"Social chapter" takes centre stage in the election run-up

The EU "social chapter" has become an important policy issue in the run-up to the UK general election, as the Government and the opposition have taken opposite stances on the role it should play in their future commitments.

As the 1 May election date draws nearer, both the Conservative Government and the main opposition party, Labour, have begun to fight their campaigns by taking opposite stances on the social policy Agreement annexed to the Maastricht Treaty on European Union - the so-called "social chapter", from which the UK has "opted out". In February, the Government launched an attack, stating that if the Labour Party were to win the general election, its commitment to "signing up" to the social chapter would cost the UK 500,000 jobs.

The Prime Minister, John Major called the social chapter a "Trojan horse" that would lead to a return to the industrial relations problems which brought Britain "to its knees" in the 1970s. He said that if the UK signed up, the European Union (EU) would press forward with new employment legislation that would burden industry with new rules and regulations and stifle competitiveness. Mr. Major emphasised the success of the British economy, with its deregulated approach, and compared it favourably with the "flawed" European social model. He insisted that Britain was already achieving the objectives of the social chapter - promotion of employment and improved living and working conditions - by other means.

Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesperson, responded by challenging the Conservatives to publish the calculations on which the social chapter would raise unemployment, or name one firm where it had led to loss of jobs. He said that the Government was out of touch if it thought that its opposition to the social chapter would win the election, and argued that there was nothing in the social chapter which would threaten British competitiveness.

This debate occurs against a backdrop of several recent reports which challenge the Government's view. A recent study by Peter Robinson, from the Centre for Economic Performance, questions the effectiveness of the Government's labour market reforms, while a report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) argues that Britain's biggest and most successful companies already offer their employees standards in excess of those required by the social chapter and the EU Directive on working time. Finally, a report by the Employment Policy Institute rejects government claims that the social chapter would lead to large scale job losses.

John Monks, general secretary of the TUC has said that it is "companies with weak management and poor business skills who think they have to treat their staff badly to succeed". As for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), it believes that the need for further EU social legislation is limited, and supports the continuation of the social chapter opt-out "until such time as European social policy is firmly reorientated towards the needs of competitiveness"

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