Is Jacob Rees-Mogg going to scrap holiday entitlement and 48-hour week? What are the Working Time Regulations?

Some experts warn that rather than improving productivity, increasing the overall number of hours worked could have a detrimental effect not only on productivity but also wellbeing.

Plans to scrap regulations which force employers to give workers annual paid leave and limit the working week to 48 hours could be scrapped in what has been described as a “declaration of war” on working people.

Trade unions and legal experts have warned that reported plans to review the Working Time Regulations could lead to more accidents at work and reduce employee wellbeing for millions of workers.

The plans are reportedly being considered as part of Liz Truss’ wider agenda to boost growth, but economists have argued that increasing working hours could have a detrimental effect on productivity.

What are the Working Time Regulations?

One of Truss’ first pledges during the leadership contest was to evaluate any EU laws or regulations that remain on the statute books by the end of 2023 and scrap any that are not deemed to support growth or boost investment.

Among the EU-derived laws likely to be scrapped if Truss goes ahead with this plan are a number of protections and entitlements for workers which were implemented in 1998, called the Working Time Regulations.

As the leadership election approached its conclusion, The Times reported that Truss was considering a review of the rules around working hours, paid leave and rest breaks, in a bid to make the UK labour market more competitive.

The Working Time Regulations stipulate that the vast majority of workers do not work more than 48-hours per week on average unless they choose to opt out, and that employers cannot discriminate against workers who choose not to opt out.

The regulations also enshrine in law the right to paid time off, equating to 5.6 weeks per year, and rest breaks, with employers mandated to provide at least a 20-minute uninterrupted break during a workday of six hours or more.

Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Jacob Rees-Mogg. (Pic credit: Rob Pinney / Getty Images)

As the Working Time Regulations were adopted into UK law by statutory instrument the government could repeal them without introducing primary legislation, meaning MPs may not get a say in the decision.

However, this could lead to tensions and even spark a trade dispute with the EU, as the terms of the deal struck with the EU when the UK left stipulate that the government cannot diverge from bloc rules to an extent that would give the UK an unfair advantage over other European states.

Neil Todd, trade union specialist at Thompsons Solicitors, said the Working Time Regulations contain “fundamental rights for British workers” which, along with the National Minimum Wage Regulations introduced in the same year, “afford vital protection to ensure workers are treated fairly and not subject to exploitation”.

He said: “When Britain left the EU, it signed an agreement with a “non-regression” clause, designed to prevent the government from eroding worker rights in an attempt to undercut states prepared to value its working citizens and safeguard their health and safety.

“If the leaked reports are to be believed, it appears the government neither cares for its workers or the commitments it made at the time it left the EU.”

Does working longer hours increase productivity?

Conservatives have long argued that the limits on working time make the UK a less attractive labour market for foreign companies to invest in, and that by stripping away regulation the UK could improve its productivity.

Productivity measures the output per hour of the average UK worker. It is relatively low compared with similar countries and has been in steady decline for the last 15 years or so.

While Truss has previously argued that this is down to a lack of effort on the part of workers, working hours among UK workers are already among the highest of comparable countries.

Some experts warn that rather than improving productivity, increasing the overall number of hours worked could have a detrimental effect not only on productivity but also wellbeing.

Prime Minister Liz Truss visits Berkeley Modular, in Northfleet, in south-east England. Picture: Dylan Martinez/AFP via Getty Images

Jack Kellam Researcher at Autonomy said: “UK workers are already burned out by some of the longest hours in Europe. This isn’t only harming their physical and mental health, it’s damaging their productivity too.

Growing evidence from four-day week trials around the world is showing that – to kick-start the UK economy – we should focus on reducing working time, and benefit from a better rested, healthier and more productive workforce.

“It’s time we dropped the out-dated, unevidenced idea that long hours improve productivity. Rather than rolling back on protections, we should be looking towards a bold new set of workers’ rights to help move the UK economy into the twenty-first century.”

Trade unions have also pushed back against the suggestion that scrapping the regulations would be beneficial to workers or the economy more generally.

There are also concerns that allowing companies to require their staff to work longer working weeks could lead to more accidents at work, or result in overworked and tired staff making mistakes.

Sampson Low, head of policy at Unison, told NationalWorld that excessive hours “are so damaging for employees’ safety and well-being”.

He said: "Scrapping the directive would be a gift to unscrupulous employers. It ensures safe shift patterns and rest breaks in the NHS and has increased holiday leave for those on zero-hour contracts workers.

“Dropping this protection would allow bad bosses to exploit as they wish. The government needs to see the error of its ways and think again."

The IFS warned the UK government was “betting the house” by cutting taxes by so much (image: PA)

‘A war on working people’

It would not be the first time that plans to review the regulations have been mooted, as Boris Johnson’s government were reported to have been seriously considering the measure last year.

In January 2021 the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was carrying out a review of workers’ rights, which the Financial Times reported was likely to result in changes to the Working Time Regulations.

After significant backlash from Labour MPs and trade unions, then business-secretary Kwasi Kwarteng denied the review would result in a watering down of rights, but then later announced the review would no longer go ahead.

At the time, the proposals were thought to include not factoring in overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements and ending the requirement for businesses to log employees’ working hours.

The new business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg has previously criticised the Working Time Regulations and more broadly speaking has called for a massive overhaul of so-called ‘red tape’.

The Times reported last week that Whitehall sources believe Rees-Mogg will scrap the working-time directive, along with a number of other EU-derived regulations.

Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough and a former shadow secretary of state for employment rights said the Conservatives are “declaring war on working people”.

"Nurses, paramedics, hospital cleaners, bus drivers, rail and postal workers all worked around the clock during the pandemic to keep our public services going,” he said.

“Now Liz Truss is repaying these Covid heroes by stripping away the very limited employment rights that remain after more than 12 years of Tory-led governments.

"Instead of attacks on workers’ rights from the Tories, Britain desperately needs a New Deal for Working People as set out in the Labour Party’s Employment Rights Green Paper that commits to banning zero-hours contracts, outlawing pernicious ‘Fire and Rehire’ tactics, and delivering well-paid, secure and unionised jobs through Fair Pay Agreements."