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Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has confirmed that the government is reviewing workers’ rights now that the UK does not need to follow EU directives – but has insisted there will not be a ‘bonfire of rights’.
Last week, Kwarteng denied that the government would row back on UK workers’ rights after the Financial Times reported that some workers’ protections and rules brought in under the EU’s Working Time Directive – including the 48-hour limit on the working week, rules on rest breaks, and the inclusion of overtime pay in holiday pay calculations – could be amended by government.
However, speaking to the business, energy and industrial strategy committee today, Kwarteng said his department was currently consulting with business leaders on EU employment rules.
He said: “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.
“We are absolutely looking at safeguarding employment rights. I know there’s been stories in the newspapers that there’s going to be some sort of bonfire of rights. This could not be further from the truth.”
He said the government planned to keep “a really good high standard for workers in high employment and a high-wage economy” and that the idea that the government was trying to “whittle down” standards was “not at all plausible or true.”
He acknowledged that many EU member states had 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 and a very successful economy. And that’s what we should be aiming for,” said Kwarteng.
Malcolm Mason, employment partner at Keystone Law, said it was unsurprising that the government wanted to review its adherence to EU labour laws as the ability to take control of UK rules was one of the main factors promoted by Brexit campaigners.
“Whilst the new business minister has denied that they will be scrapping some protections, such as the 48-hour limit on the working week, many directives, such as the TUPE, the Fixed-Term Workers Directive and the Framework Health and Safety Directive have always been an issue for Conservative UK governments and UK businesses, and they were strenuously resisted from the outset with considerable and protracted debate and argument. Indeed, some were implemented only after requiring EU enforcement proceedings or the threat of such proceedings,” said Mason.
Richard Arthur, head of trade union law at Thompsons Solicitors, said: “The government will doubtless seek to present its proposals on EU workers’ rights as part of an economic recovery plan from the coronavirus crisis, but history shows us what Conservative governments do to employment rights when left unchecked.
“Ironically, the rights that our frontline workers have relied on to protect them during the pandemic – such as protection from excessive working hours, the ability to take breaks from work and having access to adequate PPE – are those that are threatened by these moves.
“This is a government that wants to be seen clapping outside Number 10 while, behind closed doors, it’s looking to dismantle key rights relied on by key workers on the front line.”
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