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Industrial Action

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2023

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on industrial action and minimum service levels.

Nurses, paramedics and transport workers are called key workers for a reason. They truly are the lifeblood of this country; every person sitting in this Chamber is grateful for the work they do and I know everyone will agree that we cannot do without them. The Government will always defend their ability to withdraw their labour.

However, we also recognise the pressures faced by those working in the public sector. Yesterday I invited union leaders in for talks across Government, and I am pleased to say we have seen some progress. We want to resolve disputes where possible, while also delivering what is fair and reasonable to the taxpayer. At the moment, all households are struggling with the repercussions of high inflation caused by covid and Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, and the Government are absolutely focused on tackling that.

Granting inflation-busting pay deals that step outside of the independent pay review settlement process is not the sensible way to proceed and will not provide a fair outcome. We will instead continue to consult to find meaningful ways forward for the unions, and work with employers to improve the process and discuss the evidence that we have now submitted. In the meantime, the Government also have a duty to protect the public’s access to essential public services. Although we absolutely believe in the right to strike, we are duty-bound to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British people.

The British people need to know that when they have a heart attack, a stroke or a serious injury, an ambulance will turn up, and that if they need hospital care, they have access to it. They need to know not only that those services are available, but that they can get trains or buses—particularly people who are most likely to be the least well-off in society.

I thank those at the Royal College of Nursing, who, during their last strike, worked with health officials at a national level to ensure that safe levels of cover were in place when they took industrial action. They kept services such as emergency and acute care running. They may have disagreed, but they showed that they could do their protest and withdraw their labour in a reasonable and mature way. As ever, they put the public first, and we need all our public services to do the same.

A lack of timely co-operation from the ambulance unions meant that employers could not reach agreement nationally for minimum safety levels during recent strikes. Health officials were left guessing the likely minimum coverage, making contingency planning almost impossible and putting all our constituents’ lives at risk. The ambulance strikes planned for tomorrow still do not have minimum safety levels in place. That will result in patchy emergency care for British people. This cannot continue.

It is for moments such as this that we are introducing legislation focusing on blue-light emergency services and on delivering on our manifesto commitment to secure minimum service on the railways. I am introducing a Bill that will give the Government the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic function, by delivering minimum safety levels to ensure that lives and livelihoods are not lost. We are looking at six key areas, each of which is critical to keeping the British people safe and society functioning: health, education, fire and rescue, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning. We do not want to use this legislation, but we must ensure the safety of the British public. During the passage of the Bill, we intend to consult on what an adequate level of coverage looks like in fire, ambulance, and rail services. For the other sectors covered in the Bill, we hope to reach minimum service agreements so that we do not have to use the powers—sectors will be able to come to that position, just as the nurses have done in recent strikes.

That is a common-sense approach, and we are not the first to follow it. The legislation will bring us in line with other modern European countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany, all of which already have these types of rules in place. Even the International Labour Organisation—the guardian of workers’ rights around the world to which the TUC itself subscribes—says that minimum service levels are a proportionate way of balancing the right to strike with the need to protect the wider public. The first job of any Government is to keep the public safe, and unlike other countries, we are not proposing to ban strikes, but we do need to know that unions will be held to account.

Opposition Members who object to minimum safety levels will need to explain to their constituents why, if they had a heart attack, stroke, or life-threatening illness on a strike day, there were no minimum safety standards in place—[Interruption.] I can see that they do not want to hear it, but they will also need to explain why their leader, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), has already promised—without hearing any of these details—to stand in the way of this legislation and to repeal minimum safety levels, which are in the interests of their constituents, are in place in every other mature European democracy and neighbouring country, and would protect lives and livelihoods in this country. That is the difference between a Conservative Government who take difficult decisions to protect the welfare of our nation, and the Opposition, who too often appear to be in the pay of their union paymasters. I commend this statement to the House.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare that I am a proud member of a trade union.

I will start by tackling the Secretary of State’s comments. The first thing that comes to my mind in this debate and in what the Secretary of State said is what happened to my constituent Bina, who waited more than an hour for an ambulance—who died waiting for an ambulance. That was not on a strike day; it was because of the disastrous chaos we have in the system under this Conservative Government. In the past few months, we have seen ambulance workers go on their first major strike in 30 years, and the first ever strike in the history of the Royal College of Nursing. Teachers, pharmacists and civil servants—among others—are balloting as we speak. His Government offer no solution because they have caused the problem.

The economic crisis made in Downing Street has left working people facing an economic emergency of sky-high inflation and recession. I notice that in his opening statement, the Secretary of State did not even mention—let alone apologise for—the fact that the Government crashed the economy. Nobody wants to see these strikes happen, least of all the workers who lose a day’s pay. How are the Government responding to a crisis of their own making? Not with any attempt to reach a serious long-term solution in the public interest, but by playing politics and promising yet another sticking plaster.

The Secretary of State claims that he made progress yesterday, but the read-out from trade union representatives was dismal. Is there any chance of a deal this year? Where is the consultation he mentioned for a meaningful way forward, or was that all for show? That is the implication of his other proposal—his sacking nurses Bill. It is an outright attack on the fundamental freedom of British working people. How can he say with a straight face that this Government will always defend the ability to strike? Can he tell us whether he stands by his article in The Telegraph last summer, in which he listed yet more plans to attack that basic right? Does he deny that he considered banning some key workers from joining unions at all? So much for levelling up workers’ rights. Where is the Government’s promised code of conduct on fire and rehire, and the long-abandoned Employment Bill that they promised would tackle insecure work?

The Secretary of State goes in one breath from thanking nurses to sacking them. That is not just insulting but utterly stupid. There is no common sense about this at all. He says that he recognises the pressures faced by key workers, but he knows that the NHS cannot find the nurses it needs to work on the wards, and that the trains do not run even on non-strike days such is the shortage of staff, so how can he seriously think that sacking thousands of key workers will not just plunge our public services further into crisis? The Transport Secretary admits it will not work, the Education Secretary does not want it, and the Government’s own impact assessment finds that it will lead to more strikes and staff shortages.

The Secretary of State says that he is looking into six key areas. What do other Ministers think about that? Will they have to disagree on that, too? He is scraping the barrel with comparisons to France and Spain, but those countries, which he claims have these laws on striking, lose vastly more strike days than Britain. Has he taken any time at all to speak to their Governments or trade unions to learn any real lessons from them?

The Secretary of State quotes the International Labour Organisation—I am surprised that he even knows what it is—but he will know that the ILO requires compensatory measures and an independent arbitrator. Are those in his Bill? The ILO also says that minimum service levels can happen in services only when the safety of individuals or their health is at stake. That does not include transport, Border Force or teachers, as he proposes.

Excess deaths are at their highest levels since the pandemic peak. The public are being put at risk every day because of the Government’s NHS crisis and staffing shortages. The Secretary of State is right that his Government’s duty is to protect the public’s access to essential services, but livelihoods and lives are already being lost. We all want minimum standards of safety, service and staffing; it is Ministers who are failing to provide that. Does he not accept that trade unions and workers already take steps to protect the public during action? He singles out ambulance workers. Paramedics agreed to operate life and limb deals on a trust-by-trust basis, as he knows, to ensure that the right care continues to be delivered. He should know that service levels were at 82%, with ambulance workers consistently leaving the picket lines to make sure that emergency calls were responded to. He is threatening to rip up that protection, and for what?

Let us look into what this is really all about: a Government who are out of ideas, out of time and fast running out of sticking plasters; a Government who are playing politics with nurses’ and teachers’ lives because they cannot stomach the co-operation and negotiation that are needed; and, a Government desperately doing all they can to distract from their economic emergency. We need negotiation not legislation, so when is the Minister going to do his job?

It is almost as if covid and the pressures on the NHS never occurred, according to the Opposition. I am pretty sure I heard this straight. It is almost as if Putin did not invade Ukraine, force up energy prices and force up inflation, and it is almost as if the right hon. Lady does not think that the rest of Europe is going through exactly the same thing. I was just reading an article in The Guardian saying exactly that—that other health services are experiencing exactly the same problems.

If we are going to have a sensible debate and start working from the facts and then have a discussion, we ought to acknowledge that covid and the war in Ukraine have had a huge impact on health services here and around the world. Then we can go on to have a sensible conversation about balancing the right to strike. As I said at the top of my speech, it is a right that we fully respect and fully endorse. We believe it is part of the International Labour Organisation’s correct diagnosis of a working economy that people should be able to withdraw their labour, but that should not mean withdrawing their labour at the expense of our constituents’ lives. The right hon. Lady talks about how the ambulance service, in her words, has been reasonable and offered back-up on a trust-by-trust basis if people have heart attacks and strokes, but heart attacks and strokes do not accept or work to the boundaries of trust borders. They work nationally, and so to manage the ambulance system, we need to know that each and every one of our constituents is protected. To deny and to vote against legislation that brings in minimum safety levels to help our constituents is to attack their security and their welfare.

With the Opposition completely unable to control their own MPs and stop them from joining picket lines or to give a straight answer on whether they support the strikes, we can clearly see which Members of this House are on the side of the public. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what we have today are fair and proportionate measures equivalent to what is already in place in a number of other European countries, such as France and Spain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is worth the House reflecting on the fact that the police were banned from striking in 1919, and that agreement has been in place for more than 100 years. It would have been possible for a Minister to come to this Dispatch Box and say that we would do the same with ambulance workers and perhaps with firefighters, but that is not what we are proposing today; we are proposing to bring ourselves in line with other modern European economies. It makes every bit of sense to ensure that if strikes are going to occur, our constituents’ lives are protected with minimum safety levels. Frankly, it is extraordinary that anyone would argue against.

This Government have already created the most restrictive and anti-trade union laws in Europe. This new right-wing culture war stinks, and they are using ambulance cover as a pretext to attack workers’ rights. It was the Tory membership that gave us a Prime Minister who tanked the economy overnight, put people’s mortgages up and gave us high inflation, yet it is the Tories who continue to demand that public sector workers take the hit to balance the books.

Everyone can see the irony of the Tories clapping key workers and now giving them a pay cut and threatening them with the sack for future action. Does the Secretary of State really think that ordinary people support Tory plans over the nurses? Does he realise that the public can see Pat Cullen and Mick Lynch destroying their arguments and soundbites? Does he understand that train commuters, who already suffer from appalling service, will be raging when they find out how much money train companies are making from strike days, paid for by taxpayers? How much money has been paid to train companies that could have gone to workers instead?

It has not been easy for the Scottish Government, but they have negotiated better pay settlements for Police Scotland, train crews and NHS workers. It is something that the Royal College of Nursing would be willing to discuss with the UK Government. Those actions were commended by the unions, but not even acknowledged by Labour. There are no ambulance strikes in Scotland, and that has been done within a fixed budget and negotiations with one hand tied behind our back. Now, despite working with the unions, Scotland is to have the same anti-worker or anti-union legislation imposed on it, against the wishes of the Scottish Government. It is an imposition made easier by the Labour party agreeing with the Tories that workers’ rights should remain with Westminster and not be devolved to Scotland. We do not want to be part of plans designed to sabotage workers’ rights. This situation has clearly shown once again that if Scotland is to become a fairer, more equal country that respects workers’ rights, the only way to do so is to become a normal independent country.

The hon. Gentleman tries to push the argument that somehow this legislation will take us out of step with other European countries, and I have already explained that it is we who are out of step with what already occurs elsewhere in Europe. If we go beyond Europe, he will be interested to hear that in Australia, Canada and many states in America, blue-light strikes, as we would call them, are banned entirely. We are taking a moderate, sensible approach. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would wholeheartedly support protecting his constituents in that way. While we are taking lectures from him about how the Scottish Government handle these things, I could not help noticing that Scottish primary school teachers are on strike and secondary teachers go on strike in Scotland on Wednesday.

Strikes have a disproportionate impact in rural Britain, where there are no other modes of public transport. The nearest alternative hospital may be more than 60 miles away and ambulances have already travelled far further to get there, and that is without mentioning the vacancy rates in public services, which are so high due to our housing crisis. Can my right hon. Friend confirm how these measures will help support rural communities?

My hon. Friend is right. These so-called forever strikes, which have continued for month after month on the railways, are particularly hurting rural communities. It is easy sometimes for people to imagine that those affected will just sit at home on Zoom or Teams and have those conversations. That view of the world is much easier for someone in a desk job, perhaps in management. It is much harder for someone in a rural community or for a hospital porter or cleaner who needs to get to the hospital. The very people being hurt most by these strikes that never seem to come to a conclusion on the railways are the hardest-up in society. This Government will stand behind them with minimum service levels.

One minute the Secretary of State is clapping the key workers, and the next he is sacking them. What is really behind this legislation? Only time will tell, but why is he looking to criminalise the great key workers who brought us through this pandemic, and whose only crime is to demand decent wages and terms and conditions, as well as a safe environment for themselves and the general public?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is an enthusiastic supporter of everything that the unions do, and they are an enthusiastic supporter of the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] Perhaps not all of them. But if one of his constituents has a heart attack, stroke or serious accident on Wednesday, I do not understand why he would seriously have an objection to a national level of agreed safe services? That is what we propose and I am surprised that he would vote against the safety of his own constituents.

Will my right hon. Friend try to impress on Opposition Members, who keep referring to this as an anti-union measure, that public support for the unions will be endangered if they do not preserve minimum services for people whose lives are at risk?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are trying to correct a problem that is very current. Ambulance workers and the unions have not provided a national level of guaranteed safety for the strike that is due on Wednesday. Right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches could help us get that in place across the economy, particularly in vital services, so that even though we take this primary power, we never need to use it. That would be the ideal solution. Why do they not help us bring safety to their constituents, which would help both them and the unions?

The Secretary of State has said that he supports the right to strike—by banning workers from striking. Does he not see the ridiculous position he has got himself into? The whole point of having an assessment of policy is to find out whether it will work. When the Government are told that their policy is bonkers, the sensible thing to do is to bin it. Where does he think declaring war on working people will end?

As I have mentioned a couple of times at the Dispatch Box, the hon. Gentleman will need to explain his position to his friends and colleagues in countries as radical as France and Spain, where they have these rules in place and act already. On the impact assessment, which is a point that has been made several times, including from the Opposition Front Bench, the final impact assessment—which will come through primary legislation, with secondary legislation in the form of statutory instruments to bring it into place—is yet to be published, so he is wrong about that as well. How can anyone seriously argue that guaranteed rescue by ambulances of somebody who is seriously ill could have a harmful impact? It is simply beyond belief.

Coming back through Heathrow recently, I spoke to someone who works there who praised the armed forces for the incredible job they did covering Border Force, and told me how the process worked without any problems at all, and what a sad reflection it was on the public service that they could not do the same thing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members, the unions and many who work in the public service seem to have forgotten that we spent £400 billion safeguarding their jobs, their futures and their careers?

I pay tribute to the Army, who did fantastic work. The Army has a no-strike clause already, along with the police. Once this primary power has been taken, it will be for Secretaries of State, including the Home Secretary, to determine and consult in other areas for secondary powers to bring in minimum service levels. Most people working in the public service are doing a hugely valuable job. They are trying to do their best, and many are frustrated by their radical union leaders who often lead them up the garden path.

The right hon. Member asked whether we acknowledge the impact of covid and Ukraine. Of course we do—we live with it every day. All our constituents live with it every day. All those working in the NHS and the ambulance service live with it every day. He says that the British people need to know that an ambulance will turn up when they have a heart attack, a stroke or a serious injury, and that they will have access to hospital care. Does he not agree that a better way of ensuring that is to deal with the actual problem: to invest, recruit and retain staff in the NHS and the ambulance service, and provide the service that is being cried out for not just by us but by those people? Rather than tinkering about with what cannot solve the problem, fixing it might be a better way.

The hon. Lady is right in the sense that we have seen huge backlogs because of covid. We are hiring a lot more nurses as a result—thousands more since 2019. We are also funding the healthcare system more than ever in history with some £168 billion. As the Prime Minister described in his speech last week, bringing down those waiting lists is his No. 1 priority. We are doing all those things as well, but it is undeniable that not having a minimum safety level in place during strike days puts lives at risk. This Government will take the responsible decision to prevent that from happening in future.

It is important to remember that public sector workers are employed and paid for by the great British taxpayer. I sympathise with some of their demands, but does my right hon. Friend agree that their first loyalty should be to the British taxpayer, not some power-crazed union barons who fund the Labour party and have, in the past, paid off Labour MPs’ mortgages?

I pay tribute to those in the NHS: there is a very good reason why, when the public sector in this country got a zero pay rise last year because of covid, over 1 million people in the NHS did receive a pay rise. At the moment it is worth about £1,400 per individual. I appreciate that in these times, with Putin’s evil war and the impact that has had on inflation, everyone would like more money as a pay rise, but the Government must consider what that would do to people’s taxes, to interest rates and to mortgage rates. We would get into a circle where we are never able to get inflation down. Inflation is the biggest evil of all. We are taking sensible steps to address it. That lot over there simply want to roll over and not address the difficult problems.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

With the Royal College of Emergency Medicine highlighting more than 300 excess deaths every single week, where is the Government’s minimum service level agreement to the public? The best way to avert a strike is to negotiate. Within the Secretary of State’s legislation, what obligations will there be on Government to enter meaningful negotiations, and how does he describe “meaningful”?

I want to pick up the hon. Lady on those figures, because the NHS itself says that it does not recognise those numbers. When we have a strike such as the one on Wednesday by ambulance workers, there is no way that she or anyone else in this House can realistically argue that people will somehow be better off without a national minimum safe level of service. That is what we will focus on, and that is why she and Opposition Members should support this Bill.

My right hon. Friend was right to mention other European countries, but he could have added to that list South Africa, Argentina, Australia and Canada, all of which are members of the International Labour Organisation and have minimum service levels in essential services. In every single case, the ILO has reviewed the MSL and determined it to be a necessary and proportionate restriction of the article 11 right to strike. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the British people are entitled to exactly the same lawful protection and to have their basic needs met at times of industrial action in essential services?

It is worth reminding the House that my hon. Friend is an acknowledged expert in employment law. I am grateful for her thoughts and clarification that the International Labour Organisation says that the legislation is compatible with article 11. I have been able to sign off the European Court of Human Rights compatibility on this measure. As she rightly points out, it is not just friends and neighbours in Europe but around the world where strikes are, in many cases, banned—not what we are proposing—and minimum safety levels are in place. There is nothing illegitimate about what we are doing. It fits with the ILO, and who signs up to the ILO? The TUC and many other unions besides.

Every single concern that the Secretary of State and all those on the Government Benches have raised so far is already covered by existing legislation, because trade unions are legally obliged to provide life and limb cover. That is the existing law. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the difference is between that and his proposed legislation? That will be the test of whether the new legislation is an attack on workers.

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, which I am pleased to answer. When strikes are taking place tomorrow and we are not able to get a simple answer to the question of what the national level of emergency cover will be for people in the most urgent situations—heart attacks, strokes and other life-threatening ailments—that is why we need minimum safety levels. When for many, many months, some of the poorest in society have been unable to go to work to earn their own living, perhaps as a cleaner or a hospital porter, that is why we need minimum service levels on our railways. I very much hope he will see the point and help to represent his constituents who are being prevented from earning money or, indeed, from being safe, should they have an accident tomorrow.

Last week I met Daniel Jobsz, who runs the Wardrobe Bar and Kitchen in the City. He did not open last week; he said there was no point, because of the rail strike. Before Christmas, he lost tens of thousands of pounds because people were cancelling, as they could not come into central London because of the rail strike. UKHospitality calculates that around £1 billion of business was lost in central London because of the rail strikes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while it is right to protect the right to strike, there must be legislation in place to protect businesses in other sectors, such as hospitality, and to protect workers from job losses?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it brings me on to an important consideration, which is the disparity between the public sector settlements on offer and the average in the private sector at the moment, which has typically been lower. It is right that, as a responsible Government, we have to balance off all these different considerations across the economy. It is right that we consider those running small businesses—tea rooms, pubs and the services sector—in this balance, which is why minimum service levels, as well as minimum safety levels, are right for this economy.

I have listened carefully to what the Secretary of State has had to say, and however he tries to dress it up, this is part of an alarming authoritarian drift. We have an attack on the democratic right to strike, an attack on the democratic right to vote through attempted vote rigging, with the introduction of voter ID, and an attack on the democratic right to peaceful protest. Is the Secretary of State not ashamed to be a member of the most authoritarian Government in Britain in living memory?

I have heard some stuff at this Dispatch Box, but the idea that this is the most authoritarian Government—has the hon. Gentleman seen what happens in truly authoritarian states, particularly in Marxist states? It is a ludicrous claim about British democracy. Actually, he can help, with his many union links, because all we are saying is that we will take powers to ensure that the minimum safety level exists. We are saying at the same time that we do not need to use these powers; we simply need to get agreement for his constituents and for all our constituents that on a strike day, an ambulance will be able to turn up because national levels have been agreed. That is it, and he should get on board and support this.

Last week, rail users in Guildford trying to get in and out of the constituency, including key workers, were completely cut off because there were zero trains. At no point have the Opposition condemned widespread strike action that disrupts the public. Will my right hon. Friend join me in asking the Opposition to back the measures we are putting forward, to keep the public safe and to keep our economy going and growing?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are on the side of people who are working hard, who are trying to get on with their lives and livelihoods, and who are concerned about their lives when it comes to emergency services. Who are Opposition Members interested in? Not once have I heard them condemn these strikes, which have been inflicted on people’s lives month after month—not a word from the Opposition. When we try to bring in even the most moderate and considerate legislation, which simply says that we will ask for a minimum safety level, what do they do? They object to it and attack their own constituents in the process.

Order. May I gently remind Members that Mr Speaker has determined that anybody who came in five minutes after the start of the session will not be called?

I know that the Secretary of State likes to fly around in his own private plane, but I can tell him for a fact that while he has been doing that, many nurses in my constituency have been accessing food banks. This Government seem very uncomfortable with nurses standing on picket lines but totally relaxed about them lining up to get food for their families at food banks. If this Government are serious about stopping the strikes, surely now is the time to pay these essential workers properly.

I would be interested to hear from those on the Labour Front Bench whether it is their policy to pay a 19% pay rise and, if so, whether they can explain how they will raise the extra money. Will it be extra taxation? Will they be putting it on borrowing, with all the hikes in interest rates, mortgage rates, car loans and the rest of it that that would bring? That is the question they need to answer, and the more they waffle around the subject, rather than bringing forward serious measures to limit the impact of these strikes at the most serious point—the life and death point—the less they will get the respect of the general public.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to bring forward these proportionate measures, and not least in the urgency with which he seeks to protect the safety and lives of all our constituents at risk from strike action. Children have suffered in these strikes; many children in Buckinghamshire use the railways to get to school. Does he agree that when the consultation comes forward, the ability of children to get to school on the railways must be included in the minimum service levels?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We have talked about workers getting to work and people losing their salaries because of these strikes, but children and their education are also being impacted. That is a crying shame, particularly after two years of covid and having to study from home, and now they are being put through this again when there is a decent offer on the table for the railways. When union bosses have actually put this offer to their members—the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, for example—they accepted it, and it was a very similar offer to the ones that the RMT and other unions refuse to put to their members. We just need some common sense from these unions and, I hope, a little pushing from Opposition Members.

Can the Secretary of State not just for once acknowledge the stress levels of workers—postal workers, rail workers, health workers and teachers—who have had 10 years of frozen pay and 10 years of reducing living standards and are going through enormous stress at work, with many leaving the teaching and nursing professions as a result of it? Nobody is likely to vote to take strike action unless it is an act of desperation; they do it because they want to get decent pay for themselves, their loved ones and their families. Can he not for once face the issue of the poverty that people face, rather than trying to bring in draconian laws to prevent people from taking effective action to remedy the injustice that they are facing?

It is obviously not true that there has been a pay freeze for 10 years. The right hon. Gentleman stands there and makes that claim, but as I just mentioned, because the NHS was under huge pressure during covid, 1.2 million nurses and workers in the NHS were provided with an uplift of £1,200 last year, with £1,400 proposed this year—at the time, inflation was low—even though the rest of the public sector was not receiving pay increases. He talks about stress for public sector workers, and I recognise the hard work and the hours that they put in, particularly in the NHS, which is why we have expanded by many thousands the number of nurses, for example, but what about the stress for people who cannot get to work because of these strikes and have not been able to for months? What about the stress for people who are waiting for an ambulance when we do not have nationally agreed safety levels in place? That is the stress I am also worried about.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when unions such as the RMT reduce their customary referendum period from 14 to six days to force through a false ballot result to strike and then go to strike straightaway, against what are necessarily the wishes of all members, this is an important statement to make and an important piece of legislation? Will he confirm how promptly he will bring forward this Bill?

The Bill is being introduced today. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. We have seen that the RMT has not put the offers to its members, which, as I mentioned before, is a real problem. When the TSSA put an almost identical offer to its members, it was accepted and the strike was therefore over. Any attempt not to allow members to see the full range of what is being offered is wrong. Because members have not seen the full offer, they will be unaware of the different elements of that offer. It has not been formally put to them—that is something the unions can change immediately. I very much hope that they do so.

I noticed a moment ago that the Secretary of State said that striking workers were in danger of pushing up interest rates. I remind him that many of those people are on strike because they cannot afford their mortgages or rent as a result of the hike in interest rates caused by his colleagues’ economic incompetence. I imagine that many essential workers are in receipt of the sort of wage that the Secretary of State would not get out of bed for in the morning.

On the legality of the legislation, the TUC general secretary has said that forcing workers who have democratically voted to strike to work and sacking them if they do not comply would almost certainly be illegal. Is that not right? Can the Minister really say that the detail of his Bill will comply in every respect with the United Kingdom Government’s obligations under both the ECHR and international labour law? On the detail, Minister, what is the position?

I do not know whether I am correcting myself or the hon. and learned Lady, but I was not saying—I did not mean to say, at least—that striking workers pushed up interest rates. It is inflation that pushes up interest rates. If we paid a 19% increase across the economy, we would have to borrow the money; we would then have more borrowing and more debt and, therefore, higher interest rates. Everybody would pay more on their mortgages and car loans. Businesses would pay more. That is the quite simple maths that I would have thought we have tested to destruction. It would not make sense to go ahead along those lines.

The hon. and learned Lady asked specifically about the ECHR, and I can confirm that the Bill is ECHR-compliant. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), who is no longer in her place, talked about employment law and how the Bill fits with the ILO and the ECHR; I have been able to sign that declaration. I can further confirm that there is proof of this, as many neighbouring countries already do exactly the same thing, which is also compliant with the ECHR.

I proudly put on the record my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a former teacher and a former trade union member and representative for the NASUWT. I am very worried seeing teachers going on strike, because it is the pupils who will suffer most, particularly disadvantaged pupils from areas such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. While I am a huge admirer of the incredible work that teachers do, they are sadly being cajoled out of the classroom by baron bosses in unions such as the “Not Education Union”, led by Bolshevik Bousted and Commie Courtney, along with their Labour mates, to make sure that kids continue to suffer. What can we do to ensure pupils will not be victims any further?

Minimum levels of service in education and elsewhere will of course help. Again, I want to stress to the House that we do not necessarily want or wish to introduce legislation in all these areas; that will be a matter for the House in secondary legislation and for further consultation. I very much hope, though, that this legislation gives the unions and some of their supporters in this House the opportunity to stop and think about whether minimum safety is appropriate in their particular areas. I very much hope that teachers will hold back from the threshold of strikes, which would be damaging to them and to pupils.

Nurses’ pay down 20%, teachers’ pay down 20%, firefighters’ pay down 12%, junior doctors’ pay down 26%—these are the consequences of 13 years of Tory rule. Let us be honest and talk about the real problem here: it is not workers going on strike, but the Tory Government and the economy they have built, which forcers workers to strike. This new anti-worker law would make things even worse, sacking teachers and nurses for striking for fair pay. Surely the easiest, safest and fairest way of guaranteeing minimum service provision is to pay nurses, firefighters and paramedics a decent wage with good conditions and the resources to do their jobs. Why will the Secretary of State not do that instead?

The hon. Lady might want to inquire of Members on her Front Bench—most of them are gone now, but one or two are still here—whether they would support a 19% pay increase. If they would, nice as that would be to do, how would they explain it to their constituents and to the financial markets as interest rates rise? If they would spread that across the entire economy, what would the impact be on the economy at large? Those are the simple but, unfortunately, difficult decisions that need to be made in government. Frankly, Labour’s failure to answer those basic questions is why it is not ready to run this country.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is not often I get called to speak before halfway through, but I am very pleased to have been called. The sentiments expressed inside this Chamber about seeking a solution do not appear to match the negotiations outside of it. As the Secretary of State will know, for many NHS staff, this is about not just money, but safety on the wards. Many nurses have stated that they would be happy with additional staff to lighten the load along with a modest pay rise to cover the cost of living. Will the Secretary of State indicate what assessment has been made of safety on the wards in the light of ongoing action? Will the Secretary of State guarantee safety and a cost of living wage increase?

Of course, one reason that we have employed tens of thousands more nurses and doctors is to help to relieve the pressure post covid. We all understand that, given what happened with covid and what is now happening with flu, which is the worst it has been for 10 years, we are seeing particularly strong pressures on our hospitals. The point I am making today is that none of this is helped by the uncertainty. It is fine for workers to withdraw their labour—it is obviously a last resort, but we understand it—but please, give us an indication or a guarantee of where the safety level will be, and do so on a nationwide basis. In fairness to the Royal College of Nursing, it has done that. The ambulance unions, I am afraid, have not. We invite them to do so.

The Government’s failed industrial relations approach has led to the worst strikes in decades. Sadly, they have often sought to scupper talks by throwing in last-minute spanners. Now, they propose going from clapping nurses to sacking nurses. The Secretary of State will be aware that the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill’s impact assessment stated that imposing minimum service levels could actually lead to an “increased frequency of strikes”. What exactly has changed in the past two months since that was published?

First of all, no one is talking about sacking nurses. I have just checked the figures: we have more than 44,000 more nurses since 2010, and more than 34,000 more doctors. There has been a big increase even from 2019. Nothing in the Bill we are announcing today is about getting rid of nurses, any more than any employment contract has to be followed. It is worth remembering that the pay that is on offer is as a result of the independent pay review body—bodies that the unions themselves called to be set up 20 years ago—being put into action.

I have heard union bosses make the point about last-minute spanners, which is completely untrue. I seem to be living rent free in Mick Lynch’s head at the moment—I have not even been close to these negotiations. The deal on the table is the same discussion that has always been there. Rather than parroting those lines, the hon. Gentleman might do better to check the facts and encourage the unions to put these offers to their members.

When the Tory party spoke about taking back control, none of us thought that would mean suppressing votes with voter ID legislation, a policing and crime Act that curbs the right to protest, a House of Lords with unelected clerics and a Government who are withdrawing the basic fundamental human right to strike. How much longer will this Government continue to claim that this silly little island is a functioning democracy?

I am pretty sure the hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber from the beginning, otherwise you would not have called him to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker. He will therefore have heard me say, not once or twice but three times now, that this legislation is compatible with the International Labour Organisation rules that the unions themselves sign up to and many of our European neighbours follow. I am struggling to follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument that this is somehow unfair, undemocratic or against international law.

From the way the Secretary of State is speaking, one might think he is the knight on a white charger coming to rescue the system. Let us be clear, however, that it was this Government who froze pay in the public sector and then increased it below inflation, and this Government who reduced recruitment in the national health service, particularly among nurses, where we have a recruitment gap of 40,000. What we are actually hearing is chickens coming home to roost, isn’t it? He ought to take responsibility as a Minister in this Government.

I simply make the point that it is not the case that we have frozen recruitment, because we have 44,000 more nurses, not fewer—that is an increase rather than a decrease. It is also not the case that we have frozen pay, other than during the aftermath of the financial crash, which as I recall happened under the Labour party and we had to pick up the pieces, and through covid, although not all the way through covid, as I mentioned. Last year, even while the rest of the public sector was experiencing a pay freeze, we made an exception for NHS workers and paid them more, so the hon. Lady’s narrative is simply not true. Again, if the Opposition are saying that they would pay 19% more, I do not understand where that money would come from and whose taxes would be raised to pay for it and the increased interest rates.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is astonishing: I did not realise that, when we were making the comparison with France and Spain, we were talking about Franco’s Spain and the Vichy regime in France. Many elements of the laws in this country already do not comply with ILO regulations; we are one of the most restrictive anti-worker countries in the world—that is a fact.

I and my constituents would like the Government to stop blowing up the talks with the trade unions, as they did against the NHS over the weekend, with Unite reps coming out of that meeting in a worse state, or against the RMT by dropping driver-only operation into the talks. The Government could end the strikes in multiple sectors; instead they have upped the ante to wage war on working people who are suffering because of their rancid governance.

At least we know where the hon. Gentleman stands: against the instructions of his Front Bench, it is on the picket lines. He is one of the people who has helped to extend the rail strikes. Driver-only operation has been in there from the outset and there has been no change in that at all. It makes perfect sense and operates on the line that my constituency is on. It causes no problems and is a safe way to operate. It is the kind of modernisation that would help to bring this industrial dispute to a close. I did not follow his point about Franco and the Vichy Government. Spain and France have moved on a bit from that and seem to manage to have minimum safe levels of service on strike days under the International Labour Organisation.

The Secretary of State opened his statement with warm words about our key workers, but he will be acutely aware that the longer the Government refuse to address their fair pay demands, the more staff morale will be depleted and the more people will leave the service, which will exacerbate the staffing crisis that the unions have highlighted as part of their demands. Does he not see that standing there and lecturing about safe staffing levels when healthcare workers across the UK are saying that staffing levels are unsafe is frankly ridiculous? The way to ensure staffing at all times is to pay our healthcare workers properly.

Of course we want to see healthcare workers paid, and I meant the words that I used at the top of the statement. Hon. Members will remember that my father was ill during covid, so I experienced the NHS at its best and most heroic while it was struggling to serve people under almost unbelievable pandemic circumstances. I absolutely agree with her about the incredible work that NHS staff do. There is a pay offer on the table that has not been invented by the Government—it has come from the independent pay review body. The Government have accepted in full and in every circumstance the recommendations of the independent pay review bodies this year. Those who say that we should ignore the independent pay review bodies need to explain why and where they will find the money to do that so that it is fair to other taxpayers.

This statement is an attack on fundamental employment rights. More than 12 years of Conservative Government failure to invest in vital public services has led to nurses, ambulance crews, civil servants and transport workers taking industrial action. I stand in solidarity with them. If the Government wanted to protect the levels of public services, they would give them the funding and staffing that they need instead of running them down. Why are the Government determined to run down our public services and national health service? Why will Ministers not engage in proper negotiations to end the disputes?

In the politest possible way, I think that once we have been going for an hour, some of the questions that were written in advance and possibly even handed out by the unions have been categorically disproved—as I have explained many times, this is not against international law or the ECHR, for all the reasons that I have already covered—but they continue to be read out as if they are a new contribution. Those questions ignore the basic fact that there is another side to the issue, which is the safety of the hon. Lady’s constituents and ours. Tomorrow, when there is an ambulance strike and the unions refuse to commit to national safety levels with the management of the trusts, everyone’s life will be more at risk than it should be. It is perfectly reasonable to introduce what happens throughout much of the rest of the world, and certainly our European neighbours, and to have minimum safety standards in place so that we can protect the public.

The Government intend to use minimum service levels to force workers to work against their wishes, which undermines their legitimate disputes and imposes servitude on workers. The safest level of provision is to pay our firefighters, nurses, teachers, paramedics and rail staff a proper decent wage and to give them the appropriate resources to do their jobs effectively. Why does the Secretary of State need a new law to help the Government to effectively drive down the wages of the key workers in vital services who he clapped during the pandemic?

The hon. Lady described people as working in “servitude” if there are minimum service levels, but I point out to her that they would be paid for that servitude. At Network Rail, the average worker is on £46,000 of servitude and the average is £62,000 of servitude for train drivers. If we are going to have a serious debate about minimum service levels, I should say that they are designed to ensure that school kids can get to school again; that office workers, who may be on lower pay, can get to their job; and that the constituents of Members across the House can be guaranteed minimum safety levels during a strike tomorrow. The idea that that is somehow enforcing servitude is absolute nonsense.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Government Members talk about hard-working members of the public, but will the Secretary of State acknowledge that trade union members are also hard-working members of the public? Will he confirm whether the reported £320 million has been paid to the train operators during these strikes because they are indemnified? How much of that £320 million would it have taken to settle the strikes? We have heard a lot about safety measures today, so when will the Government stop trying to force through driver-only operated trains, and when will the NHS get the workforce strategy that it desperately needs?

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) reminds me that driver-only operated trains were introduced under the Labour Government. They are entirely safe; as I mentioned, they operate on my Govia line and I have never had a single constituent come to me to say otherwise. The hon. Lady asks whether trade union members are hard-working; I absolutely agree that they are. Many of them work extraordinary hours, as I already said, particularly in the health context but across the economy.

A responsible Government have to balance the pay in the public sector with the pay in the private sector and across all elements of the economy, which is why we have the independent pay review bodies. Unless the Opposition are now trying to destroy the independent pay review bodies and say that we should ignore them and go beyond what they say, I do not see a better alternative.

The hon. Lady fundamentally misunderstands the way that the railways operate in this country: the receipts are collected and the train operating companies simply receive the money for operating the service.

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and I proudly supported picketing workers at Glasgow Central. Not only did we not have to ask for permission, but nobody was photoshopped out of the photograph. Avanti West Coast and TransPennine can barely deliver a minimum service as it is. The Smith commission could have devolved employment rights to ensure that the right to strike was sacrosanct and fire and rehire was banned, but Labour blocked it. Mick Lynch has said that Scottish Ministers “want to resolve” issues, but “politicians down here” want to “exacerbate” them. Is it not therefore the case that Scottish workers will be fully protected only with independence?

Well, I never expected that contribution from the SNP Benches. I should just point out to the hon. Member that I would never knowingly remove the former Prime Minister, whom I served enthusiastically, from anything I put out. He makes a point about Scottish independence, somehow shoehorned into a statement about minimum safety levels, but his constituents will be among the first to benefit when there are national strikes and we are able to run a minimum safe level of service, for example, between ambulances and the hospitals.

The measures outlined today represent a profound attack on the right of key workers with whom the Government are still in active negotiation. The Government’s strategy is clear: when they cannot get what they want through negotiation and compromise, they simply legislate to get their own way. However, does the Secretary of State accept that these proposals risk breaching human rights legislation and potentially even modern day slavery law? Will he concede that the public interest would be better served by addressing the legitimate grievances of the nurses, firefighters, teachers and rail workers who are now in dispute, rather than by curbing their democratic right to take industrial action?

How many times—I am going to check the Hansard record afterwards—do I need to explain that the ILO says itself that it is perfectly proper to have minimum safety levels in place? Many of our European neighbours already have that in place. Many other countries—Australia, Canada, parts of America, South Africa and elsewhere—actually ban strikes in blue-light services. We ban them ourselves for the police, but I am not even proposing going that far. All I am saying is, “Please tell us if you’re going to withdraw your labour, and let’s agree a minimum safety level.” I do not think there is anything unreasonable about that whatsoever, and I have to say that I am shocked that the Labour party does.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a proud member of the GMB and Unite the union.

The reality is that the Government have refused for months to discuss pay with nurses, they have failed to avert the transport strikes and they are now introducing these shoddy plans to distract from their own failure to negotiate. I know the Secretary of State said earlier that he does not knowingly erase the former Prime Minister from his tweets, but that is exactly what he did recently, so perhaps he should spend less time on Photoshop and more time on the day job—sitting down and negotiating.

That was a slightly stretched question, but I think the basis of it was quite straightforward. As I have mentioned, it makes perfect sense to have a situation where we can guarantee national minimum safety standards for our constituents, and I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman would say to his constituents tomorrow when they may or may not be able to call an ambulance, depending on the trust he is in, about the failure to support such standards. I do not think his constituents should suffer from a postcode lottery, and I am prepared to legislate to make sure that does not happen, even if he does not want it.

In the five years I had the privilege of leading the third largest council in Scotland with a workforce of 20,000, we had our share of industrial disputes. Every single time the unions came to us well in advance, and they told us what parts of services they wanted to exempt from industrial action, because they cared as much for the welfare of vulnerable people as we did. Is it not the case that if the Government cared half as much about education as teachers do, if they cared half as much about the health service as nurses and ambulance drivers do, and if they cared half as much for a decent public transport service as train drivers do, this bullyboy legislation would not be needed? The enemies of the health service are not on the picket line; they are on the Government Front Bench.

SNP Members make it sound as if they did not have any industrial strife. I think it is fantastic if the unions and the management get together to resolve these things—that is exactly what we want to see happen—but the reality is that, where it does not happen, strikes evolve sometimes. This legislation is about making sure those strikes are less damaging, particularly when it comes to people’s health and the security of the nation. The hon. Member makes his point as if they do not have strikes in primary schools and as if secondary schools in Scotland, where this is devolved, are not going on strike on Wednesday. The reality is that sometimes strikes do break out and, when they do, we want to make sure the public are properly protected.

Just before Christmas, I went to the ambulance station in Warrington, which is in the North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust. I spoke to workers there who have withdrawn their labour—paramedics, ambulance workers. They have done that with a heavy heart and as a last resort. They have done that because they are fighting for a fair deal, because their mortgages have gone up and the food bills have gone up. By the way, while I was there, they were providing a minimum level of service—I saw the ambulances going out, and rightly so, to deal with critical care incidents—so the current arrangements actually facilitate that. This is very un-British: it is a fundamental attack on the democratic right to withdraw one’s labour. How many teachers are going to be sacked, how many ambulance workers are going to be sacked, how many social workers are going to be sacked and how many rail workers will be sacked for standing up for their right to strike and withdraw their labour?

The answer to the question is none. I have not seen a single police officer sacked or a member of the Army sacked, and they have no-strike deals. We are not proposing no-strike deals here; we are simply saying, I think very reasonably, that the level of emergency service provided by the fantastic workers—and I accept what the hon. Member said about people going on strike with a heavy heart—in his particular ambulance trust should be provided to all Members across the House, no matter where they are. In the case tomorrow, the union has failed to agree that with the management. I rather hope that he and Members on the Opposition Front Bench will join us in persuading people to provide that minimum safety level. If not, they will need to explain to their constituents why they are failing to vote to support the safety and security of their own constituents’ lives.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a proud member of Unite and the GMB trade unions.

During the pandemic, my constituents and I stood on our doorsteps and clapped our key workers—we clapped the nurses at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and the Blackpool Victoria, and we clapped the postal workers working out of our delivery offices in Lancaster, Fleetwood and Garstang—and now this Government are putting more effort into putting those workers’ jobs at risk than into trying to resolve the strikes. It is clear that the Secretary of State is obsessed about the ongoing strikes. I can assure him that many of the workers who are losing days and days of pay are upset, too. Can I try to help him and suggest that he puts more effort into sitting down with trade unions and finding a resolution than into trying to stamp on workers’ rights?

As the hon. Lady will know, various different unions have been invited in, there have been discussions across the different sectors and we are doing everything we can to encourage a settlement. I do need to gently point out to Opposition Members that this is not a Government who have ignored the independent pay review bodies, come up with our own number and, say, halved the amount of money that was suggested should be paid. We have actually accepted in full the recommendations of those independent pay review bodies, so we are actually following the science and following the evidence. She is wrong to suggest, and to continue frightening people by saying, that their jobs could be at risk. Nobody’s job is at risk. I have already explained that we are hiring more, particularly nurses and doctors, and this legislation will simply say that, if we cannot get there voluntarily across the country—not just, for example, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), but everywhere—we will have legislative power to make sure we are able to require minimum safety levels for everybody, not just some.

Teaching staff at my daughter’s school are on strike today and staff at my son’s school are on strike tomorrow, and I fully support their right to do so. We all know the Scottish Government’s budget is constrained, having been short-changed and underfunded in the face of soaring inflation. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor to ensure a fair funding settlement for the Scottish Government so that Scottish public sector workers can get the pay rise they deserve to deal with the Tory cost of living crisis?

All of us want our kids to be able to get to school, and the example in Scotland demonstrates that strikes occur regardless of who is in power at a particular moment, but the hon. Member and those on the Opposition Front Bench are wrong to suggest this is a UK problem that does not affect other parts of the world, because exactly the opposite is the case. We are in this situation and have this level of inflation because of the war in Ukraine, because Putin illegally invaded his neighbours’ country, because it pushed up energy prices, and because that pushed up inflation. It makes all of us poorer when that happens. If Members think the solution is simply not to worry while people’s livelihoods and safety are put at risk, that will be up to them to decide when they vote. This party will be voting to ensure people’s security and safety no matter which strikes come next.

The Minister’s proposals criminalise workers for taking action in legitimate disputes, threatening to turn the clock back on workers’ rights by 200 years. The Tolpuddle martyrs were criminalised for withdrawing their labour and deported to Australia, as were the seven men of Jarrow for protesting about their working conditions. These proposals would see NHS, education and other key workers sacked for the same crime. Workers need a pay rise, not a P45. When will Ministers put our country first and invest in, not attack, key workers?

The hon. Lady is wrong on several fronts. First, it cannot be criminal if in fact that is a law that this House has passed. Secondly, it is no more criminal than breaching an employment contract; that is the level of, as she describes it, criminality. Is this going to be the line—is this how they are going to explain things to their constituents on the doorsteps over the next few days or weeks when ambulances are not necessarily going to turn up in one area and may in another? If their only answer is, “We didn’t think we should put in place the same measures that exist in countries such as France, Spain and Italy,” may I suggest that, rather than raving on about criminalisation, which is utter nonsense—nobody is criminalising anything— she simply agrees that minimum safety levels are a proportionate, sensible and modern way to go about things and she should support that?

As the TUC says, public sector workers have experienced the longest pay squeeze in 200 years, with workers losing out on £20,000-worth of wages due to pay not keeping up with prices since 2008. Now, when we are experiencing historically high inflation, the Government want to both reduce real-terms pay and legislate to enforce it. Is it not the case that the Government are proposing yet another authoritarian, draconian act to enforce their attack on our living standards?

The questions from Labour Members have remained remarkably consistent throughout, and I am not sure whether they have been handed out by their Front Bench or their union paymasters. But the fundamental facts are that the independent pay review bodies decide on the level of pay and the Government have accepted that in full. If these questions are being handed out by Labour Front Benchers, they will need to explain what they plan to do with the independent pay review bodies. Are they now going to routinely ignore their advice, which is not something we have done? Are they going to tell their constituents that they will not have a minimum safe level of service if they have a heart attack or a stroke, or are they going to pay the 19%, in which case they need to explain to their constituents why their tax is going up, why inflation is going up further and why interest rates are going up as well.