Thursday, February 17, 2005

We have become more powerful... II

"And for all of those that say, if you look at the last thirty years, we have lost power to Brussels, actually it isn't true. In the last, certainly in the last eight years, as we, the Labour government, have been more involved in Europe, so we have become more powerful and more prosperous, better able, literally to implement a patriotic case for the European Union."

Jack Straw
Foreign Secretary

BBC Today Programme, 9 February 2005

We did not want it, it is going to be highly disruptive to the British economy and it is going to cost us a fortune. But we’re going to get it anyway.

"It" is Directive 2002/15/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 March 2002, on "the organisation of the working time of persons performing mobile road transport activities", otherwise known as the "working time directive".

Relatively short, at a mere five pages, this directive – which comes into force on 23 March of this year - limits the working hours of drivers to 48 hours a week against 55 hours at present. Its cost to the British economy is estimated at £1 billion a year.

But the central issue here is that the UK has an opt-out to the working time directive, which means that the EU could not impose controls under the Social Chapter, leaving us to make our own arrangements.

In July 1997, however – shortly after Blair's NuLab government had been elected - the EU commission came up with a clever wheeze. Instead of pursuing new legislation under the Social Chapter, it decided to categorise transport workers' hours as a health and safety issue. This comes under qualified majority voting provisions, which meant that the UK could not block them.

So, after ritual huffing and puffing, Blair's government caved in, abstaining from the final vote in the Council, to avoid the ignominy of being outvoted. The directive became law on 11 March 2002 and comes into force on 23 March 2005, with a derogation for self-employed drivers until 23 March 2009.

And, as The Telegraph reports today, these EU rules now "threaten chaos on the roads".

In a somewhat unfortunate phrasing, Roland Gribben reports that lorry fleet operators "have started a crash programme" to cope with a cut in working hours. One hopes he is talking figuratively.

Something like another 44,000 drivers have to be recruited and trained yet, despite the warnings, many companies are unprepared to handle the changes. Furthermore, this not only affects the operators, as the Transport and General Workers' Union is worried that its members will lose their overtime and will suffer what amount to long-term wage cuts.

In the way of things, there are also ongoing disputes as to the definition of "working time", with argument as to the designation of periods when drivers are "queuing" to load or unload or are held up. The big problem is when drivers are stuck in traffic jams or, for instance, immobilised on the M25 because of a ferry dispute. The Union believes this should be considered as working time – the employers not.

But all this is detail compared with the rigours of the original impost, a measure which, we stress, neither government, the industry or the unions wanted. Yet the directive was imposed on Britain and we are stuck with it, the whole thing having come into being during those last eight years, when, as Jack Straw claims, "we, the Labour government, have been more involved in Europe" and "have become more powerful and more prosperous…".

Yeah, right.

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