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Working Time Regulations 1999

5.56 p.m.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 27th July be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am proud to introduce these regulations. The Government believe that everyone in the workplace has a right to be protected by fair and minimum standards. This has been a long-standing commitment and is the foundation stone of our employment legislative programme. As we approach the end of the century, it is right that business moves away from the long hours culture and respects the needs of staff. The

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Government want to encourage competitive markets. At the same time, we are mindful of the need to ensure that workers' employment conditions are not eroded by unscrupulous employers.

Since their introduction a year ago, the working time regulations have represented a significant step in achieving the Government's wider goal of promoting family-friendly employment. Should there be any doubt, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the regulations provide: that no worker can be forced to work more than 48 hours on average; a right to paid annual leave, rising from three to four weeks later this month; rest breaks during the working day; rest periods from work, including the right to a day off per week; special protection for night workers, including the right to health assessments; special protections for adolescent workers; and protection from unfair dismissal/detriment for asserting these rights.

Obviously, it is important to recognise that it is business which needs to operate these regulations. In this respect, it has been the Government's policy to maximise flexibility where possible while maintaining the protection which the directive provides for workers. The regulations, therefore, encourage employers and workers to adapt many of the measures by mutual agreement, thus encouraging a partnership culture and ensuring that business can remain flexible to meet the needs of customers.

As with any new legislation, the Government have been keen to monitor how effectively the regulations have been adopted. The feedback that we have received has generally been positive from both sides of industry, and independent surveys that have been undertaken this year support this view. It has always been our intention to have another look at the regulations once the dust has settled. It has, in particular, become apparent that there was scope to help business to administer the regulations without weakening the new protections that had been extended to workers.

On 7th July, the Secretary of State announced two proposed changes to the regulations, easing the regulatory burden for employers and workers alike. The first amendment dispenses with the requirement to maintain detailed records for those who have voluntarily opted out of the working time limits. This will be replaced with a simple requirement to keep a list of those who have signed an opt-out agreement.

The Government believe that it is possible to protect the health and safety of workers without employers maintaining detailed records of staff who have decided of their own volition to work longer hours. Workers are obviously covered by the working time limit, unless they choose otherwise. If, having opted out, they have a change of heart, they can choose to be covered by the working time limits again at any stage.

Of course, we recognise that health and safety protection should still be applicable to those who have opted out of the working time limit. In this respect, if someone is considered to be at risk, the health and safety authorities will be able to obtain any further

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information, including the keeping of records necessary to protect the health and safety of workers through the use of existing safety law.

The second amendment relates to the "unmeasured working time" derogation, which disapplies the working time limits for so-called "autonomous workers" for whom the duration of working time is not measured or predetermined, or can be determined by the worker himself. The intention of the amendment is to allow the derogation to apply to workers who have some of their working time predetermined (for example, by contract), but choose to work longer of their own volition.

The amendment would not exclude workers from the entitlements to daily and weekly rest periods, rest breaks or paid annual leave, but would have the effect of disregarding some of a worker's time in respect of the working time limits. These workers will continue to be subject to the weekly working time limit in respect of time that they are required to work. No one can be forced into working long hours or signing away their working time protections. Even if they do decide to opt out, they can choose to opt back again at any time, without fear of reproach from the employer.

The amendments apply to those who freely work more hours than their employer requires of them. If the worker is paid or required to work additional hours because of the demands of the job, the amendment would not apply. Workers' rights have not been eroded. The safeguards that were introduced a year ago are still in place, unless the worker chooses otherwise.

The new measure sets a test which should leave no doubt as to its application. The derogation will apply,

    "if the specific characteristics of the job are such that, without being required to do so by their employer, the worker may also do work the duration of which is not measured or pre-determined or can be determined by the worker himself".

It could be that all or part of a worker's time meets this test. Any time that does fall into this category will not count towards the 48-hour weekly working time limit. Therefore, unless the worker has voluntarily decided to put in extra hours, the amendment would not apply.

Industry and enforcement bodies, including the TUC, CBI and the Health and Safety Commission were consulted before the Secretary of State laid the draft amendments before Parliament on 19th October. We welcomed the opinions expressed from both sides and, as a result of our discussions, we have decided to issue statutory guidance on the amendments. This will dispel any possible danger of ambiguity. We shall, of course, be actively consulting with the industry and enforcement bodies again on the proposed statutory guidance.

In conclusion, I must stress that the Government are fully committed to the working time regulations. We believe that the regulations are already effective but have recognised and intend to take action to make them even better. I see this as a positive step. The Government are not tampering, but ensuring that the regulations evolve into a range of measures that can easily be embraced by employers and workers alike. I commend the regulations to the House.

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Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 27th July be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Sainsbury of Turville.)

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the Minister for the elegant way in which he admitted that last year the Government got it wrong when they brought in the original regulations. However, I prefer the letter written by the right honourable Mr Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to John Monks at the TUC on 7th July. He said that:

    "We have become concerned about the effect the Regulations are having on business and believe there to be scope to relieve some of the administrative burdens that are imposed on employers".

It might have been worth considering that a few months before the Government brought in the regulations.

When on 2nd November the other place debated the regulations in a committee, other events were happening in the economy. First, there was news from all around the country of huge job haemorrhaging. Furthermore, the Prime Minister was addressing the CBI. On the job losses, on Wednesday 3rd November the Scotsman newspaper reported it thus:

    "DAKS-Simpson, which makes trousers, jackets and skirts for the company, [Marks and Spencer] employs 1,500 workers at its Scottish factories, including 800 on the M&S contract which will end next spring. Less than two weeks ago M&S said it was terminating its 30-year supply contract with William Baird, the clothing manufacturer, putting 800 jobs at risk at factories in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire and Polmadie, Glasgow.

    The latest jobs blow came as the Prudential Insurance Group, BAT, the tobacco giant, and Cooper Menvier, a leading electrical company, announced more than 2,500 job losses across the UK".

On the same day, the Prime Minister was visiting the CBI. In its customary brisk language, the Sun reported the following day:

    "Tony Blair yesterday vowed to slash red tape throttling British firms after furious bosses blamed HIS policies.

    The Prime Minister admitted Labour measures risked holding back industry as he answered a blistering assault from the Confederation of British Industry.

    As thousands of workers were dumped on the dole yesterday, CBI president Sir Clive Thompson produced a list of 22 rules brought in by Mr Blair which have hit business.

    And in a bitter attack he told Mr Blair: 'We hear the Government frequently state that they believe in entrepreneurship and that individuals should reap the rewards of their success.

    But the Government'"--

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, is the noble Lord suggesting that if a Conservative administration were in office at the moment, they would not introduce these regulations? The history behind the regulations is that the Conservative government, having signed the Single European Act, which obliged them to introduce the regulations, prevaricated and took the case to the European Court. Quite predictably, they were roundly and unambiguously defeated in the Court. Furthermore, they caused the delays in consultation. For those reasons, there have been a few hiccups in introducing the regulations. Is the noble Lord saying

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that, if a Conservative government had been re-elected, they would not now have been introducing these regulations?

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