Britain ready to limit work time

The 48-hour week: It will be here by Christmas if the European Court upholds Brussels ruling
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The Independent Online
A limit on the working week of 48 hours will come into effect in Britain before Christmas if the European Court upholds the validity of Brussels law in a ruling due next month.

Senior ministers have decided to act quickly to implement the controversial European Working Time Directive if Britain loses its fight when the court delivers its ruling on the Government's challenge on 12 November.

The decision to implement the directive will anger some Tory Euro-sceptics, who are certain to criticise the court and question the Government's decision to stick to the letter of the law.

But ministers argue that if they do not take action, the Government could face legal action - with the possibility of paying large sums in damages - in the British courts.

The Working Time Directive is legally required to be implemented within three years of its enactment; a deadline which falls on 23 November, 10 days after the European Court ruling.

British enactment of the directive's provisions will be done by statutory instrument - low-key legislation, with little opportunity for MPs to debate it and vote on the measure.

Stephen Byers, a Labour employment spokesman, said last night: "The Government has deliberately misled people about the implications of the directive." The directive provides exemptions, covering people working in transport, and those, like junior hospital doctors, with professional responsibilities to work more than 48 hours a week.

Mr Byers said: "If individuals want to work more than 48 hours a week, they will still be able to do so. The directive simply gives employees the power to insist that, should they choose to do so, they do not have to work more than 48 hours."

John Major has already warned EU partners that he expects them to bring in treaty changes to over-ride the directive, which was introduced under health and safety provisions. Other EU leaders will certainly resist that, opening the way for confrontation in the run-up to the next election.

The Prime Minister has also staked out another area of potential conflict, saying that a treaty change is required to overcome fisheries quota-hopping. The most significant conflict, however, will come over Franco-German plans for closer political integration, and an erosion of the veto, tabled for the current inter-governmental talks.

Malcolm Rifkind, Foreign Secretary, said at a Conservative conference fringe meeting, and again in the Commons on Thursday, that there was no question of the French and Germans, or anyone else, using European institutions as a vehicle for that further and deeper integration without British support.

That will be withheld, however - Mr Major will veto any such proposals. That, in turn, makes it even less likely that the Germans and French will make concessions on fisheries and health and safety at work.

Both sides of the debate are showing signs of increasing intransigence, which suits Mr Major very well because Tory strategists believe the voters will back a tough stance.

The Tories also hope that if Mr Major picks a fight with Europe, he might overcome the electoral perception that he is a weak leader.

But Robin Cook, shadow Foreign Secretary, points out that the battle over BSE, and the subsequent retreat at Florence, cannot have done his "tough-guy" image much good. Interviewed on BBC Television"s On the Record yesterday, Mr Cook said that once a single currency had been launched, Britain would face "very serious problems" of inward investment and currency speculation if sterling remained outside for too long.

"I think you could manage those in the short term if you didn't sign up in a first wave," the shadow Foreign Secretary said, "but I don't think you could manage them indefinitely.

"And if the single currency goes ahead, and if the single currency succeeds, then it is very hard to see how Britain could prosper outside it. Ultimately you would then have to join."

Britannia faces her judges, page 14