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Cook: keen to sign

What the Social Chapter Means for Britain

On May 5, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook opened a "new chapter in Britain's relations with Europe". He declared: "At today's meeting Britain will take the first step towards signing up to the Social Chapter. We will tell our European partners that we want the rights and benefits of the Social Chapter to extend to the people of Britain."

Mr Cook said, "We do not accept that the British people should be second-class citizens with less rights than employees on the continent...The British people have demanded to share in the benefits of the Social chapter in repeated opinion polls. Today's initiative is a democratic response to the wishes of the British people."

"It marks a fresh start in Europe for Britain, working with other member states as a partner, not as an opponent," he added.

The Social Protocol, or Social Chapter, was signed by 11 EC states at Maastricht - only Britain opted out. The chapter was annexed to the Treaty on European Union. When they joined the EU, Sweden, Finland and Austria also signed the Social Protocol.

To date only two pieces of legislation have been adopted under the Social Protocol:

  • The Works Council directive which requires employers to consult employees before making major changes in the workplace.
  • The Parental Leave directive which specifies that parents should be allowed a maximum of three months unpaid leave after the birth of a child to be taken over a period of eight years.

What the Social Chapter is Not

Often attempts are made to link the minimum wage and the working time directive with the Social Chapter. The minimum wage has absolutely nothing to do with any EU legislation. The working time directive was adopted under the health and safety clause of the Single European Act, not under the Social Chapter.

Future Legislation?

The signatory states are legally bound to implement legislation adopted by qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers in the following areas:

  • improvement in particular of the working environment to protect workers' health and safety
  • working conditions
  • the information and consultation of workers
  • equality between men and women with regard to labour market opportunities and treatment at work
  • the integration of persons excluded from the labour market, without prejudice to Article 127 of the Treaty establishing the EC.

The signatory states are legally bound to implement legislation adopted unanimously in the Council of Ministers on:

  • social security and social protection of workers
  • protection of workers where their employment contract is terminated
  • representation and collective defence of the interests of workers and employers, including co-determination, but not including pay, the right of association, the right to strike or the right to impose lockouts.
  • conditions of employment for third country nationals legally resident in Community territory
  • financial contributions for promotion of employment and job creation, without prejudice to the provisions relating to the Social Fund.

Who are the Social Partners?

Any piece of social legislation that is proposed by the Commission must be agreed first by the Social Partners. These are the representatives of all European employers (UNICE) and representatives of all European trade unions (ETUC) who have permanent representatives in Brussels to discuss social legislation.

Once the proposal is agreed by the Social Partners, it goes through one of two possible processes of amendment by the Council of Ministers (Social Affairs ministers from each member state), the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee. The Council of Ministers has the final say in each case, however in some instances it is forced to accept amendments from the European Parliament.

Of the three proposals that are being considered, two are at such an early stage that it is impossible to predict what their contents will be.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The European Commission has asked the Social Partners to consider putting together a proposal to address sexual harassment in the workplace. If the social partners are unable to agree to discuss the issue, then there will be no proposal. So there is no detail to discuss at this stage, but the nature of the proposal is unlikely to involve extra costs to business. It would require a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers to be adopted.

More Rights for Part-time workers

This proposal is still being discussed by the Social Partners, so again, there is very little to go on in terms of detail. It is easy to guess what the contents might be, but it is likely that there will be exemptions for certain types of workers. It would require unanimity in the Council of Ministers to be adopted. The final measure should be adopted in the autumn by the Social Affairs Council.

Additional Burden of Proof

A directive concerning sex discrimination cases changes the burden of proof in a sex discrimination case, so that instead of the complainant having to prove that they were discriminated against, they must just establish a prima facie case - that is, have a reasonable amount of evidence - that they were discriminated against.

The employer would then have to prove that they did not discriminate against the complainant. It would require a qualified majority in the council of ministers to be adopted.

Tories Warn of Legislation by the Back-Door

Although only two pieces of legislation have so far been passed under the Social Chapter, the Conservatives point out that once the UK signs up to the chapter, other European countries will be able to pass legislation on some social issues by qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers.

Qualified majority voting in the council of ministers requires 62 out of 87 votes - of which the UK has 10 - to pass legislation. It is possible that other European countries could force the UK to implement legislation the UK minister has voted against in the Council of Ministers.

Furthermore, any Acts of Parliament passed under the Social Chapter could not be repealed without the agreement of the Council of Ministers.

Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961-1997

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