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Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 23 March 2023

Committee (2nd 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

The Schedule: Minimum service levels for certain strikes

Amendment 14

Moved by

14: The Schedule, page 3, line 31, at end insert—

“(5) Regulations made under this section in relation to strikes affecting services in an area for which an elected mayor is responsible may not be made without the consent of the elected mayor for that area.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment would require the consent of the relevant elected mayor before minimum service levels could be set in relation to an area for which an elected mayor was responsible.

My Lords, I will speak to the amendments in the group starting with Amendment 14 in the name of my noble friend Lord Fox. This group is all about devolution. The Government have hyped up their commitment to devolution in England, so Amendment 14 is in line with the proposals in the levelling-up Bill and in Bills on the powers of existing mayoral authorities. In England, an increasing number of those have great powers over transport—for example, bus franchises—so it is logical that elected mayors should be consulted by the Government before they intervene with minimum service levels.

I move on to Amendments 19 and 49 in my name, which refer to the much stronger devolution that has existed in Wales and Scotland and, we hope, will be returned in Northern Ireland in due course. Amendment 19 refers to Part 1 of the Schedule, which relates to minimum service level regulations that may be applied by UK Government Ministers to the list of services specified in the Bill. The key point is that most of these services—health, fire and rescue, education and most of transport—are devolved. Only the decommissioning of nuclear installations, management of radioactive waste and so on, and border security are reserved matters falling to the UK Government. Once again, we have this Government riding roughshod over the core business of devolution. Even border security could be argued to be a very legitimate interest to the devolved Administrations. For example, the Welsh Government owns and runs Cardiff Airport, and that would clearly be directly affected if there were a dispute with border security staff. Similarly, the safe and efficient operation of the several very important and significant Welsh ports is of direct concern to the Welsh Government. In practice, you could not impose a minimum service level without consultation and close co-operation.

I need to point out here that the Welsh Government have a much more positive relationship with public sector trade unions than that between the UK Government and trade unions in England. Although they have not totally avoided strike action in Wales recently, it has certainly been much less intense and acrimonious. The Welsh Government have adopted more of a social partnership approach, and we have seen none of the provocative rhetoric that we have seen in England.

Amendment 19 is very modest: it simply asks for an obligation for proper consultation with Welsh and Scottish Ministers before regulations are made. It reflects similar provisions in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. It specifies that a senior Minister of the Crown should undertake this consultation because we have lately had repeated evidence that this Government have failed to interact at the appropriate level with Ministers in the devolved Administrations, whom they seem, on occasion, to regard as insignificant juniors. Very recently, in the debate on the retained EU law Bill, we were repeatedly referred to officials as the appropriate level for such links. If the UK Government decide to intervene to specify minimum service levels for devolved services, that is a political decision, and the very least that they should do is ensure that Ministers take the lead in that political process.

Quite apart from the need to respect devolution, there is considerable scope for confusion if the UK Government decide to define what they regard as an MSL without close liaison with the devolved Administrations. Let us take health as an example: waiting times for treatment are defined differently in Wales and England, as are ambulance response times, so one size definitely does not fit all. The very simple Amendment 49 takes a much more radical approach. By leaving out “Wales and Scotland”, it would limit the extent of the Bill to England. That would reflect the points that I made previously: most of the public services specified are devolved, and even those which are not have a close interaction with devolved services.

During the pandemic, for instance, we became acutely aware of the differences in organisation and ethos between the UK Government’s approach and that taken, for instance, in Wales, but which I also observed in Scotland. There are plenty of stresses in the delivery of Welsh public services. I do not defend the current standard of some of those. They are under acute stress. If this comes to a head in the form of strikes, it is unlikely that dictation from the outside by the UK Government will help the situation.

Finally, I remind noble Lords that the UK Government are just the Government for England when we talk about strikes in schools or in the NHS, for instance, and other services specified in the Bill.

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 49. All the points arise in relation to it, so I do not think it necessary to go into the other amendments. I will make six points.

First, I do not believe that it is contested that a number of the services covered by the Bill are effectively within the control of the Governments of the nations of Scotland and Wales, and that is reflected everywhere in the consultation that has so far been made. However, when you take that, you have to consider whether you can disentangle services during periods of strikes from services elsewhere. On our previous day in Committee, the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Patel, eloquently put why it is quite impossible to disentangle them. What I simply do not understand at the moment is why, if you have a minimum standard on a strike day, that is not the minimum standard across all these areas on every other day. How can the public be expected to think that in strikes there is a minimum standard? There is not.

This is a critical point because it goes to my second point: the purpose of this Bill. The Government, relying, no doubt, on their legal advice, take the view that this has nothing whatever to do with Wales and Scotland. They assert as a matter of constitutional law that this is an entirely reserved matter. With her usual clarity, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, explained the purpose of the Bill, which is what I tried to summarise in my first proposition: it is to do with services; it is not a Bill to do with industrial relations, employment rights and duties. Clearly, this is not a reserved matter and therefore, you need a legislative consent Motion. Unfortunately, the question of whether you need a legislative consent Motion has fallen into disuse. It is a real problem, which I have raised many times in this House, that the Sewel convention is in serious danger of not being a convention any longer.

You can look at the legal analysis from a different point of view, but that is sufficient because you pick up in there the point that, even if this whole thing can be disentangled, you ought to realise that this is not a matter entirely for the Government of the United Kingdom but for the Governments in Cardiff and Scotland. Even if you do not agree with my analysis of the law, it is really important that you engage with those Governments—a point picked up in the earlier amendment. I am always extremely grateful for the very warm words of the Minister on this but, as many have said, you are judged by your deeds, not your words. The deeds in this case are all one way, and that is to try to whittle down the powers of the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales and thereby weaken the union.

My third point is that even if you could disentangle and ignore what was said in the previous debate, and even if you do not want to engage, it is not practical to think that Secretaries of State in England can make decisions in respect of minimum service levels in Scotland and Wales. One of the consequences of devolution has been that the ignorance in Whitehall of how these services are run in Wales and Scotland increases year by year. It is not a criticism; it is just the fact of devolution. Let us take, for example, education. We have no idea yet how they are proposing to specify minimum standards in education. I assume that the Secretary of State is competent to decide the minimum standard so, if you go by subject matter, what is the minimum standard of bilingual education to be? It is not something that I imagine engages the Whitehall mandarins in the department concerned with education. You can multiply this—the ambulance service, for example—right across the spectrum. So, even if it is possible to do it and even if you ignore the devolution settlement, it is simply not practical.

I go on to my fourth point. Even if practical, the effect is to remove responsibility from the person who deals with the workforce. I know this Government have great skill in industrial relations, but in saying that the Bill is all about industrial relations—which, of course, it is not; it is to do with minimum standards—they obviously feel that by imposing their own views on industrial relations on those responsible for the negotiations in Wales and Scotland, they can do better. I am not sure that their track record really justifies that conclusion. If one looks back to the events of recent years, the Governments in Scotland and Wales have generally been more successful in dealing with negotiations in relation to these services than His Majesty’s Ministers in Whitehall. What you are doing by this Bill is effectively taking away power from those who have responsibility for the negotiations. There is a well-known quotation about power without responsibility, to which is unnecessary to refer.

That takes me to the fifth point I want to make, which is that the consequences of this undermine democracy and accountability. One of the great virtues of this House is that it attaches great importance to accountability. By transferring responsibility for minimum services, the Bill is taking it away from those who are accountable to the people of Wales and Scotland. It is quite wrong that we should proceed on this basis.

My sixth and final point is this. When you sit and think, you must ask yourself, why is this Bill being put forward? Normally, as I understand the way we have traditionally been governed in this country, you work out the policy first and legislate second. What is happening in this Bill is that you legislate first and think second. Now that we turn to devolution, there is yet another problem. Had we proceeded in the right way, we would not be in the mess this Bill is getting us into. I suggest that if you look at the consequences for devolution, you see yet another reason why this Bill, a skeletal Bill, should not proceed. I shall add just one scintilla to that—it is a point I do not want to develop any further. This Bill is Henry VIII on stilts. Looking at a Bill of this kind, we have not yet examined whether you should put into such a Bill a clause that limits the Government’s power to override the devolution settlement. I do not know. This is a subject that we ought to be debating, but I think it unnecessary to add to the length of what has already been too long a speech on these points.

My Lords, since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, used what I said earlier in aid of his arguments, I thought I ought to say a few words. First, unfortunately I do not speak for the Government in any respect. Indeed, the Government are generally to the left of my views, so my views are indeed my own. I have said that this Bill is about protecting service levels, in particular for those who have paid through their taxes for public services to be provided to them. That is the aim of the Bill. The means of the Bill is via trade union and industrial relations legislation. That is a reserved matter, and I think the Government have to accept the point.

Having said that, I of course agree that the devolved Administrations should be consulted on minimum service levels because they are bound to affect their citizens. I believe that the devolved Administrations would want to be involved in any consultation, to put across the views of their citizens as to the appropriate minimum service levels that their citizens should be demanding. However, I do not think it goes beyond that, and I do not think it is necessary to go to the extent of the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, which talks about meaningful consultation. They are of course going to be consulted on these matters.

When the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, introduced Amendment 14, she very carefully said that elected mayors should be consulted. That is not what Amendment 14 says. It says that regulations cannot be made

“without the consent of the elected mayor for that area.”

That would mean, for example, that any minimum service level which affected a train service between London and Manchester could be vetoed by either the elected Mayor of Greater Manchester or the elected Mayor of London—or indeed Birmingham. That seems to me to be complete nonsense. I believe they should be consulted because they will want to input the views that protect services for the residents in their areas, but we should not go as far as requiring consent.

My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendments 19 and 49 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, which try to mitigate in one and contain in the other the level of interference that the Bill intends to make into areas that are clearly devolved. This is in a long line of legislation that has trampled over the accepted responsibilities of devolved Governments. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act, the Nationality and Borders Act, the Subsidy Control Act, the Elections Act, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and the retained EU law Bill are just a few of the Bills that have impacted on the devolved Administrations.

On this occasion, in the Bill’s list of six services to be targeted I found only one that was reserved and that was border security, though I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that airports and ports will be dragged into that. Health services, education, fire and rescue services, transport services and the decommissioning of nuclear plants are devolved responsibilities, and the elected Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd are ultimately accountable for the delivery of these services. The Minister and his colleagues have no electoral mandate to interfere in these services. Not only does the Bill seek to allow government Ministers to interfere in devolved areas of competency but it does not even have the good manners to outline in the body of the Bill how they would use these powers. Parliament is yet again being asked to put its name to a blank cheque.

It may surprise the Minister to know that both the Welsh and Scottish Governments have respectful working relationships with trade unions in their countries. In Scotland, the fair work framework has a different model of industrial relations from that adopted by the UK Government. The framework states that there are many examples in Scotland and elsewhere of how the collective voice of trade unions working with employers has addressed the wide range of organisational challenges and contributed to organisational improvements. The Welsh Government are committed to the Fair Work Commission in Wales, which respects and encourages trade unions to have a significant role in workplaces, society and policy-making. How different that is from the approach taken by this Government. These fair work arrangements do not prevent industrial disputes but allow constructive dialogue between government, employers and trade unions, so that when disputes occur there is greater good will to resolve them.

In support of these amendments, I particularly appreciate the insistence of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that consultation must mean more than lip service, with Amendment 19 specifying that it must be

“with a view to reaching an agreement.”

Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I think it is important to have that in—how many consultations do we really believe have changed thinking?

While it would be better if the Bill is not taken forward at all, if it is, it should not apply in Scotland and Wales. I would support particularly then Amendment 49. What the Bill has achieved is a strong case for devolving employment law to Holyrood and the Senedd. As explained quite entertainingly and enjoyably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, the Sewel convention has been abused time and again so that it is no longer meaningful. There is an urgent need to rethink the balance between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. As we approach the 24th anniversaries of the opening of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd, we should remember that these institutions were established to allow the people of Scotland and Wales to make decisions about how their countries should be run. This must not be undermined by such poorly framed and unnecessary legislation as this Bill. I urge noble Lords to support these amendments.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, and to add to her remarks. I strongly support Amendment 49 and point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that the phrase in Amendment 19 of consultation implying a view to meeting an agreement is particularly important because in this Bill we are talking about devolved competencies directly, and I am afraid the track record has not been that good. Indeed, the Bill seems to have been announced without any prior consultation with the Welsh Government at all, and officials have been reluctant to share substantive information relating to the Bill which is not in the public domain but does affect devolved competencies.

In paragraph 141 of Schedule 7A to the Government of Wales Act it would seem that legislative consent is required over aspects of health, education, fire and rescue, and certain transport services. But the Welsh Government appear to be set to vote overwhelmingly to refuse legislative consent, and for good reason. As the Government themselves have conceded, the services are

“run differently in England, Scotland and Wales and are the responsibility of Scottish and Welsh Governments respectively.”

With that responsibility comes a requirement to set pay and terms and conditions of service, and those cannot be disentangled from strategic and operational decisions taken in Wales and Scotland. To give those powers to Westminster and override the devolved legislations would effectively undermine their ability to run the services that they run as effectively as they see fit to meet the needs of the population—the population which have voted those devolved Ministers into their positions in government.

There is a different approach to the unions, as has already been said. There is a model of social partnership, which I am familiar with in Wales. It was notable that, even going back to 2015, the junior doctors did not go on strike in Wales whereas they did in England, and the current rail strikes have shown a different pattern of working because an agreement was made with Transport for Wales.

It certainly is not incidental that this has been included in the Bill, because it threatens the Welsh Government’s ability to maintain a model that is interwoven with those responsibilities, as I have said. In fact, those services are essential to the running of the devolved nations. The approach would undermine accountability in Wales, as the Bill provides no role for the Senedd, despite the strong argument that it has the competences to legislate in areas contained in the Bill. The Secretary of State being able to set minimum service levels for local services in most parts of England is already questioned by some, but it seems almost an affront to devolved responsibilities to say that that could override the responsibilities in the devolved nations.

The consultation process set out in the Bill fails to specify who should be consulted; it is whoever the Secretary of State sees fit, and they do not seem to have to pay regard to the outcome of that consultation. That means there is no role for the Welsh Ministers, who are actually responsible for running the services. If the Bill is passed, the backdrop to negotiations undertaken in Wales will be fundamentally altered. There is a concern—a valid one, I think—that that could be used for political ends, because there is no protection in the Bill from a Secretary of State who wishes to provoke or prolong a dispute for political ends.

Sadly, no Minister in Wales or Scotland can take comfort from assurances given and being told that they will be consulted. Similar assurances were provided over the financial powers in the internal markets Act, but those are now being used to ensure that Welsh Ministers cannot take the decisions over EU successor funds provided in the form of the shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up fund. I hope the Committee will see that in order to maintain the integrity of the UK, it will be important to take Wales, Scotland and, I think, Northern Ireland out of the wording in the Bill.

Has the noble Baroness realised that the Bill does not actually require any employer in Wales to issue a work notice? The only thing that the Secretary of State will be doing is setting minimum service standards. The implementation via work notices is entirely at the option of the employers, which will be either the Welsh Government or one of the various Welsh bodies that are answerable to the Welsh Government. I understand the point that she was trying to make, but she was implying that the UK Government were interfering in the operation of the services, which the Bill does not come close to doing.

I remind the noble Baroness that we have already had a debate over the difficulty of setting minimum service levels and the dangers thereof. Minimum levels for nursing have already been set in Wales, for example, so we cannot disentangle the one from the other. That is the point that I was trying to make.

Yes—“Come into my parlour”.

I attended the Wales TUC and the Scottish TUC for well over a decade—some might say I do not have a home to go to. That helped me to understand the completely different cultures of those countries and the completely different relationship that the workforce, the trade unions, employers, Governments and successive Administrations had with each other, and the respect that successive Governments had with the trade unions. It is not just that this is a damaging Bill; it is an affront to those countries that there should be some imposition of power. That is what we are talking about, not whether employers should be forced to issue a work notice but that there will be an overall power, the details of which are not known, which the Welsh and Scottish Administrations will have to accept.

We are talking here about the tone of employment relations, which has always been completely different. It has been conducted in a non-legalistic way. There have been as many strikes, and I am not saying that the services are particularly better in Wales or Scotland, but the tone of the relationship is what could be so badly damaged.

It was most interesting at Question Time today for those noble Lords who were here to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, talking about the distinction between the workforce and the trade unions. I have been trying to make the point all along that this Government are doing their best to separate trade unions from their workforce. The noble Baroness was very keen to assure the House that she was not blaming the workforce for people not doing non-contractual rest-day work; she was blaming the trade unions for those members not doing non-contractual rest-day work. That in any case is a bad practice that has grown up over the years, which has really been because members have wanted a better standard of living, but are we really saying that a minimum service level will have to include this non-contractual rest-day working, or will it not include it? Or will it not be mentioned at all in any document?

The Minister is shaking his head and smiling. I realise that he must be getting very fed up of listening to all of this. Maybe that will help the Government next time to bring forward a Bill that actually has some content in, and then he will not be so bored.

I do not know how many people here watched “Boys from the Blackstuff”—some Members are certainly too young for that—but I am reminded of the character called Yosser Hughes, who went around saying “Gis a job”. In this case it is the Government saying, “Gis a power. We don’t know what we’re going to do with it, we can’t tell you yet, we promise to consult you, but gis a power.” I think the Government are hoping that, if they carry on repeating that for long enough, everyone will sit back and say, “Oh all right, let’s see what they do with it”. As far as I am concerned, that is the main principle: the Government are asking us to give them a power and not telling us how they will use it.

My Lords, there is a feeling growing up or being put around this House that somehow the Conservative Benches are historically against trade unions. These Benches are not historically against them. I spent 25 years in the European Parliament, and my noble friend the Minister spent some years there. I spent some time on the European Economic and Social Committee, which, as with Scotland and Wales, bases itself on trying to get a consensual view of industrial relations. If you want to improve the wealth of the country, that is the way forward. That is what made the German economy as successful as it is today: the works councils and the compulsory consultation. We seem to be in danger of drifting in the opposite direction, but I remind the Minister that the great tradition of Christian democracy in Europe, which has a much wider following than conservatism, is based on working between social partners.

This legislation is, let us say, imperfect. It has great difficulties and is almost unworkable, and I do not know why the Government are pursuing it. I hope that maybe at the end of this series of debates they will decide to pause it and not go forward. As these amendments show, it is going to be very difficult to implement, even if the Government wanted to. Set aside the local mayors, which I think are impractical; railway trains run between our countries and planes fly between them, while I am told that some services, such as organs and blood in the health service, are organised on a national basis so that people can get the best service wherever they live. We are after all in a United Kingdom, as this party often says.

I ask the Minister to look at hitting the pause button on this piece of legislation because even if it is passed it will not work, and it is not good government to pass legislation that just will not work.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister, when he comes to sum up, if he could clarify for the Committee why he was shaking his head so strongly over his experience in the European Parliament? I think it would be quite helpful to clarify that, given the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.

My Lords, this has been an incredibly valuable discussion. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, is absolutely right. One of the problems we have is that, in the past, good governance was Green Papers, White Papers, a debate about policy and then a considered approach to what sort of legislation would be appropriate. The other thing we are jumping around between is the question: is this about minimum service levels, or is it a power grab by the Government?

The reality is that we have minimum service levels, but they are negotiated locally, taking in many factors. As the noble and learned Lord said, we are talking about devolved matters. It is the responsibility of the Welsh and Scottish Governments to set up and organise their health, education and other services. It is not just about the devolution settlement. I have heard Government Ministers, on the levelling-up agenda, talk about how we want to push responsibility locally. But suddenly that sort of politics goes out of the window when it comes to trade unions. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said about his party, but the simple fact is that this is a power grab by Ministers.

We will no doubt hear the Minister respond that work notices are a matter for employers, and no one is forcing people. Let me ask the question: if the Minister is going to set the minimum service levels but a local authority, a devolved mayor or the Welsh Government do not force through work notices, will that leave those authorities that fail to implement it in the way the Government suggest open to legal action? Will they face a challenge from those who claim they were denied services? We need a very clear answer to that question. The Bill was published without any consultation of the people who will have the responsibility to deal with it and implement it. Even the consultations taking place now are using language that I find difficult to understand, in terms of the responsibilities of devolved authorities and local mayors.

I am trying to avoid being repetitive—I know that will get the Minister’s head nodding—but fundamentally we will keep coming back to certain principles. Let us just focus on these amendments and have some clear answers to questions. If it is down to the devolved Administrations and local mayors to determine something, does it leave them vulnerable to legal challenge?

The noble Lord might like to note that, as we were sitting, we received an email from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, which partially responds to his question. It would be rather helpful if we could have letters from Ministers with some notice, rather than simultaneous to our arrival in this Committee. It reinforces the uncertainty around legal redress, the point which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, just made.

I appreciate the noble Lord drawing that to my attention. I have not had the opportunity to read the email, so maybe I will be jumping back up when the Minister responds and I have been able to read it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for their amendments. Amendments 14, 19 and 49 relate to devolved matters, either via devolved Governments or local government. Amendment 14 seeks to require the consent of elected mayors before minimum service levels could be set in an area for which an elected mayor is responsible. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is right to point out that this is unworkable. Consultations have been published on minimum service levels for ambulance, fire and rail services, and we welcome the engagement of elected mayors on those consultations. Similarly, Amendment 19 seeks to require consultation with Scottish and Welsh Ministers before minimum service level regulations are made in Scotland or Wales, with a view to reaching an agreement. Amendment 49 seeks to limit the territorial extent of the Bill to England.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised concerns about the impact of this legislation on devolution, and this is an important issue. However, employment rights and duties and industrial relations are reserved in Scotland and Wales. That said, I reassure her and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, that my noble friend the Minister met both the Welsh and Scottish Governments to discuss the Bill.

The Government have a duty to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens across the United Kingdom. The disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public are no less severe on people in Scotland and Wales or on those living in areas with elected mayors. They have every right to expect the Government to act to ensure that they can continue to access vital public services during strikes.

The Government therefore resist these amendments. However, as I said earlier, nothing in the Bill requires an employer, which might include a devolved Government or an elected mayor, to issue a work notice. That would include the example of Cardiff Airport that the noble Baroness cited.

On that point, which is repeatedly coming up, would the noble Baroness be able to assure the Committee that we can have a clause in the Bill—because courts sometimes interpret “may” as meaning “shall”—that makes it very clear that no legal obligation whatever rests on any person whatever to implement the minimum standards set out in the Bill, unless the employer decides to implement a notice? If the case the Government are making is that the Bill has no effect unless the employer does something, that needs to be spelled out with crystal clarity. If the Ministers would like, I will have a go at drafting a clause to save the overburdened so-called parliamentary counsel.

I repeat at the Dispatch Box that under the Bill it is a statutory discretion and not a statutory duty for employers as to whether to issue a work notice. It is a matter for the employer to consider any contractual or other legal obligations it has in taking this decision.

We of course hope that all employers will want to apply minimum service levels where they are needed. In reference to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, I say that, before making minimum service level regulations, government departments need to consult on the appropriate minimum service for their sectors. This will enable detailed evidence to inform the development of minimum service levels in specific services. This includes understanding the differences between services in each sector across Great Britain and the implications for setting minimum service levels. We will continue to engage with the devolved Governments on the geographical scope of the regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, is correct that of course we would rather have a negotiated agreement on minimum service levels. I also reiterate, in response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on why my noble friend was shaking his head, that we think there has been a misunderstanding. There is no statutory duty but, as I said, rather a statutory discretion under the Bill for employers to issue work notices.

Does the Minister understand the concern and the problem? “May” can become “must” if someone sues an employer for not having issued work notices, on the basis that the Secretary of State took the view that a minimum service level requirement should be there but the employer chose not to issue work notices but to carry on negotiating, et cetera, and a third party then challenges that discretion and the more gentle decision made under it. That is how “may” can become “must”, and that means litigation, cost and more aggravation. I believe that this is the concern that was expressed by the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench last time and put so eloquently today by the noble and learned Lord.

I hear and understand the noble Baroness’s concerns, but I default to the Government’s position: the Bill gives only a statutory discretion, not a statutory duty, to the employer on whether to issue a work notice.

I will pursue this “may/must” argument from a slightly different direction. One of the arguments made in the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Markham, is that the unsatisfactory nature of the current situation is that the Government were unable to secure a national agreement from the ambulance services on the level of cover. The Minister will be aware that we do not have a national ambulance service; we have a series of ambulance services across the country. Under the “may/must” doctrine that the Minister set out, it is perfectly possible that one ambulance service in one area “must”, while another one chooses not to; in other words, we would still have a patchy service across the United Kingdom and the Government would have failed to achieve the objective that the noble Lord, Lord Markham, set out in his letter. So, given the good faith that I put in the Minister’s comments, I do not understand what problem this solves, because the compulsion—or lack of it—within the Bill means that we still do not have a national agreement on service levels.

The Government’s position is that we would rather have a voluntary agreement than a compulsion to issue notices. Of course, we would hope that each employer would choose to accept minimum service levels, because the Government are here to protect the level of service available to all UK citizens, not just those in England.

The noble Baroness has set up a whole new stream of thought because now she is saying that there is an ability for government to compel the employer to give a notice. We all hope that there will be voluntary agreement—that is where we are now, and it is what the Bill seeks to undermine.

I do not accept the noble Lord’s points at all, but I will continue my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Of course, we would rather have a negotiated agreement on minimum service levels, but the Government resist these amendments. I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords—I feel I have not entirely—on “may” versus “must” and the compulsion, the statutory discretion or the statutory duty. With those comments, I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, to withdraw her amendment.

I thank the Minister and all who took part in this useful debate. We started with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, who pinpointed the persistent erosion of devolution. He called the Bill “Henry VIII on stilts”, and the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, called it “Gis a power”—I think both phrases will stick in our memories. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that of course the devolved Administrations will be consulted, but the problem is that, persistently, they have not been consulted at the right levels and the right point in time. There has been a thin façade of last-minute, low-level consultation, and this has not worked—it is not consultation in the proper sense of that word. The Minister did not reassure me when she said that it was complete nonsense that elected mayors should need to give consent—that shows a lack of understanding of the concept of proper consultation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, gave us a useful long list of recent Bills that have undermined devolution—I will copy it out when I read Hansard so that I remember each one. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, took the points further by raising the fear that UK Ministers would use powers in the Bill for political ends. The truth is that this is a heavily political issue and, in England, the wrong sort of political interference has created problems in industrial relations that have not existed in Scotland and Wales to the same extent, because industrial relations have been handled with more sensitivity there. I have no doubt that the UK Government have their own reasons for wishing to sharpen relations with the unions, but that is nevertheless a political issue.

I will refer specifically to the challenge of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about the Secretary of State setting an MSL for the NHS in Wales, for example. That MSL could be at variance with that already set in Wales—that is a problem in itself—but what happens when Welsh NHS leaders choose not to implement that MSL? The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, both confirmed that, in their view, this would be fertile territory for lawyers—let us put it that way. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, pointed out that this is a totally impracticable Bill and, even if it were passed, it would not work—I agree with him totally.

I thank the Minister for her comments. She said she hoped that employers will want to apply MSLs, so the Government are clearly encouraging that—we are not on neutral territory. But that seems at variance with the idea that the Government want voluntary agreements, as she said next. As my noble friend said, we have voluntary agreements now, and that is what is being disapplied by the Bill. I am not reassured by the Government’s answer, and this is yet more evidence, if we needed it, that the Government are out of their depth on the Bill and do not know how it will or could be applied.

Finally, I will of course be withdrawing my noble friend Lord Fox’s amendment, but, in light of the lengthy letter from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, that we received after these proceedings started—as far as I can manage to read it on my phone, it seems to be at variance with some of the Minister’s points—I will quite possibly come back to these points on Report. When Ministers cannot agree on the interpretation of a Bill, we need to probe further. I withdraw Amendment 14.

Amendment 14 withdrawn.

Amendment 15

Moved by

15: The Schedule, page 3, line 31, at end insert—

“(5) Before making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a statement outlining how the regulations are both necessary and proportionate.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to outline why regulations made under this section are necessary and proportionate before making them.

My Lords, throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government have repeatedly said that we are talking about last-resort measures that they are reluctant to, and hope they will not have to, introduce. In this group, we will test the extent to which they genuinely see these as last-resort measures.

Collectively, the amendments could be described as seeking to introduce additional elements of friction, before the Government move to regulating for these minimum service levels. Friction can be a useful thing in the right places: if I wish to enter my own house, I would like that to be as frictionless as possible, but if the police would like to enter it to carry out a search, I would like there to be a reasonable level of friction, with them having to prove why they have the ability or need to do that, and to go before a court to have their need tested in front of others. So, here, we are trying to put those kinds of friction in place so that Ministers do not do what we fear: rush to regulate in the heat of action in the same way that they have rushed to bring this legislation before us in the first place.

Amendment 15 in my name uses two concepts that are familiar to those who work with human rights legislation—the notions of necessity and proportionality. I am not practised in public human rights law, so I will defer to the noble Broness, Lady Chakrabarti, who I am sure will have things to say on this group of amendments. However, I have had to make decisions on freedom of expression and surveillance questions on online platforms where these tests are useful and applied because they seek to balance different rights that we have. It has been generally accepted in our debates that we are talking about fundamental human rights here—the right of an individual to withdraw their labour. When considering whether the Government in the public interest can override that right, these necessity and proportionality tests are the right ones, just as they are in other contexts such as freedom of expression and surveillance.

I am sure that the Government in their response will refer to the human rights certification that is on the front page of every piece of legislation and say that it is an implicit commitment. Of course, no British Government could ever not apply tests of necessity and proportionality because they have signed off the legislation as compliant. However, there are significant advantages to making these tests explicit in this section of the Bill.

The amendment would force the Minister to consider the tests and to apply them explicitly before making regulations, and to publish their deliberations for scrutiny. In practice, this would mean that the Minister would have to ask the team that is putting together the case for the regulations to show its workings; this would have significant value if those workings were available to all of us. That is not least of defensive value for the Government, because at some point they will have to explain why they felt compelled to make the regulations and why they passed the threshold.

I look first at the necessity test. The Minister would need to be satisfied that all other avenues had been tried, which in this case largely means negotiated agreements to provide cover. The risk with the Bill as it stands is that Ministers will be satisfied with vague assurances. They will ask, “Did you ask for voluntary cover?” “Yes, Minister, we did.” “Did they agree?” “No, Minister, they didn’t.” “Okay, let’s move to a regulation.” The test may be no more than that and, indeed, in the letter that has just arrived from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, which we are now considering, one senses an element of that with the Government’s argument around ambulance services: “We asked; we didn’t get one and we therefore now need this piece of legislation.” That is not good enough and, if this is truly a last resort power, we want the Minister to press for all avenues to have been explored including the potential offer of carrots to the workforce for agreeing to provide minimum services, as has happened in many other countries. We debated that at length on the first day of Committee. It is not simply a question of employers ordering their workforces to provide minimum service levels; in many institutions there is a negotiated agreement whereby something is offered to the workforce in return for providing minimum service levels. What we do not want is a necessity test that bypasses and ignores that option altogether. By putting that explicitly in the Bill, the Minister would have to be satisfied that all reasonable steps had been taken and there was no other way in which to guarantee minimum service levels. That is the right necessity test when one is overriding somebody’s fundamental rights, as we have all agreed is happening in this case.

I turn now to the proportionality test. It is included to make sure the provision is done properly. There is a risk of a superficial version of this test—one which is effectively a cost-benefit analysis. We have seen this again in the context of the ambulance debate. The Government will argue that the benefits of having life-saving ambulance cover outweigh the cost of some workers not being able to strike. At that superficial level that sounds reasonable, but it is not a true proportionality test. To do that properly we need to dig into the next level, where we look at the likely actual impacts. There are two areas where the proportionality test might be more complex. First, if there is any likelihood that workers could end up being dismissed—as we have accepted is a potential outcome of this legislation—in this case the costs are dramatically different and that equation would change. Providing emergency cover versus dismissal of workers is a different test from emergency cover versus simply losing the right to strike.

Secondly, if the regulations did not result in more people showing up for work—for example, because people take other forms of industrial action, which they are entitled to do; there are all sorts for ways in which the climate could be poisoned to such an extent that one ends up with fewer people at work than one would have done absent the regulation—the benefits would not have been realised and the proportionality, the cost-benefit equation, changes. This amendment therefore proposes the kind of proportionality test that I hope the Minister would apply by rigorously looking at all the costs and benefits, and is then prepared to publish and defend that analysis rather than making simplistic assumptions. The amendment simply seeks to introduce that rigour with publication to make sure that it happens.

Other amendments in the group will add other forms of beneficial friction and I will leave it to their proponents to argue for them, but I hope that I have made a reasonable case for the Government to accept the additional clarity offered by Amendment 15. I beg to move.

I speak in support of every amendment in this group, even at the risk of offending the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. At first blush, her Amendment 17 enhances my noble friends’ amendment and does no mischief to it whatever because. by including the impact of the legislation on service users in the list of other groups of people affected, she has, perhaps inadvertently, introduced an element of proportionality into the assessment of the legislation. I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam. I perhaps would not have chosen his friction metaphor because it is the legislation itself that is introducing friction into what ought to be partnership industrial relations. This group may not be Henry VIII on stilts, but it is Henry VIII revisited. What every amendment in the group at least purports to do is to introduce an element of transparency into the process before the Secretary of State inflicts these regulations on the public or on Parliament.

I want to be clear, as I have been in the past, that the Bill is not desirable or necessary but if such minimum service level agreements were in a particular instance desirable, necessary and proportionate to comply with convention rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Allan, rightly pointed out, it would be for a number of reasons better for everyone—including Ministers—to do this by way of purpose-specific primary legislation. In a moment where it was truly necessary to impose these agreements because they could not be reasonably negotiated, it would be better for legal advocacy to do this by way of purpose-specific primary legislation. Why? Because it would be purpose-specific and because any court subsequently considering the necessity, proportionality and compliance with the law of the measure would give greater deference to the scrutiny and process undertaken in both Houses of Parliament in the context of a Bill rather than regulations.

Finally, under our human rights settlement in this country, at least at the moment, primary legislation may never be struck down by the courts. Even if the Bill was not necessary and proportionate in the instances that I identified, when it becomes an Act of Parliament it cannot be struck down. If the Government are really to be believed that these measures are only in extremis, are not political tub-thumping, are not about trying to divide the unions from the workers, and so on—and that the Bill is about ensuring a level of service when it cannot be reasonably negotiated—Ministers would be very wise to take the rather sage advice of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and pause this legislation, having opened up the argument, in order to save the possibility of purpose-specific and sector-specific primary legislation down the road in the event that, in one sector, there was such a problem and people were behaving so unreasonably that a service could not be guaranteed in a way that was reasonable. We heard different arguments from Ministers in the previous debates about what the test should be: whether it should be life and limb or, perhaps, based on annoyance; in the context of the Public Order Bill, it is about “more than minor” disruption.

Assuming that the Government will not agree with me and will not pause this legislation, at least today, the second-best option is greatly to beef up the process of parliamentary scrutiny and public transparency before such a draconian measure as a minimum service level agreement is imposed by government. I certainly cannot imagine that Ministers can object to a turbo-charged scrutiny procedure for matters that I really do not think should be dealt with by secondary legislation at all, for the reasons I previously gave. What is the possible objection from any Minister to, for example, Amendment 15 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, which proposes a statement setting out why the regulations are “both necessary and proportionate”?

What possible objection could there be, not least given that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, has set out his statement on the cover of the Bill that he thinks it complies with the convention rights? If he is thus convinced, surely, he would have no objection to any specific regulations made thereunder setting out reasons, in a statement before both Houses, why the regulations are necessary and proportionate. That is the convention test in terms of the European convention; there are other conventions to which we will come in later groups of amendments. I am really interested in the Minister’s response to why something as innocent and desirable as Amendment 15 should not be welcomed with open arms.

Similarly, a bit a more granular detail about impact is provided in Amendment 16, which is enhanced by Amendment 17, thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. Various other process amendments in this group are also designed to give Parliament greater access to ministerial reasoning before being faced with the “yes or no” choice that secondary legislation puts before both Houses. That is one of the fundamental objections to doing very grave things by way of secondary legislation: we are always told, “Well, Parliament can always disagree”, but Parliament cannot amend or refine; it has to say yes or no to the Government of the day. That is particularly difficult for Back-Benchers of the governing party, whichever party is in power.

If Ministers will not listen to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who is very experienced in this area—by the way, I agree with his assessment that, historically, Conservative leaders and Ministers have not always been so anti-trade union; I will not bore noble Lords again with references to Disraeli and Churchill, but they are all over the history books, so it is a shame that the Government are going down this path—and if the Government insist on the Bill and will not pause it, surely they should welcome pretty much every amendment in this group, or some version of them.

I say to the noble Baroness that, early in my career, I asked a senior trade unionist who had been the best Minister of Labour, and he said Walter Monckton followed by Iain Macleod.

That is even more wisdom from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.

That concludes what I wanted to say about this group of amendments, and I look forward to hearing later, I hope, a word of consensus from the Minister in response.

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has tried to damn my amendment with faint praise, so I had better explain it and my approach to this group of amendments.

First, I remind the Committee that this is not draconian legislation, as the noble Baroness has just suggested. It does not impose minimum service levels; it merely allows the Government to specify minimum service levels, which can then be imposed via work notices if employers so choose. That is all this legislation is doing.

This group of amendments, in various ways, is trying to make the process of establishing regulations specifying minimum service levels more difficult, and to make them harder to get through Parliament by putting more hurdles in their way. The Bill already requires consultation; indeed, consultations have already been published for three instances of minimum service levels, and that process will run its course. The departments will then produce their minimum service levels and the appropriate statutory instruments, which will be accompanied by impact assessments. All of this is perfectly ordinary practice; it does not need any of the amendments in this group.

I tabled Amendment 17 simply because the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked in his Amendment 16 for an assessment of the impact on

“workforce numbers … individual workers … employers … trade unions … and … equalities.”

Just for the sake of balance, I wanted to remind the Committee that there is the other side: people who are affected by strike action and who want to receive services. The point of my amendment is to say: I do not support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, but if you are going require something such as this, it should not give just a one-sided picture; it should be balanced. To that extent, I am grateful for the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.

I am grateful for that gracious response from the noble Baroness. Whatever her motivation, I agree that service users should be included in that list, not least for the reasons set out earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam.

One thing that the noble Baroness could read is the original impact assessment for the transport Bill, which said—and I will come back to this point—that there will be an impact on service users because disputes will be longer and industrial relations will be worse. The problem we have had is that that Bill and this Bill had impact assessments there were red-rated. The noble Baroness should focus on that.

Indeed. The point is that the noble Baroness opposite and I disagree, perhaps, about what the effect will be on service users and others, but the test is necessity and proportionality, as was set out so well earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam. Whatever the motivations, it is a good addition to the list, in my view.

As for the noble Baroness’s point that this is will all be voluntary and the legislation will not impose anything on anyone, that really does not hold as a matter of law—not least because, as we discussed earlier, the “may/must” point is really significant; it is not hypothetical. It is hugely significant that, when one is a given a power—whether the Secretary of State is given a power to make regulations or an employer is given a power to issue work notices—they must exercise that power rationally. They cannot ignore that they have that power; they will face litigation. That is compounded in this area because the employers may well be contracted by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State would then have the purchasing power—the significant contractual power as the buyer of the service at one end—and would also wield regulations with the other hand. It is not completely ingenuous to suggest that this is all just helping the discussion and that there is no element of compulsion in it.

My Lords, much of the debate on this Bill has been concerned with its substantive content, but my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti draws attention to a major problem with the Bill; namely, its form.

I remind noble Lords that last year two committees of this House reiterated long-standing principles for drafting legislation. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I have the honour to be a member, in its report Democracy Denied?, and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in its report Government by Diktat, set out those principles, which were overwhelmingly endorsed in the debate in the House on 6 January last year. The fact is that this Bill flouts those principles. That view is reiterated by the reports on the Bill by the Delegated Powers Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Constitution Committee. In addition, as my noble friend Lord Collins has just pointed out, the Regulatory Policy Committee has described the Bill’s impact assessment as “not fit for purpose”. This raises the question of what steps this House could take to ensure that Bills comply with the principles that are essential for parliamentary democracy in this country.

I turn to my Amendment 36A in this group, which is my attempt to give some substance to—or to redress—the omission pointed out by the Delegated Powers Committee in its report on the Bill. I will read two short paragraphs from our report. Paragraph 19 says:

“The Government have chosen to put no detail in the Bill in relation to minimum service levels, leaving the matter entirely to regulations. Important matters of detail should be included on the face of the Bill, perhaps with a power to supplement those matters in regulations.”

That is my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti’s point. The conclusion, which the committee reached at paragraph 23, is:

“Given the absence of an exhaustive or non-exhaustive list in the Bill of the matters that can be included in regulations, the unconvincing reasons for this power in the Memorandum, and the absence of indicative draft regulations illustrating how the power might be exercised, the House may wish to press the Minister to provide an explanation of how the power to set minimum service levels in new section 234B(1) of the 1992 Act is likely to be exercised. In the absence of a satisfactory explanation, we regard the power as inappropriate.”

My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti says that we can make it good by passing primary legislation. I wonder whether the Government will consider the possibility—even at this stage—of introducing amendments to put those omissions into the Bill to give it at least some semblance of meeting the format and principles for the drafting of legislation.

My Lords, we should be indebted to my noble friend Lord Allan for introducing the concept of necessity and proportionality. It is a shame because, in an ideal world, the Minister would have stood up at Second Reading and set out at the outset the necessity and proportionality of the Bill. That did not happen, with due respect to the Minister, so we are having to have that debate now in Committee.

We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, that the Government’s preference is to negotiate, rather than compel these MSLs. I believe that she is sincere when she says that, but we must look at what has been happening with the disputes. We have had several real-world examples going on around us. To take the rail dispute, for example, it is absolutely clear that the Secretary of State, operating behind the scenes, prevented decisions being made that would have shortened that dispute. Had this legislation been in existence, how would the Secretary of State’s hand have been strengthened even further? Would we be any closer to a resolution now? I suggest that we would have been a lot further away.

When it comes to the health disputes, it took months before the Government got around the table with nurses and doctors to negotiate and do what was needed to end those disputes. It is not clear to me that the idea that “We would rather negotiate” is absolutely on the table. We know very well that “We would rather stand back” has actually been the Government’s approach. We have to take the Government on the evidence that we have seen, rather than what we have heard in your Lordships’ House.

I turn to the short, but excellent and pithy, debate that we have been having. With the fear of damning the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, yet further, I say that she is completely correct to focus us on the users of the services. However, I would say that the impact of days that make up a year of service disruption through strikes, regrettable though these are, is far smaller—thank goodness—than that of the day-to-day service that people experience. Perhaps the noble Baroness could focus her not inconsiderable energies on improving the day-to-day services that her Government are delivering for consumers across this country. That is the real world that most of them experience: the everyday service, not the strike day service. So perhaps she could use her energies in that direction—I am sure that everything would get better if she did.

I will say a few words about Amendment 40 in my name and a little bit about the friction that the Bill is creating within industrial relations or, indeed, in the case of my amendment, with recruitment. It is really a probing amendment to ascertain from the Minister whether he thinks that the Bill will impact the morale of existing workers and, more specifically, the ability to recruit new people. The existence of the Bill, whether or not it is used, will have a communicating effect both on the current and future employees of these services. The Government need to take that into consideration.

In an earlier group, noble Lords talked about the chronic shortage of people in many of the sectors that we are dealing with here—health, education and others. I realise that job security is not something that many Ministers experience—although the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, is perhaps an exception to that, having been a Minister for many years—but I ask him to empathise on the subject of job security, and indeed task security. As I say, that may not be something that he has experienced widely. We have to remember that the employment market is a seller’s market; there is a shortage of people to go into these services. Therefore, it is absolutely not helpful if the Government make the prospect, or the sense, of working in these services less good and less favourable.

I am not necessarily suggesting that this legislation does that. I am asking the Government what work they have done to assess what effect this legislation would have on employee morale and future recruitment. Can the Minister set out the response and the nature of that work, statistically and qualitatively? If the work has not been done, why not?

My Lords, I am sorry to come into the debate quite late; I had not realised we were getting so close to the end. I support Amendment 20 from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and Amendment 40 from the noble Lord, Lord Fox. I regret that I have been unable to be in my seat at earlier stages, but I am grateful that my right reverend friends the Bishops of London and St Edmundsbury and Ipswich have passed on my concerns. Amendments 20 and 40 are absolutely invaluable. If this Bill is—regrettably, in my view—to become law, it must have all necessary consultation and evidence gathering before it.

Amendment 20 would require that an assessment of health and safety performance in the affected sector is made prior to minimum service regulations, and that is critical. As other noble Lords have said, if we look at this past winter, it is valid to ask whether what might be considered a minimum service level is reached on a daily basis even when there is not a strike going on. Assessing the level of service provided in periods when the service is not affected by strike action, and requiring that to cover the most recent 12 months, creates an important benchmark.

Amendment 40 would introduce a necessary review of the impact on recruitment and retention of staff. Research by the TUC suggests that the recruitment and retention crisis is ongoing. Something like two-fifths of public servants say that the implications of this Bill have made them more likely to consider leaving their job in the next three years. We have a crisis of vacancies in many sectors. This is not going to help.

Earlier today the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, asked a pertinent Question about the performance on the west coast rail line, and I was glad to be able to ask a supplementary to that. If nothing else, that exchange should have made clear to every one of us in this House that there is no point in setting minimum service levels for strike days when current performance is so depleted. Such poor provision of services, often exacerbated by the low morale consequent upon poor or aggressive management practices, means that acceptable minimum levels of service are just not available to customers or the public even on normal working days.

There is a duty on all of us who govern our nations to go beyond the most basic economic calculations when we are legislating to do so for the common good and human flourishing—something set out in the teaching of many religious denominations. This Bill, as drafted, fails that duty.

My Lords, I rise to speak in favour of the amendments listed. I look to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and assure her that I will not, at this point, offer my support to her amendment; I am sure that will give her great comfort. I will not repeat the points I made at Second Reading, but I believe this Bill undermines basic democratic and fundamental rights. I believe it is dangerous. It is barely drafted and badly drafted. I thank my friend the executive dean of Leeds, Professor Johnson, for the advice he has given me on the Bill.

I equally thank the Equality and Human Rights Commission and will refer to its recommendations now. I hasten to add that the commission, in my opinion, has been much muffled and muted during the last 18 months. Let me quote:

“Having carefully considered the issues, we believe the Bill raises several human rights considerations, specifically in relation to Article 4 (Prohibition of Slavery and Forced Labour), Article 11 (Freedom of Assembly and Association) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) that require careful scrutiny.”

I believe that these amendments provide for that.

To pick at random out of the commission’s substantial documents, paragraph 4 says:

“In the human rights memorandum that accompanied the earlier Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill”—

to which my noble friend Lord Collins referred earlier—

“now superseded by this 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. For example, some healthcare sector trade unions already provide life and limb cover during strikes, and the Secretary of State has legal powers to give directions to fire and rescue authorities, which could be used in the event of industrial action.”

Paragraph 5 says:

“It is not clear what consideration has been given to these existing measures in the current Bill. We advise that more detail may be needed to articulate a legitimate aim for imposing Minimum Service Levels (MSLs) on each sector impacted by the Bill.”

I now turn to paragraph 11, to which I referred at Second Reading:

“Finally, we are concerned that an employee would lose automatic unfair dismissal protection not only if they fail to comply with a work notice, but also if their trade union has failed to take reasonable steps to ensure compliance: an employee will not know before participating in a strike whether that is the case or not.”

I could go on. For those reasons and many more, I urge noble Lords, if not now then when these amendments come back, to give their full support.

My Lords, I also welcome the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. We have worked together, and one of the things I have always been impressed with, particularly on the Finance Committee we served on jointly, is her insistence on decisions being clearly evidence based. That is what this series of amendments is seeking, because at the moment the only evidence we have is an impact assessment that was judged to be red-rated by the Regulatory Policy Committee—not fit for purpose. It was published after the MPs in the other place had scrutinised and passed the Bill, so they did not even have an opportunity to see the red-rated impact assessment.

The noble Baroness has raised the important point that industrial action affects the economy and all kinds of things, not just people travelling to work. It has a cost, and it has a cost for a purpose. When I studied industrial relations, many economists tried to make me better understand that strikes brought two sides together because they had costs imposed on them. The problem we face now is that some of the costs, particularly in the rail industry, are hidden. A rail employer does not suffer any cost from industrial action because the Government indemnify it for those costs, so there is no imperative on the employer to reach a settlement. I suspect that is why the public realise who is to blame for the length of these disputes. The public are not as easily fooled as the Government think they are.

Importantly, the impact assessment on the transport strikes Bill said it would have a

“negative impact on industrial relations, which could have detrimental impacts for all parties”

and increase the frequency of disputes, meaning that

“an increased number of strikes could ultimately result in more adverse impacts in the long term”,

particularly on users of the service. Many noble Lords will have seen NHS Providers make the very same point in its briefings to this Committee, saying that it will directly impact good industrial relations and the ability to resolve any disagreements and disputes.

That is why this series of amendments is important. I like my noble friend’s point about friction—you want to ensure that there are processes to go through before a Minister uses the powers this Bill gives them. My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti is absolutely right; they also try to increase transparency over why a decision has been made and how a conclusion is reached on what a minimum service level is. As we have heard in previous debates, certainly everyone involved in the health service would be intrigued to know how you set a minimum service level and how it would compare to non-strike days. Similarly, in Oral Questions we had questions about levels of service in transport.

There is a very strong view in the impact assessment on the transport strikes Bill. I was interested to see the questions put in the Select Committee. Transport Focus, the government body, said things we need to hear: “A volunteer is worth 10 pressed men—it is often said, but true, and we would see consequences if this type of MSL were ever put into place, but it seems like unknown territory. We are curtailing the right to strike and making things worse.” The sectors are so broad in this Bill—it is more than transport, as we have debated. The Rail Freight Group said that it was quite happy that it was not in scope, but the Bill is now written in such a way that it could be. It said, “We are not in scope, and that is a situation we are actually quite happy with, because freight is a private sector operation. Our members do not see a particular role for the state to get involved in industrial relations between employer and employee”. Phil Smart of the Rail Freight Group said: “Our Members feel it is their responsibility to sort out their industrial relations with their own staff. We think that is the responsible thing to do. We think we might end up somewhere we don’t want to go if we see the state as taking a role in determining industrial relations in private companies.”

That is precisely what is wrong with this Bill and its imposition—I use that term because the noble Lord will no doubt repeat comments he has made before, and the noble Baroness the Minister has also said, “It is up to companies: there is no statutory obligation”. But he who pays the piper calls the tune. I am sure we will see Governments use these powers, whether through funding or other forms of coercion. No one will be fooled. I think it is dangerous for the Government; my advice to them is to stay out of industrial relations—it will only end in tears.

He was slightly less successful than the current one.

Each amendment in this group seeks to add additional evidence-gathering or reporting requirements or scrutiny to the regulation-making powers in the Schedule to the Bill. Before addressing them, perhaps the Committee will permit me a moment to reply to the rather general points made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree with him. Recent strike action has demonstrated the disproportionate impacts strikes can have on the public, presumably including his parishioners. They have been unable to access work and healthcare or attend education classes and are worrying whether an ambulance will be there when they need it. Businesses are also crucially affected by industrial action; 23% of them could not operate fully due to industrial action in the UK in December and 2.4 million strike days were lost between June and December. I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate does not believe his parishioners need protecting from these actions, but this Government certainly do.

I have every concern for my parishioners and the members of the various parishes, schools and chaplaincies—everyone in my diocese, whether they are Anglican or otherwise. However, I do not believe that this legislation is taking us in the right direction or that passing it will create better ambulance, train or hospital services for the people in my diocese. We may disagree, but I assure the Minister that I speak on behalf of everyone in my diocese.

They will also get to vote in democratic elections and make their feelings clear. By the very nature of the legislation, if a strike is taking place with no minimum services, given that this Bill imposes minimum services, his parishioners will get a better level of service once it goes through. However, we should have debated these points at Second Reading. I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate could not be present then.

Amendment 15, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Allan, seeks to require the Secretary of State to lay a Statement before each House outlining how the regulations that set minimum service levels and specify the relevant services are both necessary and proportionate. As my noble friend Lady Noakes, who has had to go to the Financial Services and Markets Bill in Grand Committee, pointed out, this amendment adds unnecessary duplication. Sufficient checks and balances before the regulations can be made are already built into the legislation. This includes the need to carry out consultations and the requirement that regulations must be approved by both Houses before they can be made.

Key stakeholders, including employers, employees, members of the public—perhaps even churches—trade unions and their members are all encouraged to participate in the consultations and have their say in the setting of these minimum service levels before they come into effect. Parliament, including Select Committees, as they already have done, will have an opportunity to contribute to the consultation. Following the consultation, the Government will consider all representations and publish a response setting out the factors taken into account in determining the minimum service level to be specified in those regulations.

Subsequent regulations on MSL will be accompanied by an Explanatory Memorandum which will outline the legal effect of the regulations, to address the complaints of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and its rationale and why they are necessary. Impact assessments will also be published alongside the regulations, which will then be subject to the affirmative procedure. We think this approach is appropriate; it is a common way for secondary legislation to be made.

Amendment 36, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, also requires the relevant Commons Select Committee to publish a report on how the Act will impact that sector before regulations are made. This will delay the implementation of minimum service levels—I suspect that is its intent—and extend the disproportionate impact that strikes can have on the public.

Amendment 36A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, would require the Government to lay draft regulations before each House of Parliament at least 28 days before the regulations are intended to be made, with an Explanatory Memorandum setting out factors taken into account in determining the MSL. These additional steps are, in our view, unnecessary and duplicative for the reasons that I have set out. The Government resist Amendments 16, 17, 20, 36 and 36A.

Amendments 38 and 39, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, would place limitations on the consultation provision, which the Government again resist. In the Government’s view, Amendment 39, as drafted, would not have the effect that noble Lords perhaps intended. In reality, it would require consultations to be published within a six-week window after the Act is passed, meaning that, by their very nature, future consultations after this period would then not be possible. Amendment 38 would prevent consultations taking place at all after the Bill has achieved Royal Assent. Both amendments would remove the ability to specify minimum service levels on an ongoing basis and, in our view, unduly limit our ability to respond appropriately as circumstances change—again, I suspect that this is the purpose of those who tabled the amendments. Key stakeholders are all encouraged to participate in the consultations to help shape the way MSLs operate. As I have made clear in previous responses, the Government have already published consultations on implementing minimum service levels in ambulance, fire and rescue, and rail services.

Amendment 40, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, would require the Secretary of State to lay a copy of a report in both Houses of Parliament, no later than six months after the Act is passed, setting out the findings of a review into the impact of the Act in regard to six key sectors. The noble Lord will be unsurprised to hear that I resist this amendment on the grounds that all the potential impacts of minimum service levels, including those on staffing, etc cetera, and the other factors the noble Lord mentions, will be considered as part of the process of making detailed regulations for those specified services. As I have set out on numerous occasions, these regulations will be accompanied by detailed impact assessments. We have also committed to conducting the usual review of the full impact of the Act within five years of the first secondary legislation coming into force. We believe that is a much more appropriate timescale to review the impacts.

I apologise to the Committee if I have spoken at length but there were a lot of amendments in this group. I hope I have been able to provide at least some reassurance on the consultation processes that we intend to undergo prior to making regulations, as is required by the Bill.

I was going to say that I hope noble Lords will feel able not to press their amendments, but I see that some noble Lords are seeking to intervene.

I want to ask a question of the Minister, just to be clear in my own mind. The trade unions say that the Government do not need these powers to enforce minimum service level agreements because they are reasonable and negotiate voluntarily and will continue to do so—they say it is not necessary to legislate. The Government disagree with that and legislate. Then, when some of us say that there needs to be a transparent process and proper consultation because this is such grave legislation for trade union rights, the Minister responds by saying, “No, no—we do it anyway, so we don’t need to put that on the face of the Bill”. Is there not a contradiction at the heart of this argument? The Government will legislate only one way: for powers for the Secretary of State but never for scrutiny of the Secretary of State. How is that consistent with what the Government say to unions, who are saying do not legislate for this because reasonable agreements will be negotiated in any event?

On a number of occasions, including the first day of Committee, I have made it clear that if voluntary arrangements are in place, which there are in some services, that is our preferred approach. However, it is the case in certain ambulance services that those voluntary arrangements were not agreed until literally the night before the strike action was due to take place, and indeed some trade unions then changed their minds about voluntary arrangements. We therefore think it is appropriate to have the back-up power. If they can be agreed, that is our preferred approach. The approach outlined by the noble Baroness is the normal process of consultation. If Parliament chooses to give the Government these powers—we will see the outcome of the debates in both Houses—then we will consider whether it is appropriate to make these regulations or not, given the circumstances in each case. Those regulations will then be further approved by Parliament.

I have two points. In answering the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the Minister used the ambulance service as an example of the Government having to use the power. I understood that it was the employer that used the power, and in the case of ambulance workers the Government are not the employer. Can the Minister perhaps square that language?

In a rather less difficult answer, in dismissing one of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the Minister said that the process of publishing information at parliamentary level would take too much time. It is on the record that a recent former Transport Secretary of State said that the Bill will not solve the current problems. What is the Government’s time target for this, given we know that the Minister thinks one of the amendments would take too much time? What is sufficient time? When do the Government expect the Bill to be in place, all other things being equal, and what is the hurry?

On the noble Lord’s first question, as he well knows, it is the Government’s job—or duty, if we get the legislation through—to make the regulations, and then it will be at the discretion of employers whether they use the powers that are given to issue work notices. We have debated this many times.

With regard to the timetable, these things are beyond my authority level. It depends how quickly the Bill goes through Parliament, how many amendments there are, how long ping-pong takes, and the scheduling of the legislation by the usual channels. I hope we will get the legislation through as quickly as possible. Of course, I hope that we never need to use it, as I have said before, but we think it is appropriate that the power should be there as a backstop.

My Lords, I am sorry to trouble the noble Lord a moment further, but could I invite him to express a view on the report of the Delegated Powers Committee? It points out that there is no detail in the Bill and criticises it for that. Does the noble Lord accept that criticism?

We will be responding in due course to the report from the Delegated Powers Committee. I entirely accept that this is a wide secondary-legislation-making power for the Government, but we think that it is appropriate in these circumstances.

With that, I urge noble Lords not to press their amendments.

My Lords, I am sorry the Minister did not feel comfortable accepting the amendments in this group, but I think it has been a helpful debate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, both talked about the potential for inserting friction into industrial relations. These Benches very much agree that that may be the effect of these regulations, so we think it is right to insert a certain level of friction into the legislative process to try to head off what may be a very poor outcome.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who I understand is now in Grand Committee, talked about the measures as being “not draconian”, which is an interesting framing. However, the fact is that they impact on people’s fundamental rights. Whether it impacts one person, a thousand people or a hundred thousand people, the general principle is that one should be much more careful with any legislation that affects fundamental rights. My amendment was trying to make sure that we had a framework which reflected that.

There is an old maxim that if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In this Bill, the Government are granting themselves the power to create a hammer which will be offered to employers, but employers may prefer to meet their staff with other tools, such as cash or commitments to a negotiated settlement. In this debate, concerns have come out once more about what happens when the only tool you offer employers is the hammer and the potential knock-on effects of that.

It is right that we are testing whether the Government really will use those powers only in extremis, because “can’t” is often used when “won’t” is closer to the truth, until “won’t” becomes “will” and “can’t” is miraculously turned into “can”—as we have just seen with the recent move to settle the health disputes. That is another example of the Government saying that something is impossible—like minimum service levels are impossible—and then it becomes possible. I hope the Government will strengthen the Bill before Report to make sure that “can’t” really means “can’t” when it comes to negotiated minimum service levels. With that hope, and not yet entirely jaded by experience, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.

Amendment 16 not moved.

Amendment 18 not moved.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.25 pm.