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Welcome to the war of the working week

All the other EU states already impose limits on working time
Get ready for the next Euro row. It will concern how many hours we may work each week and what our minimum holiday entitlement must be. The rumpus will start tomorrow morning if, as expected, the Government learns that its legal challenge to the 48-hour week directive adopted by the European Council of Ministers in 1993 has failed. Stated baldly, the directive provides for a maximum working week of 48 hours; it sets a minimum of four weeks' annual paid holiday and lays down minimum rest periods and rest breaks.

The dispute goes to the heart of Europe's agony over unemployment. The Anglo-Saxon view is that regulation costs jobs, and the legal limits on working hours and legal holiday entitlements are just such an example. To our European neighbours, on the other hand, the working-time directive appears an unexceptional measure. They have always had such legislation. Every one of the other 14 members of the EU already imposes limits on working time; likewise, all but Italy have legislated for minimum holidays.

Neither Conservative nor Labour governments have ever acted on these matters. British practice has been completely different. On the Continent wages are high, work forces are more skilled and better trained and personal taxation is less onerous, but companies bear heavy social costs and it is difficult and expensive to make people redundant. In contrast, our labour markets are characterised by low wages, skills improving from a low base, long hours and light regulation.

Until the mid-1980s the Continental system paid off in terms of success in world markets, employment and standard of living. No longer. In Germany and France unemployment is at record levels and still rising, while our trend has been downwards for some time. The Anglo-Saxon model is now the more successful.

Entwined in the economic argument, however, is a dispute about the UK's legal obligations. The fact is that the origin of the working-time directive is the Single European Act, signed by Mrs Thatcher, which paved the way for the Single Market. Member states agreed to encourage improvements in the health and safety of workers and to harmonise such regulations. The British government had no alternative but to sit down and negotiate the directive with its partners.

In this dispute it is crucial to understand that major changes to the original draft were secured. Qualifications, let-outs, derogations written into the directive, have largely taken the sting out of it. Members states may choose not to apply the working-week provisions to managers, to the family members of family businesses, or to the self-employed. In addition, industries exempted from many of the provisions include sectors where there is a need for continuous working, from hospitals to electricity production, and industries with seasonal peaks of activity such as agriculture, tourism and postal services. More sweepingly, the directive also gives individual countries the right not to apply the provisions of the 48-hour week, provided that individual workers agree and that refusal is not subject to pressure. And the entitlement to four weeks' paid holiday per year need not be introduced straight away. As a result, when the revised draft was put to the European Council of Ministers in November 1993, the British government did not vote against the measure: it abstained.

But it found another way of attacking the directive. It argued that the measure had been brought forward under an inappropriate article of the Treaty of Rome; it was not a health and safety measure where a majority vote could carry the day but a matter of employment rights, where unanimity is required. This is the basis of the Government's appeal to the European court of Justice, whose judgment will be handed down tomorrow.

Of course the UK has had health and safety regulations since Victorian times, and has regularly updated them. Legislation itself, and custom and practice, have varied according to the nature of individual industries. Hours of work are controlled for safety reasons in industries such as transport. The British approach has been ad hoc. But generally speaking, shorter hours have been seen as an alternative to higher wages and as a measure for sharing work. No compelling evidence has been pleaded to show that shortening hours of work below their present levels would significantly reduce health and safety risks.

Faced with losing the case, the Government is preparing to turn to a third stratagem. As it did in the BSE crisis, albeit unsuccessfully, it will use our veto on other matters to attempt to force our partners into giving us a special opt-out from the working-time directive. Mr Major claims to have received a sympathetic hearing from the French president, Mr Chirac. In any case, most of the Cabinet believes that anti-Europe campaigns win votes.

This is likely to be worthwhile rather than counter-productive only if the directive as it now stands would reduce employment. The longest hours are worked in mining and quarrying, agriculture, forestry and fishing, followed by transport and communications. Managers, people in professional occupations and plant operatives also put in long hours. Between 30 and 45 per cent of workers in these categories clock up more than 48 hours a week. But few of these examples would be affected by the directive. Neither the Confederation of british Industry nor the Engineering Employers' Federation are making a big song and dance. As they are not, I don't believe the British government should do so. In a way, it has already won.