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Workers’ Rights

Volume 630: debated on Thursday 2 November 2017

13. What steps he is taking to maintain workers’ rights in negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. (901565)

The Government have firmly committed to protecting workers’ rights and to extending those rights when that is the right choice for the United Kingdom. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will ensure that workers’ rights enjoyed under European Union law will continue to be available in UK law after we have left the European Union. However, we do not need to be part of the European Union to have strong protection for workers. The UK already goes well beyond EU minimum standards in a large number of employment areas.

The Trade Union Act 2016 shows something different: the UK has some of the most restrictive trade union rights and freedoms in the western world, and even these could be compromised post-withdrawal. Will the Secretary of State give a cast-iron guarantee that my constituents in North West Durham will have as a minimum the same, if not more, workers’ rights when we have left the European Union?

Yes, I can give that guarantee. The hon. Lady’s constituency voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union, and it did that with open eyes. This assertion that our trade union rights and, more importantly, our employment law rights are somehow less good than in the rest of the European Union is simply untrue. My first meeting as Secretary of State was with the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. The reason for that was that I knew her, because I had been co-operating with her on trade union law reform just a few months earlier. If the hon. Lady wants a single test of employment protection in the United Kingdom versus the European Union, she should look at the most fundamental right, which is the right to safety at work. We have one of the best records in the European Union for safety at work—much better than Germany, much better than Italy, much better than nearly all European countries.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for saying that he intends to extend workers’ rights when it is right to do so, but my great concern is that some in the Conservative party may see this as an opportunity to deregulate further the rights of our citizens at work. Will he look at doing away with employment tribunal fees, which prevent young workers, particularly women, from taking sexual harassment claims against their employers?

The first thing to say to the hon. Gentleman is that in the first three speeches I made after taking this job, I made it very clear that we were not going to use departure from the European Union as a way of reducing employment rights.

In addition, independently of this process, the Prime Minister initiated the Matthew Taylor review. The point of that review was to report back on employment rights—security, pay, progression and training, as well as the balance of rights and responsibilities, representation, opportunities for under-represented groups, and new business models in the gig economy and such things. The Prime Minister actually intends to improve employment rights, not reduce them.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said he wants to extend workers’ rights. With that in mind, will the Government look at the hard work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), whose private Member’s Bill sought to enshrine workers’ rights in UK law immediately?

The nature of the British constitution is that Parliament is always the last to decide—we cannot entrench anything in British law in perpetuity—so as a party and as a Government, we will be seeking to extend workers’ rights, and it will be in our control for us, as a Parliament representing our constituents, to do that.

The European Union charter of fundamental rights contains protections —for example, equality and children’s rights—not contained in the European convention on human rights. Will the Secretary of State give this House a commitment that these rights will be protected as we leave the EU?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I have said all along from the beginning—in fact, from the White Paper that presented what was then the repeal Bill and is now the withdrawal Bill—that we believe that all the rights enjoyed under the charter are rights that come either from European Union law, the ECHR, British domestic law or EU law that we are going to carry forward. I said to the shadow Secretary of State when the White Paper was presented that if any rights had been missed we would seek to put them back, so that is what we will do. We will of course discuss this at great length during the Committee and Report stages of the Bill. My undertaking to my hon. Friend is that we will protect all those rights.

I know from personal experience that my right hon. Friend takes workers’ rights extremely seriously. However, one right that British workers may not have is the right to go and work in the EU without a visa. The idea of associate citizenship has been raised by the President of the European Parliament and others. Will my right hon. Friend look at that seriously so that British workers—particularly younger British workers—have the opportunity to work in the European Union without a visa, certainly for a limited, if not for an extended, period?

It is nice to have a question from a co-conspirator from my freer days on this subject. Yes, we will look at these issues together. I have spoken briefly to Guy Verhofstadt about this, although not at great length, and I will be interested to hear from him what is being proposed. Of course we will listen to anything of this nature. The aim of this exercise is to be good for Europe and good for Britain, which means good for the citizens of Europe and Britain. That is what we intend to do.

Is this question not somewhat ironic, coming from the Labour party that voted against the withdrawal Bill on Second Reading—the very Bill that will protect workers’ rights? We do not need to be in the EU to protect workers’ rights; we pass legislation in this place to protect those rights, and will continue to do so.

My hon. Friend is of course exactly right. I remember that the last time he asked a question on this subject he reminded the House that it was the Conservative party that introduced the first employment protection legislation, way before the Labour party was created, and it will still be doing that way after the Labour party is gone.

I am sure we all take great comfort from the Secretary of State’s assurances about the Prime Minister’s change of mind. What he now attributes to the Prime Minister is very different from what she said about workers’ rights as Home Secretary. Given that there is no intention whatsoever to reduce workers’ rights as a result of our leaving the European Union, will the Secretary of State undertake to table a Government amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, so that the unprecedented powers given to Ministers in that Bill cannot by statute be used to reduce workers’ rights?

The point I have made time and again about the powers in that Bill is that they are not intended to remove or reduce any law; they are intended to make all the laws practical, and that is what they will do. If we have not got it quite right, we will talk to everybody involved, in Committee and on Report, and ensure that we do get it right.

As well as the potential threat to workers’ rights, there is a much wider threat in the Bill with the removal of the EU charter of fundamental rights from domestic legislation. Last week, the junior Minister was unable to give the Select Committee an example of anyone whose interests would be damaged by retaining that charter in domestic legislation. Will the Secretary of State tell us whose interests will be damaged if we just leave that charter in place?

I have made this point over and over again. The charter of fundamental rights is essentially a list of existing rights and does not, as far as we can see, generate any new ones. I have said that if the shadow Secretary of State can identify a right that will be lost, we will put it back.

Of all the people the Prime Minister could have chosen to fill yet another vacancy in her Brexit team, last week she settled on someone who has openly called for the scrapping of the working time directive, the temporary agency work directive, the pregnant workers directive and, in his words,

“all the other barriers to actually employing people.”

What signal does the Secretary of State think Lord Callanan’s recent appointment sends to workers across the country about how this Government will approach maintaining their rights at work?

The new Minister in my Department, the noble Lord, is a brilliant appointment, and he will deliver the Government’s policy incredibly well.

The public will rightly be suspicious about the commitments that the Secretary of State has given because they know that the sentiments that Lord Callanan expressed are widely shared on the Government Benches. There is an easy way to solve this: the Secretary of State could accept the amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that provide for enhanced protection for workers’ rights, not just transposition. Will he think about making a commitment to that principle today?

I am afraid I will take no lectures from somebody who voted against the entire Bill and therefore undermined the protection of all workers.