Government push ahead with minimum service level legislation

Govt have announced new anti-strike legislation which will enforce “minimum service” requirements in six key public services

5 Jan 2023| News

Photo: Roger Blackwell

The Government are to push ahead with new anti-strike legislation in the coming weeks, enforcing so-called “minimum service levels” in a number of services.

The UK already has some of the most restrictive anti-trade union laws in Western Europe and trade unions have already pledged to fight any such legislation in the courts. Today, they reacted strongly to oppose the proposals, which have been heavily trailed in the Times. On Thursday afternoon, the Business Secretary Grant Shapps, confirmed the Government’s plans to introduce legislation, saying:

“As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods. While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”

The Guardian reports:

“Ministers have announced anti-strike legislation to enforce “minimum service levels” in six key public services including the NHS and schools as Rishi Sunak scrambles to get a grip on industrial disputes.

The government plans to introduce a law in the coming weeks that is expected to allow bosses in health, education, fire, ambulance, rail and nuclear commissioning to sue unions and sack employees if the minimum levels are not met…

…Minimum service levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services, with the government consulting on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors, to address concerns that disruption to blue-light services puts lives at risk.

However, it will also reserve the power to impose minimum service levels in the other three public services, although ministers expect to reach voluntary agreements in these areas and say they would only impose the anti-strike law if this were not possible.”

Responding to today’s attack on the right to strike to defend workers’ pay and conditions, the TUC has said that the Prime Minister should concentrate on fixing our public services, not attacking public sector staff. The union body says that the proposed legislation would make it harder for disputes to be resolved. TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said:

“This is an attack on the right to strike. It’s an attack on working people. And it’s an attack on one of our longstanding British liberties.

It means that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t. That’s wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal.”

On the trade union campaigning to defend the right to strike, he added:

“Trade unions will fight this every step of the way. We’re inviting every worker – public and private sector, and everyone who wants to protect British liberties -to be a part of our campaign to defend the right to strike.”

GMB Union has also responded to today’s anti-strike legislation from the Government. Gary Smith, GMB General Secretary, said:

“A Government that has presided over 13 years of failure in our public services is now seeking to scapegoat the NHS staff and ambulance workers who do so much to care for the people of our country.

The NHS can only function with the goodwill of its incredible staff and attacking their fundamental right to take action will alienate them even further and do nothing to help patients and the public.

We are always ready to discuss our members’ pay but the Government is refusing to talk about problems as they exist now, instead they want to kick the can down the road.

There are huge questions over the NHS Pay Review Body, as Ministers’ actions have consistently undermined its independence. The process needs real reform and our members need a much stronger commitment than we heard today.”

Unite General Secretay Sharon Graham accused PM Rishi Sunak of ‘silly posturing’ on strikes. Responding to the latest government threats to the right to strike trailed in today’s papers, Graham said:

“Yet again, Rishi Sunak abdicates his responsibility as a leader. Instead of silly posturing and game playing, he should step up to the plate, act as a leader and start negotiating to resolve the crises his government has created.

The game is up – everyday people can see through the Tories’ web of lies. They can see that this government is not interested in ensuring that workers and communities get their fair share. This is a government for the rich and powerful. Whatever the latest scheme the government comes up with to attack us, unions will continue to defend workers.”

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch likened the proposals to “conscription”, telling LBC:

“Basically, you’re talking about the conscription of labour even during a lawful dispute, and I would have to name my members that went to work to break their own picket lines. And that’s unacceptable in a free society.

We’re always being told that repressive regimes do things against the public. And of course the mark of what went on in Poland, and what goes on in China, and probably Russia and other repressive regimes, is that trade unions aren’t free.”

The General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, said limiting workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action was “always undemocratic” and the union would look closely at the government’s plans next week. She said:

“Safe staffing levels that are set in law are what we want to see year-round, not just in these extreme circumstances. We’ve long campaigned for governments to be accountable for safe and effective staffing levels in the NHS and social care to prevent one nurse being left with 15, 20 or even 25 sick patients. Legislation exists in other parts of the UK and England is lagging behind.

The evidence is unequivocal: safe staffing saves lives and having the right number of registered nurses on duty has a direct impact on the safety and quality of patient care. Today’s highly unsafe situation is what is driving our members to say ‘enough is enough’.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer commented on the Government’s plans thus:

“I don’t think this legislation is going to work. I’m pretty sure they’d had an assessment that tells them that it is likely to make a bad situation worse. We will look at what they bring forward but if it’s further restrictions then we would repeal it. The reason for that is that I do not think legislation is the way you bring an end to a dispute.”