Leaving the EU: State Aid, Public Ownership and Workers’ Rights — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:59 pm on 11th December 2018.

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Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:59 pm, 11th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Laura Smith on securing this important debate. I declare my interest as a proud lifelong trade unionist.

This debate is especially important because when the Prime Minister addressed the House yesterday, she gave the impression that the only concerns about her deal came from her own Benches and related entirely to the backstop. Let me say clearly and loudly to the Minister that is not the case for my constituents and working people across the country who want an agreement that protects both their jobs and their rights in those jobs. I will focus my speech on that.

Equality for part-time workers, maternity and paternity leave, health and safety standards, protections from discrimination and harassment, equal pay terms and regulation of working hours are among the basic labour standards won by the labour movement—not just in the UK, but across Europe—that are under threat from a Tory Brexit. The Minister may deny that but his colleagues have given the game away. The International Trade Secretary—the last man standing of the Prime Minister’s original three Brexiteers—was clear about his vision when he said:

“we must begin by deregulating the labour market”,

and that it is

“intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”.

The former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, put it more bluntly when his book described British workers as

“among the worst idlers in the world.”

The track record of this Government speaks even louder than those words: a damaging and draconian Trade Union Act that attacks representatives of millions of working people across the UK, for instance. Tribunal fees caused a staggering drop in the number of workers able to bring claims against exploitative bosses. It is the same story even on an issue as basic as ensuring waiters can keep their own tips. If the Minister’s answer is to trust the Government, the people of Barnsley will regard that as a little more than a joke. The withdrawal agreement gives us almost nothing in the way of legal safeguards; instead, it gives Ministers power to repeal, dilute and cut employment rights after we leave.

I will take the liberty of anticipating the Minister’s reply and deal with the so-called “non-regression” clause that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned. Even during the transition, it leaves us exempt from any measure whose deadline falls beyond the end of the phase, leaving British workers falling behind our European counterparts even before we have fully left. Even worse, non-regression clauses of this sort have been found deeply flawed in a series of court judgments. I will not recite the legal precedents in full, but they have been described as a “fallen fig leaf” by leading legal commentators. The article in the agreement is for the stated purpose of

“ensuring the proper functioning of the single customs territory” rather than protecting workers’ rights in itself, limiting it even further.

The Government could have given us a standstill clause, which would have given them a legally binding duty that workers and trade unions could enforce in the courts, but they decided not to. The Attorney General confirmed to the House last week that the

“non-regression clauses…are not enforceable either by the EU institutions or by the arbitration arrangements under the withdrawal agreement.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 559.]

He made clear that he thought that was a good thing. That is a stark and telling contrast to the far tougher and enforceable requirements on state aid that my hon. Friend referred to. No wonder the Institute for Public Policy Research, among others, concluded that the non-regression clause was

“not sufficient to maintain current protections”.

Then, there is the political declaration. We have often heard on Brexit that the devil is in the detail, but the problem with the political declaration is that there is no detail. It does not even have legal effects. Any new Tory Prime Minister—hardly an unlikely prospect, from what we see of the party opposite me—could just rip it up. Its only reference to workers’ rights is in the section on “open and fair competition”, which tells us exactly how they are seen—simply a way to maintain fair competition.

We have always said that we want a future relationship where rights and protections are defended, preventing a race to the bottom. This agreement threatens to do the very opposite. It opens the door to a future where labour standards come second to the interests of big business, rights at work are watered down and a Conservative Government can dismantle yet more protections for workers and unions. The people I represent in Barnsley voted very clearly to leave. I respect that decision, but I do not believe they voted for a reduction in workers’ rights, jobs and prosperity. The question is not whether we leave but how we leave.