Minimum wage, workers' rights and the EU: Prime Minister's Questions, factchecked

Last updated: 08 Jun 2016

Minimum wage enforcement

“We’ve levied almost 5,000 penalties [on employers violating minimum wage regulations] since 2010 … penalties for not paying the minimum wage are at a record high, and the total value of penalties last year was over 15 times bigger than in 2010”—David Cameron

David Cameron’s claims about the value of penalties are correct, comparing since the 2009/10 tax year. To get 5,000, he’s rounding up from 4,700 penalties issued since 2010.

The total value of penalties in 2015/16 was just under £1.7 million, 15 times higher than the £110,000 collected in 2009/10, and the highest recorded value.

Some of the recent increases in penalties could be explained by more staffing and financial resources devoted to enforcing the minimum wage, highlighted by the Low Pay Commission.

About 4,700 penalties have been issued between 2010/11 and 2014/15. Downing Street directed us to previous figures from evidence reports reports to the Low Pay Commission, and one parliamentary question as the source.

The EU and workers' rights

“Mr. Speaker, what I do celebrate is the work done by trade unions all across Europe that persuaded the European Union to bring in four weeks' paid holiday, laws against sex discrimination, rights for part time workers, rights for agency workers.”—Jeremy Corbyn

It’s correct that the EU has laws guaranteeing rights in these areas.

A judgment by the Court of Appeal last year included a list of “EU-derived rights” that can be used in a British employment tribunal. It includes everything Mr Corbyn mentioned: “paid annual leave”, “discrimination (etc) related to sex”, “part-time workers discrimination” and “agency workers discrimination”.

Not all EU employment rights were new to the UK when they were introduced. For instance, “protection against sex, race and disability discrimination in the UK pre-dated EU law”, according to a legal analysis for the TUC.

And as the Prime Minister pointed out, in some cases UK law gives more rights than the EU minimum—giving 28 days’ paid holiday, for instance, where the EU demands at least 20.

It would be up to the UK to decide whether rights that do come from EU law were kept in UK law if we left.

The EU renegotiation deal

“The Prime Minister has repeatedly stated that he secured changes to reform the EU, will he now confirm that on the 23rd June the voters are not guaranteed any treaty change in EU law as no treaty change was achieved despite a promise to deliver one, and that international agreement cannot change EU law”—Richard Drax MP

“In the renegotiation we secured two vital treaty changes—one on getting Britain out of ever-closer union and on another for the protection of our currency.”—David Cameron

It is correct that Prime Minister’s renegotiation deal in February did not change the EU treaties. It gives a commitment to do so in future.

The deal says that the UK “is not committed to further political integration into the European Union” and rules out discrimination based on currency. It promises that this will be written into the EU treaties when they’re next revised, as the EU leaders making the deal have no power to change the treaties on their own.

Treaty change would need to be agreed on by all EU member countries and their national parliaments. Until these changes are made, the commitments Mr Cameron secured will not be binding in EU law.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worthless. The deal was made with the 27 other EU heads of state or government, so it’s a major political commitment. This also means that it’s legally binding in international law. But this kind of international law can’t be enforced by the EU court.  

We’ve previously looked into the legal situation in more depth.

EU vetoes

“What reassurance will my right honorable friend give the house that hardworking British taxpayers will not be forced to pour money into this EU black hole if our nation votes to remain in the European Union?”—Karl McCartney MP

“The reassurance I can give my honourable friend is that we fixed the EU budget for a seven year period between 2014 and 2020... and that cannot be changed, this is a very important point, the overall ceiling of spending is determined by all 28 prime ministers and presidents, there is a veto over changing it, just as there is a veto over the British rebate. The only person who can give up the British rebate is the British Prime minister, and as long as I’m standing here, as long as I’m Prime Minister there’s absolutely no prospect of that happening"—David Cameron

Mr Cameron is correct on the existence of these two vetoes: one on the overall size of the EU budget, and the other on the UK’s budget rebate (discount).

The amount that the EU is allowed to spend over seven years is set by a unanimous vote of member countries. Budgets for any one year within the seven-year cycle have to stay within these limits.

Although the limits are due to be reviewed by the end of 2016, when a proposal for changing them can be tabled, this too would have to be agreed by all countries.

No country can be forced to find more money to finance unpaid spending commitments from the previous seven-year cycle; that will have to come from the 2014-2020 pot.

The UK has benefitted from a rebate on its EU budget payments since 1984. This discount can’t be changed in future without the UK’s agreement.

That’s because the rebate is contained in an EU law that has to be passed by all member countries, which again gives the UK a veto over it.

Other countries may push for the UK to give up some or all of the rebate in exchange for other favours. This happened in 2005, for example.


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