When the UK made the decision to leave the EU in June, the country was thrown into a state of panic. No one had anticipated the Brexit camp would be successful, not least those fronting the Brexit campaign. Almost six months on and we’re still none the wiser about what the UK will look like outside of the EU. Any attempts to answer questions, quell fears or offer reassurance that someone at the top knows what is going on have simply thrown up more questions. In late November, Theresa May, the recently appointed Prime Minister told the Sunday Times “Brexit keeps me awake at night”. Yes, you and the 16 million other people who voted to ‘Bremain’.
Our only choice may be to walk into this blindly and fight the fights as they arise, but what exactly does this mean for things like employment law? Despite reassurances from May that Brexit won’t mean scrapping all laws and starting from scratch, this hasn’t stopped vocal Conservative MPs for telling firms to draw up a list of rules and regulations they’d like to reject or reform post-Brexit. Michael Gove and John Whittingdale encouraged the CBI business group that companies should start thinking about laws they could do without.
On the face of it, it sounds terrifying. It evokes visions of businesses abolishing workers rights overnight while the Brexit voters look on like turkeys voting for Christmas. But what exactly is there to abolish? Many of the key laws and protections that workers are worried about actually predate our membership in the EU, and the UK versions of many laws are some of the most generous in Europe.
The UK’s maternity leave and pay laws predate the EU, and are some of the most generous in the world. It’s also hard to imagine how we could abolish discrimination rights. Instead, what is more likely is that a cap could be introduced to discrimination compensation, as there already is for unfair dismissal compensation. It’s difficult to see large companies being able to draft bulk settlement agreements in anticipation of Brexit, but without clear answers all we can do is speculate.
Commentary cropping up around the topic is somewhat bipolar, with employment lawyers calling on sceptics to be sensible, because of course it wouldn’t make sense for the UK to simply scrap these laws. On the other side, the sceptics are understandably antsy about the state of affairs. Without clear answers, all we can do is speculate and fear the worst case scenario.
Let’s not forget, however, that all of this could prove fruitless if the Supreme Court rules that MPs should be consulted before triggering article 50. That could plunge Britain into years of Brexit limbo, endlessly tussling between leave and remain.