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14 February 2008

What about the workers?

An unglamorous bill presented shortly to parliament will define the direction of the Brown governmen

By Martin Bright

On Friday 22 February 2008, a private member’s bill will have its second reading in the House of Commons. Its title gives no indication of its significance. The Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill has just that mixture of technical and worthy language that would normally allow it to sink without trace, like the vast bulk of such legislation. Few people will have heard of its sponsor, Andrew Miller, the MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, or his work as chair of the select committee on regulatory reform. Yet a campaign has grown up around Miller’s bill that threatens to cause real embarrassment to Gordon Brown and expose a gaping fault line in the Labour Party under his leadership.

On the face of it, the bill would appear to be the very definition of what Labour stands for. It proposes giving Britain’s estimated 1.4 million agency and temporary workers the same pay and working conditions already enjoyed by permanent staff. Why, argues Miller, should agency workers not have the same rights to holidays, sick pay and decent working hours just because they do not work directly for an employer?

The government’s own figures show that the UK has the third-highest use of agency workers in Europe, after France and the Netherlands, and the unions believe the issue is particularly significant here because of the range of sectors in which agency staff work. Agency staff are employed systematically across the public sector, in the NHS and education, for example, but they are also used widely in the agricultural sector and in the food and drink industries.

Indeed, the bill has a double purpose: to protect non-agency workers from being undercut by cheaper temporary staff and to prevent vulnerable workers from being exploited by unscrupulous agencies. This should be classic Labour territory. That is why Miller is confident he can gain the support of enough Labour MPs to ensure the bill’s passage to the committee stage, where a full discussion should take place.

It may seem odd that such a transparently principled piece of private legislation should be deemed necessary. The trade unions believed that the now iconic 2004 Warwick agreement, under which the Labour government agreed to make progress in protecting the rights of temporary and agency workers, amounted to a commitment to changing the legal framework. Labour’s 2005 election manifesto then pledged that the party would deal with the apparent injustice of the position of non-permanent staff. This would be honoured, according to ministers, through negotiations over a European directive on agency workers, which would enshrine their rights in law.

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The Prime Minister appeared to reiterate this at last year’s party conference when he used his conference speech to say he would back proposals for the directive. The unions understandably took his words as a commitment to support the EU Temporary (Agency) Workers Directive, which proposed giving temporary workers equal rights after six weeks of employment. But this timescale turned out to be a step too far for Brown. Instead of backing the directive, his negotiating team in Brussels last December organised a blocking minority to torpedo it. The Confederation of British Industry has consistently argued that the directive would put 250,000 jobs at risk, and ministers are now using the argument that equal rights for agency workers would remove flexibility from the labour market. The government now seems to have accepted this.

The Business and Enterprise Secretary, John Hutton, has said he would back the directive only if it ensured that jobs would not be lost. Hutton, a Blairite whom one backbencher described to me as “the most right-wing member of the cabinet”, has carved out a position for himself as the friend of business in the Brown government. He has turned out to be one of the new Prime Minister’s most successful appointments through keeping his head down and getting on with the job of selling the message that Labour is not hostile to the interests of entrepreneurs and industry. He and other new Labour true believers (including Brown) genuinely think that the interests of working people are best served by a thriving market economy.

Brown and new Labour loyalists within the cabinet may now wish to be seen as the heirs to Blair, but there has been a tangible shift of the centre of gravity within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Support for Miller’s bill is evidence that many backbenchers want to move back towards the traditional values of the party. This is described in some ministerial circles as the “Cruddas tendency”, after the 2007 deputy leadership candidate, who has indicated that it is time to move on from market-driven Blairite purism.

Jon Cruddas and those around him insist this would lead to a new progressive politics that takes in, for example, some of the concerns in the trade union movement about the effects of globalisation on the jobs market. Tentative shifts in employment practice such as the EU Temporary (Agency) Workers Directive have an obvious appeal to party activists and backbench MPs eager to offer hope to core voters.

But there is another side to the argument. Blairites inside and outside government believe that a shift to the left could lose the party the next election. They are concerned that the “Cruddas tendency” is little more than a sentimental hankering after the values of old Labour that led to electoral disaster in the decades before 1997. This is why Miller’s Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill is a dilemma for Brown’s government. Its very existence is evidence of potentially dangerous divisions in new Labour.

Back-room chats

Supporters dismiss fears that the bill represents a catastrophic shift to the left. Paul Farrelly, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who proposed a similar private member’s bill last year, says: “It’s nonsense, because this sort of measure, touching on fairness and social justice, is what the Labour Party – old or new – should be about.” Farrelly and others argue that similar concerns about the loss of jobs were raised when the government introduced the minimum wage.

There is still the possibility that the European Union directive could be revived under the new Slovenian EU presidency, but the chances are slim. Behind the scenes, No 10 is in discussion with backbenchers about the issue of agency workers.

Cheerleaders for Miller’s bill say it could provide an open goal for the government, allowing it to address the issue of immigration while avoiding charges of racism, because the legislation is designed to protect migrants as well as British workers undercut by the agencies for which they often work. Joe Irvine, the Prime Minister’s political fixer, has already invited a group of MPs to Downing Street to raise their worries.

During ten years in government, traditionalist MPs on the government benches have been asked to swallow some fairly bitter new Labour pills. On the ideological front, tuition fees, foundation hospitals and trust schools all had an important symbolic resonance, while in the area of civil liberties, many still struggle with their consciences over control orders and detention without charge.

For many MPs from a traditional Labour background, however (Mil ler worked as a technician in the geology department of Ports mouth Polytechnic before becoming an official in the MSF trade union), the treatment of agency workers is a touchstone issue. It may be an unfashionable thing to say, but his bill could prove a defining moment for the Brown government – one when backbenchers feel they can finally take a stand over the very group most Labour MPs came into par liament to represent: working-class people.

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