Brexit: Official document raises prospect of tampering with workers' rights to boost economy

Exclusive: Government paper sets out how protections for employees is an area in which ministers can 'maximise opportunities' after withdrawal

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Friday 09 February 2018 21:24 GMT
Official document raises prospect of tampering with workers' rights to boost economy

Government officials have raised the prospect that hard-won workers’ rights could be reviewed by the Government after Brexit in an attempt to boost Britain’s economy, The Independent can reveal.

A Whitehall impact assessment singles out workers’ protections – such as preventing people from being forced to work too many hours – as an area that might be used for “maximising regulatory opportunities” after withdrawal.

MPs who have seen the document claimed it shows ministers are considering weakening employment rights post-Brexit – with one branding the paper an “absolute disgrace”.

Theresa May has consistently said she will not weaken worker rights after the UK quits the EU, and has even vowed to strengthen them, but she has failed to commit to maintaining specific protections to do with working hours.

MPs told The Independent the document refers to a Department for Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy review of the potential impact of amending or removing existing employment regulations.

The Government has faced intense questions over the Brexit assessment paper, which MPs can now view under strict conditions.

It has already been reported that the paper suggests the UK will be worse off after Brexit, even if the country secures free trade deals with the EU and other countries.

But MPs who have read it now claim that a part of the document in which officials explore areas for boosting the UK’s economy also contains a lengthy section on “maximising regulatory opportunities”.

The section specifically mentions the EU’s Working Time Directive as one of the regulations which could present an opportunity. The directive limits the hours someone can work in a week to 48 for most employees, makes annual leave compulsory and states that staff must be allowed at least 11 hours rest a day.

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who sites on the Brexit Select Committee and spent “several hours” reading the document, told The Independent: “I think it’s an absolute disgrace that the Government is even looking at eroding workers’ rights.

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Labour MP Stephen Kinnock 

“They’ve told us repeatedly that Brexit is about enhancing rights, environmental standards and consumer protections.

“When you look at it and the mask slips, it’s clear they want to turn the UK into a version of the Cayman Islands.”

The Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, who has also seen the analysis, said he was “perplexed” as to why the Government had included workers’ rights in their analysis, given previous ministerial claims they will not be eroded.

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“If the Government was completely committed to maintaining existing rights, then officials would have been told not to include them in the analysis,” he said.

“I am very suspicious as to why this reference is there.”

Other MPs told The Independent they feared the reference to “regulatory opportunities” was code for scrapping employee protections, though they admitted other parts of the paper included mention of a desire to “maintain standards”.

One member said they were particularly shocked by the reference to the Working Time Directive.

The MP said: “It leapt out at me immediately because it was so out of keeping with the Government has been saying publicly.

Another added: “It surprised me how much emphasis there was on diverging from existing regulations.”

The Government had refused to publish the paper or give any details about it until last week, when a House of Commons vote forced ministers to release the document to MPs.

Members were given access on Wednesday via a reading room in government offices at 100 Parliament Street, opposite the Palace of Westminster.

But those viewing it had to sign a set of rules and were forced to hand over their mobile phones and tablets in order to stop them taking photographs.

A Government spokesperson said it was “categorically untrue” and “a clear misrepresentation” to suggest there are plans in place to scrap workers’ rights.

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“We have firmly committed not to roll back workers’ rights, and the Government has shown its commitment to extending those rights when this is the right choice for the UK,” the spokesperson added.

“This will continue to be the case as we leave the European Union.”

When officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy were asked if they had been tasked to conduct work looking at potential economic opportunities from amending employment rights after Brexit law, they declined to comment and referred The Independent to the earlier statement.

The EU’s working time directive makes annual leave a legal requirement, states that most employees cannot be made to work more than 48 hours per week and gives them the right to at least 11 hours’ rest per day.

While Ms May has committed to “maintaining and enhancing workers’ rights” in general, she has refused to rule out the possibility that protections in the EU working time directive could be altered.

Other reports have suggested that Brexiteers Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox see changing the regulations as a way to boost economic growth.

Under the Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill, all European law, including those enshrining workers’ rights, will be brought across on to the UK statute book on the day after Brexit.

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Ministers will then be granted “Henry VIII” powers to alter parts of regulation without requiring full parliamentary approval.

The Government has faced criticism, including from the Tory benches, over the Henry VIII powers, with many fearing they may be unduly used to swiftly scrap pieces of law.

More recently Ms May has faced pressure over the impact assessment, which predicted that regardless of whether the UK remains in the single market, leaves with a free trade agreement or trades with the EU on WTO rules, it will be worse off than it would be if it stayed an EU member.

It also predicted the North-east will be hit hardest by Brexit, with a potential 16 per cent fall in the size of its economy in a no-deal scenario.

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