Ian McCartney, trade minister, insisted that no one would be forced to work more than 48 hours a week after 1 October and that there would be no "loopholes".
Mr McCartney's comments came after a senior left wing lawyer argued that while there would be no compulsion to work longer hours, the Government would leave the way clear for companies to negotiate extended working time.
The row over working hours erupted ahead of a critical meeting last night between union leaders and Mr McCartney together with Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, over the proposed legislation on union recognition. Trade unionists are concerned that the Government will introduce a law for employers which would make recognition difficult to achieve.
The union delegation, lead by John Monks, TUC General Secretary, urged ministers to honour the spirit of Labour's election manifesto. However, the final decision on the contents of the White Paper "Fairness at Work", will lie with the Prime Minister.
The Government could be faced with a high profile strike over union recognition in the run-up to the publication of the White Paper. The dispute involving the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union goes to the heart of a row between old and new Labour ministers over how far the laws of recognition should go.
ADT Fire And Security, a newly merged company, has decided to withdraw representation rights from the union on the basis that it only covers an alleged 7 per cent of the total 4,400 work force.The union claims that it represented 90 per cent of engineers at one of the businesses and more than half at the new group.
Meanwhile, in the debate over working time, Mr McCartney said that three million workers would enjoy a minimum of three weeks' paid leave from October, rising to four weeks from next year. The Government is to reveal details of its plans to introduce the working time directive next week.
The minister said he would be putting forward comprehensive proposals to protect workers so that no one was forced to work unsocial hours.
However, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, John Hendy, a leading barrister, said he believed it would not be difficult for employers to win the agreement of employees to work longer hours despite the directive. He said the full protection needed to be imposed by law and that it would be "very unsatisfactory" if the Government allowed employers flexibility.
Roger Lyons, leader of the MSF union, said thousands of workers died every year as a result of long hours and more protection was badly needed.Reuse content