Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Thursday, 2 April 2009 10:16 UK

UK 'stands firm' on working time

Office worker working late
Trade unionists say Britain's culture of working long hours must be curbed

The UK is continuing to resist pressure to end its opt-out from the EU's maximum 48-hour working week.

Talks between EU member states and the European Parliament aimed at ending the dispute broke up in the early hours without agreement.

UK employment minister Pat McFadden said: "We have said consistently that we would not give up the opt-out and that continues to be the case."

Talks aimed at ending the deadlock will restart later this month.

The UK and 14 other EU member states have an opt-out from the working time directive - but in December members of the European Parliament voted to scrap the opt-out in three years' time.

The 15 governments want to keep the flexibility of longer working hours but most MEPs, including several Labour MEPs, share the trade union view that the opt-out exploits workers.


The European Parliament also voted to make time spent on call by doctors and others count as working time. A decision on that would affect key sectors such as healthcare.

Mr McFadden said: "We argued that everyone has the right to basic protections surrounding the hours that they work, but also the right to choose those hours.

It is a positive result because it means the UK opt-out will remain intact by default
Philip Bushill-Matthews, Conservative MEP

"Choice over working hours has operated successfully in the UK and in other member states for many years.

"In the current downturn it is more important than ever that people keep the right to put more money in their pockets by working longer hours if they wish. We refused to be pushed into a bad deal for Britain."

He said Britain wanted a deal but not "at any price," adding that it would be a challenge to bridge the gap between EU member states and MEPs on the issue.

'Endless circles'

The Conservatives, who also want to retain the opt-out, walked out of the meeting at 0400 on Thursday, claiming it was "going round in circles".

Tory employment spokesman Philip Bushill-Matthews said: "It was totally predictable that these negotiations would come to a stalemate. It was a sham discussion going round in endless circles.

"It is a positive result because it means the UK opt-out will remain intact by default."

The current "conciliation" talks are the final stage in the legislative debate. Both sides have until May to thrash out a deal, and if none is reached the European Commission will have to present new legislative proposals.

The first conciliation round on 17 March failed to produce an agreement.

The conciliation involves a 27-strong delegation from the parliament, representing various countries and political groups, and a similar delegation from the 27 member states' governments.

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