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Employment and Social Policy (Ministerial Meeting)

Volume 456: debated on Monday 29 January 2007

The Employment and Social Policy informal meeting was held on 18 to 20 January in Berlin, Germany.

My right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and my hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary for Employment Relations and Postal Services (Jim Fitzpatrick) represented the UK.

The theme of the informal was “Good Work—More and Better Jobs”, which was discussed in two plenary sessions.

My hon. Friend participated in the morning plenary stressing that the real outsiders were the unemployed. He went on to say that if Europe is to remain competitive in a global market and continue to afford valued social protection systems, flexible labour markets are needed both for workers and employers to stimulate job creation and encourage more people into work. One size does not fit all and member states have to develop approaches that work for their own labour market structures and traditions. But overly restrictive employment legislation risks a two-tier labour market and more jobs in the illegal sector. Effective, light-touch employment legislation is consistent with job creation, and more permanent jobs. For example in the UK, while we encourage choice in ways of working only 6 per cent. of the work force is on non-standard contracts; all workers have certain basic rights.

My right hon. Friend was one of eight keynote speakers in the afternoon session. He said that the best way to manage insecurities was to provide employment security through equipping people to manage and take advantage of change, rather than through protectionism and over-regulation. This could be done by providing insurance in the broadest sense—through active labour market policies, skills and re-training, and the right labour law framework. Most of this work had to be done at member state level, but in the context of our shared European values. Even well functioning labour markets could have groups of vulnerable workers but it should not be assumed that this was due to their employment status alone.

All member states broadly agreed on the importance of high levels of health and safety at work. There was a strong emphasis on the social dimension of Europe—including, from some quarters, calls for an EU minimum wage, minimum standards for workers on ‘atypical contracts’ and a European definition of a worker—although others continued to emphasise the primacy of meeting Lisbon targets and made it clear that social issues were for member states to decide. They also underlined the important role of social partners, of work-life balance, of life-long learning, and of a greater emphasis on skills and training, better childcare facilities, and promoting gender equality. Most member states agreed that it was up to them to lead on social issues, although the EU could provide added value by exchanging best practice and a general framework. The other recurring theme was that, with increased mobility of workers and free movement, member states had to co-operate more closely.

The German presidency concluded that we needed to look further at a number of issues, including the integration of ethnic groups and minorities into the labour market, grey areas such as bogus independent workers, and where the balance between rights and responsibilities was. Also, that part-time work could be positive when it was what the workers wanted, but there were concerns that increased temporary work created uncertainty for employees where this was at the expense of permanent regular contracts. Social policy was a national issue. The German presidency would continue to try and define what the social dimension of Lisbon should be.