Skip to main content

Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government why, having suffered a defeat in the High Court, they are seeking to revive the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

My Lords, the High Court overturned the Government’s previous repeal of Regulation 7 of the conduct regulations due to insufficient consultation. The Government continue to believe there is a strong case for removing what is a blanket restriction, which disproportionately interferes with the freedoms of both employers and agency workers. The purpose of the consultation is to gather views and evidence to better inform a future decision on whether to proceed with repealing Regulation 7.

I thank the Minister for the reply, but I am sure he realises that there is no demand whatever for this measure from employers or trade unions. Rather like the deduction of TU subs, which was debated yesterday, this is seen as a being a rather spiteful attack on trade unions. How many more Conservative votes does the Minister wish to dispose of from the trade union movement? I also have a question for the Labour Opposition. I was at the TUC on 9 December, and there was a widespread feeling of “We’ll believe it when we see it” around the changes we may or may not get to trade union legislation. I did send the Leader of the Opposition an email—

I thank the noble Lord for his supplementary question. The right to strike is enshrined in UK law. There is no ambition on the part of the Government to undermine that fundamental right. But there is a balance to be struck between the rights of employers and agency workers being able to find work if there is work available. Therefore, this consultation will focus entirely on whether there is a need for private companies to be able to provide agency staff where they have a need for employment.

My Lords, the REC, which supplies agency staff, warns that allowing bosses to bus in strike-breakers risks extending disputes by inflaming tensions between trade unions and employers. Unions and even the Government’s own impact assessment agree it will undoubtably worsen industrial relations and lead to prolonged strike action. How can the Minister possibly justify pushing ahead with these damaging and counterproductive measures when employers, unions and even the Government—that is a first—all agree it will poison industrial relations and make it much more difficult to resolve disputes?

Well-run companies can operate only with the consent of their workforce. Well-run bosses run companies well with the consent of their workforce. Therefore, no well-run company wants to be a position where there are disputes with its workforce except in extremist situations. Bringing in agency workers is never a panacea, and is quite often more expensive. Well-run companies would not want to do that. It would be only in extreme situations where I could ever envisage this happening.

My Lords, on 20 June 2016, the relevant committee of the International Labour Organization called on the Government to review the proposal to revoke Regulation 7 with the social partners—that is to say the unions and employers’ associations—bearing in mind that

“the use of striker replacements should be limited to industrial action in essential services”.

The Government’s response was to undertake to the ILO that they would conduct such a review. However, by 13 July this year—seven years later—in the judgment to which the noble Lord refers, the Government had not done so. Will they do so now?

To be very clear, the appeal was put forward on two bases: the first was on the lack of consultation and the second was on the merits of Article 11. The court did not find on the second, only on the first. Therefore, the consultation is being done between now and mid-January, with a view to collecting views from all registered parties so that a decision can be made in the future or not.

My Lords, given that nobody wants this—the employers and the trade unions do not want it—what is motivating the Government to bring forward legislation that nobody wants?

As I said before, a decision has not been made on this—a consultation is going on. Regulation 7 is in some ways interference with the operation of private companies and other employers, and sometimes prevents work-seekers being offered employment in legitimate circumstances. We are trying to get the balance right here between maintaining the right to strike and providing companies with the ability to service their clients and fulfil their revenue.

My Lords, could the Minister inform the House, either now or in a Written Statement, of the cost of developing, processing, enacting and defending this unlawful legislation? Can he also promise to refer this legislation and the court case to the newly appointed Minister of State without portfolio as an example of how the Government waste public money?

I think the decision was made on the basis that the court decided that full consultation had not taken place on what we would all agree is an important matter in employment law. It was quite legitimate to say that the consultation should be rerun. It was decided not to appeal the decision—so public money was saved in that regard—but that the consultation should be now run in the ordinary course.

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for his support and his dogged opposition to this terrible legislation. I want to state again that employers do not want it, trade unions do not want it and the High Court has ruled against it, so what are these exceptional circumstances that the Minister has just mentioned?

There are legitimate circumstances where a company wants to fulfil its orders and contracts, and look after its clients, and, for whatever reason, it can find agency staff but the workforce do not want to work. I agree that it is an unusual situation. All this is doing is trying to balance the rights of employers and employees.

My Lords, will my noble friend at some stage—he may not have the answer today—look at all the legislation that has been passed by successive Conservative Governments on trade union reform? Will he place in the Library a list of all those that have been reversed subsequently by any Labour Government?

It actually exists—it is three pages long and will take 10 minutes to read. It is very clear: most of it outlines the Conservative reform agenda for trade unions, and there is a very small section on Labour reverses.