Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill - Report (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:31 pm on 15th May 2023.
Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury
50: After Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—“Workers’ protection and employment rights(1) Regulations may not be made by a relevant national authority under section 13, 14, 16 or 17 unless the relevant national authority is satisfied that the regulations do not—(a) reduce the level of protection for workers arising from the EU retained law to which the provision relates;(b) conflict with any relevant international labour agreements to which the United Kingdom is party.(2) Prior to making any provision to which this section applies, the relevant national authority must—(a) seek advice from persons who are independent of the authority and have relevant expertise,(b) seek advice from, as appropriate, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and relevant trade unions, and(c) publish a report setting out—(i) how the provision does not reduce the level of protection for workers in accordance with subsection (1), and(ii) how the authority has taken into account the advice from the persons referred to in paragraphs (a) and (b) of this subsection.(3) In this section “relevant international labour agreements” means—(a) the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement,(b) any Convention of the International Labour Organization ratified by the United Kingdom, and(c) any provision of the European Social Charter 1961 accepted by the United Kingdom.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause creates additional conditions to be satisfied before the powers in Clauses 13, 14, 16 or 17 can be exercised where the subject matter of their exercise concerns law relating to protection of workers. It would also require the Government to seek the advice of the relevant independent expert statutory bodies.
My Lords, I will not detain the House too long. In this amendment we have tried to reflect the structure that we have just agreed in relation to the environment. This is not about blocking change. The Minister said that we are in danger of creating immutable legislation. That is not the case. We are in a unique situation here in terms of regulations that are going to be changed in a way that does not have the same sort of parliamentary scrutiny as primary legislation. That is the difference. It is unique, and therefore it needs a proper, unique response to it in terms of the three elements on which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, focused.
The first of course is non-regression. We should understand the ambitions of this Government in relation to workers’ rights. I have heard from Ministers throughout this Bill and also in other debates that they are committed to defend and extend workers’ rights. I think we need that ambition to be translated into proper processes and procedures in relation to the unique circumstances where regulations can be removed, revoked or revised simply by Ministers producing statutory instruments.
The other element, which again the noble Lord, Lord Krebs pointed out in relation to the environment, is proper consultation. If changes are envisaged, how do we consult the appropriate bodies? We have a government agency that has huge experience in terms of regulations and codes of practice that ought to be properly consulted in relation to any changes, and of course we have stakeholders in terms of employers and unions. And by the way, this is not a debate about whether one should support workers or employers. Everyone wants proper standards. Employers themselves want proper standards. When we come to the international agreements that this Government have signed up to, in particular trade agreements, that level playing field is going to be a really important element in maintaining those agreements and extending them, so there is a very strong economic case for supporting this amendment.
We also need to ensure that trust and confidence are put back into the system. We hear Ministers suggesting that somehow regulations are a burden on employers, but sometimes those burdens are the thing that can provide and guarantee the level playing field that we have argued for and supported.
We talk about the ambition of this Government but we are still waiting for the long-awaited employment Bill, which I hope at some stage we will see brought forward. This is about ensuring that we do not turn the clock back—that we maintain the proper standards. As a shadow spokesman for foreign affairs, I work with government Ministers in defending and advancing the rights of workers across the globe. We are the strongest advocate of that, so the one thing that we should not do is turn our backs on workers at this moment in time. If Brexit is to mean anything, it should be about putting rights back into this Parliament and making sure that workers are not at the end of the queue but very much at the front. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendment 50, as well as Amendment 51, which bears my name. Amendment 51 is an elaboration of Amendment 50, so I will speak only to Amendment 50. I endorse everything that my noble friend Lord Collins has said. The object of Amendment 50 is, as it states in proposed new subsection (1)(a), to prevent the reduction of
“the level of protection for workers”.
As my noble friend said, this is not simply to protect workers but to protect good employers from being undercut by bad employers. It speaks of the level of protection for workers, in respect not just of employment rights but of health and safety at work rights.
In spite of the warm words of the Government and the promises of an employment Bill over the last three or four years, there is a suspicion that the Government will try to take advantage of Brexit to undermine and water down workers’ rights. That fear is not helped by the fact that, last week, on
The proposals to water down those rights are not contained in the Bill, as they could have been among the 928 proposals in the schedule. They are yet to come, in the form of statutory instruments that we have not seen, cannot examine and, when it comes to it—notwithstanding the excellent amendments from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, earlier on—may have difficulty in seeking to amend. The purpose of Amendment 50, and indeed Amendment 51, is to ensure that workers’ rights are not watered down and that the obligations contained in Articles 387(2) and 399(5) of the trade and co-operation agreement, against regression, are honoured.
My Lords, my name is on both of these amendments and I am happy to support them both. The proposers will be pleased to know that I do not intend to speak for long, because I have heard two excellent speeches that set out the reasons why supporting these amendments is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, talked about the danger of back-door watering down of legislation. It may not be this Government; once this is in statute, it could be any Government going forward. We do not necessarily have to distrust the people we see before us—I personally do not—but we do not know who in future will be able to use these measures.
If the Government want to water down workers’ conditions, that should be done through primary legislation, straight up, and negotiated and scrutinised properly. It should not be put through the backdoor, which could happen here. Throughout the process of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, has said over and over again that it is not the Government’s intention to water down workers’ rights. By supporting Amendment 50, the Government can make sure that they are absolutely as good as their word.
My Lords, one of the worst objections that I had when I was a Member of the European Parliament was to the doctrine of the occupied field—the idea that you could never withdraw from a field in which you had once legislated. So the acquis communautaire can only ever grow; it could go only in in one direction. You could call it a ratchet, a one-way street or, as its supporters did, a bicycle that has to go forward, but the objection was fundamentally the same: it lifted certain issues out of the democratic field and made them immune to the political process.
For what it is worth, I have never had much time for the idea that our workers’ rights come from the EU—the EU did not travel back in time and pass Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act 1970 or Neville Chamberlain’s Holidays with Pay Act 1938—but, whatever view you take of it, these are precisely the sorts of issues that ought to be determined by our national democratic mechanisms and procedures. You can take the view, as the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Hendy, did, that this is wonderful, helps employers and all the rest of it, which is a perfectly respectable position, or you can take the view that there comes a point where too many workers’ rights means fewer workers—but surely that is a debate that ought to be had here and in another place, not something that is effectively made invulnerable to the ballot box.
It is nice to be popular so that we can all go home. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his Amendment 50, and I am glad to be debating with him again.
The amendment would place a number of conditions relating to workers’ rights that UK Ministers or devolved authorities would have to meet when intending to use the powers under Clauses 13, 14, 16 and 17 on retained EU law. That includes satisfying themselves that workers’ protections and employment rights would be maintained and that proposed new regulations would not conflict with existing international labour agreements.
The new clause would also introduce a new procedural requirement that Ministers would have to follow in order to be eligible to exercise the power. That includes seeking advice from relevant stakeholders, including ACAS and relevant trade unions, as well as publishing a report addressing specific points around workers’ rights and employment protections for the new regulations. The new clause would significantly delay and impact opportunities to review and reform any retained EU law, which might have an impact on working regulations.
I should say straightaway, as my noble friend Lord Callanan already has, that this Government have no intention of abandoning our strong record on workers’ rights, and nor are the delegated powers intended to undermine the UK’s high standards on workers’ rights.
Our high standards were never dependent on our membership of the EU. Indeed, the UK provides for stronger protections for workers. We have one of the highest minimum wages in Europe. Moreover, UK workers are entitled to 5.6 weeks of annual leave compared with the EU requirement of four weeks, and we provide a year of maternity leave while the EU minimum maternity leave is just 14 weeks. Furthermore, on
I turn to Amendment 51 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy. This amendment seeks to insert a new clause to exempt from the Bill any retained EU law which is within scope of the labour and social levels of protection commitments set out in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. It also seeks to exempt retained EU law which may implement other internationally recognised labour standards set out in the TCA, including any convention of the International Labour Organization and the European Social Charter of 1961. It was good to hear from my noble friend Lord Hannan about his view of how things happened in Brussels, and his confirmation that our standards are a British thing.
As I have said, this Government have no intention of abandoning our strong record on workers’ rights, having raised domestic standards over recent years. That is why the UK remains a coveted destination for thousands of high-skilled workers across the world to come to live, work and do business, and we are committed to maintaining high levels of protection. That is why we made the commitments in the TCA and reaffirmed our commitment to the likes of the International Labour Organization. Nothing in the Bill undermines that.
Departments continue to undertake a thorough assessment of their retained EU law where it relates to TCA obligations. The TCA affirms the right of both the UK and EU to set their own policies and priorities for labour and social standards, as well as to determine the appropriate levels of protection. The Bill will enable us to do just that while continuing to comply with international law.
The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, raised some detailed points, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, earlier. I will not delay the House by replying to them now, but I will set out the response, which is a powerful one, in writing. However, I will just talk about consultation.
There was a mention of consultation requirements for redundancies in SMEs. I assume that this relates to the TUPE regulations of 2006, which protect employees’ rights when the business or undertaking for which they work transfers to a new employer. Let me reassure the House that we will ensure that workers’ rights continue to be protected. That is why, on
These reforms will be consulted on, as appropriate, as will future regulatory reform plans, in the course of normal policy development in this whole area. This is open consultation: ACAS, trade unions and others are all able to comment. I know that issues of worker protection are important to noble Lords. They know of my own background at Tesco; I am proud that it was a good employer and that our success over many years was helped by the union USDAW.
However, we must not hamper sensible reform, particularly where, as with working time, there are a lot of complex recording and administrative requirements. The laws we may or may not reform—of course we will be selective—were all created in Brussels or Luxembourg and with very little scrutiny. I urge a constructive approach in this area. Noble Lords have heard our promises and I ask that this amendment is withdrawn.
My Lords, the simple fact is that we should legislate through this Parliament and not through the mechanism that this Bill provides for. That is why we need these guarantees. I beg to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 130, Noes 131.