Action condemned

Agency staff to replace strikers under law change

Kwasi Kwarteng
Kwasi Kwarteng: ‘the situation we are in is not sustainable’

Government ministers risk stoking anger among strikers and trade unions by changing the law to allow agency workers to replace those involved in industrial action.

The government wants to stop strikes from disrupting key public services and preventing people from getting to work.

Today’s legislation, likely to be introduced next month, repeals what it calls “burdensome legal restrictions” and will give businesses impacted by strike action the freedom to tap into the services of employment businesses who can provide skilled, temporary agency staff at short notice to cover essential roles for the duration of a strike.

Labour condemned the change in the law, saying it would inflame more disputes and that the government had learned nothing from the P&O scandal when cheap labour was brought in to replace sacked crew.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Removing these regulations will give employers more flexibility, but businesses will still need to comply with broader health and safety rules that keep both employees and the public safe. 

“It would be their responsibility to hire cover workers with the necessary skills and/or qualifications to meet those obligations.

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“It would also help mitigate against the impact of future strikes, such as those seen on our railways this week, by allowing trained, temporary workers to carry out crucial roles to keep trains moving.

“For instance, skilled temporary workers would be able to fill vacant positions such as train dispatchers, who perform vital tasks such as giving train drivers the signal they are safe to proceed and making sure train doors aren’t obstructed.”

It adds: “The change in the law, which will apply across all sectors, is designed to minimise the negative and unfair impact of strikes on the British public by ensuring that businesses and services can continue operating.

“For example, strikes in public services such as education can often mean parents have to stay at home with their children rather than go to work, or rail sector strikes stopping commuters getting to work or to other businesses.”

Subject to parliamentary approval, these changes are made through a statutory instrument and are set to come into force over the coming weeks and will apply across England, Scotland and Wales. 

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Once again trade unions are holding the country to ransom by grinding crucial public services and businesses to a halt. The situation we are in is not sustainable.

“Repealing these 1970s-era restrictions will give businesses freedom to access fully skilled staff at speed, all while allowing people to get on with their lives uninterrupted to help keep the economy ticking.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Despite the best efforts of militant union leaders to bring our country to a standstill, it’s clear this week’s strikes did not have the desired impact due to more people being able to work from home.

“However, far too many hard working families and businesses were unfairly affected by union’s refusal to modernise.

“Reforms such as this legislation are vital and will ensure any future strikes will cause even less disruption and allow adaptable, flexible, fully skilled staff to continue working throughout.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, said: “This is a recipe for disaster, not just undermining pay and working conditions, but risking public safety and ripping up ministers’ own words.

“The Government appear to have learned nothing from the P&O scandal, which resulted in multiple safety failures and the grounding of vessels. The idea this could solve the travel chaos they have created is just more Tory fantasy in place of real solutions.

“It’s no wonder business leaders oppose it as much as trade unions do. It’s just another Tory tactic to inflame more disputes in the country they should be leading, not dividing.”

The government has also announced today that it is raising the maximum damages that courts can award against a union, when strike action has been found by the court to be unlawful. The caps on damages, which have not been changed since 1982, will be increased. For the biggest unions, the maximum award will rise from £250,000 to £1m.

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