1A: Because it is not appropriate to restrict application of the Bill to England only.
My Lords, with the leave of the House I will also speak to Motion B. I will speak to both the Motions to not insist on these amendments and to resist Motions A1 and B1, which are amendments in lieu tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox.
I am delighted to be in the Chamber again following the consideration of this House’s amendments to the Bill in the other place. Although there was a thorough debate of these amendments and those we will look at next, they have been thoroughly rejected by the other place, which has resolved against amendments that would either delay implementation of the Bill or prevent it from achieving any of its policy objectives.
I recognise that this is a topic that Members of both Houses are passionate about and I agree with my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business, that we have had a robust debate on it. However, I point out to the House that the other place resolved against these amendments by significant majorities of 61 and 55 respectively, which are significantly larger than the majorities of 24 and 31 that amended the Bill in the first place. That is also the case for the amendments that we will discuss in the next group. The elected Chamber has therefore given the Bill and the amendments made here its due consideration and Members there have made the position of their House very clear.
The House will be delighted to know that I do not intend to repeat the debate and the arguments that we have heard on the detail of the Bill here; the Government have already clearly set out their intentions and perspective here, which are reflected in the reasons for disagreement that have come back to us. The Government’s position, and that of the elected Chamber, is clear and I can confirm that the Government have no plans to concede on these issues given the ongoing industrial disputes that show the need for this Bill now more than ever. I therefore ask that noble Lords respect the clear wishes of the other place and, while of course I am always grateful for noble Lords’ insight, passion and expertise on this matter, I hope that this House does not insist on these amendments.
I will now address the amendments in lieu that have been tabled. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, for his Motion A1, which seeks to limit the application of this Bill to England only, unless the Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru agree by resolution for it to apply in those nations. The noble and learned Lord submitted a similar amendment on Report and the Government continue to resist this change for the reasons that I set out then.
First, it is a statutory discretion for the employer as to whether to issue a work notice, taking into account any other legal requirements that the employer may have. However, more fundamentally, the purpose and substance of the Bill is to regulate employment rights and duties and industrial relations. This is a reserved matter, so the consent of devolved Parliaments for this legislation is rightly not required. To add in a requirement for this, as the amendment seeks to do, would create significant inconsistency with wider employment law and I suggest that it would also disturb the careful balance of the UK’s devolution settlement. We will of course, as we have throughout the passage of the Bill, continue to seek to engage with the devolved Governments as part of the development of minimum service levels in those areas.
Finally, Motion B1, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, relates to additional consultation requirements, assessment of impacts of the legislation and parliamentary scrutiny. As has been made clear to this House many times, sufficient checks and balances are already built into the legislation before regulations can be made. Motion B1 would delay implementation of minimum service levels for an indefinite period and thus extend the disproportionate impact that strikes can have on the public. I am afraid that the Government simply cannot accept that.
This Government recognise the significant role that the UK Parliament has played in scrutinising instruments. New Section 234F already ensures that the regulations will receive the appropriate level of scrutiny by both Houses and are subject to usual processes for consultation. I therefore urge this House not to amend the Bill in such a way that would cause significant delay to implementing minimum service levels, use up precious parliamentary time to duplicate parliamentary procedures and set some unhelpful precedents for future legislation. For all those reasons, the Government resist Motions A1 and B1 and I hope that noble Lords will agree not to press them. I beg to move.
Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)
1B: Page 2, line 13, at end insert “but applies only to England unless—(a) the Scottish Parliament resolves that it should apply to Scotland from a date specified in the resolution, in which case it so applies, and(b) Senedd Cymru resolves that it should apply to Wales from a date specified in the resolution, in which case it so applies.””
My Lords, as this is the first occasion on which a devolution issue has arisen this week, let me make one short observation about the enormous contribution that Lord Morris of Aberavon made to devolution and to using and utilising devolution within the context of the United Kingdom. He can truly be regarded as a father of Welsh devolution and he made an enormous contribution to strengthening the position of Wales within the union.
I turn to my Motion. There are six brief points that I wish to make—and they will be brief, I must emphasise. First, this is not a reserved matter; I fundamentally disagree with the position stated by the Government. If we look at the reality of this Bill, it is not to do with employment rights; it is plainly to do with services in Wales and Scotland. Indeed, it covers the most important services that are devolved. The legislation therefore did require a Sewel Motion and, as we know, that has not been forthcoming.
Secondly, the fact that the Government are prepared to legislate without observing the Sewel convention is, I regret to say, another illustration of the ignoring of this convention and, more generally, the Government’s action in ignoring conventions that underpin our unwritten constitution, putting it in danger. Actions of this kind are imperilling the union, which is the bedrock of our constitution.
Thirdly, and more fundamentally, what is being done is undemocratic. The Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru are responsible and accountable for the very services for which this legislation is being brought forward.
Fourthly, the extension of this Bill to Wales and Scotland is bad for the people of Wales and Scotland. If we look at this as a matter of practical reality, the UK Government are the Government of England in respect of these services. They know nothing about education, health, ambulances or the fire service in Wales, or the relationships with staff and employees and how the services run. It is structured differently in England from how it is structured in Wales and Scotland.
Fifthly, I think that it is disingenuous again to say that employers in Scotland and Wales can choose whether to give a work notice. As the Minister in the other place made clear, it is not in the Government’s view a free choice. Employers must consider contractual public law and other legal duties that they have. If this Government’s view is right—I do not agree with it—there is the unspoken consequence of legal action against those who fail in their duties. That is a real threat to the Governments in Scotland and Wales and their ability to manage a service in a way that is in the real interests of the people.
Sixthly, and finally, what this Bill does, in applying its provisions to Scotland and Wales, is to take away power from those who have a responsibility for the management of the relationship and who are accountable to their electorate.
However, on this issue of devolution, the Government —as the Minister made clear just now—have not moved, and plainly do not intend to move, an iota. They maintain their characteristic disdain for devolution. They continue to legislate to override the devolution arrangements. I think that it can be said that they believe with a singular superiority that they know better what is right for Wales and Scotland than their democratically elected Governments and Parliaments do. They seem not to care for the long-term consequences of this persistent conduct.
For these reasons, although it is regrettable for our constitution, union and democracy, unless others urge me to take a different view, I see no point in seeking to divide the House on issues on which the Government do not appear to wish to engage. By using their majority in the other place, they can impose their will on Scotland and Wales, which the Governments and Parliaments of Scotland and Wales do not want.
My Lords, I will intervene very briefly, as I did at earlier stages of the Bill, having taken good note of the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.
I press on the Government the question of the definition of reserved powers. This goes broader than this amendment and may be something that needs to be looked at in another context, in its own right. Under those circumstances, I accept the lead that has been given by the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and I hope the Government keep the issue alive in their mind.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, for moving this amendment. I too will be brief. It is important to restate the principles involved here. The Bill is one of a series from this Government that trespass boldly—I would say foolishly—on devolution. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act, the Procurement Bill and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill do so distinctly, but this Bill takes it to another level. The overwhelming majority of the list of services for which it seeks to set minimum standards and take control are devolved services, and the noble and learned Lord spoke about this. Add to this the Government’s habit of ignoring the need for legislative consent Motions and we are well on the way to a constitutional crisis, which this Government seem openly to invite.
Even now, the Government do not seem to have decided how to develop and impose minimum service levels. Back in March, the Constitution Committee expressed surprise at this in its report, and it is significant that we are still at this point in June. It is nonsense to imagine that the Government can impose minimum service levels, in effect from a distance, on a service for which they have no responsibility at any level, and, in the case of Welsh-medium education, for which they do not even understand the language in which the rules and standards are written.
As it stands, the Bill is unworkable and damaging. The noble and learned Lord’s original amendment, which was agreed by the House, sought to limit the scope of the Bill. The elegance of the new amendment is that it would allow the devolved Administrations to give agreement in the normal way.
In the different political climate of the past, in devolution as it used to be practised and operate, there would be discussions, co-operation, compromises and ultimately agreement between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. There would be legislative consent Motions agreed before we agreed legislation here. The norms have gone and that is a serious problem for our future democracy.
My Lords, can I make a simple point? This is nonsense, because all the services are devolved, as has been said. I am not totally in agreement with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, but these are probably not reserved powers. Even if they were, how on earth can a Secretary of State for Health in Elephant and Castle or wherever he now lives make rules about hospitals in Glasgow, fire engines in Edinburgh or education establishments in Aberdeen? It just will not work. For that reason, I am very dubious about this legislation. It does not apply to Northern Ireland anyway. Putting it into a Bill is silly—that is the only word for it—because we are being asked to pass legislation which manifestly will do no good and will not work, and I am sorry that the Government are pursuing it.
My Lords, it is a sad fact that this Bill so casually breaches the Sewel convention, which exists to uphold democratic accountability and provide for stable provision of public services. Wherever you live in the United Kingdom, nothing should interfere with those basic considerations. They dictate how services are designed and delivered and who has a say over them, whether that be in the hospital you are rushed to or the school you take your children to. In overriding Parliaments in Wales and Scotland, United Kingdom Ministers are treating those services as incidental or of lesser significance and weakening the say of patients and parents.
This is a problem not just for Wales and Scotland; it is a problem for England and the entire United Kingdom when the Government so regularly choose to sow confusion and division by breaching a convention that exists to help prevent both. We should not be in a position where a former Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales is forced to spell this out in relation to so many Bills. It is a measure of the Government’s consistent course that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, is put in such a position. I hope that the points he made will be taken on board, because the road that is going to be continued with is very dangerous for the union. That is why it is so important that Ministers listen.
I want to speak also to the other Motions in this group, which I had hoped the noble Lord from the Lib Dem Benches would move because I was intending to quote him. Nevertheless, on Motion B1, on which we are to hear from the noble Lord, across this House there is serious concern that, once again, Parliament is being sidelined. It is a fundamental issue of accountability and democracy. The Regulatory Policy Committee said that the impact assessment for the Bill is “not fit for purpose” and
“makes use of assumptions in the analysis which are not supported by evidence”.
Again, policy comes later and legislation first; it is ridiculous. We should not have that sort of situation, especially as it impinges on fundamental rights, particularly the right which the Minister constantly says he is prepared to protect: the right to strike.
Employers as well as unions share concerns that the provisions are unworkable and have the opposite effect to that claimed by the Government, will damage co-operation and will undermine voluntary agreements that deliver minimum service levels, the very thing that the Bill is meant to address. This is an imposition and simply will not work. The Delegated Powers Committee said that ministerial powers to set minimum service levels through regulations and define what constitutes a relevant service are inappropriate in the absence of convincing explanation by Ministers. Throughout Report, we heard no convincing arguments on this. The fact of the matter is that, when we heard from Ministers responsible for relevant sections of the Bill, they all said that voluntary arrangements are best and that they work. But, when you undermine those voluntary arrangements, you put the public—the thing that you want to try to protect—at risk.
As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said on Report—I will have to quote his speech from then rather than today—
“This amendment seeks to bolster Parliament’s oversight. It would require a consultation to be carried out and … reviewed by a committee of each House of Parliament”,—[Official Report, 26/4/23; col. 1223.]
prior to regulations being made. This is absolutely essential if we are to see good legislation rather than simply negative narratives. Those consulted would include relevant unions, employers and other interested parties across the United Kingdom. This is vital to ensure consistency. I conclude by saying that I hope the noble Lord, Lord Fox, will seek the support of the whole House.
My Lords, I was so enjoying the debate on Motion A1 that I failed to stand up and speak to Motion B1 in my name. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for not providing him with sufficient up-to-date quotations, but he seemed to manage. We have spent so much time on the Bill together that we probably know how each other thinks.
We are in familiar territory, and indeed were too with Motion A1, because this is a long-repeated trope of this Government. They seek to override not only the devolved authorities but our own Parliament here. Bill after Bill has measures that take powers that should rightfully be vested in Parliament and lodge them firmly with the Executive, with very little or negligible recourse. This amendment seeks to regain that balance.
We have had similar discussions many times. I will not go over all these, but I will remind the House very briefly why, in this case, it is very important. The centrepiece of this legislation is a system of predetermined minimum service levels which may be used by employers to determine the minimum manning levels in the event of a strike. If a strike is called, specific work orders have to be or may be issued, requiring named individuals to ignore the strike and go to work. If they do not, as the Bill stands, they can be sacked.
The scale of the minimum service level is key. The nearer it is to 100% of normal service, the smaller the number of people who can legitimately and legally strike becomes—to the point that it becomes almost zero, or zero, and strikes are banned. This is not an abstract argument: if you look at certain areas of emergency care or issues such as rail track signalling, it is clear that a very high level of presenteeism will be required to run those services. In effect, those people on that work order will therefore have their right to strike banned. Speaking as a Liberal, I say that this is a libertarian issue that we find very important.
The setting of these minimum services levels is a vital part of how this Bill will operate. As the Minister has said, some non-binding consultation is under way but as things stand, to all intents and purposes the scale of the minimum service levels is the Secretary of State’s decision and theirs alone. We find that unacceptable.
The Commons declined our last amendment on the grounds that there is “adequate consultation”. We think that there is not and would like to ask the Commons to revisit that process. This amendment would require that consultation takes place and is reviewed by a committee of each House of Parliament prior to regulations being made. That consultation would be more formal and set out in some detail compared to the informal and ad hoc nature of the consultation that is going on. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, when he was quoting me, those consulted will include the relevant unions, employers and other interested parties and would include an assessment of the impact on the rights of those workers.
The Minister talked about time and how this would wrap up the process into indefinite time. I remind your Lordships that the original Bill from which this Bill is generated started about a year ago. That Bill of course referred to what was in the Conservative Party manifesto, unlike this one, which has been broadened way beyond the scope of what was in the manifesto. The Government have shown themselves very adept at setting up time for such things to be debated, yesterday being an example. I am sure that time is not the issue—“won’t” rather than “can’t” is what we are dealing with here.
In short, we seek through this Motion to regularise the consultation process and give a mandatory role for Parliament that is far more than we see. With most Governments, this might not be controversial but with this one there has been a pattern and it is systematic, so here we seek to reassert the role of parliamentary democracy. My noble friend talked about there being the potential for a constitutional crisis around the treatment of government and the devolved authorities, I think we are already heading in the same direction with the treatment by this Government of our Parliament.
My Lords, I thank all those who have contributed. The House will be pleased to know that I do not intend to detain noble Lords for very long. We have debated these matters extensively on a number of occasions in a very rigorous manner, so I do not intend to repeat all the arguments. But, let me just say very briefly, particularly in response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, that we are certain that the minimum service levels are a reserved matter. They are reserved because they obviously apply only when there are strikes, which fall within employment rights and industrial relations. This is clearly a reserved matter under each of the devolution settlements for Scotland and Wales. Put another way, the Bill amends the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, the subject of which is specifically reserved under each of these settlements. I always hesitate to disagree with distinguished lawyers on matters of law but I am afraid that we just have a different opinion on this.
I addressed the points from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, in my opening remarks and will not repeat that. I acknowledge all those who have spoken. I understand the strength of opinion in the House on this but once again I point the House towards the other place—the elected place—and the clear will it has expressed on these matters. I urge the House not to prolong this matter unnecessarily and, while it looks as though we are going to vote on the Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I am grateful that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, indicated that he would not be dividing the House.
Motion A1 withdrawn.
Motion A agreed.
2A: Because the Bill already contains adequate consultation requirements.
Motion B1 (as an amendment to Motion B)
2B: Page 3, line 31, at end insert—
“(5) Minimum service regulations may only be made if—(a) the Secretary of State has published draft regulations;(b) the Secretary of State has conducted an impact assessment of the effect of the draft regulations on the services to which the draft regulations relate, addressing, in particular, the effect—(i) on the general public,(ii) on the conduct of these services, and(iii) on the conduct and effectiveness of the exercise of the right to strike in those services;(c) the Secretary of State has conducted a consultation with the representatives of trade unions, employers and any other interested party on the draft regulations and on the effect of the draft regulations on the services to which they relate, and in particular on the effect—(i) on the general public,(ii) on the conduct of those services, and(iii) on the conduct and effectiveness of the exercise of the right to strike in those services,and has laid before Parliament a report on that consultation;
(d) the Secretary of State has placed before a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament convened for the purpose of reviewing them the impact assessment under paragraph (b) and the report under paragraph (c) and the Joint Committee’s review has been published in a report to Parliament.””
4A: Because in order for the legislation to be effective, it is necessary for there to be consequences for an employee who fails to comply with a work notice.
My Lords, in moving Motion C, with the leave of the House, I will also speak to Motion D.
Motions C and D in my name cover this House’s Amendments 4, 5, 6 and 7, which removed key parts of the legislation that are necessary to make it effective and to ensure that minimum service levels can in fact be achieved. It is therefore unsurprising that the other place resolved against these amendments with, I remind the House once again, larger majorities than those that amended the Bill in this House. The Government continue to maintain that the approach taken by this legislation is fair and proportionate. To achieve a minimum service level, employers, workers and trade unions all have their part to play.
Motion C and the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, proposed in lieu of Lords Amendment 4, deal with the consequences of non-compliance with a work notice. As I have said previously, the approach taken by this legislation is fair and proportionate. It enables employers to manage instances of non-compliance in exactly the same way that they would with any other unauthorised absence.
As I have made clear on a number of occasions, an employee losing their automatic protection from unfair dismissal for industrial action, if they participated in a strike contrary to a work notice, does not automatically mean that they will be dismissed—just as failing to attend work without a valid reason normally does not mean that they will be dismissed. It simply enables employers to pursue disciplinary action if they believe it is appropriate, but it is ultimately at the discretion of the employer. I believe that this is the right approach to ensure that minimum service levels will be achieved, while protecting workers in a way that aligns with existing legislation. On that basis, I resist the amendment proposed in lieu.
On Motion D, which covers the role of trade unions, it appears in the amendment proposed in lieu of Lords Amendment 5 that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, accepts that there may be a role for unions to play in ensuring that minimum service levels can be met. However, I strongly believe that it cannot be at the discretion of a trade union as to whether and how it advises and encourages its members to comply with work notices. There must be some consequences if they do not take reasonable steps. On that basis, the Government therefore resist this amendment.
I have noted the feedback from the House, including in the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Government are willing to consider whether there may be a case for providing further details on what “reasonable steps” are and what it means for trade unions. What we cannot do, however, is accept an amendment such as the one proposed. Without a responsibility for unions to ensure that their members comply, and without any incentives for employees to attend work on a strike day when they have been identified in a work notice, the effectiveness of this legislation is, I am afraid, severely undermined—and I suspect that is the purpose of the amendments.
I cannot therefore accept a continuation of the risk to lives and livelihoods as a result of the disproportionate impact of these strikes. I therefore ask that the House supports Motions C and D to address this, and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, will not move their respective Motions C1 and D1. I beg to move.
Motion C1 (as an amendment to Motion C)
4B: Page 4, line 40, at end insert—
“234CA Protection of employees
(1) A person is not subject to a work notice if they have not received a copy of it in accordance with the time limits specified in section 234C(3). (2) It is for the employer to prove that the work notice was received in conformity with subsection (1).(3) An employee may not be dismissed or subjected to any detriment for failing to comply with a work notice and any such dismissal shall be treated as a dismissal to which section 152 applies and any such detriment shall be treated as a detriment to which section 146 applies.(4) A work notice does not place a contractual obligation on an employee to comply with it.””
My Lords, this Motion seeks to uphold a principle long established in British law: that workers on strike are protected against the sack. Noble Lords will recall the concerns of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, at Second Reading. He said that
“this is a troublesome piece of legislation. It asks us all a very simple question: when does the right to withhold your labour … cease to be a right? It answers that question too … the right ceases when, following a ministerial decree, your employer can oblige you to work, and if you fail to do so you can lose your job”.—[Official Report, 21/2/23; col. 1568.]
Not since the Second World War have a UK Government taken power to facilitate the requisitioning of people to work against their will. This would make the UK an outlier in Europe and flies in the face of human rights, equality and ILO conventions as reaffirmed by the Government in the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The Government have succeeded in uniting employers, unions, the devolved nations and service users against them. In the interests of transparency, I repeat that Labour is 100% committed to repealing this bad Bill.
My Motion returns to the core concern: that striking workers selected by the employer they are striking against can be forced to work or face the sack. Remember, this legislation would unilaterally change the employment contracts of potentially millions of people—and all through secondary legislation with no proper parliamentary scrutiny or accountability. Minimum service levels determined by a Secretary of State could be set up to 100% and require staffing levels to match. The union may have jumped every hurdle to secure a lawful ballot and the worker may have democratically voted to strike, but protection against the sack will be whipped away by an employer simply putting their name on a piece of paper. The worker may not even have received the work notice; there is no obligation on the employer to make sure that they do. Their automatic protection against dismissal will be annulled. This is manifestly unjust.
Remember, too, that minimum service levels apply only to strike days. For the rest of the year, a Secretary of State can close fire stations, see rail services fail, see asylum seeker backlogs grow, increase class sizes and let NHS waiting lists—shamefully now at 7.3 million—soar. I have listened carefully to the debates in both Houses. Ministers are trying to sweep the issue of sackings under the carpet.
On 10 January, the then Business Secretary Grant Shapps said it was wrong to frighten people about their jobs. The Minister has said on many occasions, including on 21 February:
“This legislation is not about sacking workers”.—[Official Report, 21/2/23; col. 1563.]
On 22 May, the Under-Secretary of State told the House of Commons that
“nobody will be sacked as a result of the legislation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/5/23; col. 103.]
The official reason from the Commons for rejecting my original amendment is that
“for the legislation to be effective, it is necessary for there to be consequences for an employee who fails to comply with the work notice”.
So the consequence of exercising the human right to withdraw your labour is the removal of protection against unfair dismissal. In a free society, that is chilling. The very workers Ministers thanked for their heroism during the pandemic and stood on doorsteps to clap can be punished for striking with instant dismissal.
Key workers have already sacrificed so much for the rest of us. Unless the Government accept this amendment, Ministers now expect them to sacrifice their right to strike, or pay the price with their livelihoods. I sincerely hope that my amendment will be supported in this House and that it will give the opportunity for the Government to listen and think again. I beg to move.
Noble Lords will not be surprised that I agree with the amendment as tabled. I have been a student of history for many years. You do not requisition labour except in times of dire national emergency. We did not even requisition it at the outbreak of the Second World War. Conscription did not come in until half way through the First World War. To deprive a person of the liberty to decide whether they go to work is something that is done carefully and very seldom. I think this goes far too far. It is an imposition not only on the workforce but on the trade union movement.
We spend a lot of time saying how much we want to build a prosperous Britain, but I remind noble Lords that 60%-plus of trade unionists have a higher education degree or more. We are not dealing with the trade union movement of the 1920s. We are now dealing with a trade union movement on which Britain depends for its prosperity. The people who look after the skies, fly the planes, run the National Air Traffic Service, keep our nuclear power plants going and manage our railways are highly skilled people who are in trade unions because they see a trade union as being a way of defending their interests.
Sadly for the party opposite, some one-third of them do not see that party as being the one that will deliver their political future. But that is a good thing, because I do not believe that we want sectarian trade unions. I want people to join trade unions because they want to better the welfare of their country. Taking steps such as this will just alienate people. They are not the sort of steps where people are going to be happy and say, “Oh it’s a really good thing”.
As for minimum service levels, I live in Cambridge. We seem to have had lots of strikes this year, but there has never been one that prevented me getting here, because many of the unions have a harder job keeping their people out on strike than getting the original ballot to put them on strike because, when push comes to shove, a lot of them do not wish to lose the money that they lose. So I think we need to be realistic about this.
All we are doing here is heating up the atmosphere and making it harder for the reasonable people in trade unions to make this country work. Every trade union has within it a group of people who hate strikes; they regard them as being the last thing they want, because it is a sign of failure. So I say to the Government as a whole—because it is not just this Bill—for goodness’ sake, make peace with organised labour; it is fundamentally on your side. It is much more on your side than some of the people who are contributing to the political parties of this nation and doing so for reasons which I would not say are particularly honourable. So please, Minister, send this back to the Commons and look for a compromise. I certainly will not vote for it to go again because I believe that the Commons must, in the end, have its primacy; that is why we have it. But it is quite legitimate to send this back and I ask that, when it gets there, our Ministers on our Front Bench say, “Look, there are very genuine reasons for this. Please try and give us some concessions”.
My Lords, I will say very briefly I have no doubt that the Government do not want to lead to the sacking of workers through this Bill. However, when the Minister seeks to reassure us with the conclusion that it will be left to the discretion of the employer, I say to the Minister that those are dread words for anyone who is an employee of said employer if you are in dispute. As this Bill is about enforcing consequences, nay punishment, I do not care whether the Minister intends that people are sacked, I simply point out that that could be the consequence even against what the Government want. I hope the Government will reconsider this and bear in mind that it is to do with freedom, rather than coercing people: the freedom to go on strike and withdraw your labour, which is something that all sides of this House should support.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment D1 and address some of the issues the Minister mentioned. Of course, when I spoke in the earlier debate, I focused on the fact that, when it comes to minimum service levels during disputes, what works are voluntary agreements—and that is across the world. I repeat that what this Bill does is undermine co-operation and voluntary agreements.
The fact is that this Bill will place trade unions in the unacceptable position of being asked to ensure that members who vote for industrial action do not take part in that action. It is a complete contradiction of their role. My amendment would remove the obligation on the union to take undefined reasonable steps. The Minister referred to the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I appreciate the Minister attempting to meet me and my noble friend to discuss what “reasonable steps” might mean. Sadly, the two-page government amendment that he gave me placed huge burdens on employers and unions—the complete opposite of what this Government say they want to achieve.
The simple fact, as I mentioned on Report, is that if a union is deemed not to have followed the legislation, it could mean that the strike is regarded as unlawful and that protections such as automatic unfair dismissal protection could be removed from all striking workers, including those not named in the notices. Again, if a union is deemed not to have followed the legislation, the strike could be regarded as unlawful, and that then opens up all kinds of consequences.
The Minister says that the Bill must have consequences. The real consequence is to undermine the democratic right to strike and remove the immunities that trade unions have historically had to ensure that that right can be exercised. That is why this amendment is so important.
I agree that it is not usual to keep sending things back to the Commons, but it is important that MPs have the opportunity to consider what the human rights committee said: how can you have a law that does not set out the thing that unions are required to do? If this law is passed, unions will not know what they are required to do. This is absolutely outrageous.
The fundamental issue, and what makes this so much worse, is that lawful disputes must be organised in accordance with trade union legislation, which requires proper notice and information going to the employer—steps that no other European country requires their unions to take, but we do. If, after all those processes, a union fails to deliver a work notice after that legal strike has been approved, it will then jeopardise the whole dispute. It is simply not right and I intend to seek the opinion of the House on Motion D1.
My Lords, Motions C1 and D1, as so excellently set out by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, seek to add protections into the Bill for workers and unions. The Bill as drafted, as we have heard, could have serious consequences for employees and unions that fail to comply with work notices imposing minimum service levels.
To pick up the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, made very well, it does not matter what Secretaries of State or Ministers have said once this law is out there. We move from the situation we have at the moment, under existing industrial action legislation, where those on an official lawful strike are automatically deemed to be unfairly dismissed if they are sacked for taking part. The Bill would disapply this protection for those named by an employer on a work notice. This is a gross infringement of individuals’ freedom and that is why these Benches support Motions C1 and D1.
My Lords, we have once again had a reasonably full debate on these matters, so the House will be relieved that I will keep my response brief. We have largely covered many of these points before, so we do not need to repeat them.
Briefly, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, I restate the view of the Government that this Bill is not about sacking workers, and nor is it about forced labour, which is a frankly ridiculous exaggeration. It simply equips employers to manage instances of non-compliance with a work notice. That is exactly the same situation as any other strike action that is not protected under existing legislation.
To be clear, under the original drafting of the Bill an employee who went on strike contrary to being named on a work notice would lose their automatic protection from unfair dismissal only provided that they were notified in advance of the requirement for them to work and that they must comply with the work notice. We expect employees to be told if they are required to work and, in that case, what work they are required to do. In such circumstances, it is reasonable for an employer to consider, if it wishes, disciplinary action if an individual none the less chooses to continue to strike, thereby putting the public at risk. It is at the discretion of the employer as to what, if any, disciplinary action is taken in these circumstances. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, the Government expect employers to be fair and reasonable and to take this action only where it is necessary.
Unions must have a role to play in minimum service levels, otherwise they would be able to induce people to strike as normal and take steps to undermine minimum service levels being achieved. That directly counters the objectives of this policy. The consequences of a union failing to play that role are consistent with any other failures by a union to comply with any other existing law.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, as I said in my opening speech the Government are willing to consider whether there is a case to provide further detail on what reasonable steps are, what this means for trade unions and how they might fulfil those obligations.
I stress to this House that Motions C1 and D1 would continue the prolonged and disproportionate impact of strike action on the public. With this legislation, the Government are taking a fair and proportionate approach to balance the fundamental ability of unions and their members to strike, on the one hand, with the need for the wider public to access some of the key services that they expect and pay for, on the other. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, do not push their amendments. I commend the government Motions to the House.
5A: Because the amendment would remove the requirement for a union to take reasonable steps to ensure that members comply with a work notice in order for strike action to be protected, and this would reduce the impact of the legislation.
6A: Because it is consequential on Lords Amendment 5 to which the Commons disagree.
7A: Because it is consequential on Lords Amendment 5 to which the Commons disagree.
Motion D1 (as an amendment to Motion D)
5B: Page 5, line 11, leave out from “strike,” to end of line 22 and insert “it is a matter for the union to determine what advice, if any, it gives to members of the union who are identified in the work notice, and any actions or inactions of the union in this regard shall not result in any tortious liability or the loss of any protection to which the union would otherwise be entitled pursuant to section 219.”
5C: Page 6, leave out lines 19 and 20
5D: Page 7, line 28, leave out “, 234A and 234E” and insert “and234A””