UK Politics

Brexit risk to equal pay laws, Women and Equalities Committee told

Plastic models of a man and woman standing on a pile of coins and bank notes Image copyright PA

Equal pay laws in the UK could be put at risk by the country's exit from the European Union, MPs have heard.

Prof Aileen McColgan said although the UK was a "leader" in areas of equality law, developments on equal pay had been "profoundly driven" by Europe.

Prof Catherine Barnard said that without minimum EU standards to abide by, the government could in future try to "lower" the bar.

The government says Parliament would have to vote to repeal equality laws.

'Politically sensitive'

The two professors were giving evidence to the Commons Women and Equalities Committee.

Asked what Brexit could mean for UK equality laws, Aileen McColgan, human rights professor at Kings College London, said "it would depend on the government of the day".

She said on one level "nothing need change" after the UK left the EU, as most directives had been implemented into UK law.

"But on another level it means there would be no underpinning or demand for maintenance of the current provisions, so... it is very troubling as the whole thing could be knocked away", she told MPs.

Asked what group she was most concerned about, Prof McColgan said: "I think in this matter it's gender, women".

She added: "My particular concern would be about equal pay... because it's probably economically rational to pay women as little as you can get away and if you don't have strong legislative provisions to prevent that, that is one of the areas that could be very problematic."

Catherine Barnard, professor of European law at Cambridge University, told MPs it would be very difficult for a government to repeal protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or religion and belief, as it was "so politically sensitive".

But age was a "more difficult" area because "exceptionally, discrimination on the grounds of age can be justified".

'Free for all'

The committee also heard that the potential impact on equalities law would depend on what Brexit model the UK negotiated with the EU.

If the UK opted for a Norway-style model, and remained a member of the European Economic Area, EU laws would continue to apply, Prof Barnard said.

"More difficult is if there is no model at all or a really hard Brexit," she added, as the UK would "lose EU law acting as this floor" and lobby groups were worried that a government may then "decide to lower the standards".

It could be "a complete free-for-all as far as employment law and equality legislation are concerned", she said, as it would be "for the government to decide which rules it wanted to keep" - although she acknowledged any changes would require parliamentary approval.

But she said those concerns had arisen because the current government and previous Conservative-Lib Dem coalition had been "most active" in areas where EU law did not apply - such as removing employment tribunal fees and changing the rules on unfair dismissal.

The government says the Equalities Act is part of UK law, even if some principles were founded on EU directives.

This means any changes would need MPs' backing, it says.

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