Reprieve for 48 hour opt-out as EC listens

UK employers are set to keep the right to ask staff to opt out from the
Working Time Regulations.

Personnel Today can reveal that confidential talks between the Employment
Lawyers Association (ELA) and Fernando Pereira, the head of the European
Commission’s review of the directive, indicate that the opt-out is likely to be
retained.

Pereira and senior figures in Brussels are currently deciding whether the
opt-out, which allows staff to choose to work more than 48 hours per-week,
should be kept.

John Evans, chair of the ELA International Committee, said he learned from
his meeting with Pereira that the opt-out is unlikely to be scrapped
completely, as had been widely feared.

A joint survey by the ELA and Personnel Today in January revealed that 78
per cent of employers want the opt-out retained. These findings were presented
to the European review committee.

Evans believes this evidence, as well as a report by Professor Catherine
Barnard of Cambridge University, and the fact other countries now use the
opt-out, means it will not be scrapped.

"The commission has a difficult task in trying to reconcile differing
and conflicting interests and requirements which member states are still only
discovering," he said.

Peter Martin, director of employment policy for the Engineering Employers’
Federation, is also optimistic.

"People thought the opt-out would go, but it is not going to go in the
short term," he said.

Steve Dunn, HR director at Scottish Power, said: "That is a result of
good lobbying. It’s good news. I was resigned to the fact that it was going to
go."

Evans said the EC is considering adapting the opt-out to apply to certain
sectors, or keeping it applicable to all sectors, but with an absolute upper
limit to the number of weekly hours. There is also a chance the opt-out could
be phased out gradually.

Pereira is to produce a report to be considered by the European Council in
the autumn. However, any change to the opt-out would not take effect until 2005
at the earliest.

By Quentin Reade

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