Britain must keep the opt-out

DOES Britain have a "long hours" work culture? Should there be curbs on employees' freedom to work longer hours if they choose? And what are the likely costs of such a change in the law?

These are the key questions raised by the vote in the European Parliament yesterday to prevent people working more than 48 hours a week and to end the UK's opt-out from the Working Time Directive. To these questions another can fairly be added: if we want to change the laws that affect our working lives, whose will should prevail: Britain or Brussels? The majority in Brussels yesterday was achieved with the support of continental socialists, communists and "greens".

The debate goes to the heart of concern about the "work-life balance" and worries that we are becoming a work-obsessed society. But on what does the case for legislation rest? There has been a substantial growth of part-time working in Britain and in flexi-time working arrangements. Moreover, the average weekly working hours for full-time workers here is not excessive. It dropped to about 36 hours in the early Eighties and has hovered around that level ever since. Unpaid overtime adds about two to three hours a week. While about 20 per cent of workers do work 48 hours a week or more, these include self-employed and small-business people and professionals, managers and administrators who are generally more highly paid. Average working hours in Britain are very much in the middle for developed economies.

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And it would be foolish to pretend that losing the opt-out will be costless. There are many small businesses, particularly in retail and transport, that would be very badly hit by this proposal. Some firms will simply not be able to afford it. Also, it is this and similar regulation that has been largely responsible for the eurozone's lacklustre economic growth record and high levels of unemployment. The latest EU statistics show an unemployment rate in the UK of 4.7 per cent. The comparable figure in the eurozone is 8.9 per cent. In Germany, where pressure to end the UK opt-out is strong, unemployment now stands at more than five million. In France, with unemployment at 9.8 per cent, the 35-hour week regime has recently been modified to encourage business investment - and job creation.

And opposition to ending the opt-out is by no means confined to employers warning of its anti-competitive effects. Many employees value the freedom to work 48 hours or more if they choose. They may need extra money for the deposit on a home, or to pay for an overseas holiday they could not otherwise afford. The issue now goes to the Council of Ministers, where the UK government is set to resist. It is right to do so.

The Clydesdale closures

ONCE upon a time, the Clydesdale Bank was a major player on the Scottish scene, funding Clydeside businesses during Scotland's industrial heyday. But yesterday, the Clydesdale announced it was closing 60 local branches as part of a major restructuring by its parent company, National Australia Bank.

It would be wrong to be too nostalgic about the Clydesdale. Overall, Scotland has carved out a world-class stake in banking, and we should expect occasional losers as well as winners in the highly competitive world of global finance. And while the loss of local bank branches is unfortunate from a social point of view, the market is clearly changing with the advent of telephone banking and the use of the home PC. To its credit, the Clydesdale has also been at pains to ensure that existing customers can still access personal banking services through their local post office.

That said, there is still a feeling that the Clydesdale has been managed less than perfectly by NAB. Preoccupied with its own problems, NAB has often dithered regarding the business focus for the Clydesdale, while there is a deep suspicion that the retrenchment in Scotland is influenced by the Australian company's massive losses as a result of rogue trading.

Critics should recognise that the Clydesdale needs to take corrective action. But endless cutting back is not the way to build great companies.

Tebbit's insult to Scotland

NORMAN Tebbit, the "Chingford skinhead", has had a flamboyant political career. As a Cabinet minister under Mrs Thatcher, he famously called on the unemployed to "get on their bike" and find work. He also invented the "cricket test", by which immigrants could only be deemed British once they supported the English cricket team.

Lord Tebbit has returned to the fray to suggest that Sir Malcolm Rifkind should not become the next Tory leader because he is Scottish (though he represents an English seat). Possibly Lord Tebbit believes Sir Malcolm fails the cricket test. More likely, he thinks that there are too many Scots running English affairs. True, the Tories polled more votes in England last week than did Labour. And it is constitutionally dangerous for Labour to use its Scottish voting fodder to ram through legislation applicable only in England.

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But Lord Tebbit's distasteful intervention trivialises the problem. The Tories are a national party and must seek the most able leader, regardless of their origins. As for answering the West Lothian question, that requires some constitutional reform, probably involving MPs from English constituencies - including Sir Malcolm - sitting as an English Grand Committee.