The government has awarded itself sweeping temporary powers that will allow it to alter EU laws without parliamentary oversight, prompting Unite to call on Theresa May to guarantee that workers’ rights will not be attacked.
Brexit secretary David Davis said the powers, included in the government’s Great Repeal Bill white paper on incorporating EU laws into UK legislation, would not be used to attack rights and protections.
Davis said they would be used for “technical changes” to tweak laws that would not “work appropriately” after Brexit.
Davis confirmed that the powers, left over from the reign of Henry VIII, would be temporary, saying that once the laws have been converted “parliament will be able to pass legislation to amend, repeal or improve any piece of EU law it chooses – as will the devolved legislatures, where they have power to do so.”
Davis said: “A large number of laws – both existing domestic laws and those we convert into UK law – will not work properly if we leave the EU without taking further action. Some laws, for example, grant functions to an EU institution with which the UK might no longer have a relationship.
“To overcome this, the great repeal bill will provide a power to correct the statute book where necessary to resolve the problems which will occur as a consequence of leaving the EU.”
Shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer said the powers were “sweeping” and accused the government of a power-grab.
He said: “Sweeping, because it proposes a power to use a delegated legislation to correct and thus change primary legislation, and also devolved legislation. Sweeping because of the sheer scale of the exercise.”
“In those circumstances one might expect some pretty rigorous safeguards to the use of these sweeping powers, but none are found in the white paper. In those circumstances we should go back to first principles – and that is, there should be no change to rights and protections without primary legislation.”
Starmer called on Davis to “face down those on his own side who will not be able to resist the temptation to water these rights and protections down before they’re even put into this bill.”
Unite said Theresa May should bring forth immediate proposals to show that she will honour her pledge to protect workers’ rights once the UK leaves the European Union.
The prime minister has said that all existing employment rights deriving from the EU, including such measures as the working time directive, will be transferred over to UK law with the government retaining the right to modify at some later stage.
However, Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey said that the ‘modification’ threat is causing serious concern among the union’s members, particularly as comments from leading Tory figures, such as Liam Fox, reveal a wish to see rights reduced.
McCluskey called for an amendment, that would stipulate a 66 per cent voting threshold to make any changes to the laws derived from the EU, to be tabled to the Great Repeal bill when it is brought before parliament.
This is modelled on the threshold needed to call a general election out-with the fixed five year term parliament.
McCluskey said: “Let’s build on a precedent that the House of Commons has already accepted – the two-thirds majority needed to secure an election under fixed-term parliament legislation – to put in place similar hurdles that must be cleared before any EU-derived law can be wiped from the UK statute books once transferred over.”
“Sadly, there are too many on the Conservative benches who see Brexit as their moment to destroy employment rights for unions to simply accept the prime minister’s word that the status quo will endure. They will waste no time in destroying vital laws like the working time directive, a measure that is not red tape but essential protection for workers and the public alike. Our roads are safer, for example, because under EU law lorry drivers must rest.’
He added, “This hurdle would also provide an essential corrector to the enormous powers that the government can give itself using measures established 500 years ago by Henry VIII. This threshold would secure a voice for people in parliament during the most challenging time for our nations in generations.
“So I appeal to MPs from all sides of the House to support this proposal. It would send a clear signal to working people right across the UK that their rights are safe under a Conservative government. That way, we can all focus on the task in hand, getting the best deal for this country from the Brexit process.”
Len McCluskey also challenged the prime minister to use the Great Repeal bill to improve working life for millions of UK workers by banning the use of umbrella companies set up to limit the liability of employment agencies and to outlaw the use of exclusivity clauses in any work contract providing fewer than 35 hours a week employment to a worker.
He said: “One of the lessons to take for the referendum vote last year was that people did not feel that they were getting a fair deal, especially at work. The prime minister must signal that she gets that message by strengthening the now creaky floor under millions of temporary workers.
“Banning the use of umbrella companies set up to allow agencies to swerve their employment duties to workers and outlawing the `exclusivity clauses’ which make an agency worker at the behest of their agency but with no guarantee of a secure wage in return would restore some security and fairness to the increasingly uncertain world working people find themselves in.”