Minister : I have made it perfectly clear that if we lose the Division today I will seek a dissolution of Parliament. If the Government cannot carry their business, a dissolution of Parliament would undoubtedly be granted. The fact is that yesterday a disparate group of Members, voting for different interests on the same matter, chose to defeat the Government on a matter for which there is a genuine majority in the House. I repeat that the Government regard this as an issue of confidence and we will seek the dissolution of Parliament if we are defeated today.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for the Prime Minister, during proceedings in this House, to say that a dissolution would undoubtedly be granted, thereby appearing to put words in the mouth of the sovereign?
Madam Speaker : It is for all hon. Members and Ministers to make their own comments, not for the Speaker of this House to interpret them or comment upon them.
The Prime Minister : It is interesting to know in reality how unready the Liberal Democrates are for an election-- [Interruption.]
Several hon. Members rose --
Madam Speaker : Order. I shall take a point of order.
Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is perfectly clear that the Prime Minister's speech, and his whole case, is based upon what he considers to be the evils that are contained in the social chapter - a document which was issued in 1989 and was referred to in the reply to yesterday's debate.
From the researches of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), it emerged yesterday in a written answer that he received from a Minister that the social charter has never been presented or published by Her Majesty's Government in Britain. Is it not the case that that charter, which is at the heart of this debate, has not been published by the Government, is not on the Table of the House, and is not in the Vote Office, so how can we proceed sensibly to consider this matter? Is it not the case that this whole debate is being conducted on hearsay and prejudice without the proper documentation being before the House?
Madam Speaker : We are proceeding today under an Act of Parliament that has already passed through this House.
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that I spent nearly four years in the Whips Office -- [Hon. Members :-- "Oh."] During that time, I was instructed not to apply any overt duress-- [Laughter.] I will rephrase that, for the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members who are unable to follow the narrative. I was advised not to apply pressure or duress overtly in order to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote one way or another. I tried to obey that advice. Is not the Prime Minister's reference to the prospect of a general election creating improper pressure on the many Conservative Members whose seats are in jeopardy?
Madam Speaker : That is barely a point of order for me. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I, too, was in the Whips Office, in support of a Government who did not have a majority - and I know all about duress.
The Prime Minister : The House is full of former Whips. At this moment, Britain is uniquely placed in regard to the rest of Europe - a "paradise for investors", as M. Delors so kindly put it. There is no doubt that Britain - with low inflation, low interest rates, competitive labour costs and competitive interest rates - has the leading edge in the marketplace in Europe. The Government have no intention of throwing away those hard-won advantages, as the social chapter would compel us to do.
The obsession that some Opposition Members have with the social chapter is bizarre. They want more regulation and more social costs just as the rest of Europe is seeking to draw back from extra social costs. France is curbing spending on health and pensions. Holland is freezing social security benefits. Germany is cutting back unemployment assistance and job creation schemes. They are doing so because they realise that Europe must keep all its costs down to compete in the world.
Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about competitiveness in Europe, but Europe must compete with the United States and Japan as well. All across Europe people know that Europe is losing competitiveness at present. Twenty years ago, the unemployment rate across Europe was 60% of that in the United States. Today, it is 60% above the United States. That is largely because of the extra costs that we have placed on our businesses, running their competitiveness and damaging their employment prospects.
The Opposition may seek to make gestures and price people out of work, but the Government's job is to put them back in work - and that is the policy which we shall follow.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : The Prime Minister is making another knocking speech against the social chapter. The reality is that he believes that he can politically survive today only if he threatens his entire party with self-destruction in a general election campaign. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how often and how long such a tactic can be successfully employed?
The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman, with his curious voting pattern on Europe, represents a part of the United Kingdom which has done remarkably well out of inward investment because of our membership of the European Community - a membership which he would have done well to support in the Lobbies last night with the Government. The hon. Gentleman's constituents will have noted how he voted.
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. History shows that down the years sordid deals on the Floor of the House have cost the lives of countless people in the north of Ireland. Does not the Prime Minister have a duty today to tell the House what deal he did with the nine Ulster Unionists to buy their votes yesterday, contrary to their manifesto? Will you, Madam Speaker, also ask the Prime Minister to rule that the definition of an honest man is one who, once he has been bought, stays bought?
Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman knows that those matters are not for me but for debate.
The Prime Minister : I will clear up the matter for the hon. Gentleman so that he is left in no doubt. Nothing was asked for, nothing was offered, and nothing was given. So perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to withdraw his remark. He might also bear in mind that unemployment in the part of the United Kingdom that he represents is very high, as he never ceases to remind the House. He, too, would make it higher, by the way that he cast his vote in the Divisions that we have had.
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way - particularly, given his latter remarks, as I am wearing the Anglo-Irish tie. Further to his comments yesterday, which he has just repeated, does he agree that so severe has the recession become in the other European countries that, although no specific proposals for the social chapter have yet been made, when they are published in due course we shall find that they are milder than the social action programme that the Government already accept under the social dimension? May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend what all the fuss is about?
The Prime Minister : I will tell my hon. Friend what all the fuss is about. Once we adhere to the social protocol, it will be there for good - not just for the brief period in which our partners in Europe may be wary about bringing matters forward.
Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : Given that the motion deals specifically with the adoption of the protocol on social policy, will my right hon. Friend tell me how we shall be able to go ahead with it when it is expressly excluded by the Act of Parliament that was passed last week but is included in the treaty that my right hon. Friend signed?
The Prime Minister : I think that my hon. Friend, despite his close study of the matter, has perhaps misunderstood the domestic legislation that we have been examining. If he cares to read it more carefully - perhaps he could take some time to do so before we vote this afternoon - he will understand the whole matter a little better. The Government were elected just over a year ago with the largest popular vote in British history. It was a vote for policies for economic recovery, which we are now getting, for private enterprise, which we will sustain, and for individual freedom, which we are extending.
Mr. John Hume (Foyle) rose--
The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have generously given way, and I wish to make some progress.
The social chapter would put much of that at risk. What the electors did not vote for at the last election was the right hon. and learned Gentleman's policies: increased inflation, corporatism and state intervention, a reverse of trade union reform, and craven compliance and abject surrender in the face of every regulation coming from Brussels. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues are only too ready to advance socialism through Europe, never ready to stand up to battle for British ideas and British ideas in Europe.
One whiff of a new regulation, a new burden or a new cost from Europe and the right hon. and learned Gentleman yelps that he wants it too. No doubt as a small boy he was avid for measles and desperate for chicken pox as well. What is more, he says, without these new burdens Britain will become a sweatshop economy. It would be a great help if, during the recess, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would go out into industry and meet some of the people who run it. What would the social chapter do to much of other parts of legislation? Gone, reluctantly and sadly in the minds of Opposition Members, are the days when the trade unions held such sway in this country. They held it to ransom month after month, year after year. Now all they hold is the right hon. and learned Gentleman to ransom, issue by issue - not the Leader of the Opposition, but the trade unions' glove puppet when it comes to policy. The social chapter would put much of that in reverse gear. The last thing we want is a Government committed to putting union bosses back in the boardroom, and I cannot believe that the House will vote for that.
Many countries in the European Community are now going into recession, and that is where the obsession with extra regulation would put us back as well, just as we have emerged from it. I cannot understand why the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants us to adopt the social chapter when other countries are beginning to realise its costs and burdens. As the president -
Mr. Hume rose--
The Prime Minister : I have given way sufficiently.
As the president of the CBI said in The Times yesterday-- [Interruption.] I know that the Opposition do not like these quotes from people who understand business but they are going to get them. He said :
"A Commons vote tonight leading to inclusion of the social chapter in the ratified Maastricht treaty would set back the cause of common sense and competitiveness in Europe by sevaral years."
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will shortly be the first Labour leader to speak to the CBI ; perhaps before he goes he should start listening to the CBI, too.
Other countries around the world are beginning to realise the effect of excessive social costs. The chairmen of our leading banks yesterday may it perfectly clear that their concern - [Interruption.] The Opposition do not care. I am talking about the people who run industry and commerce, but the Opposition do not care. They do not mind how many people are unemployed if they can salve their consciences. The chairmen made it clear that people outside, European businessmen, are
"concerned about the costs and over-rigid labour and social benefit structures in their own countries, and see the social chapter as adding to this problem."
Only Opposition Members fail to be able to see that.
The choice because the House today could not be clearer. The Government have opened up new opportunities for people with low inflation and for union members to have more say in their affairs, more opportunities for home owners and more opportunities for business to compete abroad. By contrast, the Opposition offer policies of opportunism, not opportunity, at every level. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said last year :
"I do not think we should oppose the Maastricht treaty", yet that is exactly what he did last night. He claims to be an ardent European. He said :
"I have always believed that Britain's future lies in Europe, and that we must take a confident and leading role in the European Community."
So what has the ardent European done in the last year? He voted against Second Reading of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. He voted against Maastricht in the paving debate ; he voted against Maastricht last night. What did he do on Second Reading of the Single European Act, this ardent European? He abstained. What did he do on Second Reading of the Maastricht Bill, this ardent European? He abstained. On Third Reading, the ardent European abstained. Mr. Valiant-for-Abstention - the ardent European. Perhaps, out of sheer habit, he will abstain when we come to the vote this afternoon. Some European, and some principles! As Dr. Johnson said of a man with allegedly good principles, "He does not wear them out in practice"; and neither does the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He wears his principles lightly so that he may discard them whenever convenient. This country cannot afford to let this stalemate on European policy continue. It is against the interests of government in this country to do so. This House must decide today whether it is prepared to sustain the Government in office or encourage me to seek a dissolution. We did not lightly bring this motion forward, but the matter could not have been left any longer. It has to be decided, and the only way to decide it is to reject the social chapter. If this country were to accept it, it would mean an end to recovery, a return to corporatism, and an end to competitiveness. That is not the way forward for this country, and I hope that the House will decisively reject it.