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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, there are varying views on the value of the European Court of Justice. In fact, from time to time, we are more successful before it than is widely believed. I have had little time to study the judgment of the Court in its entirety, but from the parts I have looked at it seems a remarkably terse judgment and does not really provide any full explanation of the view to which it eventually comes. At the risk of repeating myself, it was because of the position taken up by the United Kingdom during the Maastricht Treaty negotiations that the Government have, in our view, the right to feel sore that this was exactly the type of directive from which we thought we would be freed. In the event, a route has been found to include us. We shall want to ensure that in the future we are excluded from it. As the Prime Minister has been saying in another place, that will be an important part of his negotiations at the IGC.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I put down a Question earlier on this subject but withdrew it because I knew that there was going to be a Statement? I am sure that he is not surprised to learn that I accept wholeheartedly, and without any equivocation at all, that this is a health and safety matter. That is also the position of the TUC, which has undertaken its own survey of health and safety representatives. That survey points out clearly that working longer hours puts workers under stress and that is a health and safety matter.
Quite frankly, I believe that the Government are making an enormous fuss over an issue which they cannot expect ultimately to win. As regards the argument in Europe, there is an acceptance of this issue as being totally one of health and safety.
As my noble friend Lord Peston pointed out, this is not a very strong directive: in fact, some of us would like to see a much stronger directive. It is a weak directive. It has provision for voluntary arrangements so that people can come to arrangements with their employer or there can be collective agreements between unions and employers which provide for exemption. An enormous fuss is being made about what is a relatively minor matter.
As regards the threat to employment, there is no evidence at all that implementation of the directive will mean a reduction in employment possibilities. It can probably be argued that the converse is true. If employers have to employ a few more people in order to meet the requirements of the directive, perhaps the taxpayer will benefit because there will not then be quite so much paid out in unemployment benefits, jobseeker's allowance and so forth.
The Government will have to put this directive into operation almost immediately for public service employees. They have until 23rd November. As I understand it, employees are immediately covered by the directive. The Government should stop wasting taxpayers' time and money on a futile quest to try to get this directive overturned. I hope that they will not proceed with their intention to raise this matter at the intergovernmental conference.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, in answer to a final point which the noble Baroness made, there is probably a difference in the position between those who are employed in the private and public sectors, but whether it is quite as straightforward as she suggests is open to question. There is undoubtedly something of a difference.
I cannot agree with her--as I indicated in answer to her noble friend Lord Peston--that this is a minor or trivial matter. In December 1993 we put before Parliament the compliance cost estimate if this directive were to be implemented in the United Kingdom. The
The noble Baroness made the point that parts of this directive were optional. I accept that. I also accept that there are a number of companies within the United Kingdom which already achieve for their employees what is included in the directive. Some of them will have terms and conditions of employment which go beyond the requirements of the directive.
Therefore, I say this to the noble Baroness: why is it necessary to impose this measure? We believe that the right way forward is that if employers wish and can afford these provisions, that is a matter for them. It is a matter for negotiation between them and their employees. To impose this inflexibility would deprive all British companies of the choice that they should be allowed to have in coming to decisions and arrangements with their workforce.
Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that, far from this being an unimportant matter, the Statement shows quite clearly a case where supposed partners have attempted to get round their own previous agreement by subterfuge? That is what it is. It is wrong to allow this measure to pass without comment, or by merely passing it off, as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, did, as arguable and a quibble. He did not say clearly whether he thought that, with these quibbles, we were right or wrong. He left it as an argument. The Government cannot afford to and must not do that. How can we enter into further negotiations and agreements with people who have used this kind of unfounded and almost illegal method to secure an alteration of their previous official intention?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, as I hope I made clear to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in my initial answer, we considered and believed--it was not just the Government, but all political parties within the United Kingdom--at the time of the Maastricht Treaty that we had secured an opt-out from the social chapter and that this matter would be included within it. They might not have agreed that that was the right course to take, but they nevertheless thought at the time that we had secured exclusion from just this type of directive.
I cannot agree entirely with my noble friend, because that would be inconsistent with something I said earlier. I cannot agree that this directive was brought about by means of subterfuge, because as early as 1st June 1993 we were arguing that there was a legal invalidity in the basis on which this directive proceeded. However, he is absolutely right to say that we all believed that we would be excluded from this measure. But by means of a devious route, as we have unhappily found out today,
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that I have been a trade unionist at local, regional and national level for 44 years and during the whole of that period I was taught that matters concerning wages and conditions were best settled at the workplace, through collective bargaining? I still believe that to be the case. Indeed, throughout my time in another place, particularly in 1972, the Labour Whips instructed me to vote against the Industrial Relations Act 1972 because it imposed court decisions on trade unions and collective bargaining. Noble Lords opposite voted for the courts to be involved, but I voted against. I still believe what I believed then: the best way of settling these matters is through collective bargaining. The 48-hour week has now been reduced in most cases to 39 or 38 hours. That proves the efficacy of collective bargaining.
I am very upset, as are most of the British people, at the humiliation which has been piled on this nation by the spectacle of Mr. Flynn instructing the British Government to do something which they do not want to do. Will he confirm that if the Government and this Parliament do not enact the provisions of the Court ruling, any employer or anybody else at all can ignore them? In the light of what the Minister has been saying about getting these provisions annulled, will he further confirm that there is no way in the IGC, without unanimity, for these proposals to be annulled? Therefore, these proposals cannot be annulled.
Will the noble and learned Lord give an assurance that there will be no backstage horse-trading to give away some other right which undermines our sovereignty in order to make progress on this particular issue? It is a bad day for Britain, the British people and, in the long term, trade unionism and trade unionists.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, there is a great deal in what the noble Lord says with which I agree. However, regrettably there are some matters about which I must disabuse him. The Government believe in the rule of law. Faced with this decision of the European Court of Justice, however much we dislike the ruling we will implement it unless we manage to get it reversed before implementation. We will go forward towards implementation having carried out careful and detailed consultations. As I have indicated previously, there are matters within it which will require very detailed analysis. It may be that without implementation by the United Kingdom Government, either by primary legislation or under Section 2(2) of the 1972 Act, some employees in the United Kingdom who are employed within the public sector will have direct rights against the Government. However, this is a complicated matter on which I do not want to offer a concluded opinion immediately following the decision.
The noble Lord is absolutely right. The best manner in which to deal with these issues is to leave employers and employees to get on with it as a matter of choice without imposition. Many firms in the United Kingdom
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