There were some recent changes to working time law.

What were they?

You no longer have to log the hours of staff who have opted out of the
48-hour maximum working week; and there will be a new category of
"semi-autonomous" employees whose voluntary, unpaid extra work will
not count towards the 48 hours.

That is quite significant, isn’t it? Why was there so little fuss about
the changes?

As usual, the Department of Trade & Industry slipped the law change
through Parliament just before a recess – on 17 December; just as it laid the
original law before the House on the day before the summer recess in 1998. This
was to reduce publicity.

Is it good news for employers?

It gives extra flexibility and reduces paperwork. If someone is genuinely
committed to a project and puts in a few extra hours out of choice, this is not
classed as working time.

So this is a green light to carry on with a 70-hour week as the team
lives, works and eats together, right?

Not quite. The extra work has to be genuinely voluntary. Moreover, the
employer is at all times liable to claims of stress or dangers to health and
safety resulting from excessive hours. Rights to maximum shift and minimum rest
breaks for night and shift staff are unaffected.

What happened to the guidance that Stephen Byers kept promising last
year?

It will appear towards the end of this month or some time in February. It
will give illustrative examples of situations that would or would not be
covered by the new exemptions.

Will that be the end to changes to regulations?

Well, trouble is brewing in Europe. The Advocate General has recommended
that hours spent on-call and on the premises counts as working time – contrary
to government guidance; and that on-call hours away from workplace can be,
though limited to the time actually spent working. There could be a clash with
the new UK law if there is poor communication: staff members on-call over the
weekend might believe they are working while attending to a problem, while the
manager might assume it is voluntary extra effort.

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