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REUL Bill: Trade Unions and Workers’ Rights

Volume 827: debated on Monday 23 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with trade unions concerning changes to workers’ rights proposed in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill.

My Lords, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is responsible for labour relations and works closely with trade unions. Engagement is essential for developing and delivering our policies and, during the pandemic, helped to support jobs and keep workers safe. For example, the unions and business worked together to help to deliver a package of economic support through the job protection retention scheme, which protected millions of jobs.

I thank my noble friend for his reply but it is not an Answer to the Question, which was whether the Government had discussed this proposed legislation with the trade union movement, 2 million of whom vote for the party on this side of the House. Does he agree that it would be a good idea to talk to the trade union movement about this? Until that has happened, would it not be a good idea for those parts of the legislation that provide for worker protection not to be revoked without further representation?

We engage with the trade unions regularly. There have been a number of meetings in recent weeks, particularly about strike action, but the retained EU law Bill is not about workers’ rights; it is about retained EU legislation and the consequences that will flow from that. However, there will be a full opportunity to debate that in the House in the near future.

My Lords, the Explanatory Notes for the Bill when it was introduced in September last year said confidently in the overview at paragraph 16 that there were 2,400 pieces of legislation involved. The Explanatory Notes for the introduction to this House say that there are 3,200. First, I wonder whether any of the 800 bits of legislation that have turned up in the interim affect workers’ rights. Secondly, how confident is the Minister that 3,200 is the final number?

We are of course continuing to do detailed work on this matter. There will be an opportunity to debate that in full in the House in the near future, and I am sure that the noble Earl will want to make his contribution on that. We will update the dashboard shortly.

I will follow on from the question from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. How many members of the Minister’s team are currently out there working on this Bill? How many of them are looking for the lost legislation that seems to be appearing every day? How many members of his department are being used for that purpose rather than working on industrial strategy, which is what it is there to do?

I do not have a precise number but there are of course a number of civil servants working on the legislation that is before Parliament and has been discussed extensively in the House of Commons. Every department is engaged in looking through its EU legislation to see what is there. Obviously most of the main pieces have been identified, but sometimes there are obscure Acts and regulations that they are still discovering.

My Lords, unfortunately the Minister has selective amnesia, and that is very worrying. This appalling Bill places many of our precious and hard-fought-for employment rights on the chopping block to be axed at the whim of the Secretary of State and, frankly, that is shameful. The Tory manifesto promised that Brexit would allow us to raise our standards in workers’ rights and not diminish them at all. Can the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that, come 1 January, workers will keep their rights to holiday pay, TUPE protection, parental leave and of course protection for pregnant part-time workers? In fact, will he confirm that no existing employment rights will be weakened or, worse, scrapped?

The noble Lord has a good line in hyperbole but, as normal, he is absolutely wrong. UK employment rights do not depend on EU law. I will give him some examples. UK workers are entitled to 5.6 weeks of annual leave; in the EU, it is only four weeks. We provide a year of maternity leave, with the option to convert it to parental leave; the EU minimum is just 14 weeks. Our labour standards are some of the highest in the world. We are proud of that, and it does not depend on what the EU does.

My Lords, we placed an arbitrary date on Brexit, and we got the Northern Ireland protocol. Did we not learn the lesson that to place an arbitrary date and say that all this must be done by the end of this year is flying in the face of common sense?

I thank my noble friend for his view on that. I am sure we will have a full debate on the proposed sunset date for regulations. I do not think the system with the Northern Ireland protocol is the same as the Bill.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, rather than the sledgehammer approach that this Bill takes, it might be more sensible if the Government simply proceeded with bits of law where they could produce better law than exists in the European Union? Could that criterion be imbedded in all the choices?

That criterion is imbedded in all choices. The whole idea of the REUL Bill is that we can have a proper look at EU retained law, change its status, see what is appropriate for the UK and what is not, and what can be removed and improved. That is the fundamental purpose of the Bill, but I am sure we are going to have all these discussions as the legislation proceeds.

My Lords, why are the Government so obsessed with making workers’ rights worse than they are now? Will he answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Woodley? Why will he not give a guarantee that no workers’ rights will be diminished by this legislation?

I thought I had answered the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, but let me repeat the point for the noble Lord, Lord Watts, who obviously was not listening closely. UK employment rights do not depend on the European Union. Let me give him some more examples of how our rights are better than in the EU. The right to flexible working for all employees was introduced in the UK in the early 2000s; the EU agreed such rules only recently. The UK introduced two weeks of paid paternity leave in 2003, but the EU has got around to that only recently.

My Lords, given that most of the directives and regulations within the EU retained law Bill fall within the brief of Defra, will my noble friend commit to employing more experts in this field, even on a temporary basis, who will be able to take a view as the Bill proceeds and before its implementation?

I will leave the appropriate Ministers to commentate on what is happening in Defra. The noble Baroness is right that a lot of retained EU law belongs in Defra. I am sure Defra is looking very closely at what can be changed, modified or repealed as we speak.

My Lords, this is a dangerous way to proceed. It is very unlikely that the Government have thought through what they want to do with these 3,000 or maybe 4,000 pieces of legislation. It is also unlikely that in this House, in the three days the Government have so far suggested that we should have to consider them, we should be successful in doing our jobs as effectively as we might like. Will the Government please think again about the rash, foolhardy way they are going about rewriting important rules on workers’ rights?

I can see that we will have lots of interesting debate when this legislation arrives. The noble Baroness is wrong; we are not just considering all the regulations in the timescale she identified. If the regulations need to be updated, then each will of course come to this House for consideration, as all secondary legislation does.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister probably needs a touch of support on this matter. Is it not the position that, if we were to take these 3,000 to 4,000 regulations and really examine the aspects of each one, after 40 years of being members of the European Union, that would take us years and not one year? Also, do we even have the capacity as a Parliament to deal with the complexities of such an enormous range of law changes?

My noble friend makes an important point. The concern now from the Opposition for all these regulations is touching, but of course they did not show such concern when they were introduced into UK law without any consideration in the first place.

My Lords, has the Minister recently read or listened to the speeches of Tony Danker, the director-general of the CBI? He is very clear that his members do not want this legislation; that they find it, even as potential legislation, damaging to their markets; and that, should it go ahead, it will undoubtedly shrink the market further for British exports, which have suffered enough already.

I have not seen the comments which the noble Baroness attributes to the director-general of the CBI, but I will certainly look at them. However, I am not sure how our repealing redundant pieces of legislation in this House affects overseas markets.

My Lords, as there are different ways of encouraging growth, is it not absurd to carry out an exercise that adds uncertainty to both sides of industry and creates a barrier to initiative?

All new legislation provides some uncertainty until it has been agreed by Parliament. I will put it another way: if there are redundant acts on the statute book and overregulation, that is good for business and industry. Of course we will consider each of those items of regulation in turn and look at them closely. We will repeal those that can be repealed and will improve and modify those that can be improved or modified.