I would like to make a statement about workers’ rights when we leave the European Union. Before I do, as this is my first time at the Dispatch Box since his death on Friday, I put on record my deep appreciation for the life and work of Lord Bhattacharyya, a heroic figure in British manufacturing. His work attracted investment to which hundreds of thousands of working men and women owe their livelihoods. A Labour Member of the House of Lords, Kumar worked easily with Ministers and, indeed, Prime Ministers from all parties for the benefit of the people of the west midlands and the whole nation.
The United Kingdom and this Parliament have a proud record of improving the rights of working men and women: from Shaftesbury’s Factories Acts to William Hague’s Disability Discrimination Act 1995; and from the minimum wage, introduced by a Labour Government, to the national living wage brought in by a Conservative Government. Although the EU sets minimum requirements in many areas of workers’ rights and health and safety, Britain has time and again been in advance of those requirements and has chosen to exceed them.
The EU agency for the improvement of working conditions ranks the UK as the second strongest of all 28 member states, behind only Sweden, for wellbeing in the workplace. The UK offers 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay, compared with the 14 weeks required by the EU. We have given fathers and partners a statutory right to paternity leave, which the EU is only just beginning to consider.
Our national living wage is one of the highest in the EU, and the Low Pay Commission that advises on it is widely respected. Because we have not, in practice, been limited to EU standards, there is no reason why we should not maintain this record of leadership outside the EU. The Prime Minister has given a commitment that Brexit will not be allowed to erode workers’ rights.
Nevertheless, some hon. Members have advanced the view in previous debates that a parliamentary mechanism should be established to monitor and implement that commitment. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) introduced a private Member’s Bill to that effect, and the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), among others, proposed an amendment to a previous motion in a similar vein.
We have been discussing closely with Members on both sides of the House, trade unions and businesses how we can turn this intention into law. The Government are today publishing draft clauses for inclusion in the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill to put these commitments into law. The clauses have two main features. First, a new statutory duty will be placed on Ministers introducing a Bill that affects employment or workplace health and safety that they should certify, before Second Reading of any such Bill, that it is compatible with the Prime Minister’s principle of non-regression. They will be required to provide explanatory information to Parliament in support of that statement, which will be drawn up following consultation with businesses and trade unions. That will ensure that, while respecting and upholding the sovereignty of this Parliament, Members of this House in future will be able clearly to consider the compatibility of every proposed measure with the non-regression principle, to which the Prime Minister has made a commitment.
The second aspect of the draft clauses concerns future EU legislation. Parliament will be given the opportunity, at least every six months, to consider any changes to EU workers’ rights, and health and safety standards in the workplace. This will be reported to Parliament through a document that has, again, been subject to consultation with employers and trade unions, and which will be scrutinised by the relevant Select Committees of this House, subject to their agreement. The Government will be required to table an amendable motion on their intended course of action on those new EU rules. For example, the Government may set out that they intend to legislate to give effect to those commitments or that they intend to give effect to them in a different way, or that they do not intend to give effect to them, setting out their rationale. There are a number of legislative proposals currently under consideration in the EU that have a deadline for transposition into national law which will be after the implementation period. We would expect them to be put forward for Parliament’s consideration under this new process. These draft clauses, published in a Command Paper today, combine well our determination to honour the commitment the Prime Minister has made not to see workers’ rights weakened and respecting the sovereignty of this Parliament.
A similar framework will apply to environmental protections as the UK leaves the EU, implemented through the environment Bill. On 19 December, we published the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, the first part of a much larger environment Bill to follow in the next Session. The draft Bill outlines our proposals to establish a world-leading body to hold the Government to account for environmental outcomes after the UK leaves the EU. The draft Bill also requires the Government to publish a statutory policy statement on the interpretation and application of nine environmental principles, including the four contained in EU treaties. The Government will also legislate to ensure that where future Bills could affect environmental protections, a Minister of the Crown will make a statement of compatibility to Parliament and provide explanatory information. We will also create a new statutory duty on the Government to monitor any strengthening of environmental protections and regulations by the EU, and to report regularly to Parliament about the Government’s intended course of action in those areas. That will give Parliament the information it needs to consider whether or not domestic protections need to be strengthened accordingly. Through these commitments, the Government will provide a robust framework for maintaining and strengthening environmental standards as the UK leaves the EU.
In addition to the measures I have described, I am announcing today steps that will strengthen the enforcement of employment rights. The vast majority of businesses operate fairly and treat their employees well, but I have been concerned, as I know many Members have been, about the practices in a small number of firms, in a small number of industries, where abuses of the conditions at work are used to the detriment not just of workers, but of reputable competitors, who suffer a disadvantage by comparison in those industries. I therefore intend to consult broadly on establishing a new body to bring together the relevant enforcement functions of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. As part of the forthcoming spending review, we will consider what level of funding is appropriate to ensure that it is adequately resourced to deliver a strengthened remit.
The measures that I have announced today reflect a process of engagement across this House, and with employers and trade unions. Not everyone will agree with every proposal, but if, as I hope, an agreement can be reached on the withdrawal process during the days ahead, it serves as a helpful guide as to how we might find and act on common ground across the House in the next phase of negotiations. I commend this statement to the House.
Let me, too, put on record my sadness at the death of Lord Bhattacharyya and my deep appreciation for his devotion to British industry and politics.
I must start by thanking the Secretary of State for his engagement with me over recent weeks, and indeed with trade unions and my parliamentary colleagues whom he mentioned: my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint); and my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell). They have championed unrelentingly the protection of British workers as we leave the EU and continue to help us move the position across the House to one that we are all content with.
However, as the Secretary of State knows from our discussions in recent days, sadly the proposals, as drafted, do not yet provide a full guarantee or assurance for UK workers. I hope that this spirit of collegiality will continue and that we will work together quickly to address my concerns and provide the changes and assurances that I seek. As he knows, the TUC has stated today:
“In the face of a government determined to reduce rights, these measures would in no meaningful way compensate for the loss of the protections that currently exist”.
The assessment of less favourability will be decided by parliamentary majority and not by the objective standards of the UK courts. The provisions can easily be revoked by a hostile Government, and even without being revoked, they can be rendered fairly meaningless in practice. Indeed, as drafted, the content of the proposed statement of compatibility and irregular parliamentary assessment of less favourability are not capable of legal challenge by any UK worker. Of course, the process outlined in the draft clauses could be subject to a judicial review, but simply issuing a statement and laying a motion are hardly rocket science. What will not be possible, however, is a challenge to the contents of a statement of compatibility or an approved parliamentary motion to accept a Government assessment.
I think the Secretary of State implied in his statement that we should not automatically accept favourable rights solely because the UK Parliament has already set higher standards of employment rights. On that point, let me be clear: no one—certainly none of the colleagues I have spoken to—is seeking anything other than that UK workers should be entitled to no less-favourable rights at work than their EU comparators, not that we should accept unfavourable ones. That point is simple to draft and it could be made perfectly clear, and I am happy to work with the Secretary of State on that point.
Of course, Parliament is always welcome to give more, but history is littered with examples of the UK bitterly resisting EU directives on workplace rights. A Conservative Government sued the EU Commission over the working time directive, claiming that there was no legislative base for the directive since working time had nothing to do with health and safety at work. Luckily for workers in the UK and the rest of the EU, that Government lost.
On the promise not to water down existing rights and protections, even if a Bill is found to be incompatible, there are at present no powers to stop the Government proceeding. In addition, the promise does not apply to secondary legislation, potentially allowing existing EU-derived rights to be watered down with ease. The bulk of UK legislation to implement EU law is actually done by way of secondary legislation—for example, working time regulations, TUPE, and health and safety regulations, to name but a few.
On the process relating to adopting future improvements in EU legislation, the proposals are equally in need of addressing. The only means of challenge is in Parliament, with a vote on an amendable motion, subject to the Government’s majority. Parliamentary procedure may not permit sufficient amendments to deal with all the additional changes to workers’ rights identified by MPs. In any event, resolutions of the House have recently proven to be an ineffective restraint on the Government. The Secretary of State seeks to provide comfort by stating that the Government will consult workers, Select Committees and employers’ representatives, and that sentiment is of course welcome, but, as he knows, there is no direct obligation on the Government to accept any recommendations.
On enforcement, I do welcome the commitments the Secretary of State has made to address funding deficiencies. I await further details in due course. On 1 April 2004, there were 1,483 Health and Safety Executive frontline inspectors; but by 2015 that had fallen to 972. In consequence, the statistically average workplace can now expect an inspection no more frequently than every 50 years.
I have conveyed to the Secretary of State in recent weeks the fact that for a guarantee of non-regression to be truly meaningful, it must be enforceable in the UK courts at the suit of any worker in the UK. Any dispute about whether or not the worker has less favourable rights than her EU comparator must be determined by the courts and not solely by Parliament, still less by a politically motivated Government majority in the House of Commons. Today’s proposals come nowhere near that and do not yet demonstrate that this Government take workplace rights seriously. I do hope, however, that, in this spirit of co-operation, we will work together to move towards more robust guarantees as a matter of urgency.
I warmly welcome the tone in which the hon. Lady has approached this issue. We have different preferences on what would be ideal, and I know that both the TUC and her own Front-Bench colleagues would prefer EU directives automatically to take their place in UK law and to be enforced through the European Court of Justice, as they are now. She knows that we disagree with her on that—in our view, it would not be consistent with leaving the European Union or with the sovereignty of this Parliament—but I accept that that is her position and that she has said that, notwithstanding that, we should explore whether we can meet her perfectly reasonable observations. I am grateful for that.
What we are publishing this afternoon are draft clauses that have not yet gone into the Bill. I am open to working with all Members of the House—of course, continuing to include the hon. Lady—to see which of the observations can be accommodated, subject to the general approach we wish to take. I think that she recognises, and I hope other Members will recognise, that this is an important opportunity. If we are to pass a withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, the chance to have on the statute book from the outset—literally within the next few weeks, I hope—some important protections for workers is one that I think we should all take.
The hon. Lady asked some specific questions, of which I shall attempt to answer as many as I can. She observed, in effect, that future Governments and Parliaments may take a different view from that which we intend. As we know, it is a fact that no Parliament can bind its successor, but it can express a clear intention, set up a test and provide mechanisms against which proper scrutiny of any proposal can be mounted, and that is what we are doing. I acknowledge her right hon. and hon. Friends’ contribution to and, in fact, origination of this idea.
The hon. Lady is concerned that the statements that are provided for could be ignored and may not be as effective as she intends. The case law clearly establishes that if a statutory consultation is provided for, it cannot be lightly swept aside. There is a requirement properly to engage with the recommendations that come from such a consultation, but I hear what she said about that process being open to workers as well as to people who might represent them. We can talk more about that.
The hon. Lady asked about the application to future changes to workers’ rights that may come outside primary legislation. Clearly, the big changes come through primary legislation, but in the spirit of what I said earlier, I am certainly open to exploring what assurances we can give on other significant pieces of legislation that might be in scope.
The hon. Lady mentioned the jurisprudence of the ECJ. It would clearly be inappropriate after Brexit for the ECJ to have a remit in the UK, but of course, as she knows as a lawyer herself, any court can have regard to the decisions of any court that it considers to be relevant in the case being considered.
The hon. Lady mentioned enforcement, on which we strongly agree. There are industries—sometimes concentrated in particular places in the country—in which what she described is correct: a calculation is made that employers who abuse the rights of their workers are unlikely to be detected and enforced against, which leads them to think that they can get away with it with impunity. The intention behind the strengthened enforcement body that I described, and our intention in terms of resourcing it, is to firmly remove that idea from the mind of any such employer. I will work closely with the hon. Lady on that.
It is appropriate to recognise in the House and draw some pride from our record of employment rights. We have a successful labour market that combines a reputation for high standards—standards that have been recognised throughout the EU as being among the best in Europe—while having what is the most important right for workers, which is the right to work. Many more people in this country are able to work as a result of the effectiveness of our labour markets. We need to preserve that while giving expression to the objectives articulated by the hon. Lady’s colleagues, to make sure that the commitment we have given to build on that strength in future is something that is not just a matter of words but has parliamentary force behind it. I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said about working together.
I am assured that the Government and this Secretary of State want high standards of employment rules in this country, and I look forward to our having independence so that we can have our own domestically crafted high standards, which will be above the minimum EU standards, but will the Secretary of State please explain why he has proceeded with this statement? I thought its sole aim was to win over the Labour party, but it seems Labour is in complete disagreement with it.
I was very much influenced by the exchange between my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) when the latter spoke to his amendment in January. As I recall, my right hon. Friend correctly intervened on the hon. Gentleman to reinforce his personal commitment to establishing and maintaining Britain as a place of voluntarily high standards. Because that represents a point of agreement in the House and is a reflection of our traditions—our reputation is as place of high standards, thanks to the accretion of steps taken by Governments of both parties—I think this is an opportunity to work together to see whether we can establish something that is rooted in the sovereignty of this House, which my right hon. Friend quite rightly insists on, but also provides assurance to those who want to see measures as well as words.
The Secretary of State started by talking about his party’s record on workers’ rights. He will forgive me for questioning whether the political party that put into legislation the Masters and Servants Act 1823, which codified corporal punishment for workers, has a good record on workers’ rights. Indeed, to bring us up to date, his party also introduced the anti-trade union Act.
Rather than guaranteeing or protecting workers’ rights, the statement does no such thing; in fact, it would be a misrepresentation to suggest otherwise. The Secretary of State will be aware that the EU is currently discussing regulations on the gig economy and rights for working parents that are far better than what can be found in the Government’s good work plan. If those EU regulations come to pass, how will the Government deal with them in this Chamber? Given that we keep being told that the next election is in 2022, is the Secretary of State committing the Government to at least matching EU regulations until then?
Given that the statutory instrument process is being used to weaken workers’ rights, as we saw recently with the denial of access to European works councils, what makes him believe that we should trust the Government on this? Will he, as a gesture of good will, table an amendable motion on the Government’s good work plan that will allow Members to strengthen regulations, particularly around zero-hours contracts and their elimination and sorting out workers’ status?
On the good work plan, we will be introducing an employment Bill and it will of course be amendable, in the manner of legislation. We are provided, though, with a more immediate opportunity: that Bill is for the next Session, whereas I very much hope that the withdrawal Bill will be available during the weeks ahead and provide that immediate opportunity to express our determination to apply the commitment that the Prime Minister made on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the measures on the gig economy that are being contemplated by the European Union. Actually, that is a fine example of what I said earlier: those measures follow the commitments that we have made in the good work plan, and they are now making their way through Brussels. We were in advance of that. As I made clear in my statement, both those EU directives would go through the procedure that I described and would be available to the House, if Members thought there was anything extra in them. Actually, though, we think the directives are in many respects modelled on our own proposals.
On the ability of this House to enforce high standards, I say that that been the tradition. My experience as a Minister at European Councils over recent years is that our record of high standards when it comes to workers’ rights, employment protection and health and safety is looked at with admiration by many of our counterparts across the European Union. This allows us to continue that leadership.
I welcome this statement and the proposed clauses therein. As my right hon. Friend has been touching on this matter, does he agree that it is often the UK rather than the EU that has led the way not just on workers’ rights, but on environmental standards, and that we should be proud of that? Will he confirm that today’s announcements will ensure that we continue with these high standards in both areas and that we give due regard to any strengthening of environmental protections and regulations by the EU once we leave?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Again, the provisions adopted by the Climate Change Act 2008 were not required by the European Union. They were a set of decisions that were taken by this House, and that has been our record. The proposals that I have set out allow us to continue to do that, while making sure that the House is not only properly informed but required to make an explicit determination that, if there are new policies that are adopted and directives that are proposed, they are debated and considered in this House. That seems to me to be a good mechanism to ensure that we are always aware of what is being done in the European Union after we have left it.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I remember doing an all-nighter in this House when the Labour Government took through the national minimum wage. In fact, we were here all night long, until 9 o’clock in the morning, because both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats filibustered and voted against the national minimum wage. I am glad those days are behind us—at least the all-nighters. I do not need lectures from anyone about being wary of the Conservatives, but may I welcome the statement today by the Secretary of State and the response by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), as we try to forge assurances enshrined in law to protect workers’ rights as we leave the EU? May I press the Secretary of State to say something more about how we will ensure that any changes on workers’ rights and health and safety are consulted on and that they are not cherry-picked by a future Government? May I also support the concerns of my hon. Friend about the right to judicial involvement for workers who want to make sure that those rights are upheld?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for having initiated this conversation through her amendment to the previous motion, and I think a fruitful discussion has come from that. On the ability to cherry-pick those measures that are adopted by the European Union that might find favour with the Government but not those that do not, the requirement would be to report everything that the European Union has adopted during a six-month period and for the Government to have to make a statement in respect to all of those measures. The motion that would then be required to be put before the House would be amendable. The Government might say that they intended to implement one measure, to apply in a different way another, but to reject a third. That motion would be amendable, so the House could alter the Government’s intention and express its view directly. As for the direct access for workers to these procedures, I made a commitment to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) that we would work together to see what can be done on that, and I am sure that the right hon. Lady will want to be part of those conversations.
I actually whipped the minimum wage Bill through Committee on that occasion, so I well remember Conservative hostility to it.
What the Secretary of State is really promising today is future consultation and future opportunities for votes. Looking behind him, I do not see a great deal of commitment from those Benches to such measures. Why can he not go further? Why can he not agree to put a commitment into the withdrawal agreement and the treaty that the UK will never fall behind EU minimum standards on workers’ rights either now or in future? I know that he has mentioned parliamentary sovereignty and not binding future Parliaments but, historically, Governments have negotiated treaties and Parliaments have approved them and those treaties are binding on future Parliaments until they choose to withdraw from them. Why can we not have that sort of arrangement?
We are talking about legislation here, not the treaty, and the withdrawal agreement has already been established. In the future economic partnership, there is a negotiation to be conducted—it is specified there—on our level of alignment when it comes to workers’ rights, but this is in advance of that. This provides an opportunity at the point of withdrawal to give Parliament the ability to make sure that Parliament takes an informed view of whether it wants to continue to be aligned. That is a valuable opportunity. The hon. Gentleman says that we should do it now with the treaty. That is part of the next phase of the negotiations. It is taking all the Government’s efforts to conclude the withdrawal agreement, without being able to conclude the future partnership in the next few weeks. But this is an important opportunity to establish, in primary legislation, a requirement properly to consider all new regulations that would come from the European Union and to assess the compatibility of legislation that we make in this House with that of the rest of the European Union. That, it seems to me, is a valuable opportunity.
Let me start by echoing the warm words of the Secretary of State about Kumar Bhattacharyya. The Jaguar plant in my constituency is open, employing more than 2,000 workers, in no small way due to his herculean efforts over many years to turn around Jaguar Land Rover.
In my previous being, on behalf of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, I took the case of the Eastbourne dustmen all the way to the European Court of Justice because a Conservative Government refused to apply the acquired rights directive to 6 million public servants. We won and TUPE was extended to those 6 million public servants. In future, however, there will not be the same enforcement mechanism. The trade union movement has spoken with one voice today. Frances O’Grady said that this will not protect rights and that there is nothing to stop future Governments from tearing up the legislation. She added that no one should be “taken in” and that our rights are “still under threat.” Does the Secretary of State understand that residual concern and that, crucially, unless the Government go significantly further with regard to legally enforceable rights, not just depending on the whims of future Governments, she is right: these guarantees are worthless?
These rights will be enforceable by the UK courts. I meet Frances O’Grady very regularly. As I said to the shadow Secretary of State, I recognise that the TUC has a different preference, which is to continue to embed European rights directly and to have them enforced by the Court of Justice of the European Union. That is a different approach. In my view, it is not compatible with Brexit. Therefore, we are looking for a way in which this House, this Parliament and the UK courts can provide the guarantees that I think everyone in this House wants to give.
Trust is a big issue here. In July 2016, the Prime Minister told the nation:
“I want to see changes in the way that big business is governed…we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.”
Can the Secretary of State confirm that that promise to workers was broken?
No, what the Prime Minister set out in that speech was to have the voice of workers represented in the boardroom. The action that we have taken in requiring businesses to establish a worker representative, or to have a non-executive director with the function of representing workers, or to have a works council with an influence on the board, was something that I was proud to set out in furtherance of the Prime Minister’s assurance.
I am sure that the Secretary of State can see that there is a little bit of a credibility gap to close. He said in his statement that the Prime Minister has given a commitment that Brexit will not be allowed to erode workers’ rights, so can he explain why both he and the Prime Minister last week voted in favour of statutory instruments that do exactly that?
I am very proud of the record of this country and this Government in advancing rights in the workplace. The “Good Work” report by Matthew Taylor established, way before many other countries, a means of ensuring changes to UK law around the platform economy and the gig economy to ensure that people are not disadvantaged by these new platforms. The Prime Minister and I have both given that commitment. In deference to some of the scepticism that the words of the Prime Minister should be sufficient, this parliamentary mechanism to enshrine a degree of scrutiny and give this House the ability to insist that that non-regression is abided by is the basis of the amendment that was proposed, and that we are accepting and acting on today.
They say that the Secretary of State is a very nice man. I do not know him. I am sure he is. But I do not trust the gang that he is part of.
I was a Member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1984. Before that, I took a petition to the European Parliament in ’77, arguing for equal rights for men and women. I then became a member of the employment committee in the European Parliament, and I am glad to say that some of the things in that petition became law because of the European Parliament, not because of this place. You will know very well, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I was a shadow employment Minister when the Opposition were working on the minimum wage. I know how hard we had to fight every inch of the way, because we were told that that was not possible, that it would cost jobs, that industry would not be able to afford it, and so on.
When there were big job losses in steel and coal, I was an MEP for one of the affected areas, and I took a group of steelworkers to Brussels to meet the Commission. The big criticism of the Government at that time was that the situation here was unlike that in Germany, where steelworkers were also losing their jobs, but every man in the steel industry in the Ruhr had another job to go to. In this country, there was no safety net. The criticism then was that there was a lack of social policy in this country. Why should I have faith that things have changed when I hear that the number of factory inspectors has diminished? If we do not have factory inspectors, we do not have people looking at the limitations in the industries. I would like to believe the Secretary of State, but I am sorry; I do not.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the compliment that she paid me. I would reflect on the facts. She mentioned that introducing the minimum wage was a fight. This House is used to having fights and campaigns. The purpose of this Chamber is to have crusades that are successful. She will know that, far from that innovation having been rescinded, it was a Conservative Government who introduced the national living wage, which was the biggest pay increase for low-paid workers in 20 years. She should take confidence in that.
The right hon. Lady refers to drawing these protections from the European Union. Once we leave the European Union, the basis for a framework of workers’ rights will obviously not be there, and the alternative is that there would simply be no reference to what is happening in the European Union; that would be the default. We are responding to some helpful suggestions from the right hon. Lady’s colleagues that this House should keep a close eye on what is happening in the rest of Europe and that there should be an ability for the House to act on that. That is a good idea. I cannot say that it was my idea originally—it was brought to my attention—but when we recognise a good idea, I think we should back it.
I recall, as an MP, taking a delegation of miners’ leaders to Brussels to argue for jobs and investment, but we were blocked by the state aid rules that the European Commission enforced on us under a Labour Government. That is why Harworth colliery in my constituency closed.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s openness in his statement—both to amendments from Labour Front Benchers over the next few days, if there are precise amendments and, if they are not agreed, to the ability to table amendments to the withdrawal Bill that can be voted on by Parliament.
I negotiated the derogation, under the Labour Government, for one section of workers from the Work at Height Regulations 2005 because of the way in which the Commission framed the legislation. When it comes to health and safety, will there be automatic harmonisation—in other words, we accept everything that comes, regardless of its suitability to specific industries and groups of workers? When it comes to health and safety and sometimes environmental standards, that has been a fundamental issue, and it would be one if we had direct harmonisation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work in crafting this proposal, and I repeat the commitment to continue to work together as the draft clauses become clauses that are laid before the House. The procedures of this House allow substantial debate of those clauses in Committee and on Report. I agree with his assessment. It is not the case that every regulation proposed by the European Union is ideal and well suited to our circumstances. From my experience in European Councils, there is a process that tries to apply a set of rules in many different countries and economies that may not actually be the best for the UK economy. The procedure that the hon. Gentleman has given us the ability to discuss today provides this House with a means by which to consider what the best form of regulation is, suited to our circumstances and respecting the sovereignty of this House and this Parliament.
This is obviously an extremely important statement, but there is quite a lot of other business to get through this afternoon, so shorter questions and shorter answers might be in order.
The Secretary of State speaks well and everybody wishes to listen to him. However, not all his colleagues are of the same mind. Before Christmas, the Attorney General stood at the Dispatch Box and boasted that the non-regression clauses in the deal 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.]
So why on earth should we trust these clauses?
The Attorney General was making a statement of fact that the provisions in that agreement are not covered by that arbitration mechanism. That is a statement that accurately reflects the reality, which is one of the reasons that availing ourselves of the opportunity to have a parliamentary mechanism to act on and see implemented that non-regression commitment—putting it in the hands of this House—is especially valuable.
The Secretary of State will accept that there is a lot of scepticism among Opposition Members about the Government’s integrity on this issue, and the fact that the trade unions were invited in so late in the Brexit process only fuels that. As he says, we have never solely relied on the EU for workers’ rights and legislation in this country, and when we leave the EU we will need a framework within which to work, so his statement is welcome. Other issues such as electronic balloting are important to the unions. Have they featured in his recent meetings with the unions? How would that demand, and others, fit into his attitude to discussions and communications with the unions in the context of his statement?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says. Of course, I meet the unions—both the TUC and individual unions—very regularly. My responsibilities there go beyond the matters we are discussing today, which are expressly about the European Union. The issue of balloting is outside of discussions on the European Union. It is important to have a good relationship with trade unions. When good ideas are put forward, whether they come from his side of the House or from the trade union movement should not prejudice their ability to be considered fairly and taken forward.
The Business Secretary knows, as I do, that he has Conservative colleagues who would like to see workers’ rights diluted or swept away in the name of deregulation, and—who knows?—one of them could be Prime Minister before long. Will he therefore confirm that the mechanisms he has outlined could be repealed by a future Government passing primary legislation? Is it not true that exchanging enduring EU protections on the environment and workers’ rights for these flimsy mechanisms is like trading in a car that has a lifetime guarantee for a lemon without a log book just because the floor mats are thrown in?
I disagree with the hon. Lady. I would say that there are far more of my colleagues who recognise the benefits for the UK of being a country and a jurisdiction that is associated with high standards rather than a race to the bottom, and that that is the way we will prosper as a country. I think she should have a little more faith in that.
The hon. Lady talks about the framework that the European Union offers. We are leaving the European Union—I recognise that she would rather we were not—so the choice before us is whether, in leaving, we have no reference to anything that is done, now or in future, in the European Union, or we create a mechanism that allows this House to see what is going on and to be able to act on it, bolstered by the statutory requirements on any Minister, now or in future, to pay due regard to the statements that are made in terms of compatibility.
On the hon. Lady’s point about a future Government being able to repeal the whole lot, she knows enough about the British constitution to know that that is available for every law, in every circumstance, by every House of Commons following every election.
I cautiously welcome the statement by the Secretary of State. I think that we owe it to him to recognise the sincerity with which he has approached the discussions with our Front Benchers, with other Labour Members and with trade unions to try to seek some form of compromise—because that is what this is. It does not meet the gold standard of my private Member’s Bill—I recognise that—but there is much to be welcomed, including the facility of an amendable and votable motion. However, there remains a fundamental issue of trust that he cannot have failed to notice, and I suggest that he may need to do further work to try to reassure more people, specifically, perhaps—this is one of the issues that the TUC has raised—on the fact that statements from the Government might be made only in relation to primary legislation, whereas many employment changes come through secondary legislation. What assurance can he offer to the TUC?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she says. As I said to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), most of these rights derive from primary legislation. We will see whether there is an ability to provide the assurance that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) seeks.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the contribution made by her private Member’s Bill. She has done the painstaking work of producing a great schedule of directives to which her Bill would apply. I propose—I hope she will not mind—that we plagiarise that and introduce it as the basis for our list of directives so that we can, if not replicate it in all respects, at least capture the spirit of her Bill.
I thank the Secretary of State for saying that he recognises the abuse by “a small number of firms, in a small number of industries”, but I do not agree with the use of “small”. I think that should be “huge”, “large”, or “common practice”. Will he give a level playing field to the workers in these industries by stopping zero-hours contracts?
I will not do that, because one of the conclusions of the Matthew Taylor report was that most people, of the small—and, indeed, shrinking—number of people on zero-hours contracts welcome that flexibility. The hon. Gentleman will know that many Labour councils up and down the country have casual workers on those contracts and say, in terms, that they are an important part of what their workers want.
However, I do agree with the hon. Gentleman on enforcement. A number of firms are doing such things, but they are not typical, by any means. Some of us will have read about some of the abuses in the garment industry in and around Leicester, for example. These simply cannot be allowed to continue without the steps being taken to restore confidence to those workers that their rights will be respected. That is the intention behind what I have set out in terms of strengthening and better resourcing our enforcement mechanisms.
Fresh in the minds of those of us who feel scepticism about the commitments made by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister will be the fact that his party, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, introduced employment tribunal fees, which were ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, largely because of their hugely disproportionate impact on women bringing cases on maternity discrimination. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, contrary to comments made by the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, his Government have absolutely no plans to reintroduce employment tribunal fees?
The hon. Lady is a little churlish in ignoring some other examples. I would have thought she would welcome, for example, the introduction by a Conservative-led Government of the national living wage, which has made a big difference to many low-paid people across the country. Clearly, the judgment that was made by the Court struck down those fees. We will respect the judgment of the Court in the proposals that we make as we respond to it.
I listened to what the Secretary of State had to say, but the fundamental issues remain the same. This Government’s Brexit deal fails to protect jobs, living standards, and workers’ rights. I am sure that he will tell me otherwise, but if he is so confident that this is the right deal for our country, why will he not let the people decide and have the final say on it?
I can report to the hon. Lady that employers, including in her constituency, are very anxious that we should get on and approve this deal because, as I said, the best right that a worker has is the right to work. The concerns that come from the uncertainty of not agreeing a deal that has been endorsed by employers is giving cause for concern to many workers up and down the country. I hope that in the days ahead, as well as advancing this package, which will provide a means for us to have regard to and take decisions on workers’ rights, and as we see what happens in the rest of the European Union, we will also act to safeguard the jobs of workers in her constituency and mine by approving the deal.
The Prime Minister previously told the House that one step the Government were taking was to abolish the so-called Swedish derogation, but can the Secretary of State confirm that in the regulations laid before the House today, agency workers will be forced to wait until 2020, at the earliest, for equal rights in the workplace?
Having made the commitment to abolish the Swedish derogation, which previous Labour Governments signally failed to do, we have brought forward, at the earliest opportunity, a statutory instrument to do that. I have had representations from the trade unions as to the timing, and we will reflect on that. However, I think that the hon. Lady, being fair-minded, would acknowledge that we have brought forward the necessary legislation very quickly in response to the policy commitments that we have made.
As well as echoing other tributes paid today, I would like to pay tribute to Lord Davies of Coity, who died on Monday. He was a doughty champion of workers and workers’ rights for many decades.
Problems with enforcement of employment rights are not just in particular areas, but are widespread and particularly affect young workers, careworkers and catering sector workers, many of whom work in my constituency and have few other options for employment. I welcome the Secretary of State looking again to expand the enforcement of employment rights. Will he commit to group cases being taken to tribunal and for third-party representations to be made to HMRC about the minimum wage?
First, I echo the hon. Lady’s condolences. She tempts me to go beyond my jurisdiction. My portfolio is pretty broad, covering energy, industry and the industrial strategy, but she refers to matters that are, properly, for the Ministry of Justice. I am happy to talk to the Lord Chancellor and meet the hon. Lady if she would like to talk about such grouping of cases.
Has the Secretary of State secured the endorsement of any trade unions for his proposed course of action? If not, what does he propose to do to secure it?
My ambition is not to secure the endorsement of trade unions. We have had fruitful discussions. As I said to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), I respect the fact that the trade unions would rather things were done in a different way—namely, that we continue to import, as it were, directives and regulations from the European Union and have them enforced by the European Court of Justice. That is their preferred policy; I understand that. It is certainly not our policy. I do not think it is compatible with leaving the European Union. However, leaving the European Union and the opportunity to put in statute various measures, which will allow the House to consider actions that we take on employment rights, does not mean that we cannot establish agreement across the House and take the advice of the trade union movement, even though it might ultimately prefer a different solution.