Michael Tomlinson is MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole.
From time to time, sweeping claims are made that the Conservative Party is for the privileged few, and that only the Labour Party sticks up for the working man or woman. It is also said that when we leave the EU, workers’ rights will no longer be protected.
At any rate, these are the subject of today’s debate in the Commons, and the argument can be summarised as follows: the Conservatives can’t be trusted with workers’ rights; and the EU protects them. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Workers’ rights existed before we joined the EU, as we shall see and, at every turn, it is Conservative Prime Ministers who have enshrined these rights into law.
Modern Conservatives, and I include myself here, call ourselves the true workers’ party. When this point is made in the chamber of the Commons, that bastion of free speech and ideas, it is met with hoots of derision from those on the benches opposite. But they are wrong, and here is why.
It didn’t start with David Cameron and the National Living Wage, or in Coalition, when more flexible working arrangements for families were introduced, although both these moves were significant. The journey started much earlier than that. Let me take you back to 1802 and to Sir Robert Peel. He introduced the very first Factories Act – or to give it its full title, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. For the very first time, working hours and conditions of labour were regulated. Please for the moment ignore the fact that Peel’s Act was widely viewed as ineffectual, and instead focus on the point that it was a Conservative who started the process of putting workers’ rights onto the statute book. His son – the Prime Minister of the same name – continued the trend by bringing in amending legislation.
Let us wind forward to 1878, where we find Benjamin Disraeli taking up the cudgel and consolidating legislation further to protect workers. His Factories Act of that year was designed to address the problems he identified in his seminal work Sybil. This act of consolidation was repeated in 1901 by Lord Salisbury, another Conservative Prime Minister. Let’s not dwell on another further reform – Stanley Baldwin’s Old Age Pension Act of 1925 – and instead press on to 1937, when Neville Chamberlain further protected workers’ rights. Another Factories Act – under, and you guessed it, yet another Conservative Prime Minister. Macmillan had another go in 1961, and there would have been a Conservative Health and Safety Act of 1974, but for the small matter of a general election turning out Edward Heath
Enough of the history lesson. The point is this: when, today, Parliament debates the impact of leaving the EU on workers, there will be more howls of doom and gloom from those who want to deny the will of the people. It will be said that the Conservatives cannot be trusted to look after workers. It will be said that we need to remain in the EU to protect their rights. All this is wrong. Labour try to talk tough, but it is left to us Conservatives to deliver.
Theresa May, in her very first speech to the Conservative Party Conference as Prime Minister, confirmed that the body of existing EU legal rights will be converted into British law. Exactly the same rules and laws will apply to workers after Brexit as they did before.
In that speech, she called us the Workers’ Party. She is right. Workers’ rights did not start with the EU, nor will they end when we leave. We can be confident that under the May’s stewardship the rights of workers will be protected. I call on her to do what her famous Conservative predecessors Peel, Disraeli, Salisbury, Baldwin, Chamberlain, Macmillan and Cameron have done, and to go even further – to enhance these protections to ensure that Britain works for everyone. Because workers’ rights are both a very Conservative and a very British affair.