The Withdrawal Bill is a chance for the prime minister to show she's serious about protecting workers’ rights

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Published date
12 Jun 2018
In today’s discussion of the EU Withdrawal Bill, the Commons will debate Lords Amendment No 4, on providing better protections for workers’ rights.

The amendment proposes that after Brexit, the government would generally be required to use primary legislation to repeal or dilute current EU employment rights, rather than being able to whittle away at our rights in secret.

It is a modest proposal, and we’d actually like to go further and guarantee that rights at work in Britain will not fall behind rights in the rest of Europe.

Similarly, if the government gets it way in opposing Lords Amendments 53 today then workers won’t be able to rely on general principles of EU law in cases before UK courts. Even though LGBT+ workers recently banked on these rights to secure equal access to occupational pensions. 

The government also wants to remove the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (overturning Lords Amendment 5) – even though it proved vital in UNISON’s historic defeat of Employment Tribunal Fees and ensures workers are properly compensated when employers flout their workplace rights.

Indeed, the Prime Minister, the Brexit Secretary and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have promised that workers’ rights after Brexit will be protected and enhanced.

So why is she unwilling to accept that any changes to workers’ rights would should require proper parliamentary scrutiny? Such a requirement would by no means tie her hands in negotiating the future relationship between the UK and EU.

The only conclusion we can draw is that the reason behind the government’s opposition to these Lords amendments is that they have plans, after Brexit, to take an axe to the rights at work unions have won from the EU. Rights like paid holidays, fairness for part-time and temporary workers, health and safety and protection when jobs are privatised. Nothing else can explain the Government’s reluctance to allow Parliament to have a say.

Sadly, this is all of a piece with the inflexible red lines that the Prime Minister foolishly set out ahead of the negotiations even starting. And it is in line with Theresa May’s uncompromising, one-sided approach to so many Brexit questions.

Union negotiators are well aware that a 52:48% vote in favour of strike action would give pause for reflection, and a recognition that the views of the 48% needed to be taken into account. And yet the prime minister has used that narrow victory to insist on a winner-takes-all approach to Brexit. That’s one of the reasons why opinion polls so consistently demonstrate that voters (regardless of how they voted in the referendum) think the government’s negotiations are going so badly.

When Norway voted against joining the European Union in 1994 – by a slightly larger margin – the government there recognised that a compromise was needed to accurately reflect the will of the people. They respected the views of the majority by not joining. But they respected the view of the minority by becoming part of the single market, through the independent European Economic Area (EEA).

That spirit of compromise is not necessarily comfortable, and the relationship between Norway and the rest of the EU is by no means perfect. But that compromise is what Britain needs if we are to get a jobs-first, rights-first Brexit.

The government could start by accepting Lords Amendments, 4, 5 and 53 today. They’ll be sending working people exactly the wrong signal if they don’t.