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Industrial Action (Protection of Critical National Services)

Volume 620: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a bill to regulate industrial action by those providing certain critical national services; to define critical national services to include railways, operators providing buses, trams and underground railways, the National Health Service and fire and ambulance services; to require those taking industrial action in relation to critical national services to demonstrate that the matter in dispute is such that the adverse effects on the provision of service to the public caused by the action is proportionate and reasonable; to provide for the High Court in England and Wales and the Court of Session in Scotland to adjudicate on proportionality and reasonableness of action and to determine a minimal required level of service to the public to be provided in the case of such action taking place; and for connected purposes.

Trade unions have a long history of campaigning for workers’ rights, stretching back to the 19th century. Trade unions ushered in an era of regulated working hours, holiday pay, sick pay, maternity pay, health and safety at work and decent wages. I applaud those achievements, fought for by trade unions and made law by past Parliaments. I respect what trade unions have achieved in the past 150 years, and I understand that the right to strike is inseparable from the struggles that led to these victories that have helped to civilise our country. But we must also recognise that strikes have a profound effect on the wider public, especially where those strikes occur on critical national services. It is time to consider again the impact that strikes have on the wider public, and to protect the public as well as uphold the right to strike.

A few weeks ago, I received a heart-rending message from a constituent, Jenny Lehane. She said that tears were streaming down her face as she wrote about the effect of the recent Southern railway strikes on her family. She wrote that she had to get her six-year-old son to walk to a bus stop at 5.30 in the morning when the trains were not running so that she could get to work and her son could get to school. She said those responsible should

“hang their heads in shame”,

and she attached a photo of her son trudging disconsolately down a cold, dark street wrapped in his blanket.

That is the human impact of nearly 40 days of strike action that the RMT and ASLEF have taken in the past few months, most recently only yesterday, to say nothing of the unofficial strike action and work-to-rule that have been taking place on non-strike days. The operator, Southern rail, must shoulder a great deal of blame. I am not here to defend it; in fact, I think it should lose the franchise. But there is no question that the strike action has made a bad service unusable in the last six months.

In this case, I do not believe that the unions have a substantial complaint. No one is losing their job. No one is getting a pay cut. Every single train currently scheduled to run with two members of staff will continue to be scheduled to run with two members of staff. The dispute centres simply on who opens and closes the doors, and whether the train can still run if the conductor does not turn up for work. The rail regulator says that there is no safety issue, contrary to the union position. In fact, millions of trains have run perfectly safely since 1984, including 1.5 million trains in the last five years, without a single fatality. All of London underground runs with driver-operated doors perfectly safely, as does most of continental Europe. The RMT is disputing these issues simply to retain its ability to shut down the rail network in the course of future strike action by its conductors.

It is on this flimsy pretext that 400 conductors are preventing 300,000 people from getting to work or getting home to see their loved ones. Sue Gaitskell had to quit her job as a sales manager. My constituent Lee Fenton was fired from his job working for a local council. Emma Green had to quit her job as a commercial lawyer. Many people are having to consider moving home. It is just not acceptable that the rights of these people are not being adequately protected.

I am afraid to say that there are signs that this kind of industrial action—hugely disruptive to the public, but based on a flimsy pretext—is spreading. Merseyrail and Great Northern are apparently next in the union’s sights, and two weeks ago London ground to a halt due to an RMT strike on the underground over changes that were in fact introduced some time ago.

I am pleased that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to his great credit condemned the RMT underground strike without reservation, but it is very disappointing that the Leader of the Opposition did not follow the Mayor’s example. Far from following the Mayor of London’s fine example, he said that, instead of siding with the public, he would in fact join the picket line. [Hon. Members: “Shame.”] Indeed.

The president of the RMT, a man called Sean Hoyle, did not even bother to disguise his motives. He was recently filmed speaking to a group of trade unionists, saying that the strikes had the objective of “bringing down the Government”; those are his words, not mine. Mr Hoyle is entitled to his political views, but he is not entitled to use the power he has as the president of a major trade union to inflict misery on hundreds of thousands of people simply in furtherance of his nakedly political objectives.

We now need further legislation to recognise the public’s right to get to work, to see loved ones or to receive medical treatment, as well as respecting the unions’ right to strike, which I fully accept. We in Parliament should not stand by and allow strike action to cause people to lose their own jobs.

This Bill goes further than previous legislation and proposes that strikes on critical national services, such as the railways, tubes, buses and NHS, should be “proportionate and reasonable” in the view of a High Court judge in order to be lawful. The judge would weigh up the complaint of the striking workers against the impact on the wider public in deciding what is “proportionate and reasonable”, and where strikes were allowed the judge would specify a level of basic service that would be available during any strike. The law in Canada, Spain and Italy already works in a similar way, guaranteeing a basic level of service.

A poll published in yesterday’s Evening Standard found that 55% of Londoners support these proposals, and public support for them is growing daily. Many other Members support these proposals, too. In a similar vein, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who is in his place, is introducing his own ten-minute rule Bill on 4 February to stipulate that strikes based on the pretext of safety concerns cannot proceed unless the relevant regulator agrees that there is a safety issue.

I do not for one moment dispute the right to strike, but the public also have a right to get to work and not be forced out of their own jobs by union action. A fair balance is needed between the two, and I am afraid to say that current legislation does not provide it.

If there is a Division, in order to support this motion today Members do not need to agree with the precise details of the Bill. For example, Members may think that there are better methods of arbitrating between the rights of the unions and the rights of the public than through a High Court judge; some have suggested to me in the last few days that Parliament itself might be an alternative. But if the House supports this motion, we are sending a simple message that the public have rights as well as trade unions, and that it is Parliament’s duty to protect the public as well.

This Bill is about balance and fairness, and I commend it to the House.

I rise to oppose the motion moved by the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp). I do so because the proposed Bill is disproportionate and unnecessary, and an attack on a fundamental British liberty—the right to withdraw labour in a legal trade dispute with an employer.

It is not as though we have not already experienced a full-frontal attack on the rights of workers who are in dispute with their employer under this Government. I draw the attention of the House to yesterday’s Order Paper, which I am sure hon. Members have read. Page 34 gives details of “Remaining Orders and Notices”, and states:

“Business in this section has not yet been scheduled for a specific date. It has therefore been set down formally to be taken in the Chamber today but is not expected to be taken today.”

What could this business be? Point No. 3 on the Order Paper is a motion on trade unions in the name of “Secretary Greg Clark”, dealing with political funds. Point No. 4 is also a motion on trade unions from the Secretary of State, dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Transport) Regulations 2017. Point No. 5 is a motion on trade unions dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Fire) Regulations 2017. Point No. 6 is—you’ve got it—a motion on trade unions dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Border Security) Regulations 2017. Point No. 7 is a motion on trade unions dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Education) Regulations 2017, and point No. 8 is a motion on trade unions dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Health) Regulations 2017.

The Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Croydon South would restrict the rights of people in the workplace further, even before the Government have brought into force their latest full-frontal attack on workers. We all know that if the Bill were allowed to proceed, it would simply be the thin end of the wedge of even more anti-trade union legislation from the Conservatives, because this is what they do when they are in power—dogs bark, birds fly and Tories attack workers’ rights.

In the press, as he did in his speech, the hon. Gentleman framed his Bill specifically as a response to the Southern rail dispute, but of course it goes much further, as it covers transport in general, the national health service, and fire and ambulance services. This is not just about one industrial dispute, whatever its rights and wrongs. The Bill is about further restricting the long-fought-for right of workers in a free society to withhold their labour.

The hon. Gentleman talks about disproportionate industrial action, but it is important to bear in mind what the proportions really are. There were 106 strikes in 2015—the last year for which we have figures—which is an eighth of the number of strikes that took place in 1985. That equates to a loss of 0.003% of all working days in 2015, when 81,000 workers went on strike. That is the lowest level since records began in 1893.

Let us look at the type of so-called disproportionate action that occurs in the industries that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. One of the most widely covered strikes this year was that of British Airways workers, who have taken a total of five days’ action to protest against their poverty-level pay. For those workers, that action was a real hardship and sacrifice. On average, mixed fleet cabin crew—the category was introduced deliberately to create a second-class group of workers at the company—earn £16,000 a year including allowances. Willie Walsh, the boss of the parent company, pocketed £6.5 million. That is the very definition of “disproportionate”.

Industrial action is already highly regulated, especially in the light of the execrable Trade Union Act 2016, the regulations under which I mentioned earlier and are yet to be brought into force. Through that Act, the Government created specific strike thresholds for important public services—50% of the union membership must vote, and 40% of those entitled to vote must be in favour of industrial action for a strike to be legal—but even that is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman. His Bill would put the decision about whether workers can withdraw their labour into the hands of High Court judges. Ironically, that is one group of workers whose pensions the Government are unable to touch. In the light of today’s events, I would have thought that Conservative Members might be more wary about handing over decisions to judges, but that is another matter.

The proposal is also insidious because it comes from the same party that is picking the pension pockets of nuclear workers in places such as Sellafield. The Government’s latest raid on the pensions of nuclear workers will adversely affect communities such as Copeland, where a large number of nuclear workers live. At the time of privatisation, promises were made to ensure the protection of their pensions. During the Committee stage of the Bill that became the Enterprise Act 2016, I tabled amendments that would have ensured that workers in that sector were exempt from the public sector redundancy cap. The Government refused to support those amendments, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has now announced its intention to save the Treasury a reported £660 million from those workers, despite the promises that were made when the industry was privatised. It will not escape the attention of the workers of Sellafield—and, indeed, the voters of Copeland —that the Conservatives are not only seeking to make it more difficult for people to take action in specified industries, but robbing those people of their promised pensions.

Where was the hon. Gentleman’s concern for ending industrial disputes when the Government promised to bankroll Southern in this dispute using taxpayers’ money? The Government have inserted clauses into franchise agreements setting out that any losses accrued by the rail company in the event of industrial action can be compensated by the Government using taxpayers’ funds, which removes any incentive for the company to come to the table.

Where was the hon. Gentleman’s concern for consumer access to our critical national services when the Prime Minister dismissed the humanitarian crisis in our hospitals as “overblown”? The real problem facing our national health service is not a handful of days of doctors’ strikes, but this Government’s policy of systemic and constant underfunding, understaffing and overworking. Where was his concern for consumer access to our critical national services when we saw train fares rise again in the new year? Labour protested against the price hikes, but there was no ten-minute rule Bill from the hon. Gentleman about people’s right to a reasonable fare when traveling to work.

There is another way to deal with industrial relations. The Labour Government in Wales recently introduced their own trade union Bill. They are a Government who understand that workers are not an “enemy within” to be isolated and vilified, and that workers themselves are consumers who contribute to the economy and are members of the community. That is the approach that the hon. Gentleman should be advocating. This Bill is an attack on working people by a party that is bankrolling employer intransigence with public money in the very industry that he has been talking about, and I hope that the House will reject it.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

Wales Bill (Money)

Queen’s recommendation signified.


That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Wales Bill, it is expedient to authorise any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under the Government of Wales Act 2006 out of the National Loans Fund.—(Alun Cairns.)

Wales Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Wales Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 14 June 2016 (Wales Bill (Programme)) and 12 September 2016 (Wales Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.

(2) The proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Lords Amendments Nos. 9, 44, 10, 28 to 32, 46, 137, 1 to 8, 11 to 27, 33 to 43, 45, 47 to 136 and 138 to 177.

Subsequent stages

(3) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(4) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Alun Cairns.)

Question agreed to.