Controversial ‘anti-strike’ bill becomes law despite pushback

Health unions have vowed to make sure that the voice of nursing is not silenced, after the government’s controversial anti-strike bill became law

26 Jul 2023| News

From the Nursing Times:

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act received royal assent on 20 July, following many months of parliamentary scrutiny.

The new law will give ministers the power to impose new minimum service levels when industrial action takes place across key sectors including health, education and transport.

As part of this, employers will be able to provide work notices to employees who have voted to strike, meaning they will have to work to maintain the minimum service levels.

Under the law, nursing staff could face dismissal if they do not comply with their work notice on strike days.

In addition, unions will now have to “take reasonable steps” to ensure that all workers comply with their work notice, or they too will face consequences.

The government said that a public consultation on what these ‘reasonable steps’ will look like will take place this summer.

The legislation has faced strong opposition from trade union and opposition parties.

In addition, the House of Lords had previously tried to put forward a series of amendments to the bill that were designed to protect workers and unions, but they were repeatedly overturned by MPs.

During the final debate of the legislation last week, Lord Martin Callanan, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, said:

“I appreciate that noble Lords opposite do not like the outcome, but it is what it is.

In our view, this is a vital piece of legislation that will give the public confidence that, when workers strike – which they are fully entitled to do – lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk.”

However, Labour peer Lord John Hendy KC, continued to oppose the law, describing it as a “skeleton legislation”.

“The fact is that the bill abridges the right to strike, a right established by many international treaties to which the UK adheres.”

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury, also a Labour peer, said a future Labour government would “repeal the act because it does not have the support of workers’ representatives or employers”.

He said:

“It is impracticable and will simply result in not achieving the objectives of the bill the government set out, while worsening the situation in industrial relations.

Even the government’s own impact assessments have said it could possibly increase strikes.”

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Christopher Fox echoed this, and said it was “quite clear” that the bill would do nothing to bring the ongoing industrial disputes in the health sector to an end.

He said:

“The government need to solve this industrial issue as well as the service delivery within the health service, and this bill when it becomes an act will do nothing towards doing that.”

The law comes in as unions representing several professions in the health sector, including nurses, doctors and radiographers, remain in dispute with the government over pay.

Responding to the passing of the strikes bill into law, the Royal College of Nursing general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, said:

“The UK now has some of the most draconian trade union laws in the world and nursing staff across the country face the prospect of being sacked simply for fighting for fair pay as well as their patients.

We will not allow this to silence the voice of nursing and will continue to make the case for a workforce that is at the heart of our health and care system.

Instead of curtailing the rights of staff, ministers should focus on fixing the crisis in the nursing workforce that has left tens of thousands of vacant posts and patient care at risk.”

Unison assistant general secretary, Jon Richards, echoed this, warning that the new law “won’t do anything to shorten waiting lists, improve patient care or solve the staffing emergencies affecting the NHS and social care”.

He added:

“There should be minimum safe staffing levels in place all year round in hospitals and ambulance stations, not just during a strike.

Imposing these nationally during any action will simply cut across locally made agreements concerning life and limb cover, cause confusion and do nothing to solve the dispute.”