Experts welcome government’s decision to axe post-Brexit review of workers’ rights

28 Jan 2021 By Lauren Brown

Ministers should instead look at better enforcing existing protections, commentators say

Employment commentators have welcomed the announcement last night that a controversial government review of EU-derived labour laws will now no longer take place.

Under the terms of the Brexit agreement the UK is now allowed to diverge from regulations derived from Europe, and last week business minister Kwasi Kwarteng confirmed to MPs his department would be looking at the Working Time Directive and other rules around pay and breaks.

However, in an interview with ITV’s Robert Peston last night, Kwarteng appeared to U-turn on this, telling Peston: “The review is no longer happening within [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy]”, adding that he had “made it very very clear to officials in the department that we’re not interested in watering down workers’ rights”.

Kwarteng continued: “What I’ve said on a number of occasions is that the whole point of trying to leave, of having successfully left the EU, is that we want high wages, a high growth economy and high skills. Nobody in the government is interested in whittling away workers’ rights or pursuing a race to the bottom.”

Reacting to last night’s U-turn, Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said it was a step in the right direction. A wholesale review of EU-derived employment law was simply not a priority right now, she said: “The big issue the government should be focusing on before looking at deregulation is improving how existing employment rights are enforced.”

Suff said the UK’s existing employment regulation framework provided enough flexibility for employers while maintaining appropriate protection for workers. She added: “An improved labour market enforcement system would be the strongest signal that the government really is committed to protecting workers’ rights.”

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This was echoed by Emma Swan, head of commercial employment at Forbes Solicitors. But, she said: “If the review is not happening, business leaders and employees must be provided with clarity about what happens next.”

While the government says it wants to protect and enhance workers’ rights, Swan added that “such statements must be backed up with clear detail about what this means and how it’s balanced against the rights of the company owners and leaders working hard to set up and run businesses during an already turbulent time”.

General secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady agreed that the U-turn was “good news if true”. “Ministers must get on with banning zero-hours contracts and other shady employment practices that rob workers of their dignity,” she said. “The government shouldn’t have been looking to rip up hard-won rights in the first place. We’ll be keeping a close eye to make sure they don’t in the future.”

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