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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 May 2005, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Groups react to work hours move
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The proposed change has prompted contrasting reactions
Plans to scrap the opt-out from the EU's 48-hour maximum working week have prompted contrasting reactions from trade unions and business groups.

The system, which is used more in the UK than elsewhere, allows individuals to work longer hours if they wish.

A number of unions expressed pleasure at the decision, but business groups are fearful about its effect.

Tory and Liberal Democrat MEPs backed individual choice on working hours, but Labour MEPs supported the planned move.

Gary Titley, the leader of the Labour MEPs, said that the vote had been about achieving a good "work-life balance".

"The measures we are supporting give workers a good degree of flexibility to manage their working hours," he said.

If we want a vibrant society with active citizens and engagement in community life, we must address Britain's long hours culture
Jean Lambert
Green MEP

Mr Titley added that the package of measures is "a good settlement for healthcare workers with flexibility built in".

His comments came in response to concerns within the National Health Service that the end of the opt-out for doctors would create staff shortages.

Mr Titley's stance was echoed by the UK Green Party, which said "clear evidence" suggested the opt-out has been abused by employers.

"If we want a vibrant society with active citizens and engagement in community life, we must address Britain's long hours culture which is why we have consistently opposed the opt out," said Green MEP Jean Lambert.

But Conservative MEP Philip Bushill-Matthews described the proposals as "sheer nonsense".

'Common sense victory'?

He said: "Quality of life is an issue, but why should politicians in Brussels decide that the way for people to get quality of life is to follow rules on a one-size-fits-all basis laid down at EU level?"

But the European Parliament's vote has received trade union support.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber welcomed the decision as a "victory for common sense".

And Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, said: "The opt-out is harming the health and safety, the family life and the productivity of British workers."

'Blow' to prosperity?

But these sentiments are not shared by business groups, many of whom fear that the proposed changes - which still need to be approved by the Council of Ministers - would have an adverse economic effect.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) argues that removing the opt-out would hinder labour market flexibility in Britain.

The Engineering Employers Federation said MEPs had failed to "prove their commitment to the cause of labour market flexibility and economic growth".

And the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said the vote was a "blow for business and for Europe's future prosperity".

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