The government has confirmed that it will legislate for six broad parts of the public sector to have to provide a minimum level of service in the event of industrial action.
Rishi Sunak has stopped short of the strike-curbing measures reported yesterday and stuck to pledges made in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto.
There will be no change in the notice period required to inform an employer of an intention to strike; neither will there be an increase in the threshold of eligible trade union members voting in a ballot; nor will there be any introduction of an outright ban on strikes, as had been mooted for the ambulance service.
The government will instead introduce a bill in Parliament in “the coming weeks” to ensure that vital public services will have to “maintain a basic function and deliver minimum safety levels during industrial action”.
Minimum service strikes
The six sectors covered by the proposals:
• health services, including ambulance workers
• fire and rescue services
• transport services, including rail
• decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste
• border security.
Minimum “safety” levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services with ministers consulting on the adequate level of coverage required.
The government said that minimum safety levels could include “maintaining core service provision in emergency services and ensuring key transport, travel and trade routes don’t completely shut down on strike days”.
For the other sectors covered in the bill – which include health services, education, nuclear decommissioning, other transport services and border security – the government expects “to continue to reach voluntary agreements” and would only look to consult on minimum safety levels where agreement could not be reached.
Business secretary Grant Shapps said: “As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods.
“While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”
Measures beyond those promised in the Tory manifesto are understood to have been scrapped amid the belief that the House of Lords would likely delay their passage through Parliament until 2025.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “This is an attack on the right to strike. It’s an attack on working people. And it’s an attack on one of our longstanding British liberties.
“It means that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t. That’s wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal.”
The government’s announcement confirming a bill to enforce minimum service levels during strikes, which came yesterday evening, was preceded by an offer to hold pay talks with public sector unions, although these only related to the 2023-24 pay settlement, not the 2022-23 awards that are the subject of the ongoing industrial disputes.
Shapps said: “We hugely value the work of our public services and we’re reaching out to unions to have an honest conversation on pay, conditions and reform. Industrial action is disruptive for everyone – from people relying on essential services to get to work or care for their family to hard-working business owners whose sales suffer. It also costs those striking at a time when family budgets are tight.”
Nowak responded: “The only offer of talks is for next year. But we need to resolve the current disputes and boost the pay of public sector workers now. The prime minister said yesterday his door is always open – if he’s serious, he should prove it. He should take up my offer to get around the table to improve this year’s pay and end the current disputes.
Public sector strike reforms
“There is a world of difference between promises of jam tomorrow with technical discussions about pay review bodies, and proper negotiations on pay in the here and now.
Tom Long, partner and industrial relations specialist at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, said: “Whilst this is the latest attempt in a series of governments since 2010 to restrict the right to strike, the proposed legislation could have a relatively short lifespan.
“Aside from the fact that trade unions will be unlikely to accept it without a fight, it may take months to go through parliament and even if passed, the Labour Party have been vocal about their intention to repeal it if they are elected in the next two years.
“Designed to protect minimum service levels, the current legislation is limited to what the government considers “important public services”, such as nurses and the fire service, so will have no immediate effect on businesses outside of these areas. However, it could be argued that those “important public services” are areas where the government could be held responsible for the knock-on effects of strike action, for example delayed operations and hospital appointments.
“This announcement will naturally garner a lot of attention, especially with the country in the midst of strike action across a number of sectors. However, with trade unions already threatening a potential legal challenge through the courts, it remains to be seen whether the prime minister’s bold plans will translate into reality.”
Commentators are already questioning how minimum service levels will be reached and how they will differ from the skeletal services that already operate on strike days. Anna-Jane Hunter, a railways consultant who was formerly director of the North of England for Network Rail, speaking on BBC Newsnight yesterday, said: “It’s an extremely complex network. It’s like a great big Rubik’s cube and the services are knitted together by experts who spend years making that puzzle work.
It means that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t. That’s wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal” – Paul Nowak, TUC
“If you try and mandate minimum service levels, I can’t imagine how that would work and one person’s ‘essential’ service to rail is another person’s ‘luxury’; it’s not as simple as say life-saving care in the NHS, I just don’t think it’s that straightforward.”
The government said yesterday that its measures, which apply to Great Britain, will see the UK align with many countries across the world such as France and Spain that already have minimum service level agreements in place, to prevent large swathes of their economies grinding to a halt during industrial action.
It added that the United Nations’ International Labour Organization recognises minimum service levels as a sensible solution to protect the public from the serious consequences of strikes. The UK signed the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in 1998. The ILO says limitations on strikes are permissible where life is endangered or there are other serious consequences for the public.
Canada, Australia and some parts of the US have total bans on strikes for all “blue lights” services, as the UK currently has in place with the police and the military.