Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Kwarsi Kwarteng told a Select Committee his department is currently consulting with employers on changes to EU-derived workers’ rights.
He was being quizzed on a Financial Times report that revealed the government was considering changes to workers’ rights originating from the EU’s Working Time Regulations, which includes protections around holiday pay and rest breaks as well as limiting the number of hours an employer can force their workers to take on.
“I think the view was that we wanted to look at a whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep,” Kwarteng said.
He insisted his department would be “safeguarding employment rights” and that he was not “trying to whittle down standards” but did not specify which laws were being reviewed or, indeed, which ones he may not want to “keep”.
In 2012, Kwarteng was one of several Conservative MPs who contributed to the book Britannia: Unchained – a report that, in part, compared the “work ethic” of different nationalities.
The British, it said, were “among the worst idlers in the world”, comparing the nation’s workforce to those of America, China, South Korea and Hong Kong. It admitted that workers in the UK put in more hours than those in the economic powerhouses of Europe – including Germany – but this did not prevent the authors from concluding that factors including hard-won workers’ rights and unionisation, which have helped to limit the length of the working day, had caused the British to lose the “virtue of hard graft”.
“It was a long time ago,” Kwarteng remarked, when probed on the distaste for British workers he showed in the report. “A book written by a bunch of backbench MPs nearly ten years ago, I don’t think is particularly relevant to the kind of problems and issues that we now face,” the Secretary of State argued.
In fact, it would seem the report is very relevant indeed, not only because it reveals Kwarteng’s view on the very workers’ rights he is now consulting on, but because most of his coauthors – Priti Patel, Home Secretary; Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary; Liz Trust, Trade Secretary – now sit with him in cabinet.
Although Kwarteng insisted that he believes government must “work closely with trade unions on skills [and] employment opportunities”, there has been no suggestion that the consultation sent to business leaders on EU-derived workers’ rights has been shared with anyone in the labour movement.
“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,” Shadow Business Secretary, Ed Miliband, said.
“A government committed to maintaining existing protections would not be reviewing whether they should be unpicked.”