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UK wins EU working hours battle

Thursday, 2 June, 2005
The BBC: [http://news.bbc.co.uk]

The UK has won the first stage of the fight to maintain its "opt-out" from the European Working Time Directive.

EU employment ministers were to make a decision on removing the clause, after the European Parliament in May voted to scrap the opt-out by 2012.

But, it is understood, enough ministers opposed the plan to prevent the vote taking place.

The issue can only return to parliament once ministers have voted and the question is likely to drag into 2006.

'Flexible'

The European Parliament and a number of EU member states want all nations to uphold a working week of no longer than 48 hours.

But the UK and other countries want employees to be able to work additional hours if they volunteer to do so.

The UK says the opt-out is vital for competitiveness and job creation.

"The opt-out remains," said British Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson.

"All of us need to be flexible."

Mr Johnson was backed at the meeting in Luxembourg by his fellow ministers from Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Malta, Cyprus and others.

Those that wish to end the opt-out are led by France, and also include Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Greece, Finland, Lithuania and Hungary.

The issue is not likely to return until next year, especially as the UK takes over the EU presidency for six months from 1 July, and will almost inevitably aim to put the divisive matter firmly at the back of the agenda.

'Business competitive'

Philip Bushill-Matthews MEP, Conservative employment and social affairs spokesman, said the government's success in Luxembourg was "encouraging".

"Those who want to take the path of economic growth and job creation should not be prevented from doing so by politicians nostalgic for a bygone age," he said.

David Frost, director general, British Chambers of Commerce, said it was "good news for business and for Europe's future prosperity".

"Flexibility is a major strength of the UK's labour market and will help to ensure businesses remain competitive in the global economy," he said.

"We congratulate the government for standing firm and gathering support for flexibility in Council. We hope that the European Parliament will take heed of the Council's decision in its second reading."

Union displeasure

Yet some of the UK's unions reacted angrily to the news.

"We think it's appalling that our government should be persisting with the opt-out," said Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison.

"We already work the longest hours in Europe.

"If other countries can manage without the opt-out, why should British workers be singled out for different treatment?"

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