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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered exiting the EU and workers’
It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to debate a matter as important as workers’ rights, which our country and this House have a very proud record and history of upholding. I am also pleased to be opening the first in a number of debates about some of the specific policy areas connected with leaving the EU. The Prime Minister has made it clear that Members of this House will have the opportunity thoroughly to discuss how we leave the EU with regard to a number of issues—we have had another opportunity earlier today—in a way that respects the decision that the people took on
In the near future we will also have the chance to discuss other important issues that will affect the future of our country, but it is quite right that we start that series of debates with an issue that is so important to all of our constituents, namely the protection of workers’ rights. It is heartening to see so many Members from all sides of the House present to debate this issue, late into a day of intense interest. It affects every working person in this country.
This Government place a great deal of importance on the fundamental protections that workers in the UK have. Whether protection from discrimination or unfair dismissal, equal treatment—working full time or part time— or the right to a minimum wage or to paid holiday, the Government are committed to safeguarding those rights.
I am delighted to hear the Secretary of State’s commitment to safeguarding existing employment rights here in the UK that derive from the European Union. However, is he aware that while we are debating our exit from the EU, it is forging ahead with new employment rights that we would hope people in the UK would also benefit from, and will he extend his commitment to ensuring that we do not fall behind the rest of the EU?
I will come on to say something about that in a few seconds, which I hope will satisfy the hon. Lady.
No one listening to this debate should think that we have any intention of eroding the rights that we enjoy in this country through our process of leaving the European Union. In fact, the opposite is true. We will be using the legislation before this House to entrench all existing workers’ rights in British law, whatever future relationship the UK has with the EU.
This Government introduced the national living wage as well, and I will go on to talk about some other proud achievements. It is a helpful feature of this debate that we are able to say, clearly and unambiguously, that all the rights derived from membership of the EU will be imported into UK law through legislation in this House.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This House has had good reason to be proud of the protections we have given workers in this country over the years. We do not need to rely on protections from the EU. We have inaugurated them in this House, and have a proud history of doing so over the years.
The Secretary of State just said that he would guarantee all protections. Will he absolutely confirm that that is going ahead of what the Government have said in the past—that it would only be “wherever practical”? Will he also rule out the idea of the great repeal Bill having a sunset clause that would mean that all EU law expired unless it had been specifically endorsed anew by the Government?
I will be very clear that all of the workers’ rights that are enjoyed under the EU will be part of that Bill and will be brought across into UK law. That is very clear. There is no intention of having a sunset clause.
Currently all workers’ rights are guaranteed by the European Court of Justice. After we leave they will be guaranteed by the Supreme Court, advised by us. Therefore, in the future they can all be ripped up if we leave the EU, if that is the choice of future Governments; if we stay in the EU they cannot be ripped up but are guaranteed. They are guaranteed only under EU law. They cannot be sustainably guaranteed by the Secretary of State.
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I would have thought that hundreds of years of parliamentary sovereignty and a robust and independent judiciary are a very strong guarantee of the rights we have in this country.
I share my hon. Friend’s puzzlement at the lack of confidence in the institutions that we are very proud of in this country. I am astonished by it.
As we leave the European Union, the Prime Minister has indicated that it is our intention to give businesses and workers the certainty they should expect. When the great repeal Bill was announced in October, this Government clearly stated, and we reiterate today, that all EU law in this area will be brought into British law. I hope the House will agree that that will give certainty and continuity to employees and employers alike, creating a stability in which the UK can grow and thrive.
I have been very clear that all of the existing law under the EU will be brought into British law. There is no intention of changing that. In fact, so far from wanting to dilute current law, in many ways, as my hon. Friend Kevin Foster has said, we go further than the EU in a number of important respects. For example, in the UK all workers are protected by a strong set of core rights that do not depend on the type of contract—full time or part time— an employee may be on. That is not consistently the case in other European countries. In the UK, women who have had a child can enjoy 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave and 39 weeks of pay, not just the 14 weeks under EU law.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Brexit offers an opportunity to strengthen workers’ rights? [Hon. Members: “Sit down!”] Will he look at my Parental Bereavement Leave (Statutory Entitlement) Bill, which would give the UK the best workers’ rights in the world?
Opposition Members should attend with greater courtesy to my hon. Friend, who speaks with a great deal of experience and knowledge of rights for parents who have suffered bereavement. He has made excellent speeches about that in the House. His private Member’s Bill, which has a huge amount to commend of it, would allow bereaved parents to have time off to deal with the consequences of an infant death in their family. I look forward to working with him to make use of his knowledge and wisdom, and to see whether, through the reforms that we will introduce, we can capture the spirit of what he says. I am grateful for his intervention today and his earlier contributions.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way again—he is being extremely generous in taking interventions. Does he recall as I do that, in the previous Parliament, many of us campaigned on the matter of zero-hours contracts? Nothing had been done about that for 13 long years under the Labour Government, and our Government, and campaigners on the Government side of the House, including me, made the case for legislation on exclusivity contracts, which was passed. We did not wait for Europe; we did it here.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have not waited for Europe. Through many centuries the condition of working people has been an important responsibility of the House, and we have advanced that consistently, as we did on zero-hours contracts. When my hon. Friend says that I am being generous in taking interventions, I interpret it as a coded signal that I ought to make progress, so I will do precisely that.
Not at the moment.
As the House knows, from last year, subject to certain conditions, parental leave can be shared by the father of a child, giving families choice as to how they balance their home and work responsibilities. That is not part of EU legislation—the House introduced it. In addition, the UK offers 18 weeks’ parental leave, and that provision goes beyond the EU directive because it is available until the child’s 18th birthday. All UK employees enjoy more than five weeks’ statutory annual leave—5.6 weeks—not just the four weeks set out in EU law. It is therefore clear that in this case, as in others, British law is stronger and goes further than EU law. The Government have shown our commitment to extending workers’ rights when that is the right choice for the UK. We will continue to do so when we leave the European Union.
Many of the increases in rights for working people that the Secretary of State has mentioned are the result of Labour Governments who have been incredibly progressive on workers’ rights. The Government have introduced tribunal fees and increased minimum employment thresholds to restrict individuals’ access to their rights. With regard to primary legislation, will the working time directive have the same status as the Employment Rights Act 1996 as and when all laws are entrenched into UK legislation through the great repeal Bill?
We have discussed a number of areas in which the Government have extended workers’ rights. My hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke cited the important protection against exclusivity in zero-hours contracts. This Government and our predecessors introduced the national living wage. The hon. Lady should therefore be a bit more generous in giving credit. Of course, the working time directive, like all other directives that are part of EU law, will be transposed into UK law so that there is continuity.
My hon. Friend is exactly right and we continue that tradition today. I am not sure that we regulate the morals of apprentices, but the health of apprentices is very important. The Conservative party has been the party of workers’ rights over the centuries, from Shaftesbury’s Factory Acts to William Hague’s Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The Conservatives have always understood that the decent treatment of people at work is not at the expense of industrial success, but a foundation of it.
Since 2010, the Conservatives have strengthened the rights of workers. This April, the Government introduced the mandatory national living wage for workers aged 25 and above, meaning that a full-time low-paid worker earns £900 more a year than they did before its introduction. We have also cracked down on employers who break national minimum wage and national living wage law. We have increased the enforcement budget by more than £9 million and strengthened enforcement so that people who break the law face an increased financial penalty—it has increased from 100% to 200% of arrears.
Our measures to protect workers’ rights and support our labour market have meant more people in work, more people earning a living and more people contributing to the prosperity of the UK than ever before. Our high employment rate is complemented by strong protections for UK workers, so our country is not only a great place to start a business, but a great place to work. However, to maintain that position, especially as we leave the European Union, we cannot stand still. We need to make further changes that support workers’ rights in the tradition of Conservative Governments over the years.
I have given way already to the hon. Gentleman.
This Government will not only maintain existing rights, but set a very high standard. Like most Members of the House, I want to deliver an economy that works for everyone. Workers’ rights have an important part to play in that. We will build on the work that the Government have done to combine the dynamism of the UK labour market with robust protections for workers.
I do not share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend Geraint Davies for the European Court of Justice. The ECJ’s Laval and Viking judgments undermined the minimum wage and changed the definition of what it was to go on strike, which loosened workers’ rights. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will look at those judgments with a view to increasing workers’ rights, guaranteeing the minimum wage against those judgments, and maintaining the previous definitions of going on strike?
I will look at those judgments, but the hon. Gentleman establishes the point that the House is more than capable of setting high standards of protection, as it has done for many centuries.
The Secretary of State will know that the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice established the principle of direct effect for various provisions of EU treaties and directives, meaning that they require no implementation at all by the Government. Will he confirm that, even with the great repeal Bill, those rights that are directly effective, and on which workers can rely, will remain post-Brexit?
I think it is clear from what I and my hon. Friends have said that we have a proud tradition in the House of setting standards for workers and employment protections that are adjusted to this country, and that go beyond the more basic protections offered by other countries and the EU. I will not comment on the Uber case; I believe it is subject to an appeal.
The Government announced an independent review of employment practices in the modern economy to investigate how we can respond to the rapidly changing world of work to ensure, as we have in the past, that changing patterns of employment are accompanied by a consideration, including by the House, of appropriate necessary protections so that the economy continues to have the right framework of employment protections for the workers of this country. The review will address six themes: security, pay and rights; progression and training; defining rights and responsibilities in new business models; representation of employees; opportunities for under-represented groups; and how new business models can be supported. Colleagues may have read or been present for Friday’s excellent debate on unpaid internships that was led by my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke. I am pleased that we have included the question of unpaid internships in the review.
Several times the Secretary of State has referred to the plan to transpose all these matters into UK law and several times he has referred to this House. What consideration has been given to issues that are clearly within devolved competencies? At what point will they be devolved? Will it be from day one with the commencement of the great repeal Act, or will those powers be held in some sort of holding centre here before they are subsequently devolved?
When we set out the legislation, I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will want to meet Northern Ireland Ministers and the hon. Gentleman’s party to consider how best to deal with that. The clear intention is that all rights and protections available through the EU will come back to the United Kingdom and be active from day one. There will be no gap.
Where rights are breached, we are taking action. We have already named nearly 700 employers that have not paid the national minimum wage. They owe more than £3.5 million in arrears between them. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will investigate every complaint it receives and ensure that miscreants are made to pay their arrears and fined for any offence. Crucially, we will be vigorous and proactive, looking across the workforce and wider society to ensure that all rights and interests are protected.
Since 2010, there has been a record number of women in work, but we know we have more to do to achieve gender parity. That is why, for example, the Government have been piloting a scheme to help talented women to gain the experience they need to get their first board appointment. In addition, we have asked Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith to lead a review to examine the obstacles faced by businesses in developing black and minority ethnic talent, from recruitment right through to executive level. We are encouraging and supporting disabled people to take steps into work where they are able to and to fulfil their potential.
The Government have shown their commitment to extending workers’ rights when that is the right choice for the UK and we will continue to do so when we leave the European Union. We will set and expect the highest standards for protecting workers and their rights. The Prime Minister and I have set out a clear vision for the Government’s approach to workers’ rights, on top of what we have already achieved for individuals across society and for the wider economy. It is not just a question of fairness: a strong relationship between businesses and the workers who sustain them underpins our economy and our future prosperity.
We will not dilute or dissolve workers’ rights. They will be not just protected but enhanced under this Government, because the Conservative party is the true workers’ party and the only party dedicated to making Britain a country that works for not just the privileged few, but every person in it. I look forward to the remainder of the debate, which is our first general debate on matters relating to the exit of the EU. This is a strong and important subject with which to begin. It underlines the positive future that we will have when the House has control of this agenda on which we have had such a proud record over decades past.
I note that when Conservative Members talk about being the party of the workers, they can barely keep a straight face. I am pleased to open the debate for the Opposition. Indeed, I am very pleased that we are having this debate at all, given the events of last week and the attitude of Government Members earlier this afternoon.
Our country is going through a period of dramatic change. We are in a rare moment in history. The decisions made in the coming months will reshape our country and the world for generations to come. As I said to the Secretary of State last week, in moments of such national importance, it is imperative that the Government are subject to scrutiny by the elected representatives of the entire country. That is not in any way to diminish the result of the referendum. Like the Secretary of State, I voted to remain. Like him, I fully accept the democratic decision of this country and am committed to implementing it.
In voicing their preference to leave the European Union, however, the people of this country did not get the chance to say what they wanted in its place. They voted to set off on a journey, but were not asked their preferred destination. As a result, the Government cannot treat the referendum result as a blank cheque. They must work through a process of dialogue with the House to ensure that Britain exits the European Union on terms that carry the country with them. There are few areas on which Brexit has more potential to impact on people’s lives than workers’ rights.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when the Foreign Secretary says he wants to scrap the social chapter and the International Development Secretary says she wants to halve the burden of EU employment and social rights, we should be very concerned? That is exactly why Parliament should be scrutinising this issue.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It reminds me of the old adage “Never trust a Tory”—that is what this comes down to.
I will make some progress. I will give way, but I will make some progress first—[Interruption.] I will take nothing back.
It is a well-established fact, and not one that reflects well on us as a country, that many protections and rights awarded to workers in Britain reside in EU legislation. Throughout the referendum campaign and since, my party has sought assurances that leaving the EU will not lead to any erosion or dilution of those rights. It follows that much of what the Secretary of State has said today will be welcomed by Opposition Members, but let us not forget that it is EU law that has given working people in this country their rights to a limited working week and guaranteed rest periods. It is the EU that has ensured equal pay and protection against discrimination, and it is to the EU that we owe maternity and paternity rights and much, much more. Removing these rights would cause real damage to the lives of working people.
It is a relief to hear that the Government intend to transfer those rights into British law, but that is not enough. I share the Government’s assessment that the overwhelming majority of the 17 million people who voted in favour of Brexit were not voting to axe our employment rights, but there is a tiny minority who were. It is that minority that has a strong presence on the Government Benches.
As someone who has always fully supported the transfer of all these rights into British law, I welcome the Secretary of State’s promise. Will the Labour party promise us that, assuming the proposed Bill transfers all those rights unequivocally, they will support that Bill? It will be the only way to transfer and guarantee those rights.
That is a really important point. What we did not hear from the Secretary of State was any promise or guarantee that employment legislation will not, once it comes out of international law, simply go into secondary law. We want to see it in primary law, and our concern is that once it goes into secondary law, the Government will use statutory instruments to undermine employment law and workers’ rights, and that is not what we want to see.
Let us carry on. I am talking about the Foreign Secretary, who described the weight of EU employment legislation as “back-breaking”. Then there is the Secretary of State for International Trade who dismissed the idea of protecting workplace rights as “intellectually unsustainable”. Then there is the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU who spent years attacking employment rights embodied in EU law as “unnecessary red tape”.
The list is lengthy.
Let us go back. Who spent years attacking employment rights embodied in EU laws as unnecessary red tape before undergoing his recent makeover into an ally of the working class, insisting that it is only “consumer and environmental protections” that he regards as unnecessary? As an aside, it is worth emphasising that those protections are as important to the quality of life of working people as employment rights, but they are not the topic of today’s debate.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very strong case. Does he agree with me that what many workers value most of all is the right to work in other EU countries, and that the best way to guarantee that is by free movement? Will he therefore join me in pressing for free movement to be a fundamental right that needs cast-iron protection as part of any future relationship with the EU?
That is a very important point, and it is one to which I shall come back in the future.
Let me return to the issue at hand. While I welcome now, as I have before, the Government’s recent apparent Damascene conversion when it comes to workers’ rights, I cannot but remain sceptical about how deep it goes. When it comes to limiting the number of hours people have to work in a week and giving temporary workers the same rights as permanent staff, the Conservative party has resisted at every turn the enhanced protection for workers that was introduced through EU legislation. Yet now we are asked to believe that they will defend that legislation. How are the workers of this country supposed to trust them? The public have already been misled about what Brexit will mean.
The hon. Gentleman says that these developments are recent, but as I pointed out to the Secretary of State, in fact they go back hundreds of years—back to 1802, which saw the very first factory Act enacted by a Conservative Government. Furthermore, there is no need for these laws to be protected by the EU, because we enhance those protections and have already done so.
Shall we have a little history lesson? How many Acts of Parliament between 1980 and 1993 that attacked working people through anti-trade union legislation do you think your Government took part in? Was it one, two or three? No, it was six, so don’t lecture us on the history of workers’ rights. You have nothing to say on it.
The public have already been misled about what Brexit will mean. On the morning after the referendum, Mr Farage’s hangover had barely set in before the leave campaign withdrew the promise that leaving the EU would free up £350 million a week for the NHS. In the last week, we have seen that the Government are prepared to go to the highest court in the land to avoid proper democratic scrutiny of the terms of Brexit.
I think you will find that through the employment legislation of the last Labour Government, we made considerable strides on improving workplace rights for working people, so we will take no lectures from the right hon. Lady on workers’ rights.
You make the point very well. When it comes to the rights of working people in this country, it is only the Labour party that can be trusted to deliver.
I want to make some progress.
So why should we believe that the party that has fought tooth and nail against EU protections for workers and that has dismissed as “unnecessary red tape” laws that have made UK workplaces more fair and more humane will now be the defender of those rights? I want to believe it—I truly do—but I cannot. It is not just because of the Government’s record of opposing the very legislation that they now claim to support; it is because, despite his good intentions—I am prepared to believe that he has good intentions—nothing that the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister or anyone else in this Government has said or done over the past six years convinces me that they understand or care about the lives of working people. This Government are the children of Thatcher. Sticking up for workers goes against every instinct and is contrary to the very political DNA of so many Conservative Members.
I would like to shift focus and reflect on people’s experiences of the world of work under this Government, on how workplaces and labour markets are changing, on what this has meant for working people and on what the Government have—or, more often, have not—done for them. From the recent exposé of Victorian employment practices at Sports Direct to the horror stories of Uber drivers being unable to take a toilet break, working conditions in this country are getting worse, not better, for too many people in this country. Over the past six years, jobs have become lower skilled, less secure and worse paid. We have seen the rise of zero-hour contracts and growing reliance on agency workers. We have seen the birth of the gig economy, taking more and more workers outside formal employment regulations. The Tories boast about the recovery of employment since 2008, but on every other criterion, our labour market is failing.
Given that there will be enormous pressure on business from tariffs, no more money coming in and less inward investment because of blockages to the markets, does my hon. Friend accept that the business community will ask for their costs to be reduced, which will threaten statutory holiday pay, maternity pay and other workers’ rights? Once those powers have been given to this Government, they will be empowered to repeal those things in the future, and there will be no European guarantees. We will be at the will of future Governments. [Interruption.]
I hear Conservative Members talking about scaremongering, but the facts speak for themselves. You are the enemy of working people. The Tories boast—
Order. First, the House is too noisy. This is meant to be a genteel and well-behaved debate on an important matter. Secondly, although I hesitate to interrupt Clive Lewis while he is speaking from the Dispatch Box, I must point out that he has now used the word “you” on several occasions, and that there are several good reasons why we use the third person in this place. It has to do with keeping the level of debate reasonable and courteous. I know that the hon. Gentleman is extremely courteous and will want to continue to be courteous. If he wants to accuse hon. Members of something, he should not accuse me.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I stand formally chastised, and rightly so. I think, however, that it reflects the level of anxiety and passion felt by Opposition Members about workers’ rights. I so often see smugness from some Conservative Members who obviously feel that Brexit is going to be bonfire of regulatory rights in the workplace—and we do not want to see that.
I shall make some more progress.
The Tories boast about the recovery of employment since 2008, but on every other criterion, our labour market is failing. Wages, which have been falling as a share of national income for decades, have stagnated under the Tories, creating nearly a decade of lost pay. Too many people are having their work-life balance undermined by rising workloads and suffering stress due to punitive performance reviews. Even those who are not in precarious employment worry about their future job security.
I am going to make some progress, if that is all right.
We cannot continue to prioritise quantity over quality in the belief that if we want to ensure that everyone has a job, we have to accept any job. From the millions of women who continue to be paid less than men to the growing number of involuntarily or bogusly self-employed, it is hard to escape the reality that, for most, conditions have become worse. What have the Tories done in the face of all that? They have frozen public sector pay for six years running; they have introduced fees for employment tribunals, making it harder for people to gain access to the rights to which the law entitles them; they have placed severe restrictions on the right to strike, and onerous burdens on the ability to organise. In the Trade Union Act 2016, they have pushed through the biggest attack on workers’ rights in a generation.
We are back to the issue of trust. The Government have recently taken to calling themselves the party of working people, but in their last six years in office, they have not acted like that; on the contrary. Is it any wonder that, for those of us who genuinely care about workers’ rights, the promises that the Secretary of State has made today provide only cold comfort and a heavy dose of wary scepticism? I do not intend to brand the Secretary of State a liar; he seems to me to be a decent guy. [Interruption.] I did not say that, and I do not intend to.
Order. I understand rhetoric just as well as the hon. Gentleman, and I appreciate that he used the negative, but he nevertheless used a word that is not suitable in the Chamber. I am sure that he can make his point just as strongly through a rather different use of words.
I will rephrase that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not intend to brand the Secretary of State a person who exaggerates excessively; he seems to me to be a decent guy. However, given that the Brexit triumvirate of Mr Johnson, Mr Davis and Mr Fox have so regularly said and done things that contradict the promises that we have heard today, it is hard to be confident that the Government will deliver.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. He is very generous. Does he not also find it incredible that the Secretary of State prayed in aid the appointment of Baroness McGregor-Smith to a position that involves advising on employment rights? She was ennobled at a time when her company, Mitie, and its subsidiary MiHomecare were being investigated by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for non-payment of the minimum wage to its workers.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why, during the 1970s and 1980s, when I was a teenager growing up in the part of the United Kingdom where I live, the unemployment level was regularly over 30%?
No, there was a Labour Government.
Today my children, aged 18 and 19, see an unemployment level of 5% or 6% in some areas. Will the hon. Gentleman explain the analysis that he has given to the House, suggesting that there are no jobs? There are jobs, and there are opportunities for people.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it right for the hon. Gentleman to use the peace process as an excuse for unemployment legislation?
I am going to make some progress. I am conscious of time, and many other Members clearly want to have their say.
Last time I had the pleasure of facing the Secretary of State across the Dispatch Box, he reached out to me in the name of bipartisanship. One cannot help wondering if the opinion of some of his colleagues has forced him to consider whether he might find it more congenial to work with us on the Opposition side of the House. I sympathise: if he truly believes what he said to us today, no wonder he has reached out for allies on our Benches. So I say to him, “You’re on. “ If he is serious in his commitment to workers’ rights, let us work together towards three goals.
Order. I really have tried not to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, and when he has done something once I have let it go, but I am afraid that I cannot do that twice. In the Chamber, we must either refer to each other by constituency or refer to “the Minister” or “the Secretary of State”. I will not insist that the hon. Gentleman get the constituencies right; just the odd reference to “the Minister” would do fine.
I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. It was a genuine error, for which I apologise.
Grant Shapps must not get his sunset clause. Instead, workers need a cast-iron guarantee that rights will not be eroded over time, either by a failure to keep pace with new EU legislation or because UK courts interpret it more weakly.
Secondly, all EU citizens who are currently employed here must be guaranteed the right to remain. These are people who have built their lives in this country. To leave their future shrouded in uncertainty so that they can be used as a pawn in future negotiations with the EU is quite simply wrong. It is also bad for businesses. We know that many are already having to recruit and train replacement staff as EU workers up and leave before they are pushed.
If the Secretary of State would agree to work with us to achieve those two objectives, it would prevent us from going backwards, but we cannot afford to stand still when it comes to workers’ rights. The United Kingdom ranks 31st richest out of 34 on the OECD’s employment protection index. Among comparable economies, we already have one of the least regulated and least protected workforces in the world. That simply is not good enough.
No, I am going to press on. I do apologise.
The fact that we have relied on the EU for so many of our protections reflects badly on all of us in this place. How can we interpret the referendum results other than as an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo—a demand for a better deal? Labour wants to give the people a better deal, and where better to start than in the workplace? Labour markets are changing, and technological progress is opening up new possibilities for the way in which we organise our workplaces and working lives, but for too many workers, new technology has meant not new freedoms, but new forms of exploitation.
Brexit Britain faces a choice. We can enter a race to the bottom, steadily eroding workplace protections in an attempt to attract investment and custom away from low-wage countries, or we can lead the way in ensuring that workplace rights and protections keep pace with changes in labour markets, and developing new business models that harness the benefits of new technology for the many and not just the few, as part of a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy. We cannot win the former, and in truth we would not want to; but we can do the latter, and that is the only way in which to ensure that the people of this country get the better deal that they deserve.
I call on the Secretary of State to sign up to a new social settlement: one that places workers’ rights at its centre, and recognises and rewards everyone’s contribution; one that empowers people to take more control over their workplaces and their lives. That will require more than just rhetoric. For the Government, it will require a drastic change of direction. It will mean repealing the Trade Union Act and embracing, and working with, trade unions, rather than attacking them. It will mean leading the way on workers’ rights across Europe, rather than digging their heels in and resisting every advance. It sounds far-fetched, but it is time for the Government to put their money where their mouth is. You say you want to be the party of workers, Mr Secretary of State.
They say they want to be the party of workers. They say they want to work together. Well, these are the terms, and we are game if you are.
I admire the passion and enthusiasm of Clive Lewis, but I would like him to reflect a little on what I put to him in an intervention: this is a unique moment in the House of Commons where Government and Opposition are completely united on something very fundamental. I strongly believe my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government he speaks for when they assure us that every right directly deriving from European law into the United Kingdom will be faithfully transferred into UK law and will be safe all the time they are governing this country from this Front Bench—and should the public decide at some point in the future to replace this Government with a Labour Government, I am quite sure they will offer exactly the same assurance.
It seems to me that we have for once got a wonderful understanding or agreement between the two parties. So I just ask the Labour party to understand that sometimes they have won—that sometimes they are in agreement with the Conservatives, and, as disagreeable as they may find that, surely it is cause for celebration that both main parties wish to advance employee rights, and have absolutely no wish to undermine employee rights that currently come from the EU and wish to offer the legal framework to protect them. So I repeat again: will the Labour party now agree to welcome and support the great reform Bill when it shows on the face of the Bill that all those crucial rights—not just the worker rights, but the environmental rights and the others they have mentioned—will be transferred?
But does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that if businesses face higher costs through tariffs and Britain wants to attract international inward investment platforming into Europe, it will move towards reducing costs in respect of public health and the environment and, in particular, workers’ rights, which are currently guaranteed through the European Court of Justice but will no longer be guaranteed other than in a sort of gentleman’s agreement here which is not sustainable in law?
I think this high court of Parliament—this great legislature of ours—is quite capable of defending workers’ rights, and I do not believe the Government will get very far if they first promise the British people that they will guarantee all those rights and then a year later turn around and say they are not going to. I have got some pretty difficult colleagues on this side of the House who would also object rather strongly to that. If I have given my word to my electors that all those rights will be transferred, the Whips are not going to find it very easy to get me to vote against them, but I do not believe I am going to have to, because I am quite sure I believe the Secretary of State and there is absolutely no reason to assume something else is going to happen.
I would like to begin, Madam Deputy Speaker, in an uncharacteristic way by praising both the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers of this House for having shown in the run-up to the referendum that they have been able to grant time and make sure the voices of the minority were heard over a very sensitive and explosive public debate. As part of the leave minority in this House—we were rather a modest minority in terms of numbers; we were very outgunned in terms of weight of office and numbers of votes and the amount of material coming forward from both the Government and Opposition Front Bench—I am very grateful for the way the Speaker and the House authorities made sure we had our chance to make our case. If that had not happened, I think the public would have felt their Parliament was completely out of touch, because we now know that we on the leave side spoke for 52% of those voting in the referendum, a massive 17.4 million people, and it is important that our Parliament stays topical and is able to take the minority view in here because it might be the majority view out there.
I am equally sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you and the Speaker will make sure, now that the tables have been turned and we know the majority in the country is with the leave side, that there will be plenty of opportunity for those who wish to represent the views of the significant remain minority and make sure their legitimate worries are considered and taken into account in the longish process that will follow as the Government, after sending in the article 50 letter, start the negotiations on our future arrangement once we are again an independent country having a series of crucial working relationships, collaborations, agreements and trade arrangements with our former partners in the EU.
We hear from Labour all the time that the Government are not coming clean about the negotiating aims. I find that very difficult to understand. We have heard tonight, on the matter that most concerns Labour MPs, an absolutely definitive statement. Question: “Are our employment rights at any risk?” Answer: “No, they are not if you vote for the repeal Bill.” Question: “Are other rights at risk?” Answer: “No, they are not because they are all being transferred by that same repeal Bill.”
Turning to the question of the high-level aims, Labour have a perfectly reasonable point when they say, “Of course the Government must explain the high-level aims” while also agreeing that the Government cannot provide a running commentary or give the intermediate or fall-back positions in a negotiation as that would be crazy. But Labour always say they have not heard the high-level aims, yet I think we have already heard them so let me have another go at explaining them. The aim is to take back control. The aim is to make sure all the laws that apply to UK citizens are made in this Parliament, not in Europe. The aim is to ensure legal continuity with all current laws that come from Europe being transferred, for obvious reasons. The aim is to make sure we control our borders. The aim is to make sure we control our own taxes and spending plans. The aim is that we take back those controls so that we can again be a sovereign Parliament representing a sovereign people. What is so difficult to understand?
The issues that we will have to discuss with our partners are mainly about trade and future collaborations in a number of areas, and as the Prime Minister has rightly said, that will be a grown-up discussion between a country taking back control of its laws and policies and a group of other countries working together in what they wish to advance as a monetary and political union. It will be a free and fair negotiation where I think, in the end, when angers have cooled and tempers calmed down, our friends on the continent will understand that tariff-free—and reasonably-free—trade makes even more sense for them than it does for us, and that surely is the aim we are trying to achieve.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the great repeal Bill, which is in essence the great download and save Bill for day one of Brexit. Who controls the delete key thereafter as far as these rights and key standards are concerned? Is it, as he implies, this House? Would any removal of rights have to be done by primary legislation, or could it be done by ministerial direction? And where is the position of the devolved Administrations in this? These matters are devolved competencies; will they be devolved on day one?
Why does the hon. Gentleman laugh? The Government are engaged—I think, again, in good faith—in an earnest discussion with the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments of the United Kingdom. I presume that quite shortly after the powers have returned, they will be properly devolved. As to the question of what guarantee there is that these major powers cannot be eroded, the first guarantee is that the Government have already made it clear that they have no plans to do so. They have given their word, and if they broke their word there would be very strong protests in here and there would be the usual pressures of public opinion, and then loss of seats for loss of faith should the Government proceed in that way. But as I understand it, primary legislation will guarantee all these rights and laws from the EU; these are not secondary matters, and so primary legislation will be required in order to deal with them in the future. And it may be that in the future we will want to improve these rights, which would entail amending them, and that is something we will be entirely free to do once we have taken back control; we can then do it in the way we see fit, without any complications from European law.
The 17.4 million people voted to take back control, and that was a remarkable vote. They voted to take back control despite being told by the great and the good, the Government and leading figures in the Opposition that there would be a short-term economic cost to them if they dared to vote to have a sovereign Parliament representing a sovereign people. We did not believe them, however, and I am very pleased that we did not do so. We have now had four months of growth, with more jobs, more shopping, rising incomes and all the other things that they said could not possibly happen, were we to dare to exit the European Union. Is it not good that experts are sometimes wrong and sometimes too pessimistic, and that sometimes the people are more sensible and know what is right for them?
The people also understood that this was about more than money. They did not feel that their money was at risk; they felt that something bigger than money was at issue. What was at issue was the question of who controls. Do the people any longer have their sovereign power? Can they elect a Parliament to do the things they want Parliament to do? They realised that they could not. They realised that this Parliament could not abolish VAT on tampons or green products in the way that most people would like it to because to do so would be illegal under European law. They realised that this Parliament could not amend the fishing rules in order to have a fishing industry that was good for English fishermen and English fish—or Scottish fishermen and Scottish fish—because that would be illegal under European law. They realised that both the major parties in the general election wished to make changes to the benefit rules, but that both sets of proposals turned out to be illegal under European law.
The British people said, “For goodness’ sake, we’re fed up with this puppet Parliament. We want a Parliament that can carry out our will. We want a Parliament that will take back power.” It took the people to say that, because this Parliament was incapable, on its own, of realising that it did not have enough power, that it could not carry out the wishes of the British people in so many fields, and that it ought to do something about that. A lacklustre negotiation with our former partners produced absolutely nothing of value, so the British people took the matter into their own hands.
I appreciate that the results of the referendum were declared on a local authority basis, but could my right hon. Friend confirm that the people of Wokingham actually voted to remain?
That is by no means proven. As my right hon. Friend says, Wokingham borough had a modest majority in favour of remain, but Wokingham borough comprises parts of four different constituencies. My own constituency contains bits of Wokingham borough as well as parts of West Berkshire. According to my canvass returns, I think it was roughly 50:50 in my constituency. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Anyway, it does not really matter—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend must listen, because I think she actually agrees with me on this, although she will not admit it.
Members from both sides of the House trooped solemnly through the Lobby to put through the European Union Referendum Act 2015, and it was crystal clear from what Ministers and others were saying at the time that we were passing the decision to the British people. We are not asking their advice. We were not giving them a rather grand and expensive opinion poll. Ministers said, “You, the British people, will make this decision.” And just to ram it home, a leaflet was sent to every household in the country—at the taxpayers’ expense, which some of us were a bit worried about—repeating that message. A solemn promise was made by the Government. The Opposition were involved with this, because they did not object and they helped to vote through the money for that promise to be sent to every household. That promise was crystal clear. I feel, and I think my right hon. Friend agrees with me, that we are now under a duty to expedite the decision of the British people.
I think it is incumbent on this Parliament to accept the verdict of the referendum that we gave to the British people and to understand that we are all under a duty now. Democracy is on trial. What would the public think if their Parliament gave them a decision to make and then tried to stop that decision being implemented? That would put us in an impossible position, and anyone who followed that course would have a very miserable time when they next faced the electors.
Once the referendum is over, we have a duty to represent all our constituents. I have to represent the remain constituents of Wokingham just as much as the leave constituents. I cannot possibly vote on both sides of the issue, but I can ensure that the legitimate concerns of my remain voters are taken into account. I can assure the House that I will be very active in lobbying Ministers when remain voters identify real problems. The main problem that they are identifying at the moment is the uncertainty. They want us to speed up, and the more Members think that delay is a good idea, the more the uncertainty will build and the more damage could conceivably be done. We all have a duty now to speak for all our constituents, but we can only have one vote. Surely MPs must now vote for the settled will of the British people, having offered them that referendum.
Does not my right hon. Friend find it rather strange that, although the people on the remain side who do not want to accept the verdict of the electorate in the referendum want to drag out and delay the process of triggering article 50, the other members of the European Union want us to get on with it? We talk about the binding nature, or otherwise, of the referendum, but is not the person who best illustrates its binding nature none other than David Cameron? If it was just an advisory referendum, why on earth did he feel it necessary to announce his resignation the following day?
That is another piece of evidence—of which there is so much—that it was not an advisory referendum. We know that from ministerial statements at the Dispatch Box, from the Hansard records of the passage of the legislation and from the leaflets that were sent to every household. That was one of the few things on which the remain campaign and the leave campaign agreed. Both stressed to the voters the fact that this was deathly serious, that it was their decision and that if they got it wrong, they might not like the answer. Indeed, the whole purpose of the remain campaign, as I saw it, was to terrify people. It worked on the premise that if we voted to leave, we would be out. I remember Mr Dimbleby announcing the final result on television—the BBC was a bit reluctant to get to that point, but it eventually did so—that we were out of the European Union. He did not say, “Oh, we’ve just had an interesting advisory vote and maybe some people in Parliament will now think they ought to do something about it.”
A lot of the Brexiters I have spoken to voted for Brexit on the basis that there would be lower costs—the figure of £350 million a week was mentioned—yet we are now going to tear up the deficit plans in the autumn statement. They also voted on the basis of continuing market access, which is now at risk from tariffs, and of lower migration, which is obviously going to go up in the next two years as people run in through the door. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the British people should have a referendum on the exit package when they can see whether what they reasonably expected has come to fruition? They could then vote to leave if they wanted to, and if not, they could vote to stay in.
There is absolutely no point in having a referendum on the exit package. By the time we get to that point, we will already be leaving. The people have decided to leave. If we had a vote on the exit package and decided that we did not like it, the rest of the European Union would not say, “Oh, we’re very sorry, United Kingdom. We’ll improve your exit package.” Absolutely no way! They would say, “We are absolutely fed up with you, United Kingdom. You can’t make up your mind, you mess us around and you dominate the agenda with things we don’t want to talk about. You are out!” We have to understand that some of our partners have only a limited amount of patience. Some of them do not have very much patience already.
I regard my views and my vote as being those of a good European. I have always understood the full nature of the European project. It is a noble ideal to unite countries around a united currency, a political union and much more collaborative working. I also know that the British people, including myself, do not wish to do that. It is too close for us. That is why the British people have made the bold, heroic and sensible decision, as good Europeans, to say, “We don’t want to join the currency. We don’t want to join Schengen. We don’t want to join the next bit, which will be the political union.” So is it not good that Britain has honestly said—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As much as I am enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s dissertation on the Brexit vote, it has been some time since we have spoken about workers’ rights. Is there anything that we can do about that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing that to my attention. I am listening carefully to the speech of John Redwood and he began by speaking about workers’ rights. The title of this debate is “Exiting the EU and Workers’ Rights” and I know that the right hon. Gentleman will strike a balance between the two parts of the motion. I am quite sure that he will remain in order, but I am grateful to Chris Stephens for ensuring that I am paying attention.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am speaking more about exiting the EU than the specific issue of workers’ rights but, as Members should understand, workers’ rights are entirely subsumed by the process of exiting the EU. We have to talk about the principles and the way in which we will exit the EU to make any sense of the workers’ rights part of the debate.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on workers’ rights?
One of the many claims made by the Brexiteers during the EU referendum campaign, and one to which the right hon. Gentleman has not referred, was the famous figure of £350 million a week for the NHS. One of the other claims was that they would support the rights of EU workers. I wonder whether he might touch on that because it directly affects the 1.5 million to 2 million UK citizens who are in other EU countries.
The Vote Leave campaign was clear that we want the Government to guarantee the rights of all legally settled workers in this country. The Government have said that everyone who is here legally is quite entitled and welcome to stay on the assumption that no one from our country who is living overseas is threatened. I do not believe that any of our European partner countries will threaten any of our people who are legally settled in those countries, so I think it is more or less absolutely guaranteed that everybody is welcome to stay and that the British Government have absolutely no plan to suggest that they should not be.
The right hon. Gentleman may be aware of an EU ruling in Northern Ireland just in the past two weeks. The Northern Ireland Assembly allocated some £7 million to help fund a direct link between Belfast International Airport and New York, but that was overruled by the EU, which said that it was out of order. Is that not another example of why we should be exiting the EU right now and not waiting until
I am very much on the hon. Gentleman’s side on that issue but, as he knows, that will not be possible given the delays that are now being built in as a result of various issues and processes.
This House must now rise to the challenge of ensuring workers’ rights and removing the senior powers of the European Union in the way that the British people voted for. Of course, we want to take back control of the money and, once we have, the Government will have considerable more to spend on their priorities. The Vote Leave campaign recommended health as a priority, but it will be for the Government of the day, as Vote Leave always made clear, to decide exactly how to spend the money.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way again. On workers’ rights, did he hear the shadow Minister talking about the importance of making it easier to strike and his intention and desire to roll back trade union legislation? Does he share my concern that that would not help workers’ rights but simply reduce the number of workers?
I think that goes beyond the issue of European workers’ rights. All I want to say today on workers’ rights is that we must guarantee all of them as promised. I am strongly in support of the Minister.
In conclusion, we have a brave public who decided, despite the odds and the advice, that they wished to leave the European Union. They were not only brave but right. They are fed up with a Parliament that cannot do their bidding, that cannot even choose the taxes to impose on them, that cannot spend the money that all the taxes raise, and that cannot choose laws for them or amend them in the way that they wish. The issue today and in the weeks ahead is whether the MPs in this House can rise to the challenge. Can MPs at least follow the public and realise that they want a sovereign Parliament to represent a sovereign people? Where are the peace-loving Pyms and Hampdens of the modern era? Where are the champions of our liberties? Where are those who say, “Yes, we will support that great repeal Bill. Yes, we will give those powers back to this Parliament. Yes, we will make it easier to achieve Brexit, not more difficult”? That is what the public want and the Opposition should join us, welcome that view and get on with it.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate today and, I have to say, to follow John Redwood. Although I have great respect for the way in which he delivered his speech, I could not agree with a word of it apart from when he said that democracy is on trial. It is indeed, and the people of Scotland are watching intently.
However, begging your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to start with probably the only thing I have to say today that will garner support from Members on both sides of the House and offer my congratulations to Scotland’s own Andy Murray on securing top spot in the global tennis rankings. Becoming the first Scottish or British men’s No. 1 in the strongest era of the global sport of tennis is an incredible achievement. He will go down as not only one of the best Scottish or British sportsmen, but one of the greatest ever male tennis players. Well done, Andy; it is thoroughly well deserved.
We are now approaching five months since the EU referendum vote took place and we are still no clearer than on
The Scottish Government produced a 700-page White Paper on Scottish independence. Whether this UK Government or the leave campaign, nobody came up with as much as a side of A4 on what would happen if the UK voted to leave—no plan, no blueprint, no vision. That is why it is impossible to tell what motivated a majority in the UK to vote to leave. Was it some idea of British nationalism? Was it immigration? Was it the whopper about £350 million a week for the NHS? Was it the ridiculous scaremongering from the former Chancellor or all the surviving former Prime Ministers? That is why when people talk about mandates and what the people want, it is clear the Prime Minister has a mandate to pursue exit from the EU, but she has no mandate over what that exit looks like, or to rip Scotland from EU institutions against its will. Indeed, the only detailed mandate that has been delivered to the Tories regarding Brexit is on the matter of the single market. It is spelled out in their 2015 manifesto, which states:
“We say: yes to the Single Market.”
It could not have been clearer, yet now we see prevarication.
What is clear is that far from having a cunning plan, this Government do not even have a seating plan. Where do they sit on the single market, on the customs union, on social security rights for UK nationals living in Europe, on the right to take advantage of the Erasmus scheme, or on Europol? Finally—although this list is far from exhaustive—where do they sit on the rights of EU workers to remain here in the UK?
I perfectly understand.
Despite months of SNP campaigning for the security of EU workers based in the UK, they are still to be played as bargaining chips or negotiating pawns for at least another two years. We have no idea how EU workers in the UK will be treated after Brexit or what rights they will have. This is about not just morality and the fact that these workers and their families have chosen to live, work and contribute to the UK, but the economic value that they add. The Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee is currently taking evidence on the economic impact of exiting the European Union. A paper submitted by 4-consulting states that EU workers contribute £7.3 billion to the Scottish economy. That is why the SNP is so keen to see a different immigration system for Scotland, one that recognises not only the value of workers from other countries to our economy but how dependent many communities and sectors are on imported skilled labour. But this Government will not give Scotland those guarantees, and we have no guarantees about workers’ rights in general either. We are getting mixed messages from those on the Government Benches. We are being told by some that workers’ rights are a burden, with Grant Shapps wanting a sunset clause, and others saying that we should implement only the workers’ rights that are practical.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making his case eloquently. However, did he fail to listen to the speech made by the Secretary of State, who set out clearly that all these rights will be transferred?
For how long? In addition, does the Secretary of State carry the confidence of his Back Benchers? We are still to find that out. As I have said, so many of his colleagues have given us mixed messages about the so-called “burden” of EU workers’ rights on this country.
A substantial component of UK employment law is grounded in EU law, and where it exists it provides a minimum standard below which domestic employment cannot fall. Although some protections already existed in domestic law before being enhanced at an EU level, in many cases new categories of employment rights have been transposed into domestic law to comply with emerging EU obligations. Subject to the provisions of the EU withdrawal arrangement or a subsequent trade agreement, withdrawal from the EU would mean that the UK employment rights currently guaranteed by EU law would no longer be so guaranteed, which leaves us reliant on a Conservative Government to step up for workers.
A post-Brexit Government could also seek to amend or remove protections enshrined in EU law for UK workers. The House of Commons Library paper makes it clear that EU-derived employment rights that feature in primary legislation would be relatively safe from the effects of leaving the EU, but would be
“newly susceptible to the possibility of change.”
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and the point he raises will fill workers up and down this land with dread, because it will be this Conservative Government who are going to be responsible for the workers’ rights that we all enjoy. The Library paper identifies the greatest risk as the uncertainty surrounding the protections in secondary legislation, which is where much employment law is contained. That is where Unison and others also see the greatest risk, with the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield having been reported as seeking a five-year sunset clause to the great repeal Bill. That would mean that all protections currently the subject of EU regulation would automatically expire, wreaking intended and unintended damage to hard-fought workers’ rights and, in turn, to the economy.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that workers’ rights are most vulnerable in areas relating to agency workers and working time limits, particularly now that the Cabinet contains senior Members who have previously advocated a bonfire of the regulations on workers’ rights?
Absolutely, and I will come on to those points later in my speech.
The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 predates EU rules, but EU standards have led to the introduction of broad duties on employers to evaluate, avoid and reduce workplace risks. According to the TUC, the number of worker fatalities in the UK has declined significantly since EU directives were implemented. The Scottish National party continues to argue for better work conditions and fairer working environments. The protections for workers in insecure employment, including part-time workers, agency workers and those on fixed-term contracts, are enhanced by the EU.
The hon. Gentleman said that workers should be filled with dread, but should they not feel encouragement, as in so many areas this Parliament has legislated for standards that are higher than the EU minimum, not lower? There is no reason to believe that that will not continue, not least when people want to put election manifestos forward at election time.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the recently passed Trade Union Act 2016 and hope that he will consider his comments in those terms.
In these challenging times, we have seen moves to zero-hours contracts across many industries, and conditions where workers are vulnerable to exploitation and being trapped in a cycle of low pay. EU TUPE rights introduced important protections for workers affected by contracting out, company buy-outs and even the privatisation of public services. Without those rights, employees in permanent, secure jobs could be placed into more uncertain contracts or have their terms and conditions reduced.
The UK must continue to comply with EU employment law in full, including new rights adopted within the EU, meaning that future Governments cannot remove rights at work. UK workers should not be denied any of the rights enjoyed by working people across Europe. New rights are already under discussion within the EU, such as protections for posted workers, improved rights for working parents and the European pillar of social rights, so UK workers could be excluded from these protections post-Brexit. The TUC has said that
“workers should benefit from the highest level of protection in the EU. It should not be possible for future governments to take the opportunity to compete with other countries on the basis of a race to the bottom on rights at work.”
It is female workers who stand to lose the most from Brexit. Alongside the European working time directive, we also now have protections over maternity leave and equal pay, and better protection from sexual harassment and from pregnancy or maternity discrimination. Women in the UK secured the right to equal pay for work of equal value thanks to the EU, and although there is still a long way to go to close the gender pay gap, the protections from the EU push the agenda forward, rather than backward. We have no idea of what is to come post-Brexit. Pregnant women and new mothers have been protected by day one rights and unfair dismissal rights, and by protection from discrimination. The right to paid time off to attend antenatal appointments is also now secure for pregnant women, keeping them in work. The parental leave directive allows parents to take up to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave to care for a child and protects workers who need to deal with family or domestic emergencies. A staggering 8.3 million working parents qualify for these rights in the UK.
Perhaps one opportunity I can see from Brexit is to discuss where the powers and responsibilities currently held at EU level will reside when the UK leaves. Obviously, we would expect the areas of devolved responsibility, such as agriculture and fisheries, to be automatically devolved, along with their substantial budgets, but I would like this to go further. Last year, during the Scotland Bill debates, we were told that we could not devolve employment law, but it makes perfect sense to do it post-Brexit. It is not just the rights currently enjoyed by workers that we can see being eroded; current and future events are likely to have a detrimental impact on working conditions and the quality of life of working families.
We have a perfect storm approaching for working families. We see the report from the Resolution Foundation today on the devastating impact of the benefit cap, but we also have cuts to universal credit work allowances coming down the line, a potentially devastating spike in inflation predicted to arrive next year, a massive drop in the pound and the potential threat to employment law post-Brexit. Employers and employees alike are demanding information, details and plans from this Government to provide security where there is currently significant insecurity and uncertainty.
This evening we are going to hear, as we have indeed already heard, Tory after Tory trump up—that pun was intended—that somehow they speak for workers in these isles and that somehow because it was Conservative Governments that brought in factories Acts in the 19th century, that absolves them of their most recent disastrous history. So let me remind the House that it was a Conservative Prime Minister who destroyed the lives and livelihoods of mineworkers with generations of unemployment; that it was a Conservative Chancellor who said at that Dispatch Box in 1991 that unemployment was a price “worth paying” for bringing down inflation; and it was those Government Members sitting opposite now who forced through the worst legislative attack on workers’ rights in living memory, in the form of the Trade Union Bill. So forgive me if my party and the people of Scotland do not trust any Tory government with workers’ rights.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate although, in many ways, it has little value. On the basis of some of the speeches that we have heard from Opposition Members, it has added nothing to what should be a serious consideration of how we move forward as we give effect to the will of the people. The majority was slim—we must always remember that—but nevertheless we have to accept the verdict.
We are debating something that was never a strong point for the remain camp during the referendum debate. I had a very firm view on this, because we do pass laws in our Parliament and we do have a sovereign Parliament. I really do not want to rehearse all the arguments of the EU referendum debate, but when it comes to the issue of workers’ rights, I think that the argument advanced by some in the remain camp was weak, because this Parliament has extended workers’ rights. Doubtless other Conservative Members who contribute to the debate will remind us of our party’s fine tradition of extending workers’ rights. For example, in the previous Parliament, I was proud that we extended paternity rights in a way that the EU had not. I always thought that it was just a non-debate to say that, for those who wanted to remain, the heart of the matter was protecting workers’ rights.
Does the right hon. Lady not appreciate that many of us had to argue that case because trade unions used EU law to get victories for their workers in court?
Yes, but the unions did not need to use EU law—that was the point. This country has rights through common law and in statute; it was just not a problem. I am somewhat concerned and slightly agitated about this matter. The very firm words from our excellent Secretary of State—I was delighted when he was appointed to his job—could not have been clearer. He said that all the rights that we have by virtue of our membership of the EU will be transferred into substantive British law. Which part of that do Opposition Members not understand? My right hon. Friend could not have been clearer. I absolutely do take his word, and indeed the Government’s word, on this. In many ways, this is a bit of an otiose debate—if I can put it in those terms—because I have no fear that any of the rights that have been accrued over decades by virtue of our membership of the EU will be diminished.
I ask the right hon. Lady to forgive me for not giving way during my concluding remarks; I thank her for giving way to me. Although she may take her Secretary of State at his word on this, can she not understand our worry that there are members of this Government who are quite clearly of a different view, and who made that very clear during the EU referendum campaign?
Heaven forbid that we should ever have different points of views within the Government. I will come on to the concerns that some rightly raise about the rhetoric of the leave campaign. I wanted to intervene on the hon. Gentleman because, as someone who had experienced the miners’ strike on an almost daily basis—I was a reporter working for Central Television in Nottingham—I wanted him to understand that what the Conservative Government rightly did was to protect the rights of coal miners in counties such as Nottinghamshire who had had a vote and had decided that they wanted to work. They faced, on an almost daily basis, a small army of pickets who came down and used the most atrocious tactics to try to prevent them from exercising their right to work.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am more than happy to have a debate with him about the rights and wrongs of the miners’ strike outside the Chamber, but I take grave exception to the rather large amounts of nonsense that he was spouting when he gave us his comments about Margaret Thatcher and the then Conservative Government. None of those pieces of legislation that were passed by the Thatcher Government —particularly when they were up against the tyranny of trade union leaders who frequently denied workers the right to have a say about how they worked—to restore workers’ rights and to do the right thing by working people were repealed in the 13 years that Labour were in government. Why was that? It was because members of the Labour Government knew in their hearts that that legislation was what working people wanted. I say that as someone who is a proud trade unionist and who was a shop steward in my union.
The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. I am glad that we will be on the same side on this issue. Does she agree—I think she has alluded to this—that the Brexit debate has been characterised by a lot of misinformation and broken promises, hence the need to make sure that this matter stays on the agenda? Does she also agree that there is understandable concern and perhaps confusion about the Government’s commitment and their ability to bind any future Ministers and Governments, because some Conservative MPs have raised the issue of a sunset clause or a watering down of employment protections, and have promised to implement that wherever practical?
Given the hour, the fact that we are all on a one-line Whip and the fact that the House will rise tomorrow, I suspect that a lot of Members will want to make their speeches by way of a quick intervention. I forgive the hon. Lady for her intervention and hope she does make a speech.
If there are to be further debates, we should consider some of the matters raised by Mark Durkan, who seems to have vacated his place. He talked about the detail of how the transfers will take place. Will that happen in a general sense under the great repeal Bill, or will it be done in dribs and drabs by virtue of statutory instruments? The effect will be exactly the same, so I do not have any concern in that regard. His point about how the devolved Administrations will be affected is important.
Clive Lewis should have raised such matters in his speech, but instead he used the debate as an excuse to launch off a series of slogans based on ideology that were, in many ways, deeply offensive. He then turned his speech, in a rather childlike way, into a tirade against Tories. His hugely unsubstantiated and sweeping statements did nothing to advance the argument for having a proper debate and restoring politics in this country to a much more civilised footing.
I do understand that Labour is in a huge dilemma. The reality is that seven out of 10 Labour MPs represent seats that not only voted remain, but, in most cases, overwhelmingly voted remain—[Hon. Members: “Leave”.] Sorry, I meant to say leave. If only they had voted in the way I said, but sadly they did not. Would that not have been a sweet moment? Would it not have made the position of the Labour party so much easier?
Gloria De Piero represents my neighbouring seat. I have a lot of time for her—I hope that that will not be used against her. Such is the current atmosphere, which has been stoked up by people such as the hon. Member for Norwich South, that a Conservative giving praise to a Labour MP can be used against them by the so-called Corbynistas and Momentum. I hope that I cause the hon. Lady no difficulty by paying tribute to her. She is a great MP who has brought much to our House. There was an 80% turnout in her constituency—no disrespect to the good people of Ashfield, but they have never voted in such numbers—and just under 70% of people voted to leave. That means that it is inconceivable that she will not vote for article 50, and she is by no means alone.
I very much hope that that vote takes place in this House. I do not want to go too far into that debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you would rightly admonish me, as we are meant to be talking about workers’ rights as well as about these other much bigger problems, but it is the sort of debate that we really should be having in this place. I want debates after which we have votes that actually mean something. Labour is in a real dilemma. As I say, if we have that vote on article 50, it is inconceivable that Labour Members to a man and a woman will not vote to leave the EU, not least because many of them, like me, understand that we went to the nation saying clearly that if people voted leave, that was what they would get.
I will be quite honest: I have struggled with this ever since June. It has been my long-held belief that our country—our nation—is considerably better off as a member of the European Union. I have spoken about that at length. I am a firm remainer. If there was a scale from one to 100 showing how firm a remainer someone was, I would put my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke at 100 and myself at about 95. I have grappled with my own long-held views, which I hold passionately, and with the fact that when I stood up and addressed my constituents, wrote my email newsletter or went out into the streets of Broxtowe and beyond, I said, “If you vote leave, you will get leave.” One colleague—it might have been my right hon. Friend John Redwood— said that we in the remain camp were very clear about that.
Although I will find it extremely difficult, because it will be against everything I have ever believed in, I cannot see how I have any alternative but to be true to what I said I would do and true to my party’s manifesto—I never demurred from any of this at any time. Therefore, with huge regret, I would have to vote in favour of article 50 being triggered when the mater comes to this place—and it should come to this place; the learned judges are absolutely right. I say to the Government with some gentleness that it would be very good if having read the judgment, as I and many others have done, and understanding the law of this land, they said that they were not going to appeal. Three of the most senior judges took part in that judgment. The Government should not appeal it, but should bring legislation before this House.
Already right hon. and hon. Members have heard not only my views but those of colleagues such as my right hon. Friend Nicky Morgan. It is clear that those of us who now sit in the corner from which I am speaking would vote in favour of triggering article 50.
I am amazed that the right hon. Lady thinks that everybody who voted to leave was voting unconditionally to leave. Many of the voters in my constituency believed what they were told: their jobs were secure, they would save money and all the rest of it. In fact, the deficit plan has been ripped up. In Swansea bay 25,000 jobs depend on EU exports, many of which will be at risk. If people wake up and find that they have lost their jobs, they will think, “This is not what we were promised,” and they will be very angry. It is ridiculous to give unconditional support, as if everything that was said was true and there will not be problems.
I am sort of grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have never given up on anything, but I have to understand, as he must, that we were very clear. We said to people that the referendum was their decision and that if they voted leave, they would get leave. However, that does not mean that I would not fight tooth and nail to make sure that the Government go into the negotiations seeking to make sure that we stay a member of the single market, for example.
The hon. Gentleman knows my views on the free movement of labour and people. Along with Mr Lammy, I am the most liberally minded—with a small l—Member of this House on immigration. Labour Members have the huge problem that they find themselves looking over their shoulders at the vote in their own constituency knowing, as I hope they do, why their constituents voted as they did. In many constituencies, people voted to leave because they wanted to reduce the number of people coming into our country. We should be clear about that. Labour Members have far more of a dilemma than I have as we leave the EU and try to work out the best deal for our country. I have no difficulty in making the case for us to stay in the single market, and I certainly have no difficulty in making the case for the free movement of people.
My right hon. Friend may take some solace from knowing that I am in a similar position, having voted in remain in the referendum, while the majority in my constituency voted leave. Does she agree that all the way through the campaign it was clear that if people voted leave, we would leave the EU, but it was never disputed that Parliament would deal with the details of how we did so?
Indeed. It is right that we in this place should assist the Government in determining our objectives—our underlying principles. I want our Government to go into the negotiations wanting us to stay a member of the single market, with all that that entails. They might not be able to achieve that, but they need some guiding principles and I want that to be one of them.
This Government have a proud record of defending the rights of workers. It is the Conservative party that has restored our economy, which is the foundation of everything else that we do. This is the party that is seeing employment going upwards and the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance going down. It is this party that could claim responsibility—effectively, by virtue of our economic policies—for that huge rise in employment, which means more jobs. If we really want to help workers in our country, we should make sure that they have good, safe, sustainable employment. I am also proud that it is this party that not only introduced the national living wage, but has taken so many millions of low-paid workers out of taxation.
There is far more that can be done to protect the rights of workers. I completely agree that conditions in places such as Sports Direct are totally unacceptable. I wish the local Member of Parliament had raised the matter in this place considerably sooner. I am delighted that our Prime Minister has made it clear that she takes the firm view that among her priorities is workers’ rights, and responsibility among businesses for how they employ people and protect their rights. For what it is worth, I agree that we should have workers on the boards of businesses.
It is important to talk about British people’s rights to free movement and travel so that they may go to other countries in the EU and work. Immigration—migration of labour—is a two-way process. Undoubtedly, our economy benefits greatly from the fact that people come here, whether they are low-skilled, no-skilled, middling skilled or high-skilled. We benefit from them coming to our country and working in our businesses and industry. We would be lost without them. When constituents of mine say, “We want less immigration. We want to send these people home”—that is the tone of the debate that is breaking out in our country—I say to them in quite robust tones, as the House may imagine, “Who is going to do the jobs? Who is going to do the work?” If we look at those areas with the highest rates of employment, that is where there are more migrant workers, because they do the jobs that need to be done. This is a two-way process.
I hope that the Government will think carefully before they rush down a route that leads to over-reducing and over-curtailing the number of migrants coming into our country, for all the reasons that are not the subject of this debate. Many hundreds of thousands of British people have the right to go and work freely in the EU. I think that that right is worthy of being protected.
This debate is not the most important of all those that we shall have when we consider and, more importantly, decide how we leave the European Union. I do not know who chooses the topics—[Interruption.] It is the Government. May I gently suggest to the Government that we should have real debates about the real difficulties, the real dilemmas and the need to make sure that we get the right guiding principles as we leave the European Union?
There is one last thing, which is very important. We talk about the 17 million people who voted leave, but we are in real danger in our country if we forget the more than 16 million people who did not vote to leave. At the moment, they feel forgotten and marginalised. Some of them feel bullied, threatened and intimidated on Twitter and other social media, and that is not acceptable. The job of all of us now is to bring people together and to move forward, not to reheat and rehash all the arguments we have had. We must come together, respect all points of view and move forward as we leave the EU.
It is a great pleasure to follow Anna Soubry, and I begin by echoing the last point she made: we are a divided nation, and what this referendum result has shown is that we are divided almost entirely down the middle. We in this House have a responsibility to seek to heal the wounds and to reduce the division that has been created by this big choice—like the right hon. Lady, I accept the result, even though I campaigned passionately for remain, although I am not going to say where I would rate on her scale. However, we have to uphold and respect the decision of the British people, and it is very important that we are clear about that. Secondly, I very much support what she said about this being, I hope, the first of many debates in which the House has an opportunity properly to scrutinise the enormous task we have as a country in negotiating our withdrawal from the European Union and in establishing a new relationship with the 27 member states—although we are leaving the institutions, we are not leaving Europe. Therefore, I welcome the fact that we are having this debate.
We have heard already that membership of the European Union has made a significant contribution to the development of rights and protections for workers in the UK. I am bound to reflect on the fact that that played an important part in changing the attitude of the party of which I am proud to be a member, and of the trade union movement, towards Europe. One could trace that back to a particular moment: the speech Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, gave to the Trades Union Congress in 1988, when he laid out before delegates the vision of a social Europe—I think he was named Frère Jacques because of that speech. The Labour party and the labour movement, which had been Eurosceptic, began moving towards a strongly pro-European position, as the Conservative party, which had been pro-European, passed us in the other direction, heading towards being a predominantly Eurosceptic party.
The Government have given a commitment to maintain employment rights and workers’ rights, and I am absolutely sure that the House will hold Ministers to that commitment. I want briefly to raise four issues in relation to that. The first is the relationship between the great repeal Bill and those rights. As all Members of the House know, those rights are already enshrined in our law, but some are to be found in primary legislation—for example, the equality rights in the Equality Act 2010—so they can be amended only by primary legislation. Others—for example, working time rights and the protection of agency workers—were implemented by means of secondary legislation, and can therefore be more easily changed and repealed. There are also some EU rights that have direct effect because they are derived from the treaty.
Therefore, there is a serious question to the Government, which I hope the Minister will address in responding to the debate. Given the different basis of these rights—my hon. Friend Clive Lewis made this point forcefully in his opening contribution—how exactly will they be given equal status and equal protection in the great repeal Bill? In particular, what will be the mechanism for making any changes to the different types of legislation? Could that be done by amending statutory instruments in the case of those rights that have been put in place by that means, or would primary legislation be required to entrench them and therefore give greater reassurance?
Obviously, it remains to be seen what is in the great repeal Bill, which is actually the great retrenchment Bill, because the only repeal bit will be the very last stage of the process, which is repealing the European Communities Act 1972 to take us out, but the rest of it will entrench in legislation these rights and many others, as well as environmental protections and so on. However, I just say to Ministers that the House will need to be reassured that there will be full and proper parliamentary scrutiny of any proposal to undo or change legislation.
Given the nature of the reassurance that Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have given, there is also the related question of what will happen to the body of European Court of Justice judgments that have interpreted the way in which legislation has been applied, and of whether anyone, once we have left the European Union, will seek to re-litigate some of the judgments that the Court has made, which some people in this country have taken exception to—wrongly, in my view.
The second issue I want to raise is the relationship between our potential future access to the single market and the further development of workers’ rights in the European Union pending our departure from it and after we have left. As we know, the Government have yet to make a decision about the nature of our continuing access to that market, but there is a question as to what would happen if and when the 27 member states, after we have left, decide to change or improve workers’ rights inside that market, and the UK, for the sake of argument, has access to it, but is not a full member of it. Understandably, in those circumstances, other member states might be worried that the UK, by not applying those rights if we do not follow suit, is in some way undercutting those other member states or engaging in a race to the bottom. Therefore, in terms of arguing for the fullest possible access to the single market, which I presume is what Ministers will eventually conclude is the right thing to do, not least because of the assurances they have given to Nissan to secure future investment, it would be helpful to hear from the Minister what approach Ministers would intend to take in the eventuality I have described.
The third issue is the Government’s negotiating objectives, which we dwelt on to a great degree in the Secretary of State’s statement earlier today. The truth is that we now know what the Government’s negotiating objectives are in relation to workers’ rights and employment protection, because those have been set out in the debate so far: we are going to move them into domestic legislation. We therefore now know what the Government want to do on that. We also now know what their negotiating approach is to the motor manufacturing industry, because of the commitments set out clearly to Nissan. In particular, we know that their negotiating objectives for the industry are not to have tariffs, but also to ensure that there are no bureaucratic impediments—those were the words of the Secretary of State—that make it more difficult for trade to be undertaken, whether that is rules of origin, or greater certification or product standards. Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate for the rest of industry and our service sector—80% of our economy is services, and we have 1 million jobs at least in financial services—to ask, as I suspect they will, “So what are the Government’s objectives for our industry, our sector, our future, our concerns and the reassurance we are looking for?” I gently say to Ministers that I really do not think they are going to be able to sustain the position they are currently taking, which is to resist such requests in the face of what will be a growing queue of people who will be looking for facts, reassurance and a plan.
That brings me to my final point, which is about transitional arrangements. Given that the Government have not ruled out transitional arrangements—if we believe today’s report in The Times, those are under active consideration—what approach will they take to such arrangements, including in so far as they affect employment rights, pending the negotiation of a new trade and market access deal? It may be that the Government will be able to pull off the divorce negotiations, which is what article 50 is really all about—the parallel would be dividing up the CD collection and deciding who is going to pay the outstanding gas and electricity bill—in under two years. The Prime Minister has said that she wishes to trigger article 50 by the end of March. However, there are elections in France and in Germany, and in all probability we will not know the nature of the new Governments—certainly in the case of Germany—until the autumn, and it may well be hard to start substantive negotiations until such time as there is clarity about the position of the German Government. If article 50 is triggered at the end of March, we could therefore have just over a year and a half to complete all of this. If it is not going to be possible to do it all—the divorce settlement and negotiating a new trade and market access agreement—then it would be very wise for the Government to look to negotiate a transitional arrangement, and even more wise for them to say now that that is what they intend to do.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Should we trigger article 50, very simply through a very simple piece of legislation, as soon as possible, and then look at the other arrangements that he is talking about, or does he fear, as I do, that we will have no option as soon as this place has triggered article 50—if it does so—or the Government do so in March, since the clock will start ticking as soon as that happens?
I have consistently made clear my personal view—the Select Committee has not yet considered this—that it is wise to separate out the issue of triggering article 50 and the Government publishing their negotiating objectives, for the reason the right hon. Lady gave in her speech. Those of us who campaigned for remain lost the referendum, and we have to uphold the result. I fear that bringing the two things together—conflating them—would inevitably turn any vote on the triggering of article 50, if it is allied with conditions, requirements or whatever, into what the public would see as a vote about whether we are going to uphold the outcome of the referendum. We should deal with the two things separately.
When the time comes, I shall, as I have already said, vote in favour of triggering article 50. The referendum decision having been made, the only way in which we can honour that—the only way for us to leave—is for the article 50 button to be pressed; there is no other mechanism. We are therefore bound to vote in that way. I know that not all Members will share that view, but I believe that the vast majority will accept the logic of the argument. We should keep separate our request to the Government, which we will hear increasingly in all parts of the House, to tell us what the plan is. I am sorry that earlier today we were still hearing the argument that in asking the Government to publish a plan we are somehow trying to undermine the outcome of the referendum. No we are not—we are accepting the outcome of the referendum. We are leaving, and it is therefore really important that the House and the public know what the plan is. This is a serious business with very important consequences for the nation.
The reason for announcing that transitional arrangements will be sought in the event that this cannot all be tied up within two years is that, in particular, it will offer some reassurance to industries that are thinking, “Crumbs, we might tumble out in as little as two years with no agreement.” We know what that would mean for trade under World Trade Organisation terms. Some businesses—one thinks of parts of the financial services industry—will say, “We can’t face that possibility because it creates huge uncertainty and might affect our ability to carry on doing our business.” They will therefore start working backwards and say, “We can’t possibly get into a situation where we tumble out and we can’t do the business we are doing at the moment so we need to make contingency plans now.” That may lead them to decide to do things that have consequences for jobs and employment here in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to my Committee Chair for giving way; he is making a sterling argument. Are not transitional arrangements so important because there are strong noises coming from Europe that it will not even begin discussing the new relationship until the exit procedures are completed?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point. The question in these negotiations will be the extent to which the 27 are willing to talk informally about tying up these arrangements. If the argument in Europe is, “We should leave that until later”, the need for transitional arrangements becomes even more urgent because otherwise we are left with a cliff edge, as many people have described it. If one is going to fall off the edge of a cliff, which is not something I have ever done, it is probably wise to plan where it is one is eventually hoping to land. That is a very strong argument for this.
It is not seeking to undermine the referendum result, it is not unpatriotic, it is not demanding a running commentary, it is not trying to tie the Government’s hands, and it is not trying to box in the Prime Minister and the Ministers who are going to negotiate this to say to the Government, “Please share your plan with this House.” Parliament would like to be a participant in this process, which is the most important task that we have faced as a nation for decades. I sincerely hope that it will not be too long before we get a chance to see that plan.
Order. This has been a very good and lively debate, and I do not want to put on a formal time limit because that curtails the quality of the debate, but if, from now on, Back Benchers would take approximately nine minutes each, then everyone who wishes to speak will have a chance to do so.
It is a great pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to catch your eye in this important debate. It is also a great pleasure to follow Hilary Benn, the Chairman of the new and important Brexit Committee. I hear what he says, but I am concerned about revealing too much of the negotiating position. I enjoyed what he said about the ECJ and the body of case law. He is right that there is an important amount of work to be done in that regard. It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Anna Soubry. We approach this from different sides having fought on different sides of the argument in the run-up to the EU referendum and, I suspect, on some of the detail thereafter. I applaud the tone and maturity of her speech. I also applaud what she said about triggering article 50, and entirely and wholeheartedly agree.
Employment and workers’ rights is a very important subject. I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment. Very sensibly, my predecessor, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, changed the name of the group from “youth unemployment” to “youth employment”—an altogether more positive outlook—and I have continued that tradition. Each month, we look at the latest figures and statistics on unemployment and the labour market. My right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe is entirely right in her analysis of those figures. I am afraid that Clive Lewis is wrong in much of his analysis. I need only mention one or two points to show that that is correct. Employment is at a record level of 31.8 million—up by over 500,000 this year, and up by over 2.8 million since 2010. The hon. Gentleman said that wages are decreasing, but he is wrong. Pay, including bonuses, rose by 2.3% over the past year. There are now over 740,000 job vacancies, despite the fact that we are at record levels of employment and of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. Just touching on those figures makes it abundantly clear that when the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Prime Minister say that the Conservative party is the workers’ party, it is said with a very straight face, utterly seriously and sincerely.
In the nine minutes or so that you have allowed me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to discuss two points. First, there are the accusations made by Opposition Members that the Conservative party cannot be trusted with workers’ rights. Secondly, it has been said, wrongly, that we rely on and need the European Union in order to protect workers’ rights. Those accusations are wrong on all fronts.
It is successive Conservative Governments who have strengthened workers’ rights. My right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, who made many good points, mentioned two issues: the living wage and lifting those on low pay out of taxation. I will add a third, namely the coalition Government’s measures on family rights, including maternity and paternity rights, which the Secretary of State himself mentioned. Those rights are not reliant on the EU; they go further than the EU. The EU’s minimum requirement of 14 weeks is far outstripped and exceeded by the 52 weeks introduced by this Government.
I will come back to the EU, because for now I am going to concentrate on the successes and track record of successive Conservative Governments. I mentioned in an earlier intervention the wonderfully titled Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802, which was introduced by Robert Peel, the father of the Robert Peel with whom we are more familiar. He was first baronet and Member of Parliament for Tamworth, and the Act was the very first document on the statute book to formally protect workers’ rights. For the very first time, working hours and conditions of labour were regulated, not by a Labour Government—the party did not yet exist—or a Liberal Government, who were very illiberal at times, but by a Conservative. His son, as Prime Minister in 1844, continued that tradition and further strengthened workers’ rights.
In 1878, Disraeli consolidated the Factory Acts. In 1901, Lord Salisbury further consolidated and enhanced workers’ rights. Neville Chamberlain is remembered for many things, but rarely for his excellent work further consolidating and strengthening workers’ rights in his Factories Act 1937. I could go on, but I will mention just one more example, because I am mindful of your time restriction, Madam Deputy Speaker. In 1961, another Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, introduced another consolidating Act and workers’ rights were strengthened.
People could say, “1802, 1878, 1901 and 1961 are ancient history. What relevance do they have?” They are relevant not only because it was Conservative Prime Ministers who strengthened the rights of workers, but because it happened before we were in the EU. Far from requiring the EU, we were leading the way and doing so at every turn.
I turn to the false argument that we need the European Union in order to have strong workers’ rights. That is wrong. In fact, the United Kingdom has been ahead of the game for a long time in terms of workers’ rights, particularly health and safety, which is very important. I will digress momentarily, because the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 was enacted by a Labour Government. We should not forget, however, the important work of Willie Whitelaw, who unfortunately was booted out of power before he had a chance to enact that legislation as the Secretary of State for Employment. He stood at the Dispatch Box in January 1974, before the general election, attempting to legislate on the subject.
I will stick with the theme of health and safety at work. The United Kingdom has consistently had one of the lowest rates of fatal injury across the EU. According to a 2016 paper that refers back to 2013, the rate was 0.51 per 100,000 employees. Of course, any figure relating to fatalities is too high, but it is worth noting that that figure is among the lowest in the EU—it is second only to Malta—in terms of health and safety records.
I will mention just one other statistic that is worth taking into account: only 1.4% of United Kingdom workers reported an injury occurring at work that resulted in sick leave, compared with 1.8% in Spain and 3.1% in France. Again, the figure is too high, but it is among the lowest and it demonstrates a high level of commitment in this country to the health and safety of workers. We are consistently ahead of the European Union and have been for a long time.
Geraint Davies mentioned—I have no doubt that he is still discussing it now—the European Court of Justice, but he was wrong to pray in aid the ECJ as some sort of helper for workers’ rights. The truth is quite the opposite. Let me give just one example. In 2007, the ECJ determined whether this country was in breach of article 361 of the 1989 European directive on health and safety at work. Thankfully, the Court eventually determined that this country was not in breach of it: it took it only 33 years to determine that this country had, in 1974, secured the very workers’ rights that the proponents of the EU who opposed us had said that we had not enacted. It is a shame that it took 33 years for the ECJ to accept that the 1989 directive had already been secured by this country. Those rights that the EU said that we should protect had already been protected in 1974. We do not need the European Union in order to protect workers’ rights. This country has long been ahead of the game.
In the spirit of this and the immediately preceding Government’s championing of workers’ rights, does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that a rule that stood for more than 150 years, namely that a worker injured as a result of a breach of health and safety legislation could bring a civil claim for damages, was simply swept aside in 2013, meaning that only criminal sanctions are applicable, thereby reducing the rights of working people?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, because that was the very point that the ECJ looked at in 2007. It determined that a criminal sanction was a more than sufficient and adequate remedy and protection for workers. It determined that this country was ahead of the game back in 1974, albeit as a result of an Act introduced by a Labour Government. The Prime Minister is right to say that we should leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ. We do not need its help in order to be ahead of the game when it comes to workers’ rights.
Does that mean that all is perfect? No, of course it does not—there is always room for improvement—but neither does it mean that the accusations levelled at us from the Opposition Benches are right. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have confirmed that EU law will still apply and that existing workers’ rights are guaranteed.
I can see your thumbs drilling away, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have exceeded my nine minutes by a minute, but I have had an intervention. I will end by saying that the Secretary of State is absolutely right to call us the workers’ party. We should not rely on the EU or the Labour party to protect workers’ rights, because they will not do so. Workers’ rights did not start with the EU, nor will they end when we leave. We can be confident that, under this Prime Minister, workers’ rights will be protected.
I welcome the thrust of what the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has said today, and I welcome the assurances given by the Prime Minister in her conference speech. I am genuinely inclined to believe that this is what the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union honestly think will happen, given what the latter argued in an article on the ConservativeHome website after the referendum but before he got his current job:
“The great British industrial working classes voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. I am not at all attracted by the idea of rewarding them by cutting their rights. This is in any event unnecessary”.
However, my concern is that the Government’s proposals so far simply do not measure up to their rhetoric. At the risk of echoing the salient words of my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, despite what the Secretary of State has said today about the great repeal Bill we have not been offered any more explanation about it and the Secretary of State has stopped short of offering a commitment to primary legislation to protect workers’ rights. That gives me continuing cause for concern. The great repeal Bill will not protect all existing workers’ rights. It will leave them in a much more vulnerable position.
According to the House of Commons Library, the Government’s great repeal Bill is likely to seek to secure in its existing form all legislation passed under the European Communities Act 1972. That includes equal rights for part-time and agency workers, the working time directive and the TUPE regulations. Those who were in the Chamber for the launch of my Workers’ Rights (Maintenance of EU Standards) Bill will remember that I am no fan of those regulations. However, maintaining workers’ rights laws in secondary legislation while removing the minimum floor that the European Union provides will put those laws in a weaker position after we leave the European Union. This is not about saying that we must remain in the European Union. This is not, as has been suggested repeatedly, about frustrating the process of leaving the European Union. This is about ensuring that the future for working people in this country is not left hanging in the balance.
In theory, the proposals that have been laid out would allow any future Government to repeal or reduce existing employment protections without holding a debate or even a vote in Parliament. Realistically, I do not think that any Government—not even this Government—would simply repeal wholesale parental leave or any of the other fundamental rights that we have derived from the EU. I am, however, concerned about a chipping away at workers’ rights after we have left the EU, in the name of efficiency, cutting red tape, easing the burdens on business and streamlining regulation. I know that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has ruled that out, but his word only goes so far—much to his annoyance, I am sure. The fact is that the other two thirds of the team responsible for leaving the EU disagree with him.
In 2014, the Foreign Secretary said:
“The weight of employment regulation is now back-breaking”.
He said it was “very disappointing” that the previous Prime Minister, the former right hon. Member for Witney, took employment rights off the table during his renegotiation. The International Trade Secretary—the man who will be negotiating our trade deals post-Brexit—thinks that it is too difficult to fire staff in this country. He has said:
“It is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”.
When Michael Tomlinson mentioned health and safety legislation, my immediate thought was to consider this country’s excellent record in health and safety legislation. How has that been ensured? It has been by having health and safety representatives in workplaces, as agreed under collective bargaining rules with trade unions. Despite that, the Conservative Government have introduced legislation to try to decrease the opportunity for people to have paid time off to carry out those essential roles in the workplace.
When several members of the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister herself, have gone on record with statements similar to those that I have quoted, there is more than legitimate cause for concern about the future of workers’ rights. The Government could protect those rights by putting such laws into the strongest form of legislation. Any future Government that wished to reduce, alter or improve employment protections would have to hold debates and votes in both Houses of Parliament, under the full scrutiny of the parliamentary process, and they would have to make their argument in public.
Beyond allowing workers’ fundamental rights to be weakened, as I have already mentioned, the Government’s great repeal Bill—or the great entrenchment Bill—will also in effect cut a huge number of smaller employment protections. The Transport Secretary, when he was sent out on the Sunday morning of the Conservative party conference to explain the great repeal Bill, said that
“the Act gets rid of the supremacy of EU law. Decisions made by the European Court of Justice over the United Kingdom cease to apply.”
In practice, that means the ruling giving care workers the right to full pay for sleep-in shifts would cease to apply, as would the ruling saying that holiday pay must take account of overtime and commission payments, the provision for uncapped compensation for discrimination, the ruling that travel time is working time and the ruling protecting parents who care for their disabled child from discrimination at work. All those rulings would no longer apply.
There is a clear contradiction. If the Government’s great repeal Bill means that ECJ rulings will immediately cease to apply and it does nothing to protect people in such cases, a huge number of workers’ rights will be lost the day we leave the European Union. How does that square with the guarantees the Secretary of State gave the House earlier and with what the Prime Minister promised in September? The Government must address this point as soon as possible. My proposed Bill, which is currently going through this place, does exactly what I have argued for—protecting all existing workers’ rights in the strongest form of UK legislation. If the Government are serious about this issue, as they have said they are, I hope they will support my Bill when it returns to the House on Second Reading.
Finally, I want to address the suggestion made by Grant Shapps in The Times two weeks ago, and reiterate that it would not be a sensible way to move forward. This was mentioned earlier in the debate, but there is no harm in repetition. He suggested that a sunset clause should be attached to the Government’s great repeal Bill to impose a limit of five years on every law passed under the European Communities Act. Parliament would then have to agree to each law it wanted to retain, and any that were not secured in time would fall at the deadline. However, this House would spend five years on nothing other than passing laws that already apply in this country. I cannot speak for the people of Welwyn Hatfield, but I know my constituents sent me here to win them more jobs, bring them higher wages, and to argue for better schools and hospitals, not simply to be content with the world as it is. The idea that we should allow him and his colleagues the opportunity to ransom working people’s rights, for which trade unions fought for decades to win, is as laughable as it is dangerous. I hope the Minister will assure the House that the Government will whip their Members to vote against this ridiculous proposal as and when it reaches the House.
Order. We have about an hour left and eight Members wish to speak: they can do the arithmetic for themselves. I thank Melanie Onn for keeping to the informal limit, but I think it should now be nearer to eight minutes.
It is a pleasure to follow Melanie Onn, a Unison colleague.
I have to say from listening to some of the Government Members that the debate so far has been a bizarre, surreal and Orwellian experience—or should I say a Dickensian experience, given that reference has been made to the Conservative party’s glory days in 1802? Let us remind ourselves that Ebenezer Scrooge was a boy and children were sent up chimneys in 1802, the Conservative party’s glory days. As for the Conservatives being the workers’ party, I can only assume that Comical Ali is working in Conservative central office.
On the real issue about workers’ rights, I disagree with Anna Soubry, because I do not think we emphasised workers’ rights enough during the EU referendum. I say that because of the legal advice issued by Michael Ford QC to the TUC, which states that
“employment rights in the UK are guaranteed by EU law. These rights include: protection against discrimination…;
protections of workers on transfers of undertakings and in insolvency;
health and safety…;
rights to collective information and consultations on transfers and redundancies;
working time rights;
protection against discrimination of fixed-term…workers”—
Workers’ rights need to be protected if the UK—or even part of the UK—leaves the European Union. As others have said, those of us on the Opposition Benches have every reason to fear for workers’ rights if the Government are freed from the constraints of the EU. Our real fear is that there would be a war on workers’ rights from this Government. As others have noted, the Secretary of State for International Development said in a speech to that advocate of workers’ rights, the Institute of Directors:
“If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3 billion boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs.”
I do not accept that economic illiteracy. It is a bit like the claim that the national minimum wage would cost £1 million a year, when in actual fact it did the opposite. Who argued that position? It was the so-called workers’ party, the Conservatives. Viewed from working people’s end of the telescope, those so-called burdens are protections that we should be very keen on.
Which rights coming from the EU must be protected? The first is surely the EU equal treatment directive, which underpins equal pay legislation and has secured equal and improved pay for millions of women across the public services. Improvements do not rely only on directives; common law decisions of the domestic courts rely heavily on EU law. That has had the positive effect of women not needing to find a male comparator where they have suffered pregnancy discrimination.
The part-time workers directive has resulted in thousands of part-time workers gaining access to public sector pensions when previously they had been prevented from joining a pension scheme. The agency workers directive has resulted in UK agency workers gaining access to pay and leave improvements, and in many agency workers gaining permanent employment.
The much-maligned working time directive has resulted in increases in holiday pay so that it includes regular allowances and so that pay is not reduced during holiday periods. It has allowed care workers on sleepover shifts in care homes to have their working time recognised when they are woken in the middle of the night to help the elderly. It has ensured safe shift patterns, reducing accidents and critical incidents, and pro rata annual leave for zero-hours contract workers for the hours that they have worked. The EU collective redundancy regulations have kept thousands of workers in work, rather than on the dole, by ensuring meaningful alternative redeployment or retraining are considered first before a final decision on employment is made.
Those are not burdens but real protections and have provided fair rights at work. Those workers’ rights must be protected. If the UK, in whole or in part, leaves the EU, we must ensure that those protections stay, and are not under attack from the zealots and fanatics who believe nothing good has ever come from the European Union.
It is a great pleasure to follow Chris Stephens, who mentioned many of the benefits that workers get. The European Court of Justice guarantees those rights in work. The simple fact is that once we leave the EU, those rights will no longer be guaranteed. It is all very well having undertakings from Government Front Benchers that they will be there for the next few years; subsequent Parliaments may choose to repeal laws and get rid of those rights. If we stayed in the EU, they would not have that power.
It is also the case that if we leave the EU, as it looks like we will, we will face considerable tariffs and business costs. Businesses such as Nissan have already negotiated sweetheart deals, money under the table and that sort of thing; others will do the same, to have a level playing field. People suggest that there will not be tariffs, but only Germany and Holland have a net trade surplus with us. Other countries are likely to vote for some level of protectionism, if only to stop others leaving the EU.
Businesses will try to recover those costs and the Government will respond by reducing environmental standards, health standards and rights at work. The Government have already been taken to court by ClientEarth because 40,000 people are dying of diesel pollution. Why did the Government not act automatically? Of course, once we are out of the EU there will be no mandatory enforceability under EU standards. The case will be similar for people at work.
The Prime Minister has a vision of free trade for all. The International Trade Secretary has simply signed off the comprehensive economic and trade agreement—the Canadian trade deal—without reference to Parliament. The agreement enables companies to take democracies to court in arbitration courts without due process. They can sue Governments for passing laws that increase costs and reduce profits. We know the risks, and the assurances we have heard today cannot be trusted for the future.
My view, which I know not many people share, is that we should delay triggering article 50, because as soon as we trigger it, we have no negotiating power and have handed back our membership. The 27 other states will decide the deal we get and tell us what it is, and we can like it or lump it. Up to that point, we have negotiating power, but only if the EU assumes that we will map out a settlement that we can put to the people in a vote on the exit package.
I appreciate that there is not much appetite in the House for that, but I contend that the people of Britain who voted for Brexit did so on the basis of market access and lower costs—£350 million a week for the NHS. We know from the Chancellor that he will rip up his deficit reduction plans and borrow billions more. Obviously, there will be less money because there will be less inward investment, and therefore fewer jobs. They also voted on migration, but we are yet to see what will transpire. The simple point is that if people vote in principle for a product or action, they should have the right to vote again on whether their reasonable expectations have been fulfilled. In my view, they simply will not be fulfilled. In essence, people were mis-selling to the British public, and we will end up with a situation in which we will all be the poorer.
A lot has been said about the punishment from the majority of the British people if we have a quiet reconsideration of the situation and the exit deal, but I contend that the silent majority is already no longer in favour of leaving. That is clearly borne out when we look at the polls. Obviously, if 16 to 18-year-olds or ex-patriates had also been included, we would not have voted to leave. People are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what is happening in the economy, whether it is because of the £14 for a visa to go to Europe, because the banks are saying that they will leave Britain, or because of the 30-year low in sterling and increasing inflation.
I do not believe that the advisory vote gives the Government a blank cheque to jump over the edge at all costs. We should certainly be free to debate and discuss these things without the intimidating tactics of people such as Nigel Farage, who said that we will see
“political anger the likes of which none of us have ever witnessed in our lifetimes”,
that there will be disturbances on the streets, and that he will summon up 100,000 people to march on the Supreme Court in order to put mob rule ahead of the rule of law and of parliamentary democracy. He seems to be the new, emerging Oswald Mosley.
It is frightening that the Government, in making the poor poorer by punishing them for the bankers’ errors, and in turning round and saying, “You can blame foreigners,” have helped to whip up a frenzy in the Brexit debate. The reality is that people from Europe who are working in Britain on average contribute 35% more in taxes than they consume in public services. I fear the direction of travel politically in this country. It is extremely divisive. As I have said, people are conjuring up hate and violence. Assuming that this goes through without people having the opportunity to have a final look at what they have voted for before jumping, they will be dissatisfied with what they get. Those who have most hope have most to lose.
The Labour party passed a conference motion saying that many people had, for various reasons, voted to leave and that the final settlement should be agreed to if it is considered acceptable. If it is not, we should have another look at it through a vote in Parliament, a general election or a second referendum. I appreciate that that view is not held wholeheartedly by my Labour colleagues.
I will conclude now, Mr Speaker, to give other Members time to speak. My fear is that people have voted in good faith for a stronger economy, lower migration and lower costs, but will not get that. If the package that is ultimately negotiated does not achieve that, they should have the right to reject it.
Every single MP I have spoken to since the referendum respects the result, but there is considerable disquiet about the Prime Minister’s hard Brexit rhetoric. She seems intent on severing not only all political ties but economic ones as well. Such a reckless Brexit would be disastrous for the economy, with a negative impact on the financial wellbeing of those we have been elected to serve.
Following the referendum, there is a clear ideological divide in this House between those who favour a hard Brexit and those who prefer a soft Brexit. I do not find the sort of rhetoric we heard following the High Court judgment—that we who prefer a soft Brexit are backsliders—particularly helpful. Since the High Court’s decision, the UK Government have been briefing heavily that if the House of Commons tries in any way to undermine the chosen path of the UK Government, they will hold a snap election. A general election could be triggered by a simple majority of MPs if the Government decide to bring forward a no confidence motion in themselves. As parliamentarians, our foremost duty is to look after the interests of our constituents. It is clear that, following the referendum, a softer Brexit is the best outcome we can hope for. A hard Brexit, whereby the UK leaves both the single market and the customs union, would be fraught with economic danger, even if the UK Government were miraculously able to negotiate a comprehensive new bilateral trade deal before the completion of exit procedures.
In the event of the UK Government cynically engineering a vote of no confidence in themselves, under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, an election will be held unless an alternative Government with the confidence of the House of Commons can be formed within 14 days. The Prime Minister could risk being challenged by an alliance of MPs from all political parties who oppose her hard Brexit trajectory. At such a pivotal moment in the UK’s constitutional history, pragmatic MPs should come together, rise above party politics and negotiate a soft Brexit for the UK.
The UK Government find themselves in this position because there was no plan for Brexit if the leave side won the referendum. In contrast, during the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish Government published a 300-page White Paper on what independence meant. The UK Government effectively have a blank canvas, which is why we find ourselves having such debates and trying to work out the Government’s intentions on vital issues such as workers’ rights.
Following the result, the absence of a clear plan has meant that irresponsible politicians have been interpreting the result to fit their own ideological priorities. There is now apparently a mandate to leave the single market, despite the clear pledge in the Tory general election manifesto to protect our membership, to introduce draconian immigration targets, and to force companies to produce official lists of foreign employees. There is no mandate, however, to destroy the economy, which would cost jobs and affect people’s financial wellbeing. The overriding priority for all decisions should be to choose the Brexit option that minimises that impact.
Wales is, alas, more exposed because it has an exporting economy. Wales turns out a £5 billion annual surplus. Some 200,000 jobs in Wales are sustained by membership of the single market. Our great trading success is driven by our relationship with the European Union, not least the 53 deals we have with countries across the world as a result of the customs union. In answer to my parliamentary question, the UK Government disclosed that 15% of UK exports are dependent on those 53 international trade deals. The key question, therefore, is this: how long will it take to renegotiate all those international trade deals if we choose a path outside the customs union?
A trade deal with the EU might not even solve the wider issues around trade barriers, as they often just focus just on tariffs. Tariffs are, of course, a concern, but a blinkered focus on these obvious obstacles to trade detracts from the greater impediment of non-tariff barriers. On average, non-tariff barriers are over six times more costly than tariffs in the EU, and there is only one way to ensure that these non-tariff barriers are kept to a minimum—full single market membership.
Very simply, the terms of debate around Brexit are being driven by what is most important—economic concerns or concerns over immigration—and it appears that public opinion is already shifting. A poll earlier this month said that the economy was far more important than controls on immigration as people began to focus on the impact of Brexit on their jobs and wages. Perhaps the big driver has been the fall in the pound. I am someone who is normally seduced by arguments around devaluation, but the 20% fall that we have seen has been driven not by deliberate central bank policy, but by currency markets that are now betting heavily against sterling, affecting future confidence in the economy of the UK. That means that the sterling zone is now up there with the Nigerian naira, the Azerbaijani manat and the Malawian kwacha as one of the worst-performing currencies in the world. The impact of devaluation on people’s lives is, of course, that disposable income gets compressed as prices for food and fuel increase.
We should also be concerned about the extra costs that the UK Government will face if they want to borrow. We urgently need direct capital investment in infrastructure to drive economic growth, but the cost of putting that in place will be far dearer because of the fall in the pound. That is not to mention the £66 billion deduction in revenues that has been leaked by the Treasury. As Geraint Davies mentioned earlier, supply-side reforms in the economy could endanger workers’ privileges, protections and rights. The end result of these reduced revenues will be to smash the Treasury’s deficit targets, so we await the autumn statement, and not least the Office for Budget Responsibility report, with great interest.
The Prime Minister has triumphantly proclaimed that existing workers’ rights will continue to be guaranteed in law as long as she is in office. However, as the House of Commons Library and other legal experts have pointed out, many workers’ rights stem directly from EU treaties—the right to equal pay between genders, for example—and once we leave the EU, those rights would cease to exist, so new primary legislation would be needed to reinstate them. Do the UK Government intend to bring forward primary legislation to ensure that all rights currently enshrined at EU level are secured in domestic legislation? Rather than bringing in a repeal Bill, should we not be bringing forward a continuity Bill? As events proceed, people will become increasingly angry about the way things are going.
We have heard good points from SDLP Members about devolved competencies, but I do not think we had a clear answer to how the great repeal Bill envisaged by the UK Government will work with the devolved nations. As we know, there is a hugely diverging agenda between the Welsh Government and the UK Government when it comes to workers’ rights, as was evidenced by the recent court case over the agricultural workers dispute.
Returning to trade, we have heard a duality of messages from Brexiters since the referendum. There was supposed to be a protectionist paradise. Such arguments held considerable sway in the steel industry in south Wales in the face of Chinese dumping. Of course, dairy farmers face competition from Ireland and hill farmers in Wales are challenged by lamb coming from New Zealand. Yet the rhetoric that we currently get from the UK Government is that Brexit will lead to a free trade bonanza.
Given the time constraints, I shall finish now. If there is to be a future outside the customs union—as envisaged, I fear, by the UK Government—it is vital that the devolved nations have a veto and a direct say in discussions about international trade deals.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in today’s debate at a very critical stage in our nation’s history. Today’s debate is on workers’ rights and leaving the EU. It is very important because it is also symbolic of who could win or lose in post-Brexit Britain. The debate is vital, I believe, for our future fairness and prosperity. I hope that the choice of debate reflects an understanding on the Government’s part that this is one aspect of Brexit that it is vital for us to get right. Workers’ rights must be maintained in post-Brexit Britain. I also believe that the debate must strongly engage, and respect, the voices of those who voted or campaigned for leave as well as the voices of those who voted or campaigned for remain.
Over the summer, along with my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock, I wrote a piece proposing a six-point Brexit plan to help to support our prosperity and security. We said we believed that the UK needed to remain a member of the single market, although some reform of the market might be necessary if it were to do so. We recognised that the Tories’ 2015 manifesto promised to safeguard Britain’s interests in the single market. We called for, and understood the need for, greater controls over freedom of movement, on which, in my view, we should seek to negotiate with other countries. We said that we should protect our financial services sector—for example, through passporting rights—and keep up with the EU in respect of measures to tackle tax avoidance. I believe—I shall say more about this shortly—that we must keep our stake in the European Investment Bank. We said that we must shadow the EU’s environmental legislation, and must not become the weak link in Europe when it comes to tackling pollution and climate change. Vitally, however, we need to shadow the EU’s employment legislation: that, I believe, is absolutely crucial.
During the referendum campaign, people were promised that workers’ rights would be protected in a post-Brexit Britain. Yes, that means protecting the rights that we currently have, but it must also mean keeping up with future rights so that people in Britain, including the workers, do not have worse terms and conditions than their counterparts in Europe, where there may be companies that work across boundaries, and, indeed, where we want to ensure that our workers, particularly young people, have the best chances and opportunities for their futures as well. We want to ensure that we do not have weaker employment legislation than the rest of Europe. That would send all the wrong messages about Britain, which, as a progressive nation, has fought for so many rights over so many years, and, indeed, has been a leader in Europe in many debates of this kind.
Last week, I was proud to be part of the launch by the Fabian Women’s Network of a charter to help to protect the rights and support that we currently receive from the European Union, which make such a difference to women’s lives in the UK and whose loss could well have the most impact on women. That includes maintaining our workplace rights, much of which are underpinned by EU legislation; meeting
“funding requirements for the work programmes currently reliant on the European Social Fund which support women moving into work”; safeguarding and protecting
“funding for programmes addressing violence against women and girls”,
and safeguarding the rights of survivors of such violence by ensuring that women have the same access to rights and legal remedies as they have under EU law; continuing to
“push for wider representation of women in top positions across all industries within the public and private sector, and step in to support female entrepreneurship and start-ups”,
including those in industries of the future, such as innovation and tech; and making a commitment
“to tackle the rise of hate crime and protect the rights of refugee women and ensure that the health and maternity needs of women who are imprisoned or detained are properly attended to.”
Women who voted leave did not vote to be worse off, or vote for their daughters to be worse off, and I hope that the gender impact assessments will form part of the Government’s plans.
We have big questions that need answering, and that is why the political process that we go through is important. We have big questions that must be answered before we are ready to get to grips with the details of how to protect employment legislation. My right hon. Friend Hilary Benn laid out very clearly the disparities in the basis of our rights in law and how a lot of detailed work will need to be done to make sure that they can all be embedded in UK law going forward and be on an equal basis.
It is because of the importance I place on getting this right for workers that I am so concerned about the process that we put in place now. If Parliament does not even have a say without there being heckling on the membership of the single market, what hope do we genuinely have of making sure we keep up with the finer points of employment legislation? As things stand, it appears the Prime Minister expects us to do nothing but rubber-stamp whatever deals she manages to negotiate by 2019. This seems to expect a sovereign Parliament to sit quietly by while she and her Ministers strike a deal behind closed doors. To say that her Cabinet Ministers are giving mixed signals would be an understatement. She called for a hard Brexit precipitating a fall in the pound to a 168-year low and she then started promising exceptions to some sectors, including the automotive industry and top banks. She has picked a time to trigger article 50 just seven months before federal elections in Germany and presidential elections in France, effectively wasting a quarter of our negotiating period, and meanwhile three of her MPs have resigned. More than four months after the referendum, we still have no idea what her plan for Brexit is, and as a senior leader recently said to me, we appear to be the only country in the world without a plan for Brexit.
As parliamentarians, our vital role is to hold the Government to account, and that means to scrutinise and have a say in the decisions that affect our constituents. We are not trying to kill off Brexit, and castigating those who ask probing questions as being enemies of the people or something similar is frankly a terrifying way for the Government to behave, and is not where we should be. We respect the mandate for leaving, but the terms matter. The precise terms on which we negotiate are vital and Parliament should have sight of, and comment on, those terms. Indeed our constituents—their lives, livelihoods and families—could face a very different outcome and future depending on the terms we negotiate.
We need a strategy for negotiation, therefore, and the Government must urgently review their approach and put their plans for Brexit before the House of Commons, and if not their detailed plans yet, then their priorities. They should include ensuring ease of doing business, ensuring that there are still maximum opportunities for young people to travel and learn, ensuring that there will still be opportunities for collaboration between scientists and investment in our universities, and making sure that our country is open and that people see we are ready for investment. We would then not have the sort of comments we have heard this week from the former high commissioner for India, who said that Britain is no longer seen as open and is becoming less relevant and less influential. We need to fight for the best possible deal—a deal that protects jobs, the economy and workers’ rights.
It is important that we maintain our stake in the European Investment Bank, and that we maintain a relationship that is as close as possible to what we have now. We need that infrastructure investment to support our economy now more than ever. It is the way we will address poor productivity and drive up growth and wages. When it comes to infrastructure investment, the EU has been critical for Britain’s prosperity and competitiveness. We currently hold a sixth of the shares in the EIB and last year it lent about £6 billion for 40 projects up and down our country, a 10% increase on the year before. Those cheap loans have been a vital source of funds, including £400 million for social housing in London. They have supported skills, jobs and apprenticeships and we should be doing all we can publicly as well as privately to push for this very beneficial relationship to be maintained post-Brexit. Indeed, how are we to ensure, understand and believe that the Government are doing all they can to negotiate the best possible deal if there is no scrutiny?
I welcome today’s debate. I also welcome the fact that the Government say that they want to secure our rights, but they need to do much more to cement their commitment. They need to address the questions about our different sets of rights. Some have their basis in primary legislation and some in secondary legislation, and different areas of our rights are underpinned by EU law. The Government need to set out how this will be taken forward in their great repeal Bill and how these rights will be maintained on an equal footing.
The Government must also make clear their position on a sunset clause in any great repeal Bill. They must give a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no dilution of current workers’ rights, and they must recognise the wider concerns expressed by stakeholders about the uncertainty that is currently being created. For example, the British Chambers of Commerce has reported that skilled EU migrant workers who have played an important part in our economy are leaving this country and going home because of uncertainty about their future. That is a wider issue relating to skills and employment. We also need to look closely at the transition arrangements, to ensure stability for investment in industry. There is a bigger picture here as well. We need to be assured that rights and fairness for workers will be clearly set out so that we will not be worse off in a post-Brexit Britain. There is more than one way to Brexit, so let us make sure we get it right.
It is a pleasure to follow Seema Malhotra. Like her, I shall restrict most of my remarks to the subject of women, who are often disproportionately affected by the decisions that are made here. First, however, I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Neil Gray, who so eloquently laid out the Scottish National party’s position on Brexit and on workers’ rights. In a similar vein, I also want pay tribute to my hon. Friend Chris Stephens, who has impeccable credentials in this respect. He has been a champion of workers’ rights all his working life. We have heard mention of democracy and democratic will throughout the debate. I again want to put on record—in case anyone has forgotten—how Scotland voted in the European referendum. I remind the House that 62% voted to remain. We have heard today about the democratic will of the people of Scotland and the fact that the Scottish Government have a triple mandate to keep Scotland within the EU.
The subject of today’s debate is workers’ rights. In the past few decades, our membership of the EU has played a pivotal role in protecting and promoting equality and the rights of women in our country and across our continent. Thanks to EU legislation, women in the UK secured the right to equal pay for work of equal value. While there is still a long way to go in closing the gender pay gap, the protections that have emanated from our EU membership have served to push this agenda forwards. Thanks to EU laws, pregnant women and new mothers have been protected by a day-one right to unfair dismissal rights and to protection from discrimination. It was not that long ago that pregnant women could be immediately dismissed by employers, who had no responsibility whatever to re-hire mothers who had taken leave to have a baby. Now, specific rights have been enshrined in EU regulations, which provide protection for pregnant workers and new mums. Rights to paid time off to attend antenatal appointments are also now secure for pregnant women, keeping them in work.
The parental leave directive, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Neil Gray, has helped 8.3 million working parents—a huge amount—across the UK to take up to 18 weeks unpaid leave to care for a child. The directive also protects workers who need to deal with family or domestic emergencies. There is, however, still some distance to travel to deliver true gender equality at work, and the EU has brought us some way to protect families who are struggling to balance paid work and care for their children.
Over and above those specific rules to promote equality for women, EU legislation guarantees workers’ rights in areas such as protecting our entitlement to paid holidays and ensures, most importantly, that part-time, fixed-term or agency workers get fair and equal treatment in the eyes of the law. The rules protect everyone, but women in particular reap the benefits of a fairer, more equal workplace. The rights are some of the key reasons why I and so many others voted to remain in the EU. It is also the case that many who voted to leave want to see the rights maintained. The Prime Minster clearly stated to her party conference last month:
“And let me be absolutely clear: existing workers’
legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law –
and they will be guaranteed as long as I am Prime Minister.”
That is a welcome start, but I remain concerned that the Government’s actions are not matching that rhetoric.
I am particularly concerned by a written answer given last week to a question from Matthew Pennycook. When asked about the Government’s plans to give domestic effect to the agency workers directive through the so-called great repeal Bill, the Minister of State, Department for Exiting the European Union, Mr Jones ominously stated:
“The Bill will convert existing European Union law into domestic law, wherever practical.”
How does “wherever practical” fit with the cast-iron assurance given by the Prime Minister on this wider issue only weeks ago? What practical issues have the Government identified so far regarding giving domestic effect to these vital rights? Which of the protections that have been given to workers in the UK are now at threat due to these practical issues? Can the Minister set that out today?
Throughout today’s debate, the Conservatives have sought to portray themselves as the party of workers’ rights. Our current rights were often resisted by the UK Government during EU negotiations, such as with agency workers’ rights and limitations on working time, so I am not quite sure why they are asking us to trust them today—we certainly do not button up the back. The ever-helpful House of Commons Library’s note prepared for this debate states:
“For example, having negotiated concessions in the proposal that became the Working Time Directive and then abstained from the final vote, the UK challenged the Directive’s legal basis”.
Those rights are now under threat again today. For example, we need clarity from the Government about the impact of Brexit on a range of specific rights and provisions for workers.
We are constantly, and rightly, contacted by constituents, such as mine in Ochil and South Perthshire, about what the result means for them, so I want to ask the Minister a series of questions. Will the Government seek to impose a cap on the compensation available for discrimination claims? Do Ministers intend to re-evaluate whether workers should continue to accrue holiday entitlement during a period of sickness absence or maternity leave? At present, workers cannot work in excess of 48 hours a week unless they opt out of this protection, but do the Government plan to consider removing that restriction? Following Brexit, what plans are being considered to remove or reduce worker’s TUPE rights? The Agency Workers Regulations 2010 give agency workers the same rights to basic employment and working conditions as other workers, so will the Government seek to remove or amend those regulations, which protect so many female workers?
It is all very well to say, as we have heard throughout the debate, that all rights will continue on day one. As Mark Durkan, who is not currently in his place, has said so often and so eloquently, the Government may well intend to highlight and copy in some of the rights from day one, but I am more interested in where “Select all”, copy, delete or paste will apply. We want to know that the rights will continue. Indeed, we want to know whether the UK will continue to keep up with much or all of the good legislation that comes out of the European Union about protecting workers’ rights if and when the UK leaves the EU. The Government need to be transparent about their intentions and act to reassure workers who are watching at home right now and guarantee the rights that have served women and men in this country for so long.
I rise to speak as a Member with more than 15 years’ experience as an employment lawyer before I entered this place and as someone who was motivated to seek election here in part because I do not believe our current system of workplace protection is adequate.
As we saw in the EU referendum, telling someone on a zero-hours contract or in agency work that there is a risk to their job from Brexit just did not cut it; a culture has been created in this country that views employment as a flexible, disposable concept. People do not know from one week to the next how many hours they will work or whether they will work at all, yet some still wonder why millions of people voted to reject the status quo. So although I welcome the assurances given on workers’ rights so far, I believe we need to go much further to obtain a workplace settlement that puts fairness at its heart. As I will explain, I am still concerned, despite the assurances given, about whether employment rights will be retained, given the track record of many in the Cabinet on this matter.
Employment workplace protection in this country at its current level is woefully inadequate. A person can work somewhere for two years of their life but still find themselves cast aside without any reason and without recompense, even if they have done nothing wrong—that was introduced by the coalition Government. How can people feel confident enough to plan for their future if we have a system that sacrifices that future at the altar of flexibility? We need a country where people have the security of knowing that if they do a good job and if their employer runs the business well, they are going to be rewarded properly and are likely to stay in work. What we have instead is a hire-and-fire culture where workers are seen as disposable commodities and where loyalty counts for nothing.
I would like to see many improvements in the current law—a reduction in the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims, the strengthening of unfair dismissal laws and the abolition of employment tribunal fees, which we are still waiting for the Government’s review of—but in the context of Brexit the immediate concern has to be to retain what we currently have.
As I said, I welcome the assurances given, but they do not go far enough. We are all familiar with the term “gold-plating”, and in 2011 the Government announced they were ending the gold-plating of EU legislation and would not go beyond the minimum requirements of the EU legislation when implementing it in this country. I consider the term “gold-plating” to be misleading and insulting when talking about basic rights at work, as it conjures up images of opulence and extravagance that simply do not reflect the reality of most people’s experience in the workplace.
One example of where employment legislation is considered to have gone beyond the original EU rules is what is covered by the definition of “pay” in the agency worker regulations, but probably the most widely discussed relates to the working time regulations. The most obvious example of supposed “gold-plating” is the requirement for 28 days’ paid leave in UK law, whereas only 20 days’ paid leave is granted in the directive. It is not just the removal of the gold-plating that concerns me, as many other facets of the regulations could be altered domestically which would fundamentally change and weaken those rights. Could the maximum working week be increased? Could the number of hours worked before entitlement to a rest break accrues change? Could the way weekly rest breaks are calculated alter? Could these be changed across industries to suit? Could we see a return to the prevention of the accrual of holiday pay during sick leave? On collective redundancies, we have already gone down from 90 to 45 days in respect of the consultation, but the Government could go even lower. At the moment, businesses are required to consult trade unions where they are recognised, but what is to stop this Government taking the opportunity to undermine trade unions yet again by altering the rules so that employee representatives could be consulted instead?
There are similar provisions in the TUPE regulations, where there is also another good example of supposed gold-plating, with the application of the service provision changes. That applies to thousands of transfers every year, so I hope there will be no attempt to restrict TUPE’s reach. Another area where there is an opportunity for those who want to see an erosion of rights is in relation to post-transfer changes to terms and conditions of employment, a fiendishly complicated area of law, much of it subject to European Court of Justice judgments. I fear there will be a temptation for those who want to rid us of supposed red tape to say that it would be much simpler just to say there are no specific post-transfer restrictions on changes to terms and conditions.
So the Government can claim to be protecting employment rights derived in the EU, but they could, if they chose to, nibble away at those rights in the way I have outlined. I believe the temptation will be too great for many Government Members—I refer not to removing rights altogether but to significantly weakening them. Why do I say that? One has only to look at what members of the Cabinet have said in the past to get a flavour of where they are coming from. Although we have heard plenty about them tonight, these comments are so concerning that it is worth repeating a few again. Let us start at the top, because the Prime Minister, in an interview with HR magazine in March 2010, when she was shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said:
In 2012, the Foreign Secretary said that the UK should scrap the social chapter. Last year, he said that the Government should “weigh in” on all that “social chapter stuff”. He claimed that the weight of employment regulation was “back-breaking”. When the Secretary of State for Defence was Minister for Business and Enterprise, he said that the Government must
“turn the screws tighter on burdensome red tape”,
and “de-regulate further and faster.”
“To restore competitiveness we must begin by deregulating the labour market. Political objections must be overridden…It is too difficult to hire and fire, and too expensive to take on new employees…It is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”.
I could not disagree more with that. It is not just what the Government have said, but what they have done. The last coalition Government introduced legislation that enabled employees to be bought out of their statutory employment rights. They also introduced employment tribunal fees that have proved to be a massive barrier to people seeking to enforce their rights, as well as doubling the qualifying period before people can claim unfair dismissal.
If there has been a sudden and belated conversion to the importance of employment rights, I would welcome it and encourage Government Members to join me in arguing for increased workplace protection. If they agree that these rights are important, they will also know that not only are they about individual dignity and respect in the workplace, but they have social and economic value and are an essential component of a healthy, stable and progressive country.
Employment rights ensure that people can participate in the labour market without facing unfair discrimination. They give vulnerable workers more job security and stability of income. They help to encourage a committed workforce and the retention of skilled workers. They are not something that we spend enough time talking about in this place, but most of our constituents will be affected by them. While we need more workplace protection not less, I and everyone else on Labour’s Benches will be keeping a close eye on this Government in case they attempt to water down the rights that we currently have.
Last year, the people of Scotland made their voices heard loudly and clearly by filling these Benches with Scottish National party Members. The public discontent was palpable during the election campaign. Many people were sickened by the broken promises of the better together campaign. One may find no better example of that than being told that the only way to secure EU membership was to vote no. Indeed, people clearly remember Ruth Davidson MSP promising just that during a live televised debate on
“I think it is disingenuous...to say that no means out and yes means in, when actually the opposite is true. No means we stay in;
we are members of the European Union.”
Let me be clear from the outset. I am here to represent my constituency, but as a member of the SNP, I was put here to ensure that the interests of Scotland are heard in this place. I was elected on a manifesto commitment to oppose withdrawal from the European Union.
The SNP Scottish Government were returned for an unprecedented third term in May on a pro-EU manifesto. It was the express will of the Scottish people a few weeks later in June to remain within the European Union. Scotland as a whole voted overwhelmingly to remain, as did every single one of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas.
While the Prime Minister fumbles around with what Brexit means—something that the people of Scotland rejected which is now being forced upon them—I can categorically tell her what it means to us. It represents economic uncertainty, a devalued currency, rising inflation, higher bills and mortgage payments, and a loss of up to 80,000 jobs. This is the plague of locusts that was supposed to follow a yes vote, according to the no campaign during the independence referendum. It really is not good enough for Scotland to be treated as secondary partner during Brexit negotiations. Scottish citizens are EU citizens, and their interests should not be sidelined by a Tory Government for whom they did not vote.
People in Scotland voted to remain for a whole host of reasons, but when I was out campaigning in the run-up to the referendum, workers’ rights were a common refrain from voters. They recognise the impact that the EU has had on the health and safety duties of employers to evaluate, avoid and reduce workplace risks. According to the TUC, the number of worker fatalities in the UK has declined significantly since EU directives were implemented. Pregnant women and new mothers have been protected from day 1 by unfair dismissal rights. There is a real understanding of the enhancements that the EU has delivered to the UK’s discrimination laws to include rights on grounds of sexual orientation, religion or belief, and age. The Prime Minister has been unable to give a cast-iron guarantee to Scottish citizens on the future of these and other workers’ rights after we leave the EU.
The European Union has ensured that workers are not subjected to exploitation or discrimination. Through its promotion of beneficial working practices, it has ensured that workers are treated fairly. As we have seen already with the introduction of tribunal fees, the draconian Trade Union Act 2016 and the increase in the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims, the Tories seem intent on eroding the rights of people in the workplace. The bottom line is that the Conservative party cannot be trusted with workers’ rights. I worry about what the Government will attempt to do post-Brexit, unfettered by the EU.
Although EU-derived employment rights which feature in primary legislation would be relatively cushioned from the effects of Brexit, the greatest risk is the massive uncertainty that surrounds the protections afforded in secondary legislation, in which much employment law is contained. These laws are susceptible to revocation by secondary legislation. As my hon. Friend Ms Ahmed-Sheikh said, the Prime Minister made a commitment at the recent Tory party conference to guarantee existing workers legal rights as long as she is Prime Minister. This gives me and many others little comfort. We have heard nothing of plans to move EU employment rights contained in secondary legislation into primary legislation as part of the great repeal Bill. If the Prime Minister wants to give guarantees, that would represent a good starting point.
A report recently published by Professor Alan Page of the University of Dundee entitled “The implications of EU withdrawal for the devolution settlement” suggests that many laws affecting devolved issues could be unilaterally scrapped by Westminster following a withdrawal from the EU. The repeal of EU regulations brought about by secondary legislation would not require the consent of Members of the Scottish Parliament. Professor Page has described this as “a significant potential gap” in law-making in devolved areas, and he points out that
“there is no requirement of the Scottish Parliament’s consent to UK subordinate legislation transposing EU obligations in the devolved areas”.
I agree with Professor Page’s conclusion that there are very considerable implications for devolution.
I say this today as a warning to the Prime Minister. What she does now—the action that she takes which affects Scotland—must be carefully considered. Her party holds no mandate north of the border, and people there will not stand idly by while she disrespects their wishes. Whatever Brexit means to her, she can rest assured that it will mean something completely different in Scotland. Those of us on the SNP Benches will not vote for anything that will damage the interests of the people of Scotland, and if the Prime Minister is serious about keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom, she will not ask us to.
It is a pleasure to be called in this debate. I thank the Minister and hon. Members for giving us all a chance to participate. There are a number of issues that my constituents have asked me to raise in the House and I intend to do so.
My office staff will laughingly point to a sign in the office which works out time off in such a way that they owe me. Annual leave is only one of many workers rights that will be discussed and, more importantly, protected during negotiations. The Government told us:
“‘This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide’—no ifs, no buts”,
no second referendum. It was not a regional or a constituency referendum. It was a decision which all the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland took collectively, and that decision was to leave. Let us get on with the job and make sure that that happens.
The Government have been clear about the protection that will remain. The Prime Minister said that
“by converting the acquis into British law, we will give businesses and workers maximum certainty as we leave the European Union. The same rules and laws will apply to them after Brexit as they did before. Any changes in the law will have to be subject to full scrutiny and proper Parliamentary debate. And let me be absolutely clear: existing workers’
legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law—and they will be guaranteed as long as I am Prime Minister.”
That is what our Prime Minister said. It is very clear. Let us focus on that as well.
I am probably a lone voice on the Opposition side of the Chamber, as one of those who voted out. I am very happy to say that I voted out, and my constituency voted that way as well. I genuinely respect every Member on this side of the House, and I enjoy their friendship, but the fact of the matter is that I have a different opinion from many of them.
Order. The hon. Gentleman should not chunter from a sedentary position. We have to start the wind-ups at 9.40 pm.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I am quite clear on what my time is.
Workers in the UK are entitled to five weeks and three days of paid holiday a year, including public holidays. The Working Time Regulations 1998 guarantee four weeks’ paid leave as a European minimum, but for 35 years before joining the EU, the United Kingdom had legislation on paid holidays, so that is very unlikely to change or to be reneged on— indeed, my office staff would be the first to revolt if it were, and my life would not be worth living.
It is clear that we have the morals and the principles in terms of European law. At times, we have even furthered protections and enhancements. Such is the case with maternity leave. My parliamentary aide had a child and came off maternity leave after only six months, as she was expecting another baby. Although our law would have enabled her to have two years off—one after the other—and we have said that mothers should be allowed to take that decision, she felt she needed to return to work for a few months to keep her head in the game. However, the ability to take that leave is what we have enshrined in the law at present.
We have even enshrined it in law that mothers must take two weeks off work—or four if they work in a factory. That law will stand. It is the mother’s decision. I wonder at those who seem to say that mothers will have fewer rights if they decide to have another baby after article 50 is invoked. That is nonsense. The 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave in the UK are considerably more than the 14 weeks guaranteed by EU law, and of those 52 weeks, 40 are available for shared parental leave.
EU workers are important in my constituency, as they are in everybody’s constituencies. The agri-food sector in my constituency depends a great deal on them for the work they do in companies. We will enshrine their needs and rights and ensure that they are protected.
The issue of workers’ rights will differ from person to person. I have had small and medium-sized enterprise owners asking for the opportunity to have an input into any new regulations, and Brexit gives them that ability. If there is a need to change law, it will be done in the normal way in this place. That will allow people to sow into the legislation they harvest from.
The issue of small and medium-sized businesses needs to be re-addressed. It is sometimes argued that employment regulation is fine for larger organisations with human resources departments, which have the resources to deal with red tape, but it is much more difficult for small and microbusinesses to cope with it. The nuances of employment law will remain unchanged unless we act to change things in this place. I therefore ask the Minister for more help for the small businesses that do not have the HR budget or the resources, so that they can know their rights and help their employees to understand their rights as well.
For those who have told employees that they will lose their holiday, sick pay and maternity rights, it must again be underlined that, if anything, our rights have been more robust than the ones imposed by Europe. We take protection of our workers seriously, and that is highlighted by the fact that recent changes to the unfair dismissal qualification period, and the introduction of fees for employment tribunal applications, emanated from the UK, not Brussels, as did the introduction of shared parental leave regulations in April last year. Melanie Onn talked about some of the issues we need to address, and there are issues that have been raised on the Opposition side of the House that need to be looked at.
There is uncertainty as to the practice in terms of primary and secondary legislation, but it has been made clear that any change in rights will come through legislation and not through a repeal of all rights that come from Europe—that cannot happen, and will not happen, in what we fondly call the highest seat of democracy in the world, which is right here, in this House. The scaremongering must stop. People should rest assured that, should article 50, by some miracle, be invoked on new year’s eve, new year’s day will still be a public holiday, they can still have their Easter eggs and summer holidays, and they can have as many children as they like without fear that they will be sacked from work. That is a fact of life.
I recently watched the film “Amazing Grace”, which shows Wilberforce’s journey to get this House to ban slavery. I do not believe that any Member here is interested in reinstating slavery for anyone in the world, let alone our own citizens. We have a history of protecting the little man and little woman, and that will not change because, in theory, there is a possibility that it could change. We are still interested in doing the right thing in this place, and we are still accountable to the public for the decisions that are made. Yes, the Brexit team will need to work on the nuances of the rights of our workers in Europe, but intimating that this will be the time to eradicate rights is mischief and nothing more.
It is a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon and to contribute to the first of an important series of debates.
We have heard a number of thoughtful contributions from Members on both sides of the House and from all parts of the United Kingdom, but I want to pick out four in particular. My right hon. Friend Hilary Benn spoke with his usual eloquence, setting out a very detailed case with questions and points that I hope the Minister will respond to. My hon. Friend Melanie Onn made a very thoughtful speech. She should be commended for the ten-minute rule Bill she introduced a few weeks back, which raised lots of the concerns that have been aired today. My hon. Friend Justin Madders, who brings a considerable amount of expertise to the debate, rightly raised concerns about the Government’s intentions in this area. I must also single out Anna Soubry, who is not in her place at the moment. I did not agree with everything she said, but she spoke with her customary candour and robustness, and brought an important set of views to the debate.
There has been a fair amount of consensus on the view that our membership of the European Union has played an important role in protecting working people, particularly women, from exploitation and in combating discrimination, and has acted as a vital bulwark against pressure for the further deregulation of our labour market. Of course, it is right to argue, as many Conservative Members did, that in some areas where the EU has legislated, the UK already had laws in place, such as on equal pay and maternity rights, and we have indeed gone further in a number of areas. Even so, EU action has improved and extended a wide range of rights and delivered stronger protection with regard to equal pay for women, workplace discrimination, equal treatment at work for agency workers, rules limiting working time, health and safety protections, and a host of other essential safeguards.
Britain has one of the most lightly regulated workforces in the OECD. As my hon. Friend Clive Lewis said, many of us would like to go further on employment protections to adjust to the changes we are seeing in our economy and in our labour market. At a minimum, the Government have a duty to maintain and protect the floor of rights that workers currently enjoy, which are underpinned by EU law. There is also good reason to believe that that is what British workers, and the majority of remain and leave voters, expect. In a TUC poll carried out in the wake of the referendum, the vast majority of remain and leave voters backed, by considerable margins, safeguarding vital rights such as maternity leave and protection against discrimination at work. That is important because, as my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra argued, this is ultimately about who wins and who may lose from Brexit.
We have heard a number of pledges from the Secretary of State and other Conservative Members that reiterate those made by senior leave campaigners during the referendum. I want to be very clear that those pledges are welcome. However, Conservative Members protest too much when they disparage our very real concerns that in the process of bringing EU-related law into domestic effect, parts of that legislation may be chipped away and watered down. The record of this Government and of the previous coalition Government, whether on increasing the qualifying period before individuals are able to claim unfair dismissal or introducing fees to access employment tribunals, gives cause for concern. I do not doubt in any way that there is a genuine Conservative tradition of social reform. Nevertheless, I hope that Conservative Members can understand why some of us are concerned, not least given the comments made by some senior leave campaigners, including some who are now members of the Cabinet.
However, let us take the Government’s pledge at face value. I am willing to do that, and I am sure that Minister will further clarify the position. That said, the form and details of the mechanism by which those workers’ rights are transposed into British law is important, as the right hon. Member for Broxtowe has said, and Members have raised a number of concerns. I hope that the Minister will provide further detail on them.
First, a number of hon. Members have pointed out that UK laws that derive from EU law and have been implemented not by primary legislation but by regulation—from protections relating to the transfer of staff to new companies, to maximum hours of weekly work—are more vulnerable in the process that we are about to undertake. We have heard conflicting messages from the Government. I recently wrote to the Minister, asking him specifically whether the repeal Bill—I think that, technically, that is its correct title, rather than the great repeal Bill—would give effect to 18 EU directives and regulations in domestic legislation. He replied that the Government will convert existing EU law into domestic law, “wherever practical”. There is a discrepancy between that reply and what we have heard today, so it would be useful if that was cleared up.
When he winds up, the Minister has another chance to confirm how workers’ rights that derive from EU law and have been implemented by regulation will be given domestic effect by the repeal Bill. Will he confirm, as a number of my hon. Friends have asked, whether they will be underpinned by primary legislation? It would also be useful if he touched on those EU directives and regulations that may come into force in the next two years, as we negotiate an exit, and whether they will be introduced as primary legislation.
Secondly, a number of hon. Members have raised concerns about what the Government intend to do to protect workers’ rights that derive from rulings of the European Court of Justice, including those on equality and working time, and the Court’s recent decision that the calculation of workers’ entitlement to holiday pay should include earnings from bonuses, commissions and overtime payments. The Prime Minister has been clear that her vision of Brexit involves the UK leaving the jurisdiction of the ECJ, so it would be useful to know the Government’s intentions with regard to those employment rights that have been given greater legal strength as a result of ECJ case law, and how and whether they will be enshrined in the forthcoming repeal Bill.
Thirdly, this may be a minor point, but primary legislation influenced by EU law will not be automatically repealed once we leave the EU, but it could be modified. For example, the Equality Act 2010, which was opposed by the Conservative party, could be amended to introduce a cap on compensation for discrimination claims, as contemplated by the coalition Government-commissioned Beecroft report in 2011. Will the Minister confirm that it is not the Government’s intention to use Brexit to repeal or amend vital rights delivered by previous Governments?
Finally, the Minister needs to rule out the possibility of any attempt by the repeal Bill and the Brexit process to time-limit existing workers’ rights. Pledges have been made and we have heard denials of the proposal of Grant Shapps to insert a sunset clause in the repeal Bill. Support for that proposal may be confined to a minority consisting of just the right hon. Gentleman, but I suspect that other Government Members share his view. It would be useful to know how the Government intend to get the repeal Bill through without amendments and without time-limiting any of the legislation so that, although it might be amended by a future Government, all existing workers’ rights given effect by EU law will be pulled over for the remainder of this Parliament.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central raised a number of points about the impact of the negotiations on workers’ rights and employment regulations. How will our potential access to the customs union free market on whatever terms that the Government may secure influence employment rights? It would also be useful to hear from the Minister about the impact that any transitional arrangement with the European Union would have.
I disagree with my hon. Friend Geraint Davies. Like the vast majority of my fellow Labour Members, I accept that the British public voted to leave the European Union and the democratic imperative that that vote created. In voting to exit the EU, however, the British public did not vote for any diminution or dilution of their employment and workplace health and safety rights. If any of those existing rights are lost or watered down in the process of Brexit, it will be seen as a gross betrayal. Labour will keep a close eye on how the Government bring those rights across, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s wind-up.
It is a pleasure to follow Matthew Pennycook in what was, I believe, his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. This has been an excellent debate, and I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed to it. It is right that the question of workers’ rights should be debated at length and in some detail, because it is of fundamental importance to Members on both sides of the Chamber.
This has been the first in a series of debates on important issues that arise in the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union promised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. My Department intends to bring forward, in Government time, a number of further debates on key issues related to EU withdrawal over the coming weeks and months.
Let me first reiterate that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said in his opening speech, the Government fully recognise the fundamental importance of strong workers’ rights in this country, and we are determined to preserve them. Not only do they exist for the protection of all employees, but they have a vital function in encouraging the development of a productive and thriving economy. It is clear that the Government’s determination to preserve, and not to erode, employment rights is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend John Redwood celebrated the fact that we were experiencing a rare moment of accord between the Conservative and Labour parties.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government will not, as a consequence of our withdrawal, allow any erosion of rights in the workplace, whether those rights derive from EU or UK law. She has further made it clear that the Government are determined to deliver an economy that works for everyone, and fundamental to that is the preservation of existing workers’ rights.
I repeat the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in his opening speech that the UK already goes beyond EU minimum requirements in a number of areas of employment legislation. For example, UK domestic law already provides for more than a week’s additional annual leave—5.6 weeks rather than the minimum of four weeks set by the EU—nearly four times the required amount of statutory maternity leave and much greater flexibility around shared parental leave, as Jim Shannon pointed out.
Furthermore, we have recently adopted a number of measures to strengthen further the protections provided to workers, including introducing the national living wage in April this year and increasing funding for enforcement activity to ensure that employers are meeting their responsibilities. We have commissioned a review into modern employment practices—the Taylor review—with a view to ensuring that new practices of working, which were touched on by Clive Lewis, do indeed work for everyone. We are legislating to ban exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts to stop the abuse of such contracts. We introduced shared parental leave in 2015 and extended the right to request flexible working to all employees from June 2014. Those are measures pursued by a Conservative Government committed to providing strong protections for workers. We are determined to maintain those protections beyond withdrawal from the EU by enshrining them in our law under the great repeal Bill.
A number of points were touched on by hon. and right hon. Members, and I will seek to address them in the brief time available to me. One point that was made by a number of Members—including by my right hon. Friend Anna Soubry, in what I thought was an excellent and passionate speech, and by Hilary Benn—was the need to heal the wounds, so to speak: to build a national consensus ahead of our exit from the European Union. That is what the Government are seeking to do, and we hope that debates such as this will help to achieve it.
Neil Gray, echoed by the hon. Members for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), raised issues about devolved competence and how they will affect the negotiations. The Government have made it absolutely clear that the concerns of the devolved Administrations will be central to the negotiations that we are embarking on. Indeed, the first meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee for the exit negotiations will be held this very week, so there is close consultation between the Government and the devolved Administrations.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way. I have very little time, and I am trying to deal with as many points as I can.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central made an excellent speech, which underlined his credentials as the chief scrutineer of the Government in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee. He raised a number of issues, and I will briefly touch on them. He asked what changes to employment legislation in the great repeal Bill will be made through primary as opposed to secondary legislation. Such issues fall to be considered during the passage of the Bill. The House will therefore have the opportunity to debate those issues in full in due course. There will have to be full parliamentary scrutiny, and I have no doubt that his Committee will play an important role in that regard.
The right hon. Gentleman raised, as did Melanie Onn, the issue of what will happen to EU case law and judgments of the European Court of Justice. I wish to make it clear that the starting position of the Government is that EU-derived law, from whatever quarter, will be transferred into United Kingdom law in full at the point of exit.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of what happens if the United Kingdom has access to the single market, but we do not follow whatever new legislation may be developed in the EU. The word “if” is of course important, and it remains to be seen whether we will have full access to the single market. It is fair to say that the Government are still working on the many details that will determine our future relationship with the European Union. This will be an important consideration in that process, and, again, I have no doubt that his Committee will want to explore this issue further.
Geraint Davies made what I have to say was rather a bleak speech, although he seemed to recognise that Members on both sides of the House accept that Britain is indeed leaving the European Union, and he acknowledged that his is a minority opinion. He seemingly accepted the word of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that workers’ rights would not be eroded, but he expressed concern about what future Parliaments might do. I must point out to him that no Parliament can bind its successors, but the whole purpose of exiting the European Union is to restore sovereignty to this Parliament and to place our trust in our successors in the Parliaments of the future.
Seema Malhotra made a very thoughtful and useful speech. She raised several important issues, particularly women’s issues, which were echoed by Ms Ahmed-Sheikh. May I say that the contribution of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston to this debate is exactly the sort of contribution that the Government are looking for in debates such as this? Such contributions will certainly inform the Government’s consideration of the future relationship of the United Kingdom with the European Union. There were several other excellent speeches, but, sadly, I do not have the time to deal with them all.
The United Kingdom has a long and distinguished history of protecting workers’ rights, as my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson pointed out in his erudite and instructive speech. For example, the principal plank of our workplace safety legislation is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which was developed independently of the EU. In this country, we have a comprehensive framework of legally guaranteed minimum rights for workers that seek to ensure that everybody is treated fairly at work and that businesses thrive. The UK has led the way on improving workplace diversity. Our generous provisions on maternity and parental leave have helped record numbers of women into work, and as a consequence of our approach the UK economy is thriving.
This has indeed been an excellent debate. It has fully justified the Government’s approach of holding general debates. As I have said, all the contributions have been valuable, and they will inform our consideration as we leave the European Union.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered exiting the EU and workers’