As a European Parliamentary candidate, you get asked one thing from grassroots time and time again: how can we get people to relate to Europe and show how much of an impact it has and therefore, how important the European Parliament elections will be. One way is to continue to hold this Government to account and positively demonstrate how it has failed to defend British interests. There are plenty of examples – Labour’s position on the Lisbon Treaty and its failure to hold a referendum stands out.
Another is to show practical examples of how the EU impacts on our daily lives and the necessity of having a sizeable Conservative delegation in the EU to push our point of view across. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the recent Strasbourg vote to scrap Britain’s opt-out to the Working Time Directive.
On 17 December 2008, the European Parliament voted to end Britain and 14 other countries’ opt-out three years after the reformed directive enters into force. If the Council of Ministers caves in, we may lose our partial exemption to the EU’s 48 hour maximum week and with it, the flexibility to set the hours of the British workforce – so important in an economic downturn.
Open Europe has estimated
that ending the opt-out could cost the UK economy between £47.74
billion and £66.45 billion by 2020, with a middle estimate of £57
billion. Labour MEP Stephen Hughes led the socialist proposals for
abolition of the opt-out. During the vote, MEPs also adopted a
recommendation that all the time that people spend on-call (even if
inactive and taking a break in the workplace) should be counted as
working time. Both these positions are in marked contrast to a common
position adopted by national governments in June 2008. Not only did
the Council of Ministers uphold that opt-outs should be retained , but
it also stated that on-call time should be counted towards the 48 hours
only when people are actually required to work.
At the outset, it must be stated that the vote in the European
Parliament is a resounding defeat for Gordon Brown. In order to save
Britain’s opt-out, the Prime Minister naively made concessions on the
Agency Workers’ Directive, signing up to a parallel agreement to give
temporary and agency workers full employment rights after 12 weeks.
Not only did he fail to understand the ambitions of the socialist bloc
in the European Parliament, but also could not ensure that all his MEPs
followed the Government’s line on such a crucial issue for the national
interest. As highlighted by Philip Bushill-Matthews MEP, the
Conservative employment spokesman in the European Parliament, this is a
double-whammy as now we have two damaging legislative amendments.
Has the Government not learnt anything from Blair’s rebate giveaway in
exchange for review of the CAP?
What does all of this mean? Well, one of the clearest examples of the
impact of the Working Time Directive is within the NHS. In August
2004, the Working Time Directive was applied to junior doctors by
restricting working hours to a maximum of 58 per week. In August 2009
(subject to any derogations being sought), junior doctors’ working
hours will be reduced to 48. Doctors
should not be overstretched to the point of putting patients’ lives at
risk but conversely, given the realities of the NHS, the lack of
flexibility may impact on patient care once the directive is fully
implemented. The Royal College of Surgeons has warned that
implementation may lead to serious staff shortages. There will be less
overlap between shifts and so handovers may be rushed. Training may
also suffer. Its President, John Black, has been quoted as saying:
“On the one hand, the immediate effects on patient care
in the NHS are potentially disastrous. There are simply not the
surgeons in the UK to fill the gaps when every doctor’s hours are cut
to a 48 hour per week maximum. On the other, trainees are telling the
college they cannot gain enough experience to progress on the shortened
hours. The choice for the nation is clear – do we want patients of the
future to be treated by a group of highly skilled and experienced
surgeons; or be passed around a wider group of lower skilled surgeons
with less experience.”
In the South West, various campaigns have highlighted the impact of the
Working Time Directive and the loss of our opt-out. Indeed, it is an
issue where PPCs and European Parliamentary Candidates can campaign on
a joint platform. In the photograph below, I am pictured with fellow
European Parliamentary Candidate, Mike Dolley, Fabian Richter, PPC for
Bath and Jacob Rees-Mogg, PPC for North East Somerset. This issue is
live. It can be localised. It will most certainly resonate with
voters. And it really, really matters.
So what now? As the European Parliament’s stance is at odds with that
of the Council of Ministers, a “conciliation” process now follows. The
two institutions have a maximum of eight weeks to convene a
conciliation committee, which would be given another eight weeks to
either find a compromise or decide that agreement is impossible. The
Czech Government wants the conciliation committee to finish its work
before Parliament’s recess in May. The entire revised directive will
fall if no agreement is reached – which would leave the UK’s opt-out
Moreover, on the issue of active versus inactive on call duty, there
may well be some fierce debate. The absence of a definition of on-call
duty in the directive has been problematic. The European Court of
Justice (ECJ) in 2000 and 2003 ruled that all medical personnel’s
on-call duty should be counted as working time (Sindicato de Médicos de
Asistencia Pública v Conselleria de Sanidad y Consumo de la Generalidad
Valenciana, 2000 and Landeshaupstadt Kiel v Norbert Jaeger, 2003).
Doctors in several EU countries then filed lawsuits against hospitals
for non-compliance with the ECJ’s rulings.
Some member states have accordingly pushed for an amendment to the
directive. However, the definition of inactive on call duty by the
Council of Ministers was resolutely shot down by the European
Parliament in the December vote.
Any compromise during the conciliation talks will not be easy. Rather unhelpfully, Stephen Hughes has stated that:
“What we will get into, I’m sure, is a debate of how
long the phase-out period should be, and what sort of transition period
before the opt-out ends, and quite frankly I’ve said to British
ministers and other ministers that I’m not really bothered… I don’t
care whether it’s 6, 7, 8 years, as long as in principle we know that
the opt-out will end.”
Not really bothered? I would like to know what his constituents in the North East of England feel about that.
The bottom line is that we should be able to retain the flexibility to
set our own working hours. Our Conservative MEPs, working with
like-minded colleagues from many other EU Member States, have pushed
hard on this matter. In our regions, we can also highlight this very
tangible issue and campaign energetically in order to put maximum
pressure on the Government to do its’ all to ensure that the opt-out is
retained and the Council of Ministers does not back down on its