The Conservatives in Brighton: Shephard seeks to curb EC rights on employment

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The Independent Online
Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Employment, is pressing the Cabinet to limit the right of the European Commission to interfere in employment policy, writes Colin Brown.

Mrs Shephard yesterday met Douglas Hurd to urge him to include employment among the limitations on Brussels powers when changes on subsidiarity are made to the Maastricht treaty, at the EC summit in Birmingham next Friday. She argued that employment directives from Brussels were adding to employers' costs and threatening jobs. She will be discussing a directive on pregnant women with EC ministers at an informal summit next week.

The Tory election manifesto carried a commitment to change the law to give a right to at least 14 weeks' maternity leave, and protection against dismissal on grounds of pregnancy, to comply with the directive. But Mrs Shephard is concerned the employment directives are anti-competitive and undermine jobs.

Other Cabinet ministers are asking Mr Hurd to add to the list of policy areas to be covered by subsidiarity, but it is not clear whether Britain will press for employment to be included.

Britain has refused to sign the Social Chapter to the treaty, arguing that the employment protection measures would add to costs and lead to job losses.

The Foreign Office may take the view that the other 11 member states would not agree to subsidiarity on employment, having taken a strong stand on social measures. Under the terms of subsidiarity, member states would be free to take their own decisions, unless there was an overriding reason for a decision to be reached at European level.

Mr Hurd is putting together a package of proposals for the summit to overcome British, Danish and other objections to the federalist tendencies in the treaty.

Mrs Shephard was cheered by the conference when she told party representatives that she hoped to abolish May Day - the traditional workers' day introduced by Labour - by 1995. Another bank holiday could be created in August or October.

She was urged by officials not to suggest that it could be called 'Trafalgar Day' to avoid upsetting the French. However, Mrs Shephard, a fluent French speaker with a reputation as a Francophile, rejected their advice.