Select Committee on European Union Fortieth Report


WORKING TIME DIRECTIVE (12683/04, 9554/05)

Letter from Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP, Minister for Europe, Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Chairman

  When I met your Committee on 17 January, I undertook to provide written answers to some of the questions that we did not reach during the session. As agreed with the clerks, I set out below an answer to the question on the Working Time Directive.

  The Government are to be congratulated on a valiant, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to solve this problem. But, however welcome a solution based on varying the terms by national legislation may be, wouldn't this approach suggest that the initiative was fundamentally flawed in the first place? What does the impasse reveal about the tension between the Lisbon agenda and traditional European attitudes to social protection?

  At the Employment Council on 8 December, we got further than ever before towards reaching a compromise on this difficult and complex issue which included the continuation of the opt-out.

  One of the main stumbling blocks to agreement was how to apply the Directive: per job or per worker. This confusion has arisen from the discovery that some Member States were applying the limits in the Working Time Directive per job, which allows some people in these countries to work more than 48 hours per week, without using the opt-out, by taking a second job. We are working closely with the new Austrian Presidency, Commission and EU partners to find a solution acceptable to Member States and to build on the progress made in 2005.

  The Government is committed to the overall aims of the WTD. We are adamant in our belief that workers deserve decent standards of protection. Effective European legislation can and should support that aim. We need to ensure that European legislation promotes EU competitiveness and national best practice—and doesn't destroy the very jobs we are seeking to create. It's vital all workers have the right not to be forced to work more than 48 hours a week. Equally, it's important that companies have the flexibility to offer additional hours where necessary, and for workers to have the freedom to choose to work longer hours, without coercion, where it suits them to do so. UK proposals on the WTD achieve that critical balance.

23 January 2006

Letter from Jim Fitzpatrick MP, Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Services, Minister for London, Department of Trade and Industry to the Chairman

  I am writing to outline the Government's position on the renegotiation of the Working Time Directive in advance of the next Employment Council on 1 June. The Austrian Presidency has not yet published their final proposal but I understand they are committed to resolving this dossier and Working Time is on the agenda of the Employment Council for political agreement. We have been told informally that the Presidency will publish their ideas a few days before COREPER on 24 May.

  While we are doing everything we can to support Austria's hard work, and achieve a solution that is in line with UK objectives, we do not yet know what the Austrian proposal will contain. I am sure you understand that this is a very tight timetable and it will be difficult for me to send you the Government's response to the Presidency proposal in time for you to discuss the scrutiny position before the Whitsun recess begins on 25 May.

  I am therefore writing to reassure the Committee that the UK's policy and negotiating priorities have not changed since my predecessor, Gerry Sutcliffe, last wrote to you in December 2005. They remain:

    —  a solution to the problems caused by the ECJ SiMAP and Jaeger judgements, and

    —  the retention of the individual right to opt out of the 48 hour maximum working week, without unnecessary restrictions.

  I know that many Member States agree with these views and that the Austrian Presidency has been working hard to find a way forward that is acceptable to the majority of Member States in order to end the current impasse.

  This does, however, mean that Austria's proposal is likely to contain a number of safeguards for those using the opt out and additional provisions intended to ensure proper protection of workers. So long as the priorities recorded above are respected, we would be willing to consider and might be willing to accept, such provisions.

  There is also the separate issue of whether the limits in the Directive apply per job or per worker that my predecessor informed you of in his letter dated 4 November 2005. At the December Employment Council, this issue split Member States and political agreement proved impossible. The Commission have clarified that the limits apply per worker, but some Member States have concerns that when a worker has more than one job, the limits are very difficult to enforce in practice. The UK of course correctly applies the limits per worker. While we believe that the final directive should respect the labour market traditions of all Member States, we could not support any proposal that allowed a worker freely to extend their hours by taking a second job, but not via the opt out.

  If possible, I will endeavour to send you the formal proposal we receive from the Austrian Presidency, with the Government's view, in time for the Committee to consider their scrutiny reservations. However, should this not be possible, and a deal acceptable to the UK (allowing individuals to continue to use the opt out, solving the problems caused by the SiMAP/Jaeger ECJ judgements), appears achievable at Council, I do hope the Committee will understand I might need to override the Committee's scrutiny reservation on this occasion.

  I would of course write to you as soon as possible after the Council. I do hope you and the Committee find this information helpful.

19 May 2006

Letter from the Chairman to Jim Fitzpatrick MP

  Thank you for your letter dated 19 May setting out the scene, as far as you can, in preparation for consideration of this dossier at the Employment Council on 1 June. This was considered by Sub-Committee G on 25 May.

  We understand the difficulties which you outline and fully support your wish to secure a solution to this long-running problem which fully meets the UK's essential objectives.

  You should be aware from my previous correspondence with your predecessor that our consistent aim throughout these exchanges has been to ensure that any agreement meets the essential national objective of allowing the UK to retain the voluntary individual opt-out in a manner that is appropriate to British circumstances and which combines the necessary blend of flexibility and worker protection which we advocated in our Inquiry Report.

  Similarly, it must provide an effective and workable solution to the problems created by the SiMAP and Jaeger ECJ rulings over the on-call duties of resident hospital personnel and other employees in similar circumstances. That solution must meet the needs of the NHS and other affected employers, including the needs not only of hospital staffing but also for adequate medical training.

  We also note the difficulties that have arisen over the application of limits to those who have more than one job. That issue was not raised with us at the time of our Inquiry Report, and we were not aware of it until your predecessor reported on it following failure to secure the UK Presidency deal at the December 2005 Council.

  We understand that different Member States have different traditions in this respect and acknowledge that where a worker has more than one job it may be difficult to enforce the Directive in practice. But, in principle, we agree with you that the concept of the maximum working week should apply to the worker rather than to the job and that, in UK circumstances, the best way of extending working hours beyond the 48-hour maximum working week is by the voluntary individual opt-out.

  In the absence of the expected Presidency text and your comments on it, we are exceptionally prepared to accept the solution you propose. We will expect you only to support a deal which meets the objectives outlined above and would be prepared, if necessary, to acquiesce in your overriding the scrutiny reserve to secure such a deal at the Council on 1 June.

  We hope that that will give you the leeway you need to protect essential UK interests and look forward to your report following the Council meeting.

25 May 2006

Letter from Jim Fitzpatrick MP to the Chairman

  I am writing to update your Committee on events at the Employment Council in June and prospects for the Finnish Presidency following the Informal Employment Council in Helsinki earlier this month.

  I know you are aware that Member States failed to reach agreement at the June Employment Council despite long and arduous discussions. In the end, Member States that want to end the opt out insisted that the Directive include the ending of the opt out, which is unacceptable to the UK and many other Member States so the discussions ended in stalemate.

  We were obviously disappointed that the June Employment Council ended in stalemate, however, our policy and negotiating priorities remain unchanged. As the Committee will be aware, we have suggested a number of ways forward to agreement since discussions in Council began, and now believe it is time for the other side to seek to meet us. As outlined in my previous letter, the UK Government will continue to fight hard in order to achieve:

    —  a solution to the problems caused by the ECJ SiMAP and Jaeger judgments, and

    —  the retention of the individual right to opt out of the 48 hour maximum working week, without unnecessary restrictions.

  The dossier has now officially passed to the Finnish Presidency. We have been informally told that they hope to organise an extra Employment Council during November, probably with a main focus on the Working Time Directive. From initial contact during the Informal Employment Council, it seems the Finns are committed to finding a way forward. However, it is not yet clear exactly how they plan to proceed. At my recent meeting with the Finnish Minister for Labour, Tarja Filatov, I made the UK's position clear but also gave a commitment that the UK would, of course, seek to work closely with the Finns and other Member States in order to find agreement on this dossier.

  I hope your Committee will find this information helpful.

18 July 2006

Letter from the Chairman to Jim Fitzpatrick MP

  Thank you for your letter dated 18 July which was considered by Sub-Committee G on 20 July. We are grateful to you for bringing us up-to-date on developments since we last exchanged correspondence in anticipation of the June Employment Council.

  Our essential view of the position remains as set out in my letter to you dated 25 May. In that letter I said that we would continue to retain the scrutiny reserve but would be prepared to acquiesce in your overriding that reserve if it was judged necessary to secure a deal at the June Council which met the essential UK objectives outlined in that letter and our previous correspondence.

  From what you say in your latest letter, it seems unlikely that a similar situation will arise during the Summer Recess. But in case circumstances change unexpectedly before Parliament resumes in October, you should know that we would still be content for you to have similar contingency provision to override the scrutiny reserve in this case should you judge it to be necessary to secure a settlement that would protect essential UK interests as described above.

  When we return from the Summer Recess in October we would be grateful if you would write again to bring us up-to-date on any moves by the Finnish Presidency aimed at producing a solution in time for the November Employment Council and on any other significant developments.

  When you reply, it would be helpful to know how the continuing failure to resolve the impasse over the Directive is affecting British interests. We assume that those employers and employees who wish to go on using the individual voluntary opt-out are content with the present position. But we would like to know how the failure to solve the problems caused by the SiMAP and Jaeger ECJ rulings is affecting the day-to-day running of hospitals and the training of junior doctors and whether it is exposing hospital authorities to a serious risk of litigation or intervention by the Commission. It would also be interesting to know how other Member States are coping with these difficulties.

  We will continue to hold the Amended Proposal under scrutiny on the basis outlined above and look forward to receiving your report in good time before the expected November Council meeting.

20 July 2006



 
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