Ban on use of agency staff to break strikes could be lifted, minister says

Announcement comes as rail union plans nationwide strikes next week, but experts say move could put recruiters in ‘unfair position’

Credit: Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Employers could be allowed to use agency staff to replace striking workers under plans being considered by the government, it has been reported.

Grant Shapps, secretary of state for transport, told the Sunday Telegraph the government intends to repeal legislation that currently prevents agencies from supplying staff to do the work of striking employees in response to planned rail strikes later this month.

In an interview with the newspaper, Shapps said the measures "would come in during this particular dispute, if it can't be resolved", and would affect all sectors, not just the rail industry.

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“We will be looking at the full suite of modernisation that's required,” Shapps told the Sunday Telegraph. “The country must not continue to be held to ransom. These strikes are incredibly premature and we will use every possible lever to ensure that the public is protected in the future in particular.”

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) is planning three days of strikes on 21, 23 and 25 June that are expected to cause major disruptions to the majority of the UK’s rail network. A London Underground strike also is planned for 21 June.

However, experts have criticised the government’s response, saying it would put recruiters in a difficult position. Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), said repealing the ban was “the wrong policy”.

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“It puts agency staff and agencies in a completely unfair position,” he said. “[The] government’s focus, like any other employer, should always be on trying to resolve the issues in an industrial dispute. The REC will strongly oppose any moves to change the law.”

The proposals were also opposed by other unions, with Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary of the TUC, describing the move as “reckless”.

“Allowing agency staff to replace striking workers would undermine the right to strike and be extremely reckless… Using agency workers to try and break strikes would put these workers in an appalling situation, worsen disputes and poison industrial relations,” he said.

Nowak also expressed concerns that using potentially less experienced and less qualified staff to run essential services could “create genuine safety risks for the public and for the workforce”.

Legislation introduced by the Labour government under Tony Blair currently stops recruiters from supplying agency staff to replace striking workers.

Section 7 of the 2003 Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations prevents employment businesses from supplying or introducing an agency worker to an employer in order to perform the duties of a striking worker.

It also prevents them from providing agency staff to perform the roles of a non-striking worker who has been reassigned to cover for a striking worker.