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Working Time Directive

1 pm

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): I begin by expressing my delight at securing this important debate, which touches every aspect of people's lives. The Labour Government should be congratulated on implementing the working time directive. Many of us will remember the previous, Conservative Government fighting tooth and nail against it, denying British workers the same rights and protection as those afforded to our colleagues throughout the rest of Europe.

However, having said that, I must add that a recent report by the TUC showed that there are still more people in Britain working for more than 48 hours a week than there were in 1992. Those figures show that 4 million people, representing 16 per cent. of the total UK work force, work for more than the 48-hour maximum. There can be little doubt that working excessive hours can lead to ill health, stress and strains on family relationships.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Confederation of British Industry still maintains that workers should have the right to exercise discretion in relation to their working hours. Although that so-called opt-out sounds fine, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that employees are being pressurised into signing the opt-out clause or risk the possibility of losing their jobs. The Minister will no doubt be aware that the UK is the only European country that has implemented an opt-out clause, and other member states restrict the hours of work even further.

Another area of concern to me is the ambiguity surrounding regulation 16 of the Working Time Regulations 1998, which deals with the employee's right to paid holidays. Again, there is anecdotal evidence of bad practice by unscrupulous employers, who simply tell employees that part of their hourly rate should be used as holiday pay.

David Hamilton (Midlothian): May I make some observations? The working time directive should not prevent flexible working arrangements from being drawn up in various industries. The industry that comes to mind is that of mining, which has used flexible working for many years. There are few pits left now and it is common practice, because of the sheer distance that the coal has to be moved, for the men to work longer hours but fewer days over the week. Therefore, flexible working arrangements—

Mr. James Cran (in the Chair): Order. This is a short debate and interventions should be very short and crisp.

Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend makes a good point. In principle, flexible hours should be just that. However, my point is that there are occasions when employees are pressurised into working excessive hours. I am sure that that is the experience of my hon. Friend in his distinguished career in the mining industry.

Anne Picking (East Lothian): On flexible hours, is my hon. Friend aware of the problem in the health service, where nurses work excessive hours. The trusts and private nursing homes get round the problem by

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ensuring that the nurses do their stint as full-time employees of the trusts and the boards and then do flexi-bank working on top of that. Those nurses can sometimes end up working an enormous number of shifts, creating unsafe situations.

Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend makes an important point. She has had a distinguished career in the health service. While agency workers in the health service are welcome, there is a problem in terms of how many hours they work, who monitors that, and who is accountable for it.

I return to regulation 16, and the matter of unscrupulous employers and holiday pay. I referred to the experience of my constituent, Mr. Jim Hart, of Erskine and the type of sharp practice that undermines the spirit and intent of the directive. I would ask the Minister to consider strengthening regulation 16. I am certain that there is much more anecdotal evidence about people who have been denied appropriate holiday pay entitlement. It is unfortunate that there are still employers who do not make provision for people's holiday pay.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured this excellent debate. Is he aware of a recent court ruling to the effect that a worker with long-term sickness who, because an unscrupulous employer will not pay him off, is still on the payroll but not receiving pay, is entitled to statutory holiday of—I believe—20 days a year? That has to be paid, even though he is not receiving a wage.

Jim Sheridan : I was unaware of that ruling, but I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct. The Minister may also be aware of recent reports of the Spanish Government's having taken legal action over the implementation of the working time directive, with specific regard to the inclusion of owner-drivers.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is ridiculous to differentiate between owner-drivers and employee drivers? Surely a driver is a driver, regardless of his or her status, which is entirely irrelevant to the driving. What should be paramount is the safety of the public and of the drivers.

Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. My understanding is that owner-drivers are exempt until 2009. It is nonsensical for drivers, whether they are self-employed, owner-drivers or employed to be exempt from the regulations. If someone is driving a 20-tonne or 40-tonne lorry and it is involved in a serious accident on a motorway owing to stress or to people falling asleep at the wheel, the last question that we should be concerned about is whether he or she is an owner-driver, self-employed or employed. To leave that kind of risk until 2009 endangers a large number of people.

What concerns me and those who have supported me are reports that some member states, including this country, are sympathetic to the position of the Spanish Government. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify the matter.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Obviously, the working time directive is vital to the protection of our

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workers. Does my hon. Friend believe that the application of the directive should be examined closely and, where breaches are taking place, the legislation should be strengthened in order to provide further protection for those who are being mistreated?

Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Legislation is fine, but it is making employers accountable for their actions that is important. If necessary, I would be in favour of stiffer penalties for those employers who knowingly disregard or misrepresent the regulations.

Mr. Connarty : I wonder whether there might be something more fundamental in the Government's approach to the working time directive. For example, road hauliers, whether they are owners or work for a firm, are concerned that the cabotage rules now being used in countries outwith the EU allow drivers from non-EU countries to drive much longer hours than the EU directives would allow, which lets let them pick up loads in the UK and thus undercut firms in this country. The Government have given too much weight to the economic impact instead of health and safety. Although they have allowed owner-drivers to compete, in a sense they are inviting people in the UK to break the rules so that they can compete with drivers from non-EU countries.

Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend raises an important point. At the end of the day, if there is a major road accident, the last question that those concerned will ask is what nationality the driver is and what regulations he is working under. Again, I congratulate the Government on bringing in the working time directive, but it is irrelevant if we are going to allow foreign drivers who are subject to no legislation a free rein on our roads. We should be looking at legislation that covers the country not only the driver.

I began the debate by listing the genuine benefits of the working time directive for British workers. However, some workers are still exempt, and I hope that the Government will consider expediting legislation to include them.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that offshore oil workers are presently exempt, at the Government's insistence, and that they are not due to be included until 2003? I feel that they should be brought in more quickly, along with drivers and the other groups of workers that he has mentioned.

Jim Sheridan : The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I do not differentiate between workers; this should apply equally to the lorry driver, the oil rig worker and the agency nurse. I have never been on an oil rig, but I am told that they are extremely dangerous places to work. Accidents are caused by stress or lack of sleep—or lack of regulation—and that impacts on us all. If people's lives are being put in danger, something should be done. The Government should ensure that something is done by legislating sooner rather than later.

David Hamilton : Following on from that, trade union recognition is a key element in how best to protect the

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interests of the workers. If we had trade union recognition, it would go a long way to dealing with many of the anomalies on oil rigs—and it would also apply to the protection of holiday and sick pay and so on.

Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I remind the House that the trade union movement was primarily active in making the legislation, and it had a pivotal role in promoting it. When there is trade union recognition, the working time directive is implemented, monitored and taken into account. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) may recall the tremendous resistance of the oil industry to recognising trade unions. The fact that the number of accidents in the oil industry has decreased, particularly in the North sea, is a direct result of trade union recognition. The recognition of health and safety matters in the oil industry was brought about by the introduction of the working time directive.

As I said earlier, there are genuine benefits from the working time directive for Britain's workers. However, we must never forget that should the unthinkable happen and a Conservative Government are returned—unfortunately, no Conservative Members are present at the moment—there is no doubt that they would take us back to the dark days of deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s, when Britain's workers had no protection. There is no doubt that they would be supported by that most pessimistic of organisations, the CBI, which has fought tooth and nail against any regulations for workers, whether the minimum wage, the working time directive, trade union recognition or whatever. It is happy to let market forces determine conditions. We should welcome the working time directive. It needs improvement, and I hope that the Government will make the improvements for which we have asked.

1.15 pm

The Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions (Alan Johnson) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate. Working time, along with pay, is central to employment relationships. It is a crucial issue, and this is a timely opportunity to debate it.

How working time is organised and utilised is key to maximising how productive workers are and determining the time that they have available to follow their own aspirations outside the workplace. The Government have always been committed to the working time directive. It is right that all workers should expect certain minimum standards in their terms and conditions of employment. Similarly, business should be able to market its products effectively without fear of being undercut by unethical competitors.

Let me briefly review the history of the issue. Working time measures are nothing new in UK law. Statutory limits on working time were first established by the Factories Acts of the 19th century, which restricted the daily and weekly working hours of women and young workers in industrial employment. The limits—12, and later 10, hours a day for a six-day week for women, and six and a half hours for children under 13—seem high now, but they were fiercely opposed at the time by those who felt that the light work undertaken in, say, cotton mills could easily be done for 15 or 16 hours a day.

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Before the end of the 19th century, proposals for general legislation to establish an eight-hour basic working day were rejected in favour of regulating working time through collective bargaining, supplemented by partial statutory regulation for particular sectors. In the 1920s and 1930s, further legislation prevented the employment of children under school leaving age, set a basic nine-hour day and 48-hour week for women and young workers and established minimum holiday rights. The legal framework was consolidated in the Factories Act 1961.

In 1918 the wages councils, which were introduced by Churchill in 1909 for sectors in which collective bargaining had not become well established, were given powers to regulate working hours. The Holidays with Pay Act 1938 gave wages councils the power to make provision for annual paid leave of up to one week. In 1945 they were empowered to regulate all aspects of wages, hours and holidays. It is important to remember that there has always been a need to regulate working hours, particularly for people who are vulnerable in the workplace.

As we seem to have a trade union meeting taking place here—I think that most of us here have been through the same mill—may I take my colleagues back to the time when they wore flares and tank tops? They will remember that in the 1970s the British trade union movement opposed the establishment of minimum standards, apart from what the wages councils did, and the protections in the Factories Acts. We did not take the route that other European Union countries did, because the mantra of the 1970s was free collective bargaining, no interference by the state and civil rights at work coming with the union card. I was no different from anyone else.

After that, in the 1980s and most of the 1990s, there was absolutely no chance of any intervention on working time issues by the then Government. When the Labour party was last in government we had not introduced the full protection that existed in other European Union countries, and in the 1980s and 1990s even the minimal protection that I have just described was removed completely. By the time we came into office in 1997, there was no working time protection whatever in this country.

The working time directive as we know it was proposed by the European Commission in July 1990. The previous Government opposed it, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire said, on the basis that it was not justifiable on health and safety grounds. They got confused over whether the directive was really about the social chapter, but in fact it was always about health and safety. I am thankful to say that the European Court's view was that that opposition was unfounded. That Government lost their case hands down in Strasbourg, and the directive was finally adopted by the European Union on 23 November 1993. In this country, British workers had to wait until an incoming Labour Government implemented the directive through the Working Time Regulations 1998.

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Workers now have a right to protection from being forced to work more than 48 hours a week on average. They also have a right to protections for night work, a minimum entitlement to four weeks' paid annual leave, and entitlements to daily, weekly and in-work rest. There are additional protections for adolescent workers. At the beginning of the 21st century, workers also achieved the right to a day off a week. Amazingly, 8,000 workers took advantage of that, because they had previously been working a seven-day week by compulsion.

We as a Government believe that those rights and entitlements are wholly appropriate and were long overdue. The regulations were amended in 1999, but the amendments represented a small refinement and did not weaken any of the original protections for workers. An additional amendment last year made the entitlement to paid annual leave available to all workers from their first day of service.

It is important that workers should not feel dissuaded from asserting the rights and entitlements that the regulations offer them. I noted the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire made about his constituent, Mr. Hart. There is every indication that the enforcement measures that we have in place have been successful in achieving that goal. The particular scam practised on that constituent was clearly in breach of the regulations. Of course we have to give people the confidence to know what those regulations are, especially when they are not represented by a trade union.

There is every indication that enforcement is being successfully achieved. Last year we ran a big national television advertising campaign to tell people that they had an entitlement to four weeks' paid holiday, and to promote the use of that. That put the message across effectively, and we followed it up with some user-friendly guidance, produced in consultation with representatives from both sides of industry. That generated a very positive response.

The Working Time Regulations 1998 will continue to evolve during the coming years to incorporate both our domestic requirements and European obligations. A point about the offshore oil industry was made in an intervention, and I can tell hon. Members that this country argued for that industry to be included. I personally argued that case in Europe. Workers in that industry will, as I think the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) said in his intervention, be covered from 1 August 2003. That is in line with the requirement in the directive that we successfully secured to extend protections.

Mr. Weir : I thank the Minister for his reassurance, but my understanding is that offshore oil workers will still be exempted from the provisions on daily rest, respite, weekly rest and the night work limit, provided that compensatory rest is given. Is that altogether wise? They could still be under pressure offshore to work longer than may be safe.

Alan Johnson : I do not think so. There were problems in the fishing industry and with transport workers, which I will come on to in a second. There were various problems with specific sectors. Hon. Members will

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understand that trawlermen out on a fishing expedition can hardly exercise such rights. The same arguments were made for the oil industry, but we fought very hard to get a consensus that the European Union could sign up to. By 2003 the regulations must cover sectors such as offshore and road transport industries, which are currently excluded.

More immediately, this year we will introduce stricter working time and night work controls for adolescents. I support the view that the long-hours culture must be tackled. Some research was published earlier this week from Japan showing that men—for some reason it concentrated on men—who worked for more than 60 hours a week were twice as likely to have a heart attack as men who worked more than 40 hours a week. Perhaps we should take that lesson into account in this place next time we talk to the Whips. We must change the inherent overtime culture, which has not developed because employers have been bad—although in some instances they undoubtedly have—but because overtime has simply permeated certain industries. I speak as an ex-postman who grew up in a culture of overtime. We had a low basic wage, and every time the unions tried to cut hours and overtime, members would argue against it. I think that many hon. Members here have been through the same mill.

We cannot pretend that addressing the issue through a regulation, or stricture, that states that a person cannot work more than 48 hours will solve every problem. Research that we have recently commissioned clearly shows that in large industry sectors workers want to work long hours; they tell us so. We must change that, and stop using "part-time worker" as a term of abuse—someone is seen reading the newspaper and will be asked, "What are you, a part-timer?"

Such a culture is more of a problem in this country than in other European countries because of the way in which things have been tackled since the war. That problem must be addressed. We are especially aware that women will never receive the practical benefits of equal opportunities legislation if they are obliged to work hours that do not fit with their domestic circumstances. We seek to change that culture. The European Commission is due to review the voluntary working time opt-out by November 2003. Any proposed changes to the directive as a result of the review will require a specific proposal from the Commission.

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My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire talked about ambiguity in the regulations on the entitlement to paid annual leave, which I have addressed. There is no legal guarantee of certainty in the UK's interpretation of a directive, and I think that the scam that he referred to is outside the regulations. To best serve the interests of workers and employers, we must ensure that there is no ambiguity in the regulations.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire referred to the Spanish Government's legal action relating to the separate road transport sector directive, which is required to be implemented in the UK by 2005. The directive temporarily excludes the self-employed, and is subject to review before 2007. Depending on the outcome of the review, the scope of the directive may be extended to include the self-employed by 2009. It is difficult to comment on the issue without details of the action being taken by the Spanish Government. However, unlike Spain, we voted in favour of the directive covering the self-employed. We are not surprised that Spain might be mounting a legal challenge in connection with the approach that it adopted during debates in Europe.

The working time regulations do not, of course, extend to the genuinely self-employed, but they do apply to workers rather than employees, and therefore to the vast majority of the work force. A review of the distinction between an employee and a worker was launched last week.

We want to tackle the long-hours culture in this country. Curiously, the biggest problem now involves not the kind of workers who have been referred to in today's debate, but middle-ranking managers. Trade unions have certainly done their job in reducing contracted hours, but there are still problems to address. I welcome the debate. Its importance is indicated by the fact that hon. Members from so many constituencies are present, such as my hon. Friends the Members for West Renfrewshire, for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), for Midlothian (David Hamilton), for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), and for East Lothian (Anne Picking), and the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir). There is obviously a concern about the issue, and it is one that we want to address, but perhaps we vary slightly about how we should do that.

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