HC Deb 07 July 1992 vol 211 cc166-8
5. Sir Fergus Montgomery

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what further discussions she has had with her EC counterparts on the proposed 48-hour-week directive.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

I last met my European Community counterparts to discuss the 48-hour working week and other matters on 24 June at the Social Affairs Council.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the working time proposals challenge the concept of subsidiarity? Does she intend to challenge that directive in the European Court?

Mrs. Shephard

The Government have always made it absolutely clear that they see no need for that directive. We do not want that directive. I remind my hon. Friend that there is no directive, but if there should be a directive we would certainly reserve the right to challenge its legal base in the European Court.

Mr. Stevenson

Is the Secretary of State prepared to tell the House whether she discussed with her counterparts in the European Community the fact that workers in this country who are involved in perfectly legitimate industrial action can be sacked arbitrarily and that this is the only European Community country in which that disgraceful situation pertains? What action is she prepared to take about the situation?

Mrs. Shephard

It is absolutely clear that such directives, which impose unnecessary burdens on the labour market, are the worst possible solution for employers and employees.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

My right hon. Friend is aware that an exellent firm called Celtech in my constituency works four 12-hour day shifts, followed by four days off, followed by four 12-hour night shifts. If the directive came into operation the workers could voluntarily opt out of the 48-hour provision, but could they opt out of the provisions which forbid such long night shifts? That is extremely important. I have spoken to the staff and they like working those hours. They like the system, the industry likes it, and it does a good job.

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is right to stress that workers in Britain like the flexibility that our labour market affords them, and that they appreciate the opportunity to work more than 48 hours a week if they so choose. Rest periods and shifts would be controlled by reference periods and there is considerable flexibility therein.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

After the recent Council of Ministers meeting, the Secretary of State told the world that she had made no concessions, but will she confirm that when the directive comes through it will establish the principle of a 48-hour maximum working week, of minimum rest breaks and of minimum holiday entitlement? In those circumstances, will she respond to the question put by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) as to whether she intended to take legal action against the directive? Or is it simply huff and puff?

Mrs. Shephard

Perhaps I can repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I said as he does not appear to have heard me. There is no directive. I have made it clear, and I make it clear again this afternoon, that we do not see a need for a directive. We do not want a directive. That is still the case. We reserve the right to challenge it, if and when a directive is adopted. Faced with proposals subject to qualified majority voting, which the United Kingdom could not block on its own, we had to do what we could to improve the proposed directive and to prevent its most damaging effects on employers and employees. The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) and his hon. Friends would welcome those effects. We were successful in improving the directive.

Mr. Nicholls

Did my right hon. Friend note that it was urged on her a moment ago that it should be impossible to dismiss strikers for being on strike? Will she confirm that that position is so extreme that it was not adopted even by previous Labour Administrations?

Mrs. Shephard

I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, the assertions made by Opposition Members in respect of the directive, other labour market matters and industrial action defy description.