HL Deb 04 November 1998 vol 594 cc340-64

7.48 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool rose to move. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regulations (S.I. 1998/1833), laid before the House on 30th July, be annulled.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in introducing this short debate this evening I can do no better than to draw your Lordships' attention to an article in the Sunday Observer penned by the admirable Melanie Phillips in which she said: The Government is to give employers the unprecedented legal right to force employees to work for 12 days on the trot. This is awful both in the substance of the proposal and the manner in which it is being implemented. The measure is the implementation through Parliament of the European Working Time Directive. The way our Government are interpreting the directive's weekly rest day provision raises the spectre of the kind of exploitation which some of us thought was now history".

Alerted by that article, and by representations which many of us have received from organisations which are anxious to protect workers' interests, I believed it right to pray against these measures and to give your Lordships the opportunity of debating the matter tonight. I chose to do so for two reasons: first, because of the way in which the regulations have been implemented; and, secondly, because of the substance of the regulations, to what I refer to in shorthand as the "Trojan Horse nature" of the regulations.

My first concern, therefore, is the way in which the regulations have been implemented. They were laid in another place the day before the Summer Recess. Obviously, that was a time when Members of another place were about to go on their summer holidays and were not preoccupied with the regulations. They were implemented in October. Therefore they received no parliamentary debate or scrutiny in another place or in this House. That begs many questions about our role as parliamentarians and the way in which we safeguard the interests of those who will be affected by such measures.

The second and more major issue is the Trojan Horse provision within the directive. It is the erosion inside a measure which has many fine attributes and with which I would not quarrel, not least the number of hours that a worker should be required to work each week. That is a most worthwhile safeguard, but the Trojan Horse provision is to remove the worker's right to have one day off within each working week.

In parenthesis, I should also make it clear that this is not another example of Euro-madness. Other countries have implemented the directive differently from us. They have placed a cordon sanitaire around a day of rest for their workers. In a country such as Germany, its insistence on one day off in a seven-day period, even safeguarded by its constitution, has not notably had a disastrous or calamitous effect on its economy—indeed, quite the reverse.

I also draw your Lordships' attention to a speech by Mr. Ian McCartney, Minister of State in the other place, on 27th October. He claimed that it was totally misleading to suggest that the regulations diminish the rights of workers. He said that they included the right to a day off each week. He said that that was a new right; one that did not exist before 1st October. He continued: Therefore, I fail to see how the arrangement could do anything but improve the lot of workers". But then he added that a day off may be averaged over a period of two weeks for the sake of flexibility. And so in one sentence he immediately destroyed his argument. He added, rather unconvincingly, that, In most cases rest will be taken on a weekly basis".—[Official Report, Commons, 27/10/98; col. 237.]

The experience with Sunday opening reveals that precisely the opposite will happen in many, many cases. Since 1994, when the breaks were taken off Sunday shopping, within months others were following the retailers in the quest to build the 24–hour society. Prior to 1994, banks, building societies, libraries and theatres could have opened on a Sunday but chose not to do so. Once the large retailers were given the go-ahead for seven-day opening, a Pandora's Box was opened. The result has been tremendous pressure on thousands of people to work on a Sunday. This is despite a clause in the Sunday Trading Act designed to protect those who do not wish to work on Sundays. How can it now be said with any confidence that there will be no additional pressure to make people take on 14–day working contracts, thereby committing them to arduous 12–day stints? The floodgates have been opened and unless the Government build in protective legislation, as has happened in other EC countries, many more workers in this country will suffer.

Perhaps I may illustrate my point. I ask your Lordships to imagine the following scenario. A husband's employer is given Monday and Tuesday off every two weeks; his wife, in retailing, is given Thursday and Friday off every two weeks; their children aged five, eight and 11, are home on Saturday and Sunday. How does that match up with the Government's rhetoric about deep concern for the family? We all know that, in general, employers put their shareholders first and the quality of life of their employees is always a poor second when profits are threatened.

In almost every publication we pick up these days there are articles about people in all walks of life suffering from rising levels of anxiety, tension, fear and guilt. Common complaints are sleep loss, exhaustion, headaches, skin diseases, digestive disorders and depression. At the root of all of them is stress; stress which, according to the experts, is caused by an overactive work environment where the number of hours you stay at your task is used as a measure of your competence and your enthusiasm. Many seminars and courses have been arranged in an attempt to come up with methods of lessening the effects of pressure in the workplace, but rarely does anyone want to admit that one of the greatest mistakes of this decade was the destruction of Sunday as a family day of rest.

In the four years that have passed since the enactment of that legislation we have gone for the lifestyle which includes a weekend and at least one day which the family can enjoy together: this 24–hour society where the time parents spend with their children can be measured in minutes rather than hours. It is not uncommon to find households where parents have a day off in the week and children are left to fend for themselves at weekends. There was a time when we used to say, "Thank God its Friday, now we can enjoy a weekend break". But for many that is no longer a possibility and there are disastrous consequences.

Not content to preside over the destruction of Sunday as a regular shared family day off, the Government have now allowed this otherwise commendable Working Time Directive to be used as the backdoor introduction of a work pattern which could lead to at least one member of a family working for 12 days in a row. Anyone who has had the experience of missing a weekend and plunging back into the office at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning will know just how debilitating this can be.

As well as the obvious physical and mental stress such a practice can cause, there is another less talked about outcome of making each day of the week a working day, and it is equally undesirable. I refer to recent surveys. One was commissioned by the Keep Sunday Special Campaign which produced sound evidence of the decline of family life in this country. If the family is the building block of society, this is very bad news indeed.

I strongly welcome the Green Paper published today entitled Supporting Families. It is a consultation document. The Government, through the Home Office, are right to spell out on page 5 that they must make it, easier for parents to spend more time with their children by helping families to balance work and home". But now we have to square that rhetoric with the reality of what is in the regulations.

In a recent DTI White Paper, Fairness at Work, there is a section devoted to family-friendly policies. It states that: work and parenthood can create conflicting pressures. Parents, both men and women, need time with their children and time to create a supportive home in which their children can thrive. To ensure that all parents are better able to balance work and family life, voluntary measures need to be underpinned by a statutory framework".

The paper then goes on to argue that the Working Time Directive will enable people to balance better their work and home lives and will do this by providing minimum and weekly rest periods. That is absolutely right. But if a weekly rest period falls on a day when one partner is at work or when one's children are at school, the suggested good balance between work and home life is completely lost. The days that family members have off need to be common in order to allow the family to remain a strong and fundamental unit in society. Indeed, it was the European Commission report in 1989 which stated that family life was under constant threat, resulting from a lack of shared time together. But instead of addressing this issue constructively, either wilfully or inadvertently, we are compounding the problem.

If there had been more opportunity in the other place to discuss in detail some of the clauses of the Working Time Directive I am sure that we would not be here today discussing a working pattern—a 14–day reference period—which could inflict further harm on family life. Some closer scrutiny of the directive would certainly have resulted in the kind of correction we are seeking today; namely, that adult workers should be entitled to an uninterrupted rest period of not less than 24 hours in each seven day period, not 14. If a reference period of 14 days remains in the directive, there is no doubt that many unscrupulous employers will exploit it just as many employers have pressurised shop workers to work on Sunday, despite the clause in the Sunday Trading Act which technically allows them to opt out.

We argue frequently that our House is here to permit a more reflective approach; that it is our task to scrutinise legislation in great detail. The debate this evening gives us a belated opportunity to do precisely those two things and to send back this directive to the Department of Trade and Industry so that it may be recast in a way which allows the rhetoric about workers' protection and the protection of families to be matched by legislative reality.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regulations (S.I. 1998/1833), laid before the House on 30th July, be annulled.—(Lord Alton of Liverpool.)

8.1 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is concerned about the manner in which these regulations were introduced. I am sure that the Minister will respond adequately to that point. However, I am convinced that we all knew that this was on the agenda. The previous government had been speaking about it since 1993, so much so that it was featured in the 1997 election. In that general election, there was a promise in the Labour manifesto to introduce the working time directive. Equally, there was an undertaking in the Tory manifesto that the party would do its best to exclude it. The people have spoken and we must all listen.

The effect of the noble Lord's Prayer will be to protect the wrong people. He will protect the bad employers instead of their victims. These regulations are designed to protect the victims. Of course there are those people who do not wish to work at weekends or on Sundays. Equally, business must be flexible to be competitive. Some industries have their own special work patterns which require that kind of working. That is why the Minister in the other place was right to say that the day off can be averaged over a period of two weeks to allow that flexibility and to allow time off at the weekends.

The noble Lord is concerned about Sunday working. If I remember rightly, the Shops Act and the betting shops regulations still protect people's right to insist that they do not work on a Sunday. The working time directive takes nothing away. If the employees are victimised, that is what industrial tribunals are for. However, I remind noble Lords that until these regulations came into force, workers were not even entitled to that day off.

These rights have also closed a major loophole regarding employment agencies. They are now also obliged to provide their workers with paid holidays. The regulations also stop certain agencies and cowboy employers colluding to take away legal protection from workers.

My real concern is about the effect of the regulations on the nation's economy and on our competitiveness. For 18 years the previous government tried to improve productivity by reducing employment rights and by curbing union power. The McKinsey Report published last week showed us how unsuccessful those efforts have been.

The regulations will not affect our competitiveness. The few firms and organisations which may be affected by them are those which are run by poor employers and by cowboys. Some firms may be forced out of business but it will be due to competition by the better-managed competitors, not by these regulations.

I do not recognise the work pattern explained by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The vast majority of employers will not be affected because they treat their employees fairly. They work reasonable hours because it is right and because it is good for business and for competitiveness.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for bringing this important matter before the House today, the day when the Government's Green Paper, entitled Supporting Families has been published, with many positive proposals to support families and parents in their most important job; that is, raising their children.

I remind noble Lords that shortly after the last election the Prime Minister said that it should be the role of any government to include in the assessment of their policies the impact they will have on the family. Sadly, some of the decisions taken since that speech seem to be in conflict with the Prime Minister's concerns for the family, and we are here today to discuss one in particular. If the Government are concerned to strengthen family life, surely it is important for employees with children to be guaranteed either Saturday or Sunday off, otherwise the family can never be together.

We know only too well that since the Sunday Trading Act was passed in 1994, employers have found all manner of ways to make sure that their more conscientious employees are unable to take advantage of their right not to work on Sundays. Pressure has been exerted on many fronts with the result that many young people, especially in retailing, work on Sunday against their will. These same employers will now have in front of them a clause in the working time directive which will allow them to say to their staff, "We need you to work for the next 12 days but you can have a two-day break after that." With the Christmas period approaching, it does not need a lot of imagination to see how some workers will be exploited. There will be families, who in the past could have looked forward to a long Christmas break spent together, but will now be lucky if they have a few hours on Christmas Day.

The family Green Paper recognises that, families are at the heart of our society", and that the stability children need is best provided by two participating parents. Sadly, the opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their offspring is gradually disappearing in the rush to create the 24–hour society. I do not think many people realised the sort of monster they were unleashing when they supported more shopping freedom on a Sunday. It had been popular sport for many years to rail against the boredom of the British Sunday. That was nonsense, because there was plenty to do for those with the smallest amount of imagination.

What few considered were the negative effects which the lack of a shared day off would have on children. A British Medical Journal article earlier this year stated that, parenting is probably the most important public health issue facing our society". The article goes on to say that it is the biggest variable implicated in childhood illnesses and accidents, teenage pregnancy and substance misuse, truancy, school disruption and underachievement, child abuse, unemployability, juvenile crime and mental illness.

Now I am not trying to say that being together for a day is going to solve all these problems, but it goes without saying that if we are still to believe in family life in this country then a family has got to spend some time together, thrashing out problems and sharing the good times. We know that no board of directors is every going to achieve anything if it never meets! Families are no different.

The DTI has received many letters from people concerned with this latest development but, despite the department's support for family-friendly working developments, it is doggedly refusing to recommend what would be a very small, and sensible change to a working time directive, which is, like the curate's egg, good in parts.

My plea is for a weekly, regular and common day off work which could in theory be fulfilled by having any day of the week marked as a day of rest. But in keeping with the Christian and cultural traditions of this country, my candidate for this day would certainly be Sunday.

8.8 p.m.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate but I should say at the outset that I cannot agree with the Prayer of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to annul the working time regulations.

I start by congratulating the Government on honouring their manifesto commitment to bring this country into line with our European counterparts by applying this directive, which establishes a decent, minimum, fair standard of protection for those at work who need it most.

It is my view that the British people would wish to compete with their European counterparts and they much prefer to do that on a level playing field. I am sure that they would not wish to gain advantage over European industry by taking away some of the rights of those who most need them.

I spent years negotiating in a large cross-section of industry in the north of England with employers who, in many cases, were just as keen as I was to improve standards for their workforce. It is sensible to assume, in any case, that a workforce that enjoys reasonable standards at work will produce better results and enjoy good industrial relations. I always found that the best agreements were mostly arrived at by co-operation and understanding from both sides of the industry. It is also important to progressive companies, which wish to compete at the highest levels, to have a content and committed workforce who are motivated by the knowledge that their employer cares about them. I suppose that the companies to which I am referring will either be slightly affected by these changes or not at all. That is why those to whom I have spoken have made it quite clear that the provisions of the working time directive are not excessive and that they will have very little difficulty in applying them.

What are we talking about here? We are talking about issues like the 20–minute break after six hours, a day off per week—indeed, that relates to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, with which I find it hard to agree on the basis that employers can really apply consecutive days of much longer than 12 hours' duration at present, if they so desire—three weeks paid holiday and the right not to work more than 48 hours in a week, unless by agreement.

It has always been clear to me and to my union, the GMB, that, where there is a need for constant excessive overtime, there has to be a question mark over the competence of the management. There is also more chance of mistakes occurring and a greater risk of industrial injuries, plus the fact that there is evidence of reduced productivity levels as fatigue increases. So these changed arrangements for working hours will at least redress the balance a little for those who are working excessive hours.

I should also like to point out that the working time directive has been around for quite some time, so it can hardly be claimed to have been suddenly sprung upon us. Indeed, it was discussed in 1993 and should have been implemented in November 1996. We then had the previous government's unsuccessful attempts in the European courts to prevent the implementation of the directive. Therefore, it is a little late in the day for those who come along with the excuse that they have not had the opportunity to make their points due to the method applied to the legislation's progress.

I know that much trivia has been spoken about the issue. Many of the examples which have been used have been gross exaggerations, especially in the area of the 48–hour working week. I have even heard it said that there are those in your Lordships' House who delude themselves by thinking that being here for more than 48 hours can be classed as working. There may be some difficulties which arise out of the application of these regulations, but I am sure that the benefits to sensible employers and to workers generally will make it all worth while.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Alton most warmly for the manner in which he introduced this important issue and for the great clarity of his approach. I support him tonight and speak from my own experience. I am the owner of a herd of dairy cows which require milking twice a day, seven days a week. My herdsman has extra help provided by a relief milker. Under the existing contract the herdsman has one full day off per week, plus one full weekend free per month consisting of a Saturday and a Sunday. Under the new regulations it seems to me that I could insist on the herdsman working 12 days continuously and then having two days off. He would thus be worse off than he is now, and could, I think, be compelled to take most of his two-day breaks during a mid-week period. I am sure that the Minister will tell me whether my interpretation of the regulations is right. If he says that agriculture is an exception under Regulation 21, can he also tell me whether my example would hold good in other industries? In particular, can the Minister say who has the right to choose whether to base the work period on a seven-day or a 14–day schedule? Would it be the employer or the employee? Further, does Regulation 17 come down in favour of the employee?

If the option lies with the employer in hard-pressed businesses such as farming, it seems to me that the employees are likely to be the ones who suffer. The same may be true of many other marginal businesses and possibly also of new "start-up" situations. Can the Minister say whether the directive which lies behind these regulations was ever discussed by one of the European sub-committees of your Lordships' House? If so, what was the result?

Have the Government fully considered the implications of these regulations for health and safety, for social and family life and for religious and spiritual practice and care? Those truly important values may well be at risk, even if they are difficult to quantify. I ask: is it not better to have a contented working population rather than one operating in a theoretically efficient paradise?

Finally, have the Government thought through the possible adverse effects of the regulations? Are they certain that the legislation does not contain within it the seeds of unintended consequences? I regret that, so far, speakers from the Government Benches have not addressed in the slightest way the impact of the regulations on family life. The noble Lord, Lord Burlison, said—I believe that I heard him correctly—that it would be a matter for employers and employees to agree on what basis future working contracts should be arranged. But what will happen if there is no agreement? For example, will the issue then have to be submitted to an industrial tribunal? I do not believe that that would be a desirable outcome. Surely we should try to reduce to the minimum possible the amount of likely contention.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, I should like first to say that I wholly reinforce the family and Christian way of life. However, I do not believe that the proposal before us is the way to achieve that. Indeed, I find it somewhat incredible that this Prayer has been laid before your Lordships' House. Here we have the working time directive consisting of 43 paragraphs and two schedules all of which provide an enormous amount of benefit in terms of working time, holidays, time off and young people's benefits. Those provisions and benefits have been enjoyed by workers in Europe over the past six years but have been denied our workers because the previous government were not prepared to embrace the directive.

Against that we have a prayer which tackles just one element of the whole document, referring to paragraph 11—and only one part of it. The other part is quite distinctive. Young people are entitled to one day off in seven whereas for an adult worker it can be averaged over a 12–day period. It reminds me a little of what my father told me when I was a small boy. A man finds £1, loses sixpence and becomes obsessed with looking for the sixpence. That is what seems to be happening here.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to shopworkers. I declare an interest. Having represented shopworkers for 30 years, I think I know a little about their circumstances and those of their families. I fought and campaigned against low pay, discrimination against women, exploitation of part-time workers and the abolition of the wages councils. I campaigned strenuously against the abolition of the Shops Act 1950. But times changed and it was necessary to protect shopworkers. I was in the frontline of my union, USDAW, in so doing. The noble Lord said that the directive forces people to work 12 days. It forces no one to do anything except as regards unscrupulous employers who deny their workers genuine paid holidays and reasonable working times during the week. Many do not have holidays.

We should look more closely at the working time directive. The new rights include the right to a break where the working day is longer than six hours; a guaranteed rest period of 11 hours every working day; a guaranteed rest period of 24 hours once in every seven days—and that is the average; a ceiling of 48 hours on the maximum average working week; a ceiling on night work of an average of eight hours in every 24; a free health assessment for nightworkers with a possibility of transfer to day work where available if health is being damaged; and three weeks paid leave a year rising to four weeks in November 1999. New rights for under 18 year-olds involve a rest period of 12 consecutive hours each working day; a rest break of 30 minutes when the working day is more than four and a half hours; and a prohibition on working between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., with some exceptions.

What do we have at present? People are forced to work long hours over long periods without protection. They are given no time off for holidays; and if it is time off they do not get paid. All that is to be changed. It would be diabolical if this House threw out all those benefits simply because of one small part which may not be perfect. It will be for organised workers and trade unions to ensure that where possible we have a day off during the period of a week rather than a fortnight, but that may not always be possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the Keep Sunday Special campaign. In the 1980s my union had some collaboration with Keep Sunday Special over the shop trading legislation. We did not want legislation to be introduced to enforce trading on Sundays. However, long after the campaign was formed, Keep Sunday Special decided to embrace workers' interests in its campaign. I am not against its activities. Its documentation refers to having a Sunday off as a shared day off every week. I do not mind its members battling to have Sunday off, for whatever reason. But do not express that desire as being in the interests of workers! The working time directive is in the interests of workers, and it would be foolish to see it damaged.

I believe that the Prayer is ill-conceived, misguided and, to some extent, mischievous. I ask noble Lords to reject it.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I, too, wish to speak against the Prayer of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to annul the working time regulations. In an earlier debate he described the regulations as a hostile attack on the family. He repeated that charge today. I say that that is cynical scaremongering. The danger of his Prayer is that it brings together two unholy lines of attack on entirely worthwhile legislation. Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that this is other than family-friendly legislation designed to provide better protected times for work, rest and play. In another place Members of the Opposition accused the Government of introducing measures which increase burdens and costs on business. In practice, the regulations will simply provide for UK employees to benefit from measures which are common across Europe and among our European partners, and are common practice in the UK for most employees.

As I understand it, the regulations give effect to an important element of the social chapter—and not before time. They provide for a limit on the number of hours to be worked, and set the figure at 48. They make sensible provision for paid leave of three weeks rising to four weeks in 1999. They put in place measures to protect night workers; that is, those most at risk from accident and injury.

The Government have been sensitive in the manner in which they have sought to implement these important regulations. They have been sensitive to both employees and employers alike in carefully designing exemptions which recognise the special position that some industries occupy. I refer to transport, sea fishing, others who work at sea, and doctors in training. By agreement it is also possible for employees to waive their right to the limitation on hours at work. Choice is thus preserved.

How will it work in practice? I checked with my own local authority. It acts as an employer and enforcer of the working time regulations. It made clear to me that it welcomes this legislation. Local government welcome the legislation because it establishes a decency threshold in the workplaces of our nation. It raises standards among employers. It provides a balance between encouraging hard work and fair employment practice. It protects the most vulnerable in the workplace, the low paid, and makes special provision for adolescent workers over school-leaving age and under 18.

There will no doubt be some problems. But in enforcing the regulations, the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities will I am sure tread carefully. Most councils will want to achieve compliance not through high profile prosecutions but by persuasion, education and advice. If my own authority is a yardstick to go by, officers there are already preparing to give advice and guidance. The retailers, shops and small workplaces of our city, for which the local authority is responsible, are seeking that guidance as a constructive way of implementing the regulations.

I see only two small areas of difficulty. The first is the question of bureaucracy. No doubt there will be a prize for the organisation which comes up with a cute and clever data collection package which manages easily to put together the information which we need to collect in order to enforce the regulations.

The second problem is simply that of ensuring that enforcement agencies establish a level playing field and common standards of application. I know that employers and local authorities are anxiously awaiting some guidance from the Health and Safety Executive on the implementation of the regulations. I hope that the Minister will give us some idea when it will be published and will assure us that the necessary consultation has taken place between employers, small business and the local authority sector.

In conclusion, the regulations are welcome. The debate is timely with the publication of the Government's consultation document, Supporting Families, which lays considerable store by creating the right framework to promote parent-friendly employment practices. The Government say, quite rightly, that they want to set a basic model for family-friendly employee rights on working hours, flexible working arrangements and parental leave so that we can all take time off for those family crises which arise from time to time. The regulations will encourage the best from employers and will raise the standards of those who do not match our minimum expectations by creating a common decency threshold. It cannot be right that as we approach the millennium, we have a labour marketplace which actively encourages excessive working hours, punishes good employers, rewards poor practice and, as the CBI has found, contributes through stress and poor health to a bill of some £25 billion per annum through absenteeism.

The public sector has led the way. Now is the time to extend the benefits of sensible working practices across our country and our nation.

8.30 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I should like to make plain that I consider the Government to be right to bring forward regulations in accordance with their manifesto commitment. I want to question only one small part, as did the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in relation to Regulation 11.

Regulation 11(1) says that, an adult worker is entitled to an uninterrupted rest period of not less than 24 hours in each seven-day period". But it takes away that right in paragraph (2) of the same regulation. All I ask is that the Government withdraw the regulations with a view to deleting Regulation 11(2) with consequential amendments and reintroduce them, as amended, next week, which I understand they are perfectly able to do.

Most of the European Union countries included in their directives the equivalent of paragraph (1)—allowing one day off in seven. That also follows the directive originally given by the Almighty himself in the book of Genesis and is a good standard to follow. I understand that many countries also recommend that that day should be Sunday, but that is not my point.

I have three reasons for wanting the Government to withdraw Regulation 11(2). The first relates to the health and safety of employees—already mentioned by a number of noble Lords. Article 118A of the treaty says that member states should pay particular attention to encouraging improvements, especially in the working environment, as regards the health and safety of workers.

To give employers the right to make people work 12 days on a stretch unilaterally does not improve the conditions for employees in their workplace, though many other provisions in the regulations with which I am not concerned do just that. That provision will increase stress. I am sure that a number of government Ministers will be aware that working for 12 days without a break increases the level of stress. It also increases sickness and compromises safety.

Napoleon tried a 10–day week; Stalin tried a much longer week than seven days and Scottish coal mines tried it in the Second World War. But it does not work. Given the encouragement of the express authority by the Government to force employees to work for 12 days, some employers will try it to their own and their employees' disadvantage. I therefore regret the inclusion of paragraph (2).

I want to refer to the employees' community and family. In 1929 Moscow workers wrote: "What do we have families for?" when they were being made to work longer than seven days at a stretch. Employees with families need time off work when spouses, partners and children are also at home and they are able to join in community activities. That is well brought out in the Green Paper Supporting Families. On page 25 it says, Well-managed and competitive businesses ensure that their staff work sensible hours and are able to agree appropriate work patterns with their employees. Some firms however do coerce staff into working excessive hours. To support the responsible majority the Government is underpinning voluntary co-operation on working time with a set of minimum statutory standards". I believe paragraph (2) to be unnecessary and feel it should be deprecated.

Noble Lords have already mentioned employees' religious liberty. Christian, Jewish and Moslem communities have a specific day off each week and leaders of different religious communities have expressed concern about this provision. To reiterate, my only complaint relates to Regulation 11(2) which I should like the Government to delete.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I can speak briefly because a number of my noble friends have already explained the importance of these regulations. I should like to start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. It has done two things. First, it ensures that a number of noble Lords read the proposals and check out what they do; secondly, it gives Members of your Lordships' House an opportunity to express an opinion.

I felt that unfortunately the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was based on a false premise; that is, that prior to these regulations workers had certain rights to paid holidays, limited working time and so forth. That is not the case. As a number of my noble friends pointed out, this is a major step forward in providing for the first time limits on the amount of time that workers can be forced to work and provision for paid holidays.

I was interested to read the debate in the other place on this subject. Apart from root and branch opposition to any regulation imposed on employers—my noble friend Lord Burlison quashed that argument—the other argument put forward against the regulations was that they were too complicated; it would be too difficult for employers and workers to understand them. I did not come to that conclusion. The argument was that workers would have to employ lawyers to interpret the regulations for them. That is nonsense. One of the reasons for the existence of trade unions is to provide advice and assistance to workers when technical difficulties arise. I am sure that the trade unions will rise to the occasion in this case.

I should like to ask my noble friend on the Front Bench who is to respond to ensure that the Government monitor the provisions of the regulations and take note of what the trade unions say about the way they are working in practice. I have a query in relation to one or two specific points. The first arises in Regulation 10(3), which identifies an exemption for the daily rest periods for young workers; and a similar exemption arises for weekly rest periods for young workers under Regulation 11(8). Will my noble friend give an assurance that it is not the Government's intention that young workers should be treated worse than adult workers, but that in fact they should have better conditions than adult workers?

My second point relates to the long list of exemptions in Part III which identifies a number of industries and working occupations which are exempt from different parts of the regulations. Can we be assured that the Government will keep those exemptions under review to ensure that they are not used by unscrupulous employers to abuse their employees?

Finally, will my noble friend confirm also that, where applicable, health and safety provisions will override the provisions of these regulations to ensure that the health and safety of workers are not damaged even though employers work strictly to the regulations that we are debating tonight.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, being as anxious as any of your Lordships for my dinner, I will be extremely brief but, with your leave, I should like to draw attention to a couple of things which I think I can squeeze into three minutes. Although the noble Lord suggested four minutes, I think I might manage with three.

I think there is a certain amount of misapprehension here. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, said that there was really only one thing wrong in the regulation that was being picked out and that one should not throw the rest of it away for that. That statement demands two responses. One is that if you had a new car and the brakes were wrong you would not preserve it unchanged for that reason. The other thing is that if the Prayer were to be agreed to, the rest of the benefits would not be lost: they would be brought back in a form which was acceptable to your Lordships.

This is not throwing away the benefits to workers: it is trying to add to them. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said that it would be an encouragement to bad employers if we were to throw the regulations out. What we are actually trying to do, and what the noble Lord appears to be trying to do, is to remove from such bad employers one possible bad practice. Our aim is actually to give more power to the workers and not less.

A number of your Lordships have said that there ought to be a day off a week and not a day off a fortnight. In considering that situation, I ask your Lordships (a) to consider the family, which the Green Paper has put the Government squarely behind and (b) to cast your minds back different distances in time to the moment when you were six or seven, and consider how far apart the end of one fortnight was to the end of the next. If you saw your parents only once a fortnight, how enormously impoverished you would be, compared with being able to see your parents once a week. I do not doubt that your Lordships saw your parents once a week.

That is what this Prayer seeks to make possible, where the employer does not want it to happen. To pass this Prayer would not be to put us out of line with Europe, as has been suggested, because the Germans already have what the Prayer wants to have. Nor would it be a breach of the manifesto agreement because the commitment was to implement the directive and no one is saying that the directive should not be implemented. Noble Lords on the other side of the House should understand that noble Lords who wish to pray against this regulation are in fact trying to make things better for the worker and worse for bad employers. That would be the only effect. It would also give the other House an opportunity to consider these highly important regulations, which so far they have not done.

8.42 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I too welcome this opportunity to debate this very important issue and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for bringing it to our attention, but I cannot agree with his Prayer to annul the regulations. My colleagues and I do not agree with the noble Lord that to agree with this Prayer would not be to throw the baby out with the bath water. We believe that these working time regulations are sensible and generally well designed. We take issue, however, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, with the manner in which they have been introduced. We also feel that they are not as clear as they ought to be and that industry, commerce and the unions are concerned as to how the regulations will apply and how they will be implemented.

I should like to begin by saying why we on these Benches feel that these regulations are to the benefit of the country as a whole. They guarantee, as the noble Lord, Lord Burlison, has made clear, minimum working conditions, in terms of setting limits to the working day and to the working week and setting a minimum amount of paid leave. There are, as the noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord Monkswell, have made clear, extensive exceptions written into the regulations. They are so extensive, if I may say so, that when they were being developed in Brussels they were generally referred to as the "gruyére regulations" because there were so many holes in them.

However, if we are concerned about family values we should also be very concerned about current employment practices. Many of the provisions put forward in these regulations are thoroughly to be welcomed from the point of view of employment practices. We are all well aware of the lengthy hours that junior hospital doctors—who are among the exceptions to these regulations—have to work. A friend of mine not long ago was helped by an AA patrol man. When they asked him how long he had been on duty his reply was "20 hours". I do not think the health and safety of the nation are actually helped by those lengthy working hours, and these regulations will help to prevent that sort of thing.

There is considerable evidence also that Britain as a whole has been overtaken by a culture of long hours. In Spring 1997 a United Kingdom labourforce survey showed that over a quarter of employees in full-time employment worked in excess of 48 hours. Among the self-employed it was over 50 per cent. Recent Eurostat data show that the United Kingdom has the highest proportion of full-time employees working longer hours: over 30 per cent. compared with 12 per cent. on average, the next highest being Greece at 17 per cent. A recent survey by Austin Knight of about 13,000 workers in major firms who together employ over one million people, found that although three-quarters of the respondents had contracted for working hours of between 35 and 37½ hours each week, two-thirds of them—these are white collar workers—worked over 48 hours a week, 25 per cent. over 50 hours a week.

I do not think this would matter if these long hours were voluntary, but there is considerable evidence to show that many of those undertaking these long hours do so because they cannot complete the tasks allotted to them in the time available. Many feel that they are now dragooned into long hours and that we are now into a culture of long hours in this country. It is taken for granted that they will put in the hours that are required to fulfil their jobs decently. The Austin Knight survey of white collar workers showed that 47 per cent. of those surveyed said that they felt their families suffered from their long hours; over 50 per cent. said that their health suffered; women in particular felt pulled between work and family; and two-thirds reported physical stress symptoms.

We support the spirit of the directive. Shorter hours will be good for Britain. As the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, they will help to raise productivity rather than the reverse, and the NHS will benefit in terms of the size of stress bills. The quality of family life will be improved. I go back to what I said at the beginning. The regulations are very complex. They apply extremely widely across the workforce. There is currently much confusion on such basic issues as precisely what constitutes working time, who is affected and who is not, and so on.

The debate today about the implementation of the right to one day a week off work illustrates again the confusion. That confusion is particularly evident among smaller and medium-sized businesses. We fear that the regulations, as they stand, will create a field day for lawyers and industrial tribunals trying to sort out the muddle.

In brief, we support sensible, clear working time regulations, but we feel that the Government still have a long way to go to address the genuine concerns of those who have to operate them. I hope that we can get a commitment from the Minister that he will provide more guidance for those who have to implement the regulations.

8.48 p.m.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, as I am sure the Government appreciate, we do not care for the directive and care even less for the manner in which it was introduced. The regulations were sneaked in on the last day before the Summer Recess. That is not an observation made in the name of "huff and puff" or in the name of parliamentary pomposity. The regulations are very complex and confusing. The likely consequence of the manner in which they were introduced is that businesses, largely unaware of what is being proposed are, I fear, likely to over-react. And that, contrary to the Government's wishes, may have a damaging affect on employment in this country. But whatever misgivings we may have about the regulations, we shall certainly respect the convention that we should not vote to annul the regulations in the event of a Division being called.

Both on this side of the House, and in earlier days on the other side of the House, I have rehearsed the arguments why we believe that the introduction of this directive into the United Kingdom is undesirable. I do not propose to rehearse those broader arguments again. It is our view that it will damage competitiveness; that it will destroy jobs and limit prosperity; and that it will undoubtedly restrict the advantage that we have hitherto enjoyed in attracting inward investment into the United Kingdom in comparison with our other European rivals.

On the Government's own calculation, the implementation of the directive will cost employers something in the region of £2 billion every year. However, in spite of that problem and a looming recession, the Government seek to introduce the regulations. It does not give us any satisfaction at all that they should press them forward in this way now.

It is interesting that in introducing the debate the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, has not only identified the inflexibilities and rigidities of the directive which will be difficult for employers to introduce and which are likely to damage employment, but he has also identified the inflexibilities and rigidities within this complex approach to employment law, which does not even help a large number of employees in whose name, we presume, there was supposed to be some advantage.

When we argued that the introduction of the regulations was alien to the spirit of British "voluntarism" in this area, we were accused of taking a one-sided view of the regulations in favour and on the side of employers. Both the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and a number of my noble friends have observed perceptively that the regulations will not be of assistance to employees. We fear that those problems will be of disbenefit, not only to those who will lose their jobs, but also to those who remain in work.

We reflect with dismay that the Government have rushed forward with the regulations at this time. There may be a certain aptness that we are debating them a day after the Chancellor of the Exchequer offered predictions of the future of the British economy with an optimism that seemed to show an increasingly tenuous grasp on the realities of the economics of this world. Looking at the position as a whole, we are concerned that not only are those predictions seriously out of kilter with reality, but, worst of all, the Government have not understood that the regulations and directive will introduce a reduction in employment. For a considerable number of those who remain in employment, far from improving their lot, the regulations will seriously disadvantage them.

8.53 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as we have been reminded in the debate this evening, the implementation of the working time directive is a manifesto commitment of the Labour Party and therefore a commitment of the Government. We are not only proud to have introduced the working time directive, but we are also especially grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for giving us an opportunity to debate it this evening. I say, incidentally, to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that a similar debate took place in another place last week—but perhaps it was not very similar because it was much less cerebral—and that debate ended in a Division which supported the Government. Surprise, surprise!

We are proud to have implemented the working time directive because we believe in a flexible labour market, but one which is underpinned by fair minimum standards. Throughout the centuries there has been an imbalance in the relationship between workers and employers. That is the whole basis on which the labour movement grew in the first place. Some employers still seek to take advantage and to abuse this, and so workers need support. It is not right that employers should be able to force workers to work excessive hours against their will, for fear of getting the sack.

I was brought up on the history of the 19th century. I was brought up on J.L. and Barbara Hammond's The Village Labourer and The Town Labourer. I was brought up on Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford. I was brought up on the efforts of many liberals and other reformers who sought, first, to reduce the working hours for children and to abolish child working and then to reduce working hours generally. That has been the history of the labour movement throughout the past two centuries. Indeed, when this House came into use in, I think, 1851, there must have been many noble Lords on the Tory Benches who argued then that if you stopped children of six or eight working for 12, 14 or 16 hours a day the employers would go bankrupt.

This is not the end of it, but this is the first time in this country that we have had working time regulations of any kind for adult workers, let alone the kind necessary to preserve the fairness which we believe to be important. We see these regulations, together with the national minimum wage which will come into force next year, as going a long way towards improving the position of the most vulnerable workers.

I shall not repeat the provisions of the regulations, although they would, indeed, bear repetition. My noble friend Lord Davies of Coity and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, both referred to them. It has to be said that not forcing workers to work over 48 hours on average; and establishing a right to three weeks' paid annual leave; rest breaks during the working day; rest periods from work, including the right to a day off a week; special protection for night workers; special protection for adolescent workers and protection from unfair dismissal for asserting these rights, are not extreme demands. They are very moderate. A day off a week is not excessive; three weeks' paid holiday a year is not excessive. Those rights exist in most other countries in Europe and it is right that workers in this country should have them as well.

Perhaps I may assure my noble friend Lord Monkswell, who is afraid that something is being taken away, that the health and safety protection which exists under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act is retained in full and that nothing is lost.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord Ashbourne and Lord Bassam, referred in friendly terms to the Government's Green Paper on the family which was published today. In preparing for this debate, I have not had an opportunity to read that yet but I am pleased to hear their responses.

The regulations will contribute positively to the Government's wider goal of promoting family-friendly employment. Combining paid work and parenting, or caring for dependants, is a constant juggling act. Being a parent and a worker is not easy, as many of us know, and working parents need as much support as possible. The long hours culture has historically not only created barriers to work for women with caring responsibilities, but has also prevented many men from taking an active role in their children's upbringing. Providing limits on working hours, minimum rest periods from work and an entitlement to paid annual leave will help working parents to spend more time with their children and to balance their home and work commitments more successfully. I hope to convince your Lordships that the Green Paper on the family and the working time regulations work together, rather than against each other.

I also hope to convince your Lordships that there are benefits to business from this measure. It is an old fashioned idea that business should involve the exploitation of workers. All modern business nowadays recognises that agreement, collaboration and co-operation between employer and employee are the secret of success.

It has been suggested that the regulations will impose a burden On business. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, mentioned a figure of £2 billion. I am aware of that estimate but I am not at all convinced that it is fully worked out. However, we have also been reminded in the course of this debate that the cost of absenteeism in this country is estimated—again, this is only an estimate—at £25 billion. If we can reduce that by 10 per cent.—I am sure that we can—we shall have already overcome any cost to business. The £25 billion was a CBI estimate.

We are seeking for many aspects of working time to be resolved by agreement between workers and employers. It is much better for that to be settled locally in the workplace rather than by government. That is the theme throughout the regulations. It is a theme of constructive dialogue between employers and employees.

I turn now to the issue which prompted the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, to raise this matter. I repeat the quotation he mentioned from Melanie Phillips in the Observer. She stated that the regulations, give employers the unprecedented legal right to force employees to work for 12 days on the trot". Nothing could be more wrong. That is not what the regulations achieve. It has been suggested that the measure weakens the position of workers by introducing a 12–day working week. In fact at present there is no regulation. There is no protection for workers. There is nothing to prevent workers from working a seven-day working week, week after week after week, with no rest period whatever under the present law. This is the first time a provision such as this has been introduced.

My noble friend Lord Davies of Coity was too modest. He compared the situation with finding a pound and losing a sixpence. My noble friend Lord Monkswell said the same. However, we have not lost a sixpence. We have gained a pound but we have not lost a sixpence. Everything is to the benefit of workers and everything is to the benefit of proper working relationships.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to agriculture and to dairy herds. The noble Lord is clearly a good employer. He has sensible relationships with his workforce and he gives them time off. He suggests that employers would be given new rights to enforce 12–day working. Nothing could be further from the truth. My noble friend Lord Grantchester has advised me on this matter as he knows about these things. As I understand the position it is quite common for those who work with dairy herds to work one weekend and one week off. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, does not follow that practice and that is fine. The point about the regulations is that they will encourage agreement between employers and employees. If employees prefer to work as the workers of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, do rather than as others do, that will be no less possible than it is now. There will certainly be a failsafe protection. My noble friend Lord Haskel said that nothing is taken away from workers. He is quite right.

Lord Elton

My Lords, it would be most helpful if the noble Lord could explain the effect therefore of Regulation 11(2) which states, If his employer so determines, an adult worker shall be entitled to either"— the choice is with the employer— two uninterrupted rest periods each of not less than 24 hours in each 14–day period…or one uninterrupted rest period of not less than 48 hours in each such 14–day period". It is that which causes anxiety.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that has to be taken in context with the whole of the rest of the regulations which concern agreement. This flexibility for a period of two days in 14 days rather than one day in seven days was introduced with the encouragement of employers who wanted that degree of extra flexibility to avoid unnecessary burdens on business.

We are talking about a new right and about something which could indeed force people under certain circumstances to work on Sundays, but that is in place of the free-for-all which exists at the moment. As regards rights under the Sunday Trading Act and the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act for workers in betting shops, I can give the House an unqualified assurance that the protection introduced in that legislation is not taken away by these regulations. There is no question of any rights being taken away from workers. Those rights exist as they did before 1st October.

Therefore nothing is lost. No sixpence has been lost and a pound has been found. When noble Lords mention Sundays I am bound to remind them that the original European Community directive in 1993 stated in Article 5 that the day of rest should in principle include Sunday. Why do the regulations not include Sunday? That is because the Conservative government challenged that provision in the European Court of Justice and had it struck out. At their behest the European Court of Justice determined that Sunday was no different from any other day. Under those circumstances I think noble Lords opposite should be a little cautious about accusing this Government—

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, if the noble Lord wishes to protract the debate at this stage and wishes to introduce a discordant note of that nature I am perfectly prepared to "mix it" with him for as long as he likes. He may care to reflect that I did not mention Sunday at all in what I had to say for the very good reason that it seemed to me a proper approach to this matter would be to respect the religious convictions of other groups in our society. Sunday may not be the day they would necessarily focus upon. If the noble Lord wishes to bring this debate to a reasonable and early conclusion I hope he will reflect on what he has just said.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, from the history I have recounted, I understand why the noble and learned Lord did not refer to that matter. In a more emollient mode, perhaps I may say that we do indeed hope that employers will look sympathetically at the possibility of matching the rest day with Sunday or whatever other day is appropriate—whether it is a Saturday for those of the Jewish faith or a Friday for Moslems—for those with religious beliefs. I accept the noble and learned Lord's rebuke that I was to some extent acerbic. I was taking advantage of an opportunity which it was a little difficult to resist.

In the same mode, let me say that I think it is always unfortunate if an order is introduced at the end of the summer Session and brought into force before the House reassembles. In defence, I would say only that these regulations have been in the pipeline since 1993; that there have been not one but two exhaustive consultations, one by the previous government and one by this Government; and that the regulations should have been implemented in November 1996 were it not for the legal challenge—I am sorry!—by the Conservative Government. No one can say, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, said, that they have been rushed forward. They have been given a very thorough debate. I was asked whether they had been debated by your Lordships' European Communities Committee. There was a report by a committee chaired by my noble friend Lady Lockwood in 1990 on this subject, but in all candour I must say that the committee concluded that it was open to question how far there should be a rigid approach to the issue of working time. There has been adequate consultation and consideration of these regulations.

I am conscious of the time. My noble friend Lord Monkswell made a point about young workers and Regulation 10. The exceptions from the 12 hours' rest requirement for young workers are in very strict circumstances. For adults flexibility is laid down in Regulations 20 to 23.

My noble friend also asked about the exemptions, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, made the point that they apply very widely. The exemptions are under review by the Commission and we await its views with considerable interest.

We believe that the regulations provide minimum fair standards of protection for workers exploited by unscrupulous employers. The introduction of these regulations is long overdue and I hope that your Lordships will not accept the Prayer against them.

9.11 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has gone out of his way to address a number of the issues raised during the debate and I welcome the spirit in which he has done that. As a matter of historical record, I disagree with him on two points. First, he laid all the blame for the fact that the regulations do not include Sunday at the door of the previous Conservative government. I would remind him that Mr. Tony Blair, the then home affairs spokesman in another place, voted against my own successful amendment to the Sunday trading legislation to exclude Christmas Day and Easter Day and that from the Front Bench of the Labour Party there was consistent support for the deregulation of Sunday.

Secondly, although I am familiar with the literature he mentioned and I would perhaps add Tressle's Ragged Trousered Philanthropist to the list of books that influenced me, too, I would say in fairness to the Conservative Party that it was, after all, Lord Shaftesbury who pioneered the reforms that stopped children from being exploited. Perhaps there is less of a partisan issue here than we sometimes make out.

Without going too far into the recesses of history, I believe that this has been a useful debate. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, about it being cynical scaremongering. It is surely our duty to scrutinise these matters. There was no debate in another place and no debate here on these matters. As I made clear in my opening remarks, I strongly welcome what the Government have done. This protection is long overdue. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, that two out of three of the workers in this country are not even in a trade union, and it is they who are most adversely affected by many of the issues that we have been debating here tonight. His colleague and comrade in these causes, Ray Powell, was an ally of mine in another place during those battles. We worked strongly together on his Private Member's Bill—I served on the Standing Committee—and on the Bill that subsequently followed. I was disappointed when USDAW changed its view, though he did not change his, during the course of that legislation. It is the repeal of the Shops Act 1950 which has led us to the position where workers can be so badly exploited. And many already have been. So, far from being cynical scaremongering, we have only to look at those examples of workers who are given no choice under the so-called conscience clause, who are told to "take it or leave it" and, "If you don't work, then there won't be a job here for you". We all know that it is those bad employment practices that we must try to root out.

Never mind the sixpence or the pound; in this regulation here is one item which could undermine much of the good that is in the regulations. If we had had a considered debate on this matter we could have moved an amendment, the provision could have been removed and there could have been consensus across the Floor of the House. So, far from cynical scaremongering, it is proper and is the duty of this place to scrutinise measures such as this. Where we believe that there are weaknesses, we should try to have changes made to the regulations and Bills that are laid before us.

The debate has allowed us to air those concerns and to place our reservations on the record. Given the spirit in which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has dealt with the remarks made, and his promise to keep these questions under review, to watch these issues as they develop and, I hope, to be prepared to come back with amendments if necessary if it is felt that there has been the widespread abuse that some of us fear may follow, on that basis I thank noble Lords who participated in the debate and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at a quarter past nine o'clock.