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Employment and Workers’ Rights Bill

Volume 639: debated on Friday 27 April 2018

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As a former officer of the GMB trade union, I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It is no secret that our economy and the jobs that people do have changed rapidly over recent years, particularly in my constituency of Barnsley East. Coal once provided jobs for more than 30,000 people, but the economic landscape is now very different. We have seen a substantial increase in precarious work practices, such as zero-hours contracts, the gig economy and fake self-employment, where the guarantees of secure and well-paid work that people once enjoyed are no more.

Agency work has boomed, from retail and distribution through to the teachers and nurses filling the staff shortages in our public services. It is estimated that the number of agency workers will reach 1 million by 2020. Agency workers are some of the most exploited workers in our economy, and this employment practice is simply too one-sided in favour of those who hire them.

My Bill takes steps to change that. It will close the loophole that allows agency workers to be paid less than permanent members of staff undertaking the same role for the same company. After three months, agency workers will be able to request a contract of employment and the hirer will have a duty to assess it. After two years, agency workers will have the right to become a permanent employee.

I welcome this Bill. I read clause 5 with great interest, as it seems to give an agency worker the right to become directly employed by the hirer after two years except in exceptional circumstances. Such a measure is long overdue. Will my hon. Friend clarify that it is her intention that workers would have continuous service from the date they started work with the hirer and would therefore have rights against unfair dismissal from the moment they reached two years, rather than the clock starting again?

My hon. Friend is right that these measures are long overdue. She is also right about the intention of clause 5.

I would like to share some examples with the House, particularly the case of agency workers in BT call centres, including the one near my constituency in south Yorkshire, and others who take 999 calls. The majority of them are kept on continuous assignments, working for years in the same role. In practice, they are nothing less than permanent staff, but they have no job security and are on lower pay than other workers. The nature of their contracts means that the equal pay exemption can be exploited. On average, they are paid about £500 a month less than their colleagues on permanent contracts. Some do not even take annual leave, because they simply cannot afford to do so.

There is the case of the lorry driver who has worked for the same national supermarket for the best part of 20 years but could be sacked by the hirer without notice, reason or redundancy pay. They would be left with no legal recourse against the hirer to claim unfair dismissal. Take the warehouse worker in Barnsley who works up to 20 hours a day on their feet, but is constantly threatened with immediate dismissal if they do not hit their target. It even happens in the public sector. As a former teacher, I have heard of too many cases of agency teachers being paid less than those they teach alongside. It is simply unfair.

Financial security has been lost as hard-working people in my community live week to week, rota to rota, and pay packet to pay packet. Proper working rights, pay and conditions that truly benefit employees have been sacrificed in the name of flexibility for unscrupulous bosses.

The Bill is founded on the important premise that two people working in the same role, or doing the same job for the same company, should be entitled to the same fair and equal rights. It will simply level the playing field for agency workers in Barnsley East and across the country in the face of unfair working practices, and provide them with the proper workplace rights and pay that they are overdue.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. Employment rights have always been close to my heart. For example, it was a genuine honour to sit on the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Public Bill Committee earlier this year. Ensuring that parents have the time to grieve the loss of a child without the pressure to return to work is vital and will make a real difference, and I remain indebted to my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for their work in bringing that Bill forward.

As the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) made clear, her Bill has two main elements. First, it would ensure equal treatment for agency workers by ending the equal pay exemption in the Agency Workers Regulations 2010, also known as the Swedish derogation. Secondly, the latter part of the Bill would tackle the exploitation of agency workers who are used by employers effectively as permanent staff to avoid the legal obligations afforded to normal employees.

According to the independent Taylor review, which was published last July and which I recommend to Members who have not already read it, robust data on the number of agency workers in the UK is sadly lacking. It is estimated that there are between 800,000 and 1.2 million such workers. The review made clear:

“Agency work has an important part to play in a vibrant, flexible labour market and many choose to work in this way. However, there is increasing evidence that some companies are relying on temporary workers to fill longer term positions, with the same agency worker doing the same job for years. This works for some people. They have the freedom to leave whenever they want with no notice whatsoever but for many, this level of uncertainty, not knowing whether work will be terminated and having no security of income, does not work. What is more, individuals in this situation can find it hard to seek work elsewhere, especially if they fear taking time off from the current contract may count against them in future allocations of work.”

Does the hon. Lady believe it is correct that more than 120,000 agency workers have been on an agency contract for over five years?

I was beginning to expound my argument that we do not have sufficient information about exactly what agency workers do and what sort of contracts they are on in order for us to make decisions.

One of the great disappointments of the Taylor review—there were many—was that it could have referred to the use of the ministerial power in section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, meaning that we would not need the excellent Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock). Why will the Government not support the implementation of that section?

Of course I do not speak for the Government, but they are keen to gather further information before they take the necessary steps to implement the “Good Work” plan, about which they feel so strongly.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we do not have comprehensive research or assessments from across the country, but all Members will have been made aware of shocking examples. In my constituency, a man was forced to return to work as a lorry driver in the afternoon following an eye operation, which was dangerous not only for him, but for everyone else on the road. Are such examples not good enough for the Government and the rest of us to unite and take action now?

The hon. Lady raises an extremely serious case. It is of course important that the Government collate and evaluate the information. It is vital that people work safely, both for their own health and for the health of the rest of us.

I will now quote further from the Taylor review, because it is important to note that it

“does not want to stop companies using agency staff but we propose to address situations in which companies use agency workers over a longer period of time as a substitute for effective workforce management. As such, we believe as well as a right to equal pay (discussed later in this report), agency workers should have the right to request a direct employment contract with the hirer when they have been engaged with the same hirer for 12 months.”

That does seem a reasonable expectation after 12 months, which takes us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).

In the months since the Taylor review, the Government published their “Good Work” plan, which actually goes beyond many of the review’s recommendations. In seeking to set the direction for employment over decades to come, it is important that we get this absolutely right. It was for that reason that the Government launched the consultation on agency workers at the beginning of February 2018. The consultation will continue until 9 May, so all hon. Members have an opportunity to make their views known, as does everyone else. It is hoped that, in gauging the views of the industry, businesses and workers themselves—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 23 November.