Britain given four-year exemption on labour legislation

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HOURS after the Maastricht treaty overcame its final hurdle yesterday, Britain's exclusion from European social policy was already causing controversy. Britain refused to agree to EC legislation setting minimum working hours for children and young people and was given a four-year exemption from the key two sections of the directive, which comes into force in two years' time. And Britain refused to accept an EC plan to set up consultative bodies for workers, triggering what is likely to be the first use of the treaty's special social protocol.

After what he called a difficult meeting of social affairs ministers in Luxembourg, David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, emerged claiming victory for Britain: he said the result would be good for British business and would protect employment. 'We are turning the tide in Europe,' he said. But some colleagues were enraged by what they saw as actions which compromised the nature of the EC.

Mr Hunt said Britain would not accept the directive on protection of young people at work because it would restrict weekend and night- working by children of 16 or 17 and limit the weekly working hours of younger children. He claimed this would prevent children doing newspaper rounds, though this was rejected by other European sources. As a result, the meeting agreed to give Britain a four-year exemption.

Nor would Britain accept a directive on works councils, which are supposed to facilitate consultation of workers over issues like plant closures. This directive is rejected by all the main employers' organisations in Europe, said Mr Hunt, and is 'directly contrary to everything in which the UK believes'. He received a telegram from Sir Michael Angus, of the Confederation of British Industry, urging him to reject it.

Under existing legal requirements, Britain's veto prevents the directive going ahead. The other 11 Community member states will, however, proceed with the directive under the social protocol of the Maastricht treaty, from which Britain has an opt-out.

This was the most controversial part of the treaty negotiations and it is already threatening to cause arguments. If the directive were passed by the other 11, Mr Hunt said, investment would be redirected to Britain as multinationals closed plants elsewhere Europe. 'There may well be companies that look at this directive and decide if they concentrate more of their activities in the UK, they will not be caught in the net.'

Other EC delegations denied this, saying one directive would make little difference to investment decisions. Mr Hunt's claims will anger countries like France, which claim Britain's opt-out is aimed only at stealing jobs by giving Britain the lowest levels of social protection in Europe - what the French call social dumping.

'A directive agreed by the other 11 ministers will have no legal force in Britain,' Mr Hunt stressed. The legislation, if agreed, would affect many British multinationals with 1,000 employees which have operations employing 100 in more than one EC country outside Britain.

Mr Hunt said that many ministers privately agreed with him, even though on one directive Britain has the only opt-out and on the other it was at odds with its partners.