This week, we finally heard David Cameron's speech on the future of the UK's relationship with the EU. If you haven't yet heard it, you can access the speech here.
In a nutshell, if the Conservatives win the next general election, the Prime Minister has promised to seek to renegotiate the terms of the UK's membership within the EU. After which, he will offer Britain an "in or out" referendum on Europe by the end of 2017 at the latest. Cameron's stated aim is for "the British people to have their say....to settle this European question in British politics". Although there has been much debate as to whether the true purpose behind this referendum pledge is to placate Cameron's backbench MPs and obtain electoral gains from UKIP.
Regardless of the politics that is driving the referendum pledge, any renegotiation, or if the UK does end up leaving the EU, could lead to huge implications for UK employment law and employers. Many Conservative MPs have already given notice to the Government that employment laws dealing with issues such as working time and maternity rights should feature as a priority on the renegotiation agenda. Cameron himself has indicated his desire to opt out of the Working Time Directive.
As we all know, since coming into power the Coalition Government has been undertaking an ongoing programme of employment law reforms which it considers will help businesses hire staff and boost the economy. In April 2012, we saw the qualifying period for unfair dismissal rights increase from one to two years. This year, we are expecting more changes to employment law with the proposed employee shareholder status where employees give up certain employment rights in return for shares in the business and the introduction of fees in the Employment Tribunal.
However, many of our employment laws are derived from or heavily influenced by EU legislation including:
• anti discrimination laws protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of race, age, sex, disability etc;
• rights for agency workers and part time workers;
• pregnancy and maternity rights;
• working time regulations which set a maximum average 48 hour week and entitlement to minimum rest breaks;
• the right to a minimum entitlement of paid annual leave;
• equal pay; and
• collective redundancies and TUPE.
The UK's membership of the EU has had a huge impact on our employment rights as UK citizens, which many Conservative members of the Coalition Government see as 'red tape' preventing businesses from operating efficiently and flexibly. It is hard to see the EU agreeing to wind back the clock to something akin to John Major's opt out of the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, which might allow the UK to compete on the basis of a less restricted labour market than our European neighbours. But if this did occur or if a referendum resulted in the UK pulling out of the EU, there is a risk that many of the above employment rights could be vulnerable to repeal, if not watered down significantly.