I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Government firmly believe that the ability to strike is an important element of industrial relations in the UK. That ability is rightly protected by law, and we understand that an element of disruption is likely with any strike. However, we also need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect the essential services that they pay for to be there when they need them. We must be able to have confidence that when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk. As has become clear from recent industrial action, that is not always the case, so we need a safety net in place to ensure that the public do not become collateral damage.
I will make a little bit of progress first. Right now, up and down the country, households are struggling with the repercussions of high inflation caused by covid and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The UK is not alone in feeling the pressure, which is also felt by many other countries, particularly within the European Union. Recently, the Prime Minister outlined the Government’s priorities: to build a better, more secure and more prosperous future, one that this country and our workforce—public or private—fully deserve. By halving inflation, growing the economy and getting debt down, we can ensure that our vital public services are fit. As the Government get on with those priorities, we also have a duty to protect access to vital public services which, let us not forget, the public are paying for through taxation.
Secretary of State, I believe in the fundamental right of a worker to withdraw their labour, whether that happens to be from an employer or against the Government. I understand that at this time many people feel the same, and for those who are toying with this idea, let me say that the ambulance service, nurses and doctors, for example, have been able to ensure that there was an emergency service. Do the Government really believe that withdrawing the right of a worker to withdraw their labour is what they are about?
I always think that people think very carefully about this issue, and they are right to do so. We are operating within the context of a crisis in global growth. The International Monetary Fund states that a third of the world will be in recession this year, caused by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine—[Interruption.] I am surprised to hear Labour Members yawning and moaning. Putin invaded Ukraine—[Interruption.] What Labour Members do not seem to realise is that what then happened to energy prices caused a crisis that has put up inflation throughout the western world.
I will just make this point because I think Labour Members may find it useful. Those prices going up throughout the rest of the world, including here, has also pushed up wage claims. But I do not think we should get into a 1970s spiral, where we end up with higher wage claims and higher wage settlements, with higher wage claims and inflation continuing for ever. That is a cycle we must break. Clearly, if we were to meet all the inflation busting demands of the unions, that would make life harder not only for some but for every single family in this country. That is why we cannot do that. The Government are therefore absolutely clear: we want constructive dialogue with the unions, and the public have had enough of the constant, most unwelcome, and frankly dangerous, disruptions to their lives.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. Last week, Human Rights Watch warned that
“fundamental and hard-won rights are being systematically dismantled”
in the UK. Is this anti-strike legislation part of the danger that Human Rights Watch is warning about?
The International Labour Organisation itself says—I will cover this shortly in my speech—that it is perfectly proper to have a balance between minimum service levels and people’s right to strike. I support the ILO in saying that; I absolutely agree it is right. I note, however, that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the fact that he has received £94,000-plus from unions. Now, I have no issue with him receiving that money from unions—I do not think that we should have taxpayer-funded political parties in this House—but I think it is only right that when Opposition Members stand up, they reflect what is on their records, which is that they have received a lot of money from unions and now seek to represent them in the debate.
Millions of people who rely on essential transport to get to work or to family commitments now every day have the extra stress of worrying about making alternative, sometimes costly, arrangements because of the forever strikes. There are those who, at the most terrifying time of their lives—perhaps with a poorly loved one—do not know whether an ambulance will arrive, because the unions have refused to provide a national safety net. [Interruption.] I hear the barracking and understand that Opposition Members do not want to hear what people throughout the country are feeling, but it is a fact that when strikes are on and ambulances are unable to find out from their unions whether they will operate, that is an additional concern for members of the public—including Opposition Members’ constituents, whom they seem rather not to care about in this case. I am surprised about that.
I will give way shortly; I will make a little bit of progress.
Those children are desperately trying to catch up on learning that they missed throughout covid, and again they are unsure about whether they will be able to get to school. There are also the businesses throughout the land whose sales and productivity are suffering. They are terrified that, at a time of high inflation, their livelihoods are at risk along with those of their employees.
I will set out in a bit more detail the way in which the legislation will work in a while, but, briefly speaking, secondary legislation by regulation will be used in each individual sector to come to the right balance. I will explain that in more detail, if my right hon. Friend is patient.
I will give way in just a moment. I have already taken more interventions from Opposition Members than from Government Members.
I think it is true to say that there comes a time when we cannot let such a situation continue. That is why we need minimum safety and service levels to keep livelihoods and lives safe. It is frankly irresponsible, and even surprising, for the Opposition to suggest otherwise.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He wants to talk about minimum safety levels. The reality is this: after 12 years of a Tory Government, minimum safety no longer exists in our NHS. A paramedic contacted me directly at the weekend to say that he had begun his shift at 7 am expecting to sign off later that evening, and spent the entirety of that shift sitting outside Hull Royal Infirmary because there was no bed available for his patient, whose life he had saved. There is not any safety in the NHS as a result of the Tory Government. The Secretary of State needs to acknowledge that before we move on to discuss anything else.
I am surprised by how the hon. Gentleman, who normally speaks a lot of sense in the House, put his point across. Yes, of course it is the case that the NHS has been under unbelievable stress, not least because of two years of covid and all the backlog that has been created. It is worth reminding Labour Members that, had they had their way, we would have been in lockdown for a heck of a lot longer and those cases would have been even worse. I do not follow the logic of his argument. He seems to be arguing that just because there are times of danger, we ought, by design, to enable a system that prevents unions in the ambulance service from telling the NHS when ambulances will be there and what the minimum service would be. That is the issue that we seek to address today.
It is fairly obvious to say that a minimum service level in railways, for example, is about people’s livelihoods rather than safety, but that the NHS and the ambulance service not agreeing nationally is a minimum safety level issue. I would have thought that was pretty straightforward.
I will just make a little bit of progress.
The Bill will ensure that we protect the ability of workers to take industrial action, but that we also protect the public from disproportionate disruption to their daily lives and that, to put it simply, one person’s right to strike does not infringe on someone else’s right to life and limb.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Secretary of State has never negotiated a minimum service agreement in the NHS. I have. The Secretary of State is completely fabricating what happens. It is the trade unions who work with the staff and the employers to put a safe agreement—
Order. I am afraid I will have to ask the hon. Lady to withdraw her remark about fabricating. She will do that, I know. I am sure that is not what she meant to say and will indicate that that is not what she meant to say—yes?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. I will rephrase what I was saying. The reality is that safe agreements are negotiated between the staff and the employers. That happens on the ground; the process and the outcomes protect the NHS, because that is what staff want to do. Will the Secretary of State ensure that he reflects the truth of what happens in the NHS?
I would just say to the hon. Lady, who I know has received money from GMB, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Unite the union, CLP among others—nothing wrong with that; I am just putting it on the record—that she is wrong factually about the way the last two strikes, last week and in December, occurred.
I am actually answering the hon. Gentleman’s colleague’s point. One at a time.
The way that ambulance strike worked was that the NHS was unable to find out in advance from the ambulance unions where and when, nationwide, cover would be provided. It is the NHS that said that, not the Government. As a result, the NHS has not been able to put the appropriate level of cover in place in advance. If by chance we are wrong about that, there is a safety mechanism in the Bill for that. Although we are taking primary powers, should Parliament so decide, we have said we do not want to use them if voluntary arrangements can be made. I refer Opposition Members to the voluntary arrangements—
Let me finish the first point and move on with the speech.
I refer Opposition Members to the voluntary arrangements that were successfully made with the Royal College of Nursing, which did provide a national guarantee. In that case, it would not be necessary to put the measures in place.
I hope the House will appreciate that there are a lot of people who want to contribute. I want to give people the opportunity to do that in their own speeches. [Interruption.] If Members do not mind, I will turn to the detail of the Bill.
The Bill establishes a legal framework to implement minimum safety and service levels during periods of strike action. It will achieve that by amending existing legislation, the Trade Union and Labour Relations Concili —[Hon. Members: “Consolidation”] Thank you folks. The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. I was trying get the word “conciliatory” in there for Opposition Members. The legislation will allow regulations to be made to ensure that specified services cannot shut down completely when workers strike. That is to maintain crucial and, in many cases, life-saving services. The relevant sectors specified in the proposed legislation are: health services; fire and rescue services; education services; transport services; decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel; and border security.
Can the Secretary of State help me with this? The human rights memorandum that accompanied the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill last October stated specifically that the Government’s legal advice was that it is not justifiable or necessary in a democratic society to have such restrictions in emergency and patient care services, in fire and rescue, or in education—only in transport. That does not appear in the human rights memorandum that accompanies this Bill. Has the Government’s legal advice changed or have they just changed their mind for reasons of political convenience?
The hon. and learned Lady must surely have noticed that we have subsequently had disruption in the NHS, including in the ambulance service. What has happened in that disruption is that although the nurses have very sensibly provided a national level of safe service, unfortunately the same has not happened in the ambulance service. That is why this legislation is required in other areas at this time.
My right hon. Friend is under a constant onslaught of noise from Opposition Members, who show terrific support for those in the unions in their constituencies and for those in the unions funding their constituency offices, but who seem to forget the interests of all our constituents, which are in the minimum service level agreements that my right hon. Friend is proposing. Ultimately, what people in our constituencies need to know, whether or not we know them, is that in those six sectors a minimum service will be provided regardless of the right of people in the sector to hold back their labour on a pay negotiation or for any other reason. [Interruption.] That is a reasonable proposition, and we should be heard. [Hon. Members: “Speech!”]
Order. Before the Secretary of State answers the hon. Gentleman, I remind the House that it is important that we use moderation in our language and that we do not impugn the motives of others. That is not how we want the debate to continue. It is an important subject, so let us try to introduce moderation into our discussion.
I will in a moment, if I can make a little progress.
Using the powers proposed in the Bill, regulations will set out the specific services within each sector in which a minimum level of service will be applied; they will also set out the levels themselves. Those regulations will be tailored to each relevant service, taking account of the different risks to public safety or the impacts on daily life and on the economy. The Bill is clear, however, that such regulations may be made only after appropriate consultation and the approval of both Houses. Of course, the Government may choose not to use the regulation-making powers in the Bill if adequate voluntary agreements, where necessary, are already in place between employers, the relevant sectors and the relevant unions.
I thank the Secretary of State for acknowledging my presence in the Chamber after so many attempts to intervene. Will he now pass comment on the fact that life-and-limb cover already exists in legislation and that the true purpose of this shameful Bill is simply to erode workers’ rights?
I simply do not accept that point. Although it is true that life-and-limb measures exist, we have seen through the many months of rail closures and the strikes that took place last week and in December that unfortunately minimum service levels in one case, and actually minimum safety levels in another, have simply not been available. I know that Opposition Members do not want to accept this fundamental point, but their constituents’ lives are being put at risk by the NHS’s inability to put the correct cover in place with sufficient notice. They seem to imagine that the Army will just be there at no notice and with no ability to organise which areas of the country it needs to be in. That, I am afraid, is not a practical way to run the—[Interruption.]
I am a member of the GMB. I happen not to have received any money from the GMB, although I would be proud to do so—certainly a lot prouder that I would be of receiving £2.5 million from Lubov Chernukhin. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this legislation cannot possibly be used to sort out the present winter of discontent? If anything, it will make it far more difficult to secure a resolution of any of the individual strikes, and therefore it is just political posturing.
I think the GMB will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s pitch for some money. If he gets that money, it will join the £120 million that the unions have supplied to the Labour party since 2010.
I make this point only because it is relevant to today’s debate. We must be here to represent our constituents, and our constituents know from paying attention to the recent strikes that when the Royal College of Nursing worked with the NHS, it was able to provide timely assurances at a national level to ensure that the most critical services—including chemotherapy, critical care, paediatric and A&E—were not affected, which shows that even when parties disagree, they can do so in a mature manner. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case.
During recent strike action by the ambulance service—this has been referred to a couple of times, and I want to read it out because it is written down—the NHS has not been reassured by the relevant union that it can rely on the current system of voluntary local derogation, which I think is what the hon. Member for York Central was talking about earlier. It could not rely on those arrangements to ensure that patient and public services were provided. Last week, and in December, arrangements were being disputed right up to the wire—right up to the last minute—which created uncertainty and left officials with little time to organise contingency measures such as military support. That is the situation that we cannot, in all conscience, allow to continue.
I declare that I am a proud member of a trade union, and was a trade union officer for a number of years before coming here. In fact, I have probably been part of 1,000 or so pay-and-conditions negotiations, all of which were resolved, with employer and employees all perfectly happy with the outcome. That is something that the Secretary of State has been unable to do, whether in relation to the railway or much more widely, which is why we are having this debate. Can he accept that he has failed, and it is time to get the trade unionists into the room and to put this legislation in the bin, where it belongs?
Let me say this, in fairness to the hon. Lady. It is the case that the employers and the unions, and more recently Ministers as well, have been meeting, and it is also the case that even when there have been ministerial meetings—including in Scotland and Labour Wales—the disputes have continued. So we clearly cannot continue to rely on voluntary arrangements to ensure the safety of the people we represent. After all, strokes and heart attacks do not respect boundaries such as trust borders. I am intrigued to know what Labour Members would say to their constituents, perhaps grieving constituents who have lost loved ones because of some sort of postcode lottery.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to make a little progress first.
The Bill and subsequent regulations are designed to enable employers to specify the workers required to meet minimum safety and service levels during strikes within relevant sectors. This will be done through work notices.
As I have said, I will in a moment, but I want to make some progress.
Should a union notify an employer of a strike in accordance with the existing normal rules, the Bill will allow the employer to issue a work notice to the union specifying the workers needed to work during a strike to secure the minimum level of safety and service. Employers will be required to consult the union on the number of workers to be identified in the work notice and the work to be undertaken, and have regard to the union’s views before issuing that work notice.
Members on the Government Benches seem to think that none of those who are striking lives in their constituencies, which I find quite strange. Will the Minister confirm that, once his words have been scrutinised in this Chamber, if any are found to be misleading or incorrect, he will return to the Chamber and correct the record as soon as possible—preferably by the end of the week?
I am sure that the normal parliamentary rules apply, so I would never stand here and seek to do such a thing. In the interests of transparency, I will mention the £11,100 that the hon. Member has received from the CLP union in this House—[Interruption.] Sorry, that the CLP received from Unite the union, I should say to satisfy Opposition Members.
Officially, the work notice—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members would let me just explain how this operates—
I should have referred to what the CLP received from Unite the union. Hon. Members are absolutely right to correct me at the Dispatch Box.
The work notice must not list more people than reasonably necessary to meet the minimum level of safety and service. Employers must have no regard to whether someone is or is not a member of the union—or even the CLP—when deciding whether they need to be included in that work notice. Each employer and union must also adhere to data protection legislation.
I am proud of my union membership, which is recorded in the register of Members’ interests, and I used to be a full-time union organiser. The Minister claims that the public’s existence and lives are at risk because of the disputes. Does he not appreciate that thousands of nurses and other workers are leaving the national health service, and thousands of teachers are leaving their profession, because of stress, low pay and underfunding? That is what is causing a great deal of stress and problems for the public. Instead of reaching for the statute book and trying to legally constrain trade unions from their legitimate action, why does the Secretary of State not address the fundamental causes: poverty pay, stress, bad conditions and inadequate service in all parts of the UK?
The right hon. Gentleman should note that there are 40,000 more nurses now, and more doctors too. It is important to say that I agree with him, for once, because we are trying to work constructively—as we should—to bring strikes to a conclusion, but we must not do so at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of our constituents. It is not the case that the strikes are always perfectly safe for our constituents. That is why we must act. Unions must take reasonable steps to ensure that members do not participate in strikes if they have been named in a work notice. It is up to unions to ensure public safety and not put lives at risk. Only if they fail to do so could they face civil action in court.
I will make a little more progress, because I think that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would like to hear from other Members, and I have been as generous as possible in allowing interventions.
The Government, unions, employers and workers have a role to play in ensuring that essential services continue even during strikes. That is what we are ensuring. This approach is balanced, reasonable and, above all, fair. Countries such as Australia and Canada have the ability to ban outright those strikes that would endanger lives, such as in some blue-light services. However, this legislation does not seek to ban the right to strike. The Government will always defend the principle that workers should be able to withdraw their labour. In fact, the only time that the right to strike was removed from emergency services was by the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George, as part of the Police Act 1919. We do not propose to follow the Lib Dems’ example.
Thank you for clarifying that, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State just mentioned that minimum service levels exist in many other countries, including Italy, Spain and France. I do not know whether Opposition Members have ever been to France, but the French have been known to strike. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my Chelmsford constituents should have the same benefits on strike days as those living in France, Italy and Spain?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no reason that her constituents should suffer lesser protection than people who live in other European nations, most of whom are recognised on most days for being particularly pro-union and helpful in their settlements. I cannot see why Opposition Members would object.
I will give way in just a moment, but I would like to get through a bit more first.
All that we are saying is that, in certain services in these important sectors, the right to strike must be balanced against the needs of the public to rely on a basic level of life-saving care. The legislation simply brings us into line, as my hon. Friend just said, with many other modern European nations, such as Spain, Italy, France and Ireland. They use minimum service levels in a common-sense way to reduce the impact of strikes. The International Labour Organisation itself states that minimum service levels can be a proportionate way of balancing the right to strike with the need to protect the wider public. That is what we are doing. Our own unions subscribe to and support the ILO, as do we.
On the claim of minimum safety levels across Europe, is the Secretary of State aware that, according to the OECD, France lost, on average, 112 days per 1,000 workers between 2008 and 2018? Spain lost 76 strike days, and Italy lost 42. Yet the UK lost only 20 strike days. Will the Secretary of State admit that this law is just to ban people from taking the legal action to strike?
I agree that we have had a good working relationship for the last several decades. The hon. Lady is right to point out that, as a result, over the last two or three decades we have typically suffered fewer strikes than some in continental Europe. As I have explained a number of times, we have seen in recent months a flare-up of strikes that are putting people’s lives and livelihoods at risk. This Government will not stand by and watch that happen.
There is a lot of focus on in Europe, but I would like to focus on Gloucestershire, where nurses have chosen not to strike. I thank them for that and for all the work they do in Stroud. I see nothing in this legislation that will prevent them from making the difficult decision to strike, or from joining their colleagues in unions. We are protecting those rights. It is the minimal standards that the public needs.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about minimum standards. For anyone who cares about the ability to take industrial action and to strike, what we are doing here enshrines that. It does not remove people’s ability to strike, but it prevents union bosses who perhaps are not as reasonable as the RCN from calling strikes that potentially put people’s lives at risk. That is a very different proposition, which I am proud to support.
The Government expect to consult on minimum service levels for ambulance, fire and rail services first. It is expected that these consultations will be published during the passage of this Bill. At the same time as bringing forward the legislation, the Government are doing all they can to continue the discussions that everybody is calling for to ensure that we get a pay settlement with unions that is affordable for the unions, for the country and for the workers paying for it.
As far as I can tell, the Government have ruled out voluntary options 1 and 2 in their assessment, on the basis that they will be ineffective, particularly where unions and employers have major disagreements. The question is: why and how have the Government arrived at that decision now, in advance of the legislation itself?
It is because we were given adequate demonstration from the recent strikes that unfortunately in some cases the unions involved have not acted in the national interest, whereas others—the RCN, for example—have very much done so. I want to stress what I said at the top of my speech, which is that I do not want us to have to use this legislation if it is not required. We have live strikes going on, so we will be able to see where it is required and where it is not.
I feel I have been generous in allowing interventions and it is right to complete my segment so that others can get on and speak.
We are mindful of and thankful for the contribution of public service workers in this country, but where unions insist on disproportionate and sometimes plain unsafe levels of industrial action without informing the NHS, for example, and others, we must take the necessary steps to protect the public.
Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many people died in the care of the national health service during the recent periods of industrial unrest who would not have died had the provisions of this Bill been in force at the time?
The problem, as people will recognise, is that as we do not have a nationally agreed level of coverage—particularly in the ambulance service—it is difficult to know or predict what would have happened if the Army had not stepped in. I know from talking to colleagues and officials that one of the problems was that, because of the late notice and the randomised trust-by-trust agreements, they have been unable to put in a national framework that would mean that it would not matter if you lived in Islington North or somewhere else; you would still get coverage on strike days. We said in our manifesto, and I repeat now, that it is not fair to let trade union leaders undermine the livelihoods of others, and nor is it fair for them to put lives and livelihoods at risk.
Does the Secretary of State see the irony in expecting unions to ensure minimum safe service levels on strike days when his own Government are failing to do so on every other day? What does he make of nurses’ reports that staffing levels are in fact safer on strike days because the unions are negotiating appropriate cover compared with non-strike days?
I did not quite follow the hon. Lady’s point on the railways. The railways on strike days are finding it hard to offer any services at all, even for key workers and the people the Opposition sometimes claim to represent the most, such as the hard-working cleaner or the hospital porter. The people who cannot do their jobs remotely are unable to get to their jobs and they are losing money. They are becoming fed up with the forever strikes where the unions simply will not put the offer to their members in order for the members to have a say. Minimum service levels are important for that reason, and I have covered numerous times why we think minimum safety levels protect people’s lives.
In this Second Reading debate, we are simply asking the unions to tell us when they are going to withdraw their labour so that we can agree a minimum safety level. This is hardly revolutionary stuff. It is just a common-sense safety net to keep the public safe and ease some of the enormous anxiety that they have felt over the last few months. Failing to support the Bill today will mean that Members who oppose this legislation are essentially prepared to put the safety and welfare of their own constituents at risk. I commend the Bill to the House.
As colleagues can see, well over 50 hon. and right hon. Members are wishing to catch my eye. Before I call the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, I want to inform colleagues that there will be an immediate four-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches so that we can try to get everybody in.
First, let me declare an interest as a proud lifelong trade unionist. I regret the tone of the Secretary of State’s speech today. If he is implying in any way that Members of the House do not care about their constituents or put their constituents first, or that members of our vital public services who got us through the pandemic do not take the safety of the people they look after seriously and would walk away, I think he should reflect on his comments.
I have been a Member of this House for some seven years now, and I cannot recall a measure that is at once so irrational and so insulting. Not only is this legislation a vindictive assault on the basic freedoms of British working people, but it is as empty of detail as it is full of holes. We will oppose the sacking of nurses Bill, and it is not just about nurses but about the many key workers who we clapped and who kept our services going in the face of the pandemic. We will vote against this legislation tonight, and the next Labour Government will repeal it.
We are in the middle of an economic crisis of the Government’s making. Working people are facing the largest fall in living standards in a generation. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State keeps shouting “Putin”, but what about Liz Truss?
What about the Conservatives crashing the economy? The Secretary of State forgets the fact that inflation has gone through the roof under their watch. Thirteen years of Conservative failure. Members watching this debate and constituents up and down the country know the truth, and they will tell this Government what they think, come the next general election.
Working people are facing the largest fall in living standards in a generation. In-work poverty, insecure work and financial insecurity are rampant. Inflation is in double digits. It is in this context that we have seen the greatest levels of strike disruption in 33 years, with ambulance workers taking their first major strike action in decades and the first ever strike in the history of the Royal College of Nursing. Our posties, train drivers, Border Force, health workers, train cleaners and even Ministers’ own officials have taken action too. The Prime Minister will not admit it, but this is a crisis and it is a crisis of the Government’s making. This legislation does nothing to resolve the problems that they have caused. There is no common sense in it at all.
I declare an interest as a proud trade union member. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this legislation does nothing to address the underlying reasons NHS staff and others have taken the incredibly difficult decision to strike? We are going to spend a number of hours in here this evening, but surely that time would be much better spent by the Government getting round the table with members of the NHS, listening to their concerns and coming to a resolution that would help to move things forward, rather than wasting our time here this evening on this horrible piece of legislation.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and I absolutely agree. I was reflecting while the Secretary of State was making his opening speech, and I was thinking that, if I still worked in social care or one of the key public services—if I was paramedic, a nurse or one of those key workers he mentioned—and I was listening to this debate, I would be really upset and offended by the way he represented them here today. That is not what the Labour party thinks of those key workers.
The Secretary of State has claimed that this legislation is about public safety, so why does the Bill not mention safety once? He knows full well that working people already take steps to protect the public during strikes through derogations and voluntary agreements, yet he brazenly claims that this punitive legislation is needed because of ambulance workers. That is insulting and shameful, and I think he should apologise for the way in which he has awfully smeared ambulance workers.
I thank my Unison comrade for giving way. I am not a member of the parliamentary Labour party, but I am a proud trade unionist. Will my good friend remind the House that section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 guarantees that trade unions will agree to provide life-and-limb cover during an industrial dispute, because failure to do so could result in a custodial sentence? This Bill is therefore completely unnecessary.
I absolutely agree with my friend. We may not be in the same party, but we are in the same trade union.
These brave, hard-working men and women struck local life-and-limb deals on a trust-by-trust basis ahead of all the strikes. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says it is trust by trust, but it is the best way to ensure that the right care is provided, and those employers know that. When I was a home help, we always put patient care first. We negotiated to ensure minimum safety levels, which is more than I can say for the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, under whose watch we have seen excess deaths and an increasing crisis in the NHS.
I, too, declare an interest. As a proud trade unionist and trade union lawyer for many years before entering Parliament, I represented striking workers day in, day out. I know that no worker takes the decision to strike lightly. These strikes have been caused by the cost of living crisis caused by this Conservative Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Bill is just a further attack on workers’ rights, like the anti-trade union legislation passed by this Government in 2016? It is just another attack on working people who keep us safe, day in and day out.
I absolutely agree. People watching this debate can see from the Secretary of State’s opening remarks, and from his previous remarks, what this is: a smokescreen about allegedly needing minimum service levels. We know that because, last autumn, his own Government assessed that minimum service levels were not needed for the emergency services due to existing regulations and voluntary arrangements. We all want minimum standards of safety, service and staffing levels, and we want them every day, but it is the Minister who is failing to provide them. Instead of holding them to account, they Government are seeking through this Bill to grab sweeping new powers to impose burdens on employers and to remove basic rights from workers across our public service. This is an attack on every nurse, health worker and firefighter in the country. They have gone from clapping nurses to sacking them.
My mam is a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, as I have previously noted in the House. It is interesting to hear what the Secretary of State says about the need for this Bill and legislation more widely because he was previously Secretary of State for Transport, and the only negotiations that have not been settled with the RMT are the ones in which the Department for Transport is involved. Every other dispute with the RMT has been resolved. So is this Bill not just covering up his failure to negotiate basic trade union agreements?
My hon. Friend makes some important points. We can all see from the reports on the negotiations that there was genuine hope we could get to a settlement, and then the Government decided to bring in new conditions at the last minute to make sure that the dispute continued. It is the Government, not the trade unions, who are acting militantly and who do not want to resolve these disputes.
The Government should also reflect on the key workers and other workers who will be affected by this strike action, and who the Secretary of State says are putting lives at risk. Even if they are not a key worker, I am pretty certain that most people, like my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), have a friend, relative or someone they know who is. We all think they are heroes, and we all know they have their patients, the people they look after and the services they provide at the forefront of their mind.
No one wants to take strike action, least of all the workers who lose a day’s pay. I have long urged Ministers to do their job and resolve the underlying problems, but instead they have presented a Bill that tries to remove hundreds of thousands of workers’ historic right to withdraw their labour.
If the Secretary of State for Transport mandates that 50% of trains need to run on strike days, he knows that Network Rail will mandate that all signal operators need to work, because signals are needed even if just two trains are running. How can the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy say this Bill does not remove their right to strike? I know many Conservative Members will say that they respect, even champion, civil liberties, and I am sure they mean it, but with this Bill they are burning the freedoms for which we fought for centuries and are handing to Ministers unprecedented power over the individuals who are targeted. It is not just wrong in principle; it is unworkable in practice.
I declare my interest as a proud trade unionist. I meet striking workers on an almost weekly basis at the moment, and I know that working people are often targeted by employers during a dispute. This Bill hands employers the right to decide which worker goes to work and which worker can go on strike. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that this could allow bad bosses to victimise and target workers?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
“is not a solution to dealing with the industrial action we see at the moment.”
Those are not my words but the words of the Transport Secretary in December. This Bill could increase the frequency of strikes and the
“numbers of staff taking action short of striking”
and lead to employers finding that they are “low on staff.” Again, those are not my words but the words of the Department for Transport’s impact assessment. Minimum service levels are “not a game-changer” and could
“promote more industrial action than they mitigate.”
That is not me speaking but the senior Conservative adviser who developed the policy. The jury is in. These measures will not work, cannot work and will only make things worse.
I remind the House that we have a number of sectors in the UK in which employees are not allowed to strike, namely the armed forces and the police. These people always turn up, often at times of crisis, and work without complaint to provide minimum service levels, and they do it on pay and conditions that are often inferior to what the unions are currently demanding. May I ask the right hon. Lady to present an argument for why this provision should not be extended elsewhere?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman got the crib sheet from the Whips. There is a complete and utter lack of clarity about what these measures will mean for the six sectors to which they will apply. In nuclear decommissioning, for example, staff already have voluntary arrangements. How will Ministers define minimum service in this sector? Will they require just a teeny bit of decommissioning? What about health? Will Ministers seriously sack doctors, nurses, paramedics and vital support staff at a time of critical NHS staff shortages? Apparently not, if the Government sources reported this week can be believed. Does the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy deny that the Health Secretary has told others to lobby the Prime Minister for improved pay offers? And can he really say that the Health Secretary believes this Bill will help the NHS?
The Bill states that all transport services will be covered, but the industry is largely in the private sector. Does the Secretary of State expect, for example, self-employed cabbies to serve work notices to themselves? There seem to be a split here, too; I hear that the Transport Secretary has given rail companies permission for new pay offers, and we already know his views on minimum service levels.
Let us move on to education. Will our overstretched headteachers be forced to write and serve work notices in their own staffrooms? Does the Business Secretary agree with the Education Secretary that imposing these regulations on schools would be a hostile act?
Let us turn to fire and rescue services. Has austerity not already made it impossible for some services to meet existing contingency regulations as it is? Will the Business Secretary of State leave it there, or will he just go for broke and ban all key workers from joining a union at all? That is something we know his desperate Prime Minister has been considering.
The right hon. Lady mentions the issue of pay and speaking to unions to resolve this dispute. Can she tell us what level of pay she thinks, and the Labour Front-Bench team believe, is appropriate? Would it be in line with inflation? Would it be more than inflation? How exactly would Labour solve this dispute?
I will just educate the hon. Gentleman: although I used to be a trade union official and I am a member of a trade union, I do not negotiate on behalf of a trade union. But what I would do is sit around the table and resolve this dispute with the trade unions. That would be better than what the Conservatives have done.
I come to the liability this Bill places upon trade unions. It says that trade unions must take “reasonable steps” to ensure workers comply with work notices, but what would they be? Will trade unions be liable for non-union staff? As for the burden put on employers, have they welcomed the bureaucratic nightmare that they will face? How will our already overstretched public services spare the resources to work out how many workers are needed to meet the minimum service levels the Secretary of State arbitrarily imposes on them, and to identify which workers should come into work and which should not? What will these bodies have to do? Will they have to do this before each and every strike day?
I would like to try again on this, because the right hon. Lady aspires to be Deputy Prime Minister and wants to negotiate with the unions in future. Will she outline for the House, because the Labour party has been very quiet on this, whether she backs a 19% pay increase for nurses? What costing has her party put forward as to how much she would award in pay rises to those public sector workers?
What I can say is that the Labour party would not have crashed the economy like the Conservatives did. We would not have inflation at the record levels we have at the moment. We would not have the disputes we have at the moment because we would negotiate with the trade unions and find a settlement.
What protections are in place to prevent unscrupulous employers from targeting trade union members with work notices? Or is this legislation a licence for blacklisting? The Secretary of State is hiding behind warped misunderstandings of the International Labour Organisation’s statute book and misleading comparisons with Europe. The ILO says that minimum service levels can happen only when the
“safety of individuals or their health is at stake”.
Can he explain how that relates to the list of sectors in the Bill? This Bill also makes no provision for the compensatory measures the ILO requires alongside such regulations. Countries such as France and Spain may have minimum service levels, but they have not averted strikes there; both lose far more days to strike action than the UK.
This Bill is a mess. It makes no sense. It has more holes in it than the last Chancellor’s Budget, yet we are being given next to no time to scrutinise it. This legislation hands far-reaching powers to the Secretary of State to not just impose minimum service levels, but decide what those levels would be. The legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg has called clause 3
“a supercharged Henry VIII clause.”
Where is the consultation the Secretary of State promised? Where is the impact assessment? The Regulatory Policy Committee says, in a scornful statement today, that it has not even received it yet. So why have the Government given only five hours for debate on the Floor of the House?
Let us look at what this Bill 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’ lives because they cannot stomach negotiation; a Government desperately doing all they can to distract from the economic emergency they have caused. We have had 13 years of failure, and working people of this country cannot take any more. What this whole sorry episode makes clear is that this country needs a Labour Government. The Conservative party has proven itself incapable of cleaning up its own mess, and the disruption of the past few months simply would not be happening under Labour.
It is difficult to listen to the Secretary of State accuse workers who have devoted their lives to life saving, whether they are fire workers, doctors or nurses, of putting others at risk. As for the arguments that this is too expensive or too difficult, today Oxfam announced that $21 trillion went into the pockets of 1% internationally during the global pandemic. Does the right hon. Lady agree that there is enough money but it is just in the wrong pockets?
The hon. Gentleman makes some important and valid points. In the past 12 months to two and a half years, we have seen the unravelling of the VIP fast-track lane for people linked to the Conservative party—that was a waste of billions of pounds that could have gone into investment in our public services. The public have seen 13 years of Conservative failure. Most of the public who are watching this debate today can ask themselves one question: do they feel better off after 13 years of the Conservatives? The answer to that question is no, unless of course they are in that 1%, with a WhatsApp number of a Government Minister.
Labour would have resolved these disputes a long time ago, by getting back around the negotiating table in good faith and doing a deal.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Labour Government in Wales were given more than £1 billion for personal protective equipment and test, track and trace, and spent only £500 million? If we had had that level of savings, instead of having Tory crony donors putting their hand in the till, it would have aggregated up to a saving of £11 billion, as against a total pay cost to the NHS of £56 billion? In other words, we are talking about 20% of the annual pay for all nurses and all health workers. So does she not agree that if we had a Labour Government, we would have more money to provide decent wages for those in our health service?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; not only would we have grown the economy—and we have a plan to grow the economy, unlike the Conservatives —but we would not have wasted billions of pounds and we would not have crashed the economy like the Conservatives did.
This Government are not working and this Bill is unworkable. The sacking nurses Bill is one of the most indefensible and foolish pieces of legislation to come before this House in modern times. It threatens teachers and nurses with the sack during a recruitment and retention crisis, and mounts an outright assault on the fundamental freedom of working people, while doing absolutely nothing to resolve the crisis at hand. We on these Benches will vote against this shoddy, unworkable Bill, and I urge every Member across this House who cares for fundamental British freedoms, and who knows that the only way to resolve disputes is by negotiating in good faith, to join us in standing against it this evening.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner). It was somewhat inevitable that this debate would quickly become partisan, and she reinforced that.
I pay tribute to our hard-working frontline public sector workers. On Friday, I visited workers at the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust, who have not been on strike, and all credit to them. In the operational control centres, people have been working diligently, day in, day out, to manage, quite frankly, the many, many challenging cases.
This House will understand my particular interest in operational frontline workers, especially when it comes to the police, who cannot strike, and also fire and rescue workers and Border Force officers. Just last year, I was able to use existing Home Office budgets to provide the police with a pay increase. It was a 5% pay increase across the board and one of the largest settlements in the public sector. I accepted the recommendation from the Police Remuneration Review Body, and it was my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who is in his place, who oversaw that settlement. That funding was vital because we on the Conservative Benches believe in our frontline public sector workers. We believe in giving them the resources that they need and the working conditions in which they can do their jobs, but within the affordability of the Government’s financial envelope, which is incredibly important.
I say to the hon. Lady and to all Members in the House that we are facing fundamental economic challenges right now, and they have to be met within the financial envelope of this Government. That is a statement of the obvious. At the end of the day, the Government have a responsibility to ensure that certain levels of service are provided in key sectors and in our public services, and rightly so. The public expect that, and the Government have a responsibility to oversee that and ensure that these levels of services help to protect and safeguard lives, keep our country safe, support the economy and ensure that the British public—the silent, hard-working majority—can go about living their lives in the way that we all want to see.
Obviously, the current wave of strikes and industrial action is concerning the public; it is also counterproductive when it comes to delivering public services. We have seen the level of disruption that is taking place. It cannot be right that, in the 21st century, our great country and our economy are put at risk by strike action. We have seen that on our borders; border control is being weakened by strikes. Patients and those in need of essential medical care are facing disruption. That is not right. All of us have constituents. This is not about one constituency against another, or one part of the country against the other. We have seen commuters who cannot get to work. That is wrong. We have seen businesses and, in Essex, small and medium-sized enterprises, operating on tight margins—not glitzy corporations—now suffering because of the strikes. Again, that is not right.
I know that many workers—I think that we all know this—find the decision to go out on strike very difficult. They struggle when it comes to voting in ballots because of the options that are sometimes put in front of them. We also know that there are some in the trade union movement—we must recognise this and we have heard it already from those on the Opposition Benches—who are happy to go along with the disruption, which is not acceptable. Some get satisfaction out of this. I am afraid that we have seen that in the past. We have seen Opposition Members go on picket lines and cheer and make political points. That is not right, because, at the end of the day, it is the public who suffer.
Indeed, since 2010, we have seen the hard left and militants take action and co-ordinate strikes, and the public suffer. That is not right. Let us not forget that it was the Conservatives who, in the 1980s, stood up to the militant trade unions, and, importantly, introduced reforms.
I cannot give way, because I do not have time.
Importantly, I wish to press the Government to consider widening the list of sectors where minimum service standards are needed. I wish to ask the Government to ensure that they always look to keep legislation and measures open and under review, so that we can continue to uphold standards to protect the public going about their daily lives.
The right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) said that this was a partisan debate. Of course it is a partisan debate, because we either believe in the right of workers to strike or we do not, so, clearly, it is a partisan debate. She spoke about SMEs struggling because of strikes. I can tell her that SMEs in my constituency are more worried about their energy bills going through the roof and the lack of Government support that is coming down the line from April onwards.
We know that this is “anti-strike legislation”—those are not my words, but the words of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland from the Dispatch Box last week at Scotland questions. He boasted that his Government were introducing “anti-strike” legislation in a rare bit of honesty from the Dispatch Box.
The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy keeps going on about minimum ambulance cover, but the reality is that this is an attack on millions of public sector workers. The explanatory notes tell us that this is a Tory manifesto commitment about tackling transport strikes. Although the Conservatives might hide behind that manifesto commitment, that commitment has nothing to do with clamping down on the NHS or on teachers. The Conservatives claim that it is about safety, but, as I said earlier, the word “safety” is not used once in the Bill or in explanatory notes. The reality is that this is an ideological war on the unions, which the Tories somehow think will curry favour with the public. It is a misty-eyed look back to Margaret Thatcher taking on the National Union of Mineworkers. It was a battle that she won, but it was a battle that resulted in the closures of mines and left communities devasted and thousands of workers on the dole. Do we really want to go back to sacking workers and putting them on the dole? That is what this is all about.
We know that this is an ideological war, because, in this period of Tory governance, the Government have already given us the Trade Union Act 2016, introducing voting thresholds, and then, last year, the legislation to allow employers to hire agency staff to break strikes. There is no doubt that this Government want to end strikes, effectively removing the ultimate backstop on collective bargaining.
The Bill not only facilitates an attack on workers, but enables employers to potentially sue unions for damages. It is no wonder that it is opposed by the TUC, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Unison, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing among others, and I certainly support them in opposing this.
The legislation is nothing more than an attack on democracy—an attack on the rights of workers to withdraw their labour, and a further attack on devolution. Neither the Scottish Government nor the Welsh Government want this legislation, but, yet again, this legislation will be imposed on the devolved nations. In Scotland, this is further proof that the Westminster straitjacket does us no good at all. We could have had employment and workers’ rights devolved, but, unfortunately, Labour resisted those powers coming to Scotland. However, even the STUC has now called for the devolution of employment rights to Scotland, so perhaps Labour should consider that, instead of listening to Gordon Brown’s rehash of broken promises.
It is worth noting that the Bill does not impact Northern Ireland, as employment law is already devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, so, yet again, the so-called most powerful devolved Parliament in the world—the Scottish Parliament—has fewer powers than the Northern Ireland Assembly, and this proves it.
This ideological attack comes from someone who, as Transport Secretary, was non-existent when it came to dialogue and communications, and that was confirmed by the unions. He was somebody who was blocking the DFT from agreeing deals, and now we have that same person in post leading the charge for anti-strike and anti-worker legislation. Given the Secretary of State’s form, we know that he is up for a fight, but even if wins this fight, he will be destroying worker relationships for good. These are hard-pressed workers, particularly from within the NHS, who are struggling at times with the pressures that they are under. Who seriously thinks that not negotiating and threatening workers with the sack for striking will help matters? It is utterly insane. As the rail unions pointed out at the Transport Committee last week, deals have been agreed where DfT and UK Ministers are not involved. Clearly the union asks cannot be too unreasonable, when RMT and ASLEF have agreed deals with ScotRail and the Scottish Government, deals in Wales and deals with Merseyrail, for example—deals with Governments and authorities that have been hamstrung by the Tory austerity imposed on them, yet still managed to agree deals.
The Tories tell us they are the party of workers. That phrase fools no one, but they also tell us they are all about a high-wage, skilled economy. Yet, as we have heard, when workers ask for a wage rise they are told no, that it is unaffordable; even worse, in the case of the rail unions, the Secretary of State quotes figures that he thinks show how well paid all rail staff are. That is really telling: the Secretary of State is effectively saying, “Train drivers are overpaid—how dare they ask for a wage rise?”. That is insulting beyond belief.
The Tories can forget saying they want a high-wage economy. They were quite happy for the rail companies to pay dividends during the pandemic. They were quite happy for Virgin Trains East Coast to walk away from the London North Eastern Railway franchise owing billions of pounds, but they always go for attacking workers.
It is the same with the Secretary’s rhetoric about this legislation mirroring what happens elsewhere in Europe. His soundbites are easily proven to be false. Indeed, the general secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions, Jan Willem Goudriaan, argued that comparison by the UK Government of this Bill with existing laws in other EU countries was misrepresenting the situation, because all minimum service levels in Europe are agreed through negotiation. Moreover, the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, Esther Lynch, said:
“The UK already has among the most draconian restrictions on the right to strike in Europe, and the UK government’s plans would push it even further away from normal, democratic practice across Europe”.
Pablo Sánchez Centellas, a spokesperson for the EPSU, was much more succinct, saying, “It’s bollocks.” The Secretary of State should reflect on the true position of this proposed legislation compared with what is happening in Europe.
It also seems that this legislation is in breach of article 11 of the European convention on human rights, especially with regard to proportionate action. Richard Arthur, head of trade union law at Thompsons Solicitors, said the Bill raised,
“very serious legal question marks”,
and anticipates legal challenges under article 11 of the ECHR and convention 87 of the International Labour Organisation. He has also rightly pointed out that the human rights memorandum that accompanied the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill set out reasons why minimum service levels were not justified in fire services, health settings or education, yet that is what the Government now propose. By default, this Government are now going against their own previous human rights opinion. What kind of madness is that?
When it comes to the International Labour Organisation, which the Secretary of State likes to reference, its idea of minimum service requirements is clearly intended to be based on endangerment to life, personal safety or health. This wide-ranging legislation goes way beyond those parameters. The ILO makes it clear there should be an independent arbitration body, yet this Bill is completely silent on such a body. Why is that?
It is also clear that any minimum service level is supposed to be just that—a bare minimum. We have no idea what this Government will railroad through via statutory instruments. Statutory instruments cannot be amended and the last time a Government was defeated on a statutory instrument was in 1979, so we know all power rests with the Government there.
As Liberty has observed, the Bill does not create any form of minimal service. Liberty also confirms that MPs debating this legislation on Second Reading will not know exactly what they are voting for, so all the Tory MPs in the Chamber who are going to take part in the debate and then trot through the Lobby will do so blind to what the future legislation and regulations on minimum service will look like. It is an affront to democracy. Any Tory MP who claims to care about parliamentary sovereignty cannot possibly vote for this Bill.
The Bill is made worse by the Henry VIII power that allows amendment and revocation even of future legislation not yet passed. We can see how the Government are ramming this Bill through Parliament with minimum scrutiny and a proposed programme motion allowing just five hours for Committee. It really is an assault on democracy. The fact that the Bill comes into effect immediately once passed, so that work notices and actions can be taken by employers for strikes that have already been voted through, shows just how ridiculous this assault on workers is.
The impact assessment for the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill observes that on a strike day in July 2022, 20% of rail services were still in operation. Right away that suggests to me that a minimum level of service was operating. What do the Tories really think a minimum service is, if 20% is not a bare minimum? There are huge ramifications here for rail workers overall, because if this Government force through a high threshold of minimum service, strikes by signalmen and track operatives will effectively be banned. A high minimum service will force all those guys to work to keep the tracks in operation and the trains running, effectively blocking strikes by the back door.
What will minimum service look like for teachers? Where does that fit in with all the talk about safety? What happens to train companies that cannot provide a minimum service at the moment, especially if union members decide not to work on their rest days and to work to rule? Where will that leave this Government on minimum service level obligations?
The overview in the explanatory notes makes it clear that the ability to sack workers is a key aspect of the Bill. That is the polar opposite of what was said when a transport strike Bill was listed in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019, when it was stated that workers would not be discriminated against. Why are the Government now threatening people’s livelihoods?
Despite what the Secretary of State says, it is also clear that this legislation will allow employers to target those they think are part of an awkward squad. Allowing employers to decide who has to work on notified strike days clearly infringes on workers’ rights to withdraw labour. Instead of the illegal blacklisting previously done by some companies, employers now can name workers they want to break a strike, and sack those workers if they stay true to their beliefs. How can that be deemed acceptable?
The sacking aspect is the proof that this is nothing to do with minimum cover by ambulance staff, as the Secretary of State likes to tell us. It also ignores the fact that section 240 of the 1992 Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) keeps saying, allows for preserving life and limb, and that unions have their own practices to comply with that legislation. For fire services, the Secretary of State could also utilise the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, if he felt the desire to do so.
It is crystal clear that this legislation is not required. It is an attack on democracy and the right to strike; it will prolong industrial disputes, not resolve them; it will allow individual workers to be targeted through work notices; and it is politically stupid. We have to wonder why this Tory Government are looking to antagonise something like 7 million workers across these sectors. It also shows an astonishing level of incompetence to bring in legislation that potentially allows them to sack essential workers in vital sectors where there is already a shortage of skilled workers.
The public can see through a Government who partied while clapping the nurses and now threaten them with the sack. They should follow the lead of the Scottish Government and get around the negotiating table. The resolution of the ScotRail dispute has been commended by both the RMT and ASLEF. There are no strikes planned in the health service in Scotland and the pay deal being implemented by the Scottish Government is one that the UK Government should replicate as a starting point when they get around the negotiating table.
It is outrageous that the Scottish Government, who have been negotiating in good faith with the unions, will now have this legislation foisted upon them—legislation that Westminster could use to force work notices through in Scotland against the wishes of the Scottish Government and that could ruin otherwise good working relationships in Scotland. Employment law should be devolved to Scotland, but even that would now just be a sticking plaster. It is perfectly obvious that what Scotland now needs is the full powers of a normal, independent country.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate as Chair of the Transport Committee, and I will focus my comments on that particular sector.
Let me say at the outset that I support the objective behind the Bill. It does not strike me as unreasonable to seek a mechanism whereby the right of a worker to strike, which I have no quibble with, is balanced against the equally important right of an individual to go about their daily life, to travel to work, for healthcare, for education, to visit loved ones or for any of the millions of other reasons why people travel about. It is therefore appropriate to find a mechanism by which those two rights can be reconciled.
There are, however, a number of practical issues that I will put on the record. I understand that this is framework legislation and that the detail on how it will operate in the transport sector will follow. I was heartened to hear that the consultation on the rail side of transport will be in place before the Bill completes its parliamentary passage. There are some issues that have to be clarified and resolved before the Bill can properly take effect.
As has already been alluded to, it is possible in rail, for example, for parts of the system to operate at a minimum level. One train an hour could run from London to Manchester instead of three—there are a number of ways to have that reduction in service. But some parts of the system are binary: a signal box is either open or closed; and in aviation, an air traffic control centre is either open or closed. We need clarity on where the minimum level of service will apply.
A related point is whether every aviation, railway or bus line and service will have a minimum service or just a percentage of overall capacity. There is a trade-off to be made. If another line operates nearby, does that mean that both lines have to operate a minimum service, or would one have a more regular service? Those are the trade-offs that will have to be made.
In the current dispute on the railways, Network Rail and the train operating companies have a degree of flexibility in making decisions on which lines and stations will be open. Will what they have to cover now be specified in the regulations, or will they be left with some discretion?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have only a minute left and many Members wish to speak.
My last point is about what will be covered by the definition of “transport services”. There are the traditional ones that we all assume will be covered—trains, buses, flights, ferries and the like—but what about some of the other modes of transport, such as cycle hire or taxi services? What does the definition encompass?
I will ask my Committee, when we meet later this week, if we can usefully contribute to the consultation, but I thought it would be helpful in this part of the debate to set out some of the questions that will have to be addressed as the Bill goes through. The objective of the Bill is absolutely right: we have to balance the right to strike with the right of people to go about their way of life.
I declare an interest as a member of Unite the union.
May I start by correcting the public record? As always, I am grateful to Ministers for taking the time to speak with me directly about Bills in my capacity as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Unfortunately, in a Westminster Hall debate on Thursday, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), referenced our discussion without giving me advance notice. He said that I was
“very supportive of a minimum service level”.—[Official Report, 12 January 2023; Vol. 725, c. 372WH.]
Let me be very clear to the House, to the Minister and to my constituents: I am against the Bill and will vote against it this evening. What I said to the Minister was that I—and, I am sure, many people—think it reasonable for there to be a minimum level of service from our emergency services during a period of strike action, and I encouraged him to pursue that via discussion with the relevant services and trade unions, not by threatening them with the prospect of an effective statutory ban on their right to strike.
When I asked the Minister whether he had sought to achieve that before introducing the legislation, he was unable to fully answer my question. As we have already heard this evening, the rationale for the Bill is therefore in question. The Government say that the legislation in place is not effective and that voluntary agreements cannot be sought, but that is not correct. Indeed, in signing off the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill and its compliance with the European convention on human rights, even the Government said:
“In the case of other key public services, important factors exist to mitigate the impacts of industrial action”.
So what has changed?
As we have already heard, section 240 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 makes it a criminal offence and a breach of employment contract to strike if doing so puts someone’s life in danger or puts them at risk of serious injury. That is why we have statutory guidance in place across public services, and it is why trade unions put life-and-limb service provision in place when they organise strikes with management.
On voluntary agreements, in December last year and this month, such agreements have been put in place. Unison and GMB told me that they limited strike action to six or 12 hours instead of 24 hours, that there were procedures for bringing workers back from the picket line if they were needed on the ward, and that they monitored call volumes in real time to ensure that patients were kept safe. As far as I am aware—from speaking with striking nurses at Southmead Hospital in my constituency, and later with senior management—there were no problems with those voluntary service arrangements, so the law is in place, voluntary agreements are in place, and there is no rationale for the Bill. We can therefore only conclude that it is a negotiating tactic—a threat—by the Government.
Lastly, my Committee was disappointed by the lack of time for scrutinising the Bill. Once again, Ministers have introduced primary legislation with wide-ranging discretionary powers for Ministers without publishing the details of vital secondary legislation in a timely manner. That is unacceptable. It is poor practice for Ministers to bring legislation to the House in that way. As the Regulatory Policy Committee confirmed for me today, the Government are obliged to publish an impact assessment so that that Committee can inform the House of the impact of legislation proposed by Ministers. However, Ministers have not given the Regulatory Policy Committee the time to review the Government’s impact assessment and then inform the House about the consequences of the legislation.
So not only do we have a Bill that has no evidence-based rationale for the need to legislate on voluntary agreements, but we have a Government rushing through the legislation without following due process and without drafting it to the standard that this House requires. It is clearly a rushed threat, it is unacceptable and it shows disregard for the House and the job that we have to do as parliamentarians to ensure that the law is passed effectively.
To summarise, can the Minister confirm that the Government will publish the statutory instruments and the impact assessment before the Bill finishes its passage through this House? I politely suggest that he may want to have another go at trying to explain to the House why the Bill is even necessary in the first place.
I stand to speak in favour of the legislation and to commend the Government for taking this difficult but necessary step.
Today I want to talk about duty. Through this legislation, we on the Conservative Benches are fulfilling our duty to protect our constituents. Those on the Labour Benches—in hock to their trade union masters—are failing theirs. Nurses, teachers, firefighters and all the other professions covered in the legislation are true heroes in our society. They carry out a great service to our communities. We must continue to focus on growing our economy to meet the wage demands of public sector workers, but we must also maintain the independence of pay review bodies precisely so that we can take the politics out of public sector pay. The conversation should also be about fairness and balancing the right to strike with the public’s right to be kept safe.
I understand the value of a trade union—I understand that workers may want to organise to protect pay and working conditions—but what we are seeing is hard-left leaders and militant trade unions taking advantage of economic difficulty to instigate what is effectively a rolling general strike. When those actions put lives at risk, we Conservatives know that we must take action.
A minimum service level need not be controversial. If the trade unions offer a safe level of service at the very least, there is no need to have a minimum service level. We saw that with the Royal College of Nursing, which maintained a safe level of service. That just goes to show how selfless and professional those nurses where while exercising their democratic right, and I am grateful to them for protecting the public. I certainly hope that, in the next independent pay review, we reach a positive result and avoid future strike action. The concept of minimum service levels is protected in article 11 of the ECHR and is endorsed by the International Labour Organisation. As we have already heard, this is no different from what is done in Italy, France and Spain.
In that light, I find the position of the Labour party quite astonishing. We all have a primary duty to protect our constituents and our communities. By opposing the legislation, the Labour party is, in my view, failing in that duty. To be frank, Labour has supported the strikes, whether implicitly or explicitly. At best, it has failed to take an appropriate stand against the trade unions; at worst, it is egging them on and relishing the disruption and division being caused. Is that what the modern Labour party stands for—closing down our schools, bringing our country to a standstill and threatening livelihoods? I know it is a new year, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is the same old Labour party.
We on the Government Benches will not compromise on our fundamental duty. We will do all we can to protect our constituents, our communities and our society. That is why I endorse the Bill.
I direct the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a proud trade union member.
The Government are on a mission to take power from the people, with restrictions on the right to protest, restrictions on democracy with voter ID, the removal of huge chunks of human rights through their Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill—that will scrap more than 4,000 pieces of legislation, many of which cover the basic rights of people in this country—and now this disgraceful attempt to criminalise workers taking legitimate industrial action.
Each of those power grabs commits political violence on our communities. As with most of this Government’s policies, this attempt to deny workers what is universally regarded as a fundamental human right seeks to divide communities and pit worker against worker, forcing some of them to walk past their colleagues and cross picket lines—although everyone here knows that I never have and never will cross a picket line.
No. This Government are turning back the clock not just on workers’ rights but on the rights of the vast majority of this country. As always, Ministers are only concerned about making money for their cronies and big business.
My constituents have been in touch with me over the last few days to express how angry and disappointed they are at the Government’s handling of these disputes. While I have time, I would rather say what my constituents want me to say than hear what Conservative Members want to say. My constituent Robert Best from Boldon emailed me yesterday:
“The Government should be finding ways to help striking workers, rather than remove their right to strike! Right now, refusing to negotiate with workers is the last thing our country needs.”
Robert is, of course, completely correct. The Government should be negotiating, not legislating. Workers need a pay rise, not a P45.
Last week, in a question to the Business Secretary, I referenced the struggles of the Tolpuddle martyrs and the seven men of Jarrow—people who were criminalised 200 years ago for fighting for basic health and safety and pay. The response I got was that I should stop “raving on”. I will not stop raving on. I will not stop supporting workers and the people in my community.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. Will she point out where there are any criminal sanctions attached to the proposed legislation? As far as I can see, there are absolutely none. It is important that we do not scaremonger in that way.
If we attack the trade unions, which are made up of members who are workers, then we are attacking the workers.
The Government’s proposed legislation and the response I just got show the contempt in which they hold working people. The Government do not care about working people. They do not care about our communities who are struggling to survive in the face of unaffordable food and energy bills, and struggling to deal with the cost of living crisis and 13 years of cuts by the Conservative party. We already have the most restrictive workers’ rights in western Europe, and it is an affront to democracy that this Government are trying to restrict them further.
Of course, the Government know that the Bill is not workable. It will be held up in the other place, if it gets that far, and in the courts. They only care about attention-grabbing headlines—about moving the Overton window so the people of this country will accept more and more restrictions on their rights.
Minimum service levels already exist: our NHS teams ensure that priority calls are dealt with, and teachers ensure that special educational needs children are catered for. What we need is for the Government to provide a minimum service level every day. We hear daily of workers struggling to cope with current staffing levels. The Government should be looking at ways to address the NHS staffing crisis, not making it worse.
The Government need to accept that the reason so many sectors are saying “enough is enough” and taking industrial action—we heard the announcement today that the teaching unions will take action, and I send my solidarity to them—is the Government’s failures. The firefighters, NHS staff, transport staff and education staff that the Bill targets are the very people who saw us through the pandemic. If the Bill passes, no doubt the Government will eventually seek to apply the legislation to workers in more sectors. Instead of inflaming the situation, they should start dealing with the causes of increased strike action: low wages, fuel and food poverty, and cuts to public services.
The Bill is part of the Government’s plan to restrict all our rights and to demonise and criminalise those who are just trying to survive. As I said at the start, it is an act of political violence. The Government should do the right thing for the country and withdraw it.
We have had so much disruption to our critical services in recent years, and I pay tribute to all those working in those sectors.
I support minimum service levels for our critical services. Who could oppose them? Well, the Labour party does. It says it is protecting workers’ rights, but does that not ignore the rights of all of those who rely on these key services for their health, their education and their livelihood?
We have seen the sad impact on pupils of disruption to education, the extra burden it places on families and schools, and the anxiety that causes parents and students. The Children’s Commissioner highlighted this weekend that it is the most disadvantaged who face the greatest impact if education is disrupted. I support the right of children to a great education, but the Labour party opposes minimum service levels. It says it is protecting workers’ rights, but that ignores the rights of working families and students if schools close.
Minimum service levels should also apply to our ambulance service. We all know the challenges our NHS is facing, yet at a time when we need to focus on addressing them, Labour opposes minimum service levels for our ambulance and fire services. Does anyone really believe it should be up to intransigent unions to decide whether help arrives? Emergency services should not be a bargaining chip in employment disputes. Our country cannot be held to ransom by intransigent unions. I believe the NHS should be there when we need it, but the Labour party opposes minimum service levels. It says it is protecting workers’ rights, but what about the right to receive care in an emergency?
The rail strikes are yet another example. I have been contacted by constituents whose children are unable to get to school, commuters unable to get to work, and patients unable to see their loved ones in hospital or go to appointments. I support everyone’s right to travel, but the Labour party opposes minimum service levels. It says it is protecting workers’ rights, but what about the rights of the self-employed? Are they not workers? What about the rights of small business employees? Are they not workers? What about the rights of drivers? Are they not workers? What about cleaners, administrators or carers—or any worker in a sector not supported by unions?
I was elected to this House to represent all my constituents, and that means protecting health services, education and livelihoods. In the light of union intransience to negotiate and modernise, minimum service levels are now needed, so I wholeheartedly support the Bill. I am genuinely appalled that the Labour party opposes minimum service levels. It says it is protecting workers’ rights. I think we all know who it is really protecting.
Let me start by declaring an interest: I am a proud member of both Unite the union and GMB and, prior to being elected to this place, I worked for Unite the union for over a decade. I know from first-hand experience the amazing work that trade unions do in representing their members in the workplace. Contrary to what some Conservative Members may have us believe, trade unions want their workplaces to thrive. They know that a productive workplace needs a happy, motivated workforce. They know that, when companies make large profits, they can ask for decent pay rises for their members. When workplaces struggle, they will work with the employer to ensure it survives. We all know how public sector workers kept our country moving during the pandemic. They worked night and day to keep us safe, but how does this Government seek to repay them? First, with a derisory pay offer and then— because the unions have voted to strike, rather than roll over and accept the derisory pay offer—the Prime Minister has resorted to launching a fundamental attack on workers’ freedoms. This Bill is unworkable and impractical.
The fact is that minimum service levels do not stop strikes in Europe. Between 2010 and 2020, France lost almost six times as many days to strikes as the UK, and Spain lost more than twice as many. Ironically, we already have minimum service levels in place in the UK. These are negotiated between the unions and the employers. I remember when I joined a picket line with striking firemen and women, and they told me how they had agreed with their employer that, if there was any fire or any other emergency, they would jump into the fire engines and be straight there. None of them wanted to see anyone lose their lives because of their action, which was their last resort. They ensured there was a mutual voluntary agreement not through legislation, but through negotiation—something that we all know happens right the way through the public sector.
Most worryingly, the Bill does not give any indication of what will constitute a minimum level of service, meaning that the Secretary of State will be able to change that at their discretion. Having stretched public services and the workforce to breaking point, the Government’s solution is to create conditions in which workers can be forced into work and are unable to withhold their labour, no matter what the employee does. Is that really the kind of Britain of which we want to be part—one in which workers’ freedoms are being restricted to the extent that they could be sacked for standing up for their rights?
That is democracy. Trade unions are subject to the most vigorous legislation when they are balloting and trade union money is the cleanest money in politics. Public sector workers are proud of the role they play in society, saving and protecting lives, but they need to be valued and their voices matter. When our NHS workers say they are worried about public health and the NHS, we need to listen, not curtail the right for their voices to be heard. The Government could and should have negotiated with the trade unions to get a decent settlement. They need to listen closely to the concerns that workers across the country have been raising. I thoroughly believe that, when we work together, we achieve better outcomes. Trade union rights are human rights. I defend their right to strike and I will be voting against this Bill.
I would like to accept the invitation of the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who encouraged us to be respectful in this debate. I wish to be so. We have heard a lot from the Labour party this evening about how the Bill is an act of political violence and an attack on the fundamental freedom of working people, but we have not heard an answer to the fundamental question that the legislation poses: do the British people have a right set out in statute to a basic safety and security guarantee during periods of strike?
Let us start with the law. The right to strike is embedded in international law, most notably in article 11 of the European convention on human rights.
The hon. Lady asks whether any of us on the Opposition Benches care about fundamental safety levels, and yes we do. She asked whether we would support legislating, but legislation already exists. On article 11, she knows as well as I do that the measures have to be “necessary”. The Government’s own memo with the last legislation said that the measures were not necessary in relation to the health service, education and fire and rescue.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her point, and I will assist her, because I was coming on to that point. The article 11 right may be restricted for two reasons—if the restriction is necessary, yes, and proportionate. The International Labour Organisation, of which the United Kingdom is a founding member, recognises that maintaining a minimum level of service provision can be both when it comes to essential services. Its committee on freedom of association has expressly set out the two circumstances in which it may be appropriate: where strike action would pose a risk to life, safety or health; or where the service is not essential in the strict sense of the word, but where repeated strikes would bring a very important sector to a standstill.
I am grateful to both SNP Members for their interventions. I am coming on to those points, so I will make a tiny bit of progress, if I may.
On the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), we already know that transport and education meet the ILO’s test, because the ILO told the United Kingdom that in its response to the challenge to the Trade Union Act 2016 submitted by the TUC in 2015. In its response, the ILO committee of experts—Members can look it up; it is on the website—said that in relation to transport and education
“recourse might be had to negotiated minimum standards for these sectors as appropriate”.
We also know that many comparable countries take a much tougher line than the Government are proposing. In the United States, to give one example, 38 out of 50 states ban public sector strikes altogether.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. I am coming to all these things, so if he will give me a moment, I will continue.
In the United States, 38 out of 50 states have an outright ban on public sector strikes, including New York. Other states, such as Canada, Australia, Italy and Spain, all have embedded in statute minimum service levels that apply to important public services, and those services are often drawn much more widely than the Government are proposing. They include waste collection, postal services, broadcast services, the administration of justice, water distribution and energy supply.
I pick out those states not as random examples, but because every single one is a member of the International Labour Organisation. They are bound by exactly the same rules as us, and they are among our closest comparators around the world. Even more importantly, the International Labour Organisation has adjudicated all their statutory minimum service levels, and a 2019 publication from the ILO in Geneva commented:
“These examples illustrate the wide diversity of approach that ILO member states have adopted to address the challenges posed by industrial disputes in essential services”.
Minimum service levels
“supported by the ILO’s supervisory organs, exist to manage the balancing act between these necessary restrictions and the individual worker’s fundamental labour rights”.
I have not heard a single Member of Parliament tonight explain to me why the ILO is wrong or why the Government are striking the wrong balance when they have a mandate for what they are doing.
The disingenuousness comes from making comparisons with other nations under ILO regulations, which clearly have a completely different context. For example, the ILO imposes restraints on the circumstances in which such powers can be used, which is the antithesis of the Government’s blank cheque approach.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I take the opposite position. The United States has an outright ban on public service strikes in 38 states. In December, President Biden made his most recent intervention in union rights when he signed legislation that imposed an outright ban on a national railroad strike. The United States is a founder member, as we are, of the International Labour Organisation. It goes much further, but the ILO has found its ban to be lawful. The Opposition will have to say why all those comparable states, which go much further than us, are somehow acting lawfully, yet we are not.
A lot of time is spent in courts in some countries arguing about minimum service level agreements. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a proud trade unionist: I worked for the GMB for more than a decade representing Members of Parliament, I am a member of Unite the union, and, after this debate, I might join a few more trade unions.
The Secretary of State took great joy in reading out how much hon. Members receive from trade unions, which is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) said, the cleanest money in politics. I wonder if, when he returns to his place, he will let the House know how much Michael Green, Corinne Stockheath and Sebastian Fox have received in payments.
In the short time that I have, I will talk about the Bill. It is dishonest; it is an insult to trade unions, which are the aspirational vehicle of the working class; and it is an insult to Parliament and parliamentary procedures. Most of the detail of the Bill is missing and the Government have said that they will add it later—that is not how we are supposed to do politics or make legislation. It contains wide, prospective Henry VIII powers, and as we saw during the pandemic, if we give the Government such powers, they abuse them—but they are putting them in legislation. It allows the Government to amend and revoke any future legislation passed in this Session, so what is the point of Parliament? No matter what we say or pass, the Government can turn around and say, “We want to change it,” or, “We want to revoke it.” That is against what every single Member of Parliament has been elected to do.
Ministers are trying to have power over Parliament—that is all the Bill is about—and to encourage employers to have power over workers. When I was a trade union official, it said on our office wall, “To make rich people work harder, they pay them more. To make poor people work harder, they try to pay them less.” Safety does not appear anywhere in the Bill. The House of Lords debated a report, “Democracy Denied?”, which said that we must rebalance power between Parliament and the Executive. The Government are asking Parliament to vote on a Bill that does not really exist, because there is no detail.
If the Government are serious about having minimum service levels, and if they are serious about negotiating, which nobody in the Government seems able to do, they should agree to compulsory arbitration or mediation to resolve disputes, but they are not interested in that. They are interested in trying to paint trade unions, which are the aspirational vehicle of the working class, in one light and themselves in another.
I say to the Government, however, that the public are not stupid and they see what the Government are doing by trying to take away their rights at every single level, including the right to protest and the right to vote. We see what the Government are doing and we will stand up and stop them at every opportunity.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I start by declaring that I am not a member of GMB, Unite the union or Unison—I apologise to Opposition Members if I have missed one out. My remarks relate to the transport industry, as I worked for the railways for 20 years before I was elected; indeed, I was previously a member of two trade unions.
I warmly welcome this important Bill. Those of us who are, and have been, sensible and constructive trade union members know that we can still take strike action without closing down the whole network or shutting down an entire operation. This whole debate is about balancing the right to strike with the right of our citizens to have access to key services when they need them—the right of citizens to get to work, the right of children to get to school, and the right of small business owners to continue their business.
Hard-working union members who feel pressured to strike, who believe that eight days of strikes in quick succession is too much, or who do not agree with having six days to respond to a ballot referendum instead of the standard 14, want the situation tempered and want their needs and rights to be recognised, rather than the ideological ones of trade unions. [Interruption.] I hear the moans of Opposition Members, but union members are fed up of being used as political pawns, which is why the strikes are breaking across the railway today. Individual members and individual areas are saying, “No. Enough is enough.”
I am sorry; I will not give way to hon. Members, because I have to crack on.
These strikes are not a new or recent development. There have been constant strikes for more than six months among some groups and, in some locations, they have actually been going on for years. We are seeing a rampant appetite for industrial action. We know that is the case, because RMT members have been striking against themselves in the last 12 months. Last week, at the Transport Committee, it became clear that the head of the train drivers’ union not only is a Labour party member, but has a top seat on its executive ruling body. There is a close relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions, which is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to individual Opposition MPs.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for being honest about his trade union membership. I wonder what the hundreds of thousands of teachers who just voted to go on strike against his abominable Government think about being called political pawns, when they are striking to look after our children.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that my remarks are about those in the transport industry who are in touch with me and those who represent them. I should say, however, that no teachers in my constituency have been in touch with me to tell me that. The Opposition should take note of that.
I will bring my remarks to a close. As I was saying, the relationship between the unions and individual Opposition Members is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. The unions are showering the Opposition with hundreds of thousands—millions—of pounds as if it were confetti from the sky. It is absolutely outrageous. We have the privilege of being able to refer to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests when they speak in this House—that is all it takes. [Interruption.] It is all there; I assure hon. Members that there is no influence from trade unions in my entry.
The irony is that we know that Opposition Front-Bench Members have accepted the TUC’s invitation to go to Spain to talk about such things with Spanish unions and to work out how disruption can be caused in this country. There is so much to expose, but I am afraid that I do not have any time left, otherwise I would be happy to say more.
It looks like being quite the week for the use of draconian anti-democratic powers by this Government. The restrictive anti-trade union legislation they pushed through in 2016 clearly was not enough for them, so now we see an unprecedented attack that will undermine the most basic of workers’ rights—the right to withdraw labour. The right to strike is essential for fairness in negotiations with employers and to protect workers from having appalling pay and conditions imposed on them. It is what differentiates modern Europe from the medieval serfdoms of the past.
Turning their backs on the fundamental tenets of democracy really is something this Government are getting far too used to doing. The more they get a taste for it, the further they want to go. We saw them illegally prorogue Parliament and push through Brexit, and now we see plans for a bonfire of thousands of EU regulations that protect our rights. We saw the attack on devolution through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, and now we see them block a democratic decision rightly taken in Holyrood, cranking up the disrespect yet another notch. We see their anti-protest laws becoming even more authoritarian, with plans for the police to arrest campaigners before they even have a chance to commit a crime, and now we have their anti-trade union agenda being taken to the next level with these blunt powers being brought forward to stop strikes.
The sweeping Henry VIII powers in the Bill, enabling Ministers to amend, repeal or revoke primary legislation not yet passed, should chill the heart of any democrat. It is ironic that a Government so keen to turn their back on Europe lean so heavily on their excuse, “But that is what other countries do”. It is also deeply disingenuous, and as Unison has rightly pointed out, countries being cherry-picked by the Government, such as Italy and France, come to voluntary agreements through collaborative processes and have far less restrictive measures in place than we currently see in the UK. They do not have unspecified minimum service levels imposed on them by an Executive, as this Bill would enable this Government to do. Strikes are not the cause of the problems we face here; they are a symptom of the deep-rooted damage that has been done to our public service by this Government. The fact is that nobody downs tools without very good cause, especially during a cost of living crisis.
Whatever motivation workers may have, they are under attack on all fronts by this Government, and I commend the unions for taking action to protect their members. If the Government continue to be determined to go down this destructive path, further damaging industrial relations, they must devolve employment law now, so that the Scottish Government have the powers they need to protect the rights of the people of Scotland from the damage of this Government. Workers are not just striking for themselves. They are striking for the very future of public services, which they witness being run into the ground. They are protecting the cohesion of our communities, the standards of living we should all be able to enjoy and the rights of all workers. I stand in solidarity with them, and I will always fight to protect the right to strike from irresponsible attacks such as this. This Bill should be refused any further consideration, and I urge every Member here tonight to stand against it and vote it down.
May I first welcome you to your place, Mr Deputy Speaker? I place on record my thanks to all public sector workers for the excellent work they have done—not just during the pandemic, but for many years prior to it.
As we all know, the country is facing a difficult period of economic hardship. Yes, it is partly because of the war in Ukraine, and yes, it is partly because of our active response in the fight against the pandemic, but we need to be conscious that we are here to support workers, and not all workers are members of unions. It is fair and reasonable, and I always come back to the theme of being fair and reasonable, to suggest that some of this legislation—and I will be supporting the Bill—is about making sure there is a correct balance between those in the unions who wish to strike and those, who are a majority of my electorate, who continue either to run their own small companies or to work in smaller industries that rely on public services, such as the railway network.
As many Members will know—I have said this in this place before—while I represent quite a lovely constituency, public transport very much runs north and south, and when there are rail strikes, my constituents can get around only with extreme difficulty. While that may not necessarily hurt those who have the ability to access a car or, in extremis, pay for a little cab, those who we should be supporting the most are actually the ones most affected by this—the ones who are not able to use the bus to send their kids off to school or to get to their GP surgery for a doctor’s appointment.
Reference has been made to the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust, which I know has had a really tough time over many years. I would like to place on record my thanks that it was not one of the bodies that had a strike over recent weeks. Unfortunately, I have had to use its services over the last few weeks and months, and I know that it is literally saving lives in doing the excellent work it does in very difficult circumstances.
One of the things I want to make the public aware of is that, post pandemic, we have adapted the way we work. Yes, we are very supportive of people such as rail workers, but the general population will adapt. I am a firm believer that we should be encouraging people to get back to work, which may mean commuting to London, as it does for a lot of my constituents. However, if that proves too difficult, they will just turn around and say, “Actually, we’ve already adapted, post pandemic, to working from home”. That means we will hollow out the urban areas of our country such as central London, where instead of a vibrant high street, as we have had with Victoria Street, we will very quickly have high street retailers, such as the Pret A Mangers of the world, closing up shop because they do not have the footfall to support them.
Reference has been made to international comparisons. I for one think we have got the balance right with our support for workers, but also, counter to that, for wealth creators. As someone who comes from a small and medium-sized enterprise background, I know that I was fully reliant on one, two or three workers in, in my case, a furniture retail shop, to make sure the business could run, and I could not have done it without them. They were not part of a union, but 80% of our economy is reliant on SMEs, so while unions are excellent in the work they do for large public sector bodies, other workers out there are not members of a union.
Finally, my great friend my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) mentioned that our armed forces and the police have not been able to strike for over 100 years. That system has worked, so I am not necessarily worried about this particular piece of legislation.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare that I am proudly a trade union member, as will be no surprise to anybody. I will save the Secretary of State, who is no longer in his place, time and say that the donation to me three years ago was actually my final month’s salary from the GMB. I would rather have clean donations from trade unions any day over anything that the Conservative party receives from non-doms.
The attacks on the rights and freedoms of our constituents are only becoming more apparent. Lutonians have written to me concerned about the plans to restrict their right to strike not just for themselves, but for the services they rely on. We are all desperate for our public services to be stronger, faster, more effective and cost-efficient, but it is not the fault of the selfless and hard-working key workers in our health, rail and teaching sectors that public services are in the skeletal state they are or that nurses are having to use food banks. It is the fault of 13 years of Tory Governments.
As for many others in this Chamber, the prosperity of public services and their workforce is personal for me. I was care worker, I worked in the fire brigade and I was a healthcare assistant doing shifts in hospitals. I have also been a trade union member for nearly 20 years, and I have been a trade union officer working on pro-manufacturing campaigns, bereavement leave for foster carers, stopping the abuse of agency workers, training airport staff and ensuring survivors of domestic abuse are safe at work. I say this not because it is particularly extraordinary, but because this is all in a day’s work for trade unionists, and Conservative Members should bear that in mind while they denigrate the work of trade unions.
This is not just political; it is also personal. My partner works in education, while my father was a firefighter and my mother was a nurse. They took great pride in their work, and so they should. When we face crises personally or nationally, it is these workers we rely on to keep us safe, to heal us, and to protect our homes and our loved ones. Why then are this Government determined to punish those workers with real-terms pay cuts, job losses, worse terms and uncertain futures, yet still reward bankers with unlimited bonuses?
Not only are British public service workers seeing their pay declining or their jobs cut, they are now told that they cannot speak up about it. The message to public sector heroes from this Bill is: “Put up and shut up”. Unfortunately for this Government, that is not the spirit of this country or of the party of these Benches. Our constituents know the value of their work, and they know the dignity they deserve. When it comes to civil liberties, oh, the Conservatives talk a good game about freedom of speech, but on the basic rights to strike and to protest, this Government—one of the most extreme Tory Governments—are on the wrong side every time. They fight for the rights of holocaust deniers, climate change sceptics, and out-and-out misogynists to say whatever they like online, in an effort to appear anti-woke and pro-freedom of speech, yet when it comes to the freedoms of nurses, teachers, doctors, paramedics, firefighters, support staff and healthcare assistants, the Conservatives are not on their side, and they do not want them to have the same freedoms as everyone else.
Ordinary working people such as the ones Ministers are now trying to gag fought for our rights—the right to maternity leave and bank holidays, the right to be safe at work and have equal pay, and the right to remove our labour. The right for people to have their voices heard when those in power are not listening. Time and again, the Tories show that they are on the wrong side. All they have to do is listen and negotiate. They are the reason why people need strong trade unions and a Labour Government, because the Tories will never be on the side of working people. I will always be on the side of working people, and I will vote against the Bill today.
This is a debate about the balance of rights, and balancing the right to strike of our constituents who work in essential public services with the rights of our other constituents, and their right to get to work, to school, to have their operation, and even in the case of blue-light services, their right to life. That is what we are talking about. The Bill is not about views on the rights and wrongs of the current strikes. It is certainly not an attack on public sector workers, and suggestions otherwise from Labour Members are both disgusting and an attempt to stifle genuine debate.
I deeply value the work of nurses, teachers, firefighters, ambulance drivers and rail staff across Rushcliffe and the country, and of course they should have the right to withdraw their labour. The Bill is about how they can do so safely. The Labour party would have us believe that this is some outrageous attack on workers’ rights—“political violence”, said the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne)—and something that no civilised country could possibly contemplate. No civilised country other than Spain, Italy, Germany, France, or indeed the United States, Australia and Canada, which in some areas have an outright ban on strikes in blue-light services. Normally, Opposition Members idolise Europe’s approach to employment rights, but on the issue of minimum services they are keeping very quiet. Why? It is because their paymasters in the unions do not want to let them do otherwise. I understand, I do—[Interruption.] I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Most Labour Members will be proud of the fact that trade union members in their local branch meetings vote democratically to make donations to local Labour party Members of Parliament. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw that preposterous, outrageous and untrue comment.
I certainly will not, because the hon. Gentleman failed to declare in his intervention that he received £13,000 from unions. I notice there are a lot of proud union members who are not declaring their donations. That is not me being party political—it is a requirement of this House.
I understand the position of Labour Members. It is not easy to turn round to the union barons who have given them and their colleagues more than £1 million in the past four years and tell them that they are wrong. The Bill builds on principles in the Trade Union Act 2016, which put higher vote thresholds on important public services when unions ballot on strike action. It builds on the principle of life-and-limb cover, and will prevent the situation that we had at the end of last year when different ambulance services had different agreements in place with unions. That resulted in a postcode lottery for patients, which is unacceptable.
The Bill complies with the criteria set out by the International Labour Organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) set out in detail. In short, the Bill sets out a pathway for workers to exercise their rights safely. It should not be controversial. It has precedent in the UK, all over Europe, and in international conventions. We are making the responsible choice to protect all our constituents. On the Opposition Benches, however, it may be a new year, but it is the same old Labour, still acting as the mouthpiece of their paymasters, the union barons. They have been bought by the barons, and are still doing their bidding.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in which Members will find no money from oligarchs, Saudi Arabia, oil barons or oil companies—nothing but from trade unions, and I am quite happy with that.
Here we are, a little more than 18 months since the end of lockdown, and the Government have gone from clapping to slapping key workers. It did not have to be this way. In the wake of covid, the Government had a choice. They could, like the 1945 Labour Government at the end of world war two, have chosen a new path, a different path, and a new social settlement that recognised the sacrifice and efforts of key workers. They could have rewarded them by embarking on collective sectoral bargaining, and invested in rebuilding our public services and in housing after more than a decade of decay. They could have built a new social settlement, recognising the role that those workers played in that national crisis. Instead, they chose to look to the first world war, and to the Geddes axe, when the post-war Conservative Government slashed public spending, attacked workers’ rights, and told the poor they and not the wealthy must bear the brunt of the costs of the war.
The Bill puts beyond a shadow of doubt whose side this Government are on. It is certainly not the public, because those public sector workers who are being denied their democratic rights are the public. They are the ones defending public services, not the Government, and they are the ones fighting to stop trains without ticket offices, and railways with a reduced number of safety precautions. They are the ones fighting to stop a healthcare system that is run from silicon valley by surveillance companies such as Palantir, and fighting for our education system, which 44% of teachers plan to leave within five years. The Government, however, are on the side of employers such as P&O, British Gas and British Airways, with a Bill that gives a green light to the practitioners of fire and rehire, poverty pay and a race to the bottom. And yes, as ever, the Government are on the side of the rich and wealthy, as they have always been.
But the Bill is also part of a longer term, anti-democratic trend, and part of a raft of anti-democratic legislation passed by the Government. It is a trend of transferring power away from workers and citizens, and eliminating their limited rights and freedoms in the workplace and across society. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 criminalised political protest. The Elections Act 2022 will disenfranchise millions through voter ID, and it undermined the independence of the Electoral Commission. The Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 limits the power of courts to remedy unlawful Government action on the part of the Executive. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 means that 6 million in this country could now be stripped of citizenship at the whim of the Home Secretary, and although the Government have temporarily gone quiet on this, we know they also want to repeal the Human Rights Act.
The British public have had enough of being told by this Government to suck up failing privatised public services, corrupt politicians, collapsing living standards, a dying environment and a falling democracy. They have had enough of being told that there is no alternative, that politicians will always be caught on the take, that the rich and powerful will always be able to buy influence, that foodbanks are inevitable, that the NHS will always be in crisis, that our rivers will always be polluted, and that a race to the bottom on employment rights is inevitable. History will show that the Bill is the act of a Government on the ropes, bereft of direction, and lashing out at the very public they claim to protect. This grim 50-year-old ideological experiment is in tatters all around, and I will be voting against this piece of rubbish.
I welcome you to your place, Mr Deputy Speaker, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis). I was struck by something he just said. Yes, the rich and powerful can always buy influence—we need only see the number of people who have made declarations this evening.
This simple and effective Bill is aimed at ensuring that the right to collective bargaining and the withdrawal of labour does not conflict with the right of the average British citizen to access lifesaving or potentially important services while unions and the Government negotiate. The debilitating strikes of the past six months have wreaked havoc on this country, dragging us into a virtual state of second lockdown, and preventing workers from travelling to offices and shoppers from accessing high streets, and putting additional pressure on the NHS. We understand that this is driven in part by the inflationary pressures that we are encountering as a nation.
No one is disputing the right of workers to withdraw their labour as part of a negotiation, however unreasonable some of those demands end up being; no one is saying that at all. All that we are asking for is some proportionality and responsibility in how that is done. Our nation should not be held hostage and have lives risked simply for want of minimum safety standards. That is what we are talking about.
We are not talking about blanket enforcement; just recognition that some services are simply vital. Those include health, fire and rescue, health and education. Few of us will forget the impact of shutting down schools during the pandemic. They also include transport—the Mayor of London cannot stick to his zero strikes pledge—the decommissioning of nuclear installations; the management of radioactive waste, which is surely a no-brainer and one that we can all agree needs to go on; and border security.
The Bill ensures that people can access an ambulance when they call for one, count on fire responders in an emergency, send their children to school and travel to work. Why should people be held to ransom by militant, unelected trade union officials? If they want that power, they should stand for election and not simply buy support from the Labour party.
No, I will not.
Minimum service levels are not an anomaly. France, Spain and Italy have given minimum service levels during strikes, and I thought that the Labour party was in favour of more European alignment. The Government do not want to use the Bill, but it is vital to have in place a system that allows the British public to access services during strike days and go about their lives in an ordinary way.
We have to ask ourselves: what are the strikes really about? I will highlight rail because I am a regular commuter. Union bosses have refused to accept that the pandemic has fundamentally changed how travellers use the rail network. Modernising the network is essential to ensuring that it is sustainable for future generations. The Government stepped in with support of more than £30 billion for the rail industry during the pandemic. That is not pocket change.
I have seen at first hand the impact of what rail strikes have done to the west coast main line, where at one point we faced coach journeys of up to 10 hours because of the lack of flexibility. That is fine for me because I can afford to be flexible with my working arrangements and I have a good, guaranteed wage. However, plenty of my constituents do not have that, so if the service is not there when they need it, they are in serious trouble. The hypocrisy of the trade unions, who say that they are fighting for workers, is palpable. Travel is unavoidable for millions of workers who do not have the option of working remotely. Those people are driving Britain’s economy, despite the obstacles put in front of them by the trade unions. Let us look at the collateral effects: December’s rail strikes cost UK hospitality £1.5 billion, and huge swathes of businesses and jobs were lost.
The simple fact of the matter is that, with more than £15 million donated by the trade unions to the Labour party, it is no wonder that Labour Members sit on their hands while trade unions cripple our vital services. Even the Leader of the Opposition knows it—that is why he is not here leading the debate but instead rubbing shoulders with bankers in Davos.
The strikes have become contagious, spreading from one sector to another, holding the British public hostage in the hope that the Government will surrender. That is not how a democracy works. I support workers’ rights, but that is not limitless. I welcome the commitment to the rights of the British public to access vital services during strike action, and I look forward to supporting the Bill later tonight.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) with that extremely interesting speech. I would like to put on the record that I am a proud member of Unite the union and the GMB. I will vote against the Bill and stand in absolute solidarity with all those in Liverpool, West Derby taking industrial action in defence of their pay, their conditions and their colleagues, as well as in defence of the public who rely on those services. I am proud to stand alongside workers on picket lines and will continue to support those workers in their struggle with pride. May I offer a word of advice to Conservative Members? Go to the picket lines and speak to the people on them. Maybe then the demonisation will not slip so easily from their lips.
This is a pernicious Bill that shames the House and the nation. It is designed to attack and demoralise public service workers who are taking industrial action as a very last resort. I have spoken to nurses, firefighters, civil servants and posties in Liverpool at our food pantries, who have been forced into food poverty because of the wages that they have received after 12 years of austerity—a political choice made by the Tory Government in 2010. We are now living through the wreckage of that choice, with the destruction of our NHS and public services.
Let us be clear: the reason why these workers are having to take industrial action in the first place is because of the Government and their decisions. Never, ever forget that the hunger and poverty that many public sector workers face at the moment is a political choice that the Prime Minister unfortunately finds so easy to make. We have a multi-millionaire Prime Minister who will never know what it is like to feel hungry—he will never fear the creep of poverty at the door of his home—telling public sector workers facing this dire situation that they will be sacked if they withdraw their labour when they are simply saying, “Enough is enough.” It is obscene.
We have a morally bankrupt Government with financial scandal after financial scandal, and second job after second job, bringing in draconian legislation to outlaw industrial action for the very people we clapped during covid for everything they had done for us as a nation. The Bill is purposefully lacking in detail. It is a practically unworkable and potentially unlawful attempt to undermine the right to strike. Instead of bringing it to Parliament, Ministers should have been spending time negotiating meaningfully with the trade unions about pay and conditions. They could also have used that time to write the long-promised employment Bill.
The Bill must be voted down. The draconian drift is becoming a raging current. Any parliamentarian who believes in the democratic rights of our citizens must see that clearly and kick this wretched piece of legislation out of this place.
Industrial action has impacted on many aspects of people’s lives in Guildford over the past few months. I regret the decisions made by multiple trade unions to strike, leaving no train services for commuters and key workers in my constituency, Christmas cards to loved ones arriving in January, and delays at the UK border for those returning from breaks with family and friends. And this evening we hear that our children’s education is to be disrupted again. That is deeply saddening news.
I welcome the Government’s minimum service level legislation, which delivers on our manifesto commitments and protects the rights of workers to withdraw their labour while ensuring that the general public can go about their daily business safely. This pragmatic legislation will bring the UK into line with other industrialised nations such as France and Spain, which already have such common-sense agreements in place.
During periods of industrial action on the railways, constituents in Guildford and those travelling to town for work have found themselves cut off from the railway network, with no services being run by South Western Railway on those days. That has forced them either to work from home, to find alternative transport such as using their cars, or simply not to work at all. It is often those who earn the least who cannot work at home. Over the Christmas period, the overtime ban that was in force also reduced the levels of service provided to Guildford station.
I know from conversations with constituents on the doorsteps and from my inbox that local people are rightly concerned about the level of public transport provision that they are currently receiving. A recent YouGov poll placed the level of support for this legislation among the wider public at 59%, and I know that feeling is reflected locally in Guildford. The deputy Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), said in her opening speech that Labour would repeal the Bill. Labour Members are showing themselves yet again to be out of touch with my constituents and out of touch with the country.
Rail Partners, the organisation that represents the owners of train operators, including FirstGroup, which owns the majority share in South Western Railway, has said that the Bill’s approach
“seeks to appropriately balance and protect the right to strike and the rights of others to get to work or school and access necessary healthcare.”
I agree with its assessment. The safety of the general public must always remain the primary responsibility of any Government. I welcome the measures proposed in the Bill to do just that. I will be supporting this legislation.
I will not be supporting this legislation, for three reasons. First, the Bill is not really about safety levels at all. Secondly, claims that the Bill reflects current practice elsewhere in Europe are inaccurate. Thirdly, there is the very real risk that these proposals are in breach of the United Kingdom’s obligations under the European convention on human rights and international labour law. As other hon. Members have said, the word “safety” does not even appear in the Bill. It is a Bill about minimum service levels, not minimum safety levels, yet repeatedly Conservative politicians have talked about minimum safety levels and seem very happy for confusion between the two concepts to be caused. I suspect that is because this is a deliberate attempt to hide from the public the real intentions behind the Bill.
Secondly, on European standards, most European countries, as others have said, have a very different model of labour relations from the United Kingdom, which, thanks to successive Tory Governments, has one of the strictest systems of regulations of industrial relations in Europe. In other countries, trades union rights are protected in their written constitutions. Labour law experts will tell you that in most European countries minimum service levels are established by collective bargaining and, in so far as legislation exists, it provides a framework for these agreements, rather than for top-down regulation. The Bill would enable the Secretary of State to impose sweeping regulations from the top on millions of workers in a number of different sectors.
That brings to me to my third point. As I said when I intervened on the Secretary of State, the measures in the Bill go considerably further than the minimum service levels envisaged by the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill published last October. The Government’s own human rights memorandum which accompanied the previous Bill set out in some detail, with reference to existing legislation, the reason their lawyers then said that minimum service levels imposed by legislation were not justified in fire services, health settings and education. Yet that is what they are now proposing and their human rights memorandum for the Bill is very different. I can absolutely guarantee to hon. Members across the House that as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I will be making sure we scrutinise very carefully the difference between the two human rights memorandums.
On compliance with international labour law, the International Labour Organisation has enshrined the right to strike in its convention, to which the UK is a signatory. It is true that minimum service levels are allowed, but not if they are imposed from the top down. They need to be set by negotiation or, if the negotiation breaks down, by an independent body, as happens in Italy. Only in European countries well known for flouting fundamental rights, such as Hungary and Russia, do we see Government-enforced minimum service levels leading to the sacking of workers and the bankrupting of unions fighting for fair pay and conditions. Yet that is exactly what the Tories want to do in the Bill. Perhaps we should not be surprised that, despite all their anti-Putin rhetoric, the Tories want to emulate Putin’s approach to striking workers. Perhaps it is not so surprising given that the Deputy Prime Minister told us he is not ruling out leaving the European convention on human rights and the Home Secretary is keen it should happen as soon as possible. Given that they are keen to be on the same side as Russia on human rights, it is perhaps not surprising that they are doing that in the Bill.
The bottom line is that key workers are striking because their wages have not begun to keep in line with inflation and because the interest rate hikes caused by Tory economic incompetence mean they cannot afford their rent or mortgage. The Government need to recognise the stark reality of those people’s lives and work with their unions respectfully to reach agreement.
The Bill is about duty, fairness and balance—nothing more, nothing less. The first duty of any Government is to keep their people safe. The Bill is about ensuring we have minimum levels of safety and service across our essential public services. I heard what the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said about safety, but when we are talking about ambulances and accident and emergency departments, it is about safety. But it is also about fairness. Due to the hard work and dedication of all the ambulance workers across Essex and all the NHS workers at Southend Hospital—every doctor, every porter and every care assistant—nobody in the wonderful city of Southend and in Leigh-on-Sea has suffered any disruption in the service. They have been served with the same dedication and care every day since the strikes began. Why should those who are not lucky enough to live in Southend and Leigh-on-Sea not get the same service? Of course they should because they are all—
No, I won’t because of the time.
This is about balancing the right to strike with the right to a minimum level of service for those who are paying for it. Of course, the right to strike is something that we on the Conservative Benches consider to be important. It is a key right.
No, I won’t because of the time.
That right has been a key part of our labour laws since 1906. If I can introduce just a moment of levity into this debate, one could say that collective action actually started in 1381 with the peasants’ revolt, which started in Essex.
However, it is undeniable that strikes are incredibly disruptive. In October last year, we lost 417,000 working days due to strike action, and 2022 is set to have the highest number of days lost to strike action since 1990. Whether it is our trains, ambulances, hospitals or postal service, the strikes disproportionately affect the poorer people in my constituency. Two million people journeys were made from two stations in my constituency of Southend West. These are people who cannot work from home, who cannot afford taxis to get to and from work, who are not allowed the indulgence of hotels that—let’s face it—those of us who work in this place are able to claim. And this affects children. People travelling to our brilliant grammar schools in Southend generally do so by train from different parts of Essex. Our children’s education has suffered enough due to covid. There must be minimum levels to ensure that our children get the education they deserve when they are in school.
On fairness and equality, by ensuring that we have minimum safety levels in our public services, we are ensuring that a service funded by taxpayers equally, serves every taxpayer equally. How could anybody object to that?
This should not be a controversial opinion. Police officers and members of the armed forces are already prevented from taking strike action. Too often, we have to rely on the armed forces, who cannot take strike action because theirs is an essential service. Life and limb are involved. Yet we rely on them—
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a proud union member.
The Bill is an affront to Parliament. It will not protect the public, it will worsen industrial relations and it will undermine the unity of the United Kingdom. It should be voted down tonight. There has been much heated argument about the provisions in the Bill. On all the moral and pragmatic arguments, I stand firmly on the side of working people and their right to withdraw their labour, and against what the Government seek to do in the Bill. However, I do not consider that those moral and pragmatic arguments are likely to change the minds—or more importantly the votes—of Conservative Members. I therefore want to put forward an argument against the Bill that I believe they both can and should accept: it is damaging to our constitution and to the Union.
The reason the Bill is so short is that it delegates to the Secretary of State the power to set out all the relevant law in regulations through statutory instruments—regulations which receive only the most minimal scrutiny in this place and cannot be amended. So it is the Secretary of State, not Parliament, who will make regulations to determine the levels of service in relation to strikes, who gets to define the nature of the services to be provided, the number of people who are to provide them, the time at which they are to be provided and the manner in which they are to be provided during a strike. Extraordinarily, the Bill also proposes that the Secretary of State should have the power by regulation to
“amend, repeal or revoke provision made by or under primary legislation”
in this House. So statutes passed by Parliament can be amended by regulations drafted by the Minister without full parliamentary scrutiny. In a recent report by a Committee of the House of Lords, “Democracy Denied?”, their lordships state:
“A substantial groundswell of concern is developing about the shift in power from Parliament to ministers.”
This Bill is perhaps the most egregious example yet of a measure brought forward by an increasingly autocratic Executive to strip Parliament of its role in determining what, for many of us, is a critical area of employment and human rights.
It gets worse. The primary legislation that the Secretary of State can amend or repeal is defined to include an Act of the Senedd or the Scottish Parliament. That should set alarm bells ringing for all of us, nationalists and Unionists alike. What is being proposed is that the Secretary of State in Westminster should have the power by regulation to override devolved legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd—and to do so with minimal scrutiny in this House. If the Executive had intended to provoke constitutional outrage and call into question the very basis of the devolutionary settlements, they could not have designed a piece of legislation better guaranteed to do so.
That the Secretary of State in Whitehall should claim the power to legislate by regulation to interfere in devolved areas of government and to impose restrictions in different parts of this Union on the right to strike in transport, education, health and other public services in Scotland and Wales is more than unwarranted. It is more than inappropriate. It is a deliberate provocation and offence.
That is quite simply because they are introducing a party political measure that is designed to provoke this House.
I call on all Conservative Members, if they care about the Union at all, to vote against this wrecking ball of a Bill, which will only provide succour to those voices seeking to destroy our constitutional settlement and our United Kingdom. Under the Bill, the employer has the unilateral right to identify in a work notice the individual workers required to operate the MSL. A worker who refuses to comply after having been requisitioned in this way will lose unfair dismissal protection.
The Government are thus authorising employers to do what not even a court in this country can do. Under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992:
“No court shall…compel an employee to do any work or attend at any place for the doing of any work.”
However, once the union is notified of the identity of the workers to be requisitioned, the Bill requires the union to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that all its members identified in the work notice comply with it. It is ironic that, under the Bill, the same trade union may be required to discipline or expel—
I should first declare that I am a member of the British Medical Association. As an NHS consultant paediatrician and a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, I take a great interest in the Bill and particularly in its impact on health. During my career, I have worked—indeed, I continue to work—with many fabulous NHS staff. However, as many hon. Members have rightly pointed out, the pay rise of over 19% demanded by the Royal College of Nursing is simply unaffordable.
The pay rises being demanded would also continue to drive up inflation at a time when the Government are working night and day to keep it down. Because of the way in which NHS staff are paid, we cannot give one group a pay rise without giving it to others in the same pay band. Although different unions give the impression that they are negotiating separately—the ambulance staff, the nursing staff, the middle and junior managers—in reality, they are all on the same banding scheme. A rise for one is a rise for all, with each 1% rise costing £700 million.
It is clear that the Opposition seem to have misrepresented the Government’s policy as an attempt to take away the right to strike, when that is so clearly not the purpose of this legislation. When it comes to the NHS, it is not right that those who are in desperate need of medical care cannot get an ambulance or receive care because of strike action. These are measures designed to protect lives and ensure that people who face an imminent threat to life or limb have quick access to care and treatment. How could anybody not want such care to be received? That is why minimum service levels are individually negotiated by the various ambulance services, but that leads to inconsistency across the country. A pre-agreed national minimum level will help to improve patient safety.
Another reason we need minimum service levels is that legislation on striking services does not require people to say whether or not they are striking. That has recently meant a situation in which people organising ward rotas have not known who is turning up to work, which makes it very difficult to plan even minimum services for shifts. That is all very well when you are dealing with parcel deliveries, but when you need a certain number of people to care for acutely sick people, it is vital to be able to plan. A minimum service level allows that.
Furthermore, the Opposition are suggesting that the Government want to sack people for striking. That, again, is a gross distortion. Striking is a collective decision; that is why it is voted on. The Government’s measures apply to those who, having agreed to be part of a minimum service level, then do not turn up to work. That would be a dereliction of duty under any circumstances, and in practice we all know that it is not going to happen, because NHS staff would simply never do that.
It has been clear for some time that Opposition Members are not brave enough either to say how much they would offer the unions or to criticise the strikes, even when they so clearly threaten the lives of their constituents. It is perhaps no coincidence that the unions behind the recent ambulance strikes are some of the Labour party’s biggest donors. In the meantime, the Government, my Back-Bench colleagues and I will continue to serve our country and our constituents. The first duty—
I rise to speak as a proud trade unionist. I have been a member of a trade union all my working life, so I completely fail to understand the division that Government Members are trying to draw between union members and workers. The general public are not buying it either.
Our nurses, teachers, doctors, paramedics, rail workers and firefighters have all worked consistently hard over the past decade, particularly since covid, yet they face real cuts in their pay and drastically worse working conditions. NHS nurses are earning £5,000 a year less in real terms than in 2010; for midwives and paramedics, the drop is more than £6,000. We need to retain workers in those professions, but instead they are being driven away by the Tories running our public services into the ground. Instead of trying to resolve the issue at the heart of these strikes, this Government are undermining workers’ basic right to strike and are trying to turn the public against them. It is not working.
I am deeply concerned by the sweeping powers in the Bill, which will allow the Government to dictate what the minimum level of service should be in a given industry, with only a meaningless requirement for the Secretary of State to “consult” whoever they consider “appropriate”. It is disgraceful that employers will have the ability to pick and choose which individuals will be compelled to work and forced to cross a picket line or be sacked. That is not a balanced or fair approach, nor will it resolve any of the core issues that workers are trying to raise through these strikes.
There are already more restrictions on strikes than ever before, and they are being followed to the letter, so the strikes that are going ahead have already met the legal requirements. Steve Rice, the head of the GMB union’s ambulance committee, recently wrote to the Prime Minister to call out his dangerous claims that ambulance workers are putting lives at risk. Surely the Prime Minister knows that unions have been working with NHS trusts to guarantee emergency cover during the strike action; if he does not, that is really quite damning. In reality, on 21 December, when GMB ambulance workers undertook industrial action, the proportion of patients delayed for over an hour actually dropped significantly, so where is the evidence that striking essential workers are not already providing the minimum level of service? It is not there.
I understand any fears that the public may have of not being able to access emergency healthcare when they need it, but the Government should be honest with constituents rather than demonising hard-working staff who want to be able to provide the best service possible. Better yet, the Government should meet workers to negotiate and understand their concerns instead of dismissing them. It is not striking workers who are causing the crisis in the NHS; it is a decade of Tory mismanagement.
I believe in the right to strike. I do not think strikes work, but I do believe in them.
I was brought up in Doncaster. As a young man, I saw the picket lines, the oil drums and the people—mainly men—standing around trying to keep warm. They were trying for an extra 4% or 5% on their wages, with the unions backing them. Often they won—they often got that extra bit of a pay rise that they wanted—but move forward five or 10 years, and what did we have? We had closures. We had thousands and thousands of redundancies, and closures. That is what happens when people go on strike.
The customers of the industries on strike were not paying while those services were being taken away, but my constituents do not have a choice. They have to keep on paying, and when they pay they expect a service. They pay whether they get the service or not, and this Bill is before us now because the unions are taking advantage of the place in which the country finds itself through no fault of its own, just as they did in the 1970s and 1980s.
I have employed many people in my life. There have been times when we have had too much work and times when we have had too little, but neither my staff nor I have ever abused the upper hand. The unions are, I believe, abusing the position in which the country finds itself. They are trying to hold the country to ransom, and the Opposition are backing them because they are donors.
We are legislators, and we should legislate only when there is an issue that requires our intervention. This appears to be one of those moments. I understand that the Government will be seeking talks with unions and employers to see where the level of minimum service sits, and I hope that those talks are entered into with the right spirit and a voluntary arrangement can be made. If such an arrangement can be made, it should be, and then we can all move on quickly and get our country back on its feet.
Let me once again thank all the nurses at Doncaster Royal Infirmary, who voted against striking because they know that their best efforts are made while they are at work, not while they are on picket lines.
I am not funded by unions—or Russia—so before I even get on to the Bill, it is important for me to highlight the fact that the laws on trade unions in the UK are already among the most restrictive in Europe. Ministers claim that such Bills are common in France, Spain and Germany, but they leave out the fact that this Bill is much harsher than any of the examples that they cite. UK workers will lose their automatic protection from unfair dismissal, for instance. Ministers also claim that the Bill is about ensuring that a minimum level of service is available for the health and safety of the public, when they know fine well that life-and-limb agreements are already in place.
The truth is that this Bill is designed to undermine and attack both workers’ rights and democracy. It carves out yet another door through which Westminster can further erode and undermine the Scottish Parliament. It is so bad that it might fall foul of the European convention on human rights, which protects the right of workers to assemble as they wish—the very same convention that the Tories want to take us out of. I wonder why.
Are we not seeing a pattern of behaviour? When the Government could not reach the child poverty targets, they scrapped them. What they are doing now is moving the goalposts and introducing a hostile environment and hostile legislation to attack workers’ rights and human rights.
Absolutely—and that leads me neatly to my next point.
I have previously spoken about the dangers of sleepwalking into fascism if we are not careful. I did not say it lightly then and I do not say it lightly now, but history is undeniable. The slide into authoritarian and anti-democratic politics has always been underpinned by anti-trade union rhetoric. Over the years, we have listened to countless right-wing politicians and Governments claiming that Brexit would in no way affect workers’ rights, yet here we are.
The reason trade unions organise industrial action is that it works. It has always been the only language that those who hold power understand. The only reason any worker has any rights at all is the existence of trade unions, and the ability of workers to organise collectively in defence of their jobs and their livelihoods. People who bleat about the disruption that strike action causes are missing the point entirely. If your day is disrupted by someone not turning up to their job, it just goes to show how crucial that person’s job is, and why their pay and conditions should reflect that.
There is another myth that I have heard. In fact, people do not undertake strike action lightly. Strikers lose money. Strike action indicates a crisis. Our nurses, doctors, teachers, cleaners and supermarket workers are the very people who have kept the world turning through a global pandemic, a cost of living crisis and 13 years of Tory austerity, but this Government choose to ignore and demoralise them at every turn. This Government would rather blame striking workers than acknowledge the fact that the root causes of strike action lie directly at their door. We have the lowest pensions and sick pay in Europe, we still do not have a living wage and we are living in economic chaos, with inequality getting worse.
The only people who are putting the health and safety of the public at risk are the members of this Government —a Government run for Twitter; a Government of clicks and culture wars, with no serious answers. Ultimately, trade unions work, and that is exactly why the Tories are going after them.
Not at all, Mr Deputy Speaker! But thank you very much.
I rise to speak in opposition to this Bill. I am not currently a member of a trade union, I have never been a trade union official, and I do not get any money from a trade union. Last week I even found myself—much to my own surprise—in agreement with the Secretary of State when he said to the House that when we need an ambulance, we need to know that one will turn up. I agreed with that, but I did not agree with the context in which he meant it. We should be able to rely on such a service all the time, not simply when there is a strike on.
I would even have continued to agree with the Secretary of State, and I could even have found myself thinking about supporting the Bill, if I had felt that it was an attempt to address the problem, but it is not. It not about problem solving; it is political posturing. It is an empty, detail-light, vague promise of a mandatory minimum level to replace existing voluntary arrangements. It will simply ramp up the rhetoric, without saying how anything will be achieved or offering any progress towards the solution that the public need.
None of us—those in this place, those at home watching television, those working on the railways, in hospitals or in any other sector, or those working as teachers—wanted this wave of strikes, because it further undermines recovery in those sectors, which were already stretched before the pandemic. Let us not get into the argument about whether the pandemic or the war in Ukraine is causing this, because neither is the case. The cause of these strikes is the deterioration in our public services that the Government have not just allowed but, at times, seemed to foster—and what are they doing? They are introducing this Bill, which is somewhat akin to taking a mallet to peel a peach.
The Bill will not undo that deterioration, and it will not help our public sectors. Already too many people go to sleep at night worried that if they have a heart attack or a stroke there will be no ambulance, and the Bill does not attack that problem. The reason we have a crisis this winter is this Government’s inaction. They have failed the workers in the public sector. It is nothing to do with trade unionism; it is to do with the Government’s failure. We always say that when there is a strike, it is a failure of both sides. It is a cliché, but the thing about clichés is that we use them because they are usually right. These strikes are a failure. With this Bill, the Government are doing nothing to undo that.