Traditionally, it has been the norm in UK working practice for terms and conditions of employment to be found in a worker’s contract, rather than in the law. Unlike the situation in many countries on the Continent, no employee in this country has a general legal right to holidays – not even Bank Holidays – and any worker’s entitlement to leave, paid or otherwise, is determined by his employer.

With the Labour Government’s commitment to adopting the so-called Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, this is about to change. A number of measures are to be introduced in the UK, including a new right to parental leave, but the most contentious of them to date is that which places restrictions on the working time of individual employees. The previous Government had tried to invalidate the imposition of these rules on the UK because it feared they would threaten the success of Britain’s flexible employment framework. Its technical challenge to the European Court was, however, unsuccessful.

New regulations to implement the Working Time Directive are, consequently, being prepared and are due to be implemented here on 1 October. They have three main features:

Weekly working hours

Under the new rules, no employee – apart from those in excluded sectors – can be forced to work more than an average of 48 hours per week. This average will be calculated by employers over a standard four-month period. The rule will not, therefore, mean that no employee can be required to work more than 48 hours in any one week. Rather, it will mean that, if a worker works over that figure for much of the reference period, the employer will need to ensure – in the terms of the regulations ‘take all reasonable steps to ensure’ – that the worker concerned curtails his or her hours in order to fall within the maximum permitted figure for the period.

This maximum hours rule can be disapplied with respect to any individual worker if he or she agrees, in writing, that it should be disapplied.

Rest breaks

All workers will be entitled to minimum rest breaks and rest periods. Where an individual’s working day exceeds six hours, he or she will be entitled to a break of at least 20 minutes, which may be taken away from his or her workstation. All workers will also benefit from a rest period of at least 11 hours in every 24-hour period, and an uninterrupted rest period of at least two individual days (either taken together or separately) in every 14-day period.

Annual leave

For the first time, the law will provide a right for all employees to take three weeks paid annual leave. This figure will rise to four weeks with effect from November 1999.

As things stand, the new rules are poised to apply to all employees, including temporary and part-time employees, except where express exclusions apply. None of the entitlements outlined above, for example, apply to trainee doctors or workers in the transport industries. Neither do they apply to those in managerial positions or in family businesses. For workers in hospitals, the media and agriculture (among other sectors), the provisions relating to rest periods and annual leave do not apply.

For most workers, these new rights will not impact greatly on their existing working conditions. Neither will they impose excessively on the workplace practices of individual employers, most of whom are aware that, if they wish to attract and retain staff, particularly at a time when there is something of a skills shortage, the terms of employment they offer must be competitive. Few employers, moreover, will find it unreasonable to provide staff with a break of 20 minutes during a normal working day.

Against this, the new rules do represent still more administrative work for employers. They will need to keep accurate and up-to-date records of all their workers’ working time and, where applicable, calculate average working hours. Employers will commit a criminal offence if they breach any of their obligations under the new regulations and workers will be free to take their employer to an industrial tribunal if their legal rights are denied them. Employers may find it necessary to review their existing contracts of employment to avoid any conflict with the new law and to discuss detailed aspects of it with their individual staff or with their trade union.

• John Davies FCIS is a senior technical officer at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.