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Minister pledges a review of agencies

Ministers are to review the role of controversial part-time employment agencies which have swept through colleges, it emerged this week, writes Ben Russell.

Baroness Blackstone, the higher and further education minister, confirmed this week that officials were reviewing the status of agencies which have burgeoned throughout the sector.

Thousands of lecturers have lost employment rights after being sacked and forced to apply for work through agencies such as Education Lecturing Services.

Under current rules, part-timers who work through agencies are classed as self-employed - leaving them without rights to sick pay or redundancy payments enjoyed by part-timers on permanent contracts.

But in a letter to Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union NATFHE, Lady Blackstone confirmed that a Government review was imminent.

She said: "I understand that officials at the Department for Trade and Industry who have overall responsibility for industrial relations matters are about to review the employment status of agency and other groups of workers whose position is less than clear.

"In addition the DTI is about to review the protection afforded under the Employment Agencies Act 1973 to ensure that it properly reflects the modern labour market."

A DTI spokesman said a consultation document on the Agencies Act would be issued shortly, but more fundamental changes were a long-term project.

Mr Mackney welcomed the review, but warned that regulation of agencies would not meet NATFHE's demands. He said "Our position is we would like to see agencies limited to very short-term cover."

Ministers are known to favour reform. As early as January last year, Education Secretary David Blunkett was warning of "bogus self-employment".

He said in a letter to Nottingham South MP, Alan Simpson: "I believe this is undermining the very basis and quality of the service, as well as being detrimental to the individuals taken on in this way." It was, he added, "certainly a mess which we'll have to resolve."

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