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FARM & COUNTRY: Limits on worker hours will hit farmers if opt-out is surrendered.

Byline: By IAN JONES

FARMERS could be badly affected if the government gives in to pressure to relinquish its opt-out from the EU's 48-hour working week.

New moves to make the system more flexible - and remove the need for the opt-out - will be tabled at special talks in Brussels next month - including arrangements on doctors' hours which could save the NHS millions of pounds a year.

So far the government has insisted it will not give up the opt-out - meaning that UK employees can work more than 48 hours a week if they wish, in agreement with their bosses.

The extra flexibility improves productivity and boosts the economy, argues the government - and other European countries are increasingly using the opt-out themselves to improve their own labour market flexibility.

But the Finnish Government, in the EU Presidency, has now drawn up a compromise, backed by the European Commission, which officials say offers enough extra flexibility to make the optout redundant.

The move follows a European Court ruling two years ago declaring that "inactive, on-call" working time - doctors on duty but sleeping in hospitals for instance - had to count as working time.

As doctors cannot apply the opt-out, the judgement threatened to scupper Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans for the NHS, and reinforced his opposition to the working time rules.

But the new system proposes changing the current Working Time Directive rules, so that "inactive on-call" time no longer counts as part of normal working hours.

EU officials says they hope Mr Blair will see the move as a way of saving huge sums on the NHS - and drop the opt-out in return.

Government officials are studying the details of the new offer - but keeping tight-lipped about whether it was enough to do a deal.

The proposed changes include lengthening the "reference period" on which the average 48-hour working week is based from six months to one year.

This enables workers to work far longer hours in any one week or set of weeks before the average, taken over a 12-month period - breaches 48 hours.

A current absolute working hour ceiling in any one week of 78 hours would drop to 60 hours, reflecting the removal of inactive on-call time from Government's NHS working hours calculations.

Finally, the opt-out would still remain for the time being, with national governments agreeing to phase it out gradually.

Meanwhile, governments would agree to use it only as a last resort.

The Commission's hope is that, with the new flexibility, everyone will start applying the Work Time Directive.

But that carrot may not be enough for the government, if it calculates that the new flexibility would still overly restrict certain sectors of workers - such as farmers - at key periods of the working year.
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 26, 2006
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