It’s not too late to drop Retained EU Law Bill before it wreaks chaos in our workplaces and courts
The new year has just begun, but the countdown has already started on a swathe of workplace law and environmental protections.
The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill which will be debated by MPs this week, takes a slash-and-burn approach to laws on the UK statue book that have their roots in EU legislation.
Under current plans, thousands of diverse and vital protections could automatically disappear at midnight on 31 December. These range from paid holiday leave to basic welfare conditions for the live transportation of animals and controls on the use of harmful chemicals. These are all essential – not merely nice-to-have.
It is abundantly clear that the government is flying blind with this bill
But it is not just key protections that are at risk. Also gone will be the case law that allows courts to interpret the law consistently. It will be up to ministers and officials first to identify the laws that are slated to go. Then, out of the thousands currently on the statue book, to decide which ones they want to keep. And then to steer regulations through Parliament – with limited time for scrutiny and no opportunity to amend the new laws.
It is hard to conceive of a set of circumstances more likely to lead to confusion and disarray. Just how the UK government and Parliament will cope with the vast amount of legislation this will involve being rushed through before the end of next year is anyone’s guess.
Cutting corners seems an inevitability – and with it comes a serious risk of inadequate or damaging law entering the statute book, with decades-worth of case law being upended along the way.
That is why we are coming together to call on ministers to press the stop button. We represent trade unions, company directors and environmental groups. Our perspectives are very different. But we are united in our fear that this reckless bill will unleash confusion and chaos in our workplaces and courts, with important rights lost along the way.
Both trade unions and good employers want to ensure that workers get at least the legal minimum of rest breaks; that pregnant workers receive the protection they are entitled to; and that there is certainty over the terms and conditions that are protected when workers are transferred to another employer.
Likewise, no one wants to see air pollution rules weakened, or sewage treatment standards disappear simply because the laws banning them have fallen away without MPs even having discussed them.
And we certainly do not want to be mired in long legal cases in an already overstretched court system, simply to re-establish valuable laws that have evolved over decades.
Clear rules are vital. They help to avoid disputes and to resolve them. This is something that ministers seem intent on ignoring as they press on with legislation that will wipe out thousands of pieces of legislation.
It is abundantly clear that the government is flying blind with this bill. Ministers have not set out a vision of what they want to achieve through this legislation, or what they would like employment law or environmental protection to look like in future.
These changes even risk putting the UK in breach of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement with the EU, bringing with it the prospect of additional tariffs which would hit both UK exporters and those who work for them.
In the wake of the pandemic and with recession looming, the last thing companies, workers and civil society need is more uncertainty. If the economy is to prosper and the environment safeguarded, they need stability.
So, our message to government is this: it is not too late – step back from the brink and drop this bill before lasting damage is done.
Paul Nowak is general secretary of the TUC. Roger Barker is director of policy and governance at the Institute of Directors. Ruth Chambers is senior fellow at Greener UK.
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