The new government and upcoming EU employment issues
1 Sep 2010
Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow
The type of relationship that the UK will have with the rest of the EU now that the new coalition government in place is likely to take shape over time. The government’s coalition programme does not reveal a great deal about its plans for its future relationship with the EU. However, it does state that its primary concern is to ensure that the UK plays a leading role in Europe, but that there is no further transfer of power from the UK to Brussels without a referendum in the UK.
Working time high on the employment policy agenda
The coalition programme makes only one explicit reference to employment policy in Europe and this is to working time. This issue is also perhaps one of the most topical at EU level at present. A proposal was issued by the European Commission in 2004 to revise the Working Time Directive, looking particularly at the opt-out from the maximum 48-hour week that individual member states may apply, and the definition of on-call working, which is not directly defined by the Directive as it stands, although there is some case law from the European Court of Justice that centres on whether on-call working should be fully or partially classed as working time. However, no final agreement on the text could be agreed between the Council and the European Parliament, and the proposal was abandoned in April 2009. Almost a year later, in March 2010, the European Commission issued a new proposal, aiming to gather views on a broad review of the Directive. It would like this review to take into account the changes in the organisation of working time that have taken place over the past 15 years, including issues such as work-life balance, an increase in the number of people working in multiple jobs and a greater flexibility in the overall organisation of working time. It is still, however, intending to address the issues of the opt-out from the 48-hour working week and on-call working.
The previous and the present UK governments have a particular interest in the individual opt-out from the 48-hour week, as it has been applied across the whole economy since the UK originally applied the Directive. The opt-out has been intensively used in a number of sectors in this country, such as finance. Although other member states have also taken advantage of the opt-out, either across the whole economy (five member states) or for particular sectors (10 member states), it has particular resonance in the UK, and the new government will undoubtedly follow in the footsteps of previous governments in opposing any attempts to end this provision. The coalition programme does not give many details, but states clearly that it will ‘work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom’.
More flexible parental leave
Another area to which the government will have to turn its attention is parental leave. This follows the adoption of a new Directive, in March 2010, which replaces the existing parental leave Directive and gives enhanced parental leave rights to parents. The new Directive, which must be implemented by member states by March 2012, will give parents the right to take four months of unpaid parental leave (the current entitlement under the present parental leave Directive is three months) of which one month is non-transferable between the parents, in order to encourage fathers to take the leave. It will also give parents the right to request flexible working upon return to work, although UK regulations already give employees with children under 16 or with disabled children under the age of 18, or those with caring responsibilities, the right to request flexible working and the new government has pledged to extend this right to all employees.
In its coalition programme, the new government has pledged to ‘encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy – including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave’, which will no doubt be tied in with the implementation of the new parental leave Directive.
Future concerns and priorities
Overall, there are not many new EU legislative instruments in preparation in the social policy field, and it is clear that those that are being prepared will be implemented as required literally, and without any supplementary provisions added on. The coalition programme states that it will not ‘gold plate’ any Directives, meaning that it will not exceed their terms when implementing them in UK law. The Conservative party had previously pledged to stop gold plating of EU legislation, which it believes adds to the burden of UK businesses. However, the Labour government, when in power, had indicated that there was no evidence that the UK routinely over-implements European legislation. This is in any case unlikely to be a concern in the social and employment field.
In terms of the immediate future and the coming few months, the Belgian government, which holds the presidency of the EU Council until the end of 2010, has stated that employment will be one of its central themes. It is concentrating its efforts on trying to help EU labour markets to weather the economic crisis, in addition to promoting green jobs and the acquisition of the necessary skills to carry out these jobs, and trying to put into place an overarching strategy to respond to the ageing population. Given that these are all issues with which the new UK government will have to engage, there is likely to be much common ground at least for discussion over the coming months.
For more information on this work, please contact Andrea Broughton at IES.