Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary letter from Alan Johnson MP, Minister of State for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions, Department of Trade and Industry, to the Baroness Harris of Richmond, Chairman of Sub-Committee F (Social Affairs, Education and Home Affairs) of the European Union Committee


  Thank you for your letter of 22 May, responding to my letter of 20 May and asking for a further update on the proposed directive on temporary agency work, following the discussion of the proposal at COREPER on 21 and 26 May. I am writing to provide this update and to warn you that it may be necessary to override the scrutiny reserve on it, if you are unable to clear the dossier before 3 June, since the Presidency remains determined to reach political agreement.

  I have noted your comments about the handling of correspondence by my department and am very sorry that you have not been informed of progress on this proposal in the way you should have. I should like to give my personal assurance that my department remains committed to respecting the Parliamentary Scrutiny procedures. My officials will be in touch with your Clerk to discuss how we can ensure that correspondence is smoothly transferred in future and make sure that your committee is kept well-informed of progress in the best possible way. Any advice and general lessons on how best to make sure Lords Scrutiny Committees are optimally informed will, of course, be passed on within the Department.

  In COREPER on 21 and 26 May, Member States continued to discuss the Greek Presidency's compromise package based on a longer transitional derogation, but were unable to reach agreement. The two principal areas in which differences exist are article 4, dealing with a review of restrictions, and article 11.3 (was 5.4), on the qualifying period for equal treatment. On article 11.3, the UK remains of the view that X (denoting the qualifying period for equal treatment) must be a significant period which would ensure agency workers' jobs are not put at risk. I still believe that this is the best way to achieve the best balance between protecting "permatemps" (agency workers in long term positions) and protecting their jobs. Eleven out of 15 member states can accept a transitional derogation. The length of the derogation from applying equal treatment has not been agreed and continues to be denoted by the figure X. On Article 4, some member states are looking for changes, so that they are not obliged to inform the Commission of the results of their review. I am of the view that Article 4 is important, since a review of restrictions on the use of agency workers could help to increase opportunities for workers in the EU.

  The next discussion of the proposal will be at the 3 June Employment Council, where it has been tabled for political agreement. Despite the lack of progress in COREPER, the political will remains to reach agreement and the Presidency is keen to achieve political agreement on 3 June. If you are unable to provide clearance for the Government's position on this proposal before this date, then I will unfortunately have to override the scrutiny reserve if an acceptable proposal is on the table.

  In your letter you say that the Commission's draft of the Directive provides a sound basis for establishing equal treatment for temporary agency workers. The concerns you have raised are reflected in our policy. We are no longer seeking a derogation of 12 months. The Government supports the principle of protecting agency workers, in particular agency workers who have been working for the same user undertaking for some time (the "perma-temps"). However, I want to see a directive that protects agency workers without putting their jobs at risk and I believe it is important to target an enhanced level of protection at the "perma-temps". Following a public consultation last year I remain concerned that the European Commission's revised proposal could have the unintended consequence in the UK of reducing job opportunities for agency workers. I am also concerned that the equal treatment principle as it is set out in the Commission draft could impose significant, unnecessary administrative burdens on business, particularly small employment agencies, due to the difficulty of establishing what would be the correct rate of pay. If this administrative burden is excessive, I am concerned that it could lead to business failures.

  You refer to an article in The Times on 19 May. The allegation in The Times that the UK has opposed the adoption of the Takeovers Directive and sought to "wreck the Agency Worker Directive" is not correct. The Takeovers Directive was discussed at the Competitiveness Council on 19 May, where an exchange of views took place. The UK Government remains committed to the Takeovers Directive, but the issues are very difficult and it remains unclear as to where consensus will be achieved. The UK does co-operate closely with Germany and other member states on areas where we share common concerns and is working with Germany on various dossiers. We understand that Germany shares many of our concerns about the Agency Worker Directive and, like the UK, is not opposed to the Directive, but wants to see further flexibilities introduced. Germany is currently reforming its labour market and taking measures to tackle unemployment. I imagine they would also be concerned about adopting a measure that could make it harder for workers to re-enter the labour market through agency work.

  I hope that this update is helpful to you. My officials will continue to stay in close contact with the Clerk of your Committee to keep him informed of developments at the 3 June Employment Council and agree further handling in terms of future updates.

29 May 2003

previous page contents

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003