Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade

Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill [HL]

Lord Prentis of Leeds Excerpts
Lord Prentis of Leeds Portrait Lord Prentis of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, what happened at P&O was a dreadful abuse of employment rights—an abuse that was rightly condemned but one that, regrettably, is not limited to a few ruthless employers such as P&O. Employers across our economy, public sector and private sector alike, are now routinely using fire and rehire to force through unilateral changes to employment contracts—British Gas being among the worst.

During the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, while the nation applauded our essential workers, British Gas, unbelievably, threatened to fire and rehire its entire workforce of 20,000. In May 2020, all employees were told that they would have to sign new contracts—contracts far worse than the ones they had—or face redundancy. The new contracts increased hours with no extra pay, took away payments for weekend working and undermined the long-standing pay agreements within gas. Trade unions such as mine that stood up for the workforce were threatened with derecognition; for British Gas, the current legislation is an irritant to be ignored.

Many in this Chamber have expressed their concern at the dreadful salaries earned by our care workforce. The care service is on its knees, with hundreds of thousands of vacancies, yet who would believe that care workers could be the victims of fire and rehire? But that is what is happening to care workers employed by Shaw healthcare in Powys. Carers, already the lowest paid, are losing their contractual 30-minute paid break; their shifts are being extended with no extra pay; their contractual right to eating prepared food with residents is being snatched away; and their livelihood is gone if they do not sign new contracts.

Fire and rehire is now routinely used across our public services to undermine employment rights. Sandwell Leisure did not want to pay the nationally agreed 2.75% pay increase. So what did it do? It fired and rehired its entire workforce of 280. Bristol-based St Monica Trust, a care trust, in seeking to cut the pay of senior staff by 21% and all other staff by 10%, threatened to sack care workers if they did not accept the pay cut. For some, the pay cut was over £3,000. Clarion Housing, the UK’s largest landlord, is using the threat of fire and rehire to force through worse pension arrangements for staff transferred from local government. Councils, too, from Tower Hamlets to Caerphilly and Wiltshire, are issuing new contracts with care workers and social workers told to accept worse conditions or be dismissed. The list goes on.

I make it clear that today is not about seeking to improve the pay and conditions of vulnerable workers; that is for another day. Today I want to impress on noble Lords that the devastating use of fire and rehire, dismissal and re-engagement, is not the tool of a few recalcitrant employers who can be ignored. When we talk about fire and rehire, we use terms such as “unscrupulous”, “abhorrent”, “cynical” or “a few bad apples”. The implication is that we are dealing with a few ruthless employers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Employers across the whole economy, including public service employers, are increasingly using fire and rehire and increasingly just paying lip service to current legislation.

The draft code of practice from our conciliation service will do nothing to constrain employers while the current legislation is so weak. That is why I ask this House to support my noble friend Lord Woodley’s Bill, rather than relying just on a draft code of practice—a code which is not fit for purpose and which we all know is toothless.