Blair's Britain: Beckett moves to European time

New government to sign up to Social Chapter and working hours directive
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Early action to implement the 48-hour-week Working Time Directive will be announced shortly by Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade.

The initiative was underlined last night by a statement from Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, that the Government will sign up to the Social Chapter at the Amsterdam heads of government summit next month.

Mr Cook said: "We do not accept that the British people should be second- class citizens with less rights than employees on the Continent.

"We want our people to enjoy the right to information about their company and parental leave to be with their family, as good as those who work on the Continent, often for the same companies."

He went on: "Partnership between innovative management and a committed workforce is the key to a competitive company.

"We will test all future proposals under the Social Chapter by whether they promote competitiveness and help us meet our goal of a skilled, flexible workforce."

The Foreign Secretary said that a meeting of government representatives in Strasbourg today would open a new chapter in Britain's relations with Europe. "It marks a fresh start in Europe for Britain, working with other member states as a partner, not as an opponent."

As it stands, the separate Working Time Directive offers employees an opportunity to refuse to work more than 48 hours a week, and a guaranteed four-week holiday each year. The Tories have said that it could cost business pounds 2bn a year.

A British appeal against the European directive - enacted under health and safety provisions to sidestep a British veto - was rejected by the European Court in November. John Major had already announced he would have tried to force a withdrawal of the directive's application at Amsterdam.

He was threatening to block all further movement on a new European treaty, unless he won that fight. But Ian Lang, the former President of the Board of Trade, who lost his Commons seat on Thursday, has already completed a consultation process on the detailed implementation of the directive.

It is now ready for the green light to be given by Mrs Beckett and an early statement of intent can be expected in the Queen's Speech for the next parliamentary year, on 14 May.

Other early initiatives may well emerge after today's meeting in Strasbourg, when the Government will indicate the softer, less confrontational line that can be expected in day-to-day negotiations. Early meetings between Tony Blair and Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, and Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister and current holder of the EU presidency, are also expected before the end of May. Last night Downing Street said Mr Blair will have his first meeting as Prime Minister with United States President Bill Clinton at a summit in the Hague on 28 May.

Peter Mandelson, the new policy co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office, said on Sky television yesterday: "Europe needs reforming, it needs new priorities, it needs to become a people's Europe. It has got to get much more in step with its own citizens, more open, more outward-looking, more outwards- going, more democratic.

"The priorities are pretty clear. We want to complete the Single Market, that's the first priority, and secondly we have got to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, huge waste and fraud going on there.

"We have got to look to the enlargement of the European Union, to extend the mantle of democracy to the newly liberated countries in central and eastern Europe. That's a big agenda there."

But he added: "I don't think there is an appetite either here or in the rest of the European Union for great integrationist steps forward.

"What people want is sensible, practical co-operation between countries in a way that serves its citizens and that's what we are going to see."