Unions and Labour say minimum service levels are an attack on rights and an ‘abominable way to treat people’

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Legal experts have taken issue with the government’s claims about similar laws being in effect elsewhere in Europe

Trade unions, Labour MPs and campaigners have said they will oppose the government’s minimum service levels legislation, which is being described as an attack on the right to strike, as MPs prepare for the second reading of the bill in parliament later today.

Trade union leaders have accused the government of seeking to make effective strike action illegal. The RMT and other unions will lead a demonstration outside parliament later today in protest.

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Legal experts have also taken issue with the government’s claims that similar measures are already in place in other developed countries, and that international labour organisations support the move.

What is the Strikes (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.

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.

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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.

Ewan McGaughey, a specialist in employment law at King’s College, said it is “not true” that similar restrictions are in place in other European countries, as claimed by both Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps.

He said: “In France, the so-called ‘minimum service’ laws simply require 48 hours’ notice for transport unions to strike, or five days for health workers. This is purely so that employers can find other staff to cover.

“In Italy, minimum service levels are agreed in collective agreements with unions… which unions effectively drafted. There is no right of the government, let alone an employer, to force people to work or sack them, or sue the union. In Spain, the Constitutional Court tightly controls all limits on the right to strike, for strict safety or security reasons. In Germany, unions make collective agreements for minimum services, and only when an agreement cannot be reached may a court step in; it is not a government minister, let alone an employer who has the power to decide.”

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New law would ‘completely undermine the right to strike’

Trades unionists from across the labour movement will descend on Parliament tonight, to protest at the Minimum Service Levels bill.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: "The government has decided to bring in this anti-worker law because it wants to make effective strike action illegal in Britain.

"Trade unionists and democrats from across the political spectrum must come together in the interests of civil liberties and human rights to oppose these measures. This violation of democratic norms and values will be strongly opposed by the RMT and the entire labour movement, in Parliament, the courts and the workplace, if it is put on the statute books."

While Labour has been criticised by some on the party’s left and within the trade union movement in recent months for failing to fully back striking workers, the party has committed to opposing this legislation.

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Justin Madders, the shadow employment rights minister, said the legislation will “completely undermine the right to strike,” and described it as an “abominable way to treat people”.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader and shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, said: "Today’s Conservative Party has resorted to threatening nurses with the sack because they can’t stomach negotiation.

"Instead of focusing on cleaning up the economic mess they’ve made, Rishi Sunak is lashing out at working people right across Britain today to distract from his weak and divided Government. He’s costing the public dearly.

"This shoddy, unworkable bill won’t do a thing to help working people or avoid strikes. Labour will be opposing this assault on common sense that would see fundamental British freedoms ripped up in order to distract from the crisis the Tories have inflicted on our country. Instead of getting round the negotiating table to resolve disputes, they’re pouring petrol on the fire."

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Business Secretary Grant Shapps said: ”The first job of any government is to keep the public safe. Because whilst we absolutely believe in the ability to strike, we are duty-bound to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British people.

“I am introducing a bill that will give government the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic function, by delivering minimum safety levels ensuring that lives and livelihoods are not lost.

“We do not want to have to use this legislation unless we have to, but we must ensure the safety of the British public.”

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