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Zehra Zaidi: An apple a day? Nay, the Working Time Directive may keep the doctor away

Zehra_zaidi Zehra Zaidi is a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament in South West England and examines here the potential impact of the EU's Working Time Directive.

As a European Parliamentary candidate, you get asked one thing from grassroots time and time again: how can we get people to relate to Europe and show how much of an impact it has and therefore, how important the European Parliament elections will be.  One way is to continue to hold this Government to account and positively demonstrate how it has failed to defend British interests.  There are plenty of examples – Labour’s position on the Lisbon Treaty and its failure to hold a referendum stands out.

Another is to show practical examples of how the EU impacts on our daily lives and the necessity of having a sizeable Conservative delegation in the EU to push our point of view across.  Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the recent Strasbourg vote to scrap Britain’s opt-out to the Working Time Directive.

On 17 December 2008, the European Parliament voted to end Britain and 14 other countries’ opt-out three years after the reformed directive enters into force.  If the Council of Ministers caves in, we may lose our partial exemption to the EU’s 48 hour maximum week and with it, the flexibility to set the hours of the British workforce - so important in an economic downturn.

Open Europe has estimated that ending the opt-out could cost the UK economy between £47.74 billion and £66.45 billion by 2020, with a middle estimate of £57 billion.  Labour MEP Stephen Hughes led the socialist proposals for abolition of the opt-out.  During the vote, MEPs also adopted a recommendation that all the time that people spend on-call (even if inactive and taking a break in the workplace) should be counted as working time.  Both these positions are in marked contrast to a common position adopted by national governments in June 2008.  Not only did the Council of Ministers uphold that opt-outs should be retained , but it also stated that on-call time should be counted towards the 48 hours only when people are actually required to work. 

At the outset, it must be stated that the vote in the European Parliament is a resounding defeat for Gordon Brown.  In order to save Britain’s opt-out, the Prime Minister naively made concessions on the Agency Workers' Directive, signing up to a parallel agreement to give temporary and agency workers full employment rights after 12 weeks. Not only did he fail to understand the ambitions of the socialist bloc in the European Parliament, but also could not ensure that all his MEPs followed the Government’s line on such a crucial issue for the national interest.  As highlighted by Philip Bushill-Matthews MEP, the Conservative employment spokesman in the European Parliament, this is a double-whammy as now we have two damaging legislative amendments. Has the Government not learnt anything from Blair’s rebate giveaway in exchange for review of the CAP?

What does all of this mean?  Well, one of the clearest examples of the impact of the Working Time Directive is within the NHS.  In August 2004, the Working Time Directive was applied to junior doctors by restricting working hours to a maximum of 58 per week.  In August 2009 (subject to any derogations being sought), junior doctors' working hours will be reduced to 48.  Doctors should not be overstretched to the point of putting patients’ lives at risk but conversely, given the realities of the NHS, the lack of flexibility may impact on patient care once the directive is fully implemented.  The Royal College of Surgeons has warned that implementation may lead to serious staff shortages.  There will be less overlap between shifts and so handovers may be rushed.  Training may also suffer.  Its President, John Black, has been quoted as saying:

“On the one hand, the immediate effects on patient care in the NHS are potentially disastrous. There are simply not the surgeons in the UK to fill the gaps when every doctor’s hours are cut to a 48 hour per week maximum. On the other, trainees are telling the college they cannot gain enough experience to progress on the shortened hours. The choice for the nation is clear – do we want patients of the future to be treated by a group of highly skilled and experienced surgeons; or be passed around a wider group of lower skilled surgeons with less experience.”

In the South West, various campaigns have highlighted the impact of the Working Time Directive and the loss of our opt-out.  Indeed, it is an issue where PPCs and European Parliamentary Candidates can campaign on a joint platform.  In the photograph below, I am pictured with fellow European Parliamentary Candidate, Mike Dolley, Fabian Richter, PPC for Bath and Jacob Rees-Mogg, PPC for North East Somerset.  This issue is live.  It can be localised.  It will most certainly resonate with voters.  And it really, really matters.

So what now?  As the European Parliament’s stance is at odds with that of the Council of Ministers, a “conciliation” process now follows.  The two institutions have a maximum of eight weeks to convene a conciliation committee, which would be given another eight weeks to either find a compromise or decide that agreement is impossible. The Czech Government wants the conciliation committee to finish its work before Parliament’s recess in May.  The entire revised directive will fall if no agreement is reached - which would leave the UK’s opt-out intact. 

Moreover, on the issue of active versus inactive on call duty, there may well be some fierce debate.  The absence of a definition of on-call duty in the directive has been problematic.  The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2000 and 2003 ruled that all medical personnel's on-call duty should be counted as working time (Sindicato de Médicos de Asistencia Pública v Conselleria de Sanidad y Consumo de la Generalidad Valenciana, 2000 and Landeshaupstadt Kiel v Norbert Jaeger, 2003). Doctors in several EU countries then filed lawsuits against hospitals for non-compliance with the ECJ’s rulings.   Some member states have accordingly pushed for an amendment to the directive.  However, the definition of inactive on call duty by the Council of Ministers was resolutely shot down by the European Parliament in the December vote.

Any compromise during the conciliation talks will not be easy.  Rather unhelpfully, Stephen Hughes has stated that:

“What we will get into, I’m sure, is a debate of how long the phase-out period should be, and what sort of transition period before the opt-out ends, and quite frankly I’ve said to British ministers and other ministers that I’m not really bothered… I don’t care whether it’s 6, 7, 8 years, as long as in principle we know that the opt-out will end.”

Not really bothered?  I would like to know what his constituents in the North East of England feel about that.

The bottom line is that we should be able to retain the flexibility to set our own working hours.  Our Conservative MEPs, working with like-minded colleagues from many other EU Member States, have pushed hard on this matter.  In our regions, we can also highlight this very tangible issue and campaign energetically in order to put maximum pressure on the Government to do its’ all to ensure that the opt-out is retained and the Council of Ministers does not back down on its original position.


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