Skip to main content

Working Time Directive

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 5 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what would be the implications for the British economy if they were unable to obtain a long-term derogation from the Working Time Directive.

My Lords, while this Question was apposite at the time of its submission, it has been somewhat overtaken by events, as discussions in respect of the working time directive broke down without agreement on 27 April. The effect is that the existing working time directive, and the opt-out, continue in force.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am glad that he welcomes the opt-out particularly from the 48-hour week in the working time directive. Does he realise that it has come about with no thanks to the members of his party in the European Parliament who voted against it? However, does he agree that a derogation is only a derogation, and that it is too late to stop the mandatory restriction which is due this autumn on doctors’ and surgeons’ hours, much against their will? Can he tell the House what effect this valuable loss of expertise and time is likely to have on patient care? Does he also agree that the working time directive would have put an uncalled-for limitation on working hours, and that overtime in particular is an essential mechanism that brings together supply and demand and is a key component of our flexible economy? We need more vaccines quickly in a pandemic. Voluntary overtime—

In conclusion, my Lords, I say that voluntary overtime is one of the few ways in which British working men and women can better themselves—a point not often recognised in this House.

My Lords, the opt-out is not unique to the United Kingdom: no fewer than 14 countries in the European Union have an opt-out and exercise it, including Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Reference was made specifically to the health service. The UK is compliant with judgments on on-call time. The Department of Health no longer operates widespread on-call working and has moved instead to a shift-working system. The NHS has made excellent progress but still requires, in a small minority of challenging services, a little more time to reduce the hours to 48 a week. This is allowed in the directive. It should also be said that the directive is voluntary—no one can be forced to work more than 48 hours a week.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the talks collapsed because it was not only the United Kingdom that was against these proposals in the European Parliament and almost half the other member states were in favour of maintaining the opt-out system? Will he confirm that all other member states, as well as the United Kingdom, can now use this facility?

My Lords, I can confirm that that is the case. The issue, as has been discussed, is one of efficiency and freedom. Individuals are free under the opt-out to do precisely that—to opt out.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that this country has a very proud record of postgraduate training in all branches of specialist medicine, including general practice, and that grave concern has been expressed by many junior doctors that continuing to restrict working hours under the working time directive could have a seriously adverse effect on the standard of training they receive before they finally achieve specialist status? Will he therefore ensure that the Government continue to support this opt-out indefinitely?

My Lords, the simple answer is that I agree almost entirely with the noble Lord’s sentiments. He has great experience of the health service. I think that the point he makes has great validity.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is very important that we should bear in mind that the directive is apt to prevent a person working more than a given number of hours even though he is supported by a strong union and there is no risk whatever of exploitation, or to health and safety? A person may want to work longer hours—perhaps for family reasons or in an emergency. Would it not be not only economically disadvantageous to this country but gravely detrimental to the rights of the individual if in those circumstances he was prevented from working? Should we not bear in mind that aspect of the matter?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a valid point about having to have a balanced approach. It is interesting to note, however, that the UK has the lowest proportion within the EU of those reporting that their work causes health effects such as stress. Therefore, the working hours themselves are clearly seen by the majority of the population not to be a problem. Working hours have in fact fallen in the UK: 20 per cent fewer full-time employees usually worked more than 48 hours in 2007 than did so in 1997.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is not just human health and welfare that is affected but animal health and welfare? Particularly in remote rural areas, veterinary surgeons are very concerned about the working hours directive because it means that they cannot direct a young veterinary assistant to go out in the middle of the night to deliver a calf where there is a difficult delivery and then take responsibility if that young vet crashes on the way home because he is too tired. There are problems with the working hours directive not just for human medicine but for veterinary medicine.

My Lords, the important thing about the opt-out is that it gives the individual the right to make their own judgment as to the hours they wish to work and those for which they are safe to work. If their employer seeks to take action against them for that judgment, there is recourse to employment tribunals to put that matter right.

My Lords, is not the important thing about the opt-out that it would not have been necessary if the Government had not signed away our rights to decide these things by signing the Social Chapter?

My Lords, far be it from me to have to point out to a person who takes such interest in the matter that this is not part of the Social Chapter. The working time directive is not part of the Social Chapter. It is in fact a health and safety issue. I always admire our ability in this House to jump from the Question on the Order Paper to the question that we want to ask, and I recognise Bob Beamon as a great performer of long jumps—anyone who does not know who Bob Beamon was should consult the noble Lord, Lord Coe, or the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan—but it is a very great leap from this health and safety issue to the whole question of European membership.

My Lords, the key words in my noble friend’s original Question, as underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, were “long-term derogation”. Although we welcome the recent news, do not the Government expect the issue of Britain's opt-out to be raised again in Brussels after the European elections, so it is far from finally resolved in our favour?

My Lords, that becomes a hypothetical question, because it is quite unclear what will happen next. It is not in the gift of Her Majesty's Government or indeed of the European Parliament; the issue is now with the Commission. It is for the Commission to decide how it wishes to proceed, if it wishes to proceed.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us for how long the derogation is in being and how soon a decision will be made? I draw his attention to the implications that it would have for all those involved in the farming community, particularly at harvest time, when clearly one cannot work for just 48 hours a week.

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Baroness that there is no end date to the issue when the opt-out will be decided on, derogation denied or the issue even discussed. As I said to the previous questioner, the issue is now one for the Commission to take forward.

My Lords, does the noble Lord believe that the British people would have voted to stay in what they were assured was a common market in 1975 if they had thought that they were going to be subjected to this and much other nonsense from Brussels?

My Lords, I know that for the noble Lord all roads lead to Rome—or is that away from Rome? This one does not.

My Lords, does the Minister believe that working hours for British people should be made by the British Parliament?

My Lords, I believe that working time for British people is decided by British people, in the normal way, between the employer and themselves. I would advise any group of any large number to have the advantage of a trade union to help them do that.