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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 Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 1:53 pm, 6th March 2019

I warmly welcome the tone in which the hon. Lady has approached this issue. We have different preferences on what would be ideal, and I know that both the TUC and her own Front-Bench colleagues would prefer EU directives automatically to take their place in UK law and to be enforced through the European Court of Justice, as they are now. She knows that we disagree with her on that—in our view, it would not be consistent with leaving the European Union or with the sovereignty of this Parliament—but I accept that that is her position and that she has said that, notwithstanding that, we should explore whether we can meet her perfectly reasonable observations. I am grateful for that.

What we are publishing this afternoon are draft clauses that have not yet gone into the Bill. I am open to working with all Members of the House—of course, continuing to include the hon. Lady—to see which of the observations can be accommodated, subject to the general approach we wish to take. I think that she recognises, and I hope other Members will recognise, that this is an important opportunity. If we are to pass a withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, the chance to have on the statute book from the outset—literally within the next few weeks, I hope—some important protections for workers is one that I think we should all take.

The hon. Lady asked some specific questions, of which I shall attempt to answer as many as I can. She observed, in effect, that future Governments and Parliaments may take a different view from that which we intend. As we know, it is a fact that no Parliament can bind its successor, but it can express a clear intention, set up a test and provide mechanisms against which proper scrutiny of any proposal can be mounted, and that is what we are doing. I acknowledge her right hon. and hon. Friends’ contribution to and, in fact, origination of this idea.

The hon. Lady is concerned that the statements that are provided for could be ignored and may not be as effective as she intends. The case law clearly establishes that if a statutory consultation is provided for, it cannot be lightly swept aside. There is a requirement properly to engage with the recommendations that come from such a consultation, but I hear what she said about that process being open to workers as well as to people who might represent them. We can talk more about that.

The hon. Lady asked about the application to future changes to workers’ rights that may come outside primary legislation. Clearly, the big changes come through primary legislation, but in the spirit of what I said earlier, I am certainly open to exploring what assurances we can give on other significant pieces of legislation that might be in scope.

The hon. Lady mentioned the jurisprudence of the ECJ. It would clearly be inappropriate after Brexit for the ECJ to have a remit in the UK, but of course, as she knows as a lawyer herself, any court can have regard to the decisions of any court that it considers to be relevant in the case being considered.

The hon. Lady mentioned enforcement, on which we strongly agree. There are industries—sometimes concentrated in particular places in the country—in which what she described is correct: a calculation is made that employers who abuse the rights of their workers are unlikely to be detected and enforced against, which leads them to think that they can get away with it with impunity. The intention behind the strengthened enforcement body that I described, and our intention in terms of resourcing it, is to firmly remove that idea from the mind of any such employer. I will work closely with the hon. Lady on that.

It is appropriate to recognise in the House and draw some pride from our record of employment rights. We have a successful labour market that combines a reputation for high standards—standards that have been recognised throughout the EU as being among the best in Europe—while having what is the most important right for workers, which is the right to work. Many more people in this country are able to work as a result of the effectiveness of our labour markets. We need to preserve that while giving expression to the objectives articulated by the hon. Lady’s colleagues, to make sure that the commitment we have given to build on that strength in future is something that is not just a matter of words but has parliamentary force behind it. I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said about working together.