It is now evident that when the incoming Labour government proudly signed the Social Chapter in 1997 it had no plan of how to implement the laws that would follow. Implementation has been characterised by a lack of planning, U-turns and amendments.
The trouble is that Tony Blair and his trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers do not really like the Social Chapter, unlike many of their fellow Labour ministers.
This would not matter if the Government had thrashed out a compromise, and developed a coherent strategy for implementation. Instead we have weakness, with the Government swinging one month towards the CBI; the next towards the unions, while trying to ignore the likely impact of European court decisions.
The last month of 1999 was typical. The DTI passed the expected working time amendments giving employers more flexibility. It was slipped out just before Christmas in the hope that controversy would be minimised (this page).
But just as employers began to express relief that the promised changes were going through, the Advocate General came to a decision that could give more rights to employees and force yet another rewrite to the regulations. It was decided that time spent on-call and on the premises should count towards the 48-hour maximum working week. This is likely to become European law, yet a week after the ruling, the DTI seemed unaware of its existence.
It does not end with working time. Parental leave regulations in the UK are likely to be changed if the European Court finds against the Irish government on the question of the qualifying date. Unions will be watching the forthcoming part-time workers law, scheduled for April, for any discrepancies with European rights.
While the Government cannot control all these matters, it could easily engage in more consultation before European law comes in, instead of stitching together regulations which are amended almost immediately.
Personnel professionals are increasingly aware of the need to learn business skills. Perhaps lobbying and other political skills need to be added to the list if we are to attain stable and workable law.