Eurosceptics dangle the prospect of big savings from less red tape if we leave the EU. Workers’ rights would seem to be high on the list. After all, Michael Gove, the Vote Leave campaign chair, describes EU employment laws as “excessive” and says they should have been devolved to national control.
That worries people like Labour’s Alan Johnson. In a speech yesterday, he raised the spectre that, after Brexit, there might be a threat to workers’ rights from “the swivel-eyed alliance of the right of the Tory Party, and UKIP”.
The Leave camp doesn’t spell out which regulations it would actually scrap – no doubt because it knows this would provide the labour movement with even more ammunition to attack Brexit.
However, Gove said last week that, after we left, “we wouldn’t have all the EU regulations which cost our economy £600 million every week”. This figure comes from Open Europe research on the EU’s 100 most costly laws. The third most expensive regulation is the working time directive, which sets rules on working hours, holiday, and the right to daily breaks. Rules on temporary agency workers are the fifth most costly. Combined, those two rules alone cost £6.3 billion a year – over 20% of Gove’s red tape figure.
Some in the Leave camp in the past were clearly itching for a bonfire of employment legislation. Dominic Raab, now a justice minister and Brexit campaigner, called for full repeal of the working time rules in 2011. The Leave camp really should tell the electorate whether they want to do this, if we quit the EU. And if they don’t want to axe them, they should admit that there aren’t any big savings in store from cutting red tape.
This is not to deny that there couldn’t be some useful tweaks to EU laws. The European Court has made a few troublesome judgements on how to interpret the rules, many of which employers cite as irritating or burdensome. The Prime Minister has also said he wants to see changes on how the rules apply to trainee doctors. Those seem sensible, if relatively minor, areas for potential revision.
What’s more, if we wanted to cut employment red tape, we could do that without leaving the EU. After all, the most notable rights Brits enjoy – from 28 days’ annual leave to 39 weeks’ paid maternity pay – are the UK gold-plating European rules, while George Osborne’s living wage is a purely British invention. It’s disingenuous to suggest this is a burden when often it is a self-imposed one.
But Brexiteers are trying to have the best of both worlds – combining vague reassurances that workers’ protections would not be under threat from a Brexit, with the equally vague promise of an Aladdin’s cave from removing previously untouchable EU laws. They can’t have it both ways.
Vote Leave did not respond to our request for comment.
Edited by Hugo Dixon