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Strikes: Cover by Agency Workers

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with (1) employers, (2) employment agencies, and (3) trade unions, about their plans to remove regulation 7 of the Conduct Regulations 2003 to allow agency staff to cover for striking workers.

My Lords, the removal of Regulation 7, which gets rid of an outdated blanket ban on employment businesses supplying agency staff to cover strikes, is about ensuring that the British public do not have to pay the price for disproportionate strike action. We consulted extensively on this in 2015 and have carefully considered the responses received when deciding to proceed. In our view, further consultation is unlikely to bring up fundamental issues not already raised.

I thank the Minister for his response, but he will not be surprised to hear that it is just not good enough. He has not consulted trade unions or employment agencies and, with respect, he does not even want to consult Parliament. That is the simple truth of it. Just last week—and I am not sure whether this is government policy—he claimed that unions do not represent anybody. That is crazy stuff—tell it to the 6 million trade unionists in this country. Will he at least listen to the bosses of Hays, Adecco, Manpower and 10 other major UK recruitment firms when they warn him that these strike-breaking proposals are likely to inflame and prolong disputes, not solve them?

The noble Lord will not be surprised to know that I do not agree with him. We did consult the trade unions; in fact, the TUC submitted a petition of 25,000 names against the proposals, so they clearly had a chance to comment. We will of course consult Parliament when the regulations are debated.

My Lords, there is a huge workforce crisis across the United Kingdom and a shortage of people. Does the Minister not believe that, rather than using agencies to cross picket lines, he should be working with agencies and other groups to try to plug the hole in Britain’s workforce?

I am not sure of the point the noble Lord is making. We want to work with all the appropriate agencies to, as the noble Lord says, plug the hole in the workforce.

My Lords, what sort of importance do the Government place on international trading partners meeting their commitment to the ILO’s fundamental conventions? If the noble Lord thinks it is important, can he tell us what assessment the Government have made of the compatibility of these regulations with the Human Rights Act, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and the UK’s commitment to the ILO’s fundamental conventions, including article 3 of convention 87?

We are confident that we are meeting all our international obligations. We are not interfering with the right to strike; workers still have the right to take strike action, provided they fulfil the legal tests required. We are confident in our legal advice on this.

My Lords, when these regulations are repealed, will the Government make sure that suitable points are put in place to safeguard worker and consumer safety? Some agencies have objected on the grounds that unqualified people might be drafted in to do these jobs. It is important that safety regulations are in place to look after consumers and workers, whether they are in trade unions or not.

I agree completely with my noble friend’s point. None of these regulations affects the existing safety provisions. Any staff who are drafted in will have to meet all the appropriate safety obligations that existing workers meet.

My Lords, why do the Government need the most restrictive measures in Europe? Why can they not follow the German model of working with working groups and trade unions to resolve disputes before they happen? What has changed between now and the P&O dispute, when the Government took a very hard line? They seem to be now doing exactly the same as P&O.

We are always happy to work with organisations that want to work with us. The P&O situation is entirely different; it seems clear that P&O acted unlawfully, although that is being investigated at the moment. We have a commitment to bring in legislation for minimum wage protection for seafarers.

My Lords, prices have been rising at 9.1% per annum and wages are rising, on average, at 4%. This means that working people are looking at a cut in real wages of 5% per annum. Would not the Government be better off trying to cap prices, rather than undermining trade unions for defending the living standards of working people?

If the view of the modern Labour Party is that capping prices is effective in a modern industrialised market economy then I truly despair.

My Lords, do the Government actually believe that there is a right to strike? In the railways dispute and in the potential disputes for airline staff, the votes were overwhelmingly in support of strike action and these strikes are absolutely legal, yet the Government seek to use secondary legislation to completely undermine the trade unions. Has Jacob Rees-Mogg convinced the Tory party that we should go back to the 18th century Combination Acts?

I meant yes in terms of believing in the right to strike; let me clarify that for the benefit of the House. Nothing in these regulations inhibits the right of workers to go on strike. It is worth pointing out that employers can currently employ people directly to take the place of striking workers. All these regulations would do would be to allow for them to bring in agency workers—although, of course, they still have to meet all the appropriate safety provisions my noble friend mentioned earlier.

My Lords, is it any coincidence that these proposals are being made during the course of a dispute in the railway industry? Is the country supposed to believe that there are agencies out there that can recruit signallers, train drivers or booking clerks to take over the jobs of those who are on strike? Is this not yet another example of an overpromoted Secretary of State seeking a newspaper headline?

This is not specifically targeted at the current rail strikes. The regulations will apply to all sectors of the economy, not just the rail sector.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, mentioned the letter that the heads of the major agencies wrote to the Secretary of State. In that letter they said:

“we can only see these proposals inflaming strikes—not ending them.”

Will the Government take the advice of these experts in employment and back down from this measure?

If agencies do not wish to take part in the freedoms offered by these regulations then it is entirely their right not to do so.

My Lords, this is hardly St Francis of Assisi, is it? As this is not specifically about the rail workers, are the Government confident that they will find these armies of agency junior doctors and junior barristers down the track?

As I said, this applies in all sectors of the economy. Agencies already supply a considerable number of personnel in the fields that the noble Baroness mentioned.

My Lords, even the Prime Minister condemned P&O’s violation of employment laws, and now the Government are going ahead with implementing those despicable practices in UK law. Could the Minister tell us what other bad practices they are ready to implement?

I answered that question earlier. This is an entirely different situation from the P&O dispute, as it was at the time. We were committed to taking action to prevent abuses such as that, and we are still committed to that. This is an entirely different situation.

My Lords, agencies might be able to help with one or two spare government appointments at present: independent adviser to the Prime Minister, chairman of the Conservative Party, et cetera. Have the Government considered approaching the agencies on that?

The noble Lord pursues an innovative line of questioning that I did not consider in all the preparation I did for this. It is clearly something that I will want to bear in mind.