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

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager (technical, applications, infrastructure)

£55000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: IT Proj...

English Teacher (Bristol and South Gloucestershire)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: English teachers for day to day cover,...


Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 6 Teacher RequiredThis teaching...

SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's Stortford / Stansted

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Video stills documenting the moments before a nine-year-old lost control of the uzi  

Now the Uzi victim's children have offered forgiveness, America can forget

David Usborne

Scottish independence: We cannot risk our children’s future

Blair McDougall
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week