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Labour MEPs to defeat Brown?

Mark Mardell | 06:10 UK time, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

When MEPs' fingers hover above their voting buttons today other fingers in Downing Street will be crossed. A British car worker

Gordon Brown risks a humiliating defeat at the hands of Labour members of the European Parliament, many of whom want to make sure that people in Britain don't work more than 48 hours a week. It's all the more embarrassing for Mr Brown that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are backing his government's position.

The parliament in Strasbourg will vote today on a proposal to get rid of Britain's 15-year-old opt-out from the Working Time Directive. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says more than three million people would be stopped working overtime if the opt-out goes. Open Europe, a think-tank that is very critical of the EU, claims it would cost Britain around £60bn by 2020: an average of £2,300 per household.

But Socialists say it's about being able to work to live, not live to work. They say there should be the same rules across the European Union because it's a common market and the opt-out gives Britain an unfair advantage.

The debate has already taken place, but the vote will be tight. The Labour group is split and so are two of the big political groupings. Apart from some Labour MEPs most of the Socialist group will vote to get rid of Britain's opt-out. The Labour MEP leading the rebellion, Stephen Hughes, says most workers want shorter hours.

Much, but not all of the centre-right, including the Tories, will vote to keep the opt-out. Their leader Philip Bushill-Matthews told the parliament that he recently met a Portuguese woman whose husband had lost his job and who had to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He asked "What hope do you offer her? Either, you say you can't do it, so you're going to have to give up one of your jobs, give up your children, your house. I was elected to look after the people I serve - until I stand down I will stand up for the people who elected me to help them, not to stand in their way."

The Independent MEP from Northern Ireland Jim Allister said he would "refute the right of this parliament of the attempt to rob my country of that entitlement. Control of working hours in my book is a matter exclusively for national control, not for Brussels dictate. If British workers are permitted by their own elected government to work more than 48 hours a week, then why should it matter to those from countries whose governments are more prescriptive? Frankly - it should be none of your business."

Most of the Liberal group, including the Lib Dems, will also vote to keep it, but the French and Italians may take a different view.

The Labour MEPs are split and some sound rather tortured about their decision. Formally they have a meeting at 0900 before the vote a couple of hours later, but I think many will do what they want to do, whatever the group decides as a whole. One told me it was one issue that was raised by people on the doorstep, who told them that they didn't want "Brussels" (or presumably, Strasbourg) interfering with their overtime. Another said he felt it was an issue like poverty pay in the 1970s and society had to move towards giving people a better balance between their work and their life.

Jean Lambert from the Greens said in the debate it was all about health and safety and that tired workers were dangerous workers. "If you are asking people to work long hours, be aware it's a problem - productivity and creativity goes down, which isn't good for a knowledge-based economy. And it certainly doesn't add a lot of quality to work-life balance for people who are too tired to read to their kids when they get home."

So if the MEPs vote against the British opt-out is that it? Overtime banned in Britain from tomorrow? Come off it, this is the European Union. The opt-out would go in 2012, but there's a lot of jaw-jaw before that happens. MEPs appointed by the parliament, rapporteurs in the jargon, would first negotiate with employment ministers from the EU's 27 countries. If they do a deal it is likely to be worse than the status quo, from the British government's point of view. But if British ministers and others won't budge that means it's back to the drawing board. As far as I can see that means Britain would keep the opt-out for a good while, although exactly what would emerge in the end is very uncertain.

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