Employment Agencies and Trade Unions

– in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 11 July 2022.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 33
    A majority of MPs voted enabling agency workers to be used to cover strikes/industrial action

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 7:45, 11 July 2022

The Business of the House (Today) motion just agreed to by the House provides for the two motions under item 4 on the Order Paper to be debated together. At the end of the debate, I will put the Question on the first motion. When that is decided, I will ask the Opposition to move the second motion formally, and I will then put the Question on it.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I beg to move,

That the draft Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022, which were laid before this House on 27 June, be approved.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this we shall take the following motion:

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Liability of Trade Unions in Proceedings in Tort (Increase of Limits on Damages) Order 2022 (S.I., 2022, No. 699), dated 22 June 2022, a copy of which was laid before this House on 24 June 2022, be annulled.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The purpose of the first instrument is to lift the current ban on employers bringing in agency staff to help them cope with industrial action. The second instrument makes a long-overdue change to the maximum levels of damages the courts can award against trade unions that take unlawful industrial action.

I will start by examining why the Government are making these changes. Our trade union laws are designed to support an effective and collaborative approach to resolving industrial disputes. They rightly seek to balance the interests of trade unions and their members with those of employers and the wider public. While the Government continue to support the right to strike, it should always be the last resort. The rights of some workers to strike must be balanced against the rights of the wider public to get on with their daily lives. Strikes can, and do, cause significant disruption. That is particularly the case when they take place in important public services such as transport or education. It cannot be right that trade unions can, as we saw in the case of the recent rail strikes, seek to hold the country to ransom if their demands are not met.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the availability of spare teachers, nurses and train drivers to fill the gaps during a strike?

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, which I will take up a little later on in my speech.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early on. How does she justify overturning the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, which bans the use of agency workers in devolved services, and therefore the intention to overturn the consequences of Welsh democracy?

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the hon. Member for his question. I will talk about that a little later; it is a reserved right.

Some trade unions appear to be looking to create maximum disruption in a bid to stay relevant, rather than constructively seeking agreement with employers and avoiding conflict. In the light of this, the Government have reviewed the current industrial relations framework and have come to the conclusion that change is needed.

The first change we are making is to remove the outdated blanket ban on employment businesses supplying agency workers to clients when they would be used to cover official industrial action. Employers can, of course, already hire short-term staff directly to cover industrial action, but this change would give them the ability to work with specialist employment businesses to identify and bring in staff. The change in no way restricts the ability of workers to go on strike. It will, however, give employers another tool they can use when trying to maintain the level of service they offer to the public.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Has she considered the 100,000 vacancies we currently have in the NHS that we cannot fill? The staff who work for agencies are also unionised and will not cross a picket line, so how will she fulfil this legislation?

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. It is, of course, their choice. It is also their choice to take up an agency position.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

To help Rachael Maskell with her intervention, as a former teacher and a former trade union representative, I am more than happy to go back into any classroom to help out when the disastrous “not education union” is threatening to bring down schools.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and for his expertise and knowledge in the field.

This is a permissive change that will not force employment businesses to supply agency staff to employers to cover strikes. Agency workers will still be able to decline any assignments they are offered and the right to strike is unaffected. This change is simply about giving both employers and employees more freedom and flexibility to decide what works best for them—a freedom that the current outdated regulations deny them.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

If you do not mind, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am going to make some progress.

I have also seen some reports that this changes will somehow put workers or the wider public at risk. This is not the case.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I will make some progress.

Employers will still have to comply with broader health and safety—

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I understand that the hon. Gentleman will be speaking later.

Employment businesses will still need to be satisfied that the workers they supply are suitably qualified and trained.

Alongside that change, we will increase the levels of damages that a court can award in the case of unlawful strike action. It has long been the case that employers can bring a claim for damages against a trade union that has organised unlawful strike action. The upper limits to the damages that can be awarded are set out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, and are based on the size of the union that organises the unlawful strike action, but the damages regime has not been reviewed since 1982, so the limits are significantly out of date. As a result, the deterrent effect that Parliament intended has been significantly reduced. The Secretary of State is using powers granted to him under section 22 of the 1992 Act to increase the existing caps in line with inflation. In practical terms, that means that the maximum award of damages that could be made against a union will increase from £10,000 to £40,000 for the smallest unions and from £250,000 to £1 million for the largest.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Does the Minister think it is right that the cap on any fines issued by the Electoral Commission for fraud if it was found in the Conservative party is lower than what she is proposing for trade unions? Does she think it is right that fines are higher for trade unions than for preserving the democratic functioning of our country?

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the hon. Member for his question. I will, in fact, move on.

This is a proportionate change, because we are simply increasing the amounts to the level they would be at had they been regularly updated since 1982. We are increasing the limits in line with the retail prices index, which is a well understood measure of inflation and is the same measure for other employment legislation. By increasing the limits on damages in line with inflation, we are sending a clear message to trade unions that they must comply with the law when taking industrial action.

Strikes should only be as a last resort and should only ever be called as the result of a clear, positive and democratic decision of union members. The key point is that unions that continue to comply with our trade union law will be completely unaffected by this change. The changes we are making will ensure that our trade union and agency laws remain fit for purpose. We are giving businesses the freedom to manage their workforce and empowering workers by giving them more choices about the kind of assignments they can accept. We will continue to protect an individual’s right to strike where proper procedures are followed, while ensuring that trade unions are deterred from taking unlawful industrial action.

I beg to move that both instruments are considered by this House.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Just to give prior notice, there are many more speakers than have put down to speak, so I suspect a time limit will be imposed. Members should bear that in mind. I call Angela Rayner, shadow Secretary of State.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 7:55, 11 July 2022

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to say from the outset that I was an agency worker and I continue to be a very proud trade unionist.

I also want to start by welcoming the Minister to her new position. And what a fitting debate for her to start with. Over the last week, dozens of Government Members found themselves forced to work in intolerable conditions, answering to a boss who only cared for himself and not their interests, so they withdrew their labour—and they achieved some change as a result. So, they do understand the right to strike; they just seek to deny that right to others. The Minister now finds herself, much like agency workers under the regulations she proposes, filling in at short notice as a desperate last resort, with no time to prepare, in an organisation reduced to chaos.

It just does not work. The shambles of this Government disproves their own theory. The regulations are not just utterly wrong in principle, but totally impractical. They promised no new policy while the Prime Minister clings to his desk by his fingernails, but it appears that they have made an exception in this case, ripping up decades of national consensus. The proposals are anti-business and anti-worker. They will risk public safety, rip up workers’ rights, and encourage the very worst practices. Above all, they will not prevent strikes; they will provoke them. It is hard not to believe that this is what the Government were after and their whole intention all along.

The proposals are simply “unworkable”—not my conclusion, but the conclusion of the body that represents agency worker businesses, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. It is not hard to see why. We already face severe labour shortages, in part caused by the decisions of this Conservative Government. There simply are not the agency staff to cover industrial action. Alec Shelbrooke asked the Minister about the impact. The Government have their own impact assessment, which they rushed out this afternoon. It estimates that only 2% of working hours lost to strikes would be covered. I met the REC last week, and it was very concerned that the Minister’s predecessor was simply not listening. I believe that to be the case. This proposal is anti-business. It threatens good agency worker businesses’ reputations, their relations with their staff, and, as the Government’s own impact assessment found, will cost employers thousands of pounds in familiarisation costs.

But there is also a far more insidious side to the proposals. There is a risk to safety, both to workers themselves and the public. The proposals could see agency workers recruited on the hoof and squeezed in to cover highly skilled roles. Take the recent rail strikes, which the Minister mentioned in her opening speech. They saw skilled workers such as signallers, guards and maintenance staff walk out. In case the Minister did not know, it takes a year to train a signaller. Where are the temps who can operate 25,000 volts at control centres or signal 140 mph high-speed trains? How could the travelling public have any confidence in their safety? The public should absolutely not be put in a position where that could happen.

No one in this House can pretend that they are ignorant on this issue. We saw the consequences when P&O Ferries replaced its experienced workforce with agency crew earlier this year. That decision led to 31 separate safety failings. Vessels were suspended and a ship literally lost power in the middle of the Irish sea due to an inexperienced crew. At the time, the Secretary of State for Transport told the House:

“No British worker should be treated in this way… we will not allow this to happen again”.—[Official Report, 30 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 840.]

The Prime Minister told us that

“we are taking legal action…against the company concerned”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 326.]

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Is this not an exploiters’ charter that is deeply anti-British? This is from an anti-British party that has abandoned British workers, reducing their rights in work and allowing either agency workers from abroad to be brought in to undercut staff, as happened with P&O, or agency workers to be exploited when they are forced to cross picket lines. This is anti-British worker, is it not?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

On the P&O workers, it seems to me like the company broke the law and the Government implied that they were going to do something about it. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how that legal action is getting on. Will the Prime Minister keep the promise that he made before he loses office? Can we assume not, judged by today, because the very practice they condemned, they now want to legalise and encourage? This is an absolute disgrace.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

My right hon. Friend is making a terrific speech and I agree with what she is saying. She mentions P&O, and I certainly recall the Secretary of State making a statement to the House and being enraged by the actions of P&O. Why are the Government putting through the House a statutory instrument to change the terms and conditions and bring in agency workers? Why are we not having the employment Bill that was promised by the Secretary of State? Why is this being done in an underhanded fashion if it commands the support of the House and the country?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely crucial point. The Government have been promising jam tomorrow for far too long, saying “employment Bill”, “employment Bill,” but guess what? No employment Bill. That is what it is like with this Government: it is all jam tomorrow and broken promises all the way.

There is another point to make. Under section 12 of the Employment Agencies Act 1973, the Government must consult before they change any regulation. However, with all the chaos of the past couple of weeks and days, they are trying to pass a consultation from 2015 that they never even completed. They also thought that it would be acceptable to sneak out an updated impact assessment on the day of the debate. This is government on the back of a fag packet, with no time and no opportunity for scrutiny. It is typical of what we have come to expect from this Government.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

I pointed out to the Minister that the Government are determined to repeal the Trade Union (Wales) Act. She said she would refer to her position on that later in her speech but, unsurprisingly, she failed to do so. Will the shadow Minister commit a future Labour Westminster Government to reinstate our Senedd’s ability to implement a ban on agency staff in devolved services?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I thank the hon. Member for his point. I promise him that the Labour party will always support Welsh devolution and support the Wales Government in what they have been trying to achieve. Actually, as we have seen with the industrial action on the railway, we have avoided that in Wales, where we have a Welsh Labour Government, because Labour Members respect devolution. This Government want to break up the Union with their petty squabbles, sleaze and scandal.

Let me move on to the second motion. I congratulate the Minister’s new team on finding one of the lesser-known industrial regulations. It is funny that the Government are proposing to increase fourfold the damages that could be claimed under a measure that has not even been used. The Conservative party is wasting precious parliamentary time in a week when piles of legislation have had to be postponed due to there being no Minister to deal with them. This is an empty gesture or a threat. Whether the Minister and her party like it or not, everybody has the right to join a trade union in this country and to take strike action. This measure is either pointless or yet another attempt to undermine that right by the back door.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is not open for trade unionists to entertain illegal strike action in this country?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

We have some of the strictest trade union legislation in Europe. Members have to go through strict balloting. This is the myth that Government Members do not get about trade unionists and industrial action: it is a last resort and it is often when all else has failed. It would be good if the Government got round the table and tried to deal with the disputes rather than stoke them up.

Let us take a step back to examine what this is really about: the Government are set on breaking the strikes that they are causing themselves. We saw it with the RMT strikes last month, when the Government did everything they could to avoid the negotiating table and find the resolution to bring the strikes to an end. Instead, this is a flagrant attempt to do something by a zombie Government that are out of answers, out of options and out of time. They are about a race to the bottom on standards. They are about further eroding British workers’ rights. They are about dividing the country they claim to lead. Undermining strike action will make it harder to find a resolution, resulting in more and longer strikes to the detriment of the public, businesses and workers. This will also empower bad bosses and we will see more cases like P&O Ferries.

We have not just determined that this is bad policy. It is also clear that it is deliberately harmful to workers and their employers, and it is an absolute fault of this Government. I should not be surprised by it. The Conservative party may be trying to get rid of their leader and may want to try and press the refresh button and get a better image, but this Government and that party have shown us time and time again who they are. This is a Government that have no answers to the cost of living crisis. This is a Government that have no answers to backlog Britain and the chaos that it is causing for ordinary working families. This is a Government that have no answers to the spiralling inflation that is on our backs. And this is a Government that have not only failed to prevent the chaos, but have indeed caused the chaos. The party opposite is in disarray and this is no longer good enough. It is the Labour party that is pro-worker and pro-business, and I urge the whole House to be the same.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. A great many Members wish to speak and, as the House will be aware, we have limited time—we have just over an hour left. I hope that they will be courteous to their colleagues by taking five minutes or less each.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 8:08, 11 July 2022

I rise to support both statutory instruments, but I will speak in support of only one: the liability of trade unions in proceedings in tort and the increase in the limit on damages. To set the context, we need to look at the rights and obligations under the law of tort—the common-law duty under tort—so that we can understand the rationale behind the measures. As many Members will know, for a liability under tort to become established, we first have to have a duty of care for one organisation or individual to another. There needs to be a breach of that duty and then evidence to demonstrate that the breach was causative of identified damages. That is a standard part of the law of tort and of our common law. It is worth making the point that it applies to all of us in all our relations with one another; it is not unique to the unions. The starting point is that every organisation is responsible in damages for a tortious breach of its duty of care.

I turn to the specific problem with trade unions and trade union-inspired strikes. Although the withdrawal of labour is a fundamental right, as Angela Rayner made clear, it can lead to a huge number of breaches of tortious duty if a strike is illegal, because public sector work has an impact on so many other organisations. In previous legislation, the Government created an exemption for unions on legal strikes—the official protected industrial action clauses—but illegal strike action is not protected under the law, so the risk remains that trade unions are open to crippling damages being awarded against them. Why should they not be? If through their illegal actions they have caused identified losses to other individuals, why should they not be responsible for them?

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree

Could the hon. Member identify the last time that there was an illegal strike, please?

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

Since 1982, there has been effective legislation to dissuade that kind of act, but the effectiveness of that legislation has diminished over time to such a level that it is no longer worth applying. The damages cap is so low in real terms that it has become ineffective as a disincentive.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

Does the hon. Member understand that as the normal remedy is an injunction, what he proposes might, ironically, make injunctions against strikes more difficult for employers to obtain? One of the conditions for the grant of an interlocutory emergency injunction is that it must be shown that damages, if awarded at full trial, would not be an adequate remedy, so raising the level of that remedy makes it less likely that an employer could get an injunction. The hon. Member’s argument has therefore undermined itself.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I am grateful for that intervention, but I fundamentally disagree. As the hon. Member will know, when someone makes an interlocutory application for an injunction, they often have to give an undertaking in damages. The cap, which I have not yet come on to, will not be raised to a new level; the order merely restores what was put in place, which was the will of Parliament when the legislation was enacted back in 1982.

There is a very strong argument that an organisation that causes loss to another through its breach of a duty of care should be responsible for 100% of damages, but the Government have not taken that view. They have capped the liability in damages for trade unions, even when strikes are illegal. They have tried to balance the disincentive from strike action, for which I make no apology, with protection for trade unions from the full consequences of their actions, even though they might be illegal. The reason is that the Government are in favour of trade unions and do not want crippling damages being awarded against them. There is a balance of rights and obligations, which in my view is absolutely reasonable.

The cap was set by Parliament under the Employment Act 1982 at between £10,000 and £250,000, based on the size of the union and its ability to pay. It seems quite wrong, in 38 intervening years, for the caps not to have been increased by the rate of inflation or by any other amount. The rights of unions and the rights of damaged businesses and individuals have now, in my submission, become unbalanced. The legislation is no longer acting as proposed, and I think the Government are quite right to take action to rebalance it, as it originally required. I have looked up, on the Office for National Statistics website, the retail prices index figures for inflation between January 1982 and May 2022. The multiplier, to be entirely accurate, is 4.31963. The Government’s proposals, which use a multiplier of four, are actually less than the inflationary increase.

It is entirely right that the order restores the original intention of Parliament. The legal right to strike is wholly protected, and it is disingenuous for Opposition Members to suggest that the right to strike is being in any way affected. The order merely restores the balance of rights between the damages available to the victims—and they are victims—of tortious losses caused by illegal strike action and the protection of trade unions from crippling losses. That is right: it is an incentive to avoid illegal strikes, which I think is a good thing.

This is good government. I support the order; I only suggest that from now on, the limits should rise automatically with inflation to avoid having a repeat of this debate in 2060.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 8:15, 11 July 2022

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and to my membership of Unison Glasgow City; I am a proud trade union member. Like Angela Rayner, I must say that the irony has not escaped me that right hon. and hon. Members who secured workplace change last week by withdrawing their labour—bringing the country to a standstill, as the Minister put it—now wish to stop others from doing so. When I saw the regulations on the Order Paper, I asked myself whether they were for the trade unions or for the Tories. In Operation Save Big Dog last week, was consideration given to hiring agency Ministers? That was the level that we were at.

What is wrong with the employment agency regulations, of course, is that the Government have tried them before, during the passage of Trade Union Bill. Indeed, there were Government Members who suggested to the Government that they should not go down that road. Then and now, the reason not to is the evidence of the agencies themselves, which do not support this legislation. There has been no consultation.

The regulations interfere with devolution by trying to end the Trade Union (Wales) Act, as we have heard from a number of hon. Members. They interfere with Scotland’s legislative approach, which uses the fair work model; once again, we are seeing this Government running roughshod over devolution. They are also based on fanciful notions. The Minister did not use the phrase “trade union bosses”, but I have heard it used over the past couple of weeks. Trade unions are not the bosses; they are the representatives. It has been suggested by some hon. Members that the fact of disputes taking place is all the fault of the trade unions, not of the poor, downtrodden, six-figure-salary executives who are not engaging.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

There is no such thing as a union baron. The hon. Gentleman is one of the hon. Members who withdrew their labour to sit on the cobblestones, but given his rhetoric tonight, it seems that he wishes to stop others doing so.

Another problem is the likely breach of international law. The use of agency workers to replace striking workers would violate trade unions members’ right to strike, which is safeguarded by International Labour Organisation convention No. 87, article 3; by the European social charter of 1961, article 6, paragraph 4; and by article 11 of the European convention on human rights. Indeed, the ILO committee on freedom of association has said:

“The hiring of workers to break a strike in a sector which cannot be regarded as an essential sector in the strict sense of the term…constitutes a serious violation of freedom of association.”

On 16 June, the Institute of Employment Rights published an article by the great Professor Keith Ewing, professor of public law at King’s College London. He discusses the convention and refers to the Government’s own agreement—the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement, which is given effect in UK law via the European Union (Future Relationship) Act 2020. He suggests that the regulations’ revocation of regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003 may be unlawful:

“It is at least arguable that these pre-existing powers are constrained by the 2020 Act, s 29 so that they cannot be used in a way that will violate the TCA and the obligations thereunder. If this argument is correct, the government is constrained by its own hand from legislating to revoke regulation 7 by secondary legislation.”

There will be a negative impact on agency workers. Allowing their deployment would put them in a horrible position. They would have to choose between crossing a picket line and turning down an assignment, with the prospect of being denied future work by the agency. Many agency workers, such as supply teachers and bank nurses, will be trade union members themselves. Under the UK’s weak employment laws, agency workers are not protected from suffering a detriment if they refuse an assignment because they do not wish to replace striking workers.

There will also be a negative impact on the agencies themselves. The removal of the ban on the supply of agency workers would mean that employment businesses were forced to become involved in industrial disputes not of their making. That is why agencies themselves oppose the proposals, as others have said. In a joint statement with the TUC, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation urged the Government to leave the current ban in place as a key element of a sustainable national employment relations framework. Part of the reason for that is the realisation by employers and trade unions that disputes come to an end, and there must then be a discussion about how to move forward from that dispute and how to rebuild industrial relations. Neil Carberry, the chief executive of the REC, said:

“The government’s proposal will not work. Agency staff have a choice of roles and are highly unlikely to choose to cross picket lines.”

There is a safety issue. The health and safety of agency workers and the potential impact on public safety is of serious concern to trade unions. Studies suggest that temporary agency workers are exposed to more hazards than others, and have higher rates of workplace injuries and ill health. A simple search of the Health and Safety Executive’s prosecutions over the last five years shows a litany of employer failures: a lack of training of agency workers, a lack of access to protective equipment, and a lack of supervision and monitoring of agency workers to ensure that they understand and are following risk assessments and safe systems of work. Sadly, those failures have resulted in fatal or life-changing injuries among agency workers. We also know from agency workers that their health and safety is often overlooked. When the work involves delivering a public service, that can present risks to the service user or endanger wider public safety.

The Health and Safety Executive and other safety bodies broadly agree that the components of a positive safety culture and successful health and safety management, leading to fewer incidents, include good communication, competence, training and induction, good team working, ability to raise concerns with no detriment, and good worker involvement. The hiring of agency workers to try to disrupt industrial action would not achieve that.

There are also concerns about public safety. Under section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, employers taking on agency workers are responsible for their safety and the safety of the public. The agency placing the worker also has responsibility, and we suggest that failures in safety occur owing to the lack of communication and consultation between the two duty holders, with the safety of the agency worker falling through the gaps. That is borne out by reports from the Health and Safety Executive, which found that about half the recruitment agencies surveyed did not have measures in place to ensure that they were fulfilling their legal obligations.

This proposal is not practical. As was pointed out by Members earlier, there are currently 1.3 million vacancies in the UK , which is a record high. Data shows that the number of candidates available to fill roles has been falling at a record pace for months. In this tight labour market, agency workers are in high demand and can pick and choose the jobs that they take. Are they seriously going to take a job in which they have to cross a picket line in order to get a shift, rather than picking a different one? [Interruption.] Perhaps Jonathan Gullis would, but I have to say that he is a unique case.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many Conservative Members would prefer to turn the clock back to the days of the bond and indentured labour? My grandfather’s father was paid a modest sum as a bond to be an indentured labourer in the mines. It was illegal to go on strike, and if workers did go on strike for better terms and conditions, they were evicted from their homes. It is a disgrace that Conservative Members are trying to turn the clock back to those days.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Of course, it was Conservative Members’ party that introduced the Master and Servant Act 1823. I could say more about that, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I will not.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Well, it was about what implements could be used to discipline a worker. The hon. Gentleman may want to reflect on that, because the Whips might have done something to him last week when he was taking his industrial action.

What Grahame Morris said was correct. I do not think the Conservatives understand what happens in the workplace. That is the issue here. They think that agencies will replace the striking workers, but that is just not going to happen. An agency worker who can choose between crossing a picket line to get a shift and not crossing the picket line and getting a shift somewhere else will choose the latter option.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. It is also the case that employers in safety-critical industries will not want to hire agency workers because they know that the liability will sit with them when the injuries and the accidents occur. Those roles often feature in safety-critical areas. These workers are simply irreplaceable.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

That is absolutely true. There is a suggestion that the rail industry could bust the current rail dispute by hiring agency workers. Where are the unemployed signalmen who are sitting at home saying, “I cannot wait for the railway workers to go on strike so I can get a shift”? Those people do not exist. This is completely wrongheaded, and utterly impractical. In the gig economy, so-called key workers fighting for better employment terms and pay seem to be expendable under a Tory Government who do not care. Where is the employment Bill that the Government have been promising us since 2015?

There is another point that I forgot to make at the beginning of my speech. Last week, after his resignation, the Prime Minister made a commitment not to introduce legislation that was not in the Government’s manifesto, and not to introduce controversial legislation. Well, by any measure, this is controversial legislation, and, crucially, it was not in the Conservative party manifesto, and therefore it should not be introduced.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the compatibility of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022—which we are discussing today—with the Human Rights Act, the trade and co-operation agreement with the European Union, and the UK’s commitment to the International Labour Organisation’s fundamental conventions, including convention 87, article 3?

We have heard about the impact assessment, but what consultation have the Government had with the rail industry employers, rail industry unions and rail industry regulators, including the Rail Safety and Standards Board, about the risk assessment of the use of agency workers in safety-critical parts of the rail industry? What consultations have the Government had with devolved Administrations, local authorities, health boards and other public services? I am guessing that they have not had such consultations, because if they had, they would have been told that these proposals were not workable. And what consultation have the Government had with the employment agencies themselves? We have already heard that the agencies do not support this legislation.

We in the SNP will certainly be opposing this statutory instrument and supporting the Labour prayer. My friend on the Labour Front Bench, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, is a good Unison comrade and I have known her for 15 years. I know that the trade union is proud of her working here, as well as of other hon. Members.

It is madness to say that no impact assessment has been produced for this SI because no significant impact on the private, voluntary or public sectors is foreseen. Fining trade unions for pursuing strike action that is deemed unlawful is a deliberate Tory attack to undermine the ability of trade union members and working people to pursue their aims. Instead, the Transport Minister should be negotiating with the trade unions—sitting down with them and seeing if he can help to resolve this dispute. It is quite incredible how this Government do not understand working people or how modern trade-unionised workplaces operate. This statutory instrument that they are proposing should therefore be placed in the bin.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover 8:29, 11 July 2022

It is well known to hon. and right hon. Members across the House that I am an enthusiastic supporter of the role of trade unions, and of marches and protests, particularly in my own constituency of Dover and Deal. I have been a member of a trade union over the last 20 years, and I have been involved in assessing collective bargaining arrangements with unions. I have marched with unions and I have stood alongside them, most recently in relation to the disgraceful, unacceptable behaviour of my Dover constituents P&O, against whom I have taken firm action. As a Member of Parliament, I have also helped with the negotiations between the unions and the P&O management through two previous restructures during the covid pandemic.

So I fully support the role of trade unions, where workers wish to be involved in them, and I think that sentiment is widely shared among Conservative Members. However, trade unions have a particular and special responsibility, and the rights that they and their members are afforded by law are not unfettered. It is the role of this place to assess where the balance of rights and responsibility lies, and today’s measures are about the responsibilities as well as the rights. Regrettably, the most recent train strike action seems to have been taken precipitately, not as the last resort. In my constituency, no trains at all ran on the strike days. That caused upset and also financial loss to others. It did not strike the right balance of fairness to people who were going to school to sit their exams, going to work or going to see loved ones.

Let me say clearly that I fully understand why those working on the railways are seeking pay rises, and I am pleased that the Government have announced the ending of the pay freeze, but in my area train prices are already too high. I have spoken about that in this place before. The railways are in need of urgent modernisation, and, as the Transport Secretary has set out many times, it is important that these conversations take place so that that can happen. The trains provide an essential service, and we must look at how to provide the basic, critical, essential services that people need to get around in their ordinary lives and work when industrial action is carried out, while also respecting the right of workers to take industrial action. We must not undermine workers’ rights, but we must take into account the needs of the public. That is at the heart of the measures being introduced today.

I conclude by underlining that the increased damages under the order are set to apply only where the unions act unlawfully. As we have heard today, it is good that those instances are few and far between. The order does not fetter the activities that I have described and supported, but it must be right to look at the fairness of the rights and responsibilities, particularly in the current situation where industrial action seems to be encouraged and strikes are not always the last resort. I do not want this country to be brought to its knees by unnecessary strike action. These measures will help to strengthen the responsibilities of everyone involved in resolving employment disputes, to enable them to do so in a responsible way.

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree 8:33, 11 July 2022

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a proud member of the Unison and Unite trade unions.

Many Opposition Members will make well-reasoned and well-articulated arguments as to why the Government’s intention to break strikes with agency workers and to bankrupt trade unions violates international law and threatens safety-critical infrastructure in key sectors during periods of industrial unrest—not to mention its economic illiteracy. Those arguments will undoubtedly fall on the deaf ears of a governing party looking into its own spiral of moral depravity. For all their so-called love of liberal democracy, the Conservatives are now effectively seeking to remove the fundamental right of workers to withdraw their labour. As we enter this leadership election and the insufferable spectacle of hopefuls distancing themselves from the low-wage, high-tax, low-growth economy they have created with unrealistic, unfunded promises, I have no doubt that looking tough on trade unions will feature as part of the show for the Tory party faithful. They say we live in the 1970s, but it is they who live in their own warped reality of more than 40 years ago.

I remind the Conservatives that they are the ones who changed the rules with the Trade Union Act 2016, which brought in ballot thresholds set at what they thought were unrealistically high levels. Guess what? Trade unions are meeting them, so can we drop the phoney rhetoric that the likes of Mick Lynch and other trade union bosses are taking members on strike? It is the members of the RMT and other trade unions who take these decisions. They do not stand behind their trade union leaders; their leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

Other unions will undoubtedly follow as working people attempt to claw back a fairer slice of the pie, rather than the crumbs they are being offered—like the Communication Workers Union workers in Crown post offices who are taking their third day of industrial action today. I support every worker taking a stand for their livelihood, their family, their dignity in the workplace and the prosperity of their communities. This Government fear that the action taken by the RMT and the CWU will encourage other working people to do the same. All this comes at a time when the Government’s boss mates are dipping the till by suppressing wages, paying out millions in dividends and giving themselves bonuses while millions of people cannot afford to eat, to heat their home or to put petrol in their car.

After so many decades of believing their own dogma, the Conservatives are running out of things to privatise, with Channel 4 and the Passport Office in their sights. Similarly with the trade unions, they have pushed the needle so far that the obvious next step is to break strikes using agency labour and to break international law—on which they have form. What next? Ban trade unions altogether, or simply legislate them out of existence? How far the Conservative party has descended into the throes of authoritarianism. We must oppose this with everything we have.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell 8:37, 11 July 2022

The behaviour and the pay demands of the public sector at this time are unjust. Plenty of my constituents who work in the private sector will receive nowhere near those pay demands, and to threaten strike action to achieve them is an insult to my constituents whose livelihoods will be disrupted and whose taxes will probably have to be increased to pay for them.

However, the saying goes, “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” This agency worker measure was not in our manifesto, and it seems to have been done very quickly in reaction to what is going on in the public sector. Do not get me wrong; I think that action is wrong, but public sector employees represent a small proportion of employees in this country and the private sector has quite a few unscrupulous employers. If people lose their ability to have an effect when they withdraw their labour, I am afraid they will effectively lose the ability to withdraw their labour.

We cannot change the rules to require the service levels that the public demand while ignoring the considerably larger impact on private sector workers. Private sector employers might turn around and say, “I am sorry, but costs have gone up so high that I am cutting your wages back to minimum wage.” Their workers might withdraw their labour, to which the employer might say, “Fine, I will bring in agency workers.” That takes away all the rights of working people to make such decisions. Over history, and certainly many decades back, there have been plenty of examples of people working in terrible conditions, and being able to be part of a collective and to withdraw labour got those conditions improved. We are all gobby in this place—that is how we got here. We all feel it within us, and we all stand up and say something. Most people are not like that at all; they want someone to stand up and do it for them, and we then have negotiations and go to those levels.

I take issue with Angela Rayner, but I fully expected her speech to go down as it did. In many ways, we have invited it, but I do not believe the cost of living crisis is created by this Government; many issues in the world are creating a cost of living crisis. It is inflationary to try to chase those pressures, and this will have to be fair for the private sector. However, for the first time in my parliamentary career, I shall be voting against the Government tonight on the measure to bring in agency workers.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 8:40, 11 July 2022

I, too, would like to draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I want to acknowledge the excellent contribution of Alec Shelbrooke and congratulate him on the conclusion he has arrived at. I am a proud trade unionist. I have worked ever since I left school, for 43 years, and I have always been a member of the appropriate trade union. I am involved with numerous parliamentary groups and trade union groups related to the justice unions, the Public and Commercial Services Union, the National Union of Journalists and the RMT. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you. I am also a member of Unite and have the honour of chairing its parliamentary group.

I suspect we are here because the Government have engineered strikes in the rail industry that could have been avoided. Sadly, the country was brought to a standstill, which was completely avoidable. Grant Shapps, who wants to be Prime Minister, is the culprit; he is the roadblock to successful negotiations between rail operators and the trade unions. My advice is: lift the restrictions on the rail operators, let them negotiate fairly and freely, and a settlement can be secured.

I suspect the Government wanted strikes, however. First it was to distract from some of the shenanigans in Downing Street, and now they want to pitch worker against worker to cover for some of the economic failures of another prospective Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). The Government want to break strikes and force working people who are organised in trade unions to accept job losses, worse pay, worse pensions, and worse terms and conditions.

Enough is enough. People who work for a living refuse to be poor. It is not too long ago that Conservative Members were applauding public sector workers for their selfless contribution. Many in the transport sector and the national health service gave their lives to provide services and protect us during the pandemic, but memories seem to be short. So we will be organising, and I am firmly of the belief that we should not accept real-terms cuts in wages, whether in the private sector or the public sector.

Make no mistake: these statutory instruments come off the back of the recent RMT rail strikes, and the Government aim to sow political division. My colleagues on the Front Bench mentioned that employers and industry figures, including the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, oppose these changes. Let me just say for the record that the trade union co-ordinating group, a coalition of 11 national unions, not all of which are affiliated to the Labour party, has published a statement calling these proposals

“a shameless ideological assault on the millions of trade union members…in this country who are already suffering from the cost-of-living crisis.”

The Government’s plan is unworkable, but these SIs have not been designed to be workable. They have been designed to undermine strikes, irrespective of the damage they will do to working people, to their living standards, and to the economy and businesses in the meantime. The Government want untrained agency staff to take over safety-critical infrastructure as a means of breaking strikes. The public must be warned that if the Government cut corners to break strikes, safety standards will be compromised. The Minister said in her opening remarks—although she would not take my intervention—that this would not affect the safety of the public, but not too many months ago we saw P&O Ferries replace over 900 seafarers with agency crew, leading to the most appalling safety failures. Inexperienced seafarers who replaced experienced crews were involved in 31 separate incidents, including safety-critical failures such as not being able to operate lifeboats safely. In fact, one ferry was left adrift in the Irish sea after engine failure—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. The hon. Gentleman was speaking with such authority that I did not notice he had exceeded his four minutes. I am afraid I will have to stop him there. I call Craig Mackinlay.

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet 8:45, 11 July 2022

It is always a pleasure to follow many of the Members in this House, and Grahame Morris knows I have great regard for him. I am glad that he discussed issues of the here and now—the P&O issue united the House in opposition to the behaviour of that employer, and it certainly meant a lot for the community of my hon. Friend Mrs Elphicke —but I was somewhat entertained when he started to go on about indentured labour. I thought we had gone back not to the 1970s, which is part of this debate, but to the 19th century. I found that quite entertaining.

There are two usual ways of getting new staff into businesses, and we are discussing whether they can cross a strike action. Currently, a normal employment business is the one that cannot provide. The other type of employment business—the employment agency model—can. I do not think that I would much know the difference, if I went inside an employment business or an employment agency. At the end of the day, it is the staff that the business wants.

Much has been said about whether this change is being made on the back of the recent strikes. Well, perhaps it is. I have had so many emails from people who could not get to work on that day. We in this House had great inconvenience, which I am afraid was not assisted by possibly the worst London Mayor we have ever seen. I have local residents who have suffered fines because they rarely drive in London; they had to face the ultra low emission zone charge, box junctions everywhere that they could not get out of because of the chaos on the roads, and the local traffic networks that had closed much of London in the first place. We are into fairness. Is that fair on people who are trying to get to work and who usually rely on trains—trains that have had £16 billion of taxpayers’ money over this period, and not one job lost? Is it fair on everybody who is just trying to do the right thing: to run their own business, get to a hospital appointment, get to the doctor, or get to their exams?

I have every regard for the trade unions, but they have intentionally used the cost of living crisis—I do not blame them; best of luck to them—to get more than most people would ever be able to get. Let us not go back to the 1970s wage-price spiral. The hon. Member for Easington said that people’s wages will go backwards. Well, they will go backwards every year if we end up with a wage-price spiral.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

As I said in my speech, some of the wage demands are inappropriate. To put them into context, given the way in which MPs’ salaries are set with the raise in the average public sector pay, if all these wage demands were to go through, we would get an £8,000 pay rise next year. How does my hon. Friend think the public would react to that?

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet

I thought about such issues when I was drafting my speech. There would be absolute outrage from the public if we were to get such pay rises. I do not particularly want such a pay rise; I assure hon. Members of that. We must guard against a wage-price spiral. I support these regulations, because it is not unreasonable for people to be able to get to work.

The other industry that was going down this route was British Airways. BA workers have come to a settlement, which is very good. If BA had effectively closed down over this holiday period, what would that have meant for the employment of London? What would have happened to the tourists who spend a lot of money in London and other tourist areas around the country, including in my own coastal town? What would that strike at BA have done?

I am glad that the dispute has been settled, but it seems to me that unions are picking off certain industries in order to cause the maximum upset, with little regard for normal people trying to go about their normal business. I have every respect for what unions are trying to achieve. That is what they are for, and they have done marvellous work in the past. At this time, however, we need to pull together as a nation—I really wish that we could pull together as a nation.

I have heard from those on the Labour Front Bench. I have heard from my friend, Chris Stephens, who raised the spectre of danger. He knows very well that these industries are so regulated and that the staff are so qualified that the reality of agency workers being able to carry out this work is pretty low, so he is raising a spectre of something that does not really exist.

I am supportive of these measures. I hope that they do not need to be used. I hope that we can get common sense, get people back to work and get some of these disputes settled.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 8:51, 11 July 2022

These two small pieces of legislation could have the most serious impact of any we will be considering in this Session. BA has been mentioned. That is in my constituency. Let me explain what happened. When we went into the covid crisis, the airport was shut down. Many workers were asked to remain in post to bring in essential supplies and, as we repatriated people back into this country, two of our immigration officers caught covid and died. Others continued to go into work. When hon. Members went out to applaud key workers on the doorsteps, we went out to applaud our workers at the airport who were putting their lives at risk.

We negotiated a deal. The union accepted that there would have to be some jobs reduced in the short term and wages reduced to ensure that the company survived. That was the negotiation. The assurance given was that, as we became fully operational again, wages would be reinstated. When we became nearly fully operational—at 80%—the company reneged on that commitment for a group of workers. Members can imagine how angry those workers were. They were not asking for a pay rise; they were asking for the 10% cut to be reinstated. That was all. We did the normal thing that we do at the airport: we went into negotiations and we settled the dispute, but there was a threat of industrial action. If that had happened, my whole community would have supported it.

If there had been any hint of bringing in agency workers, not only would that dispute not have been settled, it would have been bitter and long-winded. Members should not think that other workers in the airport, not implicated in that dispute, would have stood on their own. They would not have taken illegal action; it is easy for workers to find a grievance at the airport if they want to. They would have gone through the legal procedures and that airport would have been shut down. Do not tell me that agency staff can fill in for air traffic controllers, firefighters, baggage handlers who have security clearance—it takes months to get that security clearance—immigration officers and others.

This is a serious piece of legislation going through tonight, and it will exacerbate industrial relations across the whole of the country. I say to hon. Members from all parts of the House to be careful what they wish for, and to be careful what they legislate for. I am fearful about what this legislation could do. It is not just the public sector that is affected, but the private sector at Heathrow and elsewhere. Interestingly, with regard to the fines imposed, not a single example could be quoted of where the existing system was not working. In addition, unions are meticulous in the way they go forward on these matters, but where they are not, the injunction route for the employer has worked effectively. At the airport, we had one problem in the cabin crew dispute where the union was unsure who it was balloting, because halfway through some of the staff had been made redundant. An injunction came in, the union started again, the process was legitimised and the dispute took place, and we resolved the dispute through negotiation.

These measures will cause animosity and division, but if that is what this Government are all about, I say, “I think you’ve misjudged the public mood when it comes to support for trade unions in this country at the moment.”

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 8:54, 11 July 2022

Chris Stephens talked about my alleged withdrawal of labour last week. The only withdrawal of labour that the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are seeing is 70 years of failed Labour Governments, failed Labour MPs and a failed Labour-run council. By not investing in high streets, investing in heritage, building the new homes we need or creating the new jobs, the Labour party once again shows it is out of touch and is forgetting the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke.

I am fully supportive of the specific SI on trade unions. I welcome the Minister to her place and congratulate her on an excellent opening speech. I spent eight and a half years teaching in state secondary schools in inner London and inner Birmingham. I was also a trade union shop steward for the NASUWT in that time, and there was many a time when we came close to potentially having to ballot on strike action, but only as a last resort, after negotiations had failed, freedom of information requests had not been granted and there was a breakdown of morale in the school. It is the absolute last resort.

What we have seen from the RMT is a politicisation from the communists and Putin apologists who want to use this opportunity to bring this country to a halt and make sure, very clearly, that tourism to the great city of Stoke-on-Trent is destroyed, that people cannot get to work and earn a salary, and that those uni students who travel in by train to Staffordshire University cannot sit their summer exams.

Then we have the “not education union”. Hansard always corrects me when I say the “not education union”, but that is its name. I do not want to hear its official name, when it is obsessed with bringing these silly 120-point plans for when schools can reopen during covid—one of which was somehow about reforming the welfare state, which had nothing to do with education—and when it has the audacity to tell kids that it will potentially have teachers out on strike at the start of the new term, further damaging the education of children who have been affected by covid. The Labour party is silent about that. Labour does not have it in it to stand up to those trade union barons on their six-figure salaries, in most cases earning more than the Prime Minister of this country, because it simply wants to make sure those donations keep coming in to its party coffers and its constituencies as well.

This Government are trying to take action to ensure that if the service level is being lowered and agency workers want the opportunity, or wish to choose—it is a choice—to cross the picket line, they should have that right. It is deeply Conservative to allow people to choose. I know that the Labour party, or the socialists opposite, are obsessed with us having one set standard for all, but that is not what the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke want.

The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke want to see a party that is on their side, helping to get their schools open and ensuring that hospitals are running and public sector workers are working. They want to see the very best, world-class services. It is under this Government that they have already seen £56 million from the levelling-up fund, £31 billion from building back better, 500 brand new Home Office jobs, £29 million from the transforming cities fund and £17.6 million in the Kidsgrove town deal, which means that Kidsgrove sports centre, which Labour closed—they did not want to save it for £1 back in 2017—will be refurbished and reopened.

That is the record of this Government. That is why this Government want to make sure that areas such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke have people on their side. I welcome the Minister for all her fantastic work and I hope the socialists opposite will realise the error of their ways.

Photo of Beth Winter Beth Winter Labour, Cynon Valley 8:58, 11 July 2022

I am not going to waste any of my time responding to the appalling and abhorrent comments by Jonathan Gullis, which were also completely inaccurate and insulting.

I want to put on record my opposition to the regulations, and there are three main reasons. First, it is a flagrant attack on employment rights and a purposeful attempt to inflame industrial relations. The Government are only pursuing these measures to continue to impose their decade-long low pay agenda, holding down the pay of key workers below inflation. It is the Government’s low pay approach that is generating industrial action, and this is a draconian attempt to force people into poverty.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham

Does my hon. Friend agree that the easiest and best way to stop strike action is to give workers decent pay and good, decent terms and conditions?

Photo of Beth Winter Beth Winter Labour, Cynon Valley

I totally agree. That is what we do in Wales.

These measures are unsafe, putting workers and the public at risk. They have been rejected by the Trades Union Congress and the Recruitment and Employment Federation, which said:

“Bringing in less qualified agency staff to deliver important services will endanger public safety”.

I oppose the first of these instruments, in particular, because, as Hywel Williams said, it conflicts with Welsh Government legislation—the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, passed in the Senedd. This Government have made it clear that they intend to legislate to remove that Act through primary legislation when parliamentary time allows. The First Minister of Wales has made it clear that the proposal by the UK Government to revoke the Act is unacceptable. He has said that it is “deeply disrespectful”—

“Not a word in advance, not a letter to say that this is what they intended to do”.

It is hard to believe that any UK Government with a grain of principle and care for the Union could behave in such a cavalier manner. If anyone is going to be responsible for the break-up of the Union, it is this Tory Government by riding roughshod over the devolution settlement. The general secretary of Wales TUC, Shav Taj, has said:

“We will fiercely oppose any attempt to attack workers’ rights and we look forward to a future where workers throughout the UK have the strongest employment rights in Europe, instead of the weakest”, as it currently stands. This is the act of an out-of-touch Government unaware of their own unpopularity.

We also have to remember why this proposal has come about now. The Government are in a confrontation —they are actually stoking confrontation—with key workers who do not wish to have yet another of this Government’s annual real-terms pay cuts. In the RMT they have found a trade union that is willing to challenge them, and it has my full support, as do all the other unions that are being forced—forced—to consider industrial action, which is always a last resort.

In Wales, the Welsh Government are not in conflict with the RMT. In fact, no industrial action is being taken on Transport for Wales trains, which are publicly owned. The UK Government could have followed suit and taken Network Rail into public ownership, as happened in Wales during the pandemic. The UK Government have so much to learn from the Welsh Government, where a different approach is being taken. The Welsh Government’s approach includes passing legislation to work with trade unions in partnership—the Public Procurement and Social Partnership (Wales) Bill. That is the model that we need to see. The Government are giving a role in statute to businesses and trade unions, and employers and employees, in developing and supporting an atmosphere of co-operation and partnership instead of risk, division and confrontation.

What discussions has the Minister had with the First Minister and Counsel General in Wales on this matter? What discussions has he had with the TUC and trade unions in Wales? What do employer bodies in Wales, or in the rest of the UK, think about his proposals? What consultation has happened with them? What is the view of the new Welsh Secretary on these proposals? I am disappointed that he has not already committed to pausing any progress on overriding the Welsh Government and Welsh legislation while we have a caretaker Government. Is it the Government’s intention to bring forward primary legislation to revoke the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, and if so, when will it happen?

This is a Government doubling down on their cost of living crisis. People will not accept it and we will fight back.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North 9:04, 11 July 2022

The Government seem to think that most workers are unskilled or uncertified, but agency workers are simply not there with the relevant skills and certification to perform their work in a way that is safe. I began today at the St Monica Trust, at two sites just outside Bristol, to speak to workers there who have withdrawn their labour because of the appalling offer they have been given of being fired and rehired unless they accept lower wages and terms and conditions. They were earning, on average, between £16,000 and £17,000 a year—about what a Secretary of State’s severance pay is—and they made it clear to me that their main worry and their main reason for going on strike was not actually for their own sake. They were concerned for the welfare of the residents of the residential homes and the retirement village.

I want to ask the Minister tonight whether she will please report the St Monica Trust to the Health and Safety Executive and ensure that a positive inspection is carried out there, because the workers out on the picket line were very concerned about the safety of employing unskilled workers who do not understand the residents and are not able to care for them in the way that they have all the way through covid. They were there on Christmas day and all the time when relatives could not visit; they treated them as their family. The agency workers cannot do that.

I want to make a couple of other brief points. Agency workers are generally paid significantly more than permanent staff, and that reflects the intermittent nature of their work. However, the employer, by paying agency rates to strike breakers in a dispute, actually makes the union’s case for it, because it shows that the employer actually can pay higher rates for the job. How very foolish of them.

Finally, I want to ask whether the Minister might, in her summing up, explain whether the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has replied to the letter written at the end of June by Hays, Adecco, Randstad and Manpower, in conjunction with the TUC, in which they said:

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

It seems to me that, when we have the employers of the agencies themselves saying that this is a bad thing to do, the Government should listen.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby 9:07, 11 July 2022

I would like to put on record that I am proud member of Unite the union and the GMB. I start by paying tribute to all those in Liverpool, West Derby and indeed across the country who are facing real-terms cuts to their pay, attacks on their conditions and security of work, attacks on their pensions, redundancy and attacks on health and safety in the workplace, and are having to take industrial action as their absolute last resort. I stand in absolute solidarity with them.

While the workers worry about their families and their families worry about their futures, as they are forced to leave the industry they have dedicated their whole lives to and are forced into poverty and using food banks, we have the disgraceful spectacle of a morally bankrupt Government using this Parliament to attack fundamental workers’ rights—and this is in the middle of a cost of living crisis, when workers are fighting against real-terms cuts to a wage so that they can actually put a meal on the table.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Does he not think that to be a working person in Britain today, to have lived through a decade of stagnating wages, to have seen their pay collapse in real terms while prices soar and to know their own Government refuse to lift a finger forces people on low pay to take strike action to try to force—

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Absolutely. I agree with everything my hon. Friend said.

This is a Government who furiously defend the class interests of those they represent in this place, and that is never the working class. The Trades Union Congress has pointed out that the action is a violation of trade union members’ right to strike, which is safeguarded by international law. Make no mistake, this is a risk to public safety, and standards will be lowered. Any consequences of these actions will lie at the foot of this Government.

The Government’s cynical regulations that we are debating tonight put agency workers, who they know have limited rights, in the position of having to turn down an assignment with the prospect that they will be denied future work by the agency if they do not want to cross a picket line. Many agency workers, such as supply teachers and bank nurses, will be trade union members themselves, and they have suffered terribly in this pandemic.

The regulations highlight the insecurity of the labour market, the erosion of workers’ rights and how flawed and immoral it all is. The pandemic shone a light on this immorality when workers with covid had to continue working because they had no sick pay. The employment model is broken for millions. We should be legislating and learning lessons from covid, and enhancing worker protections, including sick pay. Instead, tonight we are voting on a scab charter for bad employers from a Government who have picked their side.

Trade unions are the transformational vehicle for positive change—they have been for centuries and, despite the efforts of this wretched Government, will continue to be so for future generations. I will always be proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them supporting workers in the struggle who refuse to be poor.

Tonight is yet another sad day for democracy in this place. I stand in absolute solidarity with all those trade unions and trade union members who are fighting so hard for our communities and the rights of workers everywhere. Their fight for economic and social justice has never been needed more.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 9:10, 11 July 2022

I am grateful to the House for its consideration of the draft amendment regulations on agency workers, which will allow agency workers to cover strikes, and the order raising the upper limit for damages against trade unions that organise unlawful strike action. I will cover some of the things that were mentioned. Angela Rayner and Chris Stephens talked about health and safety. The change does not affect broader health and safety issues, with which businesses will still have to comply. Similarly, the obligations on employment businesses to supply only suitably qualified workers remain in place.

Will Barry Gardiner please write to me with some urgency with the details of the case to which he referred? The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and others referred to P&O Ferries. The situation is different with P&O Ferries, where the company has admitted deliberately choosing to ignore statutory consultation requirements when firing staff with no notice. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West and others talked about the trade and co-operation agreement. We are confident that this change complies with relevant international legal obligations. In response to the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), let me say that the Government have been clear since 2017 that we intend to repeal the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, so the trade union legislation will equally apply across Great Britain.

In conclusion, the aim of our trade union laws is to support an effective and collaborative approach to resolving industrial disputes that balances the interests of trade unions and their members with the interests of employers and the wider public. The changes we are making will support that balance, and I therefore commend these instruments to the House.

Question put.

Division number 33 Draft Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022

A majority of MPs voted enabling agency workers to be used to cover strikes/industrial action

Aye: 285 MPs

No: 201 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


The House divided: Ayes 289, Noes 202.

Question accordingly agreed to.


That the draft Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022, which were laid before this House on 27 June, be approved.