The business secretary has confirmed his department is reviewing how EU employment rights protections could be changed after Brexit, while insisting they will not be watered down.
The Guardian understands a consultation on employment rights was signed off by Kwasi Kwarteng’s predecessor Alok Sharma, who left after being given a full-time role leading preparations for the Cop26 climate conference. Insiders say the consultation is ready to launch and has been circulated among some select business leaders.
Following reports last week that the government was examining EU rules such as the working time directive, which sets a maximum 48-hour week, ministers said they were not eroding protections.
But speaking to the business, energy and industrial strategy committee on Tuesday, Kwarteng confirmed his department was carrying out a consultation with business leaders on EU employment rules, including the working time directive.
Asked by the committee chair, Labour’s Darren Jones, to outline the review, Kwarteng confirmed it was happening. “I think the view was that we wanted to look at the whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep, if you like,” he said.
However, he added, the plan was to maintain “a really good high standard for workers in high employment and a high-wage economy. That’s what I’m focusing on. And so the idea that we’re trying to whittle down standards, that’s not at all plausible or true.”
On the working time directive, Kwarteng said a number of EU countries had opted out of it, adding: “So, even by just following that we are way above the average European standard. And I want to maintain that, I think we can be a high-wage, high-employment economy and a very successful economy. And that’s what we should be aiming for.”
However, just five countries have an opt-out of the time directive that applies to all sectors – and the UK is one of the five. Eleven other countries have limited opt-outs for specific sectors, mostly applying to doctors and medical staff.
Asked about his role in Britannia Unchained, a 2012 collection of essays by then Tory backbenchers calling for reduced worker protections, Kwarteng told the committee that was “a long time ago”.
He said: “We are absolutely looking at safeguarding employment rights. I know there’s been stories in the newspapers that there’s going to be some sort of bonfire of rights. This could not be further from the truth.”
According to the report in the Financial Times, proposals in the review also cover rules about breaks at work, and removing overtime pay when calculating certain holiday pay entitlements.
Another proposal would be to get rid of the requirement for businesses to log information about daily working hours, to save on administration costs.
Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, said Kwarteng had “let the cat out of the bag” after initially dismissing media reports.
“A government committed to maintaining existing protections would not be reviewing whether they should be unpicked. This exposes that the government’s priorities for Britain are totally wrong,” he said.
“Neither workers nor business want ministers to take a wrecking ball to the hard-won rights of working people and families.”