Select Committee on European Communities Eleventh Report



Letter from the Rt Hon Andrew Smith MP, Minister for Employment, Department for Education and Employment, to Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee

  I am writing to inform the Committee of the outcome of the Social Affairs Council on 27 June, which David Blunkett, Ian McCartney (Minister of State at the DTI) and I attended.

  The UK was welcomed to the Government's first Social Council by the Presidency, at the start of the meeting. David Blunkett replied by setting out the Government's intention to take a positive approach to European employment and social affairs matters, including paying a full part in discussions on matters being taken forward under the Social Chapter. David also set out the Government's view that the key role for the Council should be to tackle unemployment, particularly by taking action to develop people's employability and to promote labour market flexibility.

  Political agreement was reached on a common position on the draft Directive on the Burden of Proof in Sex Discrimination cases.

  As you know, agreement was reached at the Amsterdam Council which enables the UK to express its views in discussions" of measures brought forward under the Agreement on Social Policy and stipulates that the other Member States will use their best endeavours to reach a solution which takes account of those views".

  On the basis of this agreement, the UK put forward amendments bringing the Directive into line with the approach of the UK Courts in this field. The two amendments proposed by the UK to the Directive make clear that, firstly, the system developed by the UK Courts for dealing with sex discrimination cases through inferring" discrimination, where a complainant establishes a prima facie case of discrimination to which a respondent does not present a satisfactory explanation, does meet the main requirement of the Directive and, secondly, that the Directive applies to the Directives on Parental Leave and Pregnant Workers only in so far as sex discrimination is concerned. There will now be no need for legislation in order to formally shift the burden of proof, although some other minor legal changes will be needed.

  These amendments were accepted and in order to secure them, David Blunkett indicated UK support for the political agreement. I am conscious that your commitee had not cleared the document. However, David and I considered UK support to be important to gaining the amendments to ensure that the Directive fully reflected existing UK practice and that there was a serious risk that our negotiating objectives would be lost if we sought a postponement of discussion until scrutiny clearance had been obtained. I hope that you will therefore understand why we felt it necessary to support the political agreement without scrutiny clearance in this case. I will of course let you have a copy of the common position text as soon as it is available.

  The Council also reaches political agreement on a common position of the draft Directive on Chemical Agents (which is the responsibility of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions). The Directive will lay down minimum standards for the protection of workers from exposure to chemical agents.

  The Presidency noted that the Amsterdam European Council had endorsed the interim report on employment and the Commission emphasised the need to put its recommendations into practice, particularly the transformation from passive to active employment policies.

  The Council took note of the Presidency report of follow-up action to the French Memorandum on the European Social Model and noted that the social partners are continuing discussions on information and consultation for workers in the context of industrial restructuring.

  There was discussion on the Commission's follow-up to its 1995 Communication on social protection which was followed by general agreement by all Member States on the need to develop more active labour market policies. All Member States welcomed the Commission's acceptance that competence in the field of social protection rests exclusively at national level.

  The Council also discussed the report of the Davignon Group on proposals for employee involvement in the European Company Statue and agreed Council Conclusions which note the contribution of the Report.

  The Commission noted the agreement between the social partners on part-time work and indicated it would bring forward a Communication before the end of the year on the future structure of the social dialogue. The Commission also congratulated Member States on the high level of commitments so far this year under the European Social Fund and drew attention to its report on access to continuing training and noted that the Council would return to the subject in October.

8 July 1997

Letter from Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee, to the Rt Hon Andrew Smith MP, Minister for Employment, Department for Education and Employment

  Thank you for your letter of 8 July outlining what transpired at the recent Social Affairs Council held on 27 June.

  I note your comments in relation to the proposed Directive on the Burden of Proof in Sex discrimination Cases and the amendments put forward by the Government during the course of negotiations. I accept that there were good reasons justifying your agreement to the common position text at the Council despite the fact that the Select Committee had not completed scrutiny of this proposal.

  The proposal was recently sifted to both Sub-Committee E (Law and Institutions) and Sub-Committee F (Social Affairs, Education and Home Affairs) for information and I will ensure that copies of your letter are provided to both Sub-Committees. I look forward to receiving a copy of the common position text as soon as it is available.

  Whilst I understand that there may be situations where there is pressure to agree to a matter in Council before Parliamentary scrutiny is completed and that proposals under the Social Chapter represent a special case I would impress upon you the importance of ensuring that Parliament has an opportunity to comment on a proposal before the Government commits itself in the Council.

15 July 1997

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