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House of Commons Hansard
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Workers’ Rights (Maintenance of EU Standards)
07 September 2016
Volume 614

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a bill to make provision about the safeguarding of workers’ rights derived from European Union legislation after the withdrawal of the UK from the EU; and for connected purposes.

I am delighted to have secured this timely opportunity to highlight some of my concerns about the future of workers’ rights in Britain post-Brexit.

This Bill was brought about by necessity. Despite the warnings from the TUC and others about the potential for workers’ rights to be significantly undermined if we left Europe, the Government have, to date, failed to explain just how they will ensure that that does not happen. I now call on them to take proactive steps to protect employment rights that are not contained in primary legislation and that therefore risk falling away post-Brexit. It is no use adopting a wait-and-see attitude; people in this country deserve to know that their rights at work will not suffer detriment.

Research conducted by the Library has highlighted several areas of legislation that derive either partly or wholly from European directives. They include rights for agency workers, the European Works Council, information and consultation of employees, health and safety, TUPE, the working time directive and the protection of young people at work. Those are the broad areas that could disappear if the Government opted to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, in which case there would be no legislative framework relating to, for example, collective consultations on restructures, redundancies, shift pattern changes or pay. Those are not small, inconsequential or obscure areas of employment law; they are up front and centre for many working people today who, in an increasingly unstable labour market, rely more than ever on the certainty of protections that can be afforded to them under that legislation.

For more than 40 years, the EU has devised laws designed to protect working people from exploitation and discrimination. Trade unions have operated together at a European level to secure agreements across all nations to better protect workers. The rules have ensured that, regardless of any Government’s ideology, hard-fought-for minimum standards have been protected. They have kept those rights a non-negotiable distance away from the potential deregulatory whims of Ministers who may take the view that such rights are no more than cumbersome red tape. After all, we know that the Secretary of State for International Trade—the very Minister who is responsible for negotiating our trade agreements as we exit the European Union—is on record as having said that it is “too difficult” to fire staff. Members of Parliament must not allow the downgrading of workers’ rights to be an unfortunate side-effect of the Government’s negotiations.

In July, on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister referred to those who have a job but do not always have job security. For millions of agency workers in the care sector, retail, security or factory work, the agency workers legislation ensures that they have access to the same wages and holiday entitlements as permanent workers and have equal access to facilities, vacancies and amenities. That is progressive legislation, which recognises the changing needs of an increasingly so-called flexible workforce, and we should not hesitate to secure our own domestic laws to support those workers.

In recent days, we have been reassured by the Government that Brexit will not undermine workers’ rights. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union wrote in his July article for the “ConservativeHome” website that, in his view, it is

“not employment regulation that stultifies economic growth”.

If that is the case, there should be no barriers to the Government positively reviewing which elements of UK employment law will be without any foundations after leaving Europe unless appropriate alternatives are implemented, and then implementing them. Given that the UK has one of the most lightly regulated workforces in the OECD, it is right the Government should seek to uphold these minimum standards.

Further, much UK employment law originating from the EU has become a basic expectation of reasonable employers. The protection afforded to workers is woven into the fabric of the employment relationship—for example, no discrimination against part-time or fixed-term workers and the right to rest breaks, paid holiday and leave for working parents. All those things are now standard; we should not be going backwards.

If we take a closer look at TUPE—the transfer of undertakings, protection of employees—it is clear the intention is to benefit workers. It means that if someone’s employer contracts out their job role to another organisation, or there is a company takeover, they can expect certain minimum guarantees in relation to these changes. They can expect that there will be a period of consultation. They can expect that there will be reasonable sharing of information. They can expect that any proposed changes to structures, salaries or redundancies will be discussed within the consultation. If they are transferred to the new employer, their salary, holiday and sick leave will all be protected, as will their pension, unless another agreement has been made during the negotiations.

Importantly, rights to representation and recognition of trade unions also transfer, providing certainty and reassurance to affected employees. After transfer, employees continue to be protected unless the receiving employer can provide evidence of operational, technical or economic purposes that make it impossible for them to continue with certain terms and conditions. Even then, they must undertake sufficient consultation before they can make those changes. This is only possible because of the European legislation that provided the TUPE framework.

We should accept a reality here. TUPE and other EU-derived legislation is not perfect. As we have seen with other legislation such as maternity and paternity leave, our Parliament—us, here—can make the choice to go further and offer more than the minimum requirements of legislation. But in this instance, it has not, choosing the least burdensome interpretation of the legislation.

Having taken numerous groups of employees through TUPE transfers as a Unison officer, I recognise the weaknesses within the law, but that is all the more reason to be concerned about what would happen if TUPE were not there to act as a check and balance.

Before TUPE, employers were able to make the staff of a transferring unit redundant regardless of whether their job would exist within the new undertaking. Very often, those same staff would have to go through a recruitment process to secure their previous jobs, but often on lower wages, with worse pensions, fewer holidays and increased responsibilities. These were workers such as school meals assistants and refuse collectors who were not even given the chance to participate in any consultation. We surely would not want to place that kind of disruption and uncertainty on workers again by rolling back to the bad old days, but roll back we might. Without there being any recourse to previous European Court of Justice rulings, we may find ourselves sleepwalking into a situation where recent positive outcomes for workers, such as carers who do sleep-in shifts receiving a full wage for their time, are no longer adhered to as employers seek to cut their costs.

We should not allow the potential for European case law to simply be discarded, as it risks dumping swathes of precedent in favour of re-litigation of settled principles. For example, relatively recent ECJ case law around the calculation of normal remuneration for holiday pay under the working time regulations must factor in non-guaranteed overtime, which is not explicitly stated in the wording of the regulations. If future decisions were no longer bound by that case law, workers would pay the price.

Given the changes in employment-related legislation over the past six years— including reduced consultation periods for redundancy, the extension of qualifying periods of employment for unfair dismissal claims, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals and the attempted undermining of trades unions through the Trade Union Act 2016—there is little to give the British public faith that the Government’s warm words will translate into action.

And what of current proposals in Europe that would bring further protections to UK workers? A right to a written statement of terms and conditions, improved work-life balance and improved rights for posted workers: will workers in Britain ever feel the benefits of such changes?

I have been asked why I have not asked for more in this Bill—extended its reach, filled the gaps in the current system and sought to extend workers’ rights further—but this is not about grandiose positioning. It is based in the reality of the situation we face today. It is right that, first and foremost, stability is provided and the Government do everything in their power to protect what we already have.

Despite being on the other side of the debate, I accept that the British public voted for Brexit, but they did not vote for more insecure contracts, less safe workplaces or anything less than they currently have by way of protection in their jobs.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Melanie Onn, Louise Haigh, Chris Elmore, Ruth Smeeth, Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips, Chris Stephens, Christian Matheson, Jo Stevens, Justin Madders, Carolyn Harris and Matthew Pennycook present the Bill.

Melanie Onn accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 November, and to be presented (Bill 62).