HL Deb 18 December 1996 vol 576 cc1498-502

2.40 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they are making toward exemption from the 48-hour week (the "working time" directive) imposed by the Treaty of Rome, and whether such exemption can be agreed by qualified majority rule.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, the Government have tabled proposals in the intergovernmental conference to ensure that the working time directive no longer affects the United Kingdom and to prevent any other "social engineering" directives from being imposed on the United Kingdom. The outcome of the intergovernmental conference must be agreed unanimously and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear that he will insist that the changes we have proposed form part of that outcome.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, my noble and learned friend will be aware that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to M. Santer on 12th November to say that he had only agreed to the opt-out on social policy because the other countries agreed that the social chapter could not be imposed on the United Kingdom. He s6aid: The other Heads of State and Government also agreed that arrangement. without which there would have been no agreement at all at Maastricht". Does this saga not show two things—first, that we cannot trust arrangements made with our partners and, secondly, that we should begin to think of renegotiating our relationship with the European Communities?

Lord Graham of Edmonton

That's a job for the Whips!

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I can congratulate the noble Lord on asking the most unpredictable question, as we move towards the end of the month. No, what it does reveal is that my right honourable friend was insistent, at the time of Maastricht, that those matters should be excluded. Now that it has been determined by the courts that they are included, if we are to go forward with success in the intergovernmental conference, he will demand and continue to demand that those matters are properly, once and for all, excluded.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, rather than threatening to impede future developments in Europe unless there are treaty changes, would not the Government gain more by taking the advice of the director general of the CBI and adopting a constructive attitude towards the directive, taking advantage of the considerable amount of flexibility that lies within it?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. There is a degree of flexibility within the directive. Whether it is helpful flexibility is more open to question. My noble friend was right. The Prime Minister clearly understood—as did everyone else, including parties opposite, at the time of the Maastricht Treaty—that the social chapter and anything that might be passed under it were excluded from imposition on the United Kingdom. It seems to me that my right honourable friend is absolutely right to insist on those matters being resolved. It is not only the issue of the working time directive that is involved. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, the European Commission has in preparation a White Paper on those areas which are exempted from the working time directive. If they were to be imposed upon the United Kingdom, most prominently in the offshore working area, far from there being an improvement in the safety and health of those who work there, there might be much greater risks.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend confirm that the 48-hour restriction is not in force and will never be in force?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend will agree, the United Kingdom has obeyed and always will obey the law. As we have failed to get the directive and its application to the United Kingdom removed, we will set about the process of consultation with a view to implementation. The objective of the Government, and particularly the Prime Minister, is that before the intergovernmental conference is resolved—and it is hoped that that may be achieved some time next year—we shall insist that the directive is disapplied in the United Kingdom.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a pity that this important issue should have become a political shuttlecock? Does he further agree that on the grounds of safety and of maintaining a level playing field between ourselves and other countries in Europe and on the grounds of the possible advantages in generating employment, on merit the reduction of working hours is desirable? To that end, is the Minister prepared to commission an independent and objective inquiry into the merits of reducing working hours in this country in the near future?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, if the noble Lord examines working hours in the United Kingdom, he will find that at a certain point on average the number of hours worked is less than the average for the European Union. It is not as though we were still using some kind of Victorian factory approach. People are working less. It is critical to understand that those matters are best left to employers and employees to resolve. As I have said previously and now repeat, if we take an area of activity such as the offshore industry, it would not only be extremely undesirable but would positively add to the risks for those who work in that industry if the directive were imposed on them.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend tell the House why he equates success at the IGC with agreement? Further, can he tell us why the Prime Minister did not simply say to his European colleagues in Dublin, "I will not agree to the stability pact until you have all agreed here and now to the solution not only of the 48-hour week problem but of the fisheries problem and the beef problem"? It would be better than making another show of defiance since, in the past, as the beef crisis shows, that has not been successful.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the reason my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has kept to his position is that that was what he believed he had successfully negotiated at Maastricht. That is what everyone else understood he had successfully negotiated. It seems to me that the position he adopted is both consistent and reasonable: that if there is to be an outcome to the intergovernmental conference next year or thereafter he is right to insist that those matters which everyone believed had been excluded from the Maastricht Treaty should once and for all be put beyond any question and that Article 118a should not allow those types of social engineering provisions to be imposed upon the United Kingdom. As to the other points, the noble Lord goes much wider than the issue of the working time directive.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister a aware that the 48-hour week is based on the five-day working week which is now the accepted norm and that that represents a nine-and-a-half hour shift? Does the Minister agree that that is far too long and the sooner we do away with it and cast it into history the better?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, that is not the only feature of the working time directive. The number of ways in which it would have to be implemented would seriously damage our competitiveness, not least our ability to attract inward investment through being able to put up large factories much more quickly than is possible anywhere else in Europe. As I indicated in my previous answer, the issue of 48 hours is not the kernel of the matter because in real terms we work something like 371/2 hours here. What is critical is that it should not be imposed upon us. It should be left to those who negotiate such matters—employees and employers. It is a matter for them and not for imposition in the form of a directive.

Lord Monson

My Lords, one could reasonably argue that a maximum 48-hour working work is desirable on health grounds for a number of stressful occupations, but can anybody seriously claim that a minimum four-week holiday, agreeable as the idea may be, has anything whatever to do with health? That argument does not stand up intellectually at all. Does the Minister agree that the European Court of Justice does not do itself a great service by pretending otherwise?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, as this Question goes on, the idea of a four-week holiday becomes more and more desirable. The noble Lord is correct. It is impossible to say that someone who works a 48-hour week must have four weeks holiday for reasons of his health, desirable as it may be and attractive as it may be to many of us. It is extremely difficult to see how a four-week holiday is intrinsically bound up with an individual's health.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some 2.5 million British employees do not have a paid holiday? Is he further aware that until this directive arrived on the scene there was no obligation for people to be paid on public holidays? Bearing in mind that it is Christmas, the period of goodwill, will the Minister join me in welcoming the directive so that those people can have a paid holiday over Christmas?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

No, my Lords, I regret that I cannot say even at this festive season that I agree with the noble Lord. If employers and employees wish to come to agreements to extend the amount of time given over to holidays, the shortening of the week and the like, far it be from me to interfere. If they can achieve that and maintain their business in a competitive fashion, that is a matter for them. It is not a matter for this directive.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, is my noble friend aware that many of us believe that the Government are to be richly congratulated on not listening too carefully to a biased minority view within the CBI and instead paying much more attention to the views of the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, that is the first time I have ever been complimented for not listening. Certainly, there is a wide diversity of view on this matter. As my noble friend indicated, some very prominent people in management and among those who run small businesses are all too aware of the very real danger for our economy as a whole of any imposition of the directive.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, from the trend of the noble Lord's replies, am I to understand that the Government have no interest whatsoever in the working conditions of the people in this country?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

No, my Lords. I cannot imagine anything further removed from what I said. Perhaps I may demonstrate. The noble Lord may remember from a previous Answer that I gave that most of those who work within the public service, for whom I suppose the Government have to take a responsibility, have terms and conditions which meet with compliance under the directive.