The Government’s review of EU employment rights may not lead to sweeping changes immediately but could be the first of several flare ups over workers’ rights.

The new business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng confirmed that government is looking at EU employment rights, when he addressed the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee this week.

“After initial doubt over whether a review was in fact taking place, we now know that the government is in consultation with business leaders over EU employment rights, including provisions around working time, which cover the 48 hour weekly limit, entitlement to rest breaks and holiday leave,” says Ashley Norman, partner in the Employment, Pensions & Immigration team at national law firm Bevan Brittan.

Kwasi Kwarteng has offered reassurances that there was no plan to whittle down employment standards, reiterating that the government aspires to maintain a high employment, high wage economy.

Norman points out the delicate line the government must tread: “The government does need to be careful given the broad requirement of the Brexit trade deal to maintain a level playing field with the EU member states. If the government were to make any significant changes to EU employment rules that gave the UK a real competitive advantage over its EU neighbours, it may be challenged in Europe – not to mention challenges from trade union leaders and opposition parties at home.

“The government also needs to balance the need to ease constraints on businesses by cutting red tape at a time of great economic pressure, with maintaining the rights and protections of individuals who are similarly stressed due to Brexit and the pandemic.”

The Business Secretary noted that some EU countries already take advantage of opt outs and derogations from the EU employment rights. Norman suspects this may be an area the government explores in the short term by seeking to water down certain rights within permitted EU rules.

He adds: “There may also be a more strategic objective behind the current review. It is a chance for the government to test the water to see how far it can go before it runs into significant opposition domestically and within the EU.”

Which other areas can we expect the government to look at? Norman says: “Many of us have wondered which areas of EU-derived employment law the government might seek to row back on over time. As well as working time, other potential areas for review might include agency worker protections or TUPE, the regulations which protect worker rights in certain circumstances when a new employer takes over a business or service. This may be the first, but it most certainly won’t be the last flare up over workers’ rights.”

Bevan Brittan’s Employment, Pensions & Immigration practice has continued to grow its profile and client base in the past 12 months, in sectors including health and social care, housing, higher education, central and local government and insurance and finance.

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