The government has outlined its intentions for minimum service levels during pubic sector strikes in a statement to Parliament this afternoon, as it introduced its Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
In the House of Commons, business secretary Grant Shapps justified the new bill, by alleging that unions behind the ambulance workers’ strike last month, and another scheduled for tomorrow, had failed to agree minimum safety levels of service, something the Unite union contends.
Shapps said: “I’d like to thank the Royal College of Nursing who during the last strike worked with health officials at a national level to ensure safe levels of cover were in place when they took industrial action. They kept services like emergencies and acute care running. They may have disagreed, but they showed that they could do their protest in a reasonable and mature way whilst withdrawing their labour. As ever, they put the public first and we need all our public services to do the same.
“A lack of timely co-operation from the ambulance unions meant employers could not reach agreement nationally for minimum safety levels during recent strikes and health officials were left guessing at the likely minimum coverage making contingency planning almost impossible and putting everyone’s constituents’ lives at risk.
“The ambulance strike planned for tomorrow, still – still – does not have minimum safety levels in place and this will result in patchy emergency care for the British people and this cannot continue.
Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill
“It’s for moments like this that we’re introducing legislation focusing on blue light emergency services and delivering on our manifesto commitment to secure minimum service commitment on the railways as well.”
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham responded to Shapps: “I would like to correct his totally false claims that our ambulance workers have not agreed ‘life-and-limb’ cover during disputes.
“Our ambulance workers, like other NHS workers, never go on strike without first putting these agreements in place. If he understood how the ambulance service works, he would know they are negotiated with local managers to ensure that all the specific situations in each NHS Trust are taken into account. It is highly irresponsible and misleading to suggest otherwise. The British people are very capable of seeing through this absolute toffee.”
What’s in the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill?
The Strikes (Minimal Service Levels) Bill, makes provisions on strike action in England, Wales and Scotland relating to six broad public services in health, fire and rescue, education, transport, the decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste, and border security.
The bill would allow an employer to give a “work notice” to trade unions that levels of service under minimum service regulations are to apply in relation to a strike. The work notice must be given within the period beginning with the day on which the notice under section 234A of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 is given and ending with the seventh day before the earliest strike date to which it relates, or a later day agreed between the employer and the union.
The work notice would identify persons, regardless of union membership, required to work during the strike in order to secure minimum service levels and specify the work required to be carried out by them during the strike.
An attempt to silence workers
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said health leaders work closely with local trade union representatives to agree reasonable exemptions to where strikes are expected to take place.
“Feelings of being overworked, underappreciated and burnt-out are all too common on the frontline of the NHS currently and this is understandable given the various pressures they face,” he said. “There are rising waiting lists and treatment backlogs, a vacancy crisis with 133,000 posts unfilled, under-investment in the NHS’s estate and infrastructure, and NHS pay that has failed to keep up with the rising cost of living.
“This new legislation will not change that as it does not address the fundamental concerns facing NHS staff. Instead, it could be seen as an attempt to silence workers in their hour of need and to sweep the problem under the rug.
“If the government is serious about supporting the NHS and ensuring people get the care they need, it must be prepared to negotiate meaningfully with the unions on pay. The reports of a one-off payment for staff and possibly backdating any pay deal for 2023/24 are a promising sign. Also, the government must invest in the workforce plan it has already promised the NHS so that it can escape the perpetual cycle of winter crises defined by waves of further critical incidents and strikes, which benefit no one.”
Shapps added: “We do not want to use this legislation but we must ensure the safety of the British public”
He said that during the passage of the bill through Parliament, the government intends to consult on what an adequate level of coverage looks like in fire, ambulance and in rail services. For other sectors covered in the bill, which includes the Border Force, education and nuclear decommissioning, the government hopes to reach minimum service agreements as the nurses have done in the recent strikes.
Minimum service levels abroad
He added that the bill would bring the UK in line with other European countries including France, Spain, Italy and Germany, and to the International Labour Organization (ILO), to whom the TUC subscribes, which says that “minimum service levels are a proportionate way of balancing the right to strike with the need to protect the wider public”.
Graham said: “This bill is another dangerous gimmick from a government that should be negotiating to resolve the current crisis they have caused.
“Grant Shapps is, as usual, economical with the truth. He is taking the worst practices from other countries but not those that actually assist workers. The evidence from abroad clearly shows this kind of legislation only forces unions to use other tactics, inflaming and prolonging disputes.
“If he wants to import good practice from other countries, I can give him a long list. He could start with banning fire and rehire, which can’t be done in countries like Ireland and Spain but is still legal in the UK.”
Shadow business secretary Angela Rayner responded in the House: “How can he seriously think that sacking thousands of key workers won’t just plunge our public services further into crisis? The transport secretary admits it won’t work, the education secretary doesn’t want it, and his own government impact assessment finds it will lead to more strikes and staff shortages… If he’s scraping the barrel with comparisons of France and Spain, those countries with those laws… lose vastly more strike days than Britain…
“He quotes the ILO – I’m surprised that he knows what it even is – he’ll know that the ILO requires compensatory measures and an independent arbitrator. Are those in his bill? The ILO also says minimum service levels can only happen in services when the safety of individuals or their health is at stake. This doesn’t include transport, the Border Force and teachers as he proposes.
“Excess deaths are at their highest levels since the pandemic peak. The public is being put at risk every day due to the government’s NHS crisis and staffing shortages. He’s right that it’s his government’s duty to protect the public’s access to essential services, but livelihoods and lives are already being lost.”
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “Let’s be clear. If passed, this bill will prolong disputes and poison industrial relations – leading to more frequent strikes. That’s why MPs must do the right thing and reject this cynical ‘sack key workers bill’. It’s time for the government to show they are on the side of nurses, firefighters and all our key workers who got this country through the pandemic – not actively working against them.”