Labour delays Social Chapter for two years

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The Independent Online
The Government has annoyed Brussels by calling for a two-year freeze on implementing the Social Chapter - a move which will please industry but annoy unions anxious to introduce works councils.

But The Independent has been told that early action can now be expected on the long-awaited implementation of the separate Working Time Directive, which gives employees the right to refuse to work more than 48 hours a week, and an entitlement to three weeks' paid annual holiday.

A senior British source said last night that there was no question of "delaying tactics" on the Social Chapter. Tony Blair will formally reverse John Major's opt-out during the two-day Amsterdam summit next week.

But Whitehall officials said that a formal request had been made for a two-year minimum transition period, to give companies time to prepare for the setting up of the consultative works councils, and the parental- leave provisions of a second Social Chapter directive.

It was reported from Brussels yesterday that European Commission officials had made barbed attacks on British foot-dragging, described as a "change of heart" after Labour had fought an election campaign on its proposals to sign up to the chapter.

Mr Blair has already warned that Britain will resist any attempts to load any further Social Chapter burdens on business, although it is not believed that other member states are pressing for more action to be taken.

Sources in London said that when the Social Chapter was first introduced, under the terms of the Treaty of Maastricht, other countries had been given a two-year leeway before directives had been implemented. Britain was asking for the same transitional period.

It was pointed out that no action could be taken until after the new Treaty of Amsterdam had been ratified - which could itself take two years once legislation, and possible referendums, had been put through in each of the 15 member states.

But Mr Blair will ask for political agreement, in Amsterdam, for British ministers to be allowed to take their seats in Social Chapter meetings in advance of legal ratification of the opt-in. One source said that there could be no British votes during the "twilight" period before formal ratification of the treaty had taken place, but Mr Blair would want ministerial colleagues to take part in interim discussions.

Once the new treaty has been agreed at Amsterdam - and Mr Blair is continuing to struggle for his "bottom line" demand for watertight and legally-binding guarantees on domestic control of borders, immigration, asylum and visas - it could take some months before the text is tidied and translated, ready for ratification.

The Social Chapter Works Council Directive, which Mr Blair will opt into at Amsterdam, requires the creation of works councils in companies employing more than 1,000 people, or in companies employing more than 150 people in two member states. The councils are used as a formal conduit for information and consultation of employees.

Under the Parental Leave Directive, employees are entitled to three months unpaid leave for up to seven years after the birth of a child.

More immediate action is required on the separate Working Time Directive because it was upheld by the European Court last year, following an appeal by the Conservative Government that it had been improperly introduced under the guise of treaty health and safety provisions.

Having lost that appeal, the Tories held consultations and went through the process of consideration for something they never intended to implement.

John Major said before the election that, if re-elected, he would have vetoed the Amsterdam treaty if Britain had not been exempted from the Working Time Directive, along with an assurance that no further social legislation would be passed under health and safety.

Ian McCartney, the industry minister, has told the Commons: "We shall implement the Working Time Directive without any further avoidable delay."

It is expected that once the Amsterdam treaty has been agreed, ministers will announce the timing of implementation for the Working Time Directive, and those on works councils and parental leave.

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