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Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Volume 736: debated on Monday 17 July 2023

Consideration of Lords message


Minimum service levels for certain strikes

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2D.

This House has been asked these questions before and twice this House has said no with an overwhelming majority. We are asked to consider for a third time an amendment that significantly expands on previous versions that have already been rejected. Members of the other place referenced the report of the International Labour Organisation’s committee of experts as a reason to reconsider. However, I should note that this ground has already been well covered by both Houses. It was argued that Lords amendment 2D requires Ministers to do what the ILO is requesting: to undertake consultation when considering introducing regulations to implement minimum service levels. The Bill already requires Ministers to do just that, as they have done in undertaking public consultations on their intentions to bring forward minimum service levels to passenger rail services, ambulance services and fire and rescue services. Impact assessments were published alongside those consultations and final impact assessments will be published alongside the regulations the Government bring forward for approval in Parliament in due course.

My colleague Lord Callanan was right to say in the other place that the ILO did not say that the legislation was not compatible with ILO conventions. It simply said that it should be compatible and that we should ensure that it is. As stated in Parliament when introduced and throughout its passage, the Bill is compatible with the UK’s international obligations. The Government will continue to uphold their international obligations as the minimum service regulations are introduced.

Lords amendment 2D also seeks to ensure that the “reasonable steps” that unions should take to make sure that their members comply are considered as part of the consultations that are required before minimum service regulations are made. Members will recall that when this House last considered the Bill, I confirmed that the Government were willing to consider whether there was a case for providing further detail on the reasonable steps that unions must take under new section 234E to ensure that identified workers comply with a work notice given by an employer. In the light of the recommendations from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and points raised in both Houses during the Bill’s passage, the Government accept that further detail would give unions more legal certainty and foresight with regard to their obligations than the Bill provides in its current form. The Government will therefore introduce a statutory code of practice on the reasonable steps that must be taken, using existing powers under section 203 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. These powers enable the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice to promote the improvement of industrial relations.

Will the Minister spell out exactly how trade unions are to comply with and enforce a code that is outwith their jurisdictions in making workers go into work?

The code of practice will be consulted on so that all parties are clear about what the obligations of the unions will be. We expect them to be quite straightforward. They have been debated at length, along with various ideas about how this might operate.

As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, the measures that the Minister is trying to introduce are outside the jurisdictions of trade unions, which therefore do not have the powers to implement them.

As I have said, we intend to consult with all parties to make sure that they have a chance to comment on what reasonable obligations a union might be required to take. I think that it is pretty straightforward, and, indeed, unions will be familiar with the code of practice on picketing that was issued under section 203 of the 1992 Act. This code will be subject to statutory consultation, including consultation with ACAS, and to the approval of Parliament. The consultation will give trade unions, employers and any other interested parties an opportunity to contribute to practical guidance on the steps that a union must take in order to make it as practicable, durable and effective as possible.

If the Minister is so willing to consult, why is he rejecting an amendment which confirms that there should be a consultation?

We are not happy with a number of other parts of the amendment. We are proposing a measure that we have already proposed in earlier debates. It is, of course, up to those in the other place to decide how they take their amendments forward, but we believe that this is fair. We are satisfied that it is an effective way to provide for clarity, and that the individual consultations for specific minimum service levels in relevant services required by Lords amendment 2D are not needed. The real impact of the amendment would be a delay in the implementation of minimum service levels, given the additional and lengthy consultation and parliamentary requirements which we strongly suspect are its purpose. Unnecessary delays in the protection of the lives and livelihoods of those whom we have been elected to represent cannot be justified.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Let me repeat, at the outset, our opposition to the Bill and our intention to repeal the Act that it will become should we be in a position to do so in the future. It is one of the most illiberal, unconscionable and ultimately destructive pieces of legislation produced by any Government. We believe that the right to withdraw labour is a fundamental right, a human right, and one that should not be extinguished. Even if some Conservative Members cannot see past their hostility to trade unions and past the easy headlines, they should see that what they are asking their constituents to do is distinctly un-British, because it infringes on individual freedoms that ought to be—even for Conservative Members—a basic part of any open and democratic society.

Freedom matters, and valuing freedom sometimes means that we protect another person’s freedom to do something even if we do not personally agree with the particular course of action. But our objections are based not just on principles, but on practicalities. Ultimately, we do not think that the Bill will work. The Bill is counterproductive because it will not quell the concerns of many people in the sectors that have taken industrial action. Taking away the right to strike will not take away people’s concerns. We cannot legislate away people’s legitimate grievances about their working conditions. Because the Bill is so ill defined and poorly thought through, Parliament must have a proper opportunity to consider its ramifications.

The measures set out in Lords amendment 2D attempt to address some of those issues. The amendment also provides yet another opportunity for us to raise our concerns about the Government’s lax approach to proper scrutiny during the Bill’s progress so far. Let us go back to when the Bill was first published. It is surely a basic expectation of Government that they should provide an impact assessment before asking hon. Members to vote on a Bill. But no—we were asked to trust the Government that the matter was in hand and that all would be fine. We said it at the time and we say it again: that approach is completely unacceptable.

The Bill had been trailed in the press for months before it was published, so not to have the impact assessment ready at the same time was a failure of basic competence. When it finally appeared, we could see why the Government were so keen to keep it under wraps. The Regulatory Policy Committee said that it was not fit for purpose—it could just as easily have been talking about the Government—and no wonder, given that the assessment contains statements that undermine both the purpose and execution of the Bill.

The impact assessment states that the Bill

“could mean a general increase in tension between unions and employers. This may result in more adverse impacts in the long term, such as an increased frequency of strikes for each dispute.”

When Ministers told us on Second Reading that the Bill would reduce the disruption caused by strikes, what they apparently did not know was that the Government’s own impact assessment would say that it could, in fact, have the opposite effect. The impact assessment also says, on at least half a dozen occasions, that assumptions are being made about the level of service that would be required. That is the point of the Lords amendment: unless we have some idea about what these minimum service levels will be—in the six months since the Bill was published, Ministers have not come to the Dispatch Box and told us—we are legislating in a vacuum.

The point has not been lost on the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which wrote in its assessment that

“there is nothing in the Bill saying what those minimum service levels are. We shall only know when Ministers make regulations after the Bill is enacted. This is small comfort to Parliament, which is considering the matter right now.”

The Committee’s recommendation was that the Government should publish indicative draft regulations alongside the Bill. As it rightly points out,

“the Government must have some idea how they propose to exercise these powers.”

It is no surprise that the impact assessment got a red rating. Of the 861 Bills assessed by the Regulatory Policy Committee since its creation, just 2.9% have been given a red rating. When legislation represents such a fundamental departure from past practice, the importance of impact assessments increases rather than decreases.

If this all sounds familiar to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that is because it is. Only last week the High Court said, in relation to the consultation process for the regulations that allow agency workers to break strikes, that

“this is not a case in which the evidence is that the proposal had obvious and undisputed merit based on cogent evidence, and enjoyed strong support from representative bodies in the sector”.

It could have been talking about this Bill—no doubt, in time, it will be.

The pattern is familiar. The Government decide the policy, although “policy” is probably too strong a word. The Government decide the headline that they want to create, rush through ill-thought-out legislation and then ignore all the voices that point out principled and practical objections. That is to treat democracy with contempt. Parliament is not a rubber-stamping process to agree whatever the Government of the day decide. When Parliament is starved of its ability to properly scrutinise legislation, that impacts on fundamental human rights, as it does in this case. It should come as no surprise that there is pushback from the other place requiring that a robust process be followed.

The amendment is important because the International Labour Organisation’s conference committee on the application of standards called on the Government to ensure that existing and prospective legislation is in conformity with the convention that governs freedom of association and the protection of the right to organise. I would not have thought that is too much to ask of a modern liberal democracy. In fact, I am rather ashamed that the ILO has had to point it out at all.

All this amendment does is what the ILO is asking the Government to do anyway, which is to undertake genuine consultation before implementing minimum service regulations. This means that, when regulations are published, they would include an impact assessment and there should be genuine consultation on the regulations, including on the protection for workers named in work notices and the reasonable steps a trade union needs to take to ensure compliance.

The amendment would also ensure that the relevant Secretary of State consults with the ILO and lays before Parliament any advice it gives, as well as laying a report from the relevant Joint Committee on all the actions required under this amendment. This is important, not just because the ILO thinks it is needed but because it fills some of the holes in the process so far. Indeed, it may address some of the important questions that still need answering.

Right now, under this Bill, trade unions can receive huge fines if their members go on strike when they are asked not to do so by their employer, yet there is no information in the Bill on what a trade union will need to do to avoid that liability. Imagine if the Government presented a Bill that had the potential for businesses to receive a seven-figure fine but said nothing about what those businesses needed to do to comply. There would be uproar from Members on both sides of the House, and they would be right to be concerned. What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.

The Minister has belatedly said that a new code of practice will be brought forward, which is an improvement on the Government’s previous position that it is for the courts to decide what should be reasonable steps. We are the legislators; we are the ones who are meant to shape and determine Acts of Parliament. We should not leave it to judges to try to work it out, possibly years down the line. Such ambiguity could be very costly for trade unions, and it certainly is not a recipe for improved industrial relations. Given the Government’s track record on providing detail on the various steps in this Bill, I have little confidence that a code of practice will provide any comfort at all. It is the epitome of this “headline first, detail later” Government, and it is just one of the many reasons why the Bill should be abandoned altogether. At the very least, it is a good reason to support the amendment.

Of course, the Minister has said that the Government are consulting on the regulations—and they are, after a fashion. So far, though, consultation has been limited to only half the areas for which the Bill legislates, and those areas do not really deal with the fundamental questions that have been raised. Can the Minister at least tell us the basis on which these particular service areas were identified as the ones on which to commence consultation?

The responses to the consultations have not been published. Does the Minister agree that we should have sight of the responses before the Bill passes? Do any of the responses say, for example, that minimum service levels are unworkable? Is there anything in the responses that he thinks Parliament ought to be aware of before we vote on the Bill again? Can he even tell us the total number of responses to each consultation, and the breakdown and proportion of responses from service users, employers and unions?

Ultimately, these consultation papers still do not tell us what a minimum service level will look like. Even for the railways, for which the Government have been looking to set a minimum service level the longest—arguably since the last general election—they do not have a concrete plan. And on pages 8 and 11 of the ambulance service impact assessment, there are statements that show the folly of this legislation, because it states in black and white that a minimum service level could lead to a poorer service than is currently agreed voluntarily.

The only thing we have learned from these consultation documents is that even the Government do not think the Bill will deliver what they say it will deliver. There is nothing on the reasonable steps a trade union must take, nothing on what happens to a worker who is sacked for failing to comply with a work notice, even if they have not received it, and nothing on how any of this will actually help to resolve industrial disputes.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend when he is in full flow but, as he is developing his argument on the need for consultation and impact assessments, has he been able to clarify with the Government what happens if an employer refuses to comply? In London, for example, the buses are contracted out, and individual bus companies have had individual disputes. If the Government instruct there to be a minimum service level but the employer does not want to sour industrial relations in the long term and therefore refuses to comply, what then happens?

That is a very good question. My understanding—no doubt the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—is that it is still up to the employer to determine what work notices it issues, which makes the Bill a little ludicrous.

All these consultation papers, all these impact assessments, and we are still legislating in the dark.

My hon. Friend has just made a valid point, because when NHS Employers and the NHS Confederation came before the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, they said that they did not want any of this legislation. Presumably, following that logic, they will not have to issue minimum service level terms for a strike.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That is why it would have been so interesting to see what the consultation responses were to the draft regulations, because those might have told us whether employers were saying, “Don’t do this; we don’t think it is going to work.” We know that a long list of employers’ organisations are opposed to this Bill, and I will come on to that in a moment. They understand that, ultimately, it is not going to help industrial relations but will sour them.

In summary, the Bill’s impact assessment turns up late and is inadequate; no pre-legislative scrutiny or evidence sessions for the Bill took place; the Committee stage is rushed through in one day; and subsequent consultations are incomplete and leave many questions unanswered. Yet the Government still say that this Lords amendment is not necessary. The evidence to date and the opinion of the ILO say otherwise. I referred to the fact that the ILO is not alone in expressing concerns about the Bill. Many organisations have expressed alarm, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, NHS Providers, the rail industry, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the TUC, and the Welsh and Scottish Governments. The Transport Secretary and the Education Secretary have also done so, and I could give more names, but I have only an hour for this debate and so I will leave it there.

When we have the shameful spectacle of the ILO calling this Bill out, Members need to think again. By rejecting this Lords amendment, the Government are, in effect, saying one of two things: either they do not know whether they break international law; or they do know but they just do not care. We ought to care, we ought not to be trailing behind in workplace protections, and we ought not to be mentioned in the same breath as Turkmenistan. We ought to be leading from the front, as an exemplar for other countries to follow and a leader on the international stage that says, “Yes, good workplace rights and strong trade unions are a key component in any prospering modem economy, and the right to withdraw your labour is a fundamental one.” However, this Bill is the hallmark of a weak Government who have run out of steam, have nothing left to offer but division and want to silence the very people who keep this country going—shame on them.

It is a pleasure to follow the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). I agree with all his comments, but I hope that Labour stays resolute on this. If it comes into government, we do not want to see another U-turn, given what we heard at the weekend.

The Minister put forward the myths again about how this Bill is about saving lives and livelihoods. I do not know how he can talk about saving livelihoods, as he is bringing forward a Bill that is going to allow workers to be sacked more easily. Workers’ livelihoods are at stake because of the Bill and the intentions behind it. I would like to put on record my thanks to the Lords for the fight they have brought on this, but I am a wee bit disappointed that the Lords amendment is only about the consultation. Even if we manage to defeat the Government tonight, the Lords amendment does not provide any additional proper protections for the unions or the workers, because it is all about consulting. At least consulting would draw out some transparency, because the Government would need to publish responses and allow the House or a Joint Committee to debate those. In itself, however, the amendment does not provide any additional protections.

Does it not speak volumes about the way in which this Government conduct their business that they go through a consultation process and are not prepared to publish the results of that consultation? What have they got to hide?

That is a fair point. Obviously, I cannot answer on what the Government have to hide, other than to say that we know about a raft of answers that show how unworkable and prejudiced this Bill is.

Subsection 5(b) in the amendment is about consulting the ILO. The Government keep telling us that this Bill brings the legislation in the UK into line with international norms, but it clearly does not; the ILO has said that the UK already has some of the most draconian strike legislation, even before this Bill. So there is no doubt that the Government are frightened to consult the ILO because they are frightened about the answers that will come back and the evidence about how draconian this really is that will be put into the public domain when it is published.

As I say, it looks as if the Lords are going to back down after this. There is no more scheduled business to allow further consideration of the Lords message, which suggests they are not going to push the amendment beyond that. That is disappointing, especially given that the Government have tried to argue before that this is a manifesto commitment. The actual manifesto commitment was to require a minimum service for transport. That commitment is not as wide ranging, so the Lords would be completely justified in continuing to resist for as long as possible.

As the shadow Minister said, because the amendment is to consult, as opposed to what was set out in previous amendments, unions are still at risk of facing big fines. Unions are still going to comply, effectively helping employers disrupt strikes and single out workers. Worst of all, workers can now get sacked for not complying with a work notice that they have not received.

Why the Government would not even consult and publish an impact assessment on that is beyond me. Again, they know that it allows employers to unfairly discriminate, pick out the awkward squad, then discipline and sack them, with no recourse to a tribunal. Welcome, Madam Deputy Speaker, to 21st century authoritarian Britain, where sacking workers like that brings the UK in line with Russia and Hungary, not the international norms, although the Minister and Government try to tell us otherwise.

I will be voting against the Government motion to disagree with the Lords. I hope the Lords do not give up the fight, but I am frightened they will. That is why we want away from this Union, because it is certainly not working for anybody.

The Minister has let the cat out of the bag in relation to the Government’s attitude to this dreadful Bill and to amendment 2D from the other place. The Minister objected to Lords amendment 2D because it would delay the implementation of the Bill. Let us be clear: the Bill makes history for all the wrong reasons. It is the biggest attack on the role of our trade unions in our democracy for many a long year. Why are the Government so desperate to rush the Bill through? One almost thinks they cannot stomach the idea of even a small delay because they want it to be presented at the Conservative party conference as a bit of red meat to the party faithful—classic anti-trade union politics and trade union bashing.

Let us think about where we are in terms of industrial relations. The Bill, which the Government do not want to consult on properly, comes shortly after over 100,000 nurses in this country voted to take strike action—the result in that recent ballot was that 84% of nurses who cast a vote did so to take strike action. However, because of the Government’s dreadful Trade Union Act 2016, an 84% vote in favour of strike action does not count, is worthless and does not result in strike action, because the turnout was 43%.

The Government helped drive down the turnout by not allowing people to vote by electronic ballot. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who made such a mess of this country in her short tenure, was elected by electronic ballot of Conservative party members. Not allowing people to vote by electronic means reveals the contempt the Government have for the biggest voluntary organisations in our society—the trade union movement. They will not even give workers in our country the modern dignity of being allowed to vote online or in the workplace.

The Government object to Lords amendment 2D and do not want to consult on it. Is that any wonder? The greater the consultation that takes place in relation to this abhorrent Bill, the more it becomes clear that the Bill is a complete offence. Let us be clear: the Bill, which the Government do not want to have a proper consultation on, requires trade unions to take reasonable steps to get their own members to break trade union picket lines. This Bill requires trade unions to completely change their function in our democratic society. It is the job of a trade union to persuade trade union members to honour a strike vote, not to break a strike. We see the hand of this authoritarian Government attempting to extend into our trade unions, trying to try to use them as a tool of the state to do the bidding of a Conservative Government, or the bidding of employers. The Bill is rotten and it is no wonder that the Government do not want to consult on it. Any fair-minded person, whatever their politics, would realise that that is not the function of trade unions in our society. We have heard Ministers boasting about how this will result in people being sacked if they do not comply with the requirement to go to work.

The Minister shakes his head. If what I am saying is not true, why does he not take that measure out of the Bill, so that workers cannot be sacked for not complying with work notices? That is in the legislation. I shall be charitable to the Minister. Having listened to him in a number of debates, I sometimes thought that he did not realise quite how pernicious the Bill was, but I think that others in the Conservative party do; they know exactly what they are doing.

This anti-trade union Bill, which the Government do not wish to consult on properly, comes hot on the heels of the criminalisation of peaceful protest, which is a democratic right in our society, and hot on the heels of voter ID, when what we should be doing is making it easier for people to vote in our society, not harder. This is an anti-trade union piece of legislation that shames the Government. People can see through it.

The Government cannot even pretend to be up for proper consultation by accepting Lords amendment 2D. They know what the ILO thinks of it, they know what our colleagues in the other place think of it, and they know what the British people think of it. That is why the next Labour Government will repeal this rotten piece of legislation, if indeed it passes, and bring in an important suite of workers’ rights, because workers and trade unions in this country have had enough of being treated like dirt for the past 13 years. Let us stop this race to the bottom in workers’ rights, and instead build a democratic system—a democratic system where we can be proud of the workers’ rights in our country.

May I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?

The Lords have been set an unenviable task in attempting to amend a piece of legislation as ill-conceived as this one. As a lifelong opponent of the principle of an unelected second Chamber, I am surprised to find myself now commending the thoughtfulness and diligence that the other place has demonstrated in its many sittings concerning this legislation. It has been a breath of fresh air when compared with this Government’s recklessness in attempting to rush the Bill through Parliament.

I rise in support of Lords amendment 2D. Its purpose is simple: to ensure that perhaps the most significant piece of trade union legislation to be considered by this House in more than a century is subject to appropriate scrutiny before it is added to the statute book. I wish to repeat the comments that I made when we considered the Lords amendments on 22 May. I said that no number of amendments could ever salvage this Bill. It is rotten to the core. It targets a right that should be sacrosanct in any democracy—the right to withdraw our labour.

In sectors such as education and health, the provisions of the Bill will hobble the ability of working people to fight for the dignity and fairness that we all deserve in the workplace, and make the trade unions themselves unwilling accomplices in undermining the effectiveness of their own industrial action.

Worse still, in sectors such as air traffic control or nuclear decommissioning, minimum service regulations will, in effect, amount to a ban on taking any strike action at all. Ministers have repeatedly insisted that their policies towards the trade union movement conform with international standards and our treaty obligations. That was not the view taken by the High Court last week when it quashed the Government’s law allowing employers to bring in scab labour to break strikes. The court’s verdict was damning: that the Government’s approach was so unfair as to be “unlawful” and, indeed, “irrational”.

Despite the claims made by this Government that the International Labour Organisation supports minimum service standards, the director general of the ILO has made an unprecedented intervention in voicing his concern about the effects of the Bill on workers and of the Government’s strategy of imposing minimum service requirements on workers instead of encouraging them to be negotiated between unions and management.

Most embarrassingly of all for the Government, the Bill has been slammed by their own independent Regulatory Policy Committee as being not fit for purpose. The question that all of us should be asking is why the Bill was not withdrawn the moment the RPC slapped it with a red rating in February. Why are we still debating proposals that have been condemned by not only my friends in the trade union movement but a vast swathe of trade associations and the business community? Their verdict is astoundingly clear: they do not think the Bill will work. They are concerned, with good cause, that it will make industrial relations in this country worse. They simply do not want the Bill.

The answer is simple. The Government are aware of their impending electoral oblivion. They are intent on driving through reforms that will realise their decades-long dream of a world in which workers are stripped of all their rights and left helpless at the whims of their employers. It is about time for a little more candour from those on the Government Benches.

I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate. I think that it is time to agree to disagree with some of the points that have been made by Opposition Members. The Bill is compatible with our international obligations, which the Government will continue to uphold. We have announced a new code of practice, which will provide the clarity that Opposition Members have been asking for throughout the Bill’s passage. I encourage the other place to take note of the strong view of this House, and that its will should be respected.

Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2D.

Lords amendment 2D disagreed to.

Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up a Reason to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 2D;

That Kevin Hollinrake, Mike Wood, Alexander Stafford, Jane Stevenson, Justin Madders, Christian Wakeford and Alan Brown be members of the Committee;

That Kevin Hollinrake be the Chair of the Committee;

That three be the quorum of the Committee.

That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Stuart Anderson.)

Committee to withdraw immediately; reason to be reported and communicated to the Lords.