Portillo christens opt-out over paternity

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL PORTILLO, Secretary of State for Employment, yesterday blocked planned European legislation on paternity leave from applying to Britain.

This first use of the British right to opt out of EU social policy under the Maastricht treaty opens the way for the 11 other members to draw up laws without Britain. Similar opposition also meant that legislation creating works councils was passed without British involvement and will not apply in the UK.

Mr Portillo argued that legislation on paternity leave would add extra costs to industry. 'Of course it is fine to take time off for the birth of a baby - many men do negotiate such arrangements with their employers - but this is not the time to impose new bureaucratic restrictions on companies. Not all companies can afford to let employees go off for three months.'

One of the proposals entitles fathers to a statutory three months' unpaid leave after the birth of a child. The Commission will now begin drawing up new legislation. Britain will not be asked to contribute to that process.

Germany, which presides over the EU until January, had tried hard for a compromise that would have made it possible for the UK to delay implementing legislation until 1998 at the earliest.

Every EU member state but Belgium, the UK and Ireland already has laws ensuring that either the mother or father may take leave after the birth of a child, and in most cases this is paid. Both Belgium and Ireland support statutory paternity leave. In the UK, only mothers have the right to time off equal to 40 weeks' unpaid leave.

The works council directive obliges companies employing at least 1,000 staff and with branches at least 150-strong in more than two EU member states to set up councils to consult employees. Britain had no part in drafting the law, but because of its pan-European provisions, the rules will be binding on several British multinational companies.