Europe: Britain accused of deliberately delaying social improvements

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Indy Politics
BRITAIN was accused yesterday of filibustering tactics deliberately aimed at slowing progress towards the improvement of social conditions in Europe.

Vasso Papandreou, the European Community's Social Affairs Commissioner, complained that the British government had 'at least been efficient in their aim of taking the fewest possible decisions'.

'The UK has never accepted the social dimension of Europe so it is perhaps not surprising that the British presidency has not been keen to implement social measures,' she said.

It was all the more regrettable, she added, because the creation of a single market implied a social dimension: the standardisation of working conditions, for example, to eliminate the competitive advantage of cheap labour.

The Secretary of State for Employment, Gillian Shephard, said she was sure that Mrs Papandreou, who leaves the European Commission at the end of the year, was speaking 'of her overall experience'. Mrs Shephard said that the British presidency's approach had been 'successful and sensible'.

But in private, diplomats complained that the UK had taken the unusual though not unprecedented step of convening only one formal gathering of EC social affairs ministers.

They had also deliberately tabled a series of resolutions to ensure that time that could have been spent thrashing out a decision on outstanding issues such as the EC-wide implementation of a maximum 48-hour working week, was spent in discussion.

Mrs Shephard drew attention to the fact that ministers had already decided health and safety measures for pregnant working women and yesterday agreed moves to ease the plight of Europe's 17 million unemployed.

These include a commitment to improving prospects for economic growth, efforts to ensure that job-creation is not restricted by excessive regulation, more practical help and job counselling, the targetting of regional funding towards improving training opportunities for the young and long-term unemployed and greater co-ordination among member states. Ministers have also agreed to set up a system to ensure that vocational qualifications granted in one country are recognised elsewhere.

'For six years social affairs councils have been dominated by measures for those in work, a number of them damning to job prospects. For the first time we have instituted measures to help the unemployed,' Mrs Shephard said.