There is no Government plan to reduce workers’ rights, Kwasi Kwarteng has said.
The newly appointed Business Secretary assured MPs the Government will not row back on the 48-hour weekly working limit, adding that on his watch, “there will be no reduction in workers’ rights”.
His comments came as Labour warned a better deal for working people is “essential” as the UK emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Shadow employment rights secretary Andy McDonald made the plea as he moved a Commons motion urging for all existing employment rights and protections to be maintained, including the 48-hour working week, and for legislation to end fire and rehire tactics.
It followed Labour’s first non-binding motion of the day which asked the Government to drop its plans to “force” councils to increase council tax in the middle of a pandemic and was approved by 210 votes to zero, majority 21.
Opening the debate on employment rights in the Commons, Mr McDonald said: “This pandemic has exposed the many deficiencies of workers’ rights protections and now there is a real yearning that when we emerge from this crisis, a better deal for working people is not only possible but essential.”
Mr McDonald added it is “shocking” the Government would even consider a review to “rip-up the hard-won rights” of working people, amid concerns over the 48-hour working week, rest breaks and the inclusion of overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements.
But Mr Kwarteng told MPs he wanted to be “extremely clear” that the Government will not reduce workers’ rights.
He added that the practice of firing and rehiring workers is “not an acceptable thing”.
The Business Secretary told the Commons: “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.”
He added: “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.”
Asked by Mr McDonald whether he will “legislate to outlaw” fire and rehire tactics “once and for all”, Mr Kwarteng said: “As I was saying, we have been very clear that this practice is unacceptable and (minister Paul Scully) has condemned this practice in the strongest terms on many occasions in this House.
“We have engaged Acas to investigate the issue and they are 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, in February, and we will fully consider the evidence that they supply.”
But Labour former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Mr Kwarteng’s promises to uphold workers’ rights should not be trusted.
He told the Commons: “I wasn’t shocked to learn that the Tories were reviewing trade union rights – it’s what Tory governments do every time they’re elected.”
He added: “Nobody can trust the assurances from the Secretary of State this evening, a man who has spent his life threatening trade unions and employment rights.”
Meanwhile, Conservative Lee Anderson (Ashfield) said the “real workers” in the UK are “sick to death” of Labour “moaning all the time”.
He added: “I’ve done my time, done my graft, done my shift down the pits, but what do they really know about workers’ rights? Absolutely nothing, because most of them have never done a proper day’s work in their life.”
Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said it is “pretty clear” that the Government looked at whether to scrap existing employment rights.
He told the Commons: “Never denied in this debate (is) that they have spent weeks examining whether to scrap existing workers’ rights. We know they planned a consultation, we know they’ve talked to business about it.
“Indeed we know from (Kwasi Kwarteng) only last Tuesday at the select committee and I quote, ‘We wanted to look at the whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep’.
“It’s pretty clear they were looking at whether to scrap these rights and the truth is, and of course I welcome this, that they’ve been forced to climb down today because of the outcry.
“But this does not merit a pat on the back. The very fact that they were considering taking away vital rights to 40-hour limits, on workers’ rights for nurses, ambulance drivers, lorry drivers, supermarket delivery drivers speaks volumes.”
In the earlier opposition day debate on proposed council tax increases, Labour MPs had warned that the local government funding settlement will result in a “Conservative council tax bombshell”.
Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed said the Government’s plans to allow councils to raise council tax by 5% will “clobber hard-pressed families”.
However, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said the Conservatives have “reduced council tax in real terms under our watch”.