Hunt faces EC anger over work-time directive: Government to go ahead with a legal challenge to 48-hour maximum working week

THE GOVERNMENT's emphatic opposition to the EC working-time directive culminated yesterday in the expected voting abstention by David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment - and confirmation that it would be challenged as illegal in the European Court of Justice next year.

In a stormy first European appearance since the Cabinet reshuffle, Mr Hunt came under attack from employment ministers in the other 11 member states for refusing to accept the directive's protections on working times, holidays, rest periods, shift and night work.

But they agreed to the deal hammered out by Gillian Shephard, his predecessor, allowing Britain a 10- year period of grace before becoming obliged to implement the 48-hour maximum working week.

Mr Hunt insisted afterwards that none of the provisions would be brought into effect in Britain. He said the European Commission's promotion of the directive as a health and safety measure, needing only a majority vote - unlike other employment directives which have required unanimity under the Treaty of Rome - was a 'dangerous precedent'. He announced within minutes of the vote in Brussels the Government's intention to bring a legal case, insisting that regulating people's working time was an abuse of the treaty.

Failure by Mr Hunt to persuade the Luxembourg court that the directive is invalid will open the way for British workers to launch claims over the 48-hour week after 10 years, and over the other provisions at the end of the three-year period allowed for implementation into national law.

The original provisions have been watered down and many are already part of domestic legislation in member states other than Britain. 'We now have an ultra-minimal agreement,' the French minister Michel Giraud said.

Britain has secured many of its key concerns; Sunday is no longer the only day of rest, collective agreements can be decided at plant level, the 48- hour provision is voluntary.

Mr Hunt told colleagues 'the teeth have been drawn from the original proposal' but he said that the legislation would have a more dramatic effect in the UK than elsewhere.

'We have always made it clear that we believe this directive is inflexible, and extremely damaging because in its orginal form it placed enormous burdens on British industry and European competitiveness. Our first priority is to productivity,' he said.

Under the draft, transport workers, those at sea and junior doctors are exempt. The directive can also accommodate the work-patterns of night and shift workers, of seasonal jobs or take account of areas where collective agreements already exist.

It is envisaged that the legislation will be implemented in stages. A member state will have the option of allowing people to work more than 48 hours a week, provided such work is voluntary and that safeguards are provided to prevent abuse. This provision will be reviewed after 10 years.