John McDonnell – 2022 Speech on Employment Agencies and Trade Unions

The speech made by John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, in the House of Commons on 11 July 2022.

These two small pieces of legislation could have the most serious impact of any we will be considering in this Session. BA has been mentioned. That is in my constituency. Let me explain what happened. When we went into the covid crisis, the airport was shut down. Many workers were asked to remain in post to bring in essential supplies and, as we repatriated people back into this country, two of our immigration officers caught covid and died. Others continued to go into work. When hon. Members went out to applaud key workers on the doorsteps, we went out to applaud our workers at the airport who were putting their lives at risk.

We negotiated a deal. The union accepted that there would have to be some jobs reduced in the short term and wages reduced to ensure that the company survived. That was the negotiation. The assurance given was that, as we became fully operational again, wages would be reinstated. When we became nearly fully operational—at 80%—the company reneged on that commitment for a group of workers. Members can imagine how angry those workers were. They were not asking for a pay rise; they were asking for the 10% cut to be reinstated. That was all. We did the normal thing that we do at the airport: we went into negotiations and we settled the dispute, but there was a threat of industrial action. If that had happened, my whole community would have supported it.

If there had been any hint of bringing in agency workers, not only would that dispute not have been settled, it would have been bitter and long-winded. Members should not think that other workers in the airport, not implicated in that dispute, would have stood on their own. They would not have taken illegal action; it is easy for workers to find a grievance at the airport if they want to. They would have gone through the legal procedures and that airport would have been shut down. Do not tell me that agency staff can fill in for air traffic controllers, firefighters, baggage handlers who have security clearance—it takes months to get that security clearance—immigration officers and others.

This is a serious piece of legislation going through tonight, and it will exacerbate industrial relations across the whole of the country. I say to hon. Members from all parts of the House to be careful what they wish for, and to be careful what they legislate for. I am fearful about what this legislation could do. It is not just the public sector that is affected, but the private sector at Heathrow and elsewhere. Interestingly, with regard to the fines imposed, not a single example could be quoted of where the existing system was not working. In addition, unions are meticulous in the way they go forward on these matters, but where they are not, the injunction route for the employer has worked effectively. At the airport, we had one problem in the cabin crew dispute where the union was unsure who it was balloting, because halfway through some of the staff had been made redundant. An injunction came in, the union started again, the process was legitimised and the dispute took place, and we resolved the dispute through negotiation.

These measures will cause animosity and division, but if that is what this Government are all about, I say, “I think you’ve misjudged the public mood when it comes to support for trade unions in this country at the moment.”