This government is nothing if not brave. ‘Foolhardy’ would be another word, as it seeks to take on nearly 7 million workers with its latest onslaught on union membership with the strikes (minimum service levels) bill. But not content with alienating one-in-ten of the population (union membership last year was around 6.7 million people according to the Institute of Employment Rights) the government seems hellbent on its own destruction with the EU law (revocation and reform) bill that is being debated today.
This bill will allow ministers to amend or repeal all legislation carried over from the UK’s membership of the European Union. This could amount to as many as 4,000 pieces of separate legislation, covering everything from compensation for delayed flights, requirements for parental leave and pay, pension protection when a company goes bust, and the right to paid annual leave, equal pay and bank holidays.
I wrote about this in early November, quoting law firm Shoosmiths, who said “the potential regulatory effect of the bill is seismic”. More recently, Anthony Robinson wrote about how little support there is for the sort of deregulation that this bill promises and said it is “unlikely there is anything like the scope for deregulation that voters were led to believe in 2016”. His view is that this bill simply won’t make it onto the legislation books.
Retained EU law bill
The government really hasn’t thought this through. There are many, many problems with this bill, but the biggest is the timeframe.
This bill aims to clear every remaining EU law from the UK statute book by the end of 2023. It is after all the logical conclusion to Brexit for its supporters – making sure we have no more EU laws.
No one, least of all the government, has a precise idea of how many pieces of EU legislation are still in force. Originally it was thought there were around 2,400 pieces of EU-derived legislation still being used. This was revised when a further 1,400 were discovered, followed by a further 800 EU laws that don’t sit within any one government department.
These laws now have to be reviewed, amended or replaced before the cut off deadline of the end of 2023. Any retained EU law that has not been addressed will simply drop off a cliff edge and disappear at the end of this year. Yet by the government’s own reckoning, out of the initial 2,417 pieces of EU legislation, only 411 have been amended, repealed or replaced. The rest simply cannot be done in the 11 months remaining.
And this is where this now looks like a full-frontal assault on workers. If you take employment rights as an example, you can see just what this cliff edge looks like.
Many core workplace protections are derived from EU law, through a series of directives and regulations. This includes a maximum 48-hour working week, rest breaks during the working day, and a statutory right to paid annual leave.
Consider also the Parental Leave Directive, where working parents have the right to take unpaid leave from work to look after a child. Then there’s the fundamental right to equal pay for equal work between men and women, plus a range of directives providing equal treatment for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers.
This is just touching the surface. There’s a whole host of protections around health and safety at work, rights at work for those that are pregnant, and collective rights including the right to be consulted on changes in the workplace and to your job. A fuller list of employment rights derived from EU law can be found here.
Bonfire of worker’s rights
The retained EU law bill affords the government the ability to change most EU-derived labour laws as it likes, including the option to just sit on its hands. According to Marley Morris of the Institute of Public Policy Research, core rights and protections at work are vulnerable. “The working time regulations – which include the 48 hour working week, minimum rest periods, and annual paid leave entitlements – appear to be at particular risk”, he says.
UNISON, which represents over 1.3 million workers in the UK, recently gave evidence to parliament on the impact of the bill on workers’ protections, warning that removing EU laws amounts to a bonfire of workers’ rights. One of the things that was discussed at length was statutory annual leave, and the fact that, without EU law, UK workers may be left with only eight bank holidays as their minimum annual leave entitlement.
The deregulatory obsession of the right is turning into a broader attack on some things that we not only cherish, but in fact take for granted. This is not just legislative vandalism by Jacob Rees-Mogg, it’s political madness.
Imagine you are a Conservative MP in a red wall seat. You already have a postbag full of complaints about ministers’ behaviour, about the cost of living, about the NHS. Suddenly the possibility of your constituents’ rights at work being eroded gets added to the pile. These are constituents who have already seen the wages decrease over the years because of the cost-of-living crisis; now the government seems intent on reducing their basic holiday entitlement too.
It gets worse for the hapless Tory backbenchers. The unions can smell blood, they are organised and they are striking. In the case of nurses, this strike is for the first time ever, and according to YouGov, they are backed by two thirds of the British public. The teachers announced strike action yesterday, adding to a wave of further industrial action over the next month.
Can you imagine the public outcry if, on top of this, nurses and ambulance drivers are told that the working time directive no longer applies OR that their statutory entitlement for annual leave is being reduced? If you want to stoke the calls for a general strike this could be it.
Run out of parliament
Conservative MPs are slowly waking up to the fact they have been hung out to dry by Rees-Mogg on this legislation. Even the government’s own regulatory policy committee has slated the impact assessment undertaken by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the bill, stating: “The Department has not sufficiently considered, or sought to quantify, the full impacts of the Bill.”
No one wants its, least of all businesses or environmentalists. Neither, now, will your average worker and trade unionist. That really just leaves the ERG. It’s an absolute gift to the opposition.
Louise Haigh, MP for Sheffield Heeley, said:
“When we left the EU we were promised time and again that our basic rights would be protected but this legislation makes it clear that everything is now at stake. From maternity rights to paid annual leave and consumer rights to environmental standards, so much of what we take for granted in this country is underpinned by EU law and all of it is now at risk.
“I will vote against this reckless legislation this week and as ever fight for improved rights and standards for my constituents.”
This legislation is sheer madness and a death wish for the Tories. And that is Brexit in a nutshell. The best the government can hope for is that it runs out of parliamentary time. The best the country can hope for is that the government runs out of parliament.