The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

Foreign Secretary (1989)

Mr Major’s Parliamentary Answer on the EC Social Charter – 25 October 1989

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Parliamentary Answer on the EC Social Charter, held on 25th October 1989


Mr. Wallace To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government towards those clauses of the European Community’s draft social charter which would ensure the participation of the work force in decision-making within companies.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. John Major) We are fully committed to the principle of employee involvement, but we believe that it would be misguided to harmonise practice throughout Europe. It is for businesses to develop the arrangements that best suit their own circumstances and those of their staff.

Mr. Wallace May I take this opportunity to congratulate, and possibly sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman, on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box in his new office? Does he agree that there is a public mood that in 1992 with the single market, there will be much more than just a business man’s Europe and that employees should be able to participate in some of the objectives including having a better say in the industries in which they work? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm reports that the French Government are proposing a revised draft of the European social charter in some way to trade off employee rights against closer European monetary integration? What is the Government’s response to that? Does he accept that both objectives should be pursued with much greater vigour than the Government have shown hitherto?

Mr. Major I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. That was most kind of him. With regard to the social charter, of course the Government accept that there is a social dimension to the Community. Our concern is that the social charter is the wrong way to achieve the objectives that many people want. With regard to the French attitudes, we all wait to see what President Mitterrand has to say in Strasbourg later today.

Sir Anthony Meyer Since many clauses in the social charter are modelled on British practices or, if amended, could be made acceptable to British practice, would it not be better for my right hon. Friend to exercise his talent for reconciliation to achieve some agreement rather than appear to reject the whole concept out of hand?

Mr. Major At the moment our concern is that the Commission draft is a confused mixture of general principles and detailed intrusive regulation. We believe that that would have the practical effect of restricting the freedom of workers and employers to negotiate the most suitable arrangements for themselves and their staff. The employers and employees should negotiate those matters and there should be no imposition from above.

Mr. Benn Is the Government’s position not now clearly established, as it was in Kuala Lumpur, in that they sign an agreement and repudiate it later? The Prime Minister agrees to 1992, but repudiates its implications later. Is that not an example of complete consistency by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary?

Mr. Major No such agreement signed in Kuala Lumpur was repudiated. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will be aware of the many Cabinet decisions to which he subscribed which he apparently subsequently denounced in his memoirs.

Mr. Arbuthnot Can my right hon. Friend confirm that our record on social policy is really rather good compared with that of some of our competitors? Does he also agree that in the circumstances the last thing that we need is a social charter imposed by other countries?

Mr. Major I can certainly confirm that. The essence of any social policy is to create employment. We have created far more jobs in the United Kingdom over recent years than any of our European partners. That creation of jobs should be the centre of any social dimension.

Mr. Kaufman May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment and wish him a happy and constructive spell at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? I assure him that he can rely on security of job tenure at the Foreign Office, unless, of course, he hears Mr. Charles [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker Order. The question is about the EEC.

Mr. Kaufman It is indeed, and I was offering my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman and saying that I hope that his job tenure will be acceptable to him and to Mr. Charles Powell.

Since the right hon. Gentleman has responded to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) by drawing attention to the question of harmonisation, why is it that the Prime Minister traipses from international conference to international conference seeking to wreck harmonisation? She did so at the EC summit [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker Order.

Mr. Kaufman She did so at the EC summit from a position of total isolation by opposing the social charter, at the NATO summit from a position of total isolation by opposing negotiations on short-range nuclear weapons and at the Commonwealth summit from a position of total isolation by repudiating the agreement that the right hon. Gentleman had negotiated.

Mr. Speaker Order. I ask for brief questions.

Mr. Kaufman My question follows directly on the subject of harmonisation. The Prime Minister repudiated an agreement that the right hon. Gentleman had negotiated to fulfil her role as the enthusiastic accomplice of apartheid in South Africa.

Will the right hon. Gentleman [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker Order. I am reluctant to say this to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), but such questions take a long time and that is unfair to the House.

Mr. Kaufman Will the right hon. Gentleman stand up against Mr. Powell on such issues in the same way as the Chancellor is standing up against Sir Alan Walters? Is he going to be a Foreign Secretary or is he going to be the man who sweeps up after the Lord Mayor’s procession?

Mr. Major First, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. I shall make up my own mind about my responsibilities as Foreign Secretary, as I was appointed to do.

If I might bring the right hon. Gentleman back to the social charter, in terms of bringing harmony he may recall the Madrid agreement of Heads of Government that said that tackling unemployment was the top priority and that there should he a clear respect for subsidiarity. If anyone failed to bring harmony it was the Commission, which wholly ignored the instructions of Heads of Government.

Several Hon. Members rose —

Mr. Speaker Order. We are making extremely slow progress. We have dealt with only two questions in about 20 minutes. I ask for brief questions as we shall then receive brief answers.

Mr. Andrew MacKay Unlike the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), may I ask a question about the social charter? Is my right hon. Friend aware that most of my colleagues believe that the social charter has no relevance to the single market? We believe that this sovereign Parliament should decide such matters, not the EC.

Mr. Major I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view and that is, of course, what the principle of subsidiarity means.