The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill has been voted through the House of Commons, but some MPs have accused ministers of pushing it through with little time for proper scrutiny.
The Strikes Bill, which requires some sectors to operate at least a minimum service during strikes, passed by 315 votes to 246 last night, but will face further scrutiny in the House of Lords before it becomes law.
Under the proposals, ministers would get the power to set minimum service levels for fire, ambulance and rail services. Other health and transport services, as well as sectors including education, border security and nuclear decommissioning, will also be required to operate a minimum service, but the government hopes to reach voluntary agreements about these thresholds.
Employers would be able to issue a “work notice” to unions, setting out who is required to work during a strike. If a minimum service is not provided, employers would be able to sue trade unions for losses.
Unions clash with Shapps over Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill
There would be no automatic protection from unfair dismissal for an employee who is told they must work but chooses to strike, allowing employers to dismiss them if they wish. The Strikes Bill does not affect any ongoing strike action.
Business secretary Kevin Hollinrake told the House of Commons: “This is not a radical Bill. What we are doing is not even new. We are taking reasonable, proportionate and balanced steps and aligning ourselves with many of our European partners, such as France and Spain.
“Our position, which has the support of the majority of our constituents – in a recent YouGov poll, 56% of those polled said that they support the legislation – is that we need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the ability to keep the lives and livelihoods of the British public safe.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the government of trying to rush through legislation without proper scrutiny.
“Riddled with holes, the bill gives sweeping powers to a power-hungry secretary of state,” she said.
“These are the fundamental freedoms that underpin our democracy. Conservative members should be very concerned about what the government are trying to do; even Henry VIII would be spinning in his grave and absolutely astonished.
“If, as the secretary of state and his prime minister say, the International Labour Organisation backs their plans, why did the ILO director general slam them? Why did President Biden’s labour secretary raise concerns too?”
Rayner said many public sector employers would struggle to implement a minimum service because of labour shortages.
She said: “Does [the minister] seriously think that overstretched public services have the resources to assess new minimum service laws – to work out who needs to be in work, how many people and where, before every single strike day? Should we not promote good-faith negotiations instead?”
Workers face sack
Labour MP Ellie Reeves said the proposed legislation contradicts a pledge made in the 2019 Queen’s speech, which said sanctions would not be directed at individual workers.
“Under this legislation, workers can be sacked for taking strike action that has been agreed in a democratic ballot, which is a gross infringement of working rights and goes against the long-established principles set out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992,” she said.
This draconian legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply” – Paul Nowak, TUC
The TUC accused the government of “shortcutting” normal procedures for scrutinising proposed legislation. Consultations on how the proposed legislation would work have not been published and some MPs have suggested there has not been enough parliamentary time to discuss the bill and its amendments.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “This draconian legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply. And crucially it will likely poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes, rather than help resolve them.
“Ministers know this bill is undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal. That’s why they are ducking proper scrutiny and consultation – and it’s why this bill was steamrollered through the Commons so quickly.”
Hollinrake said the government wants to resolve the current disputes but said an inflation-matching pay increase for all public sector workers would cost £28bn, “which would put just under £1,000 on to the bills of every household in all our constituencies”.
“The disputes are already costing our economy and threatening businesses and livelihoods. The estimated cost to the economy so far is £6 billion, including £2.5 billion to the already challenged hospitality sector,” he said.
Comparable to Europe?
Jan Willem Goudriaan, general secretary of the European Public Service Union, wrote to prime minister Rishi Sunak last week to contest the government’s assertion that the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was not controversial because other countries in Europe have similar protections.
He said: “The UK government claims that it is bringing the UK into line with strike law in other countries. This is total nonsense. This ignores the fact that the UK is a complete outlier in the excessive rules on ballots and voting thresholds that it has imposed on public service workers.
“It is also ignoring that in countries like Italy or Spain, that it chooses as comparisons, guarantee a right to strike in their constitutions and a right to negotiate minimum service levels rather than have them imposed.”
The TUC has previously said it will take legal action against the government if the Strikes Bill passes through Parliament.
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