The Government has announced plans to remove the legal restrictions which prevent employment agencies sending staff to cover for workers engaged in official industrial action. It also plans to increase the limits on the damages unions are liable to pay for unofficial action, the first such change since 1992. These measures will require Parliamentary approval, which the Government expects to obtain “in the coming weeks”.
The legal changes announced today would be the most significant amendment to the law of industrial action since the Trade Union Act 2016, which introduced new thresholds for ballots on industrial action.
The current restrictions on the supply of agency workers are contained in the Conduct of Employment Agencies Regulations 2003. These regulations prohibit agencies sending “work-seekers” to cover directly for workers engaged in official industrial action, or to cover for non-striking staff temporarily re-deployed by the employer in response. Breaking these restrictions can lead to criminal sanctions, and also exposes the agency business to civil liability.
In its press release, the Government says that the repeal of these restrictions – which will apply in Wales and Scotland as well as England – “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”.
While the additional flexibility that these changes would bring would be welcomed by many employers, there are a number of factors they would need to consider before taking advantage of them. Apart from the feasibility of attracting sufficient numbers of qualified agency staff – who may need to cross picket lines – there are the wider industrial relations consequences to consider.