Leaving the Eu: Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:53 pm on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 1:53 pm, 6th March 2019

Let me, too, put on record my sadness at the death of Lord Bhattacharyya and my deep appreciation for his devotion to British industry and politics.

I must start by thanking the Secretary of State for his engagement with me over recent weeks, and indeed with trade unions and my parliamentary colleagues whom he mentioned: my hon. Friend Melanie Onn, my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint; and my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell). They have championed unrelentingly the protection of British workers as we leave the EU and continue to help us move the position across the House to one that we are all content with.

However, as the Secretary of State knows from our discussions in recent days, sadly the proposals, as drafted, do not yet provide a full guarantee or assurance for UK workers. I hope that this spirit of collegiality will continue and that we will work together quickly to address my concerns and provide the changes and assurances that I seek. As he knows, the TUC has stated today:

“In the face of a government determined to reduce rights, these measures would in no meaningful way compensate for the loss of the protections that currently exist”.

The assessment of less favourability will be decided by parliamentary majority and not by the objective standards of the UK courts. The provisions can easily be revoked by a hostile Government, and even without being revoked, they can be rendered fairly meaningless in practice. Indeed, as drafted, the content of the proposed statement of compatibility and irregular parliamentary assessment of less favourability are not capable of legal challenge by any UK worker. Of course, the process outlined in the draft clauses could be subject to a judicial review, but simply issuing a statement and laying a motion are hardly rocket science. What will not be possible, however, is a challenge to the contents of a statement of compatibility or an approved parliamentary motion to accept a Government assessment.

I think the Secretary of State implied in his statement that we should not automatically accept favourable rights solely because the UK Parliament has already set higher standards of employment rights. On that point, let me be clear: no one—certainly none of the colleagues I have spoken to—is seeking anything other than that UK workers should be entitled to no less-favourable rights at work than their EU comparators, not that we should accept unfavourable ones. That point is simple to draft and it could be made perfectly clear, and I am happy to work with the Secretary of State on that point.

Of course, Parliament is always welcome to give more, but history is littered with examples of the UK bitterly resisting EU directives on workplace rights. A Conservative Government sued the EU Commission over the working time directive, claiming that there was no legislative base for the directive since working time had nothing to do with health and safety at work. Luckily for workers in the UK and the rest of the EU, that Government lost.

On the promise not to water down existing rights and protections, even if a Bill is found to be incompatible, there are at present no powers to stop the Government proceeding. In addition, the promise does not apply to secondary legislation, potentially allowing existing EU-derived rights to be watered down with ease. The bulk of UK legislation to implement EU law is actually done by way of secondary legislation—for example, working time regulations, TUPE, and health and safety regulations, to name but a few.

On the process relating to adopting future improvements in EU legislation, the proposals are equally in need of addressing. The only means of challenge is in Parliament, with a vote on an amendable motion, subject to the Government’s majority. Parliamentary procedure may not permit sufficient amendments to deal with all the additional changes to workers’ rights identified by MPs. In any event, resolutions of the House have recently proven to be an ineffective restraint on the Government. The Secretary of State seeks to provide comfort by stating that the Government will consult workers, Select Committees and employers’ representatives, and that sentiment is of course welcome, but, as he knows, there is no direct obligation on the Government to accept any recommendations.

On enforcement, I do welcome the commitments the Secretary of State has made to address funding deficiencies. I await further details in due course. On 1 April 2004, there were 1,483 Health and Safety Executive frontline inspectors; but by 2015 that had fallen to 972. In consequence, the statistically average workplace can now expect an inspection no more frequently than every 50 years.

I have conveyed to the Secretary of State in recent weeks the fact that for a guarantee of non-regression to be truly meaningful, it must be enforceable in the UK courts at the suit of any worker in the UK. Any dispute about whether or not the worker has less favourable rights than her EU comparator must be determined by the courts and not solely by Parliament, still less by a politically motivated Government majority in the House of Commons. Today’s proposals come nowhere near that and do not yet demonstrate that this Government take workplace rights seriously. I do hope, however, that, in this spirit of co-operation, we will work together to move towards more robust guarantees as a matter of urgency.