Government refuses to rule out cutting employment protections after Brexit

Ministers would only say that workers' rights were a 'priority'

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Indy Politics

The Government has refused to rule out cutting or removing some workers’ rights when Britain leaves the European Union.

The EU currently ensures UK workers have the right to annual leave, daily rest breaks, the right to equal treatment for agency workers after 12 weeks service, and protection against unfair dismissal upon a transfer of undertakings, according to research by the House of Commons Library.

Business minister Margot James was asked by Labour MP Melanie Onn on Tuesday whether she could “guarantee that all employment protections currently enjoyed by British workers will be maintained post-Brexit”.

The minister however declined to give a direct answer to the question, instead stating: “Employment protections are an absolute priority for this Government.”

Senior members of Theresa May’s Cabinet have long advocated weakening employment protections. Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, in 2012 described some workplace rights as “unsustainable”, while Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, said during the EU referendum campaign that there would be benefits to slashing the “burden” of EU employment legislation.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has also said that the Government should scrap the EU social chapter.

In 2012 a Government-commissioned report into employment law, the Beecroft Report, proposed giving employers the right to fire any employee without giving a reason. It was however blocked by Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable, who was at the time in Coalition.

Former shadow business minister Chuka Umunna has previously written to Ms May to ask her to guarantee employment rights will not be changed. 

Speaking after the House of Commons exchange on Tuesday, Ms Onn, who asked the question, said: “I am really worried that the Government are not offering assurances to workers in Britain that their rights won’t be watered down or removed after we leave the European Union.

“In government the Conservatives have continuously undermined workers’ rights, and it’s clear that several members of Theresa May’s cabinet see Brexit as an opportunity to scrap protections which they have always been opposed to.

“People in Britain voted to leave the EU, but I don’t believe they did so because they wanted more insecure contracts, or a less safe workplace.”

Ms Onn, a former trade union organiser, has proposed a private members’ bill called the Workers’ Rights (Maintenance of EU Standards) Bill which would enshrine existing EU rights into British law.

The row over employment rights comes as the House of Commons Constitution Committee urges the Government to give Parliament a vote on Brexit. Theresa May says the trigger of Article 50 to start the negotiation process is in fact a prerogative power and does not require parliamentary approval.