Minimum Service Levels Bill: ‘think again’ on ‘draconian’ ‘anti-strikes’ law, says cross-party committee

The Bill has been described as ‘undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal’

Trade unions are again calling for the government to scrap its plan to introduce ‘anti-strikes’ legislation, after a parliamentary committee found it is “likely to fall short” of meeting the UK’s human rights requirements.

The human rights committee said the Minimum Service Levels Bill should be amended to address a number of flaws, as the committee chair urged the government to “think again” about the Bill.

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It comes after an independent body tasked with assessing proposed legislation deemed the Bill “not fit for purpose” as the government’s impact assessment of the Bill failed to consider all impacts of the policy and that some of its claims were not backed up with evidence.

Union leaders have opposed the bill, saying it risks criminalising striking workers, with the head of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) describing it as “undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal”.

Would the Minimum Service Levels Bill breach human rights law?

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, made up of cross-party MPs and peers, has criticised a number of aspects of the government’s flagship ‘anti-strikes legislation,’ which will be debated in the House of Lords later this week.

The committee’s report noted that the legislation means that workers could be sacked for taking part in strike action if their trade union does not take reasonable steps to comply with a work order - even if workers are not named on the order by their employer and therefore mandated to work.

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It described potential penalties for workers and trade unions - which could face fines of up to £1 million - as “particularly concerning,” and said the guidance around what would constitute “reasonable steps” was not clear enough.

The Bill would allow the Secretary of State to unilaterally decide what constitutes a minimum service level, which the committee said could allow for “potentially arbitrary interferences with the right to strikes”.

The right to strike is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, and the committee said the government has “not adequately made the case that this Bill meets the UK’s human rights obligations.

Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry KC MP, said the Bill should be amended to “resolve some of the deep flaws it has”.

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She said: “If this proposed legislation becomes law in its current form, ministers would have the power to set minimum service levels that would leave striking workers at risk of the sack if they are not met, and unions liable to million-pound fines. Yet, the government has not proven that such draconian measures are needed or that the current framework is inadequate.”

She added: “The government needs to think again and come back with legislation that better respects the protections guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.”

General Secretary of Usdaw, Paddy Lillis, described the legislation as a “direct attack on working people’s fundamental right to strike to defend their pay”.

He said: “Going on strike is always a last resort for any worker. However, the threat of strike action helps to focus the minds of employers on reaching an agreement in negotiations.

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“It is essential that we protect the right to strike. So we urge Peers to vote against the anti-strike law as it goes through the House of Lords. The government needs to be told that they should be focussed on negotiating settlements and promoting good and fair industrial relations; not undermining workers’ rights with unwanted legislation.”

TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said: “MPs, Lords and civil liberties groups are queuing up to condemn this draconian Bill. These spiteful new laws are an affront to human rights and are a deliberate attempt to restrict the right to strike – a fundamental British liberty.

“The government is steamrolling through parliament legislation that will give ministers sweeping new powers to sack workers who take action to win better pay and conditions. The Conservatives are trying to keep people in the dark. But make no mistake – this Bill is undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal.

“And crucially it will likely poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them. This nasty Bill should be junked immediately.”

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A government spokesperson said: “The purpose of this legislation is to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public and ensure they can continue to access vital public services.

“We note this report and will consider it in full, but the government needs to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect essential services to be there when they need them.”

What is the Minimum Service Levels Bill?

If passed, the legislation would allow the business secretary to write regulations which mandate some form of minimum service level in healthcare, the fire service, education, borders and on the railways.

The law would allow employers to give employees a ‘work notice’ which would identify people who are required to work. If workers fail to comply with this notice, they can be fired and unions can be sued.

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A number of legal experts have criticised the proposed legislation as amounting to forced labour, and said it would be in violation of international law. Trade union leaders have reacted furiously to the proposals, and the Labour Party has committed to opposing the bill.

While the government has tried to claim that the policy is supported by the International Labour Organisation and similar measures are already in place in other European countries, legal experts have taken issue with this.

Trade unions have also pointed out that in many key industries, workers taking strike action already agree on safe working levels, as has been the case for ambulance staff.

Rachel Harrison, GMB National Secretary, said:  "Throughout the ambulance strikes, GMB members agreed safety levels with each and every ambulance trust, who dropped everything and left the picket lines to save lives.

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"The NHS’s own figures show patient safety improved on strike days thanks to the efforts of our members. But instead of praising them, this Government has demonised them and pushed through a fresh attack on workers’ rights.

"It’s nothing but scaremongering and political game playing."

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