New business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has confirmed that the government is set to review workers’ rights after Brexit, but claims that they will not be watered down.
Kwarteng told the business, energy and industrial strategy committee that his department was carrying out a consultation with business leaders on the working time directive and other EU rules and regulations.
Asked by committee chair Darren Jones to outline the purpose of the review, the minister said: “I think the view was that we wanted to look at the whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep if you like”.
But he insisted that his plan was to continue with “a really good high standard for workers in high employment and a high wage economy. That’s what I’m focusing on. And so the idea that we’re trying to whittle down standards, that’s not at all plausible or true.”
Asked about the working time directive, Kwarteng said other EU countries had opted out of it before, adding: “So, even by just following that we are way above the average European standard. And I want to maintain that, I think we can be a high wage, high employment economy and a very successful economy. And that’s what we should be aiming for.”
The business secretary dismissed the committee’s questions about contributing to Britannia Unchained, a 2012 collection of essays by then Tory backbenchers which called for a reduction in workers protections.
In an introduction, the authors – including Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Liz Truss – claim UK workers “work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor”.
They said the UK should “stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the north and the south, women and men”.
Asked about the remarks, Kwarteng said it was “a long time ago”.
Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband commented: “After dismissing media reports and promising the government has no plans to rip up workers’ rights, Kwasi Kwarteng has now let the cat out of the bag and admitted that they are conducting a review of those rights – including opting out of the 48 hour week which protects workers in key sectors like the NHS, road haulage and airlines from working excessive hours.
“A government committed to maintaining existing protections would not be reviewing whether they should be unpicked. This exposes that the government’s priorities for Britain are totally wrong.
“Neither workers nor business want ministers to take a wrecking ball to the hard-won rights of working people and families.”