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Martin Callanan MEP: Now is not the time to be limiting our working time

Callanan_martin Martin Callanan is Conservative MEP for North East England.

Many thousands of people who had jobs at the start of 2008 will be facing up to the prospect of being without work in 2009. In a time of serious and deepening recession we should be doing all we can to help those who want to work to do so. However, in the European Parliament that philosophy is quite thin on the ground, even though some MEPs will themselves be out of a job after the European election in June.

This week the parliament, sitting in Strasbourg, will once again be debating the Working Time Directive opt-out, which allows employees who want to work more than the statutory 48-hour weekly maximum the chance to do so. Since the opt-out was introduced ten years ago it has been constantly under attack from socialists.

The Labour Government, seeking to portray itself in a business-friendly light, was committed from the outset to maintaining the opt-out. Ironically, the foremost opponents in the European Parliament of the Government’s position have been Labour MEPs. Back in 2005, Tony Blair held a meeting with Tory MEPs in his role as holder of the Council presidency, during which he implored us to support his Government’s policy because he couldn’t count on his own party’s representatives to do so.

For several years the Council has been deadlocked over this issue, despite the European Parliament voting in 2005 to abolish the opt-out. Britain has led a blocking minority of countries opposed to ending the opt-out. The impasse was resolved in the summer but it came at a high price. France, the current holder of the presidency and a leading voice in favour of scrapping the opt-out, agreed to preserve the opt-out if Britain would remove its objections to the Agency Workers Directive.

Gordon Brown succumbed to this ‘deal’, which effectively grants temps exactly the same employment rights as permanent workers. But no-one seemed to have asked the hundreds of thousands of people who work as temps, or their employers. The result will surely be a contraction of the temporary labour market just at the time when thousands of jobs are being lost. Temping can no longer be part of the recovery of the labour market. We have lost the flexibility that temping affords our economy, we have effectively denied people who want to work the chance to do so and we have undermined employers who would like to create opportunities. Once again, the EU has shown its true colours. The only jobs worth creating seem to be jobs for the boys.

Back to the Working Time Directive. Because of the deal earlier this year, the opt-out should be safe, but that’s not necessarily the case. If a majority of MEPs votes in favour of abolishing the opt-out the European Parliament and the Council will have to enter a conciliation procedure which is likely to result in the opt-out being ditched, either immediately or in a phased manner. Even if the parliament backs the Council’s compromise, there will still be a 60-hour maximum working week averaged over three months.

Britain is one of 14 EU countries (out of 27) that either make the voluntary opt-out available to workers or are seeking to introduce it into national legislation. Predictably, many of those countries are new member states that see labour market flexibility and productivity gains as advantages rather than embarrassments.

The Working Time Directive is typical of the EU’s prescriptive and uniform approach to workplace regulation. It’s also just one of many hundreds of damaging health and safety rules emanating from Brussels that act as a brake on our economy. Thankfully David Cameron is committed to withdrawing Britain from the Social Chapter from which John Major won us an opt-out in 1992 but to which Tony Blair signed us up in 1997. This is an essential step if we are ever to break free from the debilitating effects of EU regulation on our country.

There are, of course, opponents of the opt-out in Britain – not just Labour MEPs but their union paymasters too. Words like ‘Dickensian’ and ‘exploitation’ are bandied around in a cynical fashion. Naturally, unions are keen on job protection, not job creation – that is their raison d’être. They know that the opt-out weakens their position, undermines their authority and might even oblige their members to work a little harder.

However, there are already plenty of safeguards in place in UK and EU law to protect people in the workplace, and they will remain even when we abandon the Social Chapter. It is not only naïve for politicians to assume that people aren’t capable of understanding when they’re being exploited, it is morally questionable for us to place limits on people’s lawful activity.

At a time of economic crisis the last thing we should be doing is further restricting the right to work and earn money.


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