DAMAGING rules that limit doctors' working hours prove the need to claw back powers from the European Union, William Hague has said.

The Richmond MP and Foreign Secretary warned the EU working time directive (WTD) was making it "harder to run a hospital in a rural area, like in my constituency".

The stance echoes long-standing criticism, by the 250-bed Friarage Hospital in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, that the rules threatened its future status.

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However, junior doctors have reacted furiously to suggestions that Britain will try to opt out of the WTD - warning it would return the NHS to the bad old days of 100-hour working weeks.

The row blew up after Mr Hague carried out a series of interviews to make the case for an 'in-out' referendum, in 2017, to decide whether Britain remains a member of EU - if the Tories win the next general election.

The Foreign Secretary was put under pressure to provide specific examples of the powers that Britain will try to 'repatriate', in talks with other EU members.

Quizzed on Channel 4 News, Mr Hague pointed out that the Conservatives had proposed, in their 2010 election manifesto, that Britain should enjoy an opt out from the WTD.

And he said: "It means it's much harder to run a hospital in a rural area, like in my constituency, and that directly affects our health service.

"This is a specific example - and you asked for specific examples - but I can't, today, set out a list for the negotiations, because Europe is changing."

Mr Hague did not refer specifically to the Friarage and his spokesman was unable to elaborate on the remarks, when asked yesterday.

As far back as 2005, managers and senior doctors at the hospital pointed to limits on the working hours of junior doctors as a threat to its status as a 24-hour, consultant-led maternity unit.

A controversial proposal, put forward last year, would scrap the consultant-led services at the Friarage's maternity unit and downgrade the paediatric unit.

However, a spokeswoman for South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, said: "The working time directive has no impact on, or connection, with the proposed changes to children's and maternity services."

But Ben Molyneux, chairman of the BMA junior doctors' committee, warned that patients would pay the price if the rules were rolled back in Britain.

He said: "Junior doctors have become pawns in the political argument about the powers of the EU.

"Before the introduction of the WTD, it was not uncommon for junior doctors to work 100-hour weeks. The directive seeks to protect doctors and patients, as there is clear evidence that tired people make more mistakes."