Britons `should work a 48-hour week'

State of the nation: Government declares opposition to centralised Europe and vows to fight court ruling on employment rights
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The Independent Online

A senior European court official yesterday decided that laws limiting working time to 48 hours a week would have to be applied to Britain.

As the Opposition argued that the declaration demonstrated once more the extreme fragility of the Government's Maastricht opt-out, Downing Street vowed that they would fight the ruling.

Phillipe Leger, the advocate general of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rejected a claim by Britain that the directive on working time should not apply in this country. Although his legal opinion is not binding, it is likely to be upheld when the full court rules later this year.

Mr Leger turned down Britain's claim that the directive was wrongly put to governments as a health and safety measure. As such, it was agreed under majority voting rules, leaving Britain powerless to wield its veto in the law-making Council of Ministers.

But Mr Leger took the view that the measure is aimed at protecting the health and safety of workers. He rejected Britain's claim that the directive should have been based on an EU treaty article promoting general employment rights which would have required unanimous agreement. "I conclude that the application should be dismissed in its entirety," he said.

If, as occurs in eight out of 10 ECJ cases, the court heeds the advocate general's advice, Britain, where working hours are generally longer than elsewhere in the EU, will have to amend its domestic law by November. EU officials denied suggestions that the opinion was deliberately timed to coincide with the publication of the government's White Paper on Europe. The court was mindful of the implementation deadline, they said.

Michael Meacher, Labour's Employment spokesman, pointed out that while 16 per cent of that British labour force worked more than 48 hours a week, the EU average was 7 per cent. Some 20 per cent of Britons enjoyed annual leave entitlements of less four weeks a year.

Mr Meacher said the Government's defeat was predictable. "Pursuing this case is a waste of time and taxpayers' money. The Government should get on with deciding how to bring in this important health and safety measure quickly and efficiently."

If the ruling is ratified employees - apart from those in the transport sector and other specified exceptions - would have the right to refuse to work more than 48 hours a week from next November. Longer weeks would only be worked by agreement.

The annual leave entitlement would be raised to four weeks in November 1999. The Government opposed the working hours proposal when it came up for adoption in 1993, claiming it would heap costs on employers and undermine competitiveness. T

The then Employment Secretary, David Hunt, abstained in the vote, vowing to mount a challenge to its legal validity. This was despite extensive watering down of the original proposal - junior doctors, pilots, and the emergency services were among those excluded from its scope.