Exiting the EU and Workers’ Rights: 7th November 2016

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate although, in many ways, it has little value. On the basis of some of the speeches that we have heard from Opposition Members, it has added nothing to what should be a serious consideration of how we move forward as we give effect to the will of the people. The majority was slim—we must always remember that—but nevertheless we have to accept the verdict.

We are debating something that was never a strong point for the remain camp during the referendum debate. I had a very firm view on this, because we do pass laws in our Parliament and we do have a sovereign Parliament. I really do not want to rehearse all the arguments of the EU referendum debate, but when it comes to the issue of workers’ rights, I think that the argument advanced by some in the remain camp was weak, because this Parliament has extended workers’ rights. Doubtless other Conservative Members who contribute to the debate will remind us of our party’s fine tradition of extending workers’ rights. For example, in the previous Parliament, I was proud that we extended paternity rights in a way that the EU had not. I always thought that it was just a non-debate to say that, for those who wanted to remain, the heart of the matter was protecting workers’ rights.
Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
Does the right hon. Lady not appreciate that many of us had to argue that case because trade unions used EU law to get victories for their workers in court?

Anna Soubry
Yes, but the unions did not need to use EU law—that was the point. This country has rights through common law and in statute; it was just not a problem. I am somewhat concerned and slightly agitated about this matter. The very firm words from our excellent Secretary of State—I was delighted when he was appointed to his job—could not have been clearer. He said that all the rights that we have by virtue of our membership of the EU will be transferred into substantive British law. Which part of that do Opposition Members not understand? My right hon. Friend could not have been clearer. I absolutely do take his word, and indeed the Government’s word, on this. In many ways, this is a bit of an otiose debate—if I can put it in those terms—because I have no fear that any of the rights that have been accrued over decades by virtue of our membership of the EU will be diminished.

Neil Gray

Anna Soubry
And now, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, because this is a debate.

Neil Gray
I ask the right hon. Lady to forgive me for not giving way during my concluding remarks; I thank her for giving way to me. Although she may take her Secretary of State at his word on this, can she not understand our worry that there are members of this Government who are quite clearly of a different view, and who made that very clear during the EU referendum campaign?

Anna Soubry
Heaven forbid that we should ever have different points of views within the Government. I will come on to the concerns that some rightly raise about the rhetoric of the leave campaign. I wanted to intervene on the hon. Gentleman because, as someone who had experienced the miners’ strike on an almost daily basis—I was a reporter working for Central Television in Nottingham—I wanted him to understand that what the Conservative Government rightly did was to protect the rights of coal miners in counties such as Nottinghamshire who had had a vote and had decided that they wanted to work. They faced, on an almost daily basis, a small army of pickets who came down and used the most atrocious tactics to try to prevent them from exercising their right to work.

Neil Gray

Anna Soubry
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am more than happy to have a debate with him about the rights and wrongs of the miners’ strike outside the Chamber, but I take grave exception to the rather large amounts of nonsense that he was spouting when he gave us his comments about Margaret Thatcher and the then Conservative Government. None of those pieces of legislation that were passed by the Thatcher Government —particularly when they were up against the tyranny of trade union leaders who frequently denied workers the right to have a say about how they worked—to restore workers’ rights and to do the right thing by working people were repealed in the 13 years that Labour were in ​government. Why was that? It was because members of the Labour Government knew in their hearts that that legislation was what working people wanted. I say that as someone who is a proud trade unionist and who was a shop steward in my union.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. I am glad that we will be on the same side on this issue. Does she agree—I think she has alluded to this—that the Brexit debate has been characterised by a lot of misinformation and broken promises, hence the need to make sure that this matter stays on the agenda? Does she also agree that there is understandable concern and perhaps confusion about the Government’s commitment and their ability to bind any future Ministers and Governments, because some Conservative MPs have raised the issue of a sunset clause or a watering down of employment protections, and have promised to implement that wherever practical?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)
Order. The hon. Lady will have an opportunity to make a speech later.

Anna Soubry
Given the hour, the fact that we are all on a one-line Whip and the fact that the House will rise tomorrow, I suspect that a lot of Members will want to make their speeches by way of a quick intervention. I forgive the hon. Lady for her intervention and hope she does make a speech.

If there are to be further debates, we should consider some of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who seems to have vacated his place. He talked about the detail of how the transfers will take place. Will that happen in a general sense under the great repeal Bill, or will it be done in dribs and drabs by virtue of statutory instruments? The effect will be exactly the same, so I do not have any concern in that regard. His point about how the devolved Administrations will be affected is important.

The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) should have raised such matters in his speech, but instead he used the debate as an excuse to launch off a series of slogans based on ideology that were, in many ways, deeply offensive. He then turned his speech, in a rather childlike way, into a tirade against Tories. His hugely unsubstantiated and sweeping statements did nothing to advance the argument for having a proper debate and restoring politics in this country to a much more civilised footing.

I do understand that Labour is in a huge dilemma. The reality is that seven out of 10 Labour MPs represent seats that not only voted remain, but, in most cases, overwhelmingly voted remain—[Hon. Members: “Leave”.] Sorry, I meant to say leave. If only they had voted in the way I said, but sadly they did not. Would that not have been a sweet moment? Would it not have made the position of the Labour party so much easier?

The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) represents my neighbouring seat. I have a lot of time for her—I hope that that will not be used against her. Such is the current atmosphere, which has been stoked up by people such as the hon. Member for Norwich South, that a Conservative giving praise to a Labour MP can ​be used against them by the so-called Corbynistas and Momentum. I hope that I cause the hon. Lady no difficulty by paying tribute to her. She is a great MP who has brought much to our House. There was an 80% turnout in her constituency—no disrespect to the good people of Ashfield, but they have never voted in such numbers—and just under 70% of people voted to leave. That means that it is inconceivable that she will not vote for article 50, and she is by no means alone.

I very much hope that that vote takes place in this House. I do not want to go too far into that debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you would rightly admonish me, as we are meant to be talking about workers’ rights as well as about these other much bigger problems, but it is the sort of debate that we really should be having in this place. I want debates after which we have votes that actually mean something. Labour is in a real dilemma. As I say, if we have that vote on article 50, it is inconceivable that Labour Members to a man and a woman will not vote to leave the EU, not least because many of them, like me, understand that we went to the nation saying clearly that if people voted leave, that was what they would get.

I will be quite honest: I have struggled with this ever since June. It has been my long-held belief that our country—our nation—is considerably better off as a member of the European Union. I have spoken about that at length. I am a firm remainer. If there was a scale from one to 100 showing how firm a remainer someone was, I would put my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) at 100 and myself at about 95. I have grappled with my own long-held views, which I hold passionately, and with the fact that when I stood up and addressed my constituents, wrote my email newsletter or went out into the streets of Broxtowe and beyond, I said, “If you vote leave, you will get leave.” One colleague—it might have been my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood)— said that we in the remain camp were very clear about that.

Although I will find it extremely difficult, because it will be against everything I have ever believed in, I cannot see how I have any alternative but to be true to what I said I would do and true to my party’s manifesto—I never demurred from any of this at any time. Therefore, with huge regret, I would have to vote in favour of article 50 being triggered when the mater comes to this place—and it should come to this place; the learned judges are absolutely right. I say to the Government with some gentleness that it would be very good if having read the judgment, as I and many others have done, and understanding the law of this land, they said that they were not going to appeal. Three of the most senior judges took part in that judgment. The Government should not appeal it, but should bring legislation before this House.

Already right hon. and hon. Members have heard not only my views but those of colleagues such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). It is clear that those of us who now sit in the corner from which I am speaking would vote in favour of triggering article 50.

Geraint Davies
I am amazed that the right hon. Lady thinks that everybody who voted to leave was voting unconditionally to leave. Many of the voters in my ​constituency believed what they were told: their jobs were secure, they would save money and all the rest of it. In fact, the deficit plan has been ripped up. In Swansea bay 25,000 jobs depend on EU exports, many of which will be at risk. If people wake up and find that they have lost their jobs, they will think, “This is not what we were promised,” and they will be very angry. It is ridiculous to give unconditional support, as if everything that was said was true and there will not be problems.

Anna Soubry
I am sort of grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have never given up on anything, but I have to understand, as he must, that we were very clear. We said to people that the referendum was their decision and that if they voted leave, they would get leave. However, that does not mean that I would not fight tooth and nail to make sure that the Government go into the negotiations seeking to make sure that we stay a member of the single market, for example.

The hon. Gentleman knows my views on the free movement of labour and people. Along with the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), I am the most liberally minded—with a small l—Member of this House on immigration. Labour Members have the huge problem that they find themselves looking over their shoulders at the vote in their own constituency knowing, as I hope they do, why their constituents voted as they did. In many constituencies, people voted to leave because they wanted to reduce the number of people coming into our country. We should be clear about that. Labour Members have far more of a dilemma than I have as we leave the EU and try to work out the best deal for our country. I have no difficulty in making the case for us to stay in the single market, and I certainly have no difficulty in making the case for the free movement of people.

Kevin Foster
My right hon. Friend may take some solace from knowing that I am in a similar position, having voted in remain in the referendum, while the majority in my constituency voted leave. Does she agree that all the way through the campaign it was clear that if people voted leave, we would leave the EU, but it was never disputed that Parliament would deal with the details of how we did so?

Anna Soubry
Indeed. It is right that we in this place should assist the Government in determining our objectives—our underlying principles. I want our Government to go into the negotiations wanting us to stay a member of the single market, with all that that entails. They might not be able to achieve that, but they need some guiding principles and I want that to be one of them.

This Government have a proud record of defending the rights of workers. It is the Conservative party that has restored our economy, which is the foundation of everything else that we do. This is the party that is seeing employment going upwards and the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance going down. It is this party that could claim responsibility—effectively, by virtue of our economic policies—for that huge rise in employment, which means more jobs. If we really want to help workers in our country, we should make sure that they have good, safe, sustainable employment. I am also proud that it is this party that not only introduced the national living wage, but has taken so many millions of low-paid workers out of taxation.

There is far more that can be done to protect the rights of workers. I completely agree that conditions in places such as Sports Direct are totally unacceptable. I wish the local Member of Parliament had raised the matter in this place considerably sooner. I am delighted that our Prime Minister has made it clear that she takes the firm view that among her priorities are workers’ rights, and responsibility among businesses for how they employ people and protect their rights. For what it is worth, I agree that we should have workers on the boards of businesses.

It is important to talk about British people’s rights to free movement and travel so that they may go to other countries in the EU and work. Immigration—migration of labour—is a two-way process. Undoubtedly, our economy benefits greatly from the fact that people come here, whether they are low-skilled, no-skilled, middling skilled or high-skilled. We benefit from them coming to our country and working in our businesses and industry. We would be lost without them. When constituents of mine say, “We want less immigration. We want to send these people home”—that is the tone of the debate that is breaking out in our country—I say to them in quite robust tones, as the House may imagine, “Who is going to do the jobs? Who is going to do the work?” If we look at those areas with the highest rates of employment, that is where there are more migrant workers, because they do the jobs that need to be done. This is a two-way process.

I hope that the Government will think carefully before they rush down a route that leads to over-reducing and over-curtailing the number of migrants coming into our country, for all the reasons that are not the subject of this debate. Many hundreds of thousands of British people have the right to go and work freely in the EU. I think that that right is worthy of being protected.

This debate is not the most important of all those that we shall have when we consider and, more importantly, decide how we leave the European Union. I do not know who chooses the topics—[Interruption.] It is the Government. May I gently suggest to the Government that we should have real debates about the real difficulties, the real dilemmas and the need to make sure that we get the right guiding principles as we leave the European Union?

There is one last thing, which is very important. We talk about the 17 million people who voted leave, but we are in real danger in our country if we forget the more than 16 million people who did not vote to leave. At the moment, they feel forgotten and marginalised. Some of them feel bullied, threatened and intimidated on Twitter and other social media, and that is not acceptable. The job of all of us now is to bring people together and to move forward, not to reheat and rehash all the arguments we have had. We must come together, respect all points of view and move forward as we leave the EU.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and I begin by echoing the last point she made: we are a divided nation, and what this referendum result has shown is that we are divided almost entirely down the middle. We in this House have a responsibility to seek to heal the wounds and to reduce the division that has been created by this big ​choice—like the right hon. Lady, I accept the result, even though I campaigned passionately for remain, although I am not going to say where I would rate on her scale. However, we have to uphold and respect the decision of the British people, and it is very important that we are clear about that. Secondly, I very much support what she said about this being, I hope, the first of many debates in which the House has an opportunity properly to scrutinise the enormous task we have as a country in negotiating our withdrawal from the European Union and in establishing a new relationship with the 27 member states—although we are leaving the institutions, we are not leaving Europe. Therefore, I welcome the fact that we are having this debate.

We have heard already that membership of the European Union has made a significant contribution to the development of rights and protections for workers in the UK. I am bound to reflect on the fact that that played an important part in changing the attitude of the party of which I am proud to be a member, and of the trade union movement, towards Europe. One could trace that back to a particular moment: the speech Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, gave to the Trades Union Congress in 1988, when he laid out before delegates the vision of a social Europe—I think he was named Frère Jacques because of that speech. The Labour party and the labour movement, which had been Eurosceptic, began moving towards a strongly pro-European position, as the Conservative party, which had been pro-European, passed us in the other direction, heading towards being a predominantly Eurosceptic party.

The Government have given a commitment to maintain employment rights and workers’ rights, and I am absolutely sure that the House will hold Ministers to that commitment. I want briefly to raise four issues in relation to that. The first is the relationship between the great repeal Bill and those rights. As all Members of the House know, those rights are already enshrined in our law, but some are to be found in primary legislation—for example, the equality rights in the Equality Act 2010—so they can be amended only by primary legislation. Others—for example, working time rights and the protection of agency workers—were implemented by means of secondary legislation, and can therefore be more easily changed and repealed. There are also some EU rights that have direct effect because they are derived from the treaty.

Therefore, there is a serious question to the Government, which I hope the Minister will address in responding to the debate. Given the different basis of these rights—my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) made this point forcefully in his opening contribution—how exactly will they be given equal status and equal protection in the great repeal Bill? In particular, what will be the mechanism for making any changes to the different types of legislation? Could that be done by amending statutory instruments in the case of those rights that have been put in place by that means, or would primary legislation be required to entrench them and therefore give greater reassurance?

Obviously, it remains to be seen what is in the great repeal Bill, which is actually the great retrenchment Bill, because the only repeal bit will be the very last stage of the process, which is repealing the European Communities ​Act 1972 to take us out, but the rest of it will entrench in legislation these rights and many others, as well as environmental protections and so on. However, I just say to Ministers that the House will need to be reassured that there will be full and proper parliamentary scrutiny of any proposal to undo or change legislation.

Given the nature of the reassurance that Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have given, there is also the related question of what will happen to the body of European Court of Justice judgments that have interpreted the way in which legislation has been applied, and of whether anyone, once we have left the European Union, will seek to re-litigate some of the judgments that the Court has made, which some people in this country have taken exception to—wrongly, in my view.

The second issue I want to raise is the relationship between our potential future access to the single market and the further development of workers’ rights in the European Union pending our departure from it and after we have left. As we know, the Government have yet to make a decision about the nature of our continuing access to that market, but there is a question as to what would happen if and when the 27 member states, after we have left, decide to change or improve workers’ rights inside that market, and the UK, for the sake of argument, has access to it, but is not a full member of it. Understandably, in those circumstances, other member states might be worried that the UK, by not applying those rights if we do not follow suit, is in some way undercutting those other member states or engaging in a race to the bottom. Therefore, in terms of arguing for the fullest possible access to the single market, which I presume is what Ministers will eventually conclude is the right thing to do, not least because of the assurances they have given to Nissan to secure future investment, it would be helpful to hear from the Minister what approach Ministers would intend to take in the eventuality I have described.

The third issue is the Government’s negotiating objectives, which we dwelt on to a great degree in the Secretary of State’s statement earlier today. The truth is that we now know what the Government’s negotiating objectives are in relation to workers’ rights and employment protection, because those have been set out in the debate so far: we are going to move them into domestic legislation. We therefore now know what the Government want to do on that. We also now know what their negotiating approach is to the motor manufacturing industry, because of the commitments set out clearly to Nissan. In particular, we know that their negotiating objectives for the industry are not to have tariffs, but also to ensure that there are no bureaucratic impediments—those were the words of the Secretary of State—that make it more difficult for trade to be undertaken, whether that is rules of origin, or greater certification or product standards. Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate for the rest of industry and our service sector—80% of our economy is services, and we have 1 million jobs at least in financial services—to ask, as I suspect they will, “So what are the Government’s objectives for our industry, our sector, our future, our concerns and the reassurance we are looking for?” I gently say to Ministers that I really do not think they are going to be able to sustain the position they are currently taking, which is to resist such requests in the face of what will be a growing queue of people who will be looking for facts, reassurance and a plan.​

That brings me to my final point, which is about transitional arrangements. Given that the Government have not ruled out transitional arrangements—if we believe today’s report in The Times, those are under active consideration—what approach will they take to such arrangements, including in so far as they affect employment rights, pending the negotiation of a new trade and market access deal? It may be that the Government will be able to pull off the divorce negotiations, which is what article 50 is really all about—the parallel would be dividing up the CD collection and deciding who is going to pay the outstanding gas and electricity bill—in under two years. The Prime Minister has said that she wishes to trigger article 50 by the end of March. However, there are elections in France and in Germany, and in all probability we will not know the nature of the new Governments—certainly in the case of Germany—until the autumn, and it may well be hard to start substantive negotiations until such time as there is clarity about the position of the German Government. If article 50 is triggered at the end of March, we could therefore have just over a year and a half to complete all of this. If it is not going to be possible to do it all—the divorce settlement and negotiating a new trade and market access agreement—then it would be very wise for the Government to look to negotiate a transitional arrangement, and even more wise for them to say now that that is what they intend to do.

Anna Soubry
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Should we trigger article 50, very simply through a very simple piece of legislation, as soon as possible, and then look at the other arrangements that he is talking about, or does he fear, as I do, that we will have no option as soon as this place has triggered article 50—if it does so—or the Government do so in March, since the clock will start ticking as soon as that happens?
Hilary Benn
I have consistently made clear my personal view—the Select Committee has not yet considered this—that it is wise to separate out the issue of triggering article 50 and the Government publishing their negotiating objectives, for the reason the right hon. Lady gave in her speech. Those of us who campaigned for remain lost the referendum, and we have to uphold the result. I fear that bringing the two things together—conflating them—would inevitably turn any vote on the triggering of article 50, if it is allied with conditions, requirements or whatever, into what the public would see as a vote about whether we are going to uphold the outcome of the referendum. We should deal with the two things separately.

When the time comes, I shall, as I have already said, vote in favour of triggering article 50. The referendum decision having been made, the only way in which we can honour that—the only way for us to leave—is for the article 50 button to be pressed; there is no other mechanism. We are therefore bound to vote in that way. I know that not all Members will share that view, but I believe that the vast majority will accept the logic of the argument. We should keep separate our request to the Government, which we will hear increasingly in all parts of the House, to tell us what the plan is. I am sorry that earlier today we were still hearing the argument that in asking the Government to publish a plan we are somehow trying to undermine the outcome of the referendum. No we are not—we are accepting the outcome of the referendum. We are leaving, and it is therefore ​really important that the House and the public know what the plan is. This is a serious business with very important consequences for the nation.

The reason for announcing that transitional arrangements will be sought in the event that this cannot all be tied up within two years is that, in particular, it will offer some reassurance to industries that are thinking, “Crumbs, we might tumble out in as little as two years with no agreement.” We know what that would mean for trade under World Trade Organisation terms. Some businesses—one thinks of parts of the financial services industry—will say, “We can’t face that possibility because it creates huge uncertainty and might affect our ability to carry on doing our business.” They will therefore start working backwards and say, “We can’t possibly get into a situation where we tumble out and we can’Exiting the EU and Workers’ RightsExiting the EU and Workers’ Rightst do the business we are doing at the moment so we need to make contingency plans now.” That may lead them to decide to do things that have consequences for jobs and employment here in the United Kingdom.