Leading Article: A long, hard week for Major and the Eurocrats

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The Independent Online
The good news is that British employees will now benefit from a law that enables them to stick to a sensible working week, without the risk of being sacked, and have proper paid holidays. The bad news is that the European Commission is introducing this legislation in the wrong way, and thereby undermining the pro-European argument in Britain.

Paid holidays and shorter working hours are good for our wellbeing, and therefore a social good, too. You cannot be pro-family (as many Tories would claim to be) and at the same time object to the substance of this law.

Yesterday, the European Court of Justice stamped on John Major's objections and ruled that the new directive on working time is legitimate European health and safety legislation. Britain cannot opt out. These entitlements - a reasonable amount of time off work to lead a normal family and social life - ought to be unexceptionable in a modern, civilised economy. Children rarely get a glimpse of parents working long hours, domestic relationships suffer under the strain, and our national quality of life deteriorates. All work and no play (or rest) makes Jack a dull boy, Jill a tired mum, and John a shallow and grumpy husband. The argument that we need to work longer and longer hours to compete with low-paid workers in undeveloped economies holds no water: their workers will no doubt raise their social expectations as they get richer.

There are those who thrive on stress, who enjoy nothing more than working, and who cannot think of better ways to spend their time. They will still be allowed to work longer hours if they wish. Indeed, the effect of the legislation is likely to be largely symbolic - a signal to employers that an excessively zealous work ethic may damage creativity, good working relations, and ultimately productivity and commitment. Unions will be in a far stronger position negotiating hours and annual holidays for vulnerable workers. So if the Government had introduced this legislation of its own volition, we would have applauded it.

John Major's government, obsessed with deregulation and intimidated by employers, does not appreciate that social legislation is a necessary function of government in a competitive market economy. The business demand for zero interference is absurd. There is a necessary tension between the business world's wish to be left unfettered in its search for profit, and any government's proper role, which is to create a climate for competitive business while meeting social expectations. Companies that are competitive purely on the basis of pushing hard-pressed employees beyond sensible physical limits are not helping the wider social world. Indeed, it is not mainly their business to care about the wider social world. That is one reason we have governments, rather than corporations, to run our lives: to look after our non-profit oriented interests.

It even makes sense for European countries to introduce such social legislation together, if they can agree. But there is no excuse for disguising social legislation like this as a health and safety matter. By levering it in through the back door, the European Union risks discrediting its legislative process.

The Commission argued (and the European Court agreed) that long hours are bad for our health, and that restricting them is therefore legitimate health and safety legislation. The premise may well be true. But who can tell what the optimal number of hours worked may be? Is 48 hours monitoring a building site as bad for our health as 48 hours carrying bricks, or 48 hours spent at head office worrying about whether budgets could be met? (Irrelevantly, but interestingly, how does a 60-hour week in a calm, friendly office compare with a dawn-to-dusk week at home on your own in a small house looking after several small children?)

Moreover, the European governments who backed the original proposal have undermined the force of their argument by their own exemptions. If working more than 48 hours really is so bad for our health, and if the European Union has our health so much at heart, why are so many workers excluded? The health of doctors and transport workers is no less important than the health of everyone else. If these people are so readily exempt, then presumably the rigid 48 hours is not so important to our health after all, in which case it should not be a part of health and safety legislation.

Indeed, one of the groups specifically excluded, doctors in training, have one of the best health and safety cases of all for a limit on working hours: a bad diagnosis by an exhausted casualty doctor who has spent 24 hours on his or her feet could be fatal.

The Conservative Party will make much of today's decision in the run- up to the election. It is evidence, they will say, that our European partners want to meddle destructively in our lives. But Mr Major should be careful how he plays this issue. Voters may accept, when they hear all the arguments, that Europe should not be interfering and imposing itself in this way. But will overworked people want to vote for a party that specifically rejects employment protection? If Mr Major thinks his stance will only win him votes he should think again. Perhaps his judgment is awry. Perhaps he is working unduly long hours.