The first minimum service level regulations stemming from the government’s controversial Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act have now come into force.
Rail company employees, border security staff and ambulance staff are subject to the newly passed regulations, which follow on from the passing of the Strikes Act in July 2023.
The laws will set out that border security services should be provided at a level that means that they are no less effective than if a strike were not taking place. It will also ensure all ports and airports remain open on a strike.
For train operators, it will mean the equivalent of 40% of their normal timetable can operate as normal and, in the case of strikes that affect rail infrastructure services, certain priority routes can remain open. A cross-party group of MPs has urged ministers not to overlook the risks of applying MSLs in the transport sector.
Minimum service level regulations for ambulance workers will ensure that vital ambulance services in England will continue throughout any strike action, ensuring that cases that are life-threatening, or where there is no reasonable clinical alternative to an ambulance attending, are responded to.
The government defended the regulations on the basis they brought the UK into line with countries such as France, Italy, Spain, and the US where public services continue during strikes. It said: “The International Labour Organisation also recognises Minimum Service Levels as a sensible solution to protect the public from serious consequences of strikes.”
However, unions in the UK and in France, Italy and Spain have said that the fundamental right to strike is protected by constitutional and other means in all other advanced European democracies. “The UK, which has the most draconian anti-union laws in the democratic world, is already an outlier in this regard,” they have said.
The new regulations are the result of consultations published on Tuesday with the legislation necessary to enforce them rubber-stamped by parliament yesterday (Wednesday).
Similar regulations will be applied for MSLs in hospitals, schools and higher education, but have not yet been through the parliamentary process. They are expected probably early in the new year with the schools consultation on MSLs closing at the end of January.
Where minimum service level regulations are in place and strike action is called, employers can now issue work notices to identify people who are reasonably required to work to ensure minimum service levels are met.
Last year, the government raised the maximum damages that courts can award against a union for unlawful strike action. For the biggest unions, the maximum award has risen from £250,000 to £1 million.
MSLs by sector
Minimum service levels in ambulance services
Minimum service levels in border security
Minimum service levels in fire and rescue
Minimum service levels in hospitals
Minimum service levels in rail
Minimum service levels in schools and colleges
The TUC has pledged to fight the “draconian” legislation and will hold a special “once in a generation” congress this Saturday to discuss how they will take on the new anti-strike laws.
Alongside the newly passed regulations is a statutory code of practice regulations, which also came in to force on Wednesday. The TUC said this would wrap unions in “burdensome” red tape.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “Make no mistake. These new Conservative anti-strike laws are unworkable, undemocratic and likely in breach of international law. They’ll poison industrial relations and drag out disputes.”
He added that the Labour party understood this, saying: “That’s why they have done the right thing and promised to repeal this nasty legislation at the earliest opportunity.”
Prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “We are doing everything in our power to stop unions de-railing Christmas for millions of people. This legislation will ensure more people will be able to travel to see their friends and family and get the emergency care they need.
“We cannot go on relying on short-term fixes – including calling on our Armed Forces or civil servants – to mitigate the disruption caused by strike action.”