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UK–EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement: Foreign Workers

Volume 815: debated on Wednesday 10 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of Article 399(5) of the United Kingdom–European Union Trade and Co-operation Agreement; and what steps they are taking in respect of the regulation of dues and charges payable by foreign workers or their employers.

My Lords, Article 399(5) obliges parties to effectively implement provisions of the Council of Europe Social Charter that they have accepted. It does not impact their ability to choose or amend which provisions they accept. Article 18(2) of the charter relates to simplifying, reducing or abolishing fees for workers or their employers. The UK has denounced this provision. From February 2022, charges for work visas payable by all foreign workers and their employers will be harmonised.

My Lords, on 12 July the Foreign Secretary wrote to the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, giving notice that with effect from 26 February 2022 the UK would denounce Article 18(2) of the European Social Charter 1961, which it had ratified 59 years earlier. That provision committed the contracting parties to simplify existing formalities and to reduce or abolish chancery dues and other charges payable by foreign workers or their employers. Deratification of that obligation may not be sensible in view of our shortage of lorry drivers but, more importantly, how can it be lawful? Perhaps the Minister will say that the Government overlooked the provisions of Article 399(5) of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in attempting to denounce the provisions of the charter that it had already accepted.

My Lords, TCA Article 399 only obliges the UK to implement provisions of the charter that the UK accepts. It does not prevent the UK from accepting further provisions or ratifying different versions of the charter in the future, nor does it prevent the UK from not accepting or disapplying provisions. The 1961 charter specifically allows states to disapply individual provisions of the charter and the UK may choose which provisions of the 1961 charter we accept at any given time. The TCA does not affect this position.

My noble friend is right in stating the extent of Article 399, but it is quite a wide extent, because obviously it deals with the implementation of all the ILO conventions that have been ratified, together of course with the provisions of the European Social Charter, which we have agreed to accept, as she says. Can my noble friend update us on the overall progress in a wider sense towards completing implementation?

My Lords, the UK Government amended the immigration fee regulations in September to give effect to the change, as my noble friend knows. As I previously explained to the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, this is nothing to do with the UK-EU relationship. Our obligations on this matter relate to the implementation of the Council of Europe treaty and do not arise from the UK’s former relationship with the EU or from the TCA.

My Lords, I am conscious that this Question follows one that attracted remarks about the sanctity of a deal done in 1999, but touches on a deal done rather more recently. I ask the Minister how it can make sense for two parties to say that they will honour and implement commitments made under the European Social Charter, but subsequently say that it is perfectly permissible under that deal to disapply and renounce them.

Well, I think I explained our obligations to the noble Lord, Lord Hendy. We continue to place great value on the role of the Council of Europe in advancing work on human rights, democracy and the rule of law across Europe. It has been and will continue to be important to the UK’s human rights and foreign policy agenda.

My Lords, the new Justice Secretary is on record for calling the Council of Europe’s convention on human rights “feckless” and “undemocratic”. Now the Government have signalled that they wish to dilute the commitments under the Council of Europe’s Social Charter. Is this part of an agenda to seek trade agreements with countries that do not adhere to all eight of the ILO conventions and to the Social Charter? Will the Minister state clearly whether we will have stronger or lesser labour rights as a result of these moves?

My Lords, we will have an immigration system in which, wherever in the world you come from, there will be fairness. We are not considering withdrawing from the charter and I have explained about the human rights aspect. The CESC allows us to denounce all the charter or specific provisions. There is a huge list of countries, so we would not be alone in not implementing Article 18(2).

My Lords, the TCA is disappointingly light on support for the services sector, despite services contributing the overwhelming majority of UK economic activity. Many different sectors are experiencing a rapidly increasing vacancy rate, with hospitality facing particular challenges filling roles, due to the costs and complexities of new arrangements. We were promised that our new relationship with the EU would bring less red tape and bureaucracy rather than more, so what is going wrong?

I could tell the noble Baroness what is going right. We will have a system that is fair for the whole world, as people who have the skills and can contribute to our economy will be able to make their life and work in the UK. I accept her point about certain sectors facing shortages at the moment and the Government have remedied this.

My Lords, I greatly respect the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and do not want to comment on the legality of this, but could my noble friend confirm that the effect of reversing the Government’s policy would be to make it easier and cheaper to import cheap labour from abroad? Would the Opposition Benches not be more likely to make the Labour Party electable again if they were to seek to implement Gordon Brown’s cry to train people, so that we have British workers doing British jobs, rather than simply making it easier to import cheap labour from Europe?

I totally agree with my noble friend and have said on many occasions that the days when we could import cheap labour from the EU or anywhere else are gone. Our immigration system will be based on the skills that people bring to bear and there will be certain thresholds on incomes.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that there is some confusion arising from statements made by the Home Secretary about our adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. Earlier, I think she said that the Government were still adhering to it. Will she confirm that there is no intention in any way to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe?

I will not add to what I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, but our departure from the European Union will not diminish the UK’s engagement with the Council of Europe. We are committed to the European Convention on Human Rights and to improving the effectiveness of its court. We are a leading player, a founder member and one of the five major financial contributors, having given €34.2 million this year. We use the Council of Europe to hold member states to their human rights obligations and deliver messages to them, in public and in private.

Does my noble friend agree that foreign workers or their employers coming to fill vacancies as lorry drivers, forklift truck drivers, nannies or au pairs have to pay for their visa? Is that not proving to be a barrier to them coming to the UK, and will this be reviewed?

I do not agree with my noble friend. We do not have any shortage of people who want to come here. We do have shortages in certain sectors due to supply chain issues and we are remedying that.