Labour Party Conference: Employment rights - Byers in talks to head off revolt over Post Office

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STEPHEN BYERS was in last-minute talks with trade unions at the Labour conference to head off a revolt today over Post Office commercialisation and the working time directive. It was unclear last night whether the unions would accept the Trade and Industry Secretary's assurances and a senior Labour source said: "The vote is not in the bag. We have not got it done and dusted."

Mr Byers reassured the Communication Workers Union over fears that Post Office jobs would be lost by telling it privately he intends to accept the recommendations of the Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry, chaired by the Labour MP Martin O'Neill to underpin the Post Office letter monopoly.

He said the new regulator would be given the power to set the level of the monopoly on letter deliveries.

The union warned it was not retreating from demands for a commitment in Labour's next election manifesto to keep the Post Office publicly owned.

Derek Hodgson, the union's general secretary, said it did not want to be on a collision course with the Government but he warned: "If they are not prepared to back off, they will have a fight on their hands and it is a fight they cannot possibly win."

In a move to smooth a row with unions over working hours, Mr Byers assured leaders that he had no intention of exempting all white-collar workers from the working time regulations, setting the hours that staff must work. He will not change the regulations, but he will issue guidance making it clear that only senior executives should be exempt.

The Government will be pressed today to extend employment rights. All Labour's union affiliates, which command half the votes at policy-making conferences, have backed demands including new rights to take secondary industrial action, tougher laws on recognition and full legal protection from day one of employment. The Government is also being asked to abolish the lower statutory minimum wage for workers aged 18 to 21, now set at pounds 3, which is 60p less than the full rate.

Tony Blair has said that there will be no more employment legislation in the present parliament.

The unions' vision of enhanced rights will be set out by Tony Dubbins, head of the GPMU print union. On union recognition there is "disappointment" that the law does not apply to companies with fewer than 21 employees. This deprives some five million workers of union rights, it is argued.