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 Great Repeal 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.