Boris Johnson strips worker and environmental protections from EU withdrawal bill

By on 22/12/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Prime minister Boris Johnson has rushed through the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. (Image courtesy: Arno Mikkor, Estonian Presidency/flickr).

The UK is a big step closer to leaving the European Union next month, following the passing of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – the latest version of which has been stripped of several key protections, clearing the way for a much harder Brexit.  

MPs in the House of Commons passed the bill by a majority of 124 votes on Friday. Prime minister Boris Johnson had been keen to rush this stage of the bill through before Christmas, paving the way for the UK to leave the EU on 31 January.

Johnson took full advantage of the 80-seat majority he won in last week’s general election, scrapping or watering down a number of protections present in the last bill, published in October. The promise to protect workers’ rights has been removed – with the government suggesting it will now be dealt with in separate legislation – as have environmental protections.

A previous commitment to accept into the UK unaccompanied refugee children from Europe is earmarked as an aim, but will not now be made law. Number 10 officials insisted that removing the amendment from law would make it easier to reach a deal on the issue with the EU by giving the government a more flexible negotiating position. 

In other changes to the bill, ministers will no longer be bound by legislation to provide updates on talks over the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU, or to ensure Parliament approves the government’s negotiating objectives. The bill also introduces a clause to rule out an extension to the 11-month transitional period, and powers to let lower courts overrule judgments from the European court of justice.

Oven-ready deal loses key ingredients

Johnson promised during the election to deliver his “oven-ready” Brexit deal, while the Conservative manifesto said the future EU relationship would allow the UK to “raise standards in areas like workers’ rights, animal welfare, agriculture and the environment.” The PM has now suggested that the UK will introduce separate legislation to protect standards, with the Guardian reporting him as saying that Britain’s right to make its own decisions on these issues is a key benefit of Brexit. “We will take advantage of these new freedoms to legislate in parallel on the environment, on workers and on consumer rights,” he said. “The very essence of the opportunity of Brexit is that we will no longer outsource these decisions. With renewed national confidence, we will take those decisions ourselves and answer to those who sent us here.

“This House should never doubt its ability to pioneer standards for the fourth industrial revolution, just as it did for the first.”

However, if the UK refuses to commit in trade talks to maintain standards at EU levels, then the trade deal will be a very thin one. To maintain a ‘level playing field’, the EU imposes tariff and regulatory barriers on countries with lower standards – preventing them from undercutting EU businesses. The decision to put into law the UK’s exit from the transition phase at the end of 2020 makes little practical difference, but if Johnson sticks to this promise then the brevity of the trade talks will also mitigate against a deep or wide-ranging agreement.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who will stand down in March after leading his party to its worst result since 1935, said the new deal “will be used as a battering ram to drive us down the path towards more deregulation and towards a toxic deal with Donald Trump that will sell out our NHS and push up the price of medicines. We remain certain there is a better and fairer way for Britain to leave the EU.”

Now that the ‘second reading’ of the bill is complete, the bill proceeds to committee stage – where each clause and any amendments may be debated.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Dimer Caprol says:

    A lot of working people in the North voted Tory thinking that immigrants would be kept out and they would reap the benefits. A am delighted to see that Johnson will give them their just desserts. They will be made to toil for their living with no recourse to unions or any safeguards. Lazy skivers will be forced to starve in Johnson’s glorious new Britain!

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