No action on 48-hour week before election

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Indy Politics
The Government has stalled any further action on the 48-hour-week Working Time Directive, in spite of its promise to "obey the law" as laid down by the European Court of Justice last year.

After the court upheld the directive, Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, issued a consultation document on its implementation. Giving a three-month deadline for replies, he said: "We will the take stock of the position in the light of responses."

That deadline ended on 6 March, but a Whitehall source said yesterday that there was no chance whatsoever of anything now being done by ministers before the election, if only because the prorogation of Parliament tomorrow left no time for any statutory action.

Even if Labour wins the election, the earliest that anything can happen is the middle of May, following the opening of the new parliament.

If the Conservatives win the election, John Major will demand a change of treaty law, retrospectively stopping the use of health and safety provisions to enact employment law.

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, told a Conservative election press conference yesterday that the Working Time Directive had been introduced "wrongly, under the wrong treaty base - under the health and safety provisions."

He said: "We are totally opposed to that, and we intend to secure an amendment to nullify that in the inter-governmental conference.

"We are totally opposed to what has happened." He added: "We have to keep within the law of the land, but it is our intention to change the law."

Mr Heseltine also said that Labour's eagerness to comply with the directive was one of a number of reasons why Labour could not be trusted to maintain the Government's record of cutting unemployment.

"I am proud of our achievement on unemployment," he said after the announcement of the 68,000 fall in claimant unemployment for February.

Replying to Labour's pledge to create a Cabinet minister with responsibility for employment, Mr Heseltine said: "We already have a minister for jobs. He's called the Prime Minister.

"But I am fearful for our achievement. Whichever of Tony Blair's policies one looks at, there is a threat to people in work."

A Conservative brief on the directive said it would "make labour markets less flexible, destroy jobs and damage prosperity.

"It is part of a wider European social agenda which is alien to the flexible, voluntarist traditions which exist in the UK. The British government has estimated that the directive could cost business up to pounds 2bn every year."

A TUC spokesman said, however, that the compliance cost assessment of pounds 1.8bn was based on an assumption of people being given paid leave at an hourly wage rate of pounds 8.32 - something completely misconceived when the people who would mainly benefit were part-time employees on low wages.