What Brexit means for women

Recently, an event was held in London, to discuss Brexit, and its effect on the rights of women and what might change following its implementation. As a participant, I had arrived with the view that it would be difficult to change the law as it stood, but new laws might be affected.

For the last 43 years, most if not all of our Equalities legislation has come through the European Union. For women in particular, that has changed both their entitlements and rights as matters from equal pay to maternity leave have been secured by that route. It is astonishing to think that women, up until that legislation was passed, had more rights in Anglo Saxon England than in the 800 or so years that followed the Norman invasion.

What transpired at the meeting caused much anxiety among those present. For it is the case that, as most if not all of our Equalities law emanates from Brussels. It has been adopted into UK law, so can be cut back by use of new powers currently going through Parliament.

There are several risk areas, according to the Fawcett Society, which cover rights at work, women’s economic life, safety from attacks and racism. Those explicitly protective of women such as the Pregnant Workers Directive, or indirect protection such as that provided by The Part Time Worker Directive and the Agency Directive, which protects pension rights, written contracts giving details of working hours and pay and parental leave. It matters for those working part time, where the majority are women.

The European Union Withdrawal Bill will bring into UK law the legislation that has passed through the European process. For a short period at least, those laws will still pertain.

The Bill however opens up a great deal more, according to Prof Catherine Barnard. With its ‘Henry VIII’ clauses, it gives Ministers and Civil Servants the right to change legislation by use of Statutory Instruments, allowing those in power to alter, delete, or impose new law without the proper Parliamentary process that most of us would expect. For women and other disadvantaged groups, the prospect is chilling.

If the economy is doing badly, the government can make it cheaper to employ a worker by removing rights given through the EU. The Working Time Directive, for example, could go. Workers could then be forced to work more than 48 hours a week. Maternity leave and paternity leave could both be cut or curtailed, without full scrutiny. The list of possibilities is long.

What of our MPs? They are not exempt, as they too may well find themselves caught in the Henry VIII trap, unable to put legislation into place even if agreed on all sides in Parliament, as Ministers will have the powers to repeal an amendment that has been so agreed.

The Conservatives have and are creating a very powerful executive, with little constraint and even less foresight.

* Flo Clucas OBE is the President of the ALDE Gender Equality Network and former President of the ALDE Group on the EU Committee of the Regions. She was a councillor in Liverpool City Council for 26 years.

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  • Addendum: Flo Clucas is a former President of the ALDE Gender Equality Network and former President of the ALDE Group on the EU Committee of the Regions. She was a councillor in Liverpool for 26 years and is now a councillor in Cheltenham.

  • 1. The use of EU legislation as a selling point of the Remain campaign (pre and post referendum) was always counter productive, and many still don’t get this. To say the EU was great because it protected us from ourselves and our parliament fed right into the Leave narrative

    2. The Lib Dems’ broad and inclusive narrative on Brexit is great. I hope this article, rooted in the narrative of identity politics (always regressive), isn’t a reflection of a shift from such a broad and inclusive platform to one of identity silos, which a very small number of people find very appealing, but is largely off putting or completely uninteresting to the vast majority of people

  • Richard Underhill 21st Sep '17 - 10:46am

    Flo, please comment on Caroline Lucas’ point that transferring EU policies into UK law is all very well, but the removal of the enforcement mechanism necessitates replacements.

  • One wonders if the author has actually read the Bill. The Government’s powers to amend the Bill are tightly constrained and expire on the day we leave the EU.

    ‘Peter Lilley: Don’t lose your head over ‘Henry VIII powers’ [September 2017]:

    The Government’s Bill contains Henry VIII clauses for reasons explained below, but it is paradoxical that they should be raised as a concern by pro-Europeans in the context of what the Government calls its ‘Great Repeal Bill’.

    After all, the purpose of this Bill is to repeal the greatest Henry VIII clause in our history. For 44 years the European Communities Act 1972, which implemented our membership of the European Community, has meant EU legislation has become binding on UK citizens with no power for Parliament to amend or reject it.

    Once a law was agreed in Brussels, even if every single British MP voted against it, it still became law.


    Inevitably, some EU laws contain references to EU institutions which will no longer be relevant post-Brexit. For example, EU regulations may require certain businesses to seek approval from, or report to, an EU body. In future, they will have to deal with an equivalent UK body. Thus simply transposing laws word for word would leave some laws ineffective.

    The Repeal Bill therefore includes Henry VIII clauses enabling the Government to amend existing EU laws by secondary legislation to make this sort of technical change, of which between 700 and 1000 such changes will be needed.

    Ministers can only use that power where the existing law would otherwise be ‘defective’. As the notes to the Bill say: “deficiencies, must arise from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The law is not deficient merely because a minister considers that EU law was flawed prior to exit.”

    If Ministers used it to change EU laws they do not like – as some have suggested is a danger – the Courts would strike such changes down.

  • Some interesting comments. As for the reference to Peter Lilley, I would far rather take the word of Prof Barnard in relation to EU legislation, Henry VIII powers and Brexit.
    Is this about identity politics? No. Women, who make up some 75% of part time workers may suffer disproportionately however. All those deemed to have protected characteristics likewise. The Working Time Directive applies to all workers, regardless of gender, disability, religious adherence, or race.

  • Yes, the government is on the brink of scrapping all laws which favour the rights of women, workers and any other group.

    Where is the evidence that Brexit will do this?

  • Ruth Bright 21st Sep '17 - 5:11pm

    James Pugh – I think Flo’s admirable interest in the rights of pregnant workers (in the region of 700,000 people each year) hardly represents a regressive slip into identity politics.

  • Catherine Royce 22nd Sep '17 - 11:23am

    James Pugh -women make up 52% of the population, we ARE the majority of the people.
    How pleased am I that you have stood down if you really think women’s rights are ‘largely off-putting and completely uninteresting’
    Thanks Flo for a thoughtful and considered piece, as always, while ever the Conservatives are in power we are going to have to watch like hawks to safeguard our hard-won rights, -the fight continues!

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