As the UK falls deeper into a winter of discontent, Martin Williams examines the government’s legislative response, in the shape of a Strikes Bill providing for minimum service levels, to the growing industrial action across the public sector.
It was almost fitting that Grant Shapps had to introduce the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, a second attempt to introduce this sort of legislation. The first attempt just concentrated on transport, a previous brief of his. That bill did not get to a second reading before being abandoned.
The new strikes bill aims for a wider remit, looking at introducing minimum service levels for health, education, fire and rescue, decommissioning of nuclear waste, border security as well as transport services.
What the government has not made much of, is that in the previous attempt, an accompanying memo explained why minimum service levels were not workable outside the transport sector. Now, apparently, they are. Amazing what can happen in the space of a few months.
Shapps has claimed he does not really want to use these proposed powers. He thinks the right to strike is important so it would be such a shame if this wonderful principle were to suffer some terrible accident – like being made unworkable. The message is simple: the government does not want its authority undermined and will do its utmost to quash strike action. In essence, unions, which translates as employees, can have a right to strike, but should not exercise it in any meaningful way.
Strikes Bill – minimum safety?
As the idea of introducing minimum service levels is not new, one would have thought that, second time around, we would see a Bill that expanded on the sound-bite material used in speeches and interviews. Alas, we are not much further on.
This is deliberate. Primary legislation is required to amend the laws on strikes currently in place, but the government does not want to fully reveal its hand. Detail is for wimps.
Widely scoped primary legislation means the government can provide the devilish details in regulations that will not come under close scrutiny. It allows them to make it up as they go along and keep the declared enemy, and commentators, guessing.
Legislation inevitably has grey areas where reasonableness can be determined by case law. With respect to this Bill, the greyness is almost without limit. Education, for instance, is a huge service expanse into which this legislation can wade. We are not just looking at schools here, but universities, further education colleges, nurseries, and it matters not, seemingly, whether they are publicly or privately run. The same pattern applies to all the other widely drawn areas. Nuclear decommissioning is, granted, a bit niche.
We also have a deliberate cross-over in meaning. The Strikes Bill refers to minimum service levels, but a lot of the noise has been, and will continue to be, about minimum “safety” levels. The challenge the government has made, and will continue to make against any opposition, is why would anyone be against minimum safety levels? This ignores the fact that if public transport has simply ceased to run, safety is not a concern. Clearly, it’s safer to run no trains than to run even a few.
When we come to health and fire services, the safety argument is more obvious. The key issue here is how the minimum service levels will be agreed upon. Currently, local agreements are made but there is nothing guaranteed in advance. The government regards this as a risk. However, the law is more about applying pressure and reducing any moves towards strikes – ideally, in the unspoken view of ministers, not having them called at all.
While the Bill talks of consultation, the Secretary of State will have the power to decide what the levels should be. Consultation is not the same as agreement. The government and unions can talk all they like but in the end, the government will decide. As it is, the government only envisages being involved in consultation with respect to fire, ambulance and rail services. Could these just be the most relevant sectors at this time? The hope is that other sectors will arrive at their own levels, thus delegating responsibility.
Minimum safety levels ignore the fact that if public transport has simply ceased to run, safety is not a concern. Clearly, it’s safer to run no trains than to run even a few”
If a strike is called, it will be for the employers to set the numbers of staff required to be on duty via a work notice. This is to be dictated and not negotiated. In short, a list will be drawn up of those permitted to strike and those who are not.
Just one example of where there could be problems is where someone who is not permitted to strike has to take time off through sickness. A call to the substitutes bench will have to be made. The initial policing of the strikes law will be up to the employer, most probably in the guise of HR.
Compliance, or not, will only be known after the event. If there is evidence that there has been a breach of the minimum standard, the relevant union can be held to account as there will be no immunity from legal action against them. The fun will never end and employment relations will not improve.
There is very little comfort to be gained by knowing Spain and other European countries have minimum service level provisions. Note that this is the government that “delivered Brexit” that is now citing labour conditions in EU countries. However, the government has not said they will copy such provisions and all the other employment terms that apply to relevant workers in those countries. They merely cite the idea.
Without knowing the details of the minimum service levels there can be no serious analysis of their application and impact. The Bill does not seek to address the minimum or what the parameters may be for determining it. The Strikes Bill simply gives the power to the government to make a final decision about what it thinks is best. Yes, the same government that once said that minimum service levels were not something to be considered outside of the transport sector.