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Lord Ezra: My Lords, from these Benches we also welcome the Statement. We consider that the concentration by the recent meeting of the European Council in Luxembourg on unemployment was a big step forward and to the extent that that was due to the initiatives of the British Government, we congratulate them.
Of course this will be an extremely difficult area, given the different approaches in the different countries. But the fact that they were prepared to come together and devote a whole Council meeting to the subject is highly laudable. It is important also that there will be a firm follow-up; that guidelines are to be agreed by the end of this year; and that individual government action plans must be prepared in time for the Cardiff Council meeting in June. Will there be adequate opportunity, when the British national action plan is prepared, for that to be debated fully in this House before the Cardiff meeting takes place? It is important that the Government should be aware of parliamentary opinion on the subject?
I turn to the detail of the Statement. Flexibility is obviously an extremely important issue. There is the UK flexible model as opposed to the continental social model, and it is contended in the document that somehow we have started to achieve a marriage between the two. How serious are the intentions of other countries in making themselves responsive to market changes? The British press at any rate was somewhat critical. One does not necessarily need to go by what the press says but it was felt generally that there was not very much progress in that direction. What about social charges? Was that subject tackled? Was there any response from the other countries that that is something which they regard as having to be urgently attended to?
On the role of the SMEs, it is satisfactory that more attention will be paid to small and medium sized firms and that certain measures backed up with financial support will be adopted. However, bearing in mind the enormous number of such firms throughout the European Union, the sums which are talked about are fairly small. Will it be open to individual member countries, if they so wish, to add to those resources in their own action plans?
On structural unemployment, again the measures which are contemplated are highly desirable but all would require additional resources. As I understand it, those resources will be made available by reallocating existing Community resources. Will that be sufficient for this important purpose? Taken all together, this is an important step forward. We very much welcome it. We look forward to the publication of the guidelines and in particular to the UK action plan.
The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked whether 450 million ecu would be sufficient. I do not know. Of course, it is not sufficient to create jobs throughout the whole of the Community but it is enough to start. It is also an important step that the European Investment Bank is making no fewer than 1 billion ecu available over three years. Whether that will be sufficient I cannot say. What is important is that not only have a framework and guidelines been agreed but, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, pointed out, there is a mechanism for following that up. I know as well as anyone in this House that all too often European Councils have emerged with forms of words which on the face of it look reasonable but little has happened afterwards. That is true not only of the European Council but of Councils of Ministers too. The test will be whether member states take this measure seriously. All I can say to the House is that on the evidence of this European Council they are taking it seriously. They all agreed to it after a period of bargaining and there is a follow-up procedure. Action plans must be drawn up. These will be public in the sense that each member state's action plan will be available to the others and they will be discussed at the European Council next June.
The proof of this particular pudding will be how many people in employment will be capable of eating it. However, some time will have to pass before that is evident. I hope that I do not claim too much for the measure. The noble Viscount asked me a large number of questions about policy in Germany and in France and whether the French Prime Minister was accurate in his description of the Council, or whether the British Prime Minister or Chancellor Kohl, were accurate in their descriptions. He will know that countries tend to meet at European level and then issue their own press statements. I am not responsible for what M. Jospin says, nor Chancellor Kohl nor Sig. Prodi, nor, I am happy to say, for what any of them say. It seems to me that what is important is what they agreed to. It is that which we have and it is that which will be helpful in the long run.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, what is the attitude of Ministers to the minimum wage? What is the attitude of the Government now to the minimum wage? There is nothing said about it in the Statement. Apparently
Lord Richard: My Lords, the Labour Party fought an election in favour of a minimum wage. It was elected as a government in favour of a minimum wage. It is still in favour of a minimum wage and has started the procedure for implementing a minimum wage. The Minimum Wage Commission is set up and it will consider the appropriate level of that minimum wage.
I wish to deal with a point which is perhaps implicit in the question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. Of course the European Council did not consider issues such as a minimum wage for workers in the United Kingdom; that is not part of its remit. It considered the extent to which action in common, based upon a commonality of guidelines--if I can put it that way--could be taken and how far individual countries could go along that particular road and make a dent in the unemployment figures. That is what this measure is about. One should neither elevate it to a position above its importance nor--I say this with great respect to the other side--should one downgrade it to a position that it clearly does not deserve. It comprises a number of useful steps in the right direction in which I think Europe and this country should go.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, in the nearly quarter century that I have had the honour of being a Member of your Lordships' House I have never heard the report of an international gathering, particularly that relating to the European Community, that contains so much waffle and so little substance. It seems to me to have been assumed by all those concerned at the conference that unemployment essentially was the fault of the people who were unemployed and that somehow the onus was strictly upon them to reach that standard of qualification which would ultimately--there is no date fixed--lead to their being absorbed into industry and into various services. I see that I have the agreement of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, as he nodded. However, I point out to him that he himself assumes that the figure of unemployment in the United Kingdom bears no relationship to the figures that have been published which relate, in the main, to claimant unemployment, whereas the quarterly survey that is carried out reveals authentically that unemployment in the United Kingdom amounts to 2,800,000, and in all probability is somewhere nearer 4 million. What is offered by the Community at large in the conference that has taken place apart from a lot of pious platitudes that reveal no resolve whatever to solve the problems of unemployment but merely paper it over and make its existence politically palatable to the citizens of Europe? Surely we require a little better than that.
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