Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK business secretary, has cancelled a post-Brexit review of workers’ rights after a storm of protest led by trade unions and opposition Labour MPs.
The Financial Times reported last week that employee protections enshrined in EU law — including the 48-hour maximum working week — could be torn up under the controversial proposals.
Ministers initially refused to say whether the review even existed. Then they conceded the existence of the review by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis), but insisted that it would not lead to any dilution of workers’ rights.
On Wednesday night Mr Kwarteng finally told ITV News: “The review is no longer happening within Beis.”
The proposals are understood to have been drawn up by civil servants when Alok Sharma was business secretary, with the encouragement of Downing Street. They ranged from not including overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements to ending the requirement for businesses to log employees’ working hours.
The move is part of a wider drive by Number 10 to review EU legislation now that Britain is outside the bloc for the first time in four decades.
But some Tories feared that the employment plans would backfire among new working class Tory voters in the “red wall” seats taken from Labour in the 2019 election.
Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, said this week during a House of Commons debate on the issue that scrapping the 48-hour maximum working week “should not even be up for discussion”.
“That ministers are clapping key workers on the front step and considering forcing a longer working week on them via the back door shows how seriously out of step their priorities are with those of the British people,” he said.
Unite the Union, which had strongly criticised the review, welcomed its cancellation. Len McCluskey, general secretary, said: "Parents and the low paid will breathe a sigh of relief that the Tories are not yet coming for their rights. The epidemic of low pay and insecure work in this country are the real problems, not the basic rights of working people.”
Mr Kwarteng, who replaced Mr Sharma this month, said he believed Brexit gave the UK an opportunity to have “higher standards” rather than cutting them.
“I made it very very clear to officials in the department that we’re not interested in watering down workers’ rights,” he told ITV. “I can’t have been more clear about this on a number of occasions.”Mr Kwarteng co-wrote a 2012 booklet called Britannia Unchained, which called for deregulation and argued that British workers were among the most idle in the world. Last week he told the Commons business select committee that he should not be judged by comments made nearly a decade ago.
But Mr Miliband brought up Mr Kwarteng’s pamphlet during a Commons debate on Monday: “This was not some Whitehall accident, this is what they believe,” he said.