Smith Calls for State Flexibility on Working Time

16 December 2008
SNP Member of the European Parliament, Alyn Smith, has today (Tuesday) called on MEPs to support the SNP in pressing for continued maximum flexibility in the regulation of working time.

MEPs are to vote in Strasbourg tomorrow on whether to retain the UK opt-out and the result is expected to be close. Smith has highlighted the impact removal of the opt out would have on fire services in Scotland, according to the RFU causing massive problems for 321 out of Scotland's 391 fire stations.

The European Working Time Directive seeks to limit the working week to a maximum of 48 hours, from which the UK secured a voluntary individual opt-out. It is currently under revision following the rulings by the European Court of Justice in 2000 (SiMAP) and 2003 (Jaeger) for time spent on call by health professionals to be considered entirely as working time. A compromise deal was reached by national government ministers in the EU Council in June 2008.

Last month the European Parliament's Employment Committee voted to end the UK opt-out and insisted that the full period of on-call time. including the inactive period, should be counted as working time. If adopted by the full Parliament in plenary there is a real risk that the compromise deal reached in Council could unravel and the negotiations collapse, leading to continued legal uncertainty. The SNP government in Edinburgh and the Labour government in London have the same view on the issue.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday's key vote, Smith said:

"The organisation of working time is an area that I believe is best left for individual governments to decide based on their own social and employment conditions. I do believe that some things are best dealt with in concert with our neighbours and our friends, but in my view working time is not one of them.

"Given the current economic difficulties facing Scots right now there is a need to strike a balance between ensuring greater worker protection and ensuring greater flexibility and choice for workers if they want to work overtime and for businesses to be able to respond to differences in demand. Our government in Edinburgh has been quite clear, that the compromise reached by the member state governments is one we can live with, so I will be backing that line int he Parliament and urge colleagues to do likewise.

"The compromise deal reached by the national governments in the Council has taken years of negotiation and the last thing businesses and workers need is a stalemate. While I still do not believe that the UK opt-out is the best solution, the current compromise on the negotiating table does afford some flexibility to both employers and employees with greater legal safeguards against any potential abuse of the opt-out as compared to the status quo. For example, there is now a maximum cap on the amount of hours that can be worked in a week, i.e. 65 hours and workers are not allowed to sign the opt-out at the same time as their employment contract. Workers will also still retain the right to decide for themselves whether they want to opt out of the 48 hour working time limit.

"In the last couple of weeks I have heard from a number of my constituents the length and breadth of Scotland expressing their concern about the effect that the ending of the UK opt-out will have on their salaries or their businesses. As one example, the Retained Firefighters Union has told me that ending the UK opt-out would "seriously affect the emergency fire cover across Scotland" and I cannot in all conscience vote for anything that would throw these vital services into confusion.

"Of Scotland's 391 fire stations, 321 are staffed by Retained firefighters (RDS), who although paid by the Fire and Rescue Service and doing the same job as full-time firefighters are all volunteers and have full-time jobs outside of the fire service. If the opt-out is removed, RDS firefighters working an average 40 hours per week in their full-time job will exceed the 48 hours limit imposed on them. The implications are such that we could see the RDS depleted across Scotland with the alternatives being either no local fire cover or increases in wholetime establishments at huge cost to the taxpayer".