The government’s new ‘anti-strikes’ law has cleared the Commons but will be subject to legal challenges unless it is drastically amended, Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned.
The Bill cleared the Commons in a late-night sitting on Monday (30 January), with MPs voting 315 to 246, majority 69. The controversial proposals aim to ensure there are minimum working standards during strike days across six sectors, including health and transport.
The Conservative former business secretary gave his backing to the Strikes (Minimum Services Levels) Bill, but said it was “badly written”. Rees-Mogg urged ministers to allow the House of Lords to amend the Bill to add detail to it, claiming this would mean it was “much less susceptible to judicial review”.
The North East Somerset MP criticised clause 3 in particular, aimed at giving the Business Secretary powers to define minimum service levels at a later date. He told MPs: “I hope their lordships will look at this clause and say that is simply not something that we can pass into law as it is currently phrased, that the government must accept amendments, and I hope their lordships will vote through amendments that clarify and set out in detail the powers that are desired.
“This is where the government’s interest – the executive’s interest – and the legislature’s interest combine, because if this House passes good, well-constructed legislation, it is much less susceptible to judicial review.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner branded the Bill the “Conservative sacking nurses Bill” and said Labour would repeal it if the party was elected to power. She said: “It threatens key workers with the sack during a workers shortage and crisis, mounts an outright assault on the fundamental freedom of working people, while doing absolutely nothing to resolve the crisis at hand.
“Let’s look at what this is really all about: a government that is playing politics with key workers’ lives because they can’t stomach negotiation, a government that is lashing out at working people instead of dealing with its 13 years of failure, and a government and Prime Minister dangerously out of his depth and running scared of scrutiny. We on these benches will vote against this shoddy, unworkable Bill.”
Business Secretary Mr Shapps claimed the Bill was “simply proposing to protect people’s lives and to protect people’s livelihoods”.
MPs from Wales and Scotland sought to exclude the devolved nations from the Bill’s remit. An SNP-backed amendment aiming to make sure the Bill would not come into force without the consent of the Welsh and Scottish parliaments was rejected by 321 to 46, majority 275.
The Bill will undergo further scrutiny in the House of Lords at a later date. It was first announced just a day after crisis talks between ministers and unions failed to resolve industrial disputes involving nurses, teachers and rail workers.
Here’s what is known about the legislation and how it would affect the right to strike.
What are minimum service levels?
The proposed legislation is set to enforce “minimum service levels” across a range of sectors. The sectors covered by the plans include:
- Border security
- Nuclear decommissioning
The law would require a proportion of union members to continue working to retain a “minimum level” of service, thereby minimising disruption to public services.
The government has said it will consult on the “adequate level of coverage” for fire, ambulance and rail services, with minimum safety levels set for these sectors, as disruption puts lives at “immediate risk”. For the other sectors covered in the bill, ministers expect to be able to reach voluntary agreements.
A Business, Energy and Industry Strategy spokesperson said: “The government will introduce a bill in parliament in the coming weeks to take the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic function and deliver minimum safety levels during industrial action.
“Minimum safety levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and the government will consult on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors, recognising that disruption to blue light services puts lives at immediate risk.”
The government said it will invite unions to meet for “honest, constructive conversations” about what is fair and affordable in public sector pay settlements for 2023/24, as part of a “reasonable approach” to avoiding prolonged industrial action.
A statement said: “The government is clear that the well-established independent pay review process is the right way to set public sector pay – it provides independent expert advice and is a neutral process in which all parties play a role. These new discussions would feed into this process and are offered as the government recognises the particular economic challenges the country faces this year.
“However, the government also has a duty to the public to ensure their safety, protect their access to vital public services, and help them go about their daily lives,” the statement said.
“The government will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods. That’s why the government will introduce new laws to ensure a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place.”
How will it affect workers’ right to strike?
Unions would be bound to follow the legislation and employers could bring an injunction to prevent strikes or seek damages if they went ahead.
The laws would see employers have the right to sue unions, while union members who were told to work under the minimum service requirement but opt not to do so could also be dismissed, a government source involved in the discussions told The Times. Tougher thresholds for industrial action to take place are also likely to be introduced in the legislation.
A source told the newspaper: “This legislation will remove the legal immunity for strikes where unions fail to implement a minimum level of service. The strikes will be illegal. Ultimately people could be fired for breach of contract.”
A government spokesman said it was “not our intention to penalise individuals” and that the legislation was about ensuring that essential services would be protected.
The Prime Minister said on Wednesday (4 January) that the “right to strike has to be balanced with the right of the British public to be able to go about their lives without suffering completely undue disruption”, adding that new laws would restore the balance.
What have unions said?
Unions have hit out at the proposals and said the move would do nothing to resolve the disputes breaking out across the country.
Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen said “curtailing workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action is always undemocratic”, adding that last month’s strike action “was safe for patients because of detailed discussions we chose to initiate with the NHS to protect emergency services and life-saving care”.
Unison’s assistant general secretary Jon Richards said ministers should instead focus on “rebuilding trust and relationships with workers” rather than “silencing and suppressing them”.
He said: “Minimum staffing levels in the NHS would be welcomed by the public and health staff every single day of the week. The NHS is on its knees because of record vacancies.
“The idea of limiting legal staffing levels to strike days and threatening to sack or fine health workers at such a time shows proper patient care isn’t ministers’ priority. The government is picking ill-advised fights with NHS employees and unions to mask years of dismal failure to tackle pay and staffing.”
Meanwhile, 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.
“The announcement offers nothing more to help with this year’s pay and the cost-of-living crisis. The only offer of talks is for next year. But we need to resolve the current disputes and boost the pay of public sector workers now.”
Business Secretary Grant Shapps argued that the legislation would protect the freedom to strike, but introducing minimum levels of service “will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”
What are the current rules for going on strike?
The current law states that a trade union can only call for industrial action if a majority of its members agree to it in a properly organised postal vote, known as a ballot.
Before organising a ballot, a union must decide which members affected by a dispute it wants to ask to take industrial action, and must tell all members entitled to vote and the employer what the ballot results were. It must also give the employer one week’s notice of the start of the ballot and tell them the result as soon as possible once it’s available.
If workers agree to strike, details must be given to the employer at least 14 days before it begins - unless the union and employer agree to seven days - and if these rules are not followed, a court could prevent a strike taking place.
Workers have the right to take industrial action and cannot be legally forced to stay at, or go back to, work, unless a ballot was not organised properly. UK employees are protected from being sacked during the first 12 weeks of any official industrial action, and if a worker is fired during this period they can claim unfair dismissal.