Anti-strikes Bill will give ministers “unfettered power” to restrict the right to strike

Experts say government’s Strikes Bill will make Britain an international “outlier” on union laws

3 Apr 2023| News

Leading employment lawyers have warned that the Government’s new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill will give ministers “unfettered power” to restrict the right to strike.

In a joint statement, released on Saturday, the legal specialists say the new legislation will make Britain “an outlier” on strike laws compared to other European, Western democracies.

Those adding their names to the statement include:

  • Alan Bogg, Professor of Labour Law, University of Bristol
  • Keith Ewing, Professor of Public Law, King’s College London
  • Ruth Dukes, Professor of Labour Law, University of Glasgow

Highlighting the new sweeping powers the Bill will give to ministers, the lawyers say:

“The legislation gives a Secretary of State a largely unfettered power to determine what a minimum level of service should be in a particular service, and consequently the circumstances in which and the extent to which workers in these sectors can lawfully exercise their freedom to strike.”

Highlighting how Britain risks becoming an international outlier on strike laws, the lawyers say:

“The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would place an unacceptable restriction on a worker’s right to take strike action to defend their terms and conditions of employment. It adds to an existing body of highly restrictive laws on strikes, including the Trade Union Act 2016.

“It would make Great Britain an outlier among comparable countries. If ministers are keen to learn from overseas, a more promising place to start would be the creation of a culture of social dialogue and balanced cooperation through the introduction of sector-wide collective bargaining, together with the clear legal recognition of a positive right to strike.”

Highlighting the strain the Bill will put on industrial relations, the lawyers say:

“Trade unions will be required by an employer acting with the authority of the state to take steps actively to undermine its own strike, for which its members will have voted in a ballot with high thresholds of support. Such an obligation is unprecedented in British law, and it places trade unions in an intolerable conflict with their own members.

“The legislation also removes significant protections for individual workers exposing them to the risk of dismissal and victimisation. It will do nothing to resolve the current spate of industrial action, which will be settled by negotiation and agreement, rather than by the introduction of even tighter restrictions on trade unions.”

The TUC has accused the government of ducking scrutiny over the Bill. If passed, the Strikes Bill will mean that when workers democratically and lawfully vote to strike they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply.

The Bill gives ministers power to impose new minimum service levels through regulation. But consultations on how these regulations will work in specific services have not been completed, and parliamentarians have been given few details on how minimum service levels are intended to operate.

The TUC says the new legislation will “do nothing” to solve the current disputes across the public sector, and “only make matters worse”.

Alan Bogg, Professor of Labour Law at the University of Bristol said:

“This Bill would risk leaving Britain an international outlier in its restrictive laws on trade unions. When combined with existing legislation, these proposals constitute a further departure from established norms and international treaty obligations.

Rather than bringing Britain into line with other European countries, it deviates significantly from the legal traditions of our neighbours where the right to strike is often given explicit constitutional protection.”

Ruth Dukes, Professor of Labour Law at the University of Glasgow said:

“These minimum service requirements will do nothing to help workers and employers reach agreement. But they might well prolong and inflame disputes.”

Commenting on the lawyers’ letter, TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said:

“This is a damning assessment of the government’s Strikes Bill. Make no mistake – these new laws are a naked power grab that will allow ministers to severely restrict the right to strike.

This spiteful legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply. Compulsory work notices during strikes will place a huge strain on employer and union relations and will do nothing to help resolve disputes.

If this nasty legislation gets on to the statute book, the TUC will fight it all the way – including through the courts. The Conservatives cannot legislate away worker dissatisfaction.”

You can read the full statement here