Government and unions differ on EU information and consultation proposals

The European Commission's ideas on new EU provisions for national-level employee information and consultation, issued in June 1997, have been welcomed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) but frowned upon by the Government and Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

On 4 June, Padraig Flynn, the European Commissioner responsible for social affairs, employment and industrial relations, launched a consultation document on "information and consultation of workers within the national framework" (EU9706132F). The document constitutes the first stage of consultation of the European-level social partners under the Maastricht social policy Agreement procedure, and could thus lead to a European-level agreement and/or Community legislation. If the Commission's proposals bear fruit, there would be minimum standards across Europe to ensure that workers enjoy rights to be informed and consulted. These rights would apply to all workers in enterprises above a certain size (50 employees has been suggested as a possible threshold). The new measure would reinforce existing requirements on national information and consultation over transfers of undertakings, collective redundancies and health and safety issues.

New rules in this area would affect the UK and Ireland more significantly than other EU member states, which already have relatively extensive information and consultation rights in place. In the UK, the Commission's proposals are generally seen as requiring the creation of works council-type bodies.

The TUC has welcomed the proposals, arguing that growing economic integration as a result of the completion of the internal market means that proper consultation in all companies of medium size and above should be ensured. John Monks, TUC general secretary, said: "These proposals also provide a golden opportunity for rationalising the UK's current complex patchwork of existing requirements and bringing the UK into line with European requirements that the previous government had ignored ... I look forward to the discussion at European level with employers and unions to see whether an agreed framework can be negotiated". The TUC's main point is that good basic minimum requirements for best practice are just as important to creating a single European market as the dismantling of tariffs.

There are signs that the UK's new Labour Government may lack enthusiasm for the proposals. A report in The Times suggests that the Government may be poised to reject the proposals, quoting Downing street officials as saying that "we are not in favour of new regulation in this area" and would have to be convinced of the necessity of the proposals. The Government is keen to promote flexible labour markets and may see the proposals as a possible hindrance to employment, fearing that the outcome of consultations may be too prescriptive.

The CBI has also opposed new EU rules on national-level information and consultation, fearing that they would hinder industrial restructuring and competitiveness. There is a concern that businesses should not be weighed down with unnecessary "red tape".

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