Brexit: Government considers scrapping some EU labour laws

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has confirmed the government is looking at scrapping some EU labour laws now it is no longer bound by the bloc’s rules.

But he promised there would be no dilution of workers’ rights.

Measures under consideration include relaxing the working time directive which enshrines a 48-hour week.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband warned the government wanted to take a “wrecking ball” to hard-won rights.

Earlier this week Mr Kwarteng said he wanted to “protect and enhance” labour law after the Financial Times reported that some rules could be weakened. 

The minister later told business leaders the UK had an opportunity to reform regulation derived from EU law, but would not deliberately antagonise the EU – its biggest trading partner – immediately after the Brexit deal.

Confirming the review on Tuesday, Mr Kwarteng told MPs there would be no “bonfire of rights”.

“I think the view was that we wanted to look at the whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep, if you like,” he said.

But he said “the idea that we are trying to whittle down standards, that’s not at all plausible or true”.

‘High wage, high employment’

Appearing before MPs, the business secretary said: “I’m very struck as I look at EU economies how many EU countries – I think it’s about 17 or 18 – have essentially opted out of the working time directive.

“So even by just following that we are way above the average European standard and I want to maintain that. I think we can be a high-wage, high-employment economy, a very successful economy, and that’s what we should be aiming for.”

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Mr Miliband said that after denying the FT’s report, Mr Kwarteng had now “let the cat out of the bag” in admitting the government was conducting a review of.

He warned that opting out of the 48-hour week would harm workers in key sectors like the NHS, road haulage and airlines from working excessive hours.

“A government committed to maintaining existing protections would not be reviewing whether they should be unpicked. This exposes that the government’s priorities for Britain are totally wrong.”

Drew Hendry, the SNP’s business spokesman, echoed the criticism, accusing the government of planning an “assault” on workers’ rights.

‘Focus at home first’

Meanwhile the boss of the UK’s biggest recruitment firm, Reed, told the BBC’s Today programme that there was “no wish” among employers to see “a so-called bonfire of workers’ rights.

“They must be protected because fair treatment is the bedrock of good workplace relations,” James Reed said.

The chairman of the firm said the government should instead focus on lower-paid workers and measures that could be taken to improve unemployment, which is set to rise further into mid-2021.

“I would suggest two things are looked at before any EU rules: The apprenticeship levy, which is clearly failing… and also National Insurance on jobs. It’s a tax on jobs – how can that be improved? Especially to help the low-paid back into work.”

Under the post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, the UK has agreed to conditions that maintain fair competition, or a level playing field, between the two sides. 

However, the EU’s ambassador to the UK, Joao Vale de Almeida, said Brussels could retaliate if Boris Johnson’s government went too far in with deregulation.

“It will be for us to judge the extent to which it violates this principle of ‘level playing field’ and if that is the case there are mechanisms in the treaty, in the agreement, that allow us to discuss and eventually to come to an understanding,” he said on Tuesday.

“If no understanding there are retaliation measures that can be applied on both sides.”

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