Jobs row fires life into Euro campaign

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The Independent Online
John Major last night seized on an international economic report which he claimed endorsed 'all we have been saying for the last three years' to underpin a last- ditch appeal to Tory supporters to turn out and vote tomorrow.

Undeterred by Labour protests that the Government had distorted the findings of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, the Prime Minister made them the centrepiece of his final speech to a European election rally.

He said in London that the report from the respected Paris- based organisation showed that 'our vision of a more flexible Europe is right. The Labour and Liberal vision of a regulated, straitjacketed Europe would be a ticket to disaster.'

He told the rally the report had criticised not only minimum wages and restrictions on working time but other costs faced by European business; and it had called for 'increased flexibility', the removal of wage controls and reductions in tax for the lower paid.

Mr Major added: 'Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And so it should - for it has been at the core of every Conservative manifesto on which we have fought in my political lifetime.'

Appealing to his supporters to go out and vote 'in these last crucial hours', he said: 'Don't imagine that if you don't vote others won't. Right across Europe others will. They have a vision for the future of Europe. It is not yours. It is not mine.'

The OECD report combines calls for greater labour market flexibility with a sceptical view of statutory minimum wages while recommending a string of education measures, including a training levy, to produce 'a high-skills, high-wage jobs strategy'.

Labour protested that large sections of the report endorsed its own policies, as John Prescott, the party's employment spokesman, accused the Government of misrepresenting it.

The Conservatives, Mr Prescott said, claimed the report vindicated 'their destructive programme of deregulation' when 'it is clear . . . that what is called for is increased training, innovation and productivity and the expansion of information technology, coupled with decent employment conditions'. Margaret Beckett, Labour's acting leader, said the report shared Labour's goal of a 'high investment. . .high tech industry'.

Among some 60 recommendations, the report says that workers should accept lower social security contributions from employers and less generous benefits when out of work. Benefit systems should switch the emphasis from income support for the jobless to policies that actively encouraged the search for work. Britain's approach of universal child benefit and offering supplements to people taking low paid or part-time work is endorsed.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the report 'says that a minimum wage is bad for jobs. I agree with that. But it also says that unless you invest in education and infrastructure you can't make jobs for the future. I agree with that too.'

Mr Major declared that the report criticised expensive social policy measures that have crippled Europe's ability to compete. And he accused the Opposition parties of 'seven deadly sins' in their choice of European goals.

These were: more regulation; the social chapter; agreement 'now' to a single currency; 'levelling up' of taxes; a rise in EU spending; watering down of the national veto; and in the case of Labour, renegotiation of Britain's pounds 3bn a year budget rebate.

The exchanges on the penultimate day of campaigning came as an ICM poll for the Daily Express showed the Tories heading for heavy defeats tomorrow but not the near-wipeout predicted in some polls. ICM put Labour at 45 per cent, the Tories at 27 and the Liberal Democrats at 22.

Army of unemployed, page 9

Major speech, page 10

Leading article, page 15

View from City Road, page 29

(Photograph omitted)