The speech made by Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in the House of Commons on 25 January 2021.
I just want to make something very clear and unequivocal at the outset: we will not reduce workers’ rights. There is no Government plan to reduce workers’ rights. As the new Secretary of State, I have been extremely clear that I do not want to diminish workers’ rights, and on my watch there will be no reduction in workers’ rights. I do not want there to be any doubt about my or the Government’s intentions in this area. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) were kind enough to send me a letter in my first week in the job asking for reassurances on this matter. I am happy to report that I have provided those reassurances, and I am very willing to provide them every time.
We will not row back on the 48-hour weekly working limit derived from the working time directive. We will not reduce the UK annual leave entitlement, which is already much more generous than the EU minimum standard. We will not row back on legal rights to breaks at work. I will say it again: there is no Government plan to reduce workers’ rights.
The Government have managed to have a record that is unimpeachable on this subject. Our manifesto promised, among other things, to get Brexit done and to maintain the existing level of protections for workers provided by our laws and regulations. We have delivered Brexit, and we will not use this new-found freedom to reduce workers’ rights. In any case, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough said, our higher standards were never dependent on our membership of the EU. The UK has one of the best employment rights records in the world. It is well known that in many areas the UK goes further than the EU on workers’ protections. We have one of the highest minimum wages in the world, and the Government are increasing this again for workers on 1 April, but in the EU there is no requirement to offer a minimum wage or sick pay. In the UK, people get over five weeks of annual leave, minimum; the EU requires only four weeks. In the UK, people get a year of maternity leave; the EU minimum is just 14 weeks. The EU has only just agreed rights to flexible working, over 15 years behind the UK. The Opposition are simply wrong to hold the EU up as the gold standard. Our equalities legislation, and our maternity and paternity entitlements, are already considerably better than the EU’s. Now we have left the EU, our Government and Parliament are able to decide what rules should apply and make improvements where we believe there is a need to do so.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I have to make progress because lots of people want to speak in this debate.
We have already set out plans to make workplaces fairer. Our manifesto contains commitments to create a new single enforcement body for labour market abuses to give greater protections for workers, as well as plans to encourage greater flexible working. It is totally disingenuous for Labour to claim that we do not stand on the side of workers when our manifesto clearly says the direct opposite.
We will not take lectures on employment rights from Labour, because, as I said, our track record speaks for itself. It was a Conservative-led Government who introduced shared parental leave and pay in 2014, giving parents flexibility in who takes time away from work in the first year of their child’s life. It was a Conservative Government who introduced the national living wage in 2016, giving the lowest-paid workers the security of a higher wage to provide for themselves and their families. Ten years of progressive Conservative reforms pushed unemployment to a 45-year low. Before coronavirus hit, our employment rate was at a record high, with over 33 million people in work. By March last year, workers across the UK had enjoyed 26 consecutive months of real pay increases, and women and workers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds made up a larger proportion of the workforce than ever before.
On fire and rehire specifically, will the Secretary of State give way?
I have to make progress.
I know at first hand through my work as Energy Minister the importance of making sure that we have a high-wage, high-protection, high-skilled labour market to ensure that we can deliver the net zero transition and seize the opportunities of the green industrial revolution. The times have moved on. We have a new net zero focus, and clearly high wages and high skills are really at the centre of what we are trying to do as a Government.
That will be more crucial than ever as we rebuild our economy from the devastating impact of coronavirus. From the outset, the Government have acted decisively to provide an unprecedented package of support to protect our workers’ and our people’s livelihoods. The coronavirus job retention scheme, the first intervention of its kind in UK history, delivers countrywide support to protect millions of British workers. The scheme has helped 1.2 million employers across the UK to furlough 9.9 million jobs and has now been extended until April 2021.
Enforcement bodies are continuing to protect vulnerable workers and to work with businesses to promote compliance throughout the epidemic. We are concerned about reports suggesting that threats about firing and rehiring are being used as a negotiating tactic. We have been clear—
The Secretary of State is speaking about fire and rehire, and his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury told me that those tactics were completely unacceptable. Does the Secretary of State agree with those comments and does he share my concern? In September of last year, I met the chief executive of British Gas about that specific dispute and he tried to suggest that they were not using those tactics, despite having written to members in July to do just that. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is completely unacceptable in our labour market?
I think it is unacceptable. I will go further—as a constituency MP, I have a large number of constituents in Spelthorne who work for British Airways and I spoke directly to the old CEO, Alex Cruz, who has since left the company, and made exactly the points that the hon. Gentleman has just made to me. It is not acceptable.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his unequivocal indication that he condemns this practice. If that is so, will he legislate to outlaw it once and for all? We will support him if he does.
As I was saying, we have been very clear that this practice is unacceptable and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who is the Minister responsible for labour markets, has condemned the practice in the strongest terms on many occasions in this House. We have engaged ACAS to investigate the issue and it is already talking to business and employee representatives to gather evidence of how fire and rehire has been used. ACAS officials are expected to share their findings with my Department next month and we will fully consider the evidence that they supply.
The House should be left in no doubt that the Government will always continue to stand behind workers and stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur. The Government have worked constructively with businesses and unions throughout the pandemic to ensure that our workers remain safe and we will continue to do so as the UK looks towards economic recovery. I am proud of the constructive relationship I had with trade unions in my former role as Minister of State for energy and I fully intend to continue in this vein as the newly appointed Business Secretary. I have already reached out to the union leaders and I spoke to the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, only last week.
I want to conclude by reassuring employees across the country that we in Government continue to acknowledge the immense efforts our workers—our workforce, our people—have contributed to the effort against coronavirus. These are unprecedented times, and we fully understand the pressures that we are all labouring under. We will use the opportunities created by leaving the EU to build back better and maintain a world-leading position on employment rights. The House should be in no doubt that we are the party on the side of the hard-working people of this country.
In his rather selective recollection of what the Government have done on workers’ rights over the past 10 years, the Secretary of State forgot to mention the reduction of consultation periods, the increase of qualifying periods for unfair dismissal and the introduction of employment tribunal fees. Will he mention those things, because they were certainly detrimental to working people in this country?
What I will mention is the introduction of the national living wage—[Interruption.] I will also mention the fact that we have doubled the personal allowance, which was at £6,450 when we came to office in 2010 and is now hitting £12,000. We take no lessons or lectures from the Labour party on helping the most vulnerable people in our society. This Government have a proud history of protecting and enhancing workers’ rights, and we are committed to making the UK absolutely the best place in the world to work.
Before I open the Floor to other Members for their contributions, I can confirm to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister will not be moved this evening.