Along with Grampian Fire & Rescue Service Joint Board members Cllr Brian Topping and Cllr Stephen Smith, and Westminster candidate for Banff and Buchan Eilidh Whiteford, I recently visited the retained duty fire station at Fraserburgh. We met with Area Manager Fraser Burr and Station sub-officer John Anderson to hear of the very real concerns arising from a vote in the European Parliament on revision of the EU Working Time Directive.
There is a great deal controversy surrounding attempts to review the Directive. There are strongly held views, across a range of viewpoints, on some of the specific issues such as the right of individual employees to opt out of the 48 hour maximum working week, as well as the classification of "on call" time within the proposed new directive. For those, and many other reasons, a recent compromise position thrashed out among the 27 Member State governments was reached only with great difficulty.
As a matter of principle I believe that workers should have the free and genuinely voluntary option of choosing the hours they work. If there is to be any continuation of opt out arrangements, then workers must be protected from exploitation. The Common Position attempts to achieve this balance. It would continue to permit individuals to opt-out of the 48 hours (on average) maximum weekly working limit contained in the Directive. It also introduces new safeguards, designed to prevent the exploitation of individuals.
This is not just a Scottish or UK concern, as 14 other Member States make use of certain opt-out provisions too. The Common Position text claims to retain the flexibility of the individual opt-out whilst strengthening the important protection mechanisms for workers. On balance, and after due consideration, I voted in favour of the compromise proposal - i.e. retaining the opt-out but with the new safeguards.
However, a majority of MEPs (including Scotlandʼs Labour and Lib Dem MEPs) voted in favour of scrapping the right to opt out. The European Parliament position favours no exceptions to the 48 hours maximum weekly working time, and says the opt-out should end three years after the adoption of the directive. It also says that any period of on-call time should count as working time. These proposals, if enacted, would have a drastic effect on the retained firefighting services which most of Scotland depends upon for vital cover in emergency situations.
It is clear that the present system, which works extremely well, would be made inoperable if the decision to end the working time opt-out is confirmed.
Thankfully, there is still time to influence the outcome. Because there is a significant disagreement between the collective position of the 27 member states and that of the European Parliament, a conciliation process is planned, which means that a considerable amount of further negotiation is foreseen. There can be no revised Directive without a qualified majority agreement in both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
The input and information provided by the firefighters will prove invaluable in the continuing campaign to support retained fire cover.