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12.47 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): I followed with great interest the remarks of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), and I shall comment on them later. First, may I tell the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), that we welcome the introduction of a Bill to improve the framework for meeting special educational needs, especially access to learning for disabled people? There is a great need for such legislation, as a case I am dealing with shows. The education authority is finding it very difficult to provide suitable education for the child. Our county council's social security budget is inadequate. I hope that the Bill will have a marked effect on the ability of local authorities to deal with those sad cases.

I should like to draw attention to the Bill that the Government propose to introduce

That has some bearing on the remarks of the hon. Member for Amber Valley. This issue affects not only industry and commerce, but local government because of the impact of unnecessary and harsh regulatory burdens.

One of course understands the problems that the cotton industry faces. It suffers greatly from international competition. It cannot stop the competition, and it cannot buy its way out by improving the industry. Some industries can compete internationally by greater investment, by adopting more modern and competitive methods, and by reducing the number of people they employ. Some industries, however, will find it increasingly difficult.

I think that one reason why people in areas like mine, in the south, find it easier to get jobs is the fact that they have adapted to modern conditions. Our areas have not inherited the 19th century industrial framework. Those

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working in, particularly, the coal industry in the north endured great sadness and hardship as the industry gradually contracted. Of course, if we had wanted the industry to survive we could have bought more coal, and done a great deal of damage to our environment.

It seems to be Government policy that regulations can somehow ease the problem, not just on humanitarian but on economic grounds. We should be careful about how far we go down that line. The Centre for Policy Studies has produced a pamphlet entitled "Handicap, Not Trump Card--the Franco-German model isn't working". We know that France and, more particularly, Germany have special social market conditions and certain attitudes that could be said to make the working man's lot rather more comfortable than it has been hitherto, in what the CPS would describe as a free market. However, the author, Mr. Keith Marsden, pointed out--using figures for May 1999--that unemployment in the United Kingdom, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, was only 4.6 per cent. In the United States, it was 4.5 per cent. In France, it was 11.4 per cent.--I believe that it has now fallen to about 10 per cent. In Germany it was about the same--the author gave a figure of 10.9 per cent.

Having compared OECD and World Bank data for each of those countries, the author concluded that there was a clear correlation between higher Government expenditure and lower employment. In 1997, the Government share of gross domestic product in the United States was 22 points below that of France, but its employment ratio was 15 points higher. The United Kingdom's public spending was 8 per cent. below Germany's, but its employment ratio was seven points higher.

We must conclude that it does not improve employment prospects to look constantly to industry to provide jobs by imposing extra regulations, although such regulations may seem attractive on the surface.

Leave for male parents, for instance, is likely to prove popular. All of us who are parents feel that, once there is another child in the family, it would be more pleasant to help our wives by doing some of the work in the home. Such measures have considerable appeal, but we should be careful about the extent to which we introduce them, especially in the context of the industry referred to by the hon. Member for Amber Valley.

It should not be assumed that--however many arrangements are introduced to enable people to work fewer hours, and however many more comfortable labour policies there are--employees will be saved by such measures. We have employed such policies from time to time in this country. Citing the United States, the hon. Lady suggested that the alternative was harsh, but we should not go too far in the opposite direction. We have social obligations: we have an obligation to overcome some of the difficulties involved in moving from one industry to another, and to ensure that a contracted industry remains competitive, albeit with lower employment. A balance must be struck. What might be described as a harsh policy may deliver much greater prosperity to a country, but may cause problems to those whose industry cannot pay a decent wage. No amount of Government-imposed extra social obligations on those companies will cure the problem. It only continues the malaise.

At its recent conference, the Confederation of British Industry had a lot to say on that subject. In a survey last month of 400 firms, the CBI found that 55 per cent. of

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the administrative burden was caused by Government regulations, which was unacceptable. Sixty-one per cent. of the firms said that they were not given enough time to implement new rules; 43 per cent. believed that regulations were having a significant negative impact; and 49 per cent. said that red tape had diverted valuable management time.

One must treat such analysis with great respect. The point was taken up by Mr. Digby Jones, the Director General of the CBI. He was, according to the newspaper--I have actually met him--critical of the Government about the "inept" climate change levy. He said:

One could go on. There is the cumulative increase in European Union regulations. I am not a Europhobe. I believe that it is important to have a thriving EU market. I want it to be freed up. I do not like unnecessary regulations, but we all know of companies that complain of EU regulations.

On top of EU regulations, some 3,000 separate regulations have been introduced since the Government came to power. A combination of EU directives and Whitehall laws have added about £12.3 billion to business costs over the present Parliament.

Business has to deal with all the working families tax credit regulations, which cause problems for small companies employing just five people. That also causes much resistance to improving employment relations; in turn, the companies are accused of not carrying out a Government regulation. In the atmosphere that pervades industry and small companies in the south, we do not have the boss versus the working man. Companies do not feel that, to produce decent, productive output, they have to submit themselves to burdens that have been laid down by the Government.

Parental leave sounds fine. I am sure that it will be widely greeted as a move forward and as a means of socially civilising the market, but I ask the Government to consider carefully that the key to this country's prosperity is a competitive economy and the key to a satisfied electorate is full employment. We do not want to sacrifice those two fundamental objectives.

I have attended two or three meetings of the all-party town and country group. "Modernising Local Government Finance: A Green Paper" draws attention to the fact that the standard spending assessment system is not genuinely based on need, but reflects past political choices and over-compensates urban areas for additional costs of social and economic deprivation. It goes on to say:

That relates to what I was saying earlier. I asked one of my councillors to outline the manner in which new regulations affect the way in which local government is run and how they affect employment problems and financial problems. Councils will have to restructure completely their method of working; the status quo is no longer a choice except for councils serving populations of less than 85,000.

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All departments are to be scrutinised on best value over five years; audit costs for best value exceed £40,000 and each inspection costs £45,000. Officers' time is estimated at £30,000. In the eyes of those who have to implement it, that Government initiative is a waste of money--it is unnecessary bureaucracy.

Under contaminated land legislation, district councils have a duty to identify all such land in their area. In Wealden, where there are some small towns and a lot of very nice countryside, that will mean the employment of a person at a cost of between £28,000 and £30,000. The council will have to find that amount from its resources.

Under disability legislation, our leisure department--the council runs two swimming pools and all that goes with them--will have to provide disabled access for all sports centres. Although such provision is right and we recognise the needs of disabled people, that piles a further cost on to the district council.

Under the housing business plan, we have to provide projections for the next 30 years. Another large document will have to be printed; officer time is being spent on compiling it. The resource accounting directive demands a completely different approach to housing finance. Again, there are costs in training staff and councillors; outside consultants had to be called in to help the council understand how to carry out that directive.

Then there is the housing inspectorate. All housing departments are subject to an Ofsted-type inspection. People who give their time to work voluntarily as councillors--although they receive a small stipend--and seasoned local government officers in local government wonder where local government begins and ends; they wonder whether big brother is telling them what to do, as a result of what the Government think is good for every council in the country. Councils have varying needs--do we trust them to make their own judgment or issue yet another directive?

Community planning is another initiative. We are told that partnerships should be built with private, public, voluntary and community bodies. Such boundary crossing exercises could be beneficial, but they are extremely time consuming.

The neighbourhood renewal strategy was also drawn to my attention. I do not have a definition for that, but if councils are to carry out even more Government directives, more officer time will be needed.

We shall be in trouble if we think that all these directives, about which big businesses, small businesses and local authorities complain, will make the countryside, the towns and businesses more efficient. On the contrary, private business men complain increasingly and bitterly about the huge burden that is forced on them.

As I have said, I represent an area of small towns and nice countryside. In this country, we continue to pride ourselves on our tolerance, individuality and personal choice--on occasions we even accept idiosyncratic behaviour, provided that it harms no one else. That is part of the charm of living in our country. In the light of that, the intention to grind down those people who pursue foxhunting is ludicrous. To call it hunting with dogs is a rather cheap description; it is hunting with hounds--not any old dog can hunt. That is a degrading way to describe those who hunt, although it does not get under their skin--they do not expect anything else.

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The proposal resurrects the belief that the Government must control, and this Government have aided and abetted that atmosphere. That is why a march will take place in March this year. The ban has nothing to do with animal welfare, but it might divert the public's attention from their own trials and tribulations.

Even if hon. Members know that a majority of people do not want foxhunting to continue and the Hunting Bill is passed, I hope that they will realise that they do not have to do what the majority says they should do. There are occasions when we should remember what Edmund Burke said when he went to electors of Bristol. I paraphrase, but he told them, "I do not have to do what you want me to do just because you tell me. I will use my own judgment at Westminster." We should make a stand on certain matters, and I believe that foxhunting is one of them.

This is yet another example of the Government's dirigisme. They want to ensure that local government does things in certain ways. They want to tell employers and businesses what to do, and they are imposing extra regulations on them. We should not ignore what was said at the CBI meeting.

Unfortunately, I do not think that I shall be able to take part in the debate about the French Government's decision to propose a different way of organising the defence of western Europe and Europe as a whole. I listened to the Secretary of State for Defence; he told us that we had nothing to worry about. He said that the defence force would enable the European nations to carry a greater burden of the defence of Europe and its democratic values. In addition, he said that it would help to maintain the confidence of the United States, as the leading partner in the defence structure of the western world, and that it would show our willingness to undertake that extra responsibility, rather than simply relying on American military might, as we have done so much in the past. I found it extremely difficult to believe that the Government really thought that the European arm of that defence structure would not weaken our ties with NATO.

Some of us do not like being patronised by the Government, nor do we like the arrogance of some Ministers. Those Members on both sides of House who know a great deal about defence through their contacts with and serving on the NATO parliamentary assembly, as I have done for 10 years, and who have every opportunity to consult people from various Ministries and who regularly go to the United States, as I do, to discuss matters with the Pentagon, understand that there is no way in which the Government can assure us that the proposal on the defence of western Europe--perhaps extending to the central European countries and the Baltic because of enlargement--can be achieved without weakening our ties with NATO. In fact, we heard about the programme of separate structures for planning. That is the first step towards total separation from NATO.

I found it incredible that Ministers could be so sure that that was not the plan of the French Government, but--surprise, surprise--on the eve of the Nice conference we found that that was the plot. If people with the experience of some hon. Members on both of sides of the House know that there was something in our suspicion that the new arrangement for the defence of European interests would weaken our ties with NATO, why were we shunned for saying that? Why were people made to think, "Those Tories are just Europhobes; they will have nothing to do with Europe"?

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Those people were plain wrong. It is that sort of comment, along with the dirigisme that I have discussed, that leads me to conclude that the Government must understand, if Labour wants to be a new party, that they must forsake some of the socialist control that they still want and their habit of wanting to control things. Anyone who disagrees with them is rubbished. They are responsible for high unemployment and responsible for the state of the health service. I can only say that the health service as planned is no longer the envy of the world. It will have to adopt some of the methods of the private sector if it is to be improved.

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