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Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill

Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Martlew
Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
Doran, Mr. Frank (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham, West) (Lab)
Heppell, Mr. John (Nottingham, East) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Knight, Mr. Greg (East Yorkshire) (Con)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
McFadden, Mr. Pat (Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs)
McGovern, Mr. Jim (Dundee, West) (Lab)
Miller, Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
Price, Adam (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC)
Williams, Mrs. Betty (Conwy) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Wednesday 21 May 2008

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill

Clause 1

Equal treatment of agency workers
Question proposed [14 May], That the clause stand part of the Bill.
9.30 am
Question again proposed.
The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): At the end of last week’s sitting, I was finishing my remarks on clause 1. Suffice it to say that, although the Government have a number of issues with the clause, I hope that I have outlined them in full.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I beg to move,
That the Committee do now adjourn.
After being chaired by Mr. Hancock for two sittings, I now welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew. I propose that the Committee adjourn in the light of the statements made yesterday by the Government and the social partners, the CBI and the TUC. I am sure that all hon. Members welcome the fact that there is an agreement on a way forward. The agreement is ground-breaking. Members of the Committee who played a part in it in one form or another should be proud of their role.
I thank those who have helped me from the trade union, Unite, in particular John Usher the lawyer who acted on its behalf, and Clare Moody. They have been incredibly helpful in forming my ideas on how to progress the matter. When the Bill was discussed on Second Reading, I brought in a couple of the big guns—neither of whom are here today—my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, West and for Nottingham, East. They did a fine job in helping me to maximise support for the Bill. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Central and for Aberdeen, North. As officers of the trade union group, they have worked hard on the issue for several years, as, indeed, have other members of the Committee.
I also thank all other members of the Committee who have contributed to our discussions. Our exchanges have been important. From the outset, the divisions between me and the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs were on how we reach a solution, not whether we would find one. I am absolutely delighted that he and his Department have been party to such a ground-breaking agreement. The differences between us and the official Opposition are more profound. There is clear blue water between us. According to advice that I have received from our good Clerks, I hope that, by adjourning the Committee, we can facilitate the formal process by which I shall withdraw the Bill. The Government and the social partners can then get on with finessing the deal that was made yesterday. Important steps must clearly be taken in respect of the European process, and some important domestic details have to be sorted out.
I do not want to take up any more of the Minister’s time when I want him to focus on that important task. With those few words, I beg to move the motion.
Mr. McFadden: The backdrop to the motion is the agreement announced yesterday between the Government, the TUC and the CBI on the future treatment of agency workers. The headlines have been announced. I do not want to go through the whole agreement here; suffice it to say that I am happy to make the text available. I believe that it has been placed in the Library of the House; if not, I will make sure that that happens. The headlines are that there is an agreement that equal treatment shall be granted to agency workers after 12 weeks in a job. Other clauses detail how that is defined, how it is to be enforced and how disputes are to be resolved. That is all set out in the agreement, and I will ensure that hon. Members have access to the text.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I thank the Minister for saying that he will put a copy of the agreement in the Library. I have not seen a copy, so it is difficult for me to comment on it, other than in the broad terms that I used with the media, having seen the media reports yesterday. I maintained at the start of the Committee that I thought it should be adjourned straight away, so it would be strange if I now changed my mind. The matter was always one that should have been dealt with by the Government rather than Back Benchers, and a large part of my complaint was that the Government were not leading but were being led by their Back Benchers.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): When the hon. Gentleman says that the Government are not leading, does he include the CBI among those rebels who are putting pressure on the Government? Does the fact that the CBI is supportive of the agreement make any difference to the so far seemingly hostile views of the Conservative party?
Mr. Djanogly: If the hon. Gentleman thought that the Conservative party was the voice of the CBI in Parliament, perhaps having seen my reaction yesterday he will reconsider that. The Conservative party will take its own view, based on the soundings that it takes from British business, which have been mixed to say the least. The hon. Gentleman’s point is one to be elaborated on outside the Committee, but I can assure him that we will be involved in that debate over the coming months.
It is right to adjourn the Committee. The proper place for the debate is the Floor of the House. It is a shame that the Government have seemingly decided not to make an announcement on the Floor of the House. Perhaps the Minister will reconsider that in due course, but for the moment we support the motion.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Along with the hon. Member for Huntingdon, I welcome the adjournment. I attempted to extract large portions of the Bill through the amendments that I tabled, so I obviously think that the right way forward is that the Government now produce legislation for us to debate. I hope that that will be primary legislation, because of the implications for the industry and for its flexibility. We welcome the tackling of the problem of permatemps, which I referred to on several occasions in Committee, but the Government must ensure that the flexibility of workers and companies is not damaged through such legislation.
I would like to try to extract some information from the Minister about how the legislation might work. Will a temporary person transfer to being a company employee after 12 weeks? If so, will there be any compensation provision for temporary agencies? How will the legislation prevent employers from finishing a temporary contract after eleven and a half weeks and then recruiting another temporary worker from the same or a different agency? Will there be any provision for people who want, for their own reasons, to remain on temporary contracts?
Another question, which I have raised before, concerns the Professional Contractors Group, which supplies temporary workers at a premium payment for their services. If we are talking about equality of pay and basic conditions, how will the interests of temporary workers who attract a premium for their services be addressed and those individuals not be disadvantaged?
On finding a comparator, the provisions within this Bill were convoluted, to say the least. Will the Government be able to find a less time-consuming and less tortuous route—one that will work—to enable companies and agencies to work together in a simple and straightforward way to find a suitable comparator? Finally, will the Bill win agreement—perhaps that was its purpose, as well as appeasing the unions—to an opt-out on the EU directive on agency workers?
Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I want to say few words of congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. He has fought the Bill through doggedly and made a major contribution behind the scenes to the agreement reached between the unions, the CBI and the Government. It is important to record that and the work of the Minister in helping to reach that agreement. There has been a significant amount of work, again not always seen, but Labour Members know just how difficult it was to reach that agreement, which is a good one. As I said in my contribution in the previous sitting, that was unfinished business, and we are beginning to see it finished. We look forward to the Government’s Bill once final agreement on the directive is reached in Europe. I am grateful to the Minister for all his work.
It is also important to record the contribution of the hon. Member for Huntingdon. It is always interesting to hear shadow Ministers pump out the mantra that the Prime Minister is being led by his Back Benchers, as that mantra seems to be part of a co-ordinated smear campaign. It is useful to record the history. The issue covered by the Bill has been around for at least 10 years, and for six years in Europe, where there has been ongoing debate about the directive and the direction that the European partners should take. That is all coming to a conclusion. What we have seen here is an example of the way that employment issues should be resolved—by partnership and work between the social partners, with the Government facilitating that to reach a conclusion. That is a healthy approach, because at the end of the day it is the experts who have to put everything into practice. The CBI, representing the major employers in the country, and the unions, representing some 5 million workers, are the best people with the experience. Anyone who thought much of the leader of the Conservative party’s attempts to paint the Tory party as progressive should listen to the debate here and see that that is nonsense.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): I wish to place on record my congratulations, and gratitude to, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston on his hard work. One might think that not a great deal happens outside these walls, but I am aware that he has worked day and night to get where we are. What pleases me very much about yesterday’s announcement is that it is the second announcement within a week that shows that the Government are listening to Labour Back Benchers on major issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North has said, it took six years of hard work before my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston thought fit to present this as his Bill. Therefore, I congratulate him and the Government on the way that they have reacted to demands and requests made by Labour Back Benchers on this issue.
Tony Lloyd: I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, because there is no doubt that this private Member’s Bill has focused debate on this important issue not only in Parliament, but beyond the walls of this institution. He deserves genuine credit for that, as does the Minister, who worked on the issue long before the Bill came before the House.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon expressed almost astonishment that the Government are moving in this direction, but it is important to recognise that the Government made a clear commitment to regulate agency work many years ago. That was a clear commitment in the public domain that became known as the Warwick agreement, and that is no secret at all. It was not something concocted by Labour Back Benchers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huntingdon on one thing: at least he had the good grace to be totally graceless in his approach. He displayed no sense of shame for opposing this agreement, despite the fact that it has been brought together by agreement between the different social partners. The CBI matters because it is a major organisation that represents employers, so it is rather interesting that the Conservative party is setting its face against those major employers and their representative body. That might be a signal for the future. I know that it is difficult for the hon. Gentleman, from his position, to be clear and definitive on what the Conservative party’s position will be on that, but it is probably no secret—he might want to correct me if I am wrong—that it will fight tooth and nail to prevent any advance in protection for vulnerable workers along the lines—
The Chairman: Order. Could the hon. Gentleman stick to the Bill?
Tony Lloyd: I am referring to the protections that would have been offered by the Bill, as you rightly remind me, Mr. Martlew, because we saw that already in the debate on the Bill, and we see it as a harbinger of the future.
Mr. Djanogly: The point that we made was that the Bill does not address vulnerable workers, but the equalisation of rights, which we are opposed to.
Tony Lloyd: That is very helpful, because we seem to be making progress now. The official Opposition might be moving in the direction of protection for vulnerable workers, so we will watch this space with considerable interest.
Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman really must read the House of Lords Hansard on the other place’s consideration of the Employment Bill, in which he will see that we have been in favour, generally speaking, of protecting vulnerable workers’ rights, as represented in that Bill. That, of course, was a Government Bill, rather than a private Member’s Bill, and I have given my reasons before why we believe that that is the approach that should be taken.
Tony Lloyd: That is even better. We now discover that the official Opposition will support Government legislation to protect vulnerable workers, which is marvellous. This has social partnership written on it at almost every level. The CBI is on board with this, as are the trade unions and the Labour party. Even the Conservative party is on board with the principle of protecting agency workers, as would have been brought forward by the Bill, had my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston not been seeking to adjourn this sitting. Alas, the Liberal Democrats are not even in that position. The expression “appeasement to the trade unions”—
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is still not talking about the Bill.
Tony Lloyd: I assumed that appeasement to the trade unions would be relevant to the Bill, which still lies before the Committee, Mr. Martlew. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston seeks to adjourn this sitting, he does not seek at this moment to destroy the Bill. The Bill is the only vehicle around which we can hold a debate. I hope that my remarks can be construed as being about the Bill.
In that context the comments of the hon. Member for Solihull are quite astonishing. When she talks about appeasement, it gives a real clue, alas, as to where the Liberal Democrats stand on the protection for vulnerable workers that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was trying to advance. That is a shame. The Liberal Democrats have a rather different tradition from the Conservatives on this, but it is one which, under new management, they are now moving away from. Perhaps it is worth having on the record the negative and hostile view that the hon. Lady took of the Bill and of the protections it sought to give.
Lorely Burt: On no occasion did I say that the Liberal Democrats are in any way opposed to the protection of vulnerable workers. I said that the Bill, as it was constructed, was not necessarily the best vehicle for the protection of vulnerable workers and that great protections already existed if the Government would only implement them.
Tony Lloyd: In that case, the hon. Lady might want to reflect on her words about appeasement with the trade unions because they send a signal away and beyond what she may have intended. She might want to reflect on whether her choice of words was judicious because if it does reflect Liberal Democrat policy towards the Bill and Bills like it, the interpretation will be strong among those people whom she seeks to deny these protections.
I will bring my remarks to a conclusion. It is important in a society such as ours that Governments, certainly a Labour Government, offer protections and recognise the signals given my hon. Friend in the Bill that he has piloted so far through its various stages in the House. Those signals were picked up by the Government and have echoed around the country. They have brought a degree of consensus around this issue. We may have the Conservatives coming in our direction, although clearly not the Liberal Democrats yet, but in that sense it is a genuine victory for the parliamentary process. All Members of Parliament should take satisfaction from that.
Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): I will not keep the Committee long. I, too, want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and the Minister on getting us to this stage with the Bill. I also want to thank the TUC, the CBI, the trade unions and especially my trade union, the GMB, for all the information that they forwarded to me in relation to the Bill to ensure that we moved forward in a cohesive way. I look forward to seeing rights for agency workers, especially those who are low paid and vulnerable and are often exploited.
I look forward to us pushing the Bill forward. I also look forward to the debate and identifying the dividing lines. It is quite correct that the Liberal Democrats sought to remove large parts of the Bill, which would, in effect, have made it almost meaningless. Therefore I look forward to having the debate on the Floor of the House and looking at the dividing lines with the Opposition, especially as I believe that the Leader of the Opposition said that he, too, was in favour of protecting vulnerable workers. Again, I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the Bill to our attention.
Mr. McFadden: I am sure, Mr. Martlew, that you will correct me if veer too widely. Throughout the process, the Government have had two objectives. One was to secure fair treatment for agency workers where there are issues of exploitation and unfair treatment that are not fully covered by the current legal regime. The second was to secure flexibility for UK employers because the high employment rate of the country has been built on flexibility. I believe that the agreement announced yesterday does that. It offers a qualifying period twice as long as the one that the Government were asked to sign up to in December and the possibility of local agreement to go beyond that. The Government remain committed to securing an opt-out not of the agency workers directive, which the hon. Member for Solihull asked me about, but of the working time directive. That is a different thing entirely, but also important to flexibility.
I should probably not go into too much more detail today, because I must keep to the Bill. As I said in my opening remarks, I shall place a copy of what was agreed yesterday in the Library so that it is available to Members. I am sure that it will be much debated.
Mrs. Williams: Can my hon. Friend assure me that following the deliberations, pockets of the UK that rely heavily on the tourist industry, which has historically relied on temporary and agency workers, will be given special attention?
Mr. McFadden: This treatment of agency workers is not intended to stop employers using agency workers, who are an important part of the labour market. It will benefit agency workers themselves and the flexibility will benefit employers. As I have said, we were keen on flexibility. It does not mean that after 12 weeks, a person will have to transfer to being a permanent employee, but simply that their rights to equal pay will increase. The agency sector will remain an important part of the labour market, but those who work in it, especially those on the longer placements that have concerned us a lot in our deliberations, will enjoy greater rights to equality of treatment with those whom they work alongside. It has never been the Government’s intention to inhibit the flexibility that enables agency work to be a valuable part of the labour market.
Mr. Doran: Shame on you.
Andrew Miller: Shame, says my hon. Friend.
The true winners here are the people who are exploited in our workplaces. This is a victory for fairness in the workplace, for temporary and agency workers and for those permanent staff who have suffered downward pressure on their terms and conditions because of some employers’ exploitation of people employed on an agency basis.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister with total sincerity, particularly following his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy, that there is a lot of expertise on the Labour Benches on the detailed matters that need to be finessed in the next few weeks and months. I am sure that every Labour member of the Committee would welcome discussions with him about how to overcome the tricky details that need to be dealt with.
Once again, I thank members of the Committee from both sides of the House, the Clerk of the Committee, the Officers of the House who have served the Committee and, of course, yourself, Mr. Martlew, and Mr. Hancock for your tolerance. I hope that the Committee will agree to adjourn.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at one minute to Ten o’clock.

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