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Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

Second Reading (Continued)

My Lords, in my old profession this session was called the interval act—the act charged with getting the audience back from the bar, and it very often failed.

The Minister has known me a long time, so I will speak plainly. Before I do, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bexley, on her wonderful maiden speech; she is not in her place, but I have personally conveyed my thanks to her. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady O’Grady on her impressive opening statement from our Benches, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who is also not in his place, on his legal demolition of this skeletal, and I believe unnecessary, Bill.

I suggest to the Minister that, if we want to ensure minimum service levels in vital industries, the easy way to achieve that is by giving the workforce the right terms and conditions—perhaps that is a little revolutionary.

A lot was said by the other side about people who withdraw their labour without a concern for others, and I want to make it abundantly clear that doctors, nurses, ambulance workers, support staff, teachers, firefighters, public service workers and any other workers —and, yes, transport workers—do not go on strike easily or lightly. They do not take their responsibilities as something to be casually cast aside without a thought, and to suggest otherwise is not only untrue but grossly offensive. In some instances, the industrial action we are seeing is the first such action ever taken, such as by the Royal College of Nursing, and now junior doctors, including registrars, have decided that they too will strike for 48 hours next month. These actions by a stressed workforce are evidence to me that the Government are trying to provide public services on the backs of those who are underpaid, overworked and unable to continue in this minefield of unprecedented work stress, mental health crises, and seriously underfunded and broken public services.

I also believe that the Bill is a stark admission that the Government have no intention of paying those in public service what they should be paid, or of negotiating or allowing other public sector employers to negotiate. It is a stark admission that they have every intention of using legislation and punitive sanctions to intimidate ordinary working people and their unions. I believe that this will result in more people quitting these vital services and professions, and, ultimately, it will force more public services into wider private ownership.

There are others who will speak, and who have spoken, with great wisdom on trade union legislation, industrial relations and the ILO. However, I speak in a personal capacity—as a trade union member of over 55 years, as a previous unpaid national officer and negotiator of British Actors’ Equity, and as someone who has worked on building sites, as a hospital cleaner and as a proud hospital porter. Most of all, I speak because I will not allow my silence to be mistaken for condoning this shabby and shoddy legislation. I speak up because I will not remain silent as I see the Government trying to keep this country’s public services afloat at the expense of the workforce, some of whom then have to queue in line at food banks to survive.

I look at what is happening and I ask myself what kind of country we have become. I ask myself: how can this happen in the sixth-largest economy in the world? If I am honest, I have to ask myself: do the Government believe that these measures will work? I do not believe that they do. I believe that the Government’s motivation is that it is politically advantageous for them, in that they hope that the public mood changes and will turn against the nurses, doctors, teachers, fire service, ambulance workers, transport workers, teachers, and ancillary and support staff, and will turn against the political parties who support them, such as my party, the Labour party. I find this deeply offensive: a Government hoping that the public will turn against the very people they implored us every week to stand on our doorsteps and applaud.

We applauded key workers across the vast range of public services who gave beyond what they needed to give to pull this country through a pandemic which has taken over 219,000 lives. Key workers kept our country going and gave us hope as the Government opened a VIP lane for PPE contracts for their friends. Contrast the treatment of those seeking PPE contracts with the treatment now being foisted, and soon to be forced by legislation, on key workers.

Once again, I ask myself: what kind of country have we really become? I have come to the sad and damning conclusion that there is something rotten in the state, and in the state of this Government, and it is embodied once again in a divisive and shabby piece of legislation.

My Lords, what an amazing speech to follow.

What can I say? The Bill totally misunderstands the relationship between trade unions and their members. For example, when it talks about a union’s role in enforcing work notices, it prohibits

“an act done by the union to induce a person to take part, or to continue to take part, in the strike”.

Trade unions do not call strikes; members call strikes. The party opposite thought that strikes could be prevented by having paper ballots, and then by requiring that ballots be sent to the member’s home address, but these pesky trade unionists do occasionally support strike ballots. It is beyond question that a strike can take place only if a significant percentage of members vote for it.

Some members of the Conservative Party cannot accept that trade unions are a legitimate part of civic society, with an established and well-respected role in representing their members in negotiations, ensuring health and safety, and improving levels of service and productivity. They are not the enemy; instead, we should be worried about those who attack civil liberties and workers’ rights, because they are the danger to the rights of the majority.

While sitting here earlier, I saw a message on my phone appealing for me to oppose the Bill—I think that they knew I would. It came from a friend who is a firefighter in Scotland. Last Friday, she and other firefighters were in Edinburgh for the funeral of the firefighter Barry Martin, an FBU member who died doing his job. He was not giving minimum service; he, as many workers do, was giving maximum service.

Trade union rights were won in struggle, not granted from above. The movement has a proud tradition of fighting for basic human dignity, including challenging child labour, fighting for the eight-hour day and for time off at weekends and holidays, for equal pay and much more. If the public had to choose between the Government and workers to set minimum standards for essential services, we can guess who they would trust to do what is in the best interests of service users—that includes railway workers—and it would not be this Government, who have allowed those very services to be driven into the ground.

The BMA has long called on the Government to ensure safe-staffing levels across the NHS, but to no avail. It is ironic that the Government are now focusing on minimum staffing levels as a reason to curtail strike action, when protecting the NHS goes to the very heart of why those healthcare workers are striking in the first place. Can the Minister understand that the Bill will set back industrial relations in public services and beyond?

My second concern about the Bill is its impact on devolution. The Government appear to have given up on even pretending that they respect the devolved Administrations. There was no consultation with them about the Bill even though it will apply to devolved public services, for which Welsh and Scottish Ministers are responsible. The Welsh Government are concerned that

“If passed, the Bill will provide a UK Minister with sweeping powers to make regulations which set minimum service levels during strikes in areas that are considered to be fully devolved … UK Ministers should not be able to exercise such powers over services over which they have no electoral mandate.”

The Scottish Government rightly object to the Bill interfering with their fair work principles, which they have negotiated with unions and employers. Does the Minister not think that the Bill is exactly why Scotland and Wales should be given powers over industrial relations?

The third question I would like to clarify is whether the Bill further undermines the sovereignty of Parliament. We have heard a lot today from much more experienced people than me on the use of skeleton Bills, but they are clearly a means of avoiding the legitimate scrutiny that legislation in the UK is expected to receive. To quote the scathing words of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report, with its wonderful title Government by Diktat:

“This Report is intended to issue a stark warning—that the balance of power between Parliament and government has for some time been shifting away from Parliament”.

Much has been said, including recently in this very Chamber, about the importance of parliamentary sovereignty and how it is fundamental to the union. It is being whittled away in every Bill of this type. Anyone who believes in parliamentary democracy needs to stand up against the Bill. Can the Minister say who should make laws: Parliament or government? If he thinks it should be Parliament, will he accept that the Bill cannot be allowed to proceed?

My Lords, I am totally opposed to the Bill, not least because it is an act of evasion and avoids tackling some genuinely dire problems in public services. Instead, it aims to punish ordinary people for daring to ask the perfectly reasonable question: “Will you give us pay rises in line with inflation to get us through this economic crisis, which is not of our making?”.

Yesterday, I spent hours in this Chamber listening to some fine rhetoric from the Government and across the House about levelling up: about improving the lives and living standards of millions of people who are struggling because of where they live and a lack of opportunities. I confess that I had some qualms about a paternalistic tone in terms of helping the northern poor. However, what is interesting today is that we encounter real workers—not passive supplicants—standing up for themselves, sometimes bolshie and angry, but unwilling to be forced to accept a pay cut. What is the Government’s response to workers fighting for a bit of DIY levelling up? They call their actions selfish and greedy, and smear them as a risk to public safety.

Yet again, we are offered an unnecessary law. The noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, wrote an excellent article recently in which he noted:

“The itch to announce a new law … often feels irresistible to governments, but it … always has bad results.”

The Minister should read that article because it is a warning of the unintended consequences of overlegislating. There is already a plethora of laws arming the state with emergency powers to ensure that strike action does not seriously threaten people’s welfare and ensures life and limb cover. What is more, the mechanism of the law has been used as a blunt instrument since the 1980s to weaken trade union power, so being able to legally call a strike requires a ridiculously high, but arbitrary, turnout and a voting threshold of 40% and 50% respectively. Note that this unelected Chamber would not often reach that threshold, and we have the temerity to make the laws of the land.

Despite the Trade Union Act 2016 setting such onerous strike-busting restrictions, the recent turnouts in strike ballots across workplaces have smashed through those obstacles. You would hope that might give the Government pause for thought to ask why so many working people who the state relies on to man railways, treat the ill, put out fires, guard borders, teach our kids, and so on, are so unhappy at work that even sectors that have not voted to strike for decades are now downing tools. This should prompt politicians to take these people and their demands seriously. But no; instead, they drag out some Thatcherite cliches about the 1970s and, as always, think the solution is more illiberal law to change the rules and make striking even harder. However, in the haste to play the hard man, we end up with shoddy legislation which even Jacob Rees-Mogg has described as “badly written”, saying that it smacks of “incompetence”.

Introducing the Bill in the other place, the Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, tried to gaslight trade unionists with this repetition: “This is not an attack on the right to strike” —we have heard various iterations of that today. However, with even more cynicism, he emphasised that the Bill is about the rights of the public, who

“work hard and expect the essential services that they pay for to be there when they need them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/23; col. 54.]

Hear, hear to that. However, if your object is to give public services to the public when they need them, why focus on strikers as the culprits for poor service? Why not target those who consistently run poor services?

I can tell your Lordships, as a regular Avanti West Coast train user, that there has been little difference between strike and non-strike days for months and months. Where are the minimum service regulations or punishments for train operators when trains are routinely cancelled or late, or for those at the top of the NHS who are responsible for the public facing waiting lists of years for treatment? What mechanisms do we have to impose minimum services on government departments which have singularly failed to control our national borders, or will the Government blame the small boats crisis on strikers too?

This whole Bill smacks of a cynical attempt to scapegoat striking workers for the wretched state of public services. It is an unjustified smear to suggest strikers are putting the public’s lives at risk. I find it particularly galling because one recent policy really did deny people health and social service and put their health at risk, with dire consequences; namely the shutting down of society for years in response to the pandemic. Who turned the NHS into a Covid-only service, with no regard for minimum service provision for those at risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke? Not even life and limb cover was provided. While we might not all agree in here on lockdown policies, my point is that those of us who argued for a more proportionate response to Covid and for maintaining services were often shooed away, but those services are now still creaking to recover. Long-term damage and suffering caused to the public, especially children, is a consequence of decisions made here in this Parliament and will be felt for years to come. That is where the energies of Parliament should lie: focus on that and not on offloading blame elsewhere.

One reason why so many workers are demoralised and burned out, as we have heard here today, is staff shortages and the struggle to recruit and retain staff for even minimum services, day in and day out. I am all for the Government trying to tackle this. It will need creative, courageous, radical solutions, and some of these might lead to clashes with trade unions—so be it. For example, I think that we need to look at seven-day NHS provision, and that GP surgeries should be open over weekends and for longer hours. I am impressed by the work of renal consultant Dr Andrew Stein in his 7DS policy, which wants to get more consultants into hospitals over weekends and elective surgery seven days a week. No doubt some of those ideas will clash with the BMA. So what? I support the rights of trade unions but I do not put them on a pedestal. I have no doubt there might be clashes with unions if we shake up public services and deal with the huge task of recruiting more staff to tackle our problems, but this Bill is counterproductive and will not work. Does the Minister think it is a productive use of overstretched public services personnel to invest time and resources to work out who needs to be in work, how many people and where, in order to create work notices? What a bureaucratic waste of time that is, with more management red tape—great.

My final point is on the public. There is no doubt that the strikes are disruptive and a real pain, creating more obstacles to negotiate just to get through the day, and sometimes they are scary, if you need to call an ambulance and so on. Many parents, for example, feel betrayed by education unions that denied children and students even a minimum education over the Covid years, and feel bitter that so many public servants are still working from home and not providing adequate face-to-face services. To the unions I say that there is no room for complacency. After all, only 23% of workers are members of a union, so unions need to work proactively to win hearts and minds beyond their members. To the Government I say do not make assumptions about the public and where they will land on this issue. The Government should not treat the public as their own army. I think the public are intelligent enough to work this out. A great notice we got in preparation for this debate from a group called Organise made the point that many non-trade unionists support these strikes, and their message is that they stand in solidarity—so do I.

My Lords, many of those who have spoken have referred to historical matters. I am going to take us back to the economic crisis of 2007-08, because it was then that we had austerity policies introduced by George Osborne as our Chancellor.

What has that got to do with it?

The mantra that was sold to the public was that we were all in this together; that we would all have to deal with austerity in order to get our finances right. Well the burden was not shared by all. The burden was borne largely by public services and by those who work in public service. It was, in my view, a deliberate and conscious policy to shrink the state, and we are paying the consequences of that now. Many of the people who have been on strike, and who continue to vote for strikes, have suffered the consequences.

There is a recent history of wage suppression, particularly in the public sector, with people seeing a drop in their income of up to 25% over the last 13 years. We have seen the casual erosion of employment rights; an increase in precarious work such as zero-hours contracts; and the burn-out of so many workers, as has been mentioned, because of staff shortages—largely a consequence of our hard-line Brexit position and the Government’s inadequacy to plan for a future workforce.

The health sector in particular has suffered. I know this directly because I come from a family where my daughter and her husband are both in the health service, as was my husband for many years. They see what is happening to doctors, nurses and all the ancillary workers, the people driving ambulances and the paramedics inside them. Let us not forget, as we are sitting in this Chamber, that the queues of ambulances were not caused by strikes; they are due to the chaos caused by a reduction of the National Health Service’s resources over many years. It is hypocrisy that the necessary work that was being done during the pandemic by transport workers, health workers and carers was seen as celebratory. We clapped and said it was wonderful, and I imagined that that would be the moment we would decide that we had to pay the public sector properly when we came out of the pandemic. Instead, of course, we are ending up making other kinds of choices.

I am afraid that the Conservative Party is going to be seen again as the nasty party. It is going to be seen again as the party that protects the interests of the well-to-do. Here are the people who have been holding things together, and they are asking only to be given what they justly deserve.

I remind everyone that the right to strike is so important because it is respected that it is locked into our understanding of power and who has it. At the end of the day, the only power available to an employee who is being treated unjustly, being inadequately rewarded and working in unacceptable conditions is the power to withdraw their labour. But there is no positive right to strike in English common law. This right is written into the constitutions of many other nations, but, at the moment in the UK, a strike is a fundamental breach of contract. There is limited protection from dismissal for the worker and protection from civil liability for the union in statutory law: the trade union and labour relations Act, which has of course been referred to, puts many hurdles in the way of getting to the point of being able to go on strike, and the unions comply with this.

I remind everyone that, as long ago as 1947, we signed up to the ILO convention on protecting the rights of workers and their right to strike. There is also some protection of the right to strike in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but I am afraid that, as a lawyer, I have very little confidence about the future of all of this, given that we are already hearing talk from Conservative politicians about getting rid of the European Convention on Human Rights, and we have had displays of ready breaches of international law. So I am afraid I do not have much confidence in the ways in which the right to strike is being protected.

This is yet another layer of obligation, on top of what my noble friends Lord Monks and Lady Bryan described as the whole business of holding the ballot, having to reach certain thresholds, giving 14 days’ notice of any strike action, and so on, in order to make sure that you will not be sacked and there will not be civil liability for the union. This additional layer of obligation—minimum service levels—is being added. Having listened to this debate, it has become clear to me that people think that minimum service levels are about it being as if there is no strike at all—almost as if you will have the same service as on any other day, bad as that might be, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said.

The Bill adds another layer of obligation and does precisely what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said: it is yet another seizure of power by the Executive and away from Parliament, which happens all too often now. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, also spoke of the bizarre nature of the proposal: an employer creating one of these work notices is the very person against whom the strike is being introduced, because they are not behaving well. So is there a risk that those work notices coming from employers might go to the leaders of strikes? Who gets to choose, and how will this be done? They say, “in consultation with workers”, but there is a big gulf between consulting and negotiating. Negotiation with the unions is how this should be, and has been, done: UNISON has already made agreements with every trust in the country in relation to minimum services for health.

Most bizarre of all is that the Bill imposes a duty on the union to co-operate with the employer to defeat the strike. I emphasise that—just think of how ridiculous it is. People are using their last resort to get some justice in terms of reward for their work, and every single one of them—be they teachers, nurses or junior doctors, of whom my daughter is one—does their job because they love it and care about the quality of service that they provide. They know that it is now not being provided to the standard that they were made to believe it would be, and this is breaking their hearts.

My daughter tells me that many of the young people who studied medicine with her are now making the choice to go to New Zealand or Australia to work, because the conditions are so much better there. They are burned out after what they have been through, and there is an absence or shortage of staff. Get to the real point of this: negotiation is the best way for there to be good industrial relations. The Bill is unnecessary, and I hope to goodness that the Government see sense.

My Lords, some of my points have already been made, but it is well worth repeating some of them. I declare that I am a member of the GMB. Last Friday, I attended my local branch meeting, where I presented my workplace report, in which I sought my branch members’ views and comments on the Bill. Comments were wide-ranging, and some would not warrant repeating in your Lordships’ House. The overwhelming view was that this a typical Conservative policy of union-bashing to keep the unions and their members in their place.

When I worked on the shop floor all those years ago, the only weapon we had against the might of that international engineering company to fight for our rights was the right to withdraw our labour, which was our basic human right. We did not like it, because we were losing our pay, but it was a last resort after all the negotiation had failed. As I said, this was the only weapon we had.

This Government are taking that away from the workers and that is despicable. Where is the Conservative Party’s compassion, which it talks about so much? Two years ago, the Government were clapping workers to the rafters for their dedication and sacrifice, and now, through legislation, they want to sack them and control them if they stand up for their rights. This same Government want to apply this legislation to virtually break a legitimate and democratically called strike by saying that 80% or 90% of the workers must report to work under minimum service levels.

All the rights the trade unions fought for and won for the workers over the last 100 years or so are being swept aside in one fell swoop by this Government. It was trade unions that got the workers their sick pay, maternity leave, equal pay for women, annual bank holidays, annual leave, health and safety at work legislation, and equal rights and equal pay for minority communities. Whichever way you look at it, the Bill has more holes in it than a rotten cheese. It is draconian, because Ministers will impose a minimum service level through a statutory instrument, which means it will face limited parliamentary scrutiny, since we all know that no statutory instrument has been rejected since 1979. It takes away workers’ legal rights to strike; they can be dismissed on the spot with no legal rights. It lacks proper parliamentary scrutiny; it takes away workers’ rights to defend their pay and conditions; it gives unfettered power to Ministers to do whatever they like, and this has enormous implications for the workers affected.

This so-called Henry VIII power gives the Minister authority to amend any other primary legislation. What frightens me even more about this legislation is that many details will be determined in secondary legislation, and we all know how that works—in favour of the Government, without any debate or scrutiny. It is a gross infringement of the individual’s freedom. Workers could be dismissed for taking action that has been agreed in a democratic ballot, in line with the Government’s union legislation, which was Lord Tebbit’s union legislation of 1982 or something along those lines. Not only that, it is in breach of our international legal commitments, of which we are historically so proud. The Bill is unnecessary. It is already custom and practice that during any industrial dispute, emergency cover is there to protect the public.

In conclusion, can the Minister explain to the House how employers will assess the equality implications of targeting specific individuals to provide a minimum level of service? Can he explain why the Bill is being debated before any consultation has been conducted or completed with any of the designated sectors?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sahota has reminded me, in his excellent speech, that I should declare an interest as a member of the GMB. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, on her maiden speech. Having spent 20 years of my life on different local authorities, I am very keen on the voice of local government being stronger in this House, and I am sure that that is what she will bring.

I have a lot of sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, in his role as Minister here. A fortnight ago, he introduced for us the revocation of EU law Bill, which I described as one of the silliest Bills ever to come before this House. Today, he is defending this strikes Bill, which I think is one of the stupidest Bills ever to come before this House, because its effects will be totally negative.

One may not have agreed with Margaret Thatcher—a lot of us did not—when she legislated for trade union reform, but she did it for what she regarded as a constructive economic and social purpose. This Bill does not have a constructive economic and social purpose; it is about gesture politics, about making headlines and about making the fractious, disillusioned members of the Tory party feel good about themselves, bringing back memories of the Thatcher days, hoping against all hope that they might return. I think it is a scandalously opportunistic, trivial measure.

I have some sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, when she said—in a very good speech, if I may say so—that the public need a safety net. I sympathise with that, but I do not think it is practical to legislate for it. I do not think a safety net can be put in place by ministerial direction. Circumstances vary enormously from one public service to another—in fact, from one hospital to another, and all the rest. To a large extent, as we have heard from many contributions in this debate, a safety net already exists, because local representatives and management have agreed what line cannot be crossed. We are much more likely to make progress, if we want a safety net, by a patient process of negotiation than by ministerial directions from on high that can only make matters worse.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in his characteristically brilliant speech, said that this legislation raises major questions of principle. He is right and I hope everyone here—I believe they do—believes that the right to strike is a crucial democratic right. Now I am going to say something that some people on my side might not agree with. I do not think it is an unfettered right.

Personally, after the winter of discontent and the 1979 election, when 80%, I think, of people who voted Labour in that election thought that trade union reform was necessary, I supported reform. I supported ballots and I supported restrictions on mass picketing. When the Social Charter came in, which was the great revolution in this area, bringing in individual legal rights, I recognised that the closed shop was no longer sustainable. So I do not support an unfettered right, but I do very much agree that it is extremely dangerous for the right to strike for this Bill to enact what is a huge surrender of parliamentary sovereignty to the Executive; what in 1930s Germany would have been called an enabling Bill—that is what this Bill is.

The Bill gives Ministers the power to change the law—even to change laws that do not presently exist. I just do not think it is right that this degree of discretion, which could result, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, in a situation where the right to strike was, in effect, illegal, is acceptable. I just do not think it is acceptable. We know in our House that the fact that these statutory instruments will come to us through the affirmative procedure is a very weak form of parliamentary accountability, unless we change the practice that we have adopted over many years.

Fundamentally, the Bill is a distraction from the central question, and here I agree with what my noble friends Lady Kennedy and Lady Chakrabarti and others have said. The central issue we face is a crisis in public services, which face a real existential threat as a consequence of a pay policy which is holding back public sector pay as against private sector pay in the face of the cost of living crisis. I have to say to the Government that it is not sustainable, it simply is not.

I know care workers in Cumbria who are going off to work in supermarkets and we cannot recruit any replacements. I know nurses who are leaving the profession. The fact is that as they leave, we are recruiting more, but we cannot make up for the numbers who are going. I know doctors who are looking for the earliest opportunity to retire because they just cannot fact the pressure.

If we are going to run effective public services, we have to have larger numbers of people working in them who are contented with their lot. That is not the case at the moment. It is not sustainable to simply hold down public sector pay as a means of trying to keep public expenditure under control. I say to the Government that I know why they are doing that: they want to promise tax cuts before the next election. But are we to face the ruination of our public services for this electorally opportunist goal? I do not think that we should.

What we need is a new approach to public sector pay. We should be looking at the way the review body system works and the criteria those bodies look at when they come up with their recommendations. Less regard should be paid to what is called affordability and more regard paid to labour market sustainability. Employers should engage with the unions on how we can change working practices in the public services so that we can afford higher pay. I do not agree, by the way, with the RMT position of demanding an unconditional offer. I think that is unacceptable; you have to be willing to negotiate on working practices as well as on pay. I would like to see more use of arbitration. Again, that is something the Government should be promoting—but they should not promote this Bill. This Bill is crazy. It does nothing to help the public service crisis. It will only make the situation worse, and we really deserve something much better.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. There is an old maxim that applies here and now: everything has been said, but not everyone has said it—and now it is my turn to say it.

This has been an interesting Second Reading— I really mean that—and I have enjoyed your Lordships’ contributions, particularly that of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. I am sure she is going to be a strident voice on local government, and we welcome that voice. Even if we do not always agree with what it says, it is representing a sector that has been underrepresented in your Lordships’ House, so I say to the noble Baroness: welcome.

As we have heard, the Bill imposes obligations on trade unions and individuals to comply with minimum service levels, enabling employers within specific services to issue work notices to roster the workforce required to secure those minimum service levels on a strike day. At its heart, the Bill seeks to grant broad powers to Ministers to limit strike action, and to introduce sweeping Henry VIII powers to amend, repeal or revoke primary legislation through regulation. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, so eloquently explained, this is another attempt at shifting power from Parliament to Ministers.

My noble friends Lord Allan, Lord Strasburger and Lady Randerson, along with many of your Lordships, explained that, in reality, the Bill is another attempt by the Conservatives to distract from their appalling mismanagement of the economy and their failure to avert public sector strikes in the first place. This is a political Bill. It has nothing to do with the practical needs of industrial relations or the real-life delivery of services. It was designed to protect the Government from a strike backlash, and it has failed to do that. The government spokespeople do not even mention the Bill anymore, because they know that it does not work; it has failed. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, that this Bill was not in the Conservative Party manifesto. One that dealt specifically with rail services and trains was in the manifesto, but this Bill is a bigger and different animal from that Bill altogether.

But more deeply, this Bill fails to get under the skin of the real crises in public services, and we have heard that from many of your Lordships. These crises should be seen in the context of the relentless effect of the past few years on employee morale, mental health and well-being.

Further, this Bill is an admission that the Government do not understand how the lives and livelihoods of our valued public sector workers have been eroded over time. It fails to grasp the recruitment crisis across the public sector. Far from making it more attractive to work in these services, this Bill is a huge disincentive to possible new recruits.

Looking beyond this huge array of failures, I will now talk about the concept of minimum service levels. As we have heard from many of your Lordships, the notion of a minimum service level is one that should start from the day-to-day level of service we get when there are no strikes at all. Are the tens of thousands of people waiting weeks to see their GP getting a minimum service level? Are the people right across Britain waiting sometimes tens of hours for ambulances getting a minimum service level? Are the people trying to travel by train from Manchester to Leeds experiencing a minimum service level?

This is the baseline from which this legislation is working. In health, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Allan and many others, minimum service levels will not cut waiting lists or help solve staff shortages in the NHS. There will still be huge overcrowding and delays and terrible problems for people who are facing an emergency.

On the railways, even the Government’s Transport Secretary—I forget which one—has said that this legislation will make no difference to the current strikes. As we have heard time and again, the best way to avoid disruption of this kind and to prevent strikes in the first place is to get around the table and have meaningful, trusted talks with staff and their employers.

Judging by this evening’s news, it seems that there may be the beginning of a damascene conversion coming for the Government, but it is late. You solve strikes only by people sitting down and discussing them. That is how strikes end. They always end with an agreement and that is what the Government should have been seeking from day one.

Then, there is a central concern around the erosion of the rights of the individual, something we on these Benches hold very dear. This Bill shifts the responsibility for delivering a minimum service level on to the individual worker. We believe that this is fundamentally wrong. In setting out their minimum service levels the Government are shirking their duty of care and shifting the onus of service delivery squarely on to named individuals. It is not the Minister, the bosses, or even the union leaders who will be sacked in the morning if the Government’s standards are not met; it is those individual workers.

To be clear, the Bill removes protection from workers who are currently allowed to strike without losing their jobs. As we have heard from the Minister very clearly, there is no automatic protection from unfair dismissal for an employee who is identified in a valid work notice but participates in a strike contrary to that work notice. Quite simply, an employee identified in a valid work notice for a strike day who takes strike action that day and fails to comply with the work notice can be sacked. I am pretty sure that is not what the ILO had in mind.

Moving on, the Bill does not contain any detail about what the minimum service levels will be; however, some consultations have begun to appear and are now out for scrutiny. That is helpful, although the latest arrived only about an hour before we convened in this room.

My noble friend Lord Allan spoke about the ambulance service consultation. I will not repeat what he said, except to say that we do not have a national ambulance service, so how do the Government plan to implement a national minimum service level without doing what they are already doing, which is having local discussions with local service deliverers?

Then, there is the fire and rescue minimum service level consultation document. The consultation notes for this document offer an interesting confirmation of the importance of collective bargaining. It cites Portugal, France, Spain and Italy and makes it clear, as we have heard from many noble Lords, that in each of these cases the minimum service levels on offer in these countries are the result of collective agreement between employers and unions. We thank the Minister and the Government for confirming the essential difference between this legislation and the situation in other countries—a difference which effectively undermines the approach of this Bill completely.

However, I really want to bring one element of this fire service document to your Lordships’ attention; it was alluded to en passant by the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh. In the foreword to the consultation, the Home Secretary raises the horror of the Grenfell Tower tragedy while, at the same time, calling for minimum service levels during strikes. Page 11 of the online consultation then adds to this by raising the Manchester Arena disaster. I remind your Lordships that this is a minimum service level consultation document.

Whatever failings existed around those two tragedies, they would not in any way have been altered or met through a minimum service level agreement on striking. It is entirely inappropriate, and a dreadful piece of political opportunism, that these two issues have been conflated. I believe that it is beneath the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, whom I respect; I mean that, I really do. I ask him both to use his response to distance himself from that approach and to go back to his department and seek to remove those passages from the consultation document.

To close, the Bill is taking powers from individuals and giving them to Ministers. Individuals could be fired by ministerial edict if they refuse to work when they have been given a work notice during a strike. Meanwhile, the Bill hands powers to Ministers at the expense of Parliament. It remains unclear what the specific provisions for minimum service levels will be and how they will relate to day-to-day service levels that are widely falling short of need and expectation. Several speakers have talked about balancing rights and responsibilities. If there is to be any such balancing activity it should be Parliament that does the weighing, not Ministers or Secretaries of State.

For those reasons, when the Bill Committee convenes, it needs to address at least a number of issues. We should aim to remove the Henry VIII powers; ensure that minimum service regulations are made only after consultation and negotiation with social partners, and then properly approved by Parliament; conduct realistic impact assessments on the Bill before it comes into operation; and remove the onus on individuals to carry the can for delivering minimum service levels. We on these Benches promise the Minister a high service level when it comes to that Committee’s work. We will do our best to help him take out the invidious elements of the Bill, which, frankly, make up most of it.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bexley, for her excellent maiden speech. I truly welcome her commitment to public service and her aspiration to make a difference; she will make a strong difference in this House. I also agree with her wholeheartedly that we need more women in Parliament and certainly more women in power. That would also make a difference.

I wish to mention the fact that the news tonight is that, at long last, the Government have agreed to sit down with the RCN and negotiate a settlement that will truly reflect the value this country places on nurses. The pity, of course, is that it has taken so long to reach this point. Some 140,000 appointments need not have been cancelled had the Government talked to the RCN, rather than ignoring its position. That is an important thing which we should have in the backs of our minds when we talk about the Bill.

A major focus of today’s debate, and a point which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, made clear in his contribution, is whether it is right that we make laws this way through skeleton Bills. Whatever your Lordships’ views about the state of industrial relations in this country, we should all agree—across this House— that a rushed process which puts power over making laws in the hands of Ministers without proper parliamentary oversight is simply not right. I make that appeal to all Members of this House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, quite rightly said that she welcomed the affirmative procedure in relation to the secondary legislation. However, let me remind her of the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, who said on 12 January in the debate on the Select Committee report that nobody

“could reasonably argue that secondary legislation is as effectively scrutinised as primary … Secondary legislation is unamendable. It can be passed or rejected but it cannot be amended. Secondary legislation is unamendable. It can be passed or rejected but it cannot be amended.”—[Official Report, 12/1/23; col. 1537.]

and that is not proper scrutiny in terms of the principles addressed in this Bill.

In that same debate, which I had the honour of responding to on behalf of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, a former Minister, said that

“when laws are passed without proper parliamentary scrutiny, they cease to be just technical, as they threaten the rights and freedoms of the individual.”—[Official Report, 12/1/23; col. 1532.]

Are not those words absolutely right in the context of this Bill? The noble Lord also reminded us in that debate that the excuse that excessive delegated powers are needed because Parliament cannot move quickly enough has been proved false on many occasions, not least by this Parliament’s reaction to Covid legislation.

Of course, noble Lords in this debate have referred to Jacob Rees-Mogg, a declared supporter of the Bill’s aims. He said in the Commons that

“this is not emergency legislation”

as the Conservatives had been contemplating these sorts of actions since 2016, and criticised its lack of detail when instead it

“should set out clearly what it is trying to achieve”.

He also said, as we have heard, that the Bill is badly written and an

“extreme example of bad practice.”—[Official Report, Commons, 30/01/23; cols. 88-92.]

That should be enough for this Chamber to say, “This Bill is bad”. However, what of Rees-Mogg’s policy objectives of imposing minimum service levels to replace what I believe, and what noble Lords have tried to put across tonight, is the current effective system of agreement between unions and employers for cover during industrial action, instead of the “one size fits all” mandate from Ministers?

I must admit that I always enjoy the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. Evoking the 1970s and 1980s is fair game, I am sure, but it is not reality or where we are today. My noble friend Lord Liddle was right: things have moved on. A lot of that legislation which imposed ballots has resulted in much stronger and more effective mandates. When British Airways are threatened with a massive mandate for industrial action, it cannot wait for that strike to take place. The cost to them has already hit because people cancel their bookings. They are not going to risk carrying on.

That is not what this is about. We do not need to evoke the 1970s and the 1980s. This is not about people pushing things to the limit. This is about our public services—our nurses and the people who support those nurses. In every element, these people have shown their worth in the last two years. That is what we should focus on.

Is this legislation going to do what it says it is intended to do? The simple fact, as we heard again in this debate, is that it will not. Mark Phillips, the chief executive officer of the Railway Safety and Standards Board, told a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference last October:

“If you introduce minimum service levels there’s the huge issue of how is that level set, and particularly if you set that minimum level and you’ve rostered staff to work. I would suggest you’d probably have a much higher level of sickness arise because of that because people won’t want to be seen to be breaking the strikes that their colleagues are involved in.”

As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked, what is the minimum standard level? There are many people who would love a minimum standard level, and they are certainly not receiving it at the moment. It is not just Avanti West Coast: every train service coming into London suffers from a shortage of staff; every hospital suffers from a shortage of staff; every GP surgery suffers from a shortage of staff. Why? It is because we are not attracting enough staff to do the job; we are relying, as the noble Baroness said in her maiden speech, on people’s commitment to public service. That is not sufficient to run a 21st-century-standard service.

Until today, we have had no sign of an impact assessment for this Bill. This morning, the RPC published its opinion of the impact assessment. The Minister is going to have to put a very brave face on that. It received it on 2 February, several weeks after the Bill had already been introduced to Parliament. It was red-rated: not fit for purpose. How can we scrutinise this legislation with that sort of back-up? The real criticism is the insufficient assessment of the impacts of the Bill on small and micro businesses, which is required under the Government’s own Better Regulation framework. I tried to read the 54 pages of the impact assessment, but we had it only an hour before this debate. I must admit that I was shocked by its amateurish nature, and especially by the impact on industrial relations.

My noble friend Lord Monks raised the fact that, when the Government tried to introduce minimum service levels in the transport strikes Bill, we had an impact assessment that said that minimum service levels could have a negative impact on industrial relations, increase the frequency of disputes, lead to greater use of action short of strike, and increase operational costs for employers, with a particularly onerous burden on smaller operators. That was in the first impact assessment, and this one tried to skate over all of that. Clearly it is not sufficient.

The Government are trying to hide the severe and disproportionate impact that their legislation will have on businesses, particularly small businesses. It is no wonder that they are trying to push this legislation and rush it through Parliament, because it really does not stand up to one bit of scrutiny.

The Bill does not define the factors that the Secretary of State will take into account when drafting regulations on minimum service levels. The only limitation on their powers is that the regulations may specify only services that fall within extremely wide categories: health services, education, fire and rescue, transport services, decommissioning nuclear installations, and border security. These will cut across both the public and private sectors and could include ancillary as well as core operational roles. Power is given to the Secretary of State to determine the scope of these services by regulation, without any guidance from Parliament.

There is nothing in the Bill to prevent ancillary staff being included, nor to prevent the legislation extending to a wide range of forms of transport, from taxis to passenger flights. We have heard the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, talking about extending it to all kinds of services, including the ground crew. I am sure some people want to see an extension to ban strikes—a fundamental right. When we talk about conditions in China or Russia, we are quick to defend people’s right to organise—and quite right too. These rights are well fought after, and we should protect them, not allow them to be attacked in this way.

As the TUC asked in its excellent briefing on the Bill, what will a minimum level of service be? It could even mean a service at 90% of normal levels or an entire group of workers could be prevented from taking industrial action. In exercising these wide powers, a Secretary of State may “amend, repeal or revoke”, as my noble friend said in her introduction, and is empowered to do the same for Acts of the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Senedd. What are these draconian powers for?

One looks at the Bill and sees how undemocratic it is and how it cannot possibly work in practice. What is it for? The noble Lord, Lord Fox, is absolutely right: I can see the election posters now, but it does not help our public services.

It is not only employees and trade unions that are concerned; I know that employers are deeply concerned, because some of the biggest employers in the public and private sector have told me that they are. They are very concerned about the complete lack of consultation. A Bill is brought in; nobody is consulted; consultation starts late and is only in three categories. As I said, it is not clear exactly who is covered by these categories.

I also want to raise the question of ILO conventions and the position of international labour standards. There is no obligation to ensure that the regulations are consistent with ILO conventions. We know that the ILO has already raised concerns about existing UK labour law which the Government have failed to address.

I appreciate the meeting my noble friend and I had with the Minister about the Bill. We had a good and frank exchange and I asked whether the Government will publish their assessment of why the Bill is compatible with international law. He said, “Oh no. We don’t publish legal advice.” I do not want the legal advice; I want the Government’s assessment of how they reached their conclusion that the Bill meets our obligations. I want to hear or see the political decision, not the legal advice. I want to know whether they have done a correct assessment of what pertains in Spain and France. What statutory rights do workers and trade unions have? The collective agreements are totally different; the organisation is totally different. It is not a fair comparison. As the ILO has stated, we now have much greater restrictions on the power of trade unions to organise.

I know that I have gone on for quite a long time, but I conclude with this point. [Interruption.] Well, it needed to be said, and I am sorry if people are bored with the repetition, but as we move to Committee, let me assure noble Lords that we will probe this Government to produce the evidence for why they have introduced this Bill. As my noble friend Lady O’Grady said in her opening speech, this Bill is unfair, undemocratic and unworkable, which is why we are committed to repealing it in its entirety at the soonest possible date.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions on what is, in the Government’s view, a very important Bill. There is clearly a wealth of expertise on this topic across the House, not least among the large number of ex-trade union general secretaries we seem to have on the Opposition Benches, who have all contributed well. Of course, I sense the strong feeling on this issue. As is usual in this House, we have had a thorough and engaging debate; most of the speeches have been thoughtful and I certainly listened with interest to what Members had to say.

I start, as many others did, by congratulating my noble friend Lady O’Neill on her excellent maiden speech. Unlike some others, she kept it relatively uncontroversial. It is a pleasure to see her in place today, and I am glad she has chosen this debate to make the first of what I am sure will be many well-informed contributions. I first met my noble friend during a visit to Cory’s Riverside Heat Network a few years ago and I am delighted, as an energy Minister, that we are welcoming someone with such a passion for energy. She has done some tremendous work as Bexley Council leader; she pioneered its decarbonisation vision and made Bexley a flagship Conservative borough. My noble friend and I have many things in common. We both have Irish parents: she has two and I have one. We both started our careers in local government. Hers was considerably more successful than mine: she became a council leader, and I was one Conservative out of 66 councillors in Gateshead. So, she did much better than I did in that respect. Congratulations to her on an excellent maiden speech.

I will do my best to respond to as many as possible of the contributions made and issues raised, but as always, time is limited and I apologise in advance if I do not have enough time to address everybody’s contribution. Let me start with concerns about the design of the Bill, raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady, Lady Donaghy, Lady Whitaker, Lady Jones and Lady Kennedy, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the noble Lords, Lord Strasburger, Lord Monks, Lord Prentis, Lord Whitty, Lord Fox and Lord Collins, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, my noble friend Lord Balfe and probably some others I have missed. I maintain that it is right that the detail of specific services and minimum service levels be set out in secondary legislation—that is not something for primary legislation. As a number of Members have observed, the Government published consultations on establishing MSLs in ambulance services and fire and rescue services on 9 February. Yesterday, we published a consultation on minimum service levels for rail.

It is entirely proper and legitimate for the Government to enable employers, employees, trade unions and their members and, most of all, of course, the public, who are affected by all of this, to contribute to the consultations. We had a lot of contributions from so-called vested interests, but we did not have much on behalf of the great British public. So, they will all be able to contribute and the Government will seek approval from both Houses of Parliament before any regulations come into force. I can also confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, that we would expect to engage ACAS as part of the consultation process.

When it comes to the sectors included in the Bill—mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady, Lady O’Neill and Lady Randerson, as well as my noble friends Lady Browning, Lord Dobbs and Lord Greenhalgh—as I said in my introduction, the key sectors covered are broadly the same set that were listed as important public services in the Trade Union Act 2016 and which have long been recognised as important because of the far-reaching consequences for members of the public who are not involved in any way in that dispute.

As many other Members have done, I pay tribute to what I thought was a very moving speech by my noble friend Lady Browning. It was a heartfelt contribution, explaining personally how people have to live with the increased anxiety of not being able to get an ambulance during a strike. They have had to adjust their lives accordingly. I totally agreed with her contribution. It demonstrates the disproportionate impact that strikes can have on the public and why, therefore, this legislation is needed, especially for health services. As she said, minimum service levels aim to relieve that mindset. It is therefore only right that these sectors are included within the scope of the legislation.

Many people have been left worrying about whether an ambulance will be there when they need it. The rail strikes have left people unable to access their work, their healthcare and, in many cases, their education. Some people have probably been unable to access their church services, led by the right reverend Prelate, although we would need to consult further on whether that would be regarded as an essential service.

With regard to the specific transport services, as raised by my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, the Government have identified passenger rail as a priority to be consulted for implementation first. My noble friend Lord Leicester explained why, quoting the relevant statistics on the impact of rail strikes from the Centre for Economics and Business Research. The direct cost of all strikes and the indirect cost of worker absences due to rail strikes so far is at least £1.7 billion over the eight-month period to January 2023. The Opposition are very keen to talk about nurses and healthcare; I note that they are slightly less keen to talk about rail strikes. Cebr also says that

“unresolved industrial disputes are having an adverse impact on growth”

at a time when many forecasters expect the economy to be in recession.

Before minimum service levels are introduced in any other transport services, we would, of course, consult to ensure that all evidence and stakeholder views are fully considered. This would include employers and industry experts. Obviously, we recognise that each transport service is unique and consultation will be key to ensure that we get this right. As regards other services, I am happy to confirm to my noble friend Lord Balfe that the Government currently have no plans to implement minimum service levels on coffee or sweet shops.

I reassure the number of noble Lords who expressed concern about the powers in the Bill to amend primary legislation, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the noble Lords, Lord Strasburger, Lord Monks and Lord Whitty, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. Before I turn to Clause 3, I want to be clear that proposed new Sections 234B and 234F contain no such Henry VIII powers. There is no intention or ability to use Henry VIII powers to set the minimum service levels. These powers are strictly limited to Clause 3, and the powers in this clause can be exercised only to make amendments that are necessary to give effect to the Bill; they are therefore truly consequential. It is a standard clause included in much legislation, with standard wording. Drafting includes the references to Acts passed later in the same Session for the simple reason that those Acts might have been drafted before this Bill becomes an Act, and therefore may not take it into account. That is the only reason.

Many noble Lords spoke in a greatly entertaining way about the international comparisons that the Government are using when referring to this legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, referred to this, as did the noble Lords, Lord Allan and Lord Strasburger. As I said in my introduction, most major European countries have some version of minimum service levels for their key public services. In fact, many countries go further. Some, such as the USA, Australia and Canada, go much further and ban strikes completely in some blue-light services. As noble Lords will know, the approach to setting minimum services levels differs from country to country, taking into account their different circumstances; but can we please not have some of the wild exaggerations that some noble Lords made about the consequences of this legislation. This is common across many other perfectly well-functioning liberal democracies.

Many Opposition Peers also accused the Government of focusing on legislating and not on resolving the disputes. We have always said that we wanted to reach an agreement. Ministers across government have been meeting with the trade unions to attempt to resolve these disputes where it is possible to do so and, crucially, where it is affordable to the taxpayer. In some cases, I am pleased to say that settlements are being reached. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, observed, just this afternoon, while we were in this Chamber, the Government have published a joint statement with the Royal College of Nursing announcing their agreement to enter a process of intensive talks. Both sides are committed to a fair and reasonable settlement.

There is no question that industrial action can have a disproportionate impact on everyone: on members of the public who rely on essential services to get to work or to care for their families; on the NHS trying to get the backlog down; on schools trying to recover the lost learning after the pandemic; and on local businesses whose sales and productivity suffer. We need to have confidence that, when workers strike, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at risk. It is therefore necessary, in our view, to have the power to act if required.

A number of noble Lords were entirely reasonable to raise the devolved Administrations and their involvement. The noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Randerson, were right to mention this important issue. However, the plain fact is that industrial relations is a reserved matter. The Government have a duty to protect the lives and livelihood of their citizens across Great Britain. The disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public are no less severe on people in Scotland or Wales, and they have every right to expect the Government to act to ensure that they can continue to access vital public services during strikes. We obviously recognise that, in some cases, this will affect employers operating services which are devolved. The Government have published consultations on the application of MSLs for ambulance services, fire and rescue services, and rail services. As part of the development of MSLs in those areas, and the consultations that are legally required to inform these, we will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations on the geographical scope of the regulations.

A number of noble Lords suggested that this could be a vehicle for firing workers—a point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Whitaker, the noble Lords, Lord Strasburger, Lord Monks and Lord Hain, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Let me once again assure them that this is misleading as to what this legislation will actually do. The Bill equips employers to manage instances where a worker takes strike action despite being named on a work notice for that particular day of strike action by removing the employee’s automatic protection against unfair dismissal for industrial action. It is at the discretion of the particular employer, not the Government, as to what, if any, disciplinary action is taken in these circumstances. We hope that employers are fair and reasonable, and take this sort of action only where it is necessary. It is no different from employers managing instances of non-compliance for any other unauthorised absence.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, the noble Lord, Lord Allan, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, all spoke of the use of “reasonable steps” in the Bill. There are a range of steps that trade unions could take, and what is considered reasonable will depend on each specific situation. First and foremost, a trade union should not call a union member identified in a work notice as required to work on a particular day out on strike that day. The trade union could also encourage those individual members to comply with the work notice, and make it clear in their general communication with members that where members are named in a work notice, and therefore required to work on a particular day, they should attend work on that strike day.

A number of noble Lords spoke about our international obligations and considered arguments on this point were made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady O’Grady, and the noble Lord, Lord Allan. As we have said, the Government are confident that the Bill is compatible with our international obligations, including the European Convention on Human Rights. As all Ministers do, I had to sign a statement of compatibility before I introduced the Bill in this House and, as all Ministers do, I did that on legal advice. As the minimum service levels framework is developed, the Government will continue to uphold their international obligations, including those under the TCA.

I was pleased to hear my noble friend Lady Noakes speak passionately in her support of the Bill, and, in particular, about balancing the rights of the public with the rights of the ability of workers to strike. That is fundamentally what the Bill seeks to achieve. Other noble Lords spoke similarly on international labour obligations, including the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady and Lady Kennedy, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. Some have said that it is wrong for the Government to set minimum service levels via regulation, rather than via negotiation or independent arbitration. That point was also raised by the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Liddle.

We have consistently said that we hope we do not have to use the powers in the Bill and that, where possible, if unions can agree on voluntary arrangements where they are necessary, that is obviously better than having to legislate. Where we have to bring forward regulations, these will be subject to consultation and scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament. We think that it is fair and reasonable to enable employers, employees, trade unions and their members, and the public as a whole, to participate in the process of setting minimum service levels, and then for them to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before they are applied. This would not necessarily be the case if the minimum service level was simply agreed between the employer and the union.

It was right that the noble Lords, Lord Monks and Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, spoke passionately about the naming of individuals as part of the Bill. To be clear, the Bill enables employers to issue work notices to specify the workforce required to achieve the minimum service level for that strike period. Trade unions are required to take reasonable steps to ensure that members identified in the work notice comply with that notice. Therefore, the trade union needs to see the work notice and know which union members may be named to be able to take those reasonable steps. Individuals named on a work notice will be notified of this as regards themselves only; the work notice will not be a public document. In addition, there are no sanctions or consequences for individuals if the minimum service level is not then achieved.

The impact assessment for the legislation has now been published, as a number of noble Lords observed. Overall, we expect the legislation to be of net benefit to the economy. We have of course noted the RPC’s comments and will consider whether it is possible to revise the impact assessment to address them. Impact assessments will also be published for all subsequent regulations on minimum service levels. We believe that many of the concerns expressed by the RPC will be addressed when those are published.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady and Lady Donaghy, and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, expressed concerns that union members would be targeted individually and unfairly by employers in work notices. The Bill is clear that an employer must not have regard to whether a worker is a member of a union, or a particular union, when issuing a work notice. Nor does the Bill do anything to diminish other protections against discrimination, which, I hope, addresses the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sahota.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, suggested that the Bill enables unilateral variation of employment contracts. It is true that legislation made under the Bill will affect the relationship between some employers and some workers, and that they will be required to comply with it where applicable, but in that respect it is no different from most employment legislation. The Bill does not provide employers with powers to unilaterally vary employment contracts; it merely allows the giving of a work notice which adjusts the circumstances in which workers may lawfully go on strike. I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord that any of that is akin to unilateral variation.

Some noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Prentis, and my noble friend Lady Noakes, raised the existing life and limb law. Disproportionate impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the public still occur during strikes, despite Section 240 of the 1992 Act being in place. The aims of MSLs are to balance the ability to strike with the rights of the public to access the vital services they depend on during those strikes. The purpose of Section 240 is to allow for criminal prosecutions for those who intentionally and maliciously endanger life or cause serious injury to a person by going on strike. In my view, these are two fundamentally different aims, and, as my noble friend Lady Noakes flagged up, the right to access key services clearly goes beyond life and limb.

I will also take on board and consider the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, about the Home Office guidance in the Manchester Arena tragedy and follow that up with him.

Finally, a number of noble Lords rightly raised the issue of the pressure that the cost of living is putting on people and our public services. That is why we have committed to halving inflation and growing the economy, and why we have provided £26 billion to support individuals and businesses. We are investing billions more in schools, the NHS and social care, and all that of course supports those who work in those services. The Government respect the vital work that public sector workers do on the front line to protect the lives of others—a point we have made a number of times and will continue to make.

Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I reiterate what I said in my opening remarks: the Government support workers’ ability to strike; it is an important part of industrial relations that is rightly protected by law. The Bill seeks to maintain a balance between the ability to strike on the one hand, and on the other the public’s right not to be subjected to disproportionate impacts as they try to go about their daily lives and access essential public services. My noble friend Lord Patten was right when he said that striking the balance between the ability to strike and the right of the public to be safe and protected is difficult, but we believe that our approach is a proportionate way to provide this important balance. I am happy to confirm to him that the Government have no intention of banning the ability to strike. As my noble friend Lord Dobbs so eloquently put it, the Bill is intended to keep the country working.

To encourage further engagement with the Bill, links to the consultations will be circulated to participating Peers after this debate. In the meantime, I of course look forward to discussing the Bill further with Members in Committee. With that, I beg to move.

Bill read a second time.

Commitment and Order of Consideration Motion

Moved by

That the bill be committed to a Committee of the Whole House, and that it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House that they consider the bill in the following order: Clause 1, Schedule, Clauses 2 to 6, Title.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 9.27 pm.