EU tells Britain: speed up work law

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Britain's honeymoon with Europe could be undermined by a dispute over how fast the Government should implement workers-rights laws under the social chapter.

The European Commission is pushing for a fast-track procedure for ratifying the social chapter by the end of the year, which the Government is determined to resist.

The Government's decision to sign up to the social chapter was widely viewed in Brussels as evidence that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is sincere in his determination to make a fresh start in relations with Europe.

However, pledging to sign up to the measures must be matched by action to implement them, senior European Commission officials say. To reverse the opt out in the Maastricht treaty, won by John Major, Mr Blair must ratify the protocol by translating it speedily into British law.

Any delay in implementation is likely to be interpreted within the commission, and some member states, as a sign that Britain's new government - like its predecessors - still harbours doubts about a "social Europe".

British officials are monitoring proposals, which are being discussed under the social protocol, and there are signs of a desire by the new government to keep a brake on attempts by the commission to introduce further measures.

So far only two proposals have been implemented under the protocol, which is intended to protect the rights of workers in a free market economy, and consists of proposals first agreed by unions and employers.

One measure so far agreed sets up works councils in multinational companies, and the second grants rights to parental leave after the birth of a child.

Further measures being discussed this year include plans to give part- time workers greater rights; plans to end sex discrimination and sexual harassment at work; and a proposal to extend worker participation in company decisions.

Under separate health and safety articles of the treaty, the commission is expected to publish a White Paper next month extending the 48-hour maximum working week to workers in fields such as transport, and to junior doctors.

Padraig Flynn, the Social Affairs Commissioner, insists he has no new "raft of measures" on social legislation.

Once the single currency is operating, however, the commissioner does believe there will be greater need for Europe-wide minimum standards on workers' rights, and coordination of social security.

Reversing Britain's opt out is proving to be a legal headache.

It has been expected that Britain would simply "opt in" when the social protocol is written into the Amsterdam treaty next month, which Britain will sign. This is the approach favoured by the Government.

However, the new treaty must then be ratified by each member state - a process which could take up to two years.

"This would mean Britain sitting on the sidelines as far as the social protocol is concerned for some long time to come," said one commission official.

In January, Britain takes over the EU presidency. The commission is voicing fears that if the Government has not been able to participate in the social chapter by then, it will be unable to join decision-making on such issues under its own presidency.

The commission is therefore suggesting that the ratification of the social chapter would be carried out separately from ratification of the full treaty. This fast-track procedure could be completed by December.

British officials argue that Mr Flynn's attempt to force the pace of implementation is unacceptable and would clog up the parliamentary timetable .

The Government is understood to be looking for a political agreement, which would allow it to participate in talks on social legislation, ahead of parliamentary ratification.