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9.27 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) was making such an excellent speech that I am almost sorry that he cut it short to allow me to make a modest contribution to the debate. In showing that courtesy, he sets an example that certain people on the Front Benches would do well to emulate.

I did not come along to take part in the debate, as the Secretary of State implied, because it was one way to lure all the Eurosceptics out from their caves. I came not because I am a doctor—although I have that academic title, I know nothing whatsoever about medicine. I am not even an honorary physician, like the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) who, sadly, is no longer in his place.

I came because I know a man who is a doctor, or at least I received a fax from that excellent service from a man who is a doctor. His name is Mr. Jason Millington. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and he is an orthopaedic specialist currently working at the North Hampshire hospital and he lives in my constituency.

Mr. Millington has set out very pithily indeed the basis of why members of the medical profession are so concerned about the implications of the working time directive. He has done that under four headings—patient safety, training, professional status and productivity. On patient safety, he says that there is no doubt in his mind that in preparing for the directive, junior doctors’ rotas are unable to sustain the mandatory 48-hour week and to provide adequate service to patients. He writes:

That is his understanding of the situation.

Mr. Millington says that doctors’ training is largely based on experience, as we heard in the excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), to whom the House always listens with respect on this subject. My correspondent adds that many doctors

That is because they are concerned about the skill base in the future. Mr. Millington asks me whether I am

On professional status, he says that he is sure that I, like most professional people, work more than 48 hours a week, and goes on:

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He warns that if we want young doctors to be a “generation of clock-watchers”, the directive will guarantee that that comes to pass.

Finally, on productivity, Mr. Millington says that every doctor affected by the directive

He asks whether I am prepared

Finally, he points out that a recent Royal College of Physicians survey of the 48-hour week pilot scheme showed that 84 per cent. of the pilots created gaps in the rotas, so locums were required to cover the gaps; that 40 per cent. of the pilots had to use consultants to plug gaps in the junior rotas; and that 58 per cent. of doctors thought that patient care was worse under a 48-hour week. Mr. Millington says:

We politicians have little of value to say to doctors. However, Mr. Millington has shown that doctors have plenty of value to say to us politicians.

9.32 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I am pleased to sum up from the Conservative Benches after this lively debate. In the time available, I shall do my best to refer to at least some of the very good speeches that we have heard during its course.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and other hon. Members have set out, the European Parliament’s proposed version of the revised directive has the potential to do crippling damage to the NHS. The implementation of the existing directive has been subject to damning criticism from the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Association of Surgeons in Training.

A British Medical Association survey of junior doctors found that almost two thirds reported that compliance with the 48-hour week would have a negative effect on their training. A recent editorial in the British Medical Journal succinctly summed the issue up:

The threat to our public services from the European Parliament’s proposed abolition of the opt-out and the distinction between active and inactive on-call time goes even wider than the NHS. Its effects would cause severe difficulties for a wide range of other vital public service workers, including care home workers and retained firefighters, as was rightly highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) and for Poole (Mr. Syms) and the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson).

So far, so bad—but the effects of both the current legislation and the European Parliament’s proposed changes go further. As the latest burdens barometer from the British Chambers of Commerce shows, the working time directive, as implemented by the Working Time Regulations 1999, is the single most expensive regulatory burden on British businesses introduced under this Government, with a total cost of £16 billion as of
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July last year and an annual recurring cost of almost £1.8 billion. Working time regulations on transport workers add a further annual burden of £423 million on British businesses.

So no one—Minister, Member of this House or Member of the European Parliament—should be under any doubt that the existing legislation imposes considerable cost on British enterprise. That is not to argue against all its contents—I hope that no one would disagree with the importance of statutory paid holidays, for example—but it is to emphasise the burdens that British businesses already labour under. The now threatened opt-out is crucial to British businesses’ ability to remain globally competitive. The then Business Secretary, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), rightly underlined how critical it was for our businesses’ flexibility when he said only last June:

Formal negotiations on this vital matter are due to start in less than a fortnight in the conciliation process to which several Members have referred. One would have thought that the Government would have done everything in their power to support their case for retention of the opt-out, yet Ministers have failed to carry out even an impact assessment on the loss of the opt-out. According to a study by the think-tank Open Europe, the reason, according to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, is that

Because of the Government’s failure to examine the matter properly, we have to rely on third-party work.

According to the CBI, 3 million workers—10 per cent. of the British work force—take advantage of the opt-out. Open Europe’s study has also found that if those workers were no longer allowed to take advantage of their right to work as they please, the cost to the British economy would be between £47 billion and £67 billion by 2020. To take the effect on just one specific part of Britain’s economy, the British Constructional Steelwork Association, which represents an industry with 100,000 employees and an annual turnover of over £5 billion, has said that:

It surveyed 1,000 workers in that field of industry, and the results show that 90 per cent. of them want to retain the opt-out from the working time directive.

This is not a cost that the British economy can afford, least of all when we face possibly the worst economic downturn of the past 60 years and when, thanks to this Government’s economic mismanagement, the country is the worst prepared of any major developed economy. As the Institute of Directors has said, the

of the abolition of the opt-out would be

More broadly, the CBI has said that:

That is an important point which I hope Labour Members will take on board: no further compromise is possible.

If the European Parliament gets its way, our hospitals will be less safe, our doctors will be worse trained, the NHS’s resources will be put under further strain, our fire service will be dangerously stretched, our economy will be less prosperous and less competitive, with the inevitable consequence that tax revenues will shrink further, and the likelihood must be that yet more businesses will go to the wall or have to shed jobs, so that even more people will find themselves out of work.

How did we find ourselves in so dangerous a situation? The Government linked the agency workers directive—that has its legal base in the old social chapter, which originally they rightly opposed—with the revised working time directive. That point was rightly highlighted in the very good speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). As the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs told a Committee in another place in October,

Having reached an agreement on a revised version of the directive that at least preserved the opt-out and made a distinction between active and inactive on-call time, the Government made their next mistakes: ones of complacency and failure of political leadership. The Minister happily boasted to journalists, “I don’t think” that the issue of the opt-out “will reappear”, apparently oblivious to the fact that working time legislation is subject to co-decision with the European Parliament.

The Government have shown remarkable incompetence at the European negotiating table. By linking the two directives and then letting the agency workers directive precede the working time directive, they made the current dangerous position possible. That is Janet and John negotiating, to use the earlier phrase of the Secretary of State. But what is really inexcusable is the behaviour of Labour’s MEPs. They are members of the European Parliament’s Socialist group and it was down to them to make the case to their colleagues on behalf of their constituents and to give a lead. Instead, the majority voted to scrap the opt-out and the distinction between active and inactive on-call time. They were led into that vote by their then Chief Whip, Glenis Willmott, who has since been chosen as Labour’s leader in the European Parliament. On her election, the Prime Minister congratulated her, saying:

Given her record on this directive, do Ministers stand by that today? When the Minister winds up for the Government will he say that Ms Willmott has provided excellent leadership on the working time directive? If he is reluctant to do so, I shall intervene on him and give him a definite chance to say it.

What is more extraordinary is that the Labour party has published a document called “100 Labour Achievements in Europe”. I have this significant tome here. In the second boast in the document, it says that Labour MEPs have

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That shows Labour MEPs boasting of their achievement, but does the Minister stand by it? Is it the Government’s real policy, regardless of how long anyone wants to work, and regardless of the damage it would do to our NHS, to ban any employee from working more than 48 hours a week?

So let us be clear: Labour MEPs have let down our national health service, they have let down our firefighters and they have let down businesses struggling to make ends meet in the recession, and they are attacking British jobs. The fundamental underlying truth is that the Labour party is abandoning the centre ground of British politics. It is increasingly taking its lead from the trade unions and others on the hardcore left. Labour MEPs, like the Cabinet Ministers manoeuvring for future leadership bids, are bidding to win their favour, so instead of representing the national interest, they pursue factional interests within the Labour party. That is the symptom of a party that has forgotten that its purpose is to talk to and speak for the British nation.

If Ministers are going to go into the negotiations to preserve our opt-out with credibility, they must insist that Labour MEPs renounce their vote against our opt-out and against the rules on on-call time. Given what is at stake, I do not see how they can do anything less without fatally undermining our negotiating position. People in the European Parliament and in the Commission are asking privately how it can be that the British Government are supposedly digging in on this issue while their MEPs voted in precisely the opposite direction. If the Government’s position in these vital negotiations is to have any credibility, the Minister needs to answer that question clearly tonight.

The Government must make it plain to European partners that our opt-out from the working time directive and the correction of the European Court’s judgments on on-call time are red-line issues and that no further compromise is acceptable. The Government got us into this mess by linking the working time directive with the agency workers directive. Labour MEPs made a bad situation worse, and now large numbers of jobs in Britain are potentially at stake. That is unacceptable, and the Government must not give way on the working time directive. We intend to hold them to account on that in the forthcoming European elections on behalf of all those we represent in this country.

9.44 pm

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): This has been a useful debate on an issue that, as we have heard, is relevant to both our national health service and the economy more widely. I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part. As we debate the matter in the House, it is also being discussed in the European Union, most recently at the Employment and Social Affairs Council, which I attended in Brussels yesterday.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health said in his opening remarks, the working time directive gives workers important rights. In implementing it, this Government introduced for the first time legal default limits on working hours and a statutory entitlement to annual leave. He talked in detail about the national
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health service and how we will match our commitments on working time with ensuring that we have the best possible system of health care for the public. I wish to deal more generally with the position of working time for individuals and for the economy as a whole.

As the House knows, unemployment is rising, but we still have many more people in work than a decade ago, and all of them enjoy stronger employment rights, including those granted under the working time directive. They enjoy more paid leave, more maternity leave and rights to flexible working. Many of those changes were fought tooth and nail by the Opposition as we sought to create a better balance between family responsibilities and working life. We believe that the Government should support each individual’s right to rest and holiday, and the right not to be forced to work excessive hours. We believe that that should apply to all workers, regardless of their employment status, including temporary and agency staff.

However, the Government also believe that choice and opportunity are important factors in the debate—choice for ourselves and the 14 other member states that use the opt-out, and choice for individual workers, who may choose to work longer hours if they so wish. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) said that there was broad agreement about that, and I am glad to hear it, but some have said that there should not be choice on such a matter, and that it could endanger the health and safety of workers. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who pointed out that the UK has a very good health and safety record that stands comparison with that of other countries, and which we have maintained during the period for which the opt-out has been in place. In fact, according to survey evidence within the EU, the UK has the lowest rate of work-related fatal injuries and the third lowest rate of non-fatal injuries. The fourth European working conditions survey states that the UK has the lowest proportion of those in employment reporting that their work affects their health or causes them to suffer stress.

Mr. Francois: While the Minister is in the business of agreeing with people, does he agree with the Prime Minister, who seems to think that Glenis Wilmott has provided excellent leadership for the European parliamentary Labour party by voting to abolish the UK’s opt-out from the working time directive?

Mr. McFadden: I regret the vote in the European Parliament, but while the hon. Gentleman is tempting me, I might turn to his party’s tactics in the European Parliament. When I look around for its allies who agree with the Opposition on renegotiating a ratified treaty of Lisbon, which political giants do I find? Which great statesmen support the Opposition’s position? The Dutch animals party, the French Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Tradition party, Sinn Fein and a number of communist parties. Those are the hon. Gentleman’s allies, and I will keep mine rather than trade them for his any day of the week.

The existence of the opt-out is not the foundation of ever-longer working hours in the UK. In fact, in the past decade the proportion of UK full-time employees working long hours has fallen from about 22 per cent. to about 17 per cent.

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