UK fury over MEP vote to end working time opt-out

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The Independent Online

Business leaders and ministers voiced dismay yesterday as MEPs called on the UK to curb the country's long-hours culture by scrapping its opt-out clause to the 48-hour week.

Business leaders and ministers voiced dismay yesterday as MEPs called on the UK to curb the country's long-hours culture by scrapping its opt-out clause to the 48-hour week.

The vote, proposed by the Spanish socialist deputy Alejandro Cercas, marks the start of a battle over laws on working time and health and safety at work, amid a debate over efforts to revive the sluggish European economy.

The Strasbourg parliament voted 345 to 264 with 43 abstentions to phase out over three years Britain's decade-old exemption from the 48-hour limit in the working time directive. The decision, backed by 18 of the 19 Labour MEPs, was hailed by campaigners as a victory against excessive working hours.

The exemption allows workers to waive their right to the 48-hour week. But unions say employees often have little choice but to sign the opt-outs, which cover one-third of businesses.

The matter now goes back to EU ministers, and the Government will seek to overturn the parliament's vote. Gerry Sutcliffe, minister at the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, said he was "disappointed" by the vote but pointed out that ministers have "equal say on the outcome".

The UK has the support of the European Commission and several member states including a clutch of new Eastern European nations that joined the EU last year. It will need to build firm alliances, as the decision will be made by a majority vote, and Britain and Malta are the main countries using the opt-out.

The parliament also voted that all on-call time for doctors should be counted as working time. The European Commission had proposed that doctors could not count time spent on call in hospital as working time if they were not actually at work. But on the issue of the health sector, the UK has the backing of other big nations including Germany.

The Government's resolve to overturn the MEPs' vote will be strengthened by a chorus of criticism yesterday from British business. Sir Digby Jones, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, argued: "The parliament has just voted to take Europe's economy backwards.

"If we allow Britain's economy to become hidebound, emerging economies like China and India will walk all over us." The Institute of Directors (IoD) described it as a "hammer blow to the economy", and published research showing that more than 40 per cent of its members had made use of the opt-out provision. The internal survey showed that 85 per cent of businesses in construction, mining and transport said the loss of the opt-out would make management more difficult.

Miles Templeman, the director-general of the IoD, argued: "It is deeply regrettable that the Government's own MEPs again ignored ministers' advice and voted against the interests of the British economy."

The Federation of Small Businesses's national chairman, Carol Undy, added: "The removal of the opt-out is a serious threat to the flexibility of the UK workforce and the competitiveness of the UK economy."

But one Labour MEP, Stephen Hughes, said it "is wrong of the UK government to want to retain the opt-out," and the TUC's general secretary, Brendan Barber, described the result of the vote as a "victory for a common sense".

The Green MEP, Jean Lambert, added that the vote would mean "Britain can no longer be the sweatshop of Europe".