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Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 9 March 2023

Committee (1st Day)

Relevant documents: 10th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 27th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 14th Report from the Constitution Committee

Clause 1 agreed.

The Schedule: Minimum service levels for certain strikes

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: The Schedule, page 3, line 15, leave out “even if” and insert “unless”

Member’s explanatory statement

The amendment seeks to stop regulations under this Bill from being applied to strikes which have already been balloted for.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will feel a bit like me, having done two days of Committee on the retained EU law Bill and now going straight into this. I hope the Committee will forgive me if I stray into areas where my brain could still be stuck on that Bill. Anyway, let us have a go. The difficulty with this Bill—it is similar to the one we were considering for five days—is that it is a skeleton Bill. It is very difficult to understand the policy objectives and purposes, and what the meaning of these things will be. We do not really have a clear impact assessment of it.

I start with my amendment in this group about the lack of reports we have received. Certainly, no reports or impact assessments were available when the Commons considered these issues. We have now had them, and our own Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee gave a very clear statement about the Bill. However, I want to focus on the Joint Committee on Human Rights report referenced in my amendment. I have never seen a report condemn a Bill in such a way. The Committee found that

“the Government has not adequately made the case that this Bill meets the UK’s human rights obligations”.

It highlighted—we will address this in other amendments—the lack of clarity around

“The requirement that trade unions take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure their members comply with a work notice”,

which may fall foul of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. At Second Reading, the Minister constantly said that we are meeting our international obligations, but the Joint Committee on Human Rights certainly does not agree.

The fact that we are uncertain about what these things mean leads me to the question of how the Bill will impact existing disputes. Not only do we have a poor definition of the sectors which may be engaged and such broad categories that we do not know exactly what will be in it, we also do not understand what minimum service levels are, how they will be applied and how they will be applied in those categories. Absolutely nothing is clear. It is all going to be reliant on statutory instruments—secondary legislation.

Again, a Committee of this House—I raised this, along with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, last night—has been very clear; the problem with skeleton Bills and secondary legislation is that you end up with proposals being put forward that this House cannot give proper consideration to. We cannot amend, change or improve them. None of those things applies here or down the other end, so we are presented with a fait accompli to reject or accept. That is an extremely difficult situation to be in.

Particularly in Amendment 1, we are probing when the measures in the Bill will apply and how. I particularly want to hear very clearly from the Minister if this will be applicable to disputes that have already commenced. If it will—if the mandate has been established, and a trade union has complied with every legal requirement in balloting and notices and the mandate was democratically arrived at—is the Bill going to impose an additional requirement on trade unions? Will they have to say to their members, “You may have balloted, met all these statutory requirements, and have a legal right to strike”, but the Government will insist now that the union tells them they must work? Can that possibly be right at all? We will go through all this as we move on, but what a situation to be in. How can that be justified? It will lead to people not fully understanding their rights and responsibilities. We will look at this in other groups, but this could impact areas in which we already have minimum levels of service and agreements to ensure that things are protected. This potentially undermines those, especially if there is confusion about the categories of employees within a sector mentioned in the Bill.

I come back to the point about retrospection. Are we suggesting that someone who has complied with all the legislative requirements entering a dispute can suddenly be faced midway with the understanding that their protection from dismissal is lost? If the Minister comes back and says, “The Bill is not about dismissal or sacking people”—I will probe strongly on that—what will it result in? Will it result in huge penalties against unions? If the union loses its immunity under the Bill on a dispute which has started and met all the statutory legal requirements, is the union going to be vulnerable to further attacks? It is not acceptable. If there are to be situations like that, I dread to think what would happen. People cannot be forced to undertake something where they started knowing their full legal rights, but the situation changed.

On the Joint Committee on Human Rights report, there are a number of areas I could address but I will not at this stage. I will pick them up in other groups, but it is very difficult to not stray into areas beyond the terms of the specific amendment, because nothing is properly defined. Committee is an opportunity to interrogate, probe and have conversations. I hope we will be able to do that on this group because so much is unclear. I beg to move.

My Lords, the first two amendments in this group look, sequentially, either backwards or forwards. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and his colleague the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, that the Bill should not apply retroactively. I am sure we agree that it should not apply at all, but the arguments set out by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about the unfairness of retroactivity are clear, and probing the Government’s intentions for how the Bill would be applied is very helpful.

I suspect that the motivation of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is that it will not apply at all. He is playing what I would call the Micawber amendment, in that he plans to punt its commencement some time into the future and wait to see whether something turns up. I look forward to his speech shortly.

I will focus on the third of these amendments. Although the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said that he will come back to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report later, we can perhaps set things up with the Minister’s answers to my questions, which will enable him to further probe the Government’s view on this. Rather cleverly, the third amendment presaged a report—I do not know whether the proposers knew one was coming—because surely riding over the horizon is the JCHR’s report on the Bill. I trust that the Minister has read it all; there is quite a lot, and it is all pretty scathing about the Bill.

The JCHR is clear that the legislation risks contravening the UK’s responsibilities under international human rights laws and conventions to which the UK is a signatory. This includes Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which establishes the right to assembly and association, and the right to strike, as established by the International Labour Organization conventions. Although Governments are permitted to impose restrictions on the application of these laws and conventions, the Joint Committee said, this must be justified, proportionate and necessary. Overall, it finds that that justification is not made within the Bill.

In particular, I will highlight the following details. In the view of the JCHR,

“the Government has not adequately made the case that this Bill meets the UK’s human rights obligations”.

One of the reasons why it has formed this view is that:

“The lack of any limits on the level of service that the Secretary of State may impose by regulations risks a failure to comply with the Article 11 requirement”—

in the ECHR—

“of being ‘in accordance with the law’ as the Bill arguably currently allows for potentially arbitrary interferences with the right to strike.”

The report continues, even more persuasively in my view:

“We do not consider that the Government has given clear and compelling reasons why the current legal protections that apply to strikes and the current practice of establishing voluntary minimum service levels are no longer sufficient to balance the rights of the wider public against the rights of the employees and unions concerned, again undermining the argument that there is a ‘pressing social need’ for this legislation.”

Finally, the committee notes what many of your Lordships highlighted at Second Reading—namely, that there is very little transparency over human rights, equalities or the economic impact of the Bill. The Government have only recently published their impact assessment, which the Regulatory Policy Committee rated not fit for purpose, as we noted. Consultation on minimum service levels has just begun with some of the sectors. Instead, the committee says that the Government are rushing the Bill through Parliament, with very little time for scrutiny. This, coupled with the skeletal nature of the Bill—to which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, made reference—make parliamentary scrutiny extremely difficult. It is very hard to scrutinise something that is coming later, through secondary legislation, as the committee noted. MPs and Peers cannot be sure what they are being asked to vote for—the Joint Committee said that, as did your Lordships, in the round, at Second Reading. There is much in the committee’s excellent report on the Bill that I commend to the Committee.

The Prime Minister made it clear that he does not want the UK to withdraw from the ECHR. To my knowledge, he has not voiced any opinion on the ILO, but I do not think that withdrawing from that is on the cards either. So it is not sufficient for the Minister to downplay this report or, frankly, to disparage the convention. It is incumbent on the Government Front Bench to address and answer the serious questions set out in the JCHR report.

My Lords, I will make comments on two aspects. First, it is not the case that the Bill is retrospective in effect because, by definition, it applies only to future strike actions. The fact that the strike action might have been initiated before the Bill is completely irrelevant. It applies to protect people who are suffering from the lack of services in the future, so it is not retrospective.

I do not understand why it is “completely irrelevant”. Is the noble Baroness saying it is irrelevant if people participate in a ballot, there is a democratic decision, a dispute is held, the mandate is proper, everyone knows their legal rights and responsibilities, and the unions have had to go through huge hoops to get there?

I am. The need for the Bill has been established by a lot of rather irresponsible action by some of the unions which has completely disrupted the lives of ordinary citizens. Remember that the Bill is designed to protect the lives of ordinary citizens and to balance their rights against those that the noble Lord referred to. It will apply only to future strike action by workers—that is the most important feature.

Secondly, I will address the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Both noble Lords who have spoken struggled to paint this as a very damning report. It is not: it does not say that the Bill does not comply with international obligations but instead says things like it is “difficult to establish” or that it “arguably” contains insufficient provision. Although I have great respect for the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and particularly its chairman, who is an acknowledged expert in this area in her own right, it is not the arbiter on whether bits of legislation comply with human rights law. At the end of the day, it is for the courts to decide. The Government believe that it is within our international obligations, and there are good arguments for that. We should not take the view of one committee of Parliament as being determinative, even if that committee were clear and unambiguous in its findings, which it was not.

My Lords, I wonder whether I could speak, because I will respond directly to the noble Baroness opposite. To be clear, I support all the amendments in this group, but I will tailor my comments in direct response.

Essentially, there were two comments about the Joint Committee. The first was that its language was too moderate to be taken seriously. I disagree in principle with the proposition that the fact that the report was not “damning”, as opposed to concerned or critical, should somehow undermine the value of that commentary. The Joint Committee is to be praised for its constructive tone in matters of industrial relations—if only everyone did the same.

Crucially, on the issue of who the arbiter is, I think it a bit rich for people who spend a lot of time undermining the legitimacy of the courts, of “unelected judges who do not speak for the people or have democratic legitimacy”, whether here or in the international court in Strasbourg, and who do so in the context of one Bill—perhaps about refugees—then to come along and criticise and undermine an essential element of our domestic human rights settlement which is a parliamentary committee of both Houses that has more of an element of “democratic legitimacy” and was always intended when the Human Rights Act was passed. Yes, of course, the courts will be the final arbiter, but before we get to that extreme situation—it should be rare in a modern democracy that the Executive and the courts have to be in a head-to-head collision—there is a role for Parliament. There is a role for Ministers when they make a Section 19 statement under the Human Rights Act. Ministers on this occasion have taken the view that they can make a Section 19(1)(a) statement; in other words, they believe that this measure complies. Following on from that executive statement—that is what a ministerial statement is—it is a key part of our settlement, and rather a constructive one, that a parliamentary committee of both Houses has a look at ministerial reasoning for it. I do not need to put it higher than this: on this occasion, the Joint Committee, with an element of democratic legitimacy—because it is not just Peers but to a large extent Members of the other place—has taken the view that the case has not been made by the Government. The noble Baroness did not address the specifics of that.

I will try to crystallise what the noble Lord, Lord Fox, identified in the criticism of the Joint Committee. Essentially, when one interferes with qualified rights such as freedom of association—it is a qualified right; it is not torture that we are talking about here; this is freedom of expression and freedom of association—one needs to comply with a convention that was drafted by Conservative lawyers after the Second World War. I will keep saying that because it is an important part of political history in this country and the world. To comply with Article 11, interference or potential interference—not violation, but interference—with freedom of association needs to be necessary and proportionate and in accordance with the law. “In accordance with the law” means not arbitrary—to be clear and foreseeable enough when that interference is set out.

The Joint Committee asks reasonable questions of noble Lords and Ministers opposite. First, how is this measure proportionate, when there are more proportionate means such as negotiation, of establishing what minimum service levels should be? Secondly, how is it proportionate to introduce this element of retroaction in relation to people who have balloted on the understanding of the law as it currently is? Thirdly and crucially, how is it not arbitrary to put the meat, the potatoes and the dessert—the whole meal—in regulations and not in the Bill? Those are incredibly pertinent, reasonable and legitimate questions for the Joint Committee of Parliament—not the courts, because we are not in that extreme situation yet—to ask. That is the point of Parliament; we do not want to set a collision course between our Government and His Majesty’s judges, let alone an international court. That is why I address those comments to the noble Baroness opposite.

More generally, I am more concerned by the hour, let alone by the day, about this Government’s approach to human rights. On this occasion and with this Bill, they have taken the view that the Bill complies. I disagree, but I am sure that we will shortly hear from the Minister the rationale about how in his view this Bill—not just the policy behind it but the way the policy is executed—complies with those requirements of “proportionate interference” and accessibility in terms of non-arbitrary measures that are in accordance with the law. It is legitimate that we ask the Minister to do that.

However, I worry that what we are reading in the newspapers, seeing in legislation and hearing in ministerial rhetoric every day is a deliberate electoral strategy of turning people against one another and setting the Government and the putative electoral machine on a confected collision course with, one minute, the domestic courts and, the next, the Strasbourg court—sometimes, it is the unelected Peers; sometimes, apparently now, it is even the Joint Committee on Human Rights. With this Bill, of course, it is the trade unions. I remind all noble Lords, whether my noble friends or I like it or not, that a lot of members of trade unions did not vote Labour in recent elections; by definition, many of them must have voted Conservative. Is this kind of deliberate class war a good political move, let alone an ethical move, on the part of noble Lords opposite? I see the noble Baroness laughing.

I do not find this kind of deliberate strife—a confected division of our very troubled country—amusing at all, and I look forward if not to the noble Baroness’s response then to that of the Minister in due course.

My Lords, I sit on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and therefore my name is attached to that report. We have heard various descriptions of the report coming from the Opposition Front Bench, the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, my noble friend Lady Noakes and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, put it, the report asks some questions and raises doubts about whether the Bill is compliant. We had only a very short time in which to look at the Bill, because it is being brought through rather quickly. We had one evidence-taking session, and we sent out a call for evidence, to which there were a number of responses. I cannot say that our examination of the Bill was as in depth as it would have been for any other Bill. Nevertheless, I can say that the descriptions of the report from the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat Front Bench are not quite the same as what I have heard from my noble friend Lady Noakes or even from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who, quite rightly, set out that, although we raised doubts, we did not give that damning report that was the impression one got from the speeches from the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat Front Bench.

I would have signed up to the report only if I was happy with it. Although the report raised some doubts, it did not say, “This is not compliant”; it made it clear that we thought that there were questions to be answered. Those questions will, quite rightly, be answered by the Government when my noble friend the Minister comes to respond today and, no doubt, at later stages. There was not time either for my noble friend or whoever is the responsible Minister to come to the committee and give evidence; no doubt they would like to have done so, and no doubt there will be a possibility of their doing that in future.

I just want to make it clear that there are different ways of looking at the report. What my noble friend Lady Noakes, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and I are saying is probably a better picture of it than what we heard from the Opposition Front Bench.

I certainly would not want to mislead the Committee. What I was trying to say at the beginning is that the problem with the Bill is that we do not know what it is going to lead to. As the report states—my noble friend raised this point—

“the requirement for trade unions to take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure their members comply with a work notice issued by an employer does not provide the clarity needed to guarantee that trade unions and employees will know when this duty has been met and when it has not … As drafted, the provision … may fall foul of the requirements of Article 11”.

I shall keep coming back to this point: we simply do not know how our rights will be impacted, because it is not clear or foreseeable.

I think that it is an excellent report; I was not overegging it at all. There will be a lot more questions on this as we move through Committee. My other point is that not only are we not clear about what is foreseeable, but we are now hearing from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that this legislation would apply even though a union has complied with all the current statutory legal obligations.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is here, because I remember the 1980s as he does, including the legislation that had to be passed. There are many hoops, so somebody who starts at the beginning of an official, legally recognised dispute, will then be told half way through, as a consequence of this potential legislation, that they do not have the right to go on strike. Worse still, there will be a legal obligation on the union to tell them that they cannot go on strike. So the union which organised the ballot for them to strike and has met all the statutory requirements is suddenly being told that they have to take reasonable steps. What does that mean? Does it mean that they instruct the person not to go on strike? I hope that the noble Lord can clarify that for me.

Like my noble friend Lord Forsyth, I also remember the 1980s. Probably one of the problems of this House is that we can all remember the 1980s slightly too well—possibly excluding one or two other younger Members of the House.

I am not accusing the noble Lord of misleading the House. These things are always just a question of tone. Certainly, with the great many reports that come to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, it is matter of getting the tone right, so that we can all come to an agreement. On that committee, and I am sure it is true for a great many other committees, we always try to get agreement from every member; that helps to give greater effect to the report. Interpreting the tone of the report is important. That point was the only reason I wanted to make a contribution; I was not planning to speak on the Bill. I will probably stay here for much of the rest of the debate to make sure I can contribute as appropriate; I will ensure that I have a copy of the report in front of me.

My Lords, I am surprised that anybody has been able to check whether the Bill is compliant with human rights legislation, because there is nothing in the Bill. I try very hard to read the legislation that comes before us, but I cannot always do it because I have tomes and, as I am not in a party, I have no one to outsource it to. However, I did not have much trouble with this Bill, because there is nothing in it—and, in a way, that is the problem. So although I am not keen on human rights legislation, I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that this is some big conspiracy against human rights legislation. But I cannot tell what I think about the Bill in relation to that point.

If we forget the human rights aspect, the problem with the skeletal nature of the Bill is that employment rights are important to millions of people in this country, and they were long and hard fought for. If there is a risk of their being taken away, we are not all just going to sit here and say, “Well, we will trust you, even though you haven’t written it in the Bill”.

I have so many questions. At Second Reading, the Minister stressed that a process of consultation would be required before regulations on maintaining

“minimum service levels are introduced”.—[Official Report, 21/2/23; col. 1640.]

But with whom are they consulting? The fact is that we are discussing minimum services and we do not know what the minimum services are. Is it 90% or 50% of services? Will it be different for different services? It is inevitable that this will make it open to conspiratorial questions; people will ask, “What are they up to?”

All the time, I just keep thinking that the consequence of this is that overstretched public services will have to assess these minimum services, which I think will waste endless amounts of their time when we have a crisis of public services. Named individuals may be persuaded to vote for strike action—it is perfectly within their right to persuade them, if there is an argument as to whether they will go on strike or not—and decide to go on strike, which is quite a big decision to make, but then they are named by their employer as somebody who has to strike-break and cross a picket line. If you refuse to do that, you jeopardise everybody else’s employment rights and get the union sued, so you can understand that concern. As an aside, strike-breaking and crossing picket lines is a point of principle that some of us we will not defy; it is a big deal for us. I wanted to make that one bit of clarification.

I just do not know why we need the Bill, and there is nothing in the Bill to tell me why we need the Bill, because—and I think this relates to some of the points made in the Opposition Front Bench’s opening speech—is it not the case that many of the sectors mentioned in the Bill already have their own minimum service requirements? They are often voluntary, but sometimes not. Only in 2019, in the Queen’s Speech, we were told that we needed a Bill to ensure that people could depend on their transport networks; they were trying to legislate on minimum service in transport. At the time, I wondered why they were picking on transport workers, but the point was that they felt it was so important that they had to mention transport. However, now they are just throwing in everybody else. So it has changed from having any kind of democratic requirement; that would imply that this is because more people have gone on strike, but the Bill comes across as a Bill to stop strikes, and, surely, that is one of its problems.

We have the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, which allows the Secretary of State to provide and to maintain services and facilities in fire and rescue situations. That was given to him, and, while I did not agree with it, he has that legislation. In the education sector, there are various statutory duties on schools regarding the safeguarding and supervision of children and so on.

Do not get me wrong, I do not agree with all the strikes that have been called recently—I am not in those unions, and I might argue against them—but that is not the point; the point is that we are talking about fundamental rights. They are not human rights; they are long-established employment rights, and the Bill does not tell us which ones are being taken away. It will inevitably cast the Government as people who are indifferent to workers’ rights. I have defended the Government on the Retained EU Law Bill when people have said that they are using it to smash workers’ rights; in response, I have said, “Don’t be so conspiratorial”. I am not helped in defending the Government on that when they bring this Bill forward which is about attacking workers’ rights.

I will respond, briefly, to the noble Baroness, and I am grateful to her for her ability to disagree well. First, I point out that many of the fundamental employment rights that she holds so dear are actually human rights, and they are set out in international conventions and the covenants of the Churchill settlement. If she does not like the word “human”, she does not have to use it, but these rights are, as a matter of law, international human rights.

Secondly, again, I know that she does not like our human rights settlement or the Human Rights Act, but in our public law in this country, not just under the Human Rights Act, one of the main benefits to the Government of putting the policy neat in primary legislation and not leaving it all to regulations is that regulations—to respond again to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—may be struck down in the courts in ways which primary legislation may not.

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendments 1 and 51 in the names of my noble friends Lord Collins of Highbury and Lady O’Grady. It seems to me that the amendments in this group are perfectly reasonable. Amendment 1

“seeks to stop regulations under this Bill from being applied to strikes which have already been balloted for.”

I cannot think of anything more reasonable.

The Bill causes me deep concern, on the basis not only of human rights but of the fundamental rights enshrined in British law. For example, under the Bill,

“Workers could … be sacked for taking strike action that has been agreed in a democratic ballot. If a person specified in their employer’s work notice continues to take strike action despite being required to work during the strike, they will lose their protection from automatic unfair dismissal. This currently applies for first 12 weeks of a strike.”

This is a gross infringement of individual freedoms.

In listening to the earlier intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, I thought he made a rather good case for Amendment 51—that is, that the amendment requires the publication of a report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights before the Act can come into operation. Again, that is perfectly reasonable, engaging the organs of Parliament in how we go forward.

As I said at Second Reading, I have deep concerns, not only as a trade unionist of more than 57 years but as someone who has fought on the basis of equal rights. The Bill impacts on equalities. It is worth recalling that BME people make up 15% of the workforce, yet the figure is 24% in health and 21% in transport. So there is an impact on the BME community when it decides whether it wants to take democratic action to defend its pay, terms and conditions—indeed, its very standard of living.

This Bill is unfair, and these amendments seek to address that. It is undemocratic and I believe that it is in breach of our international legal obligations. The Bill would also allow Ministers, as has already been said, by regulation to impose minimum service levels on services within six sectors, and it would do it by statutory instrument, with Parliament’s engagement in that process greatly reduced. Many details of how the legislation would work are still unknown. As a result—this will be said time and again throughout Committee, I am sure—the Bill has been the subject of significant criticism by the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and, as has been said, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Government’s Regulatory Policy Committee.

For the avoidance of doubt, I repeat that the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that the Government have

“not adequately made the case”

that the Bill meets the UK’s human rights obligations. It highlighted the lack of clarity on the requirement that unions take “reasonable steps” to ensure that their members comply with a work notice issued by an employer, and “may fall foul” of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I could go on, but I think I have said enough. However, I assure noble Lords that I shall pursue this further in Committee during the discussion of this very dangerous and undemocratic Bill.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, hit the nail on the head: this is a completely unnecessary Bill. It tells us nothing and no one is demanding it, apart from the Government, who seem somehow a bit obsessed with problems which I am not sure exist.

I begin by declaring my entries in the register. I can actually top the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, as I have been a trade union member for 63 years consistently, and I still am today—and very proud of it. I am not also completely dominated by our need to respect international law. Having been in Brussels and Strasbourg, I have seen how sclerotic it often is. On the migrants Bill, for instance, there may well be a need to stand up to some of the international law provisions. But that is not the case here—there is no demand for this Bill at all.

I am not, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, implied, trying to be Mr Micawber. The Bill is so defective that the Government will need a couple of years to sort out what it means. All the different industries and professions mentioned in the Bill have a quite different profile. Nuclear decommissioning, driving an ambulance and flying a plane are somewhat different occupations; they have different standards and necessities. What is a minimum service level? I had a delightful four hours with representatives of the National Health Service last year—I was in the back of an ambulance because I had had a fall, and I was waiting to be admitted to hospital. The workers said that, if they had more of a reception area, they would not be here, but that it was nice to talk to me as it covered half their shift.

Let us be realistic about this: a minimum service level would be very easy to find if you had a properly organised service in the first place. Yesterday I was talking to a doctor in Cambridge, where I live. Apparently, there is going to be a junior doctors’ strike on Monday, and he said to me, “We’ve cancelled some of the routine appointments so that we have enough capacity to deal with emergencies.” That is on a strike day, and that is a doctor who is covered by that strike but who is also very cognisant of the needs of the community he serves.

There may be a need for some arrangements with blue light services, but there already are lots of arrangements with them. There are not groups of workers saying, “We refuse to talk to you—we want a few people dead.” Most of the workers are very keen on providing minimum services; most workers do not like going on strike. As I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, will be happy to tell us, most workers never go on strike in their whole career as trade unionists. They join trade unions for protection and benefits, and to have someone to help if they run into trouble, as well as to deal with an employer who steps out of line by being racist or sexist or something like that.

I have been active as a trade unionist, and most of the work of trade unions that I experienced was welfare work. You are helping to sort out problems—and more than once people have said to me, “Which side are you on?” You find that things escalate out of any reasonable action, and suddenly you have people saying, “I’m going to get them, I’m going to get them,” and you have to say, “Calm down; you can’t. Let’s just sit down and have a cup of tea and look at what the options are.” Frankly, the trade union movement plays a big part in good industrial relations in this country. It plays a much bigger part in promoting good industrial relations than anything else. Hardly any time in a union organiser’s or member’s life is spent organising or even thinking about going on strike; it is mainly about making the work more pleasant and efficient.

These are the people who create the wealth of the country—that is what I would like the Government to remember—and if they were not there, we would have no wealth in this country. I see that we are going to have nuclear installation inspectors subject to minimum standards; but nuclear installation inspectors, as far as I know, have never been on strike, so what are their minimum standards going to be? Why are they in the Bill in the first place?

My amendment may look like Mr Micawber, but it would give the Government a chance to sort out what the Bill actually means. Apart from that, if the Government are so convinced that this is the right policy for Britain, it will give them something to campaign on at the next election. They can say, “Vote for us and we will bring this Bill into being.”

On a very final point, I served as the president of a trade union for some time; I go to meetings. I am afraid we spend far too much of our members’ money on legal services. There is an absolute demand by the executive that everything is absolutely legal. The profession of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, makes a huge amount of money out of trade unions because we do not believe in breaking the law; we believe in adhering to the law. All the Bill will do is provide yet more challenges and yet more times when, sitting around the national executive table, we will say to the general secretary, “Are you sure we have got all the bases covered?” The general secretary will say, “I am pretty sure, but I will go back to our KC and absolutely finally check before we take this action.”

I therefore do not really think that this is necessary. It will not add to relations; in fact, it will sour them because it is an unnecessary piece of legislation. It will not be respected. Most employers do not want it. I have not got any letter from an employer saying, “Dear Lord Balfe, you are a Conservative, please go in and support this legislation”—not one letter. The Minister should think about pressing the pause button on this, because the Government have far more important things to do.

My Lords, we have had a reference to Charles Dickens; I am going to mention Lewis Carroll, because I think this is straight out of Alice in Wonderland: you are wandering through a maze, you do not know what questions to ask, you ask a question and all of a sudden the answer is, “Off with his head”—or “Off with her head” in my case. It really is very difficult to pin things down to common-sense questions and to pin the Minister down as to what he may or may not finally include in either the Bill or the statutory instruments. I will have a go, however, because I think the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is quite right that the report we have been referring to is quite a mild report.

I was particularly drawn to the conclusions and recommendations, one of which said—I think the noble Lord, Lord Fox, has already referred to it—

“We do not consider that the Government has given clear … reasons why the current legal protections that apply to strikes and the current practice of establishing voluntary minimum service levels are no longer sufficient to balance the rights of the wider public against the rights of the employees and unions concerned.”

I think that pinpoints exactly why the Bill is just an antagonistic approach to unions, rather than a sensible set of proposals. I have a specific question for the Minister is, the report suggests several amendments in its annexe: will the Government consider its amendment 4? I am not proposing it; I am just asking if this is something that would be considered. The recommendation is:

“In deciding whether to identify a person in a work notice and in specifying the work required to be carried out by them, the employer must not have regard to whether the person is or is not a member of a trade union (or a particular trade union) or any trade union activity the person has undertaken or otherwise been involved in.”

Are the Government minded to accept that amendment from the report?

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Donaghy. After the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, I really ought to declare my interests as in the register. I reflect that, over the last 41 years, I have represented many unions in strike cases including, in the last 20 years, a number in the European Court of Human Rights. Of course, I support Amendments 1, 50 and 51. I shall speak to Amendment 51 and the deployment of the JCHR report before the Bill comes into effect. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for expressing his view of the JCHR report and I agree with my noble friend Lady Donaghy that it is a mild report. In my view, it is too mild, too gentle. As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, rightly pointed out, the ultimate arbiter will be the European Court of Human Rights. The difficulty for us, of course, is that any decision challenging this legislation in that court will arise out of a factual situation that has not yet occurred and will take years: it will be a long time.

There appears to me to be a precautionary principle here: if we are warned by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and many other legal commentators that there is a real danger that the United Kingdom may be in violation of a convention right, should we not apply the precautionary principle and say, “Let us not take that risk”? Imagine, in a domestic situation, that a small business person consults a tax lawyer over a particular scheme that he or she has in mind to reduce his or her tax liability and the tax lawyer says, “It is a tricky one, this: you may get away with it but, on the other hand, this may be in breach of the law.” Surely, any sensible small business person, having had that advice from a lawyer, would say, “Hang on, I am not going to go down that path and risk the consequences.” That is the principle that ought to apply here. I look forward to hearing from the Minister why that precautionary principle should not apply, given that we have had this warning about possible violation of our undertakings under the convention.

I should also like to hear from the Minister the Government’s view on the amendments proposed in the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on the Bill, to which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is one of the signatories. My own view of the compliance of the Bill with the European Convention on Human Rights—of course, my view is no more valuable than anybody else’s—is that Article 11(1) of the convention protects freedom of association and the right to join and be a member of a trade union for the protection of one’s interest. The European Court of Human Rights made absolutely clear in the case of UNISON v the United Kingdom in 2001, and in a multitude of cases since, that the right to strike is protected by Article 11. Under Article 11(1), there are no limitations on the rights that are contained within Article 11(1).

Article 11(2), however, permits states to impose restrictions, and there are a number of conditions for those restrictions to be imposed—it must be prescribed by law and so on—but the most significant one in this context is that the restriction has to be

“necessary in a democratic society”

for certain specified purposes, such as prevention of crime, civil disorder, health and safety and, in particular, the protection of the rights and interests of others. There is a wealth of jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights on what

“necessary in a democratic society”

means: a pressing social need. Looking at the evidence from the Bill, it seems to me that the Government could not conceivably pass that hurdle, and I shall give four reasons why. First, no Government since the Trade Disputes Act 1906, by which strikes were first made lawful, have felt it necessary to impose legislation requiring minimum service levels, so how can it be necessary now?

Secondly—this point has already been made by previous Members—every sector of the six specified in the Bill does in fact negotiate minimum service levels. I hope the Minister is not going to say, “Not in the ambulance service”, because the Joint Committee on Human Rights heard evidence that agreements and arrangements are negotiated at local level in the ambulance service. That is the second reason why this is clearly not necessary in a democratic society.

Thirdly, the Government introduced a transport strikes Bill last October and in the memorandum specifically expressed the view that, apart from in transport, there was no need for further legislation in any sector to require minimum service levels. How on earth are the Government going to explain that to the European Court of Human Rights?

The fourth and final reason is that this Bill exceeds the requirements of the International Labour Organization. The ILO has a series of conventions, of which the most important is Convention 87. Since 1952, the ILO has held in many decisions that the right to strike is protected by Convention 87. By the way, this country was the first on earth to ratify Convention 87, the most ratified of all the conventions, which was signed by Ernie Bevin in June 1950. The ILO has specified that minimum service levels are permitted under Convention 87, but only subject to certain conditions, and there are four of them. First, the minimum service level must not be set by the state, government or public authority. Secondly, the converse of that is that minimum service levels should be set on a bipartite basis, through employers’ and union representatives’ negotiations, or on a tripartite basis involving the state. Thirdly, workers who prefer to strike and who refuse to serve as requisitioned workers for a minimum service level must not be penalised by being sacked. Fourthly, only in certain sectors can minimum service levels be permitted.

Before I sit down, I will read one paragraph from the compilation of decisions of the Committee on Freedom of Association of the ILO:

“The establishment of minimum services in the case of strike action should only be possible in: (1) services the interruption of which would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population (essential services in the strict sense of the term); (2) services which are not essential in the strict sense of the term but where the extent and duration of a strike might be such as to result in an acute national crisis endangering the normal living conditions of the population; and (3) in public services of fundamental importance.”

For those reasons, it is my opinion that the view expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights is too modest. If the Bill goes through, we run a real danger in this country of violating the convention, and I would be grateful to hear a refutation of those views from the Minister.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Hendy. This discussion on the first amendment is bound to stray widely, but one of the areas it does have to consider is whether the various sub-committees and our adherence to and acceptance of international conventions going back more than half a century need to be jeopardised by this rather inadequate Bill. It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfe; he says this Bill is unnecessary, and I totally agree.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, implied but did not say, it is not only hyper-skeletal but hyper-political. It is political in a way which is dangerous, not least to the Government themselves. The clause we are debating does not say when or at what stage in the process Ministers would intervene and, if necessary, unilaterally set minimum service levels. Is it when a strike is first contemplated? Is it when the executive starts consulting its members? Is it when the members vote yes, in accordance with legal provisions? Is it when the first strike day is announced, or on the strike day? When is it? Either way, the difficulty is that in many cases, the Minister will be intervening unilaterally with a minimum of parliamentary scrutiny, and, as my noble friend said, there will already be jointly agreed minimum service levels. That is why it is dangerous to the Government: every dispute in which the Minister intervenes in this way becomes a political dispute.

We have spent years trying to take industrial relations out of politics, but this brings them right back in. A central feature of this Bill is that at any stage, the Minister’s own view can override all agreements and unilateral action by the unions to observe the health and welfare of the population at large and the minimum service level. That politicises industrial relations in a way that has not happened for many years. I hope the Conservative Party understands what it is doing in this respect.

The Bill is also unnecessary and political in the sense that the reason for it—which is largely coincidental—is that a number of different disputes have arisen at roughly the same time because of the cost of living crisis and the squeeze on public sector pay. The public are getting anxious about the situation and they see the Government are not able to resolve it, so the Government have invented this Bill. They want to use the period from now until the general election, which the noble Lord, Lord Balfe wants to jump, to tell the public that they have a solution to all this industrial unrest. But it is not the solution; it is a promulgation, if they are not careful, of that industrial unrest.

When I intervened at Second Reading, I told the Government that they had an alternative: they could sit down and talk, make a new offer and change things. At least somebody in government—albeit not universally—has listened to me or come to the same conclusion. As a result, the Government are now sitting down with the RCN, which they refused to do at one point. They have made a better offer to firefighters—or at least, the fire brigade’s executive thinks the offer could be referred back to its members. Even in some of the disputes involving the railways, the next period of strikes has been postponed because the employer or the Government have moved. That is the alternative to intervening unilaterally and politically, in a way which is very dangerous to this Government and to the rights of workers and trades unions. But think how much worse it would have been if, instead of making an offer to the FBU, the Government had taken a unilateral decision to make the present MSL irrelevant and to statutorily impose a new one, and if some firefighters or their representatives had been nominated in the employer’s work notice, been told they had to strike-break, and refused to. Workers would have been dismissed, becoming potential trade union martyrs, and the union could have been sued for vast sums.

If that happened, how would noble Lords imagine that trade union executives, and ultimately members, would respond? This measure, the ability to intervene in this way, will actually prolong strikes and create more strikes, not solve them. The Government are going to tell the country that they have the solution but they have the opposite, and it is time this Bill was withdrawn.

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have contributed to this exciting—almost, in some respects—debate about the main issues we will discuss as the Bill progresses.

Let me start by addressing the point made by a number of noble Lords—including the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Fox and Lord Hendy—on the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Of course, we are grateful to the committee for its work, and, in the normal course of events, we will respond to the report in full. Let me say, before then, that this Government do consider that this Bill is compatible with the ECHR.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out, on the introduction of the Bill I made a statement under Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act that the provisions of the Bill are compatible with convention rights. Indeed, I have to do so on all the Bills I introduce into this House, and I have been doing a lot of that recently. I say to the noble Baroness that this is a duty I take very seriously. I would not just wake up in the morning and sign a bit of paper. I respond to legal advice that I receive, as I do on every Bill, and I often go back and query that legal advice, because I take my duty to sign that statement seriously. I can tell the noble Baroness that I was happy to do so in this case, because I am confident that the Bill strikes the right balance between the ability to strike and the rights and freedoms of others.

It is a question of balance, and I am grateful for the comments from my noble friend Lord Henley, who is actually a member of the committee, in his helpful speech. As he pointed out, the report does not say that the Bill is not compatible with the ECHR. Regulations that set minimum service levels in specified services will, of course, need to be compatible with the ECHR, including Article 11, and the Government will ensure that they introduce regulations that are compatible. Obviously, failure to do so would result in a breach, and a court would be able to grant such remedy as it considers just and appropriate should a union or others take a matter to judicial review. I am sure there is a lot of thinking about that at present.

In response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about when the provisions would apply, and the issue of retrospectivity, I agree with my noble friend Lady Noakes. It will of course apply only to future action. After Royal Assent, we need to lay the appropriate regulations, which would need to be approved by both Houses before the legislation can come into force.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked me whether employers can discriminate against trade union members when issuing a work notice, I am happy to confirm to the noble Baroness that the Bill is clear that employers should have no regard to trade union membership when they are issuing work notices.

My noble friend Lady Donaghy also raised the issue of recommendations that refer to trade union activities. The real fear here is that a bad employer could use a work notice to victimise and discriminate against not only union members, which, as the Minister says, is covered by the Bill, but against elected union workplace representatives. I wonder whether the Minister can give us reassurance that moves will be made to ensure that that cannot happen. It clearly cannot be right that an employer could victimise elected union representatives in the work notice. We hope it would never happen, but we cannot rely on hope.

I think the noble Baroness was, in effect, asking me to consider amendment 4 from the JCHR, which is what the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, was referring to. I was about to come on to that. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, is getting slightly ahead of herself. There are in fact later amendments, Amendments 27 and 28, tabled by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that seek to achieve a similar effect to that recommended, and we are going to have a fuller debate on that in group 10. So, if the noble Baroness will forgive me, I will address those points in more detail when we get there.

To restate why this legislation is needed—because this has been a general debate—let me set on record the Government’s position that there needs to be a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect their essential services, which they pay for through their taxes, to be there when they need them. The minimum service levels aim to restore this balance in order to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public from disproportionate impacts and results of strike action. This important protection should be afforded, in our view, to members of the public without delay, which is why we are opposed to the amendments seeking to delay the imposition of this legislation.

Amendment 1 seeks, in effect, to extend the impact that strikes can have on the wider public. It would ensure that strikes could continue for up to six months of the whole strike mandate period after the Bill comes into force without the relevant minimum service level being applied. Parties, including employers, unions and workers, will have sufficient notice of minimum service levels prior to their application via, for example, the consultation or parliamentary processes that will need to take place before those regulations come into force. So our view is that further notice is not necessary.

Amendment 50 seeks to delay commencement of all provisions of the Act, including the regulation-making powers, until two years after the day on which the Act is passed. My noble friend will be unsurprised to know that the Government do not support this amendment. Practically, the legislation will not take effect, as I have said, until the regulations are made to specify the relevant services that minimum service levels shall apply to and the levels of service that an employer can require its workers to provide in relation to strikes. This amendment would mean that the earliest point at which minimum service levels could be enforced in practice is two years after the Act is passed.

Amendment 51 would result in further delays that essentially duplicate the work and the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that has already been published, requiring yet another report before minimum service regulations are made. Again, we feel that this would be unnecessarily burdensome and serve no practical purpose, because these amendments would just delay the implementation of MSLs. I realise the Opposition would like to do that, but it is not the position of the Government. Therefore, we cannot accept these amendments, which, for no good reason or constructive purpose, would significantly extend the disproportionate impact that strikes can have on the wider public, on which lives and livelihoods depend. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

I completely support the Minister’s aspirations for the public to be able to conduct their lives without disruption. They want to be able to use transport and health services. But when the minimum service levels are decided by whoever it will be—we are unclear—will the Government be penalising those employers who do not provide them on non-strike days as well? I just wondered. We do not know what the minimum service levels will be. If 50% of the trains need to run, that would mean all signalpeople would have to work. I would like to be able to use the same Bill to have a go when I cannot get a train, the ambulance does not come or what have you, but it is the fault not of the strikers but of the organisations or institutions. Can the Minister extend this Bill so that I can use it to sue the people who do not deliver the services I need to live my life?

The noble Baroness says that these regulations will be imposed by whoever feels like it. They will be imposed by this Parliament because we are consulting on minimum service levels in three areas that will be subject to regulations. Each sector is different, which is why we have laid some consultations on the regulations; we are interested in hearing views. Again, the noble Baroness is getting ahead of herself. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, has amendments in later groupings similar to what the noble Baroness wishes to bring about; perhaps if she restrains her enthusiasm, we will get to these points later.

I just want to pick up the point about consultation. The Bill talks about six sectors but the Minister keeps referring to three consultations. Those consultations do not cover all the people in the sector who are referred to in the Bill. Can the Minister give us an idea of who in those six sectors will be consulted and when? We have had three consultations on a narrow element; not everyone in transport or health has been consulted, for example. Can the Minister give us a timetable and an idea of who will be consulted and when?

Clearly, the answer to the noble Lord’s question is that anybody can respond to the consultation. We have issued three draft statutory instruments in three sectors; we are interested in hearing responses from trade unions, members of the public, et cetera.

Can I answer the noble Lord’s first question before he asks me another? If we choose to move ahead—if the Bill is passed and the powers are granted—and we think it sensible to impose minimum service levels in other sectors that are allowed by the Bill, again, we will publish a draft consultation and people can respond to that in due course. The noble Lord has another question.

I asked the Minister a specific question but I am afraid that he did not answer it. Do the three consultations that have been issued cover all the categories of worker within that sector, as mentioned in the Bill? If not, when will other people in that sector be consulted, and what will the timetable for the others be? My understanding is that not all transport workers have been consulted on that draft.

I am sorry if the noble Lord finds this confusing. On the sectors where we have introduced draft regulations—let us take the example quoted by the noble Lord of rail services—those consultations are in rail services. If other transport workers, in relation to whom we have not yet chosen to introduce minimum service levels, wish to respond to that consultation in generality, of course they can do so. We will take their interests on board.

I hope that we will come back to this. I keep coming back to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, which always echo in my mind: policy and legislation. We have legislation but no idea what the policy is. The Government have committed to consult. There are six sectors that will be affected by this Bill. The Government have started consultation only in small parts of those sectors. For example, in transport, they have consulted only on passenger rail, not on freight rail or buses or any other element of the Bill. When are those elements going to be consulted? When are the Government going to start launching that?

I am not quite sure what the noble Lord is saying. Is he saying that he wants us to introduce minimum service levels in all those sectors as well? If he does, I will take that comment back to the relevant Secretary of State; perhaps they will wish to introduce MSLs in those sectors as well. However, as the noble Lord has observed, the categories in the Bill are fairly widely drawn. In the short term, we, as a Government, have chosen to consult on regulations in those specific sectors. It may be that, in future, if Parliament grants us the powers, we will consult on additional regulations but, at the moment, we have no plans to do so. We have consulted on those three particular sectors.

Can the Minister explain why this approach to the legislation was adopted? I know why I object to it. I know why the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, objects to it. I have a view about the importance of primary legislation. When people’s rights and freedoms are being constrained in this way, there should be foreseeability; by the way, when the Minister answered earlier on Section 19(1)(a) and how seriously he takes the obligation to make a statement on compatibility—I believe him—he did not set out his reasoning as to how this is in accordance with law in terms of foreseeability.

Pragmatically, I just want to ask him this: why was this approach adopted rather than the approach of formulating the policy in each area first? Frankly, purpose-specific primary legislation should then be brought to deal with a minimum service agreement in one sector that could not have been achieved by consent.

In some sectors, of course, some minimum service levels have been agreed by consent. We have said that, if that MSL is sufficient and we view it as adequate, we may choose not to regulate in those particular sectors.

With regard to Section 19(1)(a) statements, the Government do not comment on legal advice that they receive; that is a long-standing tradition for all parties in government. I can say only that I take my legal obligations seriously, as all Ministers do. I read the legal advice that I am given. If I have queries about it, I go back to the lawyers and ask them for further details. In this case, I was satisfied that the Bill’s provisions are compliant; therefore, as is my legal duty, I signed the declaration before the Bill was introduced to Parliament.

We are going to return to these areas as we progress through the clauses.

I just want to return to my noble friend’s point; the Minister only sort of answered the question. This Government started off with a manifesto commitment and a pledge to introduce minimum service levels in transport. That has sort of disappeared. Now it is a broad power—so broad that we will have no idea of who will be captured by this primary legislation until we see secondary legislation, which we will not be able to amend or adjust in order to take other factors into account. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is absolutely right about what we have heard across the House.

I come back to the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which states:

“The case has not been adequately made that there is a ‘pressing social need’ for imposing minimum service levels across the breadth of categories currently set out in the Bill. For example, the category of ‘education services’ is so broad that it might apply as much to private tutors and evening class teachers as to school teachers. Similarly, ‘transport services’ could include private taxi drivers.”

That is the point I am making: at what point will taxi drivers be next in line? The Government have these powers. We are giving them these powers. It comes back to Article 11. Surely, when we make laws, people ought to know how, or whether, they will affect them. We will not know that until a Secretary of State plants a statutory instrument; as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said, such instruments are not fair because we will not be able to amend them. In his report to this House, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, criticised this method as being fundamentally undemocratic because, as he said, these are not technical issues; they attach to fundamental human rights. That is the opinion across the House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2

Moved by

2: The Schedule, page 3, line 22, at end insert “under section 226(2D) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment seeks to align the meaning of “relevant services” with the definition of “important public services” in existing legislation.

My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 2 on behalf of my noble friend Lady Randerson, who is delayed on official business. After the preliminaries, I hope that we can start to get a little more specific. I would characterise Amendment 2 as a tidying-up exercise which I am sure that the Government will be happy to accept.

As we know, the Bill establishes a legal mechanism to implement minimum service levels when there may be strikes. It does so by amending the 1992 Bill referred to in this amendment, so that minimum service levels are one of the requirements before trade union action is protected from liability in tort.

At Second Reading, my noble friend Lady Randerson queried the list of public services on the grounds that they were vague and that some of them were provided by the private sector—for example, transport—and paid for by consumers, in contrast with schools and the NHS, which are provided by government money and free for the public to use. The Minister responded that the list was based on the Trade Union Act 2016. Page 3, line 22, leaves the definition of relevant services entirely in the hands of the Secretary of State—“Relevant to whom?”, one might question. This amendment seeks to align the meaning of “relevant services” with the definition of “important public services” in existing legislation and attempts to add precision by referring to that piece of well-established legislation, which comes with legal precedents and some understanding.

I suggest, particularly to this side of the House, that your Lordships would welcome anything which limits the amount of interpretative power that is left with Secretaries of State. Parliament should broadly welcome a tiny bit of specificity in the sea of uncertainty that this Bill creates.

I turn to Amendments 5, 11 and 12 in this group, and apologise for speaking before those who have tabled those amendments. These are the first in a series of amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, in a strategy to remove all the services currently named in the Schedule from the Bill. In essence, this is an opportunity to speak about each of these groups separately to probe the Government’s view on how these sections will be viewed. While several groups have been separated out, this group includes three types of workers, as specified in the legislation.

To establish a frame of reference, it is worth reminding ourselves that, as the Library has helpfully noted, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 made it an offence to take industrial action in the knowledge or belief that human life will be endangered or serious bodily injury caused. As a result, we have seen several unions, particularly those represented in the NHS workforce, agree to provide life and limb cover during strikes. No doubt this will come up in later groups. There is no fixed definition of what this entails in practice, but recent examples have included negotiations to ensure that critical services could still run during the recent strike by paramedics and ambulance service workers. We will hear more of this when we debate the third group.

Under the provisions of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the Government also have general emergency powers that they can use when strikes seriously threaten people’s welfare. In such cases, a Minister may make regulations to protect or restore facilities for transport or health, for example, or to protect human life, health or safety. One of the preconditions for the exercise of this power is that an emergency has occurred. An emergency is defined as

“an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom, … the environment of a place in the United Kingdom, or … war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom”.

Amendment 5 seeks to exclude the fire and rescue service from the Bill. I have other things to say about the fire service in a later group, so I will refrain from speaking at length about it here. However, I ask your Lordships to remember that point about emergencies, because it will be very salient when we talk about fire and rescue services later.

Amendment 11 would remove

“decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel”

from the Bill. There has been no strike action in the nuclear decommissioning and waste management sector, and minimum safe staffing level agreements in the event of industrial action are in place in significant parts of the sector. The presence of this group in the Bill is a provocation rather than anything else.

Finally, Amendment 12 seeks to remove border security from the Bill. There are indeed issues with this service, and members of the Public and Commercial Services Union took strike action at various UK airports and seaports in December 2022. Further action has been announced and may occur later this year but, at a time when the Government are spending so much political capital on border controls, it seems careless to threaten the actual officers and employees that we have in this sector with the sack. The idea that we will improve our borders by firing the workforce we already have beggars belief.

I suspect that this will be a red rag to the ministerial bull but, as the JCHR puts it:

“Far from bringing the UK in line with other European countries, as the Government have argued, the Bill represents a significant departure from their practices where pay and minimum service levels are typically decided through collective negotiations and agreement”,

rather than being imposed,

“with disputes settled between trade unions and employers. Instead, the Bill makes no reference to collective bargaining nor does it subject minimum service levels to independent arbitration should it be necessary.”

This is the first of the groups on which we will have the discussions that focus on those issues.

My Lords, I apologise, as I was present but did not speak at Second Reading. Given that these amendments are around the list of relevant services and intend to reduce the list of affected services, I was surprised that policing was not included in the list. There is no definition of relevant services in the Act although, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, emergency services are a clear criteria that has been applied. Given how policing has developed over the last few years, the decision about whether you have this Bill is, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty said, a very political one. That is not something that I want to take a position on. My point is only that if you are to have a list, is it a comprehensive list and can this list be improved?

Over the past 20 or 30 years, policing has been more civilianised. Police officers have been removed from tasks for which they did not need powers, and more police staff—who were called civilians—have been employed because they did not need policing skills or powers and, frankly, they were cheaper. This has been a big push to make sure that the police get more efficient, and I support it generally. It is also true that the trade unions have had voluntary agreements to maintain good services throughout any industrial action, of which there were quite a few instances during my time in policing. Those systems have held, but the Bill addresses where those voluntary agreements do not survive. Therefore, I want to ensure that policing has been considered properly.

The ratio of civilian staff to police officers is about 3:1 around the country; for every three police officers there is one member of support staff. It is slightly different in the Met for operational reasons. The two areas where this ought to be considered seriously are forensic science provision and call handling. Nearly 100% of those who provide forensic science services are police staff, doing an excellent job. It is vital that you collect forensic evidence as soon as possible after the event. It is usually known as the golden hour; any forensic evidence will deteriorate. If you must restrict the number of scenes that you attend or the time that it takes to attend, it will have a significant impact, particularly for serious crime. This is probably swinging the lamp, but I would like to see the police investigate properly more volume crime by going to the scene and seeing whether there is any forensic evidence. We hear of too many instances where sadly that is not the case. That is what should happen. Clearly, forensic science is vital to that. I am afraid that there is no way that police officers can easily step into that field. Even if you could give them the skills, you cannot give them the experience. Just having the skills is not sufficient to make sure that you look in all the right places and in the right way.

Call handling is another vital area. In London—this applies around the country—there are about 5 to 6 million telephone calls a year, probably one in four of which are 999 calls. Each call is vital. Between approximately 1,500 and 2,000 people answer those calls over a 24-hour period. It is not as easy as it was when I used to go into the control room, answer the phone and work the radio. The radio is now a computer system; you have to have the skills. Answering the phone is relatively straightforward, but the volumes are massive. Of course, it is vital that you answer the phone, including 101 calls; if you do not, or you do it too slowly, you will not know whether there is someone on the other end with a life-changing event. You have to get there quickly. It is vital that phones get answered because, even in a digital world, it is still the only way that people can get help. I am surprised that they are not included as a group.

The police service is a fallback for the fire service. In the event that fire brigades do not or cannot answer calls, the police will answer them, mainly because, for every 10 police calls there are probably about four or five ambulance calls and less than one fire call. Thankfully, we have far fewer fires now than we have ever had. The arrangement is that the police act as the last resort, given that numbers are relatively low compared to theirs. They also take calls for the coastguard, which is not relevant in a place such as London but is certainly a big issue on the coast, where many emergencies require an intervention of the coastguard to co-ordinate the other emergency services that might attend.

Will the Minister seriously consider why the police service is not included? I am not in a position to judge whether it asked to be included, or what its view was in consultation. It has not asked me, nor have I asked it, but I am really surprised that it is not included, for the reason that I have given.

We could have added a few more to the list; I have just given two main ones. Covert surveillance quite often now involves police staff; covert technical surveillance includes police staff. If you accept the principle—I realise that the Opposition do not—that the Bill is necessary, the list needs to be different. I accept that the Opposition want to reduce it, but I am asking whether we could consider extending it.

To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, what we are trying to probe here is why any category is within the ambit of the Bill and why they have been specified. We will come back to the specific amendments in the group, but the noble Lord asked a question worth remembering: is it proportionate and necessary to have the Bill, bearing in mind that we have arrangements for minimum service levels—we have called them a range of things and noble Lords have referred to them—and they work? The noble Lord referred to circumstances in which they have worked, so we come back to the question: what is the point of this Bill?

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, is absolutely right to ask—the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said this too in his contribution on the previous group—why the very narrow, specific group,

“decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel” ,

has been included, given that there has not been a dispute or action that would require the Bill being applied. Surely we legislate for a reason. This highlights the fact that, as was said by my noble friends Lady Chakrabarti and Lord Whitty—whose contribution was absolutely right—we are increasingly seeing this as a political issue. It is not about resolving industrial disputes and providing support; it has another agenda.

On fire and rescue services, the Joint Committee on Human Rights mentioned the 2004 Act, and the Civil Contingencies Act also comes into play, where there are legal obligations. The Government have to understand that they are raising minimum service levels at a time when people in the public sector are striking because they are so concerned about the failure to meet minimum service levels. That is what doctors and nurses are worried about. I have heard from many nurses, including Members of this House, who have made that point—who would never have considered going on strike, ever. They made it very clear that, when they were in service, they would not have gone on strike, but they understand that the difference between then and now is in how nurses are valued, seen and even respected. That is the difference now. I heard the chair of the Police Federation make exactly this point on television. On the police not being able to strike he said that, when that was introduced, they were told that they would be compensated; it would be recognised that they had that obligation to serve the community. They do not feel that now, after a 17% reduction in their real wages. That is what people are really concerned about.

We are probing the categories that have been included because it seems so arbitrary. It comes back to the question of who is being consulted and when. It is not the six categories; it is not a broad range of people, even though the powers in the Bill will cover those areas. What is the minimum service level for border security? I hope the Minister can answer that. Is it a two-mile queue at Dover? Is it a completely blocked M20? Is it my having to wait three hours at Luton Airport because there was not sufficient staff? What is the minimum service level in those categories?

As it moves through Committee, I think the Minister will struggle to justify why the Bill is being introduced. It is a terrible Bill that does not do what it—supposedly—intends to.

I thank all three speakers in this debate. Amendments 2, 5, 11 and 12 seek to alter the sectors and services that are within scope of having minimum service levels implemented. Amendment 2 would stop minimum service levels being applied to education services for those over the age of 16 and rescue services in relation to fire and rescue services. Amendments 5, 11 and 12 would each remove one of the identified sectors from the Bill.

Amendment 2 specifically seeks to align the meaning of “relevant services” with the definition of “important public services” in existing legislation. The practical effect of this would be that minimum service levels would not be able to be applied to education services provided for those who are over the age of 16 and services which constitute “rescue services” in the context of fire and rescue. I am really not sure how that could work in practice, bearing in mind that the same personnel often provide the same services.

Strike action in these sectors has the potential for far-reaching consequences for members of the public who are not in any way involved in a dispute. This applies equally to education services for those aged over 16, as well as fire and rescue services, which is why they have been included in the legislation. In my view, it would simply not be right for students who attend a sixth form or further education college or university to be automatically ruled out of scope of minimum service levels while pupils aged 16 and under are not. Their education is no less valuable or important.

Additionally, there should be the potential for employers in the fire and rescue services to consider rostering staff to provide minimum service levels in response to road traffic incidents or in flood responses. Bizarrely, the amendment seems to be intended to prevent that. If you have a number of firemen on duty, those same firemen will be responding to house fires as well as car accidents, for instance. I do not see how there can be a distinction.

Let me also highlight what the legal ambiguity of this amendment could lead to. Subsection (4) of new Section 234B, as currently drafted, lists the key sectors that MSLs can apply to. There would then be a conflict between that section and the existing Section 226(2E) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, over which the amendment would presumably seek to take precedence. On that basis, I therefore cannot support it. The Government will set out, via consultations, what services may be in scope of minimum service levels, just as the published consultations for fire, ambulance and rail services that we debated in the previous grouping have done.

On the remaining amendments, the key sectors outlined in the Bill stem broadly from the 1992 Act, as amended by the Trade Union Act 2016, as they have been long recognised as important for society to function effectively. As I have already said, strike action in these sectors has the potential for far-reaching consequences for the public. Fire and rescue services, as I said, routinely deal with emergency incidents that pose an immediate risk to the public, and strike action could impact on public safety. The Government take the same view that ensuring safety at nuclear sites is also of the highest importance, so it is right that nuclear decommissioning is within scope. Finally, without a permanent and skilled presence at the border, there is a significant risk to the security and prosperity of the UK. I will respond to the noble Lord, Lord Collins: of course, many other countries, because of the way that their border security is structured, actually prohibit strikes completely in border services, so we are not going that far.

The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, will know better than I do that some policing services are already restricted from striking. But I do take on board his point about the other essential elements of the policing service that relate to that.

Let me respond to the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, and then the noble Lord can come back. I will take on board the points of the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, inquire for more details from the Home Office, and come back to him in writing. I will now take the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Collins.

No-one disputes what the Minister is saying in terms of the importance, particularly with emergency services, of that requirement. Can he tell us what assessment he made of the existing legislation, both the Civil Contingencies Act and the 2004 Act, in relation to this? What we are debating is why the Bill is necessary. It is not clear that the Minister has made the case.

I accept that the Labour Party does not believe that we have made the case; that is why we are having this debate. We picked the sectors because they were broadly in line with the 1992 Act, but of course there are good cases to be made for additional sectors, as the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, has intimated—

We will take on board all of the requests for additional services to be included. Of course, we have considered the effects of existing legislation as well, but there is, apart from the bans in certain sectors, no other legislation in the UK at the moment indicating the provision of minimum service levels. We know that some minimum service levels are provided by agreement between unions in some areas, but not in others at the moment—

Can I press the noble Lord? I think it is a fundamental point; he cannot just dismiss this with, “Oh, we did an assessment”. Tell us. The 2004 Act and the Civil Contingencies Act cover these areas. Why does he need this additional Bill in those particular sectors?

The Act does not cover minimum service levels in those sectors. I do not understand the point that the noble Lord is making. There are no minimum service level Acts in the UK at present; I think that in one of the contributions—it might have been the noble Lord’s—the point was made that MSL legislation does not apply in the UK at the moment. It is not something we have done previously, but we now consider that to be the case. I will take the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.

I am grateful to the Minister. I think the two points that are emerging, that I would be grateful for assistance with from the Minister, go like this. The first is that on one level, these six areas are very broad—this was highlighted, in a way, by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. For example, “health services” is incredibly broad: everything from dental hygiene to ambulance services. Some of these things are potentially emergency blue-light services and some are not.

By contrast, there are services that have been left out. The Minister then responded to the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, by saying, “Oh well, thank you for that. Perhaps we’d better add to the list”. But what he did not say was, “Perhaps we need more precision in the list”, as opposed to asking whether the list should be longer or shorter. It is this point about precision, is it not? This again goes back to the question about foreseeability and whether we really know what is going to happen as a result of the very broad brush-strokes with which the Bill has been painted.

On the point about the Civil Contingencies Act, that is a very broad power to safeguard life in public emergencies. The regulation-making powers in that legislation would allow Ministers very quickly to create and enforce minimum service level agreements if the country was truly at risk.

We do not feel that the Civil Contingencies Act gives us the power to impose minimum service levels in the sectors that we have identified, which is why we are seeking this additional primary legislation, but I accept that there is a balance to be drawn. Noble Lords have seen two elements in the debate today between certain Members who do not want the legislation at all and do not believe in the principle of minimum service or safety levels, as it has been referred to—

It is not correct to say that we do not believe in minimum service levels or in protecting people—far from it. As my noble friend will say later, we have negotiated and achieved minimum service levels across the board. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, mentioned the fact that they have been achieved. We are asking whether this Bill damages the co-operation and support for those minimum service levels. We think it will; it will harm the situation.

I think that comes down to the essence of the political disagreement, and maybe I was not exposing myself correctly, but certainly the Opposition disagree with the minimum service levels legislation. I accept that in some areas the noble Lord might believe in minimum service levels but, as I have said, if voluntary negotiations are in place in certain sectors, that is preferable to the heavy hand of legislation, and we accept that. However, in the case of ambulances, some unions in some areas have agreed minimum service levels and others have not, so we think it is right to have the back-up of legislation in case we need to reach for it, but we hope that we do not need to use it.

As I was saying in response to the intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, this is about the essential political balance and what services should be included. I think the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, makes a good case that policing services should be included, and I will get him a full reply on that. That is the essential political judgment that the Government took when we were drafting this legislation about what services should be included, but I accept that there is political difference of opinion. Some people think they are too broadly drawn, some people think they are not widely enough drawn and some Members think additional services should be included. I can present only the legislation and view that the Government took on this at the time.

With that, I have concluded my remarks in response to the group, so I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Fox, will feel able to withdraw the amendment he moved on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments and speeches on this group. I think we are beginning to draw the lines a little more clearly. First, I am delighted that the Minister has come out as a bulwark against legal ambiguity. I will clean up our legal ambiguity by withdrawing Amendment 2 shortly, if he clears up his legal ambiguity by withdrawing the Bill.

Looking at the rest of the debate, I think I am beginning to see the problem, which is the difference between minimum service levels and emergency cover. Some of the services highlighted in this Bill are emergency services; they are services that you need in extremis. Some of them are in the Bill, and some of the ones that the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, mentioned are not. Some of them, particularly transport, are not generally services that you need in extremis. In that case, minimum service level is an appropriate term.

For the others, emergency cover is covered in the Civil Contingencies Act, and the trade union Acts of 1996 and 2002 are more appropriate. In reverting to the language of minimum service level when referring to services that are required in extremis, the Minister is accidentally or deliberately missing the point. I think we will come back to this on a number of occasions, so it would be helpful if the Minister can be persuaded to understand it, even if not to agree with it. On the basis of trying to bring us all together, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 2.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

Amendment 3

Moved by

3: The Schedule, page 3, leave out line 25

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment would remove “health services” from the Bill.

I am speaking to Amendments 3 and 4 which are tabled in my name and the name of my noble friend Lord Collins. There are many across this House who believe that the Bill is undemocratic, unworkable and incompatible with human rights and international law, but I want to focus on the specific impact on health services.

The Bill would have huge negative consequences for our NHS and for all of us who rely on the motivation, commitment and morale of health staff. I am sure noble Lords are aware that the NHS workforce disproportionately relies on the labour of women, who make up 75% of staff, and the dedication of black and ethnic minority staff, among whom trade union membership is highest. No doubt we will get on to the equality impacts of the Bill, but it seems appropriate to start by quoting the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s observations on this Bill. It says:

“In the human rights memorandum that accompanied the earlier Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill … the case for the lawfulness of similar provisions was made partly by distinguishing the Bill’s transport-focused clauses from measures affecting other sectors, including health and education. In that document, the Government recognised the importance of existing measures to mitigate the impacts of industrial action in health, education and fire and rescue services”,

and that

“healthcare sector trade unions already provide ‘life and limb’ cover during strikes”.

Will the Minister explain exactly why, in such a short period of time, the Government’s position on the inclusion of the health sector has apparently somersaulted?

The commission also expressed the concern that the Government’s human rights memorandum makes no reference to Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the prohibition of slavery and forced labour. Given that health workers who do not comply with a notice to work would face the sack, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s reply to the commission’s concern about that article.

Many of us have previously questioned the deeply flawed evidence base contained in the Bill. The Government have repeatedly defended themselves by claiming that minimum service levels are mainstream in other countries, but the fact remains that the key question is not about the existence of minimum service levels—after all, we already have those in the NHS. The real concern is whether such arrangements are imposed by Westminster government diktat, as the Bill seeks to do, or are negotiated voluntarily by agreement; that individual workers who do not comply can be sacked; that all striking workers could be stripped of protection against dismissal if their union is deemed not to be taking these mysterious, undefined “reasonable steps”; that injunctions could be more easily issued to stop a strike; and that union funds could be even more heavily sanctioned.

Health unions believe that the Bill is a distraction from the real issues of severe workforce shortages, patient safety and decades of underinvestment across health and social care, especially in relation to workforce supply and retention. The sacking of nurses on strike, as the Bill provides for, will only make that crisis worse.

There have been many pleas from individual health professionals. One GP who wrote to my noble friend Lady Thornton said they witnessed daily the huge pressures facing the workforce, which is still tackling the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic and the huge backlog of care that that created. Waiting lists have soared while their pay has been eroded. The Government said the Bill would help to ensure patient safety on strike days, yet they have failed to take action to address the workforce crisis in health and social care.

It is already an established principle that healthcare unions co-ordinate strike action in a way that allows critical services to continue, and existing life-and-limb protections exempt certain categories of staff from strikes. Instead of focusing on minimum service levels on strike days, the Government should be taking action to ensure that the NHS is safely staffed 365 days a year. Those are just some of the reasons why health staff on strike have received such strong public support. The latest YouGov poll shows that around two-thirds of the public support nurses and ambulance workers who have taken strike action.

The NHS has a long and proud record of social partnership which is at the heart of industrial relations in the NHS between employers and unions. Of course, that social partnership does not guarantee that differences of interest will not arise, but the Bill risks all that good faith and good will, and it is not just unions who are saying so. Noble Lords will be aware of the concerns of NHS Providers, which says it is essential that a focus on legislative change does not worsen industrial relations at a time when it is imperative that the Government and the unions get around the table to seek a resolution and avert further escalation and disruption to patient care. It believes that the Bill risks damaging the relationship between NHS trust leaders and their staff, and between trust leaders and local union representatives, at a particularly fraught time, without addressing any of the issues underlying current strike action or providing a useful alternative approach to managing service provision during periods of strike action.

Concerns have also been raised by large private companies operating in the health sector that currently do not know whether they are in or out. Many of those companies are concerned that they will be caught in the net of this Bill, and they would like to know if they are. Frankly, many of them are telling us that they would really not welcome what they see as unwelcome interference in their own industrial relations. We have to contemplate that there may be bad private sector employers operating in the sector that may be brought into scope for the purposes of the Bill.

As Parliament is being kept in the dark about exactly which employers and workers fall within scope, it would be very helpful if the Minister could provide some answers. I am going to give an example I have thought of. Can the Minister tell us in principle whether the designation of health services could include Amazon? We are all aware that various partnerships between Amazon and the NHS have been mooted, largely in respect of data and web services, but also presumably involving the delivery of kit. Your Lordships will be aware that the GMB union has organised workers at the Coventry warehouse, who have been on strike for better pay and conditions and for union recognition. Therefore, can the Minister confirm whether, in principle, a company such as Amazon could be given licence to threaten those workers to work or face the sack?

Can the Minister also tell us more about these consultations? We have had a consultation only on ambulance workers. Is it significant that we have not had consultations on other groups of workers? Is it because they are not going to appear, but the threat of these sweeping powers being taken is just left hanging over other groups of workers’ heads? What is the significance of this? Why have the Government issued a consultation only on ambulance workers? Frankly, it is a mess, and workers and employers are worried.

Finally, can the Minister give us a straight answer on how on earth these draconian proposals are expected to work in devolved Governments, when health is a devolved matter? For example, Wales is very proud of its social partnership commitments and approach. The Westminster Government’s authoritarian proposals in this Bill stand in direct opposition to the approach Wales has taken. What happens when nations withhold their consent? Railroading through these proposals without proper parliamentary scrutiny and without devolved government consent is a recipe for chaos and conflict. I beg to move.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.45 pm.