Following the long-awaited announcement from David Cameron as to when Britain’s European Union referendum will be, the debate is already hotting up. The Electoral Commission’s proposed wording for the referendum question has been accepted by MPs (“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”) and various politicians are lining up on either side of the Brexin or Brexit divide to discuss the issues.
According to recent opinion polls, there is a pretty even split in the electorate but, if the voting public plumps for remaining in the EU, the package of changes that David Cameron has agreed to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe will take effect almost immediately. Although some reports suggested that the Prime Minister’s wish list for the renegotiation included opt-outs from some employment legislation (relating to maximum working time and agency workers), these do not appear specifically in the final package agreed on 20 February and there is simply a generalised promise to work to reduce the burden of red tape on businesses.
If there is a Brexit vote, what will happen then? The answer is that nothing would happen immediately. Firstly, following a vote to leave the EU, the UK Parliament would have to endorse the referendum result by repealing the European Communities Act 1972 and other legislation to effect the divorce. Commentators have suggested that it would take at least two years, perhaps longer, for everything to be put in place. This transitional period would be spent negotiating a withdrawal agreement and the basis of the new relationship with the remaining EU countries, which would itself have to be ratified by Parliament. There would also be a lot of work for the government to do during this time to review the many EU-derived laws enshrined in our legal system and to decide which ones to keep or abandon. Until the end of the transitional period, Britain would have to continue to abide by EU treaties and laws (until any were repealed or amended by Parliament), but would not be able to take part in any decision-making.
In our blog following the Referendum Bill raised in the Queen’s Speech in May 2015, we discussed the possible implications for UK employment law in the event of a vote to leave the EU. It remains our view that it would be almost inevitable that the UK would try to reach a new trade agreement with the EU and this would be likely to require the acceptance or maintenance of some or all EU employment principles. The most likely candidates for change are agency workers and working time legislation – we can certainly envisage that the Agency Workers Regulations could be revisited in due course following a Brexit, along with limitations on or even the scrapping of maximum working hours. There is also the possibility that discrimination compensation could be capped and/or that exemptions could be put in place to relieve small employers of some of the burdens of discrimination and family friendly laws. However, it remains highly unlikely that the British public would stomach wholesale changes to laws that have become embedded in our national consciousness (anti discrimination laws being the prime example) so, aside from some tweaking around the edges, there may well be little change to employment laws following a Brexit.
Whatever the implications of staying or leaving, the referendum is scheduled to take place on Thursday 23 June so there’s a long way, and a lot of discussion to go, before you will need to decide which way to vote… unless you’re at Glastonbury that day, of course.