Brexit and the Labour Market (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:20 pm on 8th February 2018.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 1:20 pm, 8th February 2018

I am pleased that the noble Lord said that, because in his speech he talked about the European Union. Ireland is going to remain in the European Union, so maybe the noble Lord is indicating that there is going to be a back door, and that those who speak Ireland’s second language—namely, Polish—will be able to come into the United Kingdom in a very easy way by walking across the border. But let us wait and see.

I was struck—it has been mentioned already—by the state of the data, which are not in any shape to make any policy at all. They are,

“wholly inadequate for policy making and measuring the success or otherwise of the policies adopted”.

So we need to start off with some decent data. I would imagine that—if we work hard—we are looking at an annual net migration of 133,000 from the EU out of 250,000 overall. So roughly half of the problem that we are facing—if we define it as a problem, which actually I do not—is not covered by these proposals anyway. If we want to get the figures correct, I suggest that using national insurance and income tax data is probably the best way forward, because it is after all collected very rigorously, in that people—most people, anyway—pay their taxes.

To look slightly outside this report, since Brexit was decided I have travelled quite extensively and, wherever I go, whether it be Australia, Canada, the United States or Turkey, the common cry I get is, “If you want a trade agreement, we want an easier visa regime”. That was said to me by the Minister in Australia, by a very senior Canadian politician, by a number of people in the United States when I was there and by senior government officials in Turkey. They say, “If you want a trade agreement, we want a simpler visa regime”. I can tell noble Lords that the visa regime for people from outside the EU to get into the United Kingdom is absolutely horrendous, and certainly not fit for purpose.

On another point, the report rightly says that,

“24 per cent of EU nationals working in the UK are engaged in work considered to be ‘low-skilled’”.

But the 24% who are doing that work are not necessarily low-skilled. I know quite a few people who work in the city of Cambridge, where I live, and go to the same church as I go to who are doing low-skilled jobs, but they are certainly not low-skilled. Many of them are here to improve their English language skills to go back, or to make some money to go back—and, despite all our legislation, it is quite easy to work 60 hours a week in Cambridge in some of the lower-skilled jobs and to make money. So let us not confuse low-skilled jobs with low-skilled labour.

Of course, it normally falls to this side of the House to mention the demands of the TUC and the labour movement. The TUC evidence quotes from the government White Paper, which states:

“As we convert the body of EU law into our domestic legislation, we will ensure the continued protection of workers’ rights”.

That is a quote from the government White Paper, which we are all pleased to see. But I have two questions for the Minister. I shall quote from the TUC, which says:

“We take this to mean that all regulations (including employment related provisions) introduced under the 1972 European Communities Act shall continue to take effect”.

Will the Minister confirm that that is her understanding of that statement in the White Paper?

Secondly, the TUC says:

“In order to protect workers’ existing rights to equal pay, it will also be important to transpose Article 157 of the Treaty for the European Union which guarantees equal pay for work of equal value. It will also be important to ensure that valuable progress made through judgements of the European Court of Justice are retained as part of UK law”.

I hope that the Minister will also confirm that that is her understanding of matters.

There are a number of things that need looking at. The TUC rightly looks to the establishment of modern wages councils. It is not the first time in this House that I have raised the problem of domestic and care workers. You can talk about all the productivity improvements you like but you cannot change an elderly person’s bathing regime by applying productivity. There are more people getting old; there is more need for care in the community—and one of the great neglected areas is protection for carers. The people who are standing at the bus stop at 7.30 in the morning and going from client to client, often unpaid for the journey, are among the least protected workers in this country, and they need looking after.

I pay tribute to the TUC for the Unionlearn programme, which of course could not survive without support from this Government, and it is a great credit to this Government that they have continued to support that programme, which indulges in training, literacy skills and other skills, particularly for migrant workers. They help them to become part of our society, which is extremely valuable and has to carry on.

Finally, we need to make sure that the national minimum wage and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority continues to be well funded. If we are going to have a migration policy, we have to protect the people who are most likely to be exploited.

I will close with one other point. It would be a shame to ask just my own Front Bench, so I also ask the spokesman for the Labour Party for an observation. The Institute of Employment Rights—situated, very appropriately, in Jack Jones House in Liverpool—points out that one advantage of leaving the EU is that the collective bargaining rights that have been undermined by recent cases in the EFTA Court and ECJ could be restored. Indeed, the last Labour manifesto promised to restore these, pointing out that this could be done when we leave the European Union. Will the noble Lord who will shortly speak for the Labour Party confirm that this remains a policy of the Labour Party? It is important that people who are looking for new collective bargaining rights know that the Labour Party is behind this particular policy—otherwise it would be a great shame.

I will conclude with this remark. I do not see why, when 60 or 70 years ago people came from Gateshead to London for a job, they should not now come from Gdansk to London for a job. I see the future of Europe in a way that is not in conformity with the Brexit referendum. We are all in it together and we have to build a European community, a European entity—and it will boil down to us all working together. I would, frankly, keep free movement, I would simplify the visa regime and I would look for ways forward that did not rely on what often seems—for me, personally, although I am not accusing anyone of anything—to verge on the xenophobic.