Skip to main content

Workers’ Rights

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2021


Asked by

My Lords, there is no government plan to reduce workers’ rights. The UK has one of the best employment rights records in the world, and it is well known that in many areas of worker protections the UK goes much further than the EU. Now that we have left the EU, our Government and Parliament can decide what rules should apply and make improvements where they are needed.

The Government took power in the Brexit deal to degrade workers’ rights. On 14 January, the FT reported that

“a package of deregulatory measures”

was being drawn up, particularly in relation to working time. Apparently,

“select business leaders have been sounded out on the plan.”

The review was confirmed in the other place on 19 January. Yesterday and today, any intention to reduce workers’ rights was denied. What is the scope of the review, who is being consulted, why are the TUC and trade unions excluded, and what of the employment Bill?

I can only reiterate the Answer I just gave: there is no government plan to reduce workers’ rights. Our manifesto promised, among other things, to get Brexit done and to maintain the existing level of protection for workers provided by our laws and regulations.

Surprisingly, it did not take long after Brexit for the Government to consider shredding the working time directive, which deals with maximum hours, rest breaks and, importantly, minimum holidays. Instead of making vulnerable workers more vulnerable, when will the Government tackle abuses in the labour market, such as the growth of one-sided zero-hours contracts and other exploitative measures? These should be the priority targets, not attacks on workers’ established rights.

There is no plan to make vulnerable workers more vulnerable, as he put it. The House should be in no doubt that the Government will always stand behind workers and continue to stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur.

My Lords, I know of no business organisation calling for the Government to cut back workers’ rights, but no matter how much the Minister protests, the Government did sound the working time dog whistle to Back-Bench Tories. Business are calling for help to retain and recruit people through, for example, a cut in employers’ national insurance contributions. Will the Minister undertake to redirect the activities of his department to ensure that the Treasury brings in this vital support to our businesses?

I am sure the noble Lord is well aware that I cannot speculate on tax changes. They are a matter for the Chancellor. I would get myself into serious bother if I tried to pre-empt what he might decide to do.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in many areas, the United Kingdom goes further than the European Union on workers’ protections?

Indeed, my noble friend is correct. Our equalities legislation and our maternity and paternity entitlements are already much better than minimum EU standards. In the UK you get over five weeks’ annual leave minimum; the EU requires only four weeks. I do not understand the Opposition’s obsession with wanting to downgrade our standards to those of the EU.

My Lords, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations have preserved the terms and conditions of many employees who find themselves working for a new employer after a transfer of business. With very many more businesses likely to change hands due to the effects of Covid, does the Minister believe that the TUPE rules are still fit for purpose?

I thank the Minister for confirming that the Government have no plans to weaken employment rights. This will be a great relief to many people across the country. However, what about levelling up? Does he agree that there is still work to be done on, for example, the Taylor review, which is yet to be completed; the protections needed for employees on zero-hours contracts, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Monks; the differences in rights between workers and employees; and the continuing need for vigilance about non-payment of the minimum wage?

We will of course always clamp down on unscrupulous practices where they occur, including on those who do not pay the minimum wage. I am proud that it was a Conservative Government who banned exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts, giving gig economy workers more control over the hours that they work. We will look to go further where we can.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Fox said, there is no business demand for weakening job protections, but they would be severely hit by even worse border friction and possible tariffs. Can the Minister say how, in their review of employment rights, the Government are assessing the potential for EU trade sanctions under the level playing field provisions of the trade and co-operation agreement? Also, the tweet from the Conservative Party impliedly criticising the EU law for having no pay provisions is, as he knows, completely disingenuous, because the treaties bar the EU from having such provisions. The Conservatives would have been the first to complain if the treaty had such provisions.

I am surprised that the noble Baroness is asking about the trade and co-operation agreement, because the Liberal Democrats voted against it and therefore would have preferred no deal, but it is the case that, under that trade agreement with the EU, either party can consider whether divergence on labour standards merits a rebalancing of the agreement. We will of course completely comply with our obligations, as we do under all trade agreements.

When I spoke at the rally at Staythorpe power station in 2009, it was European Union law that allowed foreign workers to be flown in and put in containers, stopping British workers getting those jobs. Why are the Government not changing our law to prohibit this undercutting of workers’ rights?

Indeed, the noble Lord makes an important point, but these are all now matters that we can decide for ourselves. Immigration laws are, of course, kept under review, and the new immigration Act will be in force shortly, but we are now allowed to decide these things for ourselves. The EU will no longer be dictating to us how we conduct our own affairs.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that responsible trade unionism is valuable in protecting workers’ rights? However, clearly from time to time the law needs updating, possibly in the way referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mann. The Minister will know that in 13 years of Labour Governments none of the basic reforms of the Conservative Government who preceded them was repealed. Will the Minister argue for reforms that will be similarly widely accepted?

My noble friend makes an important point. We remember that when we served in the European Parliament we were lobbied many times by UK Labour Governments to try to maintain existing flexibilities in the working time directive and others. Hopefully the Labour Party will return to that path of common sense soon. It is also important to bear in mind that most workers are not members of trade unions. We need to consult with trade unions where they represent workers but to bear in mind the rights of workers who are not represented by trade unions.

My Lords, the Covid pandemic has severely tested the strengths and weaknesses of workers’ rights and found them to be wanting in recognising the importance of childcare to family and national well-being. We have seen some employers using the pandemic as an excuse to fire workers and then re-engage them on lower pay and conditions. Does the Minister agree that strengthening and enhancing workers’ rights is important in increasing productivity and national prosperity?

In our manifesto we promised that we would enhance workers’ rights where it was appropriate to do so, and we stick by that commitment. I think the noble Lord makes some important points.

My Lords, we are suffering the worst pandemic for a century. Now as much as ever the employment rights of workers who keep the economy going need to be protected. Will the Minister condemn employers who take advantage of the situation and tactics such as fire-and-hire, and commit the Government to a review of such pernicious practices?

I understand that ACAS is currently conducting a review and, of course, the Government will listen carefully to any recommendations it makes. We want to provide support to employees at such a time, but we also need to recognise the very difficult time that many businesses and companies are going through at this unprecedented time during the pandemic.