Treaty Tightrope: The Social Chapter: what it is and why Conservatives hate it

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Indy Politics
THE Social Chapter is a protocol tacked on to the end of the Maastricht treaty which sets out broad social policy objectives, without details, on improving living and working conditions. It enshrines the commitment of member states to the separate Social Charter, signed by 11 EC leaders (not John Major) in December 1989, by giving the Commission clearer powers to impose social legislation.

What does that mean in practice?

Assuming the treaty is ratified across Europe, ministers from member states will be able to agree, without fear of a national veto, directives on health and safety, working conditions, consultation of workers, sex equality with regard to job opportunities and treatment at work and protection of pensioners and unemployed. If they are unanimous, they can agree directives on social security, redundancy, collective representation, employment conditions for non-European Community workers and job-creation schemes.

How would British workers gain?

Proposals arising out of the Social Charter include: pregnant women will now be entitled to 14 weeks' statutory leave at sick pay rates, compared with Britain's current regime of six weeks at 90 per cent pay, and 12 weeks on a reduced allowance; a 48-hour maximum working week, out of which Britain has a 10-year opt-out; a plan to give part-time and temporary staff who work at least eight hours a week, the same employment rights, social security and contractual benefits as full-time workers; controls on hours worked by school-age children. What will the Social Chapter not apply to?

Pay, the right of association, the right to strike and the right to impose lock-outs. Contrary to earlier protestations by the Government, the Social Chapter would not affect the raft of trade union legislation introduced by the Conservatives during the last decade.

Why was it created?

To answer pressure for an increased social dimension to the Community and to prevent 'social dumping' - the move of investment to countries with lower standards. There are already fears that such dumping is taking place in Britain with the transfer by Hoover of jobs from France to Scotland.

Why does John Major oppose it so vehemently?

As with all self-respecting free-marketeers, he is not keen on any governmental, let alone European, interference in workplace self-regulation. That he regards as being for negotiation between workers and employers. The Social Chapter would represent the socialist nightmare of regulation and corporatism from which Margaret Thatcher liberated Britain. Mr Major also fears that employers' costs would increase, threatening their competitiveness and raising unemployment. He felt sufficiently strongly to negotiate an opt-out for Britain from its provisions at Maastricht.

So how can a band of upstanding Conservative MPs consider voting for it?

The anti-Maastricht Tories dislike the Social Chapter, but they hate the Maastricht treaty even more. So they hope that forcing the Social Chapter on John Major will in turn force him to drop the treaty, or, at the very least, delay its ratification.