§ Sir Michael Marshall
To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what matters were raised at the recent EC Social Affairs Council; and what were the conclusions.
§ Mr. Portillo
I attended the Social Affairs Council on 22 September in Brussels, accompanied by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment.
As a follow-up to some aspects of the Commission's white paper on growth, competitiveness and employment, the Council agreed a report on tackling unemployment intended as a contribution to discussion at the Essen European Council. The report focuses on four themes: training; flexibility of working time; long-term unemployment and value for money from public spending on unemployment. It will complement work by Finance Ministers and others following up the white paper in preparation for the Essen European Council.
The Council was unable to reach an agreement on the draft directive on parental leave. I noted the United Kingdom's consistent opposition to the proposal over more than a decade, and our view that it was not an appropriate area for Community action. The current United Kingdom arrangements for up to 40 weeks' maternity leave for mothers with a right to return to work were recognised as generous and I said that now was not an appropriate time to add to the burdens placed on business and to put jobs at risk. Commissioner Flynn indicated that he would now initiate discussions with the social partners under the agreement of the Eleven.
There were orientation debates on the draft directive on the posting of workers and on the draft directive on part-time and temporary work. The Council discussed a number of specific questions posed in advance by the Presidency. There were no clear conclusions and several member states, including the United Kingdom, expressed their difficulties with the proposals.
In discussion on the draft directive on the reversal of the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Employment made it clear that the directive was unacceptable to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom's system of industrial tribunals operated very effectively in such cases. In addition, the directive ran counter to a key principle of United Kingdom law and was unacceptable on subsidiarity grounds. The Commission said that in the light of the United Kingdom's fundamental objections it would review how best to proceed.
Commissioner Flynn gave a brief presentation of the Commission's white paper on the future of European social policy. The German Presidency has indicated that 70W there will be a substantive discussion at the next Social Affairs Council in December.
Other member states adopted the directive on european works councils under the agreement of the Eleven. In accordance with the terms of the social protocol to the Maastricht treaty, the provisions of the directive will have no legal effect within the United Kingdom. Employees based in the United Kingdom will not count towards the threshold which determines whether the directive applies to multinational companies. Companies will remain free to decide for themselves what arrangements are best for consulting their United Kingdom employees.
§ Mr. Llew Smith
To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what matters were discussed, what decisions taken, and which were decided by vote, at the Social Affairs Council in Brussels on 22 September.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I refer the hon. Member to the reply given by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel today (Sir M. Marshall). There were no formal votes, but the other 11 member states adopted the directive on European works councils.