Business Secretary Greg Clark was accused of “freelancing” for the EU after he endorsed an idea to extend the transition period to 2022.
Tory Brexiteer Philip Davies demanded a clarification of Government policy in the Commons after Mr Clark appeared to back an idea to keep the UK tied to Brussels for up to two further years.
Mr Clark, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, said the option of extending the transition period at “our discretion” could help businesses having to potentially change working practices twice.
He said: “It would be for this purpose, if the negotiations are making good progress but haven’t quite been finalised, to have the option – and it would be an option for us, and there is value in having an option – in rather than going in for a temporary period into the backstop and having a second change, to have the option, if the UK wanted, to extend the transition period.”
Mr Davies, speaking at business, energy and industrial strategy questions, said: “The question is really whether we leave the EU at all.
“Yesterday on the Today programme the Secretary of State was arguing in favour of a proposal by the EU to extend the implementation period to the end of 2022.
“So was the Secretary of State doing his usual EU freelancing or is that now the official policy of the UK Government?”
Business Minister Richard Harrington responded: “The Government wants to finish the future trading relationship with the EU as quickly as possible and (Greg Clark) mentioned one alternative to achieve this.”
Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said: “Brexit can’t result in a race to the bottom in workers’ rights and protections, but sadly the EU withdrawal agreement does not guarantee that it won’t.”
Mr Clark said he had met TUC secretary general Frances O’Grady to discuss the agreement’s provisions, adding: “When it comes to our record of protecting the rights of employees, she should have more confidence in this country and in this House.
“We are perfectly capable, we’ve been leaders for many generations in protecting and promoting workplace rights, we don’t need to be required to do so by the EU, this House can do it itself.”
Ms Long-Bailey replied that trade unions were not on his call and “even before we leave the EU many workers are being treated shamefully”.
She raised the issue of cleaners and security staff on “poverty wages with few rights and protections”, adding: “Two months without action since I wrote to him about the treatment of his own staff. How can we trust him to protect workers in the UK now, let alone stop a race to the bottom?”
Mr Clark replied: “We value very highly the colleagues in our department and across Government who do very important work in public service, and I have made a commitment that we will always treat them well including in terms of their pay and conditions.”
He said small and large businesses “are very clear that this deal will help give the confidence that will allow investment to be made and jobs to be created and preserved across the country”.
Shadow international trade minister Bill Esterson claimed the Prime Minister’s “botched Brexit deal creates uncertainty for business”.
Mr Clark replied: “I don’t know if he has read the proposed agreement, certainly business leaders have, and they have been warmly supportive of it and there are good reasons for that.
“One of the things that he should know that businesses have asked for is that there will be a transition period leading up to an agreement that we should be able to trade without tariffs, without quotas and without frictions.
“This agreement provides for that and it’s one of the reasons it’s been endorsed by businesses up and down the country.”