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Old 12-17-2008, 01:33 PM   #1
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Default MEPs vote to end UK opt-out on length of working week

Euro-MPs have voted to scrap the right of Britain to opt out of European Union rules that dictate the length of the working week.

By Bruno Waterfield in Brussels
Last Updated: 12:06PM GMT 17 Dec 2008

Up to three quarters of Labour's 19 MEPs rebelled to defy the Government by backing Socialist proposals to end Britain's 15-year-old exemption from the EU Working Time Directive.

The cost of the European Parliament decision for the recession-hit British economy has been estimated at over £66 billion, a loss of £2,300 for every household.

Alejandro Cercas, an MEP in the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, hailed the 421-273 vote in Strasbourg as a "victory" for the European social model over Britain's opt-out, which allows a more deregulated labour market.

"We are rectifying a wrong decision. Let's have a social Europe," he said. "I would like to congratulate the European Trade Union Confederation and all the trade unions that have worked so hard."

Philip Bushill-Matthews MEP, Conservative employment spokesman in the European Parliament, described the vote as a "failure of Gordon Brown to control his MEPs".

"Socialist MEPs have won the battle today, but they must not be allowed to win the war," he said.

"The British Government must dig in and defend the opt-out. Fifteen EU nations now take advantage of the flexibility provided by the opt-out and none of them should back down."

He added: "It should never be the place of the European Parliament to tell people they cannot work - particularly during a downturn. Scrapping our working time opt-out is even more nonsensical in today's economic climate than ever before."

The opt-out is regarded by Government ministers as crucial to the economy at a time of deepening recession and Britain is expected to take a tough line as crisis negotiations begin over the issue.

Pat McFadden, the Business Minister, who will discuss the defeat with employment ministers in Brussels, warned that imposing a maximum working week during the current downturn would be "a mistake".

"Freedom of choice over working hours has operated successfully in the UK and in other member states for many years. The Government supports the opt-out, which gives that choice to UK workers, and will continue to defend it. We believe it is wrong to take away from workers the chance to work longer and earn more if they wish."

Three million British workers have chosen not restrict their overtime opportunities by opting out of a 48-hour maximum working week set by the EU.

Research by Open Europe, the pro-EU reform think tank, has estimated that ending the opt-out could cost the British economy between £47.74 billion and £66.45 billion by 2020.

Mats Persson, its research director, said: "The real losers from this deal will be ordinary workers and taxpayers. Politicians should be focusing on how to cut taxes and create jobs to boost the economy, not forcing through expensive new EU rules."

The Parliament proposals will ban British workers from voluntarily choosing to work more than 48 hours a week after 2011, whatever their personal or professional circumstances.

John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Conferedation of British Industry, said: "Some people want to work more than 48 hours a week and some do not. We think this should be your choice. Unfortunately, some MEPs in Brussels think they should make the choice for you."

British and EU officials said that months of negotiations with between governments and the European Commission will now follow, aith a final decision expected in late January 2009
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