Brown under fire over Social Chapter plans

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Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, defended Labour's promise to sign the European Social Chapter at the CBI conference yesterday, under hostile fire from government ministers.

Despite advance headlines proclaiming that he would not give up Britain's power to block some social legislation, he stuck to Labour's existing policy, which is to give up blocking powers in some areas but not in others.

Mr Brown told the CBI in Harrogate that a Labour government would not accept the extension of majority voting to matters of social security or require companies to appoint worker-directors, which would take away Britain's right to stop Euro-directives.

"We will veto any attempt to do so," he said.

But in three other areas covered by the Social Chapter, Labour has long been prepared to consider giving up Britain's blocking power. They are: redundancy, conditions for migrant workers, and funds for job creation.

Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, accused Mr Brown of trying to perpetrate a "disgraceful con-trick". He said Mr Brown - like Tony Blair in his speech to the CBI last year - was trying to give the impression that Britain could choose which aspects of the Social Chapter it accepted.

"When Tony Blair suggested last year that Labour could 'pick and mix' from the Social Chapter, his deception was put down to naivety. For Gordon Brown to try to pull the same deception again this year is treating British business with contempt," Mr Lang said.

He was backed by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, who pointed out that signing up to the Social Chapter - which Labour has pro-mised to do by 1 January 1998 - would commit Britain to accept the outcome of majority votes on the existing core headings of the chapter.

"It is not an a la carte menu," Mr Heseltine said.

The Social Chapter, a protocol attached to the Maastricht treaty from which the Prime Minister negotiated an opt-out, provides for majority voting on five subjects, including broadly defined "working conditions".

Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, also in Harrogate, described the chapter as "a catalogue of job-destroying measures" based on "an outdated, trade union-driven anti- management agenda".

He added: "It is also immoral because it offers the prospect of rights and benefits to some which can only be provided by putting others out of work."

Mr Brown also gave his clearest indication yet that a Labour government would set its inflation target at or below the present 2.5 per cent level. "We will not be satisfied with simply talking as tough as the Tories. For, unlike the government, we plan to deliver on our inflation target," he said.

Mr Brown's aides pointed out that the present underlying inflation rate, 2.9 per cent, is not only well above the target for the end of this parliament, it is also higher than the European Union average of 2.4 per cent.

CBI in Harrogate, Page 17