EU discussions begin on UK working time opt-out

Talks have started in Brussels on whether the UK is to retain its opt-out from the EU’s Working Time Directive.

Under the terms of the Directive, EU employees must not work longer than an average of 48 hours a week.

However, the UK negotiated an opt-out from the regulation which allows employees to agree to work for longer hours.

Last December, the European Parliament voted to drop the opt-out.

Now formal discussions are underway to resolve the issue, with the UK government arguing to keep the opt-out clause to which 14 other EU member states have also signed up. If no agreement is reached by May, then the old system will stay in place.

Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, said: “Millions of employees and businesses in the UK and across Europe have benefited from freedom of choice on working hours for many years.

“To take that choice away would be absurd. We’re determined to protect the opt-out. Our focus is on helping businesses and employees through these testing times - not making their lives harder.”

Commenting on the talks, David Frost, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, added: “This issue has dragged on long enough and sends a poor message to the rest of the world about whether Europe is open for business.

“It would be extremely foolish to try and end the UK’s opt-out, especially during a painful recession. The opt-out provides the essential flexibility that many businesses and their employees are relying on to get through this downturn.”