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I hope that the Minister will accept this debate as the submission of a case study to inform further consultation on how new rights for temporary and agency workers should be implemented, including the creation of a mechanism for resolving employment status. I want to ensure that the future legislation is clear so that the courts do not fill any gaps with case law that opens and closes the door to remedies, as it has done over the past few years.

What happened to Sally and hundreds like her is intolerable. I applaud the work of the T and G section of Unite in helping to give Sally and those like her the strength and courage to fight their corner.

1.41 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss. Begg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) on her success in raising the treatment of agency workers in the context of Unite’s campaign and the case of Sally Avis. I know that that case and the wider and related issues have been of concern to her and that she has campaigned on them.

The wider issue relating to the rights of temporary and agency workers is, of course, topical. There has been a year of debate in the House, during which hon. Members on both sides have pressed the need to ensure fair and appropriate treatment for agency workers while maintaining the flexibility on which businesses depend. Much has been said about the Government's commitments on this issue, and I should clarify what was said in the Warwick agreement:

That is the context in which I congratulate my hon. Friend on her timing in securing today’s debate so soon after the EU Employment Council meeting on 9 June. After years of deadlock, we were able to reach political agreement with our European Union partners on the draft agency workers directive, which will provide fairness for workers without damaging Britain’s economic competitiveness.

Anne Snelgrove: May I add my congratulations to the Government? Many people have congratulated them. The matter has taken a long time and I remind hon. Members that this Labour Government introduced much of the employment legislation from Europe after the 1997 election. That underlines our commitment to employment rights, and particularly to vulnerable workers’ rights. My hon. Friend is right to remind us of the 9 June agreement, and I hope that it will be introduced into British law as soon as possible.

Alison Seabeck: I thank my hon. Friend. It is always nice when the Government do something right, and they are doing the right thing. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said,

It also represents a good deal for Britain’s workers.

As my hon. Friend knows, the agreement followed the joint declaration signed by the TUC and CBI on 20 May, with the Government’s support, agreeing to a
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12-week qualifying period for agency workers to be given equal treatment with permanent staff. Copies of the joint declaration have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I am particularly pleased that the declaration was so warmly applauded by Unite, which, with other trade unions, campaigned hard for a positive outcome. The revised wording of the directive agreed at the Employment Council will allow the UK to implement the agreement reached between the CBI and the TUC. It really is a landmark agreement.

I should clarify that “equal treatment” means at least the basic working and employment conditions that would apply if a worker had been recruited directly to occupy the same job as a permanent member of staff: holiday, overtime, breaks, rest periods, night work and duration of working time. The European Parliament will now consider what has been agreed, on its second reading, before the directive returns to the Council for final agreement.

As we said in the joint declaration, the Government will consult the social partners—the TUC and the CBI—on the key aspects of the implementation of the directive. There will be wider public consultation on implementing the directive in due course. This breakthrough has, of course, been part of a wider debate about worker vulnerability and the exploitation of people at work. As part of our “Success at Work” policy statement for this Parliament, which we published in March 2006, we have an active programme to combat exploitation.

I agree that there are ongoing problems and issues in relation to vulnerable workers, but I disagree that agency work is, by its nature, exploitive and that agency workers are generally vulnerable. It is a sad fact that some employers abuse workers and it is highly regrettable that a minority of all types of workers, whether agency workers, employees, fixed-term contract or casual workers, are at some point abused by those for whom they work. We need proper recourse to rights for all people who are subject to exploitation in the workplace.

Temporary work, including agency work, is an important though relatively small part of the UK labour market, in comparison with some other EU states. It does, however, play an important role in achieving the labour market flexibility that helps companies meet the peaks and troughs of demand. Indeed, to pick up on my hon. Friend’s language, it has been the lubricant that has helped keep our economy flexible. That is a good description.

Anne Snelgrove: I want to clarify that I do not believe that all agency workers are exploited, although the conditions under which they currently work can lead to exploitation. Some high-level, high-paid agency workers in my constituency contribute to our hi-tech industries and they enjoy being agency workers, with the freedom that comes with that, as much as an employee with a permanent contract enjoys their situation. I would not wish to threaten their existence.

Alison Seabeck: I thank my hon. Friend for her clarification. It is important to remember that temporary work can and does provide a route into employment for those who were previously excluded. It can also provide a route into employment for those returning to work
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after career breaks or those who were economically inactive. It can meet the needs of individuals who may wish to work on a temporary basis for short or long periods; and it can provide a stepping stone to permanent employment.

As my hon. Friend has just said, the case that she highlighted is not the norm. Studies have demonstrated that temporary employment can encourage up to a third of women employed in seasonal or casual work to move on into permanent employment. Clearly, that is not how Sally Avis will view her experience. As I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, I cannot discuss individual cases. However, as a general principle, there is considerable flexibility in contractual arrangements, on both sides, between agency workers and the agency. If a worker is engaged through an agency, his or her assignment can be terminated at any time, subject to any notice provision in their contract with the agency. It is in the nature of agency work that it is flexible, for some of the reasons given by my hon. Friend, and that assignments can be ended, for example, when the hiring company experiences a downturn in demand. Flexibility works both ways. An agency worker can leave a job giving little or no notice.

Agency workers are usually considered to be “workers” under the relevant legislation and are entitled to core employment rights, but not to claim unfair dismissal or statutory redundancy. The agreement on the EU directive, as reflected in the Warwick agreement, will not change the employment status of agency workers or affect their entitlement to existing rights, such as those regarding unfair dismissal, by the end user or hirer. I will certainly draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister the specific concerns so clearly voiced in the debate today.

A court will consider individual claims based on the facts of the case. Over many years, the body of case law has been consistently adapted and refined by interpretation in tribunals and higher courts. In relation to employment status, the courts have defined a number of tests which examine the individual's circumstances and consider all aspects of the relationship.

As we set out in our March 2006 document, “Success at Work: Protecting vulnerable workers, supporting good employers”, we considered the current framework of employment rights, including for agency workers, to see if it was appropriate and fair and supported the aim of high participation in work. That followed a consultation in 2002 on the differing rights and responsibilities in employment law of employees and workers, such as those employed through employment businesses.

We found that temporary work, such as agency work, is greatly valued by employers and many individuals. We were given examples of abuses and of the lack of knowledge about existing rights, and that is quite important in this process. However, there was a lack of evidence suggesting that the only appropriate remedy was wholesale change to the current system. Having reviewed all the evidence, we concluded that the present framework reflects the wide diversity of working arrangements and the different responsibilities and rights in different employment relationships. We believe that it meets the labour market’s current needs and that there is no immediate need for further legislation on the issue.

Nevertheless, we are keen to help people better understand the current framework, the rights to which they are entitled—whether they are an employee, a
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worker or self-employed—and how to enforce those rights. We will improve guidance through the new employee pages on the Directgov website, and work is progressing on developing an associated interactive tool. For those who do not understand what an associated interactive tool is, it is simply a good online guide, with a question-and-answer system built in, which gives people a much clearer idea of their legal position to ensure that they are not wrongly deprived of their rights.

Agency workers are protected by a combination of general legislation that gives them core rights and specific legislation that governs the conduct of their agencies. Those protections include the right to be paid at least the national minimum wage; entitlements under the working time directive, including paid annual leave and regular rest breaks; social security provisions, such as maternity and paternity pay; and coverage by anti-discrimination laws.

I want to focus on some of the current initiatives to improve protections for agency workers. The Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003 provide essential protection for agency workers and all those using the services provided by employment agencies. Amendments to the regulations came into effect on 6 April 2008 giving workers the right to withdraw from services provided by an agency, such as accommodation and transport, without suffering any detriment. That is quite an important change. In addition, the current Employment Bill includes measures to increase penalties for offences under the Employment Agencies Act 1973 and improve the investigative powers of the employment agency standards inspectorate—the EAS.

Those additional rights will be backed by additional resources for enforcement. We will double the number of EAS inspectors from 12 to 24. EAS inspectors have a good record and investigated more than 1,600 agencies in 2006-07. The EAS follows up every relevant complaint that indicates a possible breach of the legislation and carries out targeted inspections on the basis of risk. In 2006-07, more than 1,300 complaints were investigated and more than 300 targeted inspections were carried out, resulting in 558 corrective letters being sent to agencies. Following such action, five individuals were prohibited from being involved in running an agency on the ground of unsuitability due to previous misconduct.

The Government are determined to ensure that the enforcement regime is effective in dealing proportionately with rogue employers who are determined to flout the law—an issue forcefully raised by the Unite campaign. We must understand the nature and extent of the abuse of vulnerable workers and get behind the anecdotes to look at the hard facts. To do that, we established the vulnerable worker enforcement forum last year. The forum is chaired by the Minister for Employment Relations
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and Postal Affairs and brings together the TUC, the GMB, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, Unite and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, as well as enforcement agencies, business groups—including a representative from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation—and Citizens Advice.

The forum is considering evidence on the nature and extent of the abuse of workers’ rights and other employment legislation, including evidence from the TUC’s commission on vulnerable employment, and we are considering that evidence extremely seriously as part of the vulnerable worker pilot schemes. The forum is also looking at the effectiveness of the enforcement regime. It is an important focal point in terms of getting at some of the real issues that vulnerable workers face. At the moment, evidence is often anecdotal, because people are frightened to come forward and give evidence. Hopefully, the group will get beneath that. It is already proving valuable in identifying issues with the reporting of abuse and a need for closer working among enforcement bodies, and highlighting the resources needed to ensure effective implementation of the laws passed by the House. In the forum’s report, we will announce further measures to ensure that agency workers are better aware of their rights and that those rights are more effectively enforced.

I have listened carefully to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend. She asked a series of questions that I will ensure are passed on to my colleague the Minister. She asked about redundancy pay and whether we should be making changes to it. Further consultation will be held on that issue. I hope that that partly answers that concern.

Anne Snelgrove: Will my hon. Friend arrange for the Minister to write to me on that issue, so that I have some indication of the time scale of the consultation?

Alison Seabeck: I will come at the end to points that I hope will tie up some of the loose ends. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that, overall, particularly in the past year, we have done a lot to improve the position of temporary agency workers with respect to issues on which she and many other hon. Members have campaigned. Most recently, they supported the private Member’s Bill introduced by our hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller).

The EU agreement marks a major breakthrough. I will take away my hon. Friend’s concerns, whether about Ministers’ order-making powers, changes in case law and their impacts or Europe and the independent pay commission, and the Minister to write to her in a little more detail on some of those specific points.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Two o’clock.

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