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On Wednesday of this week European politicians voted to scrap the UK’s long running opt-out from the Working Time Directive which limits the working week to an average of 48 hours.

Despite the wishes of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Business Secretary (and former EU Commissioner (Lord) Peter Mandelson) several Labour MEPs voted to scrap the opt out. The issue isn’t completely dead as the UK Government will now meet with the European Council of Ministers to decide whether the opt-out will be scrapped in early 2009. However the matter will be subject to a qualified majority vote which means that Britain will not have a veto and so it looks likely that the opt-out will soon go.

Politicians and UK business leaders are both angry and disappointed at the result saying it would have a negative impact on the flexibility of the labour market particularly at the time of economic downturn and fails to recognise that the opt-out can benefit workers as well as employers, as it has for a decade.

Rebel British MEP Jean Lambert was delighted with the decision. “Despite intense lobbying from the UK government and businesses, MEPs have stood firm and supported workers, who are too often left open to exploitation,” she said.

“There is a large degree of flexibility built into the directive so that workers can work longer in peak times, if required. The 48-hour per week maximum is calculated on average over a 12-month period. This means workers can work longer some weeks as long as they are also allowed sufficient rest.”

However the fact remains that as well as causing problems for businesses, the ending of the opt-out will have a whole range of repercussions that will fundamentally alter many public services such as the Fire & Rescue Services.

I used to be a member of the Wrekin & Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service which like many rural services rely heavily on part time or “retained” fire-fighters.

The retained crews are made up of men and women who hold down other full-time jobs, but make themselves available to fight fires in their communities. In the whole of Shropshire there were just two full time stations meaning most of the county – which is one of the largest but also least populated – relying totally on part-timers.

Shropshire is not alone, most of the “shire counties” as well as most of Wales and Scotland are in a similar position.

Many retained staff already work 40 or more hours a week at their primary jobs and have to attend two hours weekly fire training, which would drastically restrict their ability to respond to fire call-outs in future.

Removal of the UK opt-out will deplete the retained duty system depleted across the UK with the alternatives being either no local fire cover – or increased response times from locations further afield often only utilising narrow country roads – or increases in full time staff at huge cost to the taxpayer.

Rumour has it that Peter Mandelson is “spitting nails” but then perhaps some Labour MEPs are just getting their own back on the man they love to hate.

4 Responses to “European Vote Spells the End of the UK Working Time Opt-out”

  1. James Green says:

    It seems to be too early to say yet. I’ll try and update as things progress.

  2. George Hendry says:

    Any update on how this has affected essential services like firemen etc.

  3. Danielle says:

    There was a bit about this on the news this morning. Bit slow off the mark there! It sounds as if there will be problems for a lot of the emergency services, hospitals etc. What a stupid idea.

  4. David Adams says:

    Typical EU interfering again. You are probably right about Labour MEPs attitude to Mandelson.

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