Politics: Union dismay as ministers toe Tory line on work hours

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THE Government yesterday opted to take advantage of "get-out" clauses negotiated by the Tory administration on limiting working time.

While ministers approved measures to curb excessive hours and give rights to paid holidays, they also invoked a "derogation" negotiated by John Major, the then prime minister, which allow individuals to work longer hours voluntarily.

The Confederation of British Industry reacted effusively to yesterday's announcement, while unions registered their disappointment.

The decision on the implementation of a European directive on working time, came just hours before unions were due to meet ministers to discuss the proposed law on union recognition. Union leaders expressed the hope that in this case the Government would opt for the TUC's position, rather than that of the CBI which would erect considerable barriers to recognition.

Ministers yesterday acknowledged that the "Fairness At Work" White Paper, which will contain proposals on a union recognition law, was nearing completion.

On working time, the CBI congratulated the Government for broadly taking on board "all the available flexibilities" which had been hammered out by Mr Major.

Peter Agar, deputy director-general of the CBI, said yesterday's proposals were sensible and practical and would provide a balance between the needs of business and employee concerns over working hours. "It is only right that individuals should be able to work extra hours if it suits them and that employers can retain the flexibility that they need to run a business efficiently," he said.

Unions, however, believe that workers will be "leaned on" to sign away their rights to work less than 48 hours in any seven days. Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, said there was a "loophole" which would enable companies to put pressure on workers.

John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, welcomed the enhanced rights delivered by the directive, but said that allowing individual opt-outs would not give people sufficient protection and that "undue pressure" could be applied to staff. "This underlines the need for an effective union recognition law so that employees can call on their union for help against exploitative bosses."

A document produced by the Government yesterday for a consultation period which will last until 5 June, estimated that the maximum cost of implementing the directive was pounds 1.9bn.

But employers' nerves were calmed by data from the British Social Attitudes Survey of 1996 which showed that fewer than 10 per cent of employees working over 48 hours would prefer to work less if it meant a pay cut. The document added that employers should assume that there will be no great difficulty in gaining voluntary agreement to work more than the prescribed limit.

Launching the period of consultation yesterday, Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, said the proposals should become law by October. She said that for the first time workers would be entitled to three weeks annual paid leave, rising to four weeks in 1999; there would be rest-breaks of 11 consecutive hours in any 24-hour period; a limit of 48 hours a week, averaged over four months; night workers would not have to work more than an average eight hours in any 24-hour period; and there would additional protection for young workers.