Skip to main content

Code of Practice on Dismissal and Re-Engagement

Volume 837: debated on Monday 25 March 2024

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Code laid before the House on 19 February be approved.

Relevant document: 16th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this code of practice, which I will refer to as “the code” for the remainder of this debate, will give legal force to accepted standards about how employers should act when seeking to change employees’ terms and conditions.

The purpose of the code is to ensure that dismissal and re-engagement is only ever used as an option of last resort. The code also seeks to ensure that, where an employer wants to make changes to an employee’s terms and conditions, the employer engages in meaningful consultation with a view to reaching agreement with employees or their representatives in good faith. Employment tribunals will have the power to apply an uplift of up to 25% to an employee’s compensation if an employer unreasonably fails to comply with the code where it applies.

Between January and April 2023, the Government consulted on a draft code, enabling trade unions, employers and other interested parties to contribute their views. In accordance with the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, the Secretary of State also consulted ACAS on a draft statutory code before publishing it. Careful consideration was given to those views and, as a result, changes were made to the draft code. An updated draft code was laid in Parliament on 19 February.

The Government have been clear that threats of dismissal and re-engagement should not be used as a negotiation tactic by employers. When the Covid-19 pandemic led to cases of dismissal and re-engagement, the Government asked ACAS to conduct an evidence-gathering exercise to help us better understand the issue. That report was published in June 2021. The Government then went further and asked ACAS to produce new guidance to ensure that employers were clear on their responsibilities when making changes to employment contracts. That guidance was published in November 2021. ACAS has also published guidance for employees. The Government are now going even further to address the use of dismissal and re-engagement by bringing forward the code, aiming to ensure that this practice is only ever used as a last resort and that employees are properly consulted and fairly treated.

In all these discussions, we must balance protections for employees with business flexibility. There have been calls to ban the practice of dismissal and re-engagement and suggestions to legislate to restrict its use in a manner that amounts to an effective ban. This Government believe that we must preserve companies’ flexibility to manage their workforce in times of crisis. It is, therefore, right that we have mechanisms to enable us to save as many jobs as possible. The code is a proportionate response to dealing with controversial “fire and rehire” practices, balancing protections for employees with business flexibility. I know that the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing by their employees. For most employers, decisions to change terms and conditions are not taken lightly, nor is the choice to let members of their workforce go.

The UK is a great place to start and grow a business and has a strong labour market. Its success is underpinned by balancing labour market flexibility and worker protections. It is vital that we continue to strike the right balance, while clamping down on poor practice. If this code is approved by Parliament, it will be issued and brought into effect by the Secretary of State in accordance with the procedure set out in Section 204 of the 1992 Act. The Government intend for the code to be in effect by the summer.

I am aware that a regret amendment has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woodley. I will respond to it later in the debate. I hope that your Lordships will support the code. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

At end to insert “but this House regrets that the draft Code contains no effective measures to restrain unjustified use of fire and rehire; and fails to include any measures (1) contained in the Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill [HL], or (2) recommended by the International Labour Organization Committee on Freedom of Association’s Definitive Report 404 published in October 2023 on the matter of dismissals of 786 staff by P&O Ferries Limited”.

My Lords, I do not intend to repeat the arguments made earlier this month at the Second Reading of my Private Member’s Bill. However, I must again put on record my sincere belief that, irrespective of the comments the Minister has just made, the Government’s proposed code of practice is utterly toothless. It will do nothing to end the fire and rehire abuses taking place in this country.

Quite simply, I regret that the code does not impose any new legal duties on exploitative employers. I regret that it does not ensure that fire and rehire is used only as a last resort to prevent a business going bust—that is not the case out there in the field. I also regret that it does not make it any easier for workers or their unions to seek justice at an employment tribunal. My Bill would do all this.

The code imposes a paltry 25% uplift in any compensation which abused workers can claim, and that is only if they can win an unfair dismissal claim. That was hard to do at the best of times, even before the increase in fees.

It is clear that this code of practice is a fig leaf to cover the Government’s inaction and lack of any real desire to address the shameful practice of fire and rehire. It simply is not good enough. The working people of our country deserve much better.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, for being kind enough to write to me following our Second Reading debate. If I may, I will address some of the points he made in his letter to me.

As the Minister correctly pointed out, my Bill provides that, when an employee has been dismissed because they have refused to agree to a variation in contractual terms, the employer would not be able to rely on some other substantial reason as the reason for dismissal. Some other substantial reason, or SOSR as it is known by employment rights experts, is the gaping loophole I referred to at Second Reading, which allows bad bosses to ride roughshod over workers’ rights. Closing this loophole is a key purpose of my Bill, but I do not agree with the Minister in his logic when he writes:

“Almost all the cases of dismissal and re-engagement rely on this ground”—

that is, SOSR—

“as a potentially fair reason, therefore this would in effect ban the use of dismissal and re-engagement”.

If it is true that almost all fire and rehire cases rely on SOSR to avoid the judgment of unfair dismissal, this is proof that employment rights have been badly abused in the way that I and other noble Lords have long since warned against.

That aside, my Bill makes specific provision for genuine situations of last resort, when a company simply cannot afford not go ahead and cut wages and

“there is a real threat to continued employment”

in the light of

“the economic situation affecting the employer”.

I agree with that, and my Bill is clear on that. If an employer does their level best, given the circumstances, to fulfil the two obligations of consultation and disclosure, they have little to fear from using fire and rehire to reduce wages to the extent necessary to ensure economic survival of the company.

This gets us to the heart of the matter. The Government agree that fire and rehire should be used only as a last resort, but the code contains no measures to ensure that that is the case. It is, as I have said once already, utterly toothless. On the other hand, my Bill has teeth and can bite. Instead of the limited awards for unfair dismissal normally available, my Bill would allow for amounts such as the employment tribunal considers just and equitable—that is, it is uncapped, which may make a greedy employer think twice before they unfairly sack people. However, it does not ban fire and rehire in all circumstances, as the Minister suggested. That is an important point, which I do not believe that the Government have fully grasped.

The Minister responded to my question at Second Reading about whether the code would have prevented some of the most notorious examples of fire and rehire. I raise the bitter disputes at British Airways and British Gas, and now at Heathrow Airport, where Border Force staff just last week voted 90% in favour of strike action over enforced roster changes that would mean, effectively, a 20% pay cut for each and every one of them. The Minister replied that he was unable to comment on specific cases, but I suggest that the answer is that the code would not have stopped these abuses, or any similar ones, nor would it have stopped the appalling abuses by P&O Ferries two years ago. A number of sacked seafarers were rehired on worse pay and terms and conditions, although many where not; even today—the Minister may not know this—new hires are on less than £5 an hour. That is scandalous; it is not even the minimum wage, and it is happening right now.

The ILO report referred to in the amendment before noble Lords makes a number of recommendations to the Government, including that we should

“ensure mutual respect for the commitment undertaken in collective agreements … overcome challenges regarding the legislative prohibition on sympathy strikes”,

and ensure

“protection against acts of anti-union discrimination”,

including effective sanctions. My understanding is that the Government have failed to deliver on any of those measures, but I hope that my noble friend Lord Hendy, who will no doubt speak, will contribute more on this issue.

The Minister wrote back to me and said that the Government

“will be bringing forward legislation so that the 25% compensation uplift will also apply to the protective award”.

Can the Minister update the House on that proposed legislation, as I am sure it will be of great interest to your Lordships, or to me at least?

I do not wish to take up any more of your Lordships’ time by repeating arguments I have made many times before, so I will end on this point. Fire and rehire is deeply unpopular, with 70% of the Government’s own voters wanting to see the back of it. But this new code, if anything, actually legitimises this abusive practice and shows bad bosses how to get away with it, legally. In my opinion, enough is enough; it is time for change. When will this Tory Government finally fight back and stand up for ordinary workers who are being exploited day in, day out? Thankfully, Labour will take steps to end fire and rehire within the first 100 days of coming to power. I sincerely hope that that is the case, because working people at the sharp end cannot put up with this any longer. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.

My Lords, I am confident that the Minister will have read the Second Reading debate of my noble friend Lord Woodley’s Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill. I too do not intend to repeat the speech I made then, but I make no apology for repeating the most important points, because they were designed to expose whether the code will be the deterrent that the Government think it will be. I am personally extremely sceptical about that, for two very clear reasons, which I will repeat by way of explanation.

First, while this debate is ostensibly concerned with this somewhat anaemic code of practice, it engages much larger questions of access to justice, the balance of power between employers and workers, and, fundamentally, whether the code does what it purports to do and will shield workers from manifest injustice. Given that the introduction of this code was announced in response to P&O Ferries instituting mass redundancies in March 2022, I think it is legitimate to look back at what the Government said then. The then BEIS Minister, Paul Scully, explained the Government’s new commitment to introduce a statutory code of conduct. He did so in highly emotive and, one might say, colourful language. He described the practice of firing and rehiring as “deceitful” and “disgraceful”, labelled the actions of P&O “appalling” and “unscrupulous”, and vowed that the Government would “stand up for workers” against the flagrant disregard shown by companies that use sudden mass dismissal as a negotiating tactic.

Having raised these expectations, it is no wonder that there is manifest disappointment with the glacial emergence, over two years, of a code of practice that will impinge upon employers only at the point a case reaches tribunal. Testing whether or not that will be a deterrent is what I want to draw the Minister’s attention to. I did this in my contribution to the Second Reading debate, drawing attention to the issues of delay and the coming imposition of fees for tribunals. The Minister who responded to that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Lainston, was unable to pick up on those points in his winding up of the debate and offered to write—and, true to his word, he did write. I thank him for attempting to ease my anxieties but I confess that his letter was not wholly successful. Indeed, it was the opposite: it raised the temperature of my anxieties.

The letter began by admitting that there remains a backlog of 32,000 cases in the tribunal system, asserting that reducing outstanding caseload is the key to bringing down wait times, before revealing that:

“Employment Tribunal timeliness data has not been published for some time due to the Employment Tribunal changing their case management system in 2021”.

That was three years ago. We have an assertion that bringing down wait times is essential, followed by a confession that, owing to a change in the case management system three years ago, we are today unable to gauge whether or not wait times are falling.

The viability of this code of practice is entirely contingent on a tribunal system that is effective and can prove timely redress. The fact that we currently, by the Government’s own admission, have no access to the data that would tell us whether it delivers timely redress is absurd, if the Government are to rely upon that as being the ultimate deterrent against this behaviour by the people they described with those very colourful adjectives.

The letter also engaged the question of the Government’s consultation on reintroducing fees at this time, of all times, for those who wish to bring a case before an employment tribunal. I thank the Minister for outlining, in his letter, the details of the help with fees remission scheme, but I remind your Lordships’ House that I raised the case of R (UNISON) v the Lord Chancellor in my speech on Second Reading. It is not mentioned at all in the letter, and I can understand why, because the judgment in this case was unambiguous. It concluded that levying fees was unlawful. It cited the Leggatt report, which specifically identified the absence of fees as one of the three key elements that made tribunals successful, and concluded that fees, however modest, have the effect of preventing access to justice. That was the principal point that I raised in that aspect of my speech, and it was just ignored in the letter I got back from the Government.

I understand the fees coming under consideration are appreciably lower than they were previously, but they will certainly not encourage victims of fire and rehire to have recourse to the tribunal system and may well act as a further discouragement. This is yet another case of the Government telling us that they understand the existence of an injustice, assuring us that their heart is in the right place and they are seeking to right a wrong, but then again balking at doing the needful. We are all familiar with the cases of Tesco, Jacobs Douwe Egberts and Carnival and the other cases that seem to be appearing by the day, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, referred to, and the way in which employers and others weaponise the power advantage they have and exploit their workers. Rather than institute a non-legally binding code of practice that tells employers what they already know, I believe a more fitting course of action would be to enshrine good practice into law and offer clear redress to workers when they are victims of injustice.

My Lords, I share the regrets expressed by my noble friends. I intend to address the second element in the regret amendment put down by my noble friend Lord Woodley, and that relates to the International Labour Organization, which your Lordships will recall is a tripartite body, consisting of Governments, employers and workers. The United Kingdom was a founding member in 1919; it was the first signatory of the fundamental convention on freedom of association—convention 87—in 1949; it is a member of the governing body; and it is represented on the Committee on Freedom of Association.

The relevance of that is that, on 8 November last year, the governing body approved the 404th report of the Committee on Freedom of Association, which reported on the P&O Ferries saga of St Patrick’s Day 2022. Your Lordships will recall that 786 seafarers were dismissed on that date and only 100 were subsequently reinstated. The other jobs were given to agency staff. The Committee on Freedom of Association, as approved by the governing body, made three substantive recommendations, none of which, so far as I can see, is reflected in the code of practice.

The first recommendation related to collective bargaining. The committee said that it

“urges the Government, with the social partners, to ensure mutual respect for the commitment undertaken in collective agreements, which is an important element of the right to bargain collectively and should be upheld in order to establish labour relations on stable and firm ground”.

In many of the instances of fire and rehire mentioned by my noble friend Lord Woodley, there have been established collective agreements and established collective bargaining. That was the case with P&O Ferries, where collective agreements stretching back nearly 100 years were flouted.

The second recommendation relates to the fact that, in the P&O Ferries case, the unions, RMT and Nautilus International, were unable to take industrial action because at the point of the dispute the members were all dismissed and were unable to take any secondary action by calling on port workers to boycott the ferries. The Committee on Freedom of Association said that:

“At the outset, the Committee recalls that a general prohibition of sympathy strikes could lead to abuse and workers should be able to take such action provided the initial strike they are supporting is itself lawful … The Committee recalls that it had previously requested the UK Government to take the necessary measures to ensure that sympathy strikes were protected under the law … The Committee requests the Government to engage with the social partners to overcome challenges regarding the legislative prohibition on sympathy strikes, in conformity with freedom of association”.

As I understand it, the Government have taken no steps whatever to engage with the social partners to overcome those challenges and there is not a word about that in the code of practice.

The third and final substantive recommendation relates to the penalties where such practices are engaged in. It said that

“the Committee notes … that while breaches of the UK law entitle claims to be made in an employment tribunal, such claims are subject to statutorily fixed (and very modest) maxima; for this reason, the company was able to quantify with precision what the cost of the dismissals would be and to assess how long it would be before that cost could be recouped from future profits generated by the poverty wages and diminished terms and conditions of the new crews”.

Its recommendation was:

“The Committee … requests the Government to ensure an adequate and efficient system of protection against acts of anti-union discrimination, which should include sufficiently dissuasive sanctions and prompt means of redress, emphasizing reinstatement as an effective means of redress”.

The Minister will no doubt say that they have increased the penalties by increasing the award of compensation by 25%. Nobody in this House could seriously think that an increase in the award of compensation by 25% could have had any impact on P&O Ferries. It is most unlikely to dissuade any other employers contemplating sacking their workforce and re-engaging them on worse terms.

My noble friend Lord Woodley’s Bill, which he referred to, has two recommendations that one would have wished to see in the code of practice. One is the removal of the caps on compensation so that it would reflect the full loss of each worker in consequence of being dismissed, subject to the usual rules about mitigation of loss, foreseeability and so forth.

The other would be to give the option to the union to obtain an injunction to prevent dismissals where there had been inadequate consultation and inadequate disclosure. For the reason that the committee’s recommendations do not find any reflection in the code of practice, I share my noble friend’s sense of regret at this code.

My Lords, I regret that I did not have the pleasure of being present when the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, received its Second Reading a month or so ago. I clearly understand that the nature of that debate reflects very clearly on what we are debating today.

The Minister was not in your Lordships’ House when we debated the P&O issue. Had he been, he would have experienced outrage and hand-wringing, not just from these Benches but from the Benches behind him and indeed from the Dispatch Box itself. That outrage was felt across the whole of your Lordships’ House. As we have heard, this code was supposed to help embrace that issue and try to make sure that such outrages are not repeated. As we have heard in three well-made speeches from the Opposition Benches, we do not believe that this code comes close to doing that.

The code takes a very optimistic view of human nature: it infers that there are two willing parties with reasonable actions and beliefs. That is not the case that a code of conduct needs to deal with. When reasonable people negotiate with reasonable people, we do not need this code. This code is, essentially, how normal, reasonable people would act, and, as the Minister said, most companies are reasonable companies, and most employees operate with reason. That is why this code, in a sense, merely codifies what normal, civilised behaviour should be.

That is not what a code is for. A code is to deal with the people trying to operate outside normal, reasonable behaviour. On several occasions, the Minister used the word “ensure”. This does not ensure anything, and noble Lords do not have to take my word for it. Paragraph 12 says:

“A failure to follow the code does not, in itself, make a person or organisation liable to proceedings”.

In other words, any teeth it might have had in the first place have been removed by paragraph 12. I share the belief it really had no teeth.

Many other provisions in the code—for example, paragraphs 21 and 22—use the term “reasonable”. How would we test “reasonable” in this circumstance? In Section C, around information, I would be interested to know: what is reasonable? We then move to paragraph 27, which is about commercial sensitivity and confidentiality. In every case of fire and rehire, there will be commercial sensitivity. Therefore, it makes sure that no information ever gets put forward. I am old enough to remember when the United Kingdom was part of the European Union, and we were part of the European Works Council system. That excuse is not allowable within the European Works Council. There is a system within that whereby the works councils are brought into the confidence of the management about their intentions in such circumstances. This does not allow such reasonable behaviour to occur.

Given the genuine and heartfelt comments made opposite during the P&O issue, I am disappointed that this is the result. It is toothless, as the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, said on several occasions; it does not ensure that something such as P&O could never happen again. As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, put it, the 25% uplift is not worth a hill of beans when you look at the financial gain it has made by the actions it has taken.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the code of practice and express my gratitude to all noble Lords who have spoken.

Last week saw the two-year anniversary of the P&O Ferries dismissals, the highest-profile abuse of fire and rehire in recent years—but, sadly, not the only one. The Minister might say that the P&O case is not fire and rehire, but many will not agree with that sentiment. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Today the replaced workers are paid less than half the national wage, as my noble friend Lord Woodley referred to, in conditions that one described as like being in jail. Workers’ pay and conditions horrendously diminished. Meanwhile, the company and its parent, DP World, was awarded £230 million in UK government contracts between March 2022 and July 2023.

This injustice has driven me to extraordinary lengths: it has made me agree with the Member for Welwyn Hatfield, the right honourable Grant Shapps. When he was Secretary of State for Transport, he described the company as

“pirates of the high sea”.

I am even minded to agree with the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who said that fire and rehire was

“unacceptable as a negotiating tactic”.

The code does nothing to prevent any employer treating workers in a shabby way in the months and years to come.

Noble Lords who have run businesses, as I have, know what it is like to face difficult financial decisions. We understand that, in extreme cases, sometimes the only way to continue operating is to consult with employees on renegotiating contracts. If the company goes bust, nobody wins; everybody loses their job. Only in that situation can fire and rehire possibly be justified. Yet in court, employers do not have to prove that the fire and rehire policy would mean the difference between the life and death of the business. That widely criticised omission acts as a cloak of unaccountability, permitting employers to present unscrupulous decisions as unavoidable. All the well-intentioned recommendations in the code—that the employer “take into account” employee objections; that they engage in “all reasonable steps”; and that they do not raise the spectre of job losses too early in the process—are, in effect, neutered by this loophole.

Furthermore, several noble Lords have referred to the potential sanctions—a 25% uplift in fines at the end of a long David and Goliath legal battle—that could be factored in as a cost of doing business, as the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Hendy, stated. We could see companies rewarding executives who are prepared to brush off a few bad PR headlines while making workers’ lives worse. That is appalling in principle and in practice.

The P&O Ferries example should serve as a warning; even the then Prime Minister Johnson thought so. The code does not prevent a race to the bottom; it could lead to a hollowing out of secure jobs. Roads paved with good intentions—whether labelled promises, pledges or non-binding codes of practice—lead only in one direction. It is the workers, threatened with either losing their jobs or accepting worse conditions, who end up feeling the heat. The code currently makes no reference to a necessary qualifying period of employment before it becomes applicable to an employee. Can the Minister tell the House whether the code is applicable from day one for all employees?

In light of the range of concerns raised from only 50 responses to the consultation, I hope that the Minister and the Government will address the shortcomings of the proposal. To that end, my noble friend Lord Woodley’s amendment sets out clearly why the Government should reconsider.

I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I hope to clarify some key points that were mentioned. I will first turn to the regret amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woodley. I know that the noble Lord is a champion of protecting and enhancing worker’ rights, but the Government do not believe that his suggested amendment to the code would be appropriate.

The amendment suggests adding measures from his Private Member’s Bill on dismissal and re-engagement and from a report from the International Labour Organization. The measures contained in the noble Lord’s Bill would, in effect, ban dismissal and re-engagement. That is because the Bill would remove the ground of “some other substantial reason” for an employer to justify a dismissal in a dismissal and re-engagement scenario. Almost all cases of dismissal and re-engagement rely on this ground as potentially a fair reason. Therefore, this would, in effect, ban the use of dismissal and re-engagement.

As I said earlier, it would not be appropriate to impose an outright ban on dismissal and re-engagement. There are some situations in which dismissal and re-engagement have a valid role. Companies that are, for example, going through difficult economic times or a change in their business model may need the flexibility to use this option to save as many jobs as possible.

In regard to the International Labour Organization’s Committee on Freedom of Association’s definitive report 404, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, I would like to clarify that the UK is committed to all ILO conventions that we have ratified, including Convention 87 on the freedom of association and protection of the right to organise, and Convention 98 on the right to organise and collective bargaining. We are carefully considering the Committee on Freedom of Association’s recommendations and will provide information to the ILO in due course.

Turning to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, about P&O Ferries, echoed by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Leong, as we said at the time, the treatment of staff by P&O Ferries was disgraceful and was called out as such from this Dispatch Box. It fell short of the high standards we expect in this country, and which most businesses uphold. The company deliberately chose to ignore statutory consultation requirements. P&O Ferries broke the law by dismissing its workers with no warning, having made prior arrangements to bring in agency staff to replace them. What P&O Ferries did was “fire”, and not “fire and rehire”. The company dismissed staff with no notice or consultation. I understand that it was not seeking to renegotiate its employees’ terms and conditions, so the code would not have applied.

The noble Lord said that some of those employees were fired and rehired. I thank him for bringing that to my attention. I am not familiar with the detail of their personal circumstances, but speaking generally, if an employer seeks to renegotiate terms and expects that it may dismiss an employee and rehire them or another employee to effect the changes, then it would be bound by the code. The Government have taken action in response to what P&O Ferries did. This includes legislating through the Seafarers’ Wages Act 2023 and the ongoing Insolvency Service civil investigation.

A number of noble Lords raised the deterrent effect of the code and, as I said, the code of practice is a proportionate response, balancing protections for employees with business flexibility. An employment tribunal could increase an employee’s compensation by up to 25% where an employer unreasonably fails to comply with the code. The Government will bring forward legislation so that the 25% compensation uplift also applies to the protective award, where employers have not complied with the collective consultation obligations and have unreasonably failed to comply with the code. The noble Lord, Lord Woodley, asked for an update on this legislative change that will increase the deterrent effect of the code. Subject to parliamentary time, the Government intend to bring this forward this summer.

The noble Lord, Lord Leong, asked when the code would apply to an employee. The code will apply from the first day of an employee’s employment, though it will be subject to qualifying periods in individual claims.

Having heard the debate, I think there is perhaps just a philosophical difference on how we proceed in these matters. This Government believe that our workforce and labour laws are in an advanced and sophisticated state. We have record employment in this country: 33 million out of a population of 66 million working. We have just increased the national minimum wage at twice the rate of inflation over the last 25 years, and only 5% of our workforce is on the national minimum wage. Now that they have reached that level, they can be considered to have been taken out of low pay if that is defined as two-thirds of median hourly wages. They are now at that level, and therefore, within our labour force, our laws are working flexibly.

In my role as Minister for Exports, I travel the length and breadth of the country, and I meet companies of all shapes and sizes. The one observation I will make to this House is that post Covid, there has been a reassessment of the value of labour in this country. The labour force is now one of the most valuable parts of any company’s make-up and capability. There are labour shortages, and good labour is scarce. I would argue, perhaps, that there has never been a better time to be an employee, because of the ability to receive higher wages for good skills that are at a premium, and companies want to have those employees within their businesses. In this situation, and thinking as an employer, I can imagine that it would be only in exceptional circumstances, where we were trying to keep our employees together and keep our company on the road, that we would have such a discussion. It would be absolutely as a last resort.

To take the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, about there being no teeth and waiting times in the tribunal system, I acknowledge that there are perhaps backlogs in that system, but this is a process that no employer wishes to get caught up in, considering the amount of time and cost it would take when we want to have our employees happy and working and producing effectively for the benefit of all the stakeholders within the company. Just as a matter of philosophy, we would say that this is an exceptional situation. The TUC says that it estimates that only 3% of employers have ever gone down the road of fire and hire. As we said in the code quite clearly, it is not toIn conclusion, I would argue that the Government are taking robust and appropriate action in this area. A statutory code of practice is a proportionate response to dealing with controversial fire-and-rehire practices. The code will address this practice, aiming to ensure it is only ever used as a last resort, and that employees are properly consulted and treated fairly. It clarifies and gives legal force to accepted standards about how employers should behave when seeking to change employees’ terms and conditions. Subject to parliamentary approval, the code will be in force later this summer. The House should be left in no doubt that the Government will always continue to stand behind workers and stamp out unscrupulous practices when they occur.

Does the Minister have a response to my question about the coincidence of the Government consulting on imposing fees on those who seek to apply to an employment tribunal in the face of the case of UNISON v Lord Chancellor, where fees were held to be unlawful because they impeded access to justice? This issue was not addressed in the letter that the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Lainston, sent to me. It was in my speech at Second Reading. Do the Government have a position on that? Is it just a coincidence that this is happening at the same time as employment tribunals are being given the ability to impose an extra 25% of financial penalties on employers who fire and rehire as part of the code of practice?

As the noble Lord knows, one can read Hansard as well as one can, but not being in the Chamber to hear his eloquent argument of the case makes me slightly deficient in this response. I am disappointed that my noble friend was unable to write more comprehensively on the matter. Perhaps I can follow up with a second letter in that regard.

My Lords, this has been a lively, interesting and, indeed, productive debate. I just want to say one thing to the Minister. In a previous life, I was the leader of Britain’s largest trade union, and I spent more time fighting for companies and for company survivals, and indeed to make sure that they had the right investment to protect jobs and increase jobs in our country, than I ever did fighting against them. That is why I take a little offence that the Minister suggested that my amendment indicates that fire and rehire is banned in all cases. That is the worst case of selective deafness that I have heard from two Ministers, to be quite honest. I point out to the Minister that it does not say that. It makes it absolutely clear that if we are in a situation where the very foundation of the company depends on these actions being taken, not only should they be carried out but we would support that.

However, with regard to where we are, I do not see anything reasonable in the code of conduct, as indeed we have all said here. The Minister also mentioned that—ironically—a TUC investigation into these things found that only 3% of employers were using fire and rehire as a tactic. I said this in the previous debate: 3% across all employers in this country means 38,800 employers. This is not chicken feed; it is big business. It is a pandemic that is right across our country and it will only get worse if we do not legislate to stop it. Again, it has been very interesting that, not only during my previous debate but today on this amendment, not a single speaker has spoken in favour of the code of conduct, never mind anything else, and that includes on the Tory side of this House.

I therefore regret that the Minister’s response is not really doing anything to remove those concerns that we have all registered here about this code of practice. It is toothless, and it does not give the protection and decent compensation that workers who are being exploited deserve. However, as I am sure your Lordships now realise, I do not intend to divide the House on this matter, so I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Motion agreed.