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Brexit: Women in the Workplace

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effect on women in the workplace of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

My Lords, we have made a clear commitment to protect workers’ rights and to ensure that they keep pace with the changing labour market. We will not roll back EU rights for women in the workplace.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am not sure that I am convinced by his rebranding of the Government as champions of equality and workplace rights. Their lukewarm response to the recent House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee report on this subject speaks volumes. Does the Minister accept that British women facing discrimination in accessing their maternity rights at work, for instance—and his own Government’s figures bear this out; there are thousands of women who face discrimination in this area—would have a better future if we aligned ourselves as closely as possible with EU legislation and European Court of Justice case law in this area post Brexit?

My Lords, obviously we will take note of what the EU does, but one of the important things about Brexit is that we can make our decisions about this. We do not have to be part of the EU to have high standards in the workplace. We already go way beyond the EU minimum standards in a number of important areas, such as annual leave, maternity leave and flexible working. But it is for the United Kingdom Parliament to consider these matters, not the EU.

Has my noble friend read the recent report by the eminent economist Patrick Minford, who says that a no-deal Brexit will cost the EU £500 billion and will benefit the UK by £640 billion? Does that not say it all—for women as well as for the rest of us?

My Lords, I am aware of Professor Minford’s report and I have taken note of it. But the important point in relation to this Question is what the United Kingdom Parliament can do, and the important point to remember is that these will be matters for the United Kingdom Parliament and Government to decide.

My Lords, I was very glad to hear the Minister say that the Government will not roll back EU rights for women in the workplace. This year the European Commission introduced proposals for a directive on work/life balance for parents and carers, which would provide for four months’ paid non-transferable leave for fathers. Will Her Majesty’s Government commit to keeping pace with the EU regarding equality and employment rights, including this directive?

My Lords, while we are in the EU we will obviously continue to take a constructive approach to the various Council working groups, in particular that which the noble Baroness referred to on the new work/life balance directive, and we will seek to ensure that the text is appropriately clarified. We look forward to continuing discussions under the Bulgarian presidency. I am not going to make any commitments about what we will decide to do about different parts of that work/life balance directive, but we will certainly continue those discussions, and if we are part of the EU we will sign up to it, if appropriate. If not, these are decisions for ourselves.

My Lords, one eminent equalities lawyer has said that the failure to bring across the charter of fundamental rights into UK law would mean that the free-standing right to equality will have no equivalent in domestic law, so we would lose one of the fundamental standards underpinning the other regulations being brought across in the withdrawal Bill. Given that we have heard that the new Brexit Minister in the other House wants to get rid of such rights anyway, what comfort can this Minister offer to women that their right to equality will not be weakened?

My Lords, one eminent lawyer has made that statement, but not all eminent lawyers agree with it. We are fully signed up to human rights and will continue to be fully signed up to all other aspects of human rights. Leaving the EU does not make any difference in this matter.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the right to flexible working, but there is growing evidence that women who ask their employers for flexible working hours—particularly if they are older women, caring for elderly relatives or younger women trying to juggle work with caring for children—are often faced with discrimination, being ostracised or not being promoted. Is any work being done to look at this in a bit more detail and at why these women face such discrimination?

My Lords, the Government and in particular the Prime Minister are fully committed to equality in this area. These are matters that we can resolve for ourselves. As I said, we already meet very high standards, which are higher than in the EU. Where our existing law is not working, these matters can be looked at and we hope that bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission will look at them: it is the regulatory body in this area. I hope that appropriate action will be taken if that is the case—but, if necessary, it is also something that the Government can pursue themselves.

Will the Minister answer the second part of my noble friend Lady Hayter’s question? The Minister for Europe said yesterday in the other House that the Government were not going to stand by European policy on equality issues.

My Lords, the important point I am making is that we are still fully signed up to human rights. I have not seen what my honourable friend said in another place. I am perfectly happy to look at what was said and I will write to the noble Baroness.