CBI Conference: Industry - Blair's pledge to review work time angers unions

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TONY BLAIR angered the trade unions yesterday by promising a fresh review of how the European Union's working time regulations will be implemented in Britain.

The Prime Minister strengthened the Government's pro-business stance when he told the Confederation of British Industry's national conference in Birmingham that the rules introduced under the EU Working Time Directive, were "over the top". Mr Blair promised business leaders that he would look again at the regulations, which have already been watered down in the eyes of the trade unions. Downing Street aides said later that the review of the working time rules formed part of a wider strategy to ensure "light touch regulation" as far as business was concerned.

Union leaders reacted angrily last night, warning that they may revive their threat of legal action against the Government over its failure to implement the directive. The action was put on hold after Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, assured the TUC conference in September that the Government was not seeking to exempt white-collar workers from the rules. Roger Spiller, national secretary for health and safety at the Manufacturing Science Finance (MSF) union, said: "It would give us cause for concern if the purpose of the review is to ensure a lighter touch than the existing regulations."

Mr Spiller is seeking an urgent meeting with Mr Byers and MSF may urge the European Commission to take action against Britain for dragging its feet over the directive. Mr Blair's speech to the CBI - the first time a serving Prime Minister has addressed the conference - was highly supportive of business and was greeted with prolonged applause from the packed hall.

He promised that the Government was listening to industry's complaints about excessive regulation and would not only remove unnecessary red tape but would work with business to make sure any future regulation was not damaging.

The Prime Minister also promised that he would press for far-reaching changes to European social regulations at a special meeting of EU leaders in Lisbon next March. He said that since Britain had opted into the Social Chapter the Government had "reversed the tide of social regulation" and replaced it with an approach based on creating jobs.

Referring to the Lisbon meeting, he said: "It is an opportunity for us to launch a fundamental reform of the European social model, so that the EU as a whole will be able to compete and thrive in a fast-moving global economy," he told delegates.

Mr Blair also said he was proud to be pro-business and that it was healthy for the country as a whole that he was attending the conference as a Labour Prime Minister. The Government has already amended the working time regulations, to the anger and dismay of the unions, so that they are less onerous on millions of white-collar workers.