17 November 2017
The government has voted down proposals to enshrine EU-derived workers’ rights in primary legislation during the UK’s exit from the bloc, so that any changes to employment law must face a a democratic vote in parliament rather than being made unilaterally by the Conservative Party.
An amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill was brought by the Labour Party on Wednesday to protect employment rights as they stand when the UK leaves the EU in law, and to prevent the government from weakening workers’ rights through statutory instrument.
The Conservative Party has verbally promised since the referendum that workers’ rights will be protected during and after Brexit, but have repeatedly refused to put their money where their mouth is when pushed by the opposition parties to bring workers’ rights into primary legislation.
A similar pattern was seen in the Commons on Wednesday, when despite most members claiming to be in favour of the protection of workers’ rights, they voted 311 to 299 against the Labour Party’s amendment to the Bill.
During the debate, Conservative Minister Ken Clarke, who rebelled in order to side with Labour on the issue, warned that there were elements within his party that would like to see a weakening of employment rights and that the government must move to protect the law from such members.
“Heaven forfend that my party should swing to the right at any time in its long and distinguished history, but there are members of the present government who are not excessively fond of lizards and bats, or workers’ rights,” he told the House. “We would all be reassured if he undertook to put in the Bill a reduced level of powers.”
Speaking for the Bill, Solicitor General Robert Buckland told parliament that the much-criticised Henry VIII powers the government proposes to give to itself – which would allow it amend EU-derived laws unilaterally as they are passed into the statute book are not intended as a “power grab”.
Both Clarke and Labour’s Liz Kendall took issue with his statement, with Kendall asking: “If the government will not use the powers, why are they giving them to themselves? This Minister talks about dialogue and reassurance, but I have not heard anything practical from him about how he will change the Bill to address these concerns.”
Similarly, Labour’s Geraint Davies reminded Buckland that even if the current administration does not intend to change employment law, the Bill allows future governments to do so without recourse to a democratic vote, and thus workers’ rights “need to be separated from the great mass of technical stuff that can be sifted by the European Scrutiny Committee or other such turbo-charged Select Committees, which could look at the minutiae”.