Leaving the Eu: Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:46 pm on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 1:46 pm, 6th March 2019

I would like to make a statement about workers’ rights when we leave the European Union. Before I do, as this is my first time at the Dispatch Box since his death on Friday, I put on record my deep appreciation for the life and work of Lord Bhattacharyya, a heroic figure in British manufacturing. His work attracted investment to which hundreds of thousands of working men and women owe their livelihoods. A Labour Member of the House of Lords, Kumar worked easily with Ministers and, indeed, Prime Ministers from all parties for the benefit of the people of the west midlands and the whole nation.

The United Kingdom and this Parliament have a proud record of improving the rights of working men and women: from Shaftesbury’s Factories Acts to William Hague’s Disability Discrimination Act 1995; and from the minimum wage, introduced by a Labour Government, to the national living wage brought in by a Conservative Government. Although the EU sets minimum requirements in many areas of workers’ rights and health and safety, Britain has time and again been in advance of those requirements and has chosen to exceed them.

The EU agency for the improvement of working conditions ranks the UK as the second strongest of all 28 member states, behind only Sweden, for wellbeing in the workplace. The UK offers 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay, compared with the 14 weeks required by the EU. We have given fathers and partners a statutory right to paternity leave, which the EU is only just beginning to consider.

Our national living wage is one of the highest in the EU, and the Low Pay Commission that advises on it is widely respected. Because we have not, in practice, been limited to EU standards, there is no reason why we should not maintain this record of leadership outside the EU. The Prime Minister has given a commitment that Brexit will not be allowed to erode workers’ rights.

Nevertheless, some hon. Members have advanced the view in previous debates that a parliamentary mechanism should be established to monitor and implement that commitment. Melanie Onn introduced a private Member’s Bill to that effect, and Caroline Flint and the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), among others, proposed an amendment to a previous motion in a similar vein.

We have been discussing closely with Members on both sides of the House, trade unions and businesses how we can turn this intention into law. The Government are today publishing draft clauses for inclusion in the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill to put these commitments into law. The clauses have two main features. First, a new statutory duty will be placed on Ministers introducing a Bill that affects employment or workplace health and safety that they should certify, before Second Reading of any such Bill, that it is compatible with the Prime Minister’s principle of non-regression. They will be required to provide explanatory information to Parliament in support of that statement, which will be drawn up following consultation with businesses and trade unions. That will ensure that, while respecting and upholding the sovereignty of this Parliament, Members of this House in future will be able clearly to consider the compatibility of every proposed measure with the non-regression principle, to which the Prime Minister has made a commitment.

The second aspect of the draft clauses concerns future EU legislation. Parliament will be given the opportunity, at least every six months, to consider any changes to EU workers’ rights, and health and safety standards in the workplace. This will be reported to Parliament through a document that has, again, been subject to consultation with employers and trade unions, and which will be scrutinised by the relevant Select Committees of this House, subject to their agreement. The Government will be required to table an amendable motion on their intended course of action on those new EU rules. For example, the Government may set out that they intend to legislate to give effect to those commitments or that they intend to give effect to them in a different way, or that they do not intend to give effect to them, setting out their rationale. There are a number of legislative proposals currently under consideration in the EU that have a deadline for transposition into national law which will be after the implementation period. We would expect them to be put forward for Parliament’s consideration under this new process. These draft clauses, published in a Command Paper today, combine well our determination to honour the commitment the Prime Minister has made not to see workers’ rights weakened and respecting the sovereignty of this Parliament.

A similar framework will apply to environmental protections as the UK leaves the EU, implemented through the environment Bill. On 19 December, we published the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, the first part of a much larger environment Bill to follow in the next Session. The draft Bill outlines our proposals to establish a world-leading body to hold the Government to account for environmental outcomes after the UK leaves the EU. The draft Bill also requires the Government to publish a statutory policy statement on the interpretation and application of nine environmental principles, including the four contained in EU treaties. The Government will also legislate to ensure that where future Bills could affect environmental protections, a Minister of the Crown will make a statement of compatibility to Parliament and provide explanatory information. We will also create a new statutory duty on the Government to monitor any strengthening of environmental protections and regulations by the EU, and to report regularly to Parliament about the Government’s intended course of action in those areas. That will give Parliament the information it needs to consider whether or not domestic protections need to be strengthened accordingly. Through these commitments, the Government will provide a robust framework for maintaining and strengthening environmental standards as the UK leaves the EU.

In addition to the measures I have described, I am announcing today steps that will strengthen the enforcement of employment rights. The vast majority of businesses operate fairly and treat their employees well, but I have been concerned, as I know many Members have been, about the practices in a small number of firms, in a small number of industries, where abuses of the conditions at work are used to the detriment not just of workers, but of reputable competitors, who suffer a disadvantage by comparison in those industries. I therefore intend to consult broadly on establishing a new body to bring together the relevant enforcement functions of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. As part of the forthcoming spending review, we will consider what level of funding is appropriate to ensure that it is adequately resourced to deliver a strengthened remit.

The measures that I have announced today reflect a process of engagement across this House, and with employers and trade unions. Not everyone will agree with every proposal, but if, as I hope, an agreement can be reached on the withdrawal process during the days ahead, it serves as a helpful guide as to how we might find and act on common ground across the House in the next phase of negotiations. I commend this statement to the House.