Last Monday, Labour announced its first major initiative as the new government with its promise to sign up to the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty.
At present, there are only two clauses in the Social Chapter: European works councils (EWC), which affect large multinationals, and parental leave.
The latter would have the effect of enshrining for the first time ever the right of fathers in the UK to take paternity leave and would be one of the most significant advances in workplace conditions since the 1975 Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Acts.
Works councils have already been the subject of fierce controversy, with many companies vocal in their opposition. BTR and Hanson were two of the most forceful, arguing that works councils were inappropriate and unhelpful.
However, the experience of other companies has been positive. Electrolux, the Swedish multinational and maker of white goods, with a substantial UK workforce, set up an EWC two-and-a-half years ago, ahead of the deadline.
Its head of European human resources, Mike Regan, said: "Initially, we were concerned that to begin with the management and workers might adopt rather entrenched positions, but this has not been the case, and we have found it a very positive experience."
His views were echoed by Norman Kinnear, an employee delegate, and member of the Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union, based at Electrolux's Spennymoor factory in Co. Durham. "We have found it a really useful way of finding about the company, and how it sees itself developing."
But the move to introduce paternity leave may yet create the biggest change to working practices and conditions in this country.
The Maastricht clause on parental leave says that either parent will have the right to take three months unpaid leave, at any time after the birth of a child up until its eighth birth- day. It means that fathers in Britain will, for the first time, have the right to take time off from work following the birth of a child.
Denmark has the most generous scheme among European countries, with a statutory six months paid paternity leave. Most other European countries are far ahead of Britain on paternity leave, as they are in other areas of family provision.
Labour's decisive adoption of the parental leave clause also mocks the Conservatives' long-stated claim to be the party of the family.
Before Labour's victory, the CBI had argued that the Social Chapter was wrong in its approach to big business. It said the legislation cut across national differences and increased the bureaucratic burden shouldered by companies.
A spokesman said: "The CBI does not believe the proposed legislation is helpful, as it fails to take into account the differing needs of different companies, in different countries. The experience of a company in Spain, historically, may be very different from one in the UK."
The spokesman added that paternal leave, as defined by the Social Chapter, was not a priority for its members, and again, it "should be left to companies and their employees to decide on whether it is needed".
There are few companies in the UK that make any contractual provision for paternity leave. This will have to change now.Reuse content