Kwasi Kwarteng: workers’ rights review will not go ahead

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng
Image: Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

The review of post-Brexit workers’ rights announced by business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is no longer going ahead, as it emerges that decided not to replace Matthew Taylor as its interim director of labour market enforcement when his contract expires this week, despite offering to remain in post unpaid until a successor was in post.

Last week, Kwarteng admitted that the government wanted to look at, but not water down, some of the workers’ protections and rules brought in under EU’s Working Time Directive.

However, an in interview with ITV’s Peston, he said: “So the review is no longer happening within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I made it very very clear to officials in the department that we’re not interested in watering down workers’ rights.

“I can’t have been more clear about this on a number of occasions. I’ve said repeatedly that Brexit gives us the opportunity to have higher standards and a higher growth economy and that’s what officials in the department are 100% focused on.”

Reports in the media over the past couple of weeks have suggested that the review would have considered proposals to remove the 48-hour maximum working week, changes to rules about rest breaks, removing overtime pay when calculating certain holiday pay entitlements, and getting rid of the requirement for firms to log information about daily working hours.

The suggestion that workers’ rights could change was met with criticism from the Labour party, unions and employment lawyers.

Kwarteng responded to criticism on Twitter by saying: “We are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights. The UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world – going further than the EU in many areas. We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them.”

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, said: “The epidemic of low pay and insecure work in this country are the real problems, not the basic rights of working people.

“Kwasi Kwarteng now has to put his money where his mouth is; if he wants to improve the lot of UK workers, then pick up the phone. We’ve got a list of desperately needed workers’ rights ready to go.

“He could start by outlawing the appalling fire and rehire practice that is laying waste to workers’ wages across the country, and fix sick pay so that being unwell and unable to work is not a sure path to poverty.”

Joseph Lappin an employment partner at Stewarts law firm, said the odds of substantial changes to UK employment laws being made any time soon were always very low.

“The terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement make it very difficult for the UK to water down workers’ rights to give UK businesses a competitive edge without facing the very real prospect of retaliatory action by the EU,” said Lappin.

“In a global recession and amidst increasing rates of unemployment, reducing workers’ rights would be deeply unpopular and divisive. Any desire to deregulate has diminished and any government plans which may have existed to water down employment rights substantially have probably been shelved for some time to come.”

Matthew Taylor not being replaced

Meanwhile, the government has reportedly decided not to replace Matthew Taylor as its interim director of labour market enforcement when his contract expires this week, despite offering to remain in post unpaid until a successor was in post.

The role, created in 2017, is responsible for setting strategy at the three labour market enforcement bodies: the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority; the division of  HM Revenue & Customs that oversees minimum wage compliance; and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate.

The decision has raised questions about the government’s commitment to enforce workers’ rights.

Taylor told the Times: “This would be a terrible time to effectively halt the oversight of labour market compliance.

“There is growing concern that the government is abandoning its stated commitment to good work and fair employment practices.”

He told the Financial Times that the next annual strategy for labour market enforcement was to be submitted to ministers on Friday and addressed urgent issues including the risk of economic pressures leading employers to cut corners on workers’ rights, and the potential for a surge in the exploitation of foreign workers due to immigration reforms.

He said there was now no guarantee this strategy would “ever see the light of day”.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said in a statement: “Cracking down on non-compliance in the labour market is a priority for the new business secretary and a new director for labour market enforcement will be appointed as soon as possible.

“Recruitment for the role is ongoing and a successful candidate will be announced in due course.”

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