Working time and flexibility in the United Kingdom

AutorMark Butler
CargoLecturer in Law, Lancaster University
IUSLabor 1/2016
Mark Butler
Lecturer in Law, Lancaster University
Transposition of the 1993 Working Time Directive into UK national law was satisfied
through the Working Time Regulations 1998 (hereinafter ‘WTR’). Although there is a
significant period of time between the Directive being produced and the UK’s
transposition, much of this delay was a consequence of the UK’s challenge of the legal
base selected for introducing the Directive. Despite having secured numerous
derogations during negotiations the UK subsequently sought to prevent the Directive
being adopted by vetoing it, on the belief that as a social policy instrument it would
require unanimous support in Council. However, the Directive was adopted as a health
and safety measure pursuant to Article 118a of the EC Treaties (now Article of 137 of
the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union), and thus only required a
qualified majority. It was this choice of legal base that was the basis of the legal
31 The challenge ultimately failed with the European Court deciding that the
Directive had been correctly adopted as a health and safety measure. The incoming
Labour Government in 1997 announced its intention to implement the Directive, and
did so following a consultation exercise.
1. Does the regulation on working time establish a daily, weekly and/or annual
limit of working hours? If so, what is the maximum working hours?
According to Regulation 4(1) WTR, working time is restricted to a maximum of 48
hours per week; however, this is not a strict limit, with the average being calculated
over a reference period. The standard reference period is set at 17 weeks32, although this
rises to 26 weeks in certain special cases.33 The reference period can be extended to 52
weeks through a relevant collective or workforce agreement.34 This introduces a
significant element of flexibility into the regulation of working time in the UK.
31 United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irela nd v Council of the Europea n Union [1997 ]
I.R.L.R. 30; for useful commentary on the decisión see Fitzpatrick (1997) 26 I.L.J. 115.
32 Regulation 4(3) WTR.
33 Regulation 4(5) and Regulation 21 WTR.
34 Regulation 23(b) WTR.

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