Brexit: Workers’ Rights - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:24 pm, 29th October 2019

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat as a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the other place.

“Mr Speaker, the UK has a long and proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights and for always setting the highest standards. The Government have been clear and consistent that the decision to leave the EU does not change that in any way whatever. The Government have absolutely no intention of lowering standards on workers’ rights. To suggest otherwise is scaremongering and is untrue.

The EU traditionally has set minimum standards for workers rights’ and, as all colleagues in this Chamber would expect, the UK already exceeds standards in a wide range of areas such as maternity and paternity leave and pay. The UK offers 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay compared with the 14 weeks of paid maternity leave required by the EU’s minimum standards. Because this Government believe in the importance of supporting families in every possible way, we have also given fathers and partners an additional statutory right to leave and pay—something that the EU is only now starting to consider.

We are one of the few member states to have introduced shared parental leave, and we are proud that in the UK we have given all employees with 26 weeks’ qualifying service a statutory right to request flexible working, which enables so many to better balance their work and life responsibilities. EU law allows workers to make such a request only if they are returning from parental leave.

So, under the terms of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, all existing workers’ rights laws will be transferred into domestic law once we have left the EU, making sure that there is no gap or lack of clarity in the minimum set of workers’ rights which, as I have already said, is something that the UK exceeds in many areas. We are also including in the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill a new requirement that every Bill brought before this place in future that affects workers’ rights will include a statement by the Government of the day on how it impacts on workers’ rights. This will ensure that Parliament always has its say. The Government have also published clauses that will require every Government, now and in the future, to monitor new EU legislation covering employment and workplace health and safety standards and to report on those changes to Parliament, so that Parliament can again have its say.

So, in direct answer to the honourable Lady’s question, I can absolutely assure her and this House that the Government will not lower standards on workers’ rights when we leave the EU. On the contrary, it is the ambition of this Government to make the United Kingdom the best place to work and to grow a business”.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 3:26 pm, 29th October 2019

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating that Answer from the other place. It might be helpful and for the convenience of the House if I make it clear that the references to the leaks that gave rise to this exchange are significant, having been reported at the weekend by the Financial Times, which has a good record of picking up government intelligence—very often intelligence that the Government would not wish to see in print.

Three important points are made in these reports. First, the UK is apparently open to some divergence on workers’ rights after Brexit. The FT has stated that the paper that it was relying on was drafted by DExEU with input by Downing Street, and that the UK’s interpretation of the level playing field commitments would be very different after Brexit. It also said that the Government believed that binding arbitration would be “inappropriate”—and binding arbitration was the way suggested in the withdrawal agreement for how the two blocs will work together as we go forward.

This is quite a serious charge. I know that the Government do not normally comment on leaked documents, but it is important to recognise that they responded to this leak, saying that they had no intention of lowering standards, which was repeated in the Statement that we have just heard. They went on to explain:

“UK Level Playing Field commitments will be negotiated in the context of the future UK-EU Free Trade Agreement, where we will achieve a balance of rights and obligations which reflect the scope and depth of the future relationship”.

I put it to the Minister that that is a rather open-ended statement. It does not subscribe to the sense that he was giving in the Statement. How does that guarantee rights if they are to be negotiated, going forward, in the light of the scope and depth of the future relationship? To take a very simple and classic example, we have already set out what our tariff regime would be after Brexit, should there be one. That regime is effectively the same as that of the EU; it differs only very slightly. So what else is there to negotiate in a free trade agreement?

Secondly, looking more closely at the Statement that we have just heard, it is also very unclear where exactly the guarantee that we are expecting is to be found. The Minister has already said:

“The Government have absolutely no intention of lowering standards on workers’ rights”— but the leaked version absolutely says that no guarantee is available at this stage. It goes on to say that,

“under the terms of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 all existing workers’ rights laws will be transferred into domestic law once we have left the EU, making sure there is no gap or lack of clarity in the minimum set of workers’ rights”.

It also says that,

“every Bill brought before this place in future that affects workers’ rights will include a statement by the Government of the day on how it impacts on workers’ rights”.

A statement on impact is not a guarantee. Can the Minister convince us otherwise?

Thirdly, the Minister said:

“The Government have also published clauses that will require every Government, now and in the future, to monitor new EU legislation covering employment and workplace health and safety standards and to report on those changes to Parliament, so that Parliament can again have its say”.

Where is the guarantee in that? “Having a say” will certainly not provide us with the guarantees we are talking about.

This Government are not committing to the future maintenance of standards. I draw the attention of your Lordships’ House to the very comprehensive amendment on the non-regression of standards that was passed by the House during the recent passage of the Trade Bill —a Bill which has now disappeared. It was proposed by the Government and accepted unanimously by the House. When will we see that re-enacted?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I welcome the comments from the noble Lord. One of the important issues is the question about what a future trade agreement with the EU would deliver. I accept that he is saying that there is apparently nothing else to negotiate and perhaps it can be done very quickly indeed. This Government’s policy has always been that we can do that trade deal very quickly; it is important to stress that.

As to the elements in the leaked document, it will not surprise the noble Lord to know that I will not be commenting on them specifically. However, having been a member of the European Parliament, what I will say is that the European Parliament and the European Union set minimum standards. The secret to those is how you enforce them. This Government have put substantial investment into enforcing the rights and standards throughout all employment and welfare, which has not been matched by other countries. It is also important to suggest that we can now manage our own affairs in this regard and that it is for the other place and this place to determine what they shall be. My final point is that this Government will not diminish workers’ rights whatsoever.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this Answer. Nobody doubts his sincerity in reading it out but, given the catalogue of issues set out at length by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, I am sure that the Minister will understand that there will be distrust out there; there will be people who suspect that Downing Street has said one thing and done another. So would the Minister agree that the best way of setting people’s minds at rest would have been to have an international trade Bill in which all these rights were set out and protected, and to have the scrutiny process enshrined in law? Does the Minister agree that it is a great tragedy that that has been canned by the Conservative Government?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

All the rights that we have accrued as a member of the EU are retained from EU law into our corpus of domestic law. That is the best place for them to be set out. Any changes to that, including any that a future Government may wish to make, must be made with the permission of the other place and this place, using voting procedures in the normal way. There shall be no diminution of the rights of workers as a consequence of this.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

My Lords, is not one difficulty with this whole debate that some people are confusing the modernisation of rights, benefits and workers’ conditions and protections with lower standards? Is it not a fact that we now have a modern economy, 83% of which is services, and that workpeople face entirely new conditions that require much more detailed attention? A great deal of the EU legislation of the past, which was well intentioned, was conceived in the age of very big business—and largely by big business—and an age of steam and steel that no longer exists. Is there not a new situation which lively, caring economies should be addressing much more vigorously?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My noble friend makes an important point, which I will answer in two ways, if I may. First, in this country, we have very much a service-based economy. In making rules and laws that affect workers, we can tailor them carefully to the needs of the people of this country. My noble friend also made a point about the situation with regard to the laws and rights that exist in the EU at present. As I recall, for many decades the Benches opposite opposed almost every aspect of what was going on inside the EU, because they felt that it was servicing big business rather than individual workers. We must make sure that our laws are fit for our people.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour

My Lords, of course this country ought to maintain, and indeed pioneer, the best standards on workers’ rights—but, since the whole purpose of Brexit is to restore parliamentary government to the United Kingdom, how could it make sense for us to pre-commit to endorsing whatever legislation the EU might in future choose to bring in? Should we not have confidence in our own democracy?

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

My Lords, I remind the House that 30% of trade unionists vote Conservative. These Benches are not unaware of their interests. I draw my colleagues’ attention to my entries in the register. Since the Government have agreed that all existing workers’ rights laws will be transferred into domestic law—that deals with my first point—and have moved on to say that we will be consulted and we will look at these laws, is it not about time that we put some trust in our Government?

Secondly, since we are about to come to an election, and bearing in mind that the last Labour Government did absolutely nothing to better trade unionists’ position in society, maybe Labour could spend some of the election time saying what it intends to do to help the TUC and the Institute of Employment Rights, whose president joined this House yesterday, to get a somewhat better deal.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My noble friend makes a point that is definitely worth making. I note that an issue we face constantly in the EU is the discrepancy between the ideal and the delivery. To look at one aspect, the transparent and predictable work conditions that have been passed in directive form will not be brought in until 2022. The Government have already brought in elements of that directive.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the Minister correctly emphasised that most of these EU standards are minimum standards, and that in many cases we considerably exceed them. Could he therefore explain why the Government have put so much emphasis on having the right to diverge from those standards, when the only argument that many of us have heard in favour of divergence is so that we could lower them? We can always exceed those standards without running into any difficulty—but what is the purpose of this enormous emphasis on divergence?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I often wonder what will happen when the EU begins to diverge in directions that are not suitable to this country. We must make sure that the laws we make here are suited to our workers. That will not always be the case if we follow in lock-step with the EU. We need to be ready to make laws that are fit for workers in this country.