Charter of Fundamental Rights – Government Report

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 21st November 2017.

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Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge 4:45 pm, 21st November 2017

I rise to speak to new clause 79, which is in my name and the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends and hon. Members from other parties.

First and foremost, I recognise that the UK has voted to leave the European Union. It is an outcome that I did not vote for, but it is the position in which we find ourselves. It is now incumbent on us to strengthen this legislation ahead of our exit from the Union. We can only achieve this fully by recognising what European integration has done for us over the past 40 years, and the ways in which we can help one another.

Before entering Parliament, I was an employment rights lawyer for many years. I represented trade unions and their members for 10 years. More recently, I ran my own business providing maternity discrimination and flexible working advice to mums and families. So I know at first-hand how many of our employment rights come from Europe. As my explanatory statement points out, my new clause would ensure that Parliament is kept abreast of changes in EU provisions regarding family-friendly employment rights and gender equality, as well as committing the Government to considering their implementation.

It is clear that working parents and carers in the UK are struggling. The Modern Families Index 2017, which examined the lives of 2,750 working parents and carers, found that more than a third of working families say that they do not have enough time or money for their family to thrive. Half of parents agreed that their work-life balance is increasingly a source of stress. A third said that work had a negative effect on their relationship with their partner, and a quarter said that it led to rows with their children. One in 10 parents would consider resigning from work without having another job to go to. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that 54,000 new mothers in Britain may be forced out of their jobs each year as a result of pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Fawcett Society, Working Families—the work-life balance charity—and trade unions, among others, continually fight to protect against these types of discrimination.

We have a collective responsibility to ensure that we help to protect the rights of workers and employees among the cut and thrust of the Brexit negotiations. People voted to leave the EU for many varied reasons, but they did not vote to be worse off. Our laws on these matters must be no less favourable than they would have been had the UK remained a member of the EU beyond exit day. Indeed, the EU may well go on to legislate in ways with which we do not agree. The wording of new clause 79 is clear; it is there to inform, not to commit.

As many of my hon. Friends pointed out during the previous Committee sitting, we must make every effort to keep this House fully aware of the advancements that occur in Europe. To be clear, the new clause is not about binding the UK into implementing future EU directives in the family-friendly employment and gender equality space. Rather, it would ensure that Parliament is informed of any developments and would commit the Government to considering their implementation.

In the Prime Minister’s Florence speech, she signalled that the UK and the EU will continue to support each other as we navigate through Brexit. I have much to say on the work that we have collectively achieved in Europe, strengthening workers’ rights, maternity rights and employment practices. For example: the 1976 equal treatment directive established the principle of equal treatment for men and women in access to jobs, training and working conditions; the 1992 pregnant workers directive provided for statutory maternity leave, protected the health and safety of pregnant workers and breastfeeding mothers, prohibited dismissal due to pregnancy or maternity, and introduced paid time off for antenatal care; the 1993 working time directive provided a maximum 48-hour working week, and the right to rest periods and paid holiday; the 1996 parental leave directive provided for the right to unpaid parental leave, as well as time off for dependants; and the 1997 part-time work directive prevented part-time workers from being treated less favourably than full-time employees. All these measures have helped to improve the work-life balance and family-friendly employment rights in the UK, and it is vital that we should not fall behind Europe in the years ahead. To dismiss the last four decades of progress without looking to the future would be to set a dangerous precedent, which fills me with deep concern.

For some time, UK law has been ahead of the EU on certain employment rights—most notably, in my view, in the Employment Act 2002, which introduced the right to request flexible working—but we cannot assume that that will always be the case. Those involved in politics know how quickly things can change. For example, several legislative and non-legislative initiatives relating to the work-life balance and aimed at giving parents more choice, increasing women’s participation in the labour market and allowing businesses to benefit from talent attraction and retention have recently been put forward at EU level. They suggest that parental leave should be paid at a minimum of statutory sick pay levels. This leave is currently unpaid in the UK, and nearly three quarters of young mums and dads told the TUC earlier this year that they were worried about the potential loss of earnings that comes with that. The EU has also suggested carers leave of five days per year, paid at a minimum of statutory sick pay levels. It is worth noting that Carers UK has recommended a right to between five and 10 days per year, to be taken as needed to look after an older, seriously ill or disabled relative or friend in need of care and support.

Further measures to support women’s participation in the labour market are crucial. I do not need to remind hon. Members that the UK’s gender pay gap remains at 18%. There are 11 million working parents in the UK—more than a third of the workforce—yet, as Working Families research shows, many are considering downgrading their career. We cannot have a successful post-Brexit UK economy if such a sizeable proportion of the workforce are unable to reach their economic potential. In addition, the EU is consulting on access to social protection with a view to closing some of the gaps in rights that have opened up between workers on different employment contracts. It is exploring extending the provision of a statement of day one rights to more workers. That is something that Matthew Taylor called for in his review of modern employment practice, and it has been called for more recently by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee.

The proposals coming down the line at EU level are in step with the direction of travel that Parliament has indicated it would like to take, and Members have nothing to fear from this new clause. The family-friendly rights that come from Europe are not the bureaucratic, over-zealous red tape that some Members would have us believe. They encapsulate the idea that individuals can be employed without discrimination and treated fairly at work, and that expectant mothers can be given the right to maternity leave without fear of losing their job. At the general election in June, Members of this House stood on a manifesto that pledged to protect workplace rights, and I hope that we will consider those pledges. If I am not satisfied with the Government’s response, I will seek to divide the Committee on this issue later this evening.