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Brexit: Single Market and Workers’ Rights

Volume 778: debated on Monday 16 January 2017

Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have given to the request made by the TUC General Secretary on 7 December that the United Kingdom secure full European Union Single Market membership to protect workers’ rights.

My Lords, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, we do not need to be part of the EU single market to have strong protection for workers’ rights. The Government will not roll back EU rights in the workplace. All workers’ rights enjoyed under EU law will be preserved by the great repeal Bill and will be brought across into UK law.

My Lords, on behalf of myself and the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, I thank the Minister for his reply, which follows on from the article by the Prime Minister in the 8 January edition of the Sunday Telegraph. The Minister has touched on this, but will he go one step further and reassure the House and the TUC that all the relevant directives will be contained in the great repeal Bill?

My Lords, the Prime Minister has said that, under this Government, workers’ rights will not be eroded and will be not just protected but enhanced. The Government’s commitment is absolutely clear. As we regain sovereignty over these issues it will be up to subsequent Parliaments to make these decisions themselves.

My Lords, it is a sad day when the TUC no longer has faith in the Labour Party, the Liberal Party and this British Parliament to defend the rights of British workers. Is it not the case that British workers enjoy rights far beyond EU requirements, for example in respect of maternity pay?

Yes, there are many examples where people who work in the UK have stronger rights than those guaranteed in the EU. Maternity rights are one case and rights to statutory leave are another example.

My Lords, can I probe a bit harder about how robust these assurances about the great reform Bill are? At the weekend, the Chancellor said that if the EU takes a hard approach to the negotiations, the British Government are going to have to go downmarket and undercut our EU neighbours on corporate tax. Will the same thing not happen on labour standards? Is there not a big risk that the Government will be forced by the logic of Brexit into undercutting and beggar-thy-neighbour policies?

My Lords, it would be a huge misjudgment and mistake for any British Government to think that eroding the rights of UK workers and making them less engaged and productive would contribute in any way to us being more competitive. In the same way that we want to have low tax rates, we want to have a fully engaged and well-trained workforce.

My Lords, as the Minister confirmed, the Prime Minister has agreed that all workers’ rights enshrined in EU law will be transferred into UK law—but then “where practical” was added. Which workers’ rights cannot be practically transferred into UK law?

Off the cuff, I cannot think of any rights that would fall into the area of “not practical”. The Prime Minister went further: she is committed, as is our whole industrial strategy, to bringing decent, well-paid, skilled jobs to Britain, including to many parts of the country where they have been sadly depleted over many years.

My Lords, do the Government agree that it is the single market which imposes Brussels’ overregulation on the 90% of our economy that does not sell into it? Do the Government know how many jobs that has cost us over the years?

I cannot answer that question specifically. Clearly, being part of the single market has increased the number of jobs in this country. The Prime Minister is making a speech tomorrow about global Britain, and we are absolutely clear, being part of the global economy, that we believe fully in free trade and that our country must become more competitive.

My Lords, should trade union leaders not be very careful about calling for the United Kingdom to remain in the single market when that brings with it free movement of labour, and so many of their members voted leave because they were alarmed by unlimited immigration?

My noble friend raises an interesting point, which I think many trade union leaders recognise. Unquestionably, there are parts of the country where high levels of immigration have undermined the wage rates of local people. I think we would all agree that one of the benefits of having control over our immigration policy is that we can have a policy which is more directly suited to our requirements.

My Lords, why is it that I find it very difficult to believe every word that I have just heard from the Minister? It sounds great, and I am sure that parsnips are waiting to be buttered in order to benefit from that, but it is really not a very convincing argument from the party that brought forward the Trade Union Bill in the last Session. Is this not really about what we will be negotiating for? In its brilliant paper the TUC has no problem in setting out what the UK negotiating position should be—why can the Government not do so?

My Lords, I think the Prime Minister, in a speech tomorrow, will be setting out the strategic objectives of our negotiations and what we are trying to get out of the negotiations that will take place over the next two years. It would be foolish of me to speculate in any more detail today about what those objectives are.

Given the reality of the global economy, surely the only effective way of protecting employees’ rights is through international agreements? To avoid international agreements is merely to undermine the sovereignty of this country.

My Lords, there are many other aspects apart from international agreements. When one looks at the performance of the UK economy, what absolutely stands out above all else is that in many industries our productivity levels are too low. Increasing productivity in this country, partly through better training and skills but also through more investment in the research base of this country, is the best way to increase our trade overseas.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that I get very confused at times, being a simple-minded fellow, about all these rights that people keep talking about? Is it not the case, for instance, that in the United States Volkswagen has pleaded guilty to criminal misconduct about emissions, has paid a fine of nearly £4 billion and has offered consumers more than £12 billion in compensation? Yet in the EU, with all our rights for consumers and everybody else, so far the consumer has been offered absolutely nothing. Can he clear up my confusion and tell me why?

I fear that clearing up my noble friend’s confusion might take me longer than I have this afternoon. There is no doubt that consumers have very strong rights in the US and that having a very strong, competitive market is probably the best way to ensure that companies such as Volkswagen behave properly.