by Dick Barry
On 5 September David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, brought MPs up to date with the work of his Department following the 23 June referendum. Emily Thornberry replied for the Labour Party.
I thought it would be useful for the House to be brought up to date on the working of my Department after the referendum of 23 June. Our instructions from the British people are clear. Britain is leaving the European Union. The mandate for that course is overwhelming. The referendum of 23 June delivered a bigger vote for Brexit than that won by any UK Government in history. It is a national mandate, and this Government are determined to deliver it in the national interest.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that there will be no attempt to stay in the EU by the back door; no attempt to delay, frustrate or thwart the will of the British people; and no attempt to engineer a second referendum because some people did not like the first answer. The people have spoken in a referendum offered to them by this Government and confirmed by Parliament —by all of us, on both sides of the argument—and we must all respect it. That is a simple matter of democratic politics.
Naturally, people want to know what Brexit will mean. Simply, it means leaving the European Union, so we will decide on our borders, our laws and the taxpayer’s money. It means getting the best deal for Britain: one that is unique to Britain and not an off-the-shelf solution. This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe, but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade in goods and services. This is an historic and positive moment for our nation. Brexit is not about making the best of a bad job; it is about seizing a huge and exciting opportunity that will flow from a new place for Britain in the world. There will be new freedoms, new opportunities and new horizons for our country. We can get the right trade policy for the UK. We can create a more dynamic economy, a beacon for free trade across the world. We want to make sure our regulatory environment helps, rather than hinders, businesses and workers. We can create an immigration system that allows us to control numbers and encourage the brightest and best to come to this country.
I want to be clear to our European friends and allies that we do not see Brexit as ending our relationship with Europe; it is about starting a new one. We want to maintain or even strengthen our co-operation on security and defence. It is in the interests of both the UK and the European Union that we have the freest possible trading relationship. We want a strong European Union, succeeding economically and politically, working with Britain in many areas of common interest, so we should all approach the negotiations to come about our exit with a sense of mutual respect and co-operation.
I know the House will want to be updated about the work of the Department. It is a privilege to have been asked to lead it by the Prime Minister. The challenge we face is exciting and considerable. It will require significant expertise and a consistent approach. Negotiating with the EU has to be got right, and we are going to take the time to get it right. We will strive to build national consensus around our approach.
We start from a position of economic strength. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, there will be challenges ahead, but our economy is robust, thanks in no small part to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne). The latest data suggest our manufacturing and service industries and consumer confidence are all strong, contrary to some of the earlier predictions. Businesses are putting their faith and their money into this country. Over the summer, SoftBank, GlaxoSmithKline and Siemens all confirmed that they will make major investments in the UK. Countries, including Australia, have already made clear their desire to proceed quickly with a new trade deal for the UK. As other nations see advantages to them, I am confident that they will want to prioritise deals with the UK, too. But we are not complacent. Our task is to build on this success and strength and to negotiate a deal for exiting the European Union that is in the interests of the entire nation.
As I have already indicated, securing a deal that is in our national interest does not and must not mean turning our back on Europe. To do so would not be in our interests, nor Europe’s, so we will work hard to help to establish a future relationship between the EU and the UK that is dynamic, constructive and healthy. We want a steadfast and successful European Union after we depart.
As we proceed, we will be guided by some clear principles. First, as I have said, we wish to build national consensus around our position. Secondly, we will always put the national interest first. We will always act in good faith towards our European partners. Thirdly, wherever possible, we will try to minimise any uncertainty that change will inevitably bring. Fourthly, and crucially, by the end of this process we will have left the European Union and put the sovereignty and supremacy of this Parliament beyond doubt.
The first formal step in the process of leaving the European Union is to invoke article 50, which will start two years of negotiations. Let me briefly update the House on how the machinery of government will support our efforts and on the next steps we will take. First, on responsibilities, the Prime Minister will lead the UK’s exit negotiations and be supported on a day-to-day basis by my Department. We will work closely with all Government Departments to develop our objectives and to negotiate new relationships with the EU and the rest of the world. Supporting me is a first-class ministerial team and some of the brightest and best in Whitehall, who want to engage in this national endeavour. The Department now has over 180 staff in London, plus the expertise of over 120 officials in Brussels. We are still growing rapidly, with first-class support from other Departments.
As to the next steps, the Department’s task is clear. We are undertaking two broad areas of work. First, given that we are determined to build national consensus, we will listen and talk to as many organisations, companies and institutions as possible—from large plcs to small businesses, and from the devolved Administrations to councils, local government associations and major metropolitan bodies.
We are already fully engaged with the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure a UK-wide approach to our negotiations. The Prime Minister met the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in July. Last week, I visited Northern Ireland for meetings with its political leaders, where I reiterated our determination that there will be no return to the hard borders of the past. I will visit Scotland and Wales soon.
My ministerial colleagues and I have also discussed the next steps with a range of organisations. My first meeting was with the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, followed by key business groups, representatives of the universities and the charitable sector, and farming and fisheries organisations. But that is just the start. In the weeks ahead, we will speak to as many other firms, organisations and bodies as possible—research institutes, regional and national groups, and businesses up and down the country—to establish their priorities and the opportunities for the whole of the UK. As part of that exercise I can announce that we will be holding roundtables with stakeholders in a series of sectors, to ensure that all views are reflected in our analysis of the options for the UK. [Interruption.]
Order. Will the right hon. Gentleman resume his seat for just a moment? There is quite a lot of unseemly and, dare I say it, somewhat unstatesmanlike noise from a sedentary position. Someone was muttering, “Too long!” It is not too long at all. The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly in order. Let me remind the House that it has always been my practice to facilitate the fullest and most extensive interrogation of the relevant Minister, and that will happen today. Everyone will have his or her opportunity. But it would be a good thing if people would listen respectfully. If they can manage a beaming countenance reminiscent of that of the Foreign Secretary that will be a bonus, but it is not obligatory.
Those will include stakeholders from the broadcast, aviation, energy, financial services and automotive sectors, and others. I will also engage with EU member states. I am beginning with a visit to Dublin this week. I am working particularly closely with the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Trade, who have been meeting counterparts in Washington, Brussels and Delhi, and in the capitals of other EU states. While we do that, my officials, supported by officials across Government, are carrying out programme of sectoral analysis and regulatory analysis, which will identify the key factors for some 50 sectors of British business. It is extremely important that the House understands that. We are building a detailed understanding of how the withdrawal from the EU will affect domestic policies, to seize opportunities and ensure a smooth process of exit. The referendum result was a clear sign that the majority of the British people want to see Parliament’s sovereignty strengthened, and so throughout the process Parliament will be regularly informed, updated and engaged.
Finally, we are determined to ensure that people have as much stability and certainty as possible in the period leading up to our departure from the EU. Until we leave the European Union, we must respect the laws and the obligations that membership requires of us. We also want to ensure certainty when it comes to public funding. The Chancellor has confirmed that structural and investment fund projects signed before the autumn statement and research and innovation projects financed by the European Commission by money granted before we leave the EU will be underwritten by the Treasury after we leave. Agriculture is a vital part of the economy and the Government will match the current level of annual payments that the sector receives through the direct payments scheme until 2020, again providing certainty.
The Prime Minister has been clear that she is determined to protect the status of EU nationals already living in the UK. The only circumstances in which that would not be possible would be if the rights of British citizens in EU member states were not protected in return, something that I frankly find very hard to imagine.
I am confident that together we will be able to deliver on what the country asked us to do through the referendum. I am greatly encouraged by the national mood. Most of those I have met who wanted to remain have accepted the result and now want to make a success of the course Britain has chosen. Indeed, organisations and individuals I have met already who had backed the remain campaign now want to be engaged in the process of exit and in identifying the positive changes that will flow from it as well as the challenges. I want us all to come together as one nation to get the best deal for Britain.
In conclusion, we are confident of negotiating a new position that will mean this country flourishing outside the European Union while keeping EU members as friends, allies and trading partners. We leave the European Union but we will not—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is an aspiring statesman. His aspiration may be a little way from fulfilment. I want to hear the Secretary of State’s peroration.
It is an aspiration of very long-standing, Mr Speaker. In conclusion, we are confident of negotiating a position that will mean this country flourishing outside the EU, keeping its members as our friends, our allies and our trading partners. We will leave the European Union but will not turn our back on Europe. We will embrace the opportunities and freedoms that will open up for Britain. We will deliver on the national mandate for Brexit, and we will deliver it in the national interest.
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab):
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. It is eight years since his last appearance at the Dispatch Box. Back then, I believe his last words were: “You have to answer.” Let us hope that he gives us some answers today.
I welcome the attitude he has expressed today that he will be talking and listening to everyone. May I give him some advice? Perhaps he should start by putting a telephone number on his website. It has been a little difficult tracking his Department down, so it would be nice if he could begin by giving that out later, along with some of the answers that we would expect. The spin before today’s statement was so much promise. We heard that we would hear what the Government’s strategy for Brexit is, but instead we have not heard a strategy or a thought-out plan. It has been more empty platitudes from a Government who continue to make it up as they go along.
Last night, the Prime Minister, who was on a plane, seemingly told us what she was not going to do—it seems that we will not have a points-based immigration system, any extra money for the NHS or a reduction in VAT on fuel—but we have not been told what the Government will do. When will they tell us how they will deliver, for example, free trade for British businesses while imposing immigration controls, let alone how they will address the red lines that Labour has demanded on the protection of workers’ rights and guarantees for EU citizens?
The Secretary of State says that he wants to present a positive vision of Britain post-Brexit, but unless he can tell us what deal the Government are working towards, how they plan to achieve it and whether other member states will accept it, his positive vision is just a pipe dream. It is just rhetoric. May I remind the Secretary of State of what he said two months ago? He said:
“The negotiating strategy has to be properly designed, and there is some serious consultation to be done first…This is one of the reasons for taking a little time before triggering Article 50.”
We absolutely should take a little time before triggering article 50, but where is the negotiating strategy and what serious consultation has taken place with other member states? In the absence of either, why are the Government pushing ahead with article 50? What has happened since July? What is the plan? May I remind the House what the Foreign Affairs Committee said in July about the previous Government? It said:
“The previous Government’s considered view not to instruct key Departments…to plan for the possibility” of a leave vote “amounted to gross negligence.” What do we say about the current Government when, two months later, we are no further forward? Surely all we can say is this: when it comes to planning for Brexit, they have gone from gross negligence to rank incompetence. We see the warnings to Britain from Japan and others at the G20, and we see investment from companies like Nissan put under threat. It is British workers who will pay the price for the Government’s incompetence.
This morning, the Japanese ambassador, speaking on the “Today” programme, said something that was as honest as it was deadly. He said: “The problem that we see is not to have a very well thought through consideration before you start negotiation.” He is absolutely right. Are the Government rushing to start negotiation? Yes. Do they have a well thought-out plan for that negotiation? No.
The Secretary of State has won plaudits in the past for his principled stand on issues such as parliamentary sovereignty—indeed, he talked about the importance of parliamentary sovereignty today—democratic rights and the rule of law, so surely he cannot think it right that article 50 should be triggered by royal prerogative. As his friend and mine, the former Attorney General the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), said:
“The idea that a government could take a decision of such massive importance…without parliamentary approval seems to me to be extremely far-fetched.”
Well, I do not think it is far-fetched; I think it is just plain wrong. And I think that if the Secretary of State was still on the Back Benches, he would agree with me. When there is no evidence of sound planning by the Government, no detail on the deal they want to strike, no strategy for achieving that deal or the reasons for pushing it through, Parliament must have more of a say. We must have more than simply a say: we must have a vote.
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. As I suspect is very common when people enter the Cabinet, I have received a very large number of congratulatory emails and telegrams. The best one was the shortest. It said, “Many congratulations, I now believe in the resurrection.” Let me deal with the measures she has raised.
The hon. Lady and the Labour party accuse us of rank incompetence—the Labour party! The Prime Minister, on her trip to China, described her approach to complex problems—this is certainly a complex problem. Her approach is to collect the data, analyse it, make a judgment, make a decision and implement it. The Labour party clearly does it the other way around. The Americans have a phrase for the way the Labour party approaches these things—not looking at the problem, not looking at the issue, not looking at the data. They call it “load, fire, aim”. That may be very appropriate for the circular firing squad that is the Labour party, but it is not appropriate to running things in the national interest.
The hon. Lady mentioned the points-based immigration system. What the Prime Minister said in China was very clear. She wants a results-based immigration system that delivers an outcome the British people voted for. That is what she will be delivering at the end of this.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Japanese ambassador. From memory, the Japanese ambassador this morning said something to the effect that he had not met a company that did not think Britain was the best place in Europe to have its business—not one. He also said that he admired the Prime Minister’s approach to the negotiation. The hon. Lady should pick her quotes a little more carefully.
Let me come to the hon. Lady’s central point, if there was a point in what she had to say. She talked about article 50. Before we entered on to this course, the referendum Bill went through this House. It was voted for 6:1 in this House, and she voted for it. What did the Bill say? It was presented by the then Foreign Secretary, who said that we were giving the British people the right to make the decision—it was not advice or consultation. What she is trying to wrap up in a pseudo-democratic masquerade is the most anti-democratic proposal I have heard for some time. She wants to deny the will of the British people and up with that we will not put.
Workers’ Rights Outside The EU
On 7 September, Labour’s Melanie Onn introduced a motion to bring in a bill, ‘Workers’ Rights (Maintenance of EU Standards)’ to safeguard workers’ rights following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab):
I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a bill to make provision about the safeguarding of workers’ rights derived from European Union legislation after the withdrawal of the UK from the EU; and for connected purposes.
I am delighted to have secured this timely opportunity to highlight some of my concerns about the future of workers’ rights in Britain post-Brexit.
This Bill was brought about by necessity. Despite the warnings from the TUC and others about the potential for workers’ rights to be significantly undermined if we left Europe, the Government have, to date, failed to explain just how they will ensure that that does not happen. I now call on them to take proactive steps to protect employment rights that are not contained in primary legislation and that therefore risk falling away post-Brexit. It is no use adopting a wait-and-see attitude; people in this country deserve to know that their rights at work will not suffer detriment.
Research conducted by the Library has highlighted several areas of legislation that derive either partly or wholly from European directives. They include rights for agency workers, the European Works Council, information and consultation of employees, health and safety, TUPE, the working time directive and the protection of young people at work. Those are the broad areas that could disappear if the Government opted to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, in which case there would be no legislative framework relating to, for example, collective consultations on restructures, redundancies, shift pattern changes or pay. Those are not small, inconsequential or obscure areas of employment law; they are up front and centre for many working people today who, in an increasingly unstable labour market, rely more than ever on the certainty of protections that can be afforded to them under that legislation.
For more than 40 years, the EU has devised laws designed to protect working people from exploitation and discrimination. Trade unions have operated together at a European level to secure agreements across all nations to better protect workers. The rules have ensured that, regardless of any Government’s ideology, hard-fought-for minimum standards have been protected. They have kept those rights a non-negotiable distance away from the potential deregulatory whims of Ministers who may take the view that such rights are no more than cumbersome red tape. After all, we know that the Secretary of State for International Trade—the very Minister who is responsible for negotiating our trade agreements as we exit the European Union—is on record as having said that it is “too difficult” to fire staff. Members of Parliament must not allow the downgrading of workers’ rights to be an unfortunate side-effect of the Government’s negotiations.
In July, on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister referred to those who have a job but do not always have job security. For millions of agency workers in the care sector, retail, security or factory work, the agency workers legislation ensures that they have access to the same wages and holiday entitlements as permanent workers and have equal access to facilities, vacancies and amenities. That is progressive legislation, which recognises the changing needs of an increasingly so-called flexible workforce, and we should not hesitate to secure our own domestic laws to support those workers.
In recent days, we have been reassured by the Government that Brexit will not undermine workers’ rights. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union wrote in his July article for the “ConservativeHome” website that, in his view, it is “not employment regulation that stultifies economic growth”.
If that is the case, there should be no barriers to the Government positively reviewing which elements of UK employment law will be without any foundations after leaving Europe unless appropriate alternatives are implemented, and then implementing them. Given that the UK has one of the most lightly regulated workforces in the OECD, it is right the Government should seek to uphold these minimum standards.
Further, much UK employment law originating from the EU has become a basic expectation of reasonable employers. The protection afforded to workers is woven into the fabric of the employment relationship—for example, no discrimination against part-time or fixed-term workers and the right to rest breaks, paid holiday and leave for working parents. All those things are now standard; we should not be going backwards.
If we take a closer look at TUPE—the transfer of undertakings, protection of employees—it is clear the intention is to benefit workers. It means that if someone’s employer contracts out their job role to another organisation, or there is a company takeover, they can expect certain minimum guarantees in relation to these changes. They can expect that there will be a period of consultation. They can expect that there will be reasonable sharing of information. They can expect that any proposed changes to structures, salaries or redundancies will be discussed within the consultation. If they are transferred to the new employer, their salary, holiday and sick leave will all be protected, as will their pension, unless another agreement has been made during the negotiations.
Importantly, rights to representation and recognition of trade unions also transfer, providing certainty and reassurance to affected employees. After transfer, employees continue to be protected unless the receiving employer can provide evidence of operational, technical or economic purposes that make it impossible for them to continue with certain terms and conditions. Even then, they must undertake sufficient consultation before they can make those changes. This is only possible because of the European legislation that provided the TUPE framework.
We should accept a reality here. TUPE and other EU-derived legislation is not perfect. As we have seen with other legislation such as maternity and paternity leave, our Parliament—us, here—can make the choice to go further and offer more than the minimum requirements of legislation. But in this instance, it has not, choosing the least burdensome interpretation of the legislation.
Having taken numerous groups of employees through TUPE transfers as a Unison officer, I recognise the weaknesses within the law, but that is all the more reason to be concerned about what would happen if TUPE were not there to act as a check and balance.
Before TUPE, employers were able to make the staff of a transferring unit redundant regardless of whether their job would exist within the new undertaking. Very often, those same staff would have to go through a recruitment process to secure their previous jobs, but often on lower wages, with worse pensions, fewer holidays and increased responsibilities. These were workers such as school meals assistants and refuse collectors who were not even given the chance to participate in any consultation. We surely would not want to place that kind of disruption and uncertainty on workers again by rolling back to the bad old days, but roll back we might. Without there being any recourse to previous European Court of Justice rulings, we may find ourselves sleepwalking into a situation where recent positive outcomes for workers, such as carers who do sleep-in shifts receiving a full wage for their time, are no longer adhered to as employers seek to cut their costs.
We should not allow the potential for European case law to simply be discarded, as it risks dumping swathes of precedent in favour of re-litigation of settled principles. For example, relatively recent ECJ case law around the calculation of normal remuneration for holiday pay under the working time regulations must factor in non-guaranteed overtime, which is not explicitly stated in the wording of the regulations. If future decisions were no longer bound by that case law, workers would pay the price.
Given the changes in employment-related legislation over the past six years— including reduced consultation periods for redundancy, the extension of qualifying periods of employment for unfair dismissal claims, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals and the attempted undermining of trades unions through the Trade Union Act 2016—there is little to give the British public faith that the Government’s warm words will translate into action.
And what of current proposals in Europe that would bring further protections to UK workers? A right to a written statement of terms and conditions, improved work-life balance and improved rights for posted workers: will workers in Britain ever feel the benefits of such changes?
I have been asked why I have not asked for more in this Bill—extended its reach, filled the gaps in the current system and sought to extend workers’ rights further—but this is not about grandiose positioning. It is based in the reality of the situation we face today. It is right that, first and foremost, stability is provided and the Government do everything in their power to protect what we already have.
Despite being on the other side of the debate, I accept that the British public voted for Brexit, but they did not vote for more insecure contracts, less safe workplaces or anything less than they currently have by way of protection in their jobs.
Question put and agreed to.
Ordered, That Melanie Onn, Louise Haigh, Chris Elmore, Ruth Smeeth, Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips, Chris Stephens, Christian Matheson, Jo Stevens, Justin Madders, Carolyn Harris and Matthew Pennycook present the Bill. Melanie Onn accordingly presented the Bill. Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 November, and to be presented (Bill 62).