Letter from Westminster 20.02.09

In general terms I think that laws to prevent the exploitation of workers by employers are a good thing.

It must be wrong, for example, that BMW can sack workers who have been in their employment for four or five years with just one hour’s notice simply because they are “agency workers”. Agency work­ing is an important part of what business needs to provide a flexible workforce but to deny them any employment rights after that length of time is an abuse of the system.

What happens, however, when the law seeks to protect people from themselves? Has it then gone too far? I fear it might have. It was an issue which was thrown into sharp relief last week during the Commons debate that I had obtained on the future of the retained firefighters service should the “opt-out” pro­visions from the EU working time directive be brought to an end.

For those who work as retained firefighters the placing of a rigid 48-hour limit on the working week could be problematic. Their concern is that if they start from a commit­ment of between 37 and 40 hours per week to their primary employer, and add two to three hours training, then they can be left with between five and eight hours per week in which they can be available to serve as retained (i.e. part-time) firefighters.

If we cannot maintain a retained service then the obvious alternative is to move over to a completely full-time service. Inevitably there would be fewer full-time stations cover­ing larger areas of ground. Res­ponse times for many commun­ities can not be the same and inevitably the qual-ity of service provided will suffer.

So why is this a problem just for the UK and not for other EU coun-tries? In fact it may not be. Although the opt-out is often refer­red to as the UK opt-out it is in fact available to workers in around 14 of the EU member states. In many other mem-ber states, however, the cover is provided by local volunteers rather than by part-time professionals.

As it is a voluntary effort it is not subject to the working time directive. Volunteers can be very effectively organised, equipped and trained, as is the case with lifeboat crews. But the RNLI is a massive and well-resourced organisation which has grown over the years. It could not be re-created for rural fire services over night.

The fact is that the retained duty system works well for many com­munities, especially in the less densely populated parts of the country. For once we seem to have a government minister who under­stands this and who is prepared to argue the case.

The European Parliament voted last year to end the opt-out but that is not the end of the story. There is now a negotiation to take place between the Parliament, the Com­mission and the Council (the national governments of the member states). Once we know the outcome of that we shall know whether or not we need a Plan B for the retained fire fighters.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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