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Leaving the EU: Women’s Rights

Volume 646: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered women’s rights after the UK leaves the EU.

As ever, Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. To start, I thank Gina Miller, and Nina, Tess and the other people from OFOC—Our Future Our Choice—who gave me the idea for this debate. Some of them are in the Public Gallery today.

On 23 June 2016, the UK took the landmark decision to exit the European Union by 52% to 48%. The pound immediately plummeted and, swiftly, there was a change of Prime Minister. Knowing what we know now, however, enacting Brexit will clearly not be as easy as we were promised. We were told that it would be a cinch, a doddle, a trade deal that would be the “easiest in…history”. It is also now coming to light that there will be a worse scenario for women—even though we now have a PM who is one.

Two years on from the decision, we still do not know exactly where we are headed in terms of the final deal. The Cabinet has suffered the high-level resignations of both the Brexit Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, and since 2015 a subject that never featured on a doorstep in my election campaign—that was never mentioned at all—has now become all that there is, taking up valuable parliamentary bandwidth. As the Minister—whom I respect and like very much—knows, we are meant to have a domestic violence Bill to consider soon, but this bloomin’ Brexit is taking up all the bandwidth. Brexit is all we ever see, and it dominates the airwaves.

We do know, however, that every Government impact study, for every region of the country and every sector of the economy, predicts that things will be worse. Above all, a multitude of factors add up to the inescapable conclusion that women will be the hardest hit of all by Brexit.

In recent months we have heard admonitions from farming, finance and fisheries, but females have been largely absent from that picture, whether among the voices leading up to the decision—the human face of the campaign was Nigel Farage—or the negotiating teams that we see on the news, with the exception of the PM, of course. Olly Robbins is, sadly, not Olivia Robbins, but one of the men in suits. All we saw on the news yesterday was dark-suited chaps engaged in Tory blue-on-blue warfare—internal party-management issues that are destroying our country. That is a massive oversight, especially as when one drills down to the gendered nature of the effects of Brexit—we have all heard about lost jobs, cuts to services and a squeeze on family budgets—women have the most to lose.

The scant progress in negotiations means that, all this time on, more than two years in, zero trade deals have been secured to date, and the Chequers plan has been rejected by the EU—personified in another man, Michel Barnier—so “no deal” is now seriously being talked about. If that ever came to pass, or even if our desperation to avoid it led to a bad deal, the UK would be put in a weak position to resist pressure from other countries to go for scenarios that would damage women’s rights at work, adversely impact them as consumers or undermine the quality of public service standards. I shall outline a couple of examples.

In terms of economic impact—Bill Clinton said, “The economy, stupid”, but the remain campaign was critiqued for a lot of its economic doomsday scenarios—the fall in GDP will most adversely affect sectors such as clothing and textiles, which have a majority female workforce and are particularly vulnerable to increased trade barriers. Despite people voting in good faith for £350 million every week of additional money for the NHS post-Brexit—that was plastered on the side of a big red bus—we now know that that will not happen. Instead, we face the prospect of opening up our NHS and other public services to overseas competition—that means grubby American insurance companies getting their mitts on our NHS.

The health service relies on a workforce from overseas and we hear that nurses from EU nations are already leaving in droves—we have not even left yet. There is also the ticking demographic time bomb of a worsening crisis in social care. We constantly hear about that, and it is the biggest spend in any local authority budget. It is the UK’s lowest-paid sector, where 80% of workers are women, but it, too, is hollowing out as EU staffers go elsewhere or home. The profession is one that UK-born people eschew. In such a situation—some analysis came out last week—women always, sadly, bear the burden as unofficial carers. They care for elderly parents and, as the sandwich generation, care for their kids at one end and their parents at the other. If they are forced to cut corners at work or even to depart employment altogether to do that, we will have massive gaps in our labour market.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She mentioned social care and the preponderance of women in the sector. Through membership of the EU, women have also gained rights to part-time and flexible working, which are particularly important to the 6.2 million women who work part time because they have caring responsibilities. Does she agree that there is a double whammy of social care workers leaving and women with social care responsibilities unable to have their rights protected?

I agree with my hon. Friend completely—she is also learned, as a distinguished lawyer for many years before she came to this place—and she makes a good point: it is not only the nature of the work, but the structuring of the contracts. Our party has argued against zero-hours contracts—we will ban such employment malpractices—and things such as part-time working directives have kept such women afloat so, as she says, they are being hit twice over.

Consider plummeting GDP, which is likely to have the knock-on effect of further cuts to Government spending on services. We have a clever Conservative Government who have shifted a lot of the burden on to local government budgets, but women are more likely to work in the public sector and to need public services, so they are the worst affected. Analysis has shown that, as it is, austerity has hit women: I think 80% of the savings—a euphemism for cuts—has fallen on women.

Consider women as consumers: increased tariffs and a fall in the value of the pound will result in increased food prices, which hit the poorest hardest. Looking at wage differences, we see that women are more likely to be poor and, like it or not, in the traditional family unit women are more likely to be bearing the burden of managing the household finances and shopping for food. I do not want to use horrible stereotypes—“Hi, honey, I’m home!”—but that is the case. We have already witnessed rising prices and things such as the shrinking size of the Toblerone bar—it is diminishing before our eyes, even though we have not yet left the EU. Potentially, we might also be subject to diluted standards, if we mirror US ones and get imported hormone-injected beef. Chlorinated chicken, anyone? Mmmm! All that is bad news.

Hard-won rights of maternity and paternity leave and, indeed, against pregnancy discrimination all came from the EU. We have no guarantee that we will uphold them or that we will mirror future advances. In 2017, the Women and Equalities Committee—a Conservative majority Select Committee, so not my words but theirs—did a report on “Ensuring strong equalities legislation after the EU exit”. The report stated:

“At present, domestic legislation and EU legal structures together provide the UK’s strong equality protections. Stakeholders have expressed concern that the removal of the EU legal underpinning, including the court system, will lead to a weakening of equality protection in the future unless its full effects are understood. It is therefore important for the Government, during the process of leaving the EU, to ensure that robust equality protection is embedded at each milestone. The Government should ensure that equality protections—including but not limited to workers’ rights—remain to the fore as negotiations begin and throughout the leaving process.”

That was in 2017. Since then, we have had a general election that took up eight weeks of valuable negotiating time, in a time-limited process set by the Government. But that report still should prevail. Will the Minister tell us how many of the report’s 15 recommendations have been adopted? I have heard nothing since.

We are at a crucial crossroads. The Secretary of State for the Environment said that we could theoretically opt to exceed the existing gender equality standards when we leave. The Government could do that—it is technically possible. The existing stuff we have via EU frameworks could be bettered. But the omens are not good, going by the previous form of Conservative Governments dating back to Mrs Thatcher’s dislike of the social chapter, and going by the Brexit Minister Lord Callanan’s criticism of the pregnant workers directive and the agency workers regulations, which my hon. Friend referred to. When he was an MEP, Lord Callanan called them “barriers to employment” and made a speech advocating that they be “scrapped”. It is all very googleable. Never let it be forgotten that the UK tried to block the EU’s pregnancy discrimination directive, but was overturned by the European Court of Justice.

Whether we exceed what is there or go backwards, it is unclear what the enforcement mechanisms would be. We are to cut ourselves off from the additional layer of accountability and recourse provided by the charter of fundamental rights, as the Government have vowed to end the ECJ’s direct jurisdiction. There is nothing to guarantee that gender equality law will not regress to below the UK’s current level. Even though it was a Labour Government, I am proud to say, who introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970 before we were a member of the EU, equal pay was one of the establishing principles of the original treaty of Rome in 1957. Indeed, the UK’s weaker home-grown provisions in the 1970 Act were significantly strengthened by signing up to the European Economic Community equal pay directive on joining, as that obliged employers to pay women and men equally for the first time. The Equal Pay Act did not do that—it merely gave women the right to make equal pay claims.

Sacrificing workplace rights on which women rely, such as parental leave, equal treatment and rights for part-time workers, at the altar of increased flexibility and “competitiveness” could be easily done. It is easy to knock the EU—our leader gave it seven out of 10, but who would say 10 out of 10? We know the arguments against unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, but it has a good record on various equality measures. It enacted violence against women directives and the blue badge scheme, which is a European arrangement for parking for those with reduced mobility that is transferable among nation states. As MPs, I am sure we have all been asked to countersign the paperwork. Mobility features to accommodate wheelchairs and buggies on buses—I have been on many a bus with a buggy—originated from the EU. Red tape and EU directives have made life easier for women, by introducing anti-harassment laws and properly paid holiday rights, reducing hours worked and making it illegal to be dismissed for pregnancy.

I have a set of questions for the Minister—who I am usually quite a fan of, for a Tory—and I hope she will give proper answers and not just a gloss-over. What discussions has she had with colleagues from the Department for Exiting the European Union to ensure that Brexit does not disproportionately harm women, rather than just taking the Prime Minister’s word for it? The fact that we have a woman at the top does not enshrine continuity. What assurances will the Minister give to ensure that there is sufficient female representation during the remainder of the negotiating process? There is eight months to go, and there is the possibility of an extended article 50 process—it is not too late.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure that equality rights are not diluted after the UK leaves the EU, as per the Women and Equalities Committee report? What arbitration mechanisms can the Minister and her DExEU colleagues offer as a guarantor to hold future Governments to account? Will she reconsider the gender-blind approach to Government policy making and commit, like Labour, to gender-audit every policy and ensure action is taken now to avert disaster, and apply that to the Brexit deal so that we can evaluate the impact on women’s equality and financial well being?

Of course, women are people, and no Brexit scenario is a good scenario for anyone. Having entered the shady world of the reading room with the secret documents, I know that men, women and non-binary alike have all benefited from EU employment, environmental and consumer protections—things such as the European health insurance card, which entitles us to holiday healthcare, and the European arrest warrant, which protects us from criminals.

We will all suffer from the attempt to judderingly extricate ourselves unscathed from 40-plus years of progress, but women will most acutely feel the most adverse effects. Women also feature in the other block categories we hear about: EU nationals treated as collateral pawns in some sort of hostage situation, Brits abroad on the costa del wherever who will not be able to have their pensions paid into UK bank accounts. It is not only those people; the average Jo—that is not just Joseph but Josephine—suffers, too.

For both leavers and remainers, the opinion polls indicate widespread dissatisfaction at how it is going. Those who deem themselves to be satisfied are in single figures on every poll. Project fear has become project reality. Britain has slipped from the fifth-largest economy in the world to sixth, behind France. What a humiliation that we have been overtaken by those who Bart Simpson called the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

Since 2016, new variables are coming to light all the time: customs arrangements for complex supply chains, rules of origin for car and aeroplane parts and the Northern Ireland border are all unresolved. More recently, we have heard of the contingency planning for no deal regarding food, medicines and fuel to be distributed by troops on the streets. That was never on the ballot paper. International firms are relocating European operations elsewhere: in the last week, Panasonic’s European headquarters went from Bracknell to Amsterdam and the London-based European Medicines Agency, which employs 900 people, has already upped sticks from Canary Wharf to the Netherlands. To add insult to injury, it is cutting Britain out of its contracts before we even leave, which is a body blow to pharmaceuticals.

With a £50 billion price tag of exit fees plus the Government’s undertaking to underwrite all structural and research funding, Brexit will not be cheap. In fact, it is unprecedented to leave an organisation that it took 12 years of negotiating to join in the first place, and which has potential applicants queuing around the block to get in. There are 27 of them and one of us. There is the prospect of returning to the dark ages—there are eight months to go and we are still in the dark about what happens next.

Surely, in order to make any decision, one should be in receipt of the full facts. People voted in good faith, but increasingly they believe what they are presented with is not what they thought they were getting. To resolve what Danny Dyer so memorably called the “mad riddle” of Brexit, a people’s vote is imperative. To validate the final deal must be a decision not just for 650 MPs, because we have a population of 60 million. Give that decision back to the people. The final say on whatever comes back from the negotiations—or on no deal, if it comes to that—must be presented to the electorate, with an option to remain, because we know what that looks like. Now that is what I call the will of the people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for calling this debate on a subject which she knows we both share a great deal of interest in and are passionate about: ensuring not just that the rights of women are protected but that we flourish in our country in future.

May I give the hon. Lady a slightly different perspective on the 2015 election? She may not have been asked about Europe in Ealing Central and Acton, but I promise her that that was a subject of constant conversation in Lincolnshire. As we saw in the referendum, perhaps different parts of the country took different views. I am grateful to her for taking us through the history of legislation to enhance the rights of workers, people with protected characteristics and so on, both before we joined the European Union and during our membership. I am committed to continuing that journey, and I know that the Prime Minister and the Government are too.

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not be drawn into a re-enactment of the referendum debate—I suspect that will be to the relief of many people watching. However, I am delighted that she, I, the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately)—I congratulate her on being appointed as the Conservative party’s new vice-chair for women—and our other female colleagues can shape the law as it affects women in this country. My constituents in Louth and Horncastle voted strongly in favour of Brexit, and one of their key asks is that, in respecting the result of the referendum, we ensure that Parliament and our Supreme Court are sovereign in shaping and determining the laws under which we all live. That is the essence of the Government’s approach to reshaping our relationship with the EU as we withdraw.

Let me pick the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton up on chlorinated chicken. Given that my constituency feeds the country, I take a great interest in food standards and animal welfare. As a Back Bencher, I asked the Prime Minister—this was at Prime Minister’s Question Time soon after she was selected as Prime Minister—to ensure that we maintain food standards and animal welfare. She has been absolutely clear about that, and I hope that Members across the House can coalesce around those very good intentions.

Let me start with some essential reassurances. As the Government have said on numerous occasions—I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me for repeating this—there will be no reductions in protection under the Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010 and the equivalent provisions in Northern Ireland as a result of our exiting the European Union. She rightly asked about ensuring that every measure is gender audited as we leave the EU. The Government not only agree but have acted on that. Thanks to provisions in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which we passed only a few months ago, every piece of EU exit law will include an equalities impact statement.

As a starting point, I hope that that demonstrates our commitment to these incredibly important issues. That commitment applies to all protected characteristics, including sex and gender reassignment, and in all fields covered by the Equality Act 2010: employment, the provision of services and the exercise of public functions, education, housing, transport and associations.

More broadly, our key EU exit White Paper notes:

“Existing workers’ rights enjoyed under EU law will continue to be available in UK law on the day of withdrawal. The UK already exceeds EU minimum standards in a number of areas…and is a leader in many others.”

I will come on to a couple of those in a moment. The White Paper continues:

“Given this strong record, and in the context of the UK’s vision for the future relationship with the EU, the UK proposes that the UK and the EU commit to the non-regression of labour standards.”

Not only are we setting out our stall, but we are setting out our expectation and hope that the EU will mirror our actions.

During the passage of the withdrawal Act, we also published a right-by-right analysis of the EU charter of fundamental rights. We ensured that that set out exhaustively and comprehensively how each right in the charter is covered by domestic or existing legislation.

Will the Minister explain why, in the so-called impact assessments that I read in the reading room, there is reference to the “opportunities” that leaving the European Union brings in relation to the working time directive? Those sound to me like opportunities to water it down.

I will ask the relevant Minister to write to the hon. Lady. We put EU law into domestic law through the EU withdrawal Act, which means that any debate about which EU laws apply and which do not will go through the House, so that will have the scrutiny of 650 Members of Parliament.

The Minister just said that any change would have to go through the House’s 650 Members. That is not strictly true, is it? It is possible to do lots of things by statutory instrument.

I very much accept that point, which I thank the hon. Lady for making. As I said, I will not be drawn into the detail of that specific issue because I do not know whether primary legislation would be required to change that. In any event, statutory instruments are still open to scrutiny by the House, as I suspect we are all about to find out.

We are proud as a country to have long been a trailblazer on gender equality and tackling discrimination. Even after we joined the EU, Britain led the way on pre-empting protections that were later introduced through EU law, with legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We go beyond EU minimum standards in a number of areas, such as entitlement to annual leave, paid maternity leave and parental leave. We do not need to be part of the EU to have strong protections for workers or high standards in the workplace. We lead the world with our gender pay gap regulations. We would like the EU to follow our lead. For the first time, 10,500 businesses had to discuss at board level how they pay women. That groundbreaking work was led not by the EU but by the UK Government.

We are doing more to try to help women flourish in our economy and our society. It is not just through legislation that we can help advance the interests and participation of women across society. A record number of women are in work, which gives them the financial independence in their families and their home settings that we worry about so often in this place, ensuring that they can control the direction of their lives.

Of course, that does not affect our commitment to, for example, changing the personal tax allowance and higher-rate threshold, which means an estimated 700,000 women have been taken out of income tax altogether and 13 million women will see their income tax bill reduced. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central mentioned women’s income. Increases in the national minimum wage and the national living wage are expected to benefit more women than men. We have announced investment in childcare of around £6 billion every year by 2020—more than ever before—which will help women with their responsibilities in that field. We are encouraging employers to introduce flexible working, as well as trying to open up opportunities for women who perhaps left work because of caring responsibilities to get back into work and develop their careers.

At the other end of the spectrum, since 2010 we have strengthened the law on violence against women. We introduced new offences of domestic abuse and failing to protect a girl from female genital mutilation, and we want to do far more. I very much look forward to the introduction of the draft domestic abuse Bill this year. The Prime Minister herself set introducing the Modern Slavery Act 2015 as a personal priority. Sadly, in some parts of the world, women are trafficked to the UK or elsewhere to be used as sex slaves. All those measures have helped in the darker recesses of humanity. They are helping us improve the lot of women in this country. I look forward to tomorrow’s debate about upskirting, as well as to work on sexual harassment.

The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton asked me a number of questions. I have already mentioned the transparency of equality statements. I will write to her about the other matters. This is a Government run by a woman for women, and I look forward to women flourishing in the future of this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.