With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 4, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 5, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 6, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 7, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 3.
This Bill was introduced with the intention of balancing the ability to strike with the rights and freedoms of the public, by applying minimum service levels on strike days to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public. We should not ignore the fact that the economic costs of these strikes have been estimated at around £3 billion, and much of that impact falls on business sectors that are already facing difficulties, such as the hospitality sector.
The Bill brings the UK into line with many other countries: Spain and France have statutory minimum service levels in ambulance services and they also, along with Belgium, have statutory minimum service levels in fire services. In some countries, such as the United States of America, Australia and Canada, some services are prohibited from taking any strike action altogether. However, the Government are not suggesting we go that far.
In the European countries the Minister mentioned where there is minimum service provision, is it not the case that that minimum service provision is agreed by negotiation, and that workers there do not get sacked for striking?
All jurisdictions differ, and the way that minimum service levels are set differ. Some are set by the Government; we have done that, through consultation with stakeholders, and we will decide what the right level of minimum service will be. All jurisdictions differ somewhat, but the key point is that in many jurisdictions there are restrictions placed on the ability to strike.
On the issue of stakeholders and jurisdictions, may I turn the Minister’s attention to the devolved Administrations? The SNP Scottish Government have been crystal clear in their opposition to this tawdry piece of legislation. In the interests of the UK Government’s respect agenda when it comes to the devolved jurisdictions, why are they ploughing ahead with this Bill that drives a coach and horses through the fundamental human right to withdraw one’s labour?
I will deal with that question in a second; it is covered by one of the Lords amendments that I will speak to, so I will address it when I come to the element of my speech relating to the devolved Administrations.
The Bill returns to us with a number of amendments made in the other place. I would like to be clear that, with the exception of our own Lords amendment 3, the Government consider the majority of the changes to be designed to make the Bill either less effective or entirely ineffective in achieving its aims. The Government will therefore be disagreeing with those amendments.
I will speak first to Lords amendment 3, which was tabled by my colleague Lord Callanan in the other place and provides clarity in respect of the matters to which an employer must not have regard in respect of trade union membership and activities when deciding whether to identify a person in a work notice. The amendment addresses a point raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report on the Bill.
The Minister and I have had some correspondence about the Bill in my capacity as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but can he not see that many of the concerns we expressed in our report on the Bill are echoed by the amendments that the Lords have brought, and also by organisations such as the TUC and the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Why is he not giving them more weight?
At times in life we have to agree to disagree, do we not? The Government feel that the Bill strikes a balance, but the hon. and learned Lady does not, and I respect her opinion. I studied carefully the letter she sent me and I responded to it.
I am not talking about the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights alone; I am saying that many of our concerns are widely supported by other groups such as the EHRC, the TUC and, now, the majority of their lordships. Will the Minister not reconsider the response he gave to my Committee’s report?
Of course we have considered those concerns, and we considered the amendments in the other place. We feel that what we are proposing with this legislation strikes the right balance. I fully accept that the hon. and learned Lady disagrees with that position.
Is it not the case that the Government’s own, belated, impact assessment suggests that the Bill is ineffective? It is just unworkable. In fact, I think both the Secretary of State for Education and the Transport Secretary have said the same. The Bill will just make matters considerably worse in terms of industrial relations.
That is not what has been said, and I disagree with that perspective. The fact that other jurisdictions and other nations use this approach to making sure there are minimum service levels to protect the public, their lives and their livelihoods is indicative that it is the right thing to do. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman knows, derogations exist in parts of our public services that do exactly what we are requiring services to do with minimum service levels; it is just that they do not work effectively all the time.
The Minister finds himself in an isolated position. At the Health and Social Care Committee on
We do not see that as being the case and we do not agree with that position. We think the Bill is effective and that it is the right thing to do to make sure that people can go about their daily lives unhindered, without fear or concerns about not being able to access vital public services.
I turn next to Lords amendment 1, which changes the application of the Bill from the whole of Great Britain to England only. The amendment would mean that strike action would continue to have disproportionate impacts on the public in Wales and Scotland. As the Government have always maintained, the purpose and substance of the Bill is to regulate employment rights and duties and industrial relations in specified services. Industrial relations is clearly a reserved matter and therefore we consider it right and appropriate to apply the legislation to the whole of Great Britain.
I also point out that the employer has statutory discretion on whether to issue a work notice ahead of the strike, specifying the workforce required to achieve the minimum service level. We hope that all employers will issue work notices to ensure that minimum service levels are achieved where it is necessary to do so. Employers must consider any contractual, public law or other legal duties that they have.
The Lords passed an extremely sensible amendment asking the Government simply to consult before they go further with this legislation. To give an example of why consultation is needed in my constituency, there is no such thing as a minimum service for air traffic controllers. In effect, that means that the Government are barring air traffic controllers from ever taking industrial action. Those sorts of consultations need to take place before the Government, as others have said, inflame the industrial relations climate in this country.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have already consulted. Those consultations closed around the middle of May. We will obviously look carefully at all the submissions made; it is important that we do. Ministers—I have one sat next to me: the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman—will make sure that stakeholder submissions are properly taken into account.
I will make some progress. Lords amendment 2 would require a consultation be carried out and reviewed before use was made of the power to make regulations setting minimum service levels. The primary stated motivation for tabling the amendment was to increase parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations implementing minimum service levels. Although there may be some merit to the intentions behind the amendment, it is, in the Government’s view, duplicative, and would ultimately delay the implementation of the policy. For those reasons, we disagree with it.
I turn to Lords amendments 4 and 5, and the associated tidying amendments, Lords amendments 6 and 7. In the Government’s view, the amendments were tabled to make the Bill inoperable.
We believe that it does. The ILO endorses the use of minimum service levels to make sure that the provision of public services is maintained during periods of industrial action. We are happy with our position on that.
We resist Lords amendments 4 to 7 on the principle that the Government have a duty to pass effective legislation. It is regrettable that Opposition Lords have sought to undermine that principle. Lords amendment 4 would mean that there were no consequences for a worker who did not comply with a work notice. The Government disagree with the amendment, as without those consequences, employers would be powerless to manage instances of non-compliance, and strikes would continue to have a disproportionate impact on the public. That would severely undermine the effectiveness of the legislation. Given that the amendment would make the Bill ineffective, as I suspect the Opposition intended, the Government cannot support it.
It looks as though the unelected House has a better understanding of what happens in the workplace than the Government do; that should worry the Minister. Can he name other countries where a worker could be dismissed in such circumstances?
In some countries, such as those I referred to earlier, strikes are banned completely for those working for some blue light services. We already have that situation in the UK for the armed forces, prison officers and the police. There would be a breach of contract if people in those positions were to strike.
I will make progress, if I may. Lords amendment 5 also seeks to make the Bill inoperable. It would mean that there were no legal consequences for a union that induced people to go on strike when they had been identified, through a work notice, as needing to work, or for a union that failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that their members complied with work notices. The amendment would mean that unions had no responsibility for ensuring that their members did not participate in strike action and attended work if named in a work notice.
Minimum service levels are entirely sensible; it is an idea whose time has come, and it shows that we support the working people in this country, unlike the Opposition parties. On the awfulness of Lords amendment 5, given that we have here the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, I wanted to ask this. Secondary legislation will be used to decide which industries are to be covered by the measures. The Bill is particularly targeted at rail, but I would like at some point to have a conversation with the Minister about including the Solent ferries. They are truly a lifeline service, because unless my constituents fancy swimming the Solent, they do not have an alternative to ferries, whereas people have an alternative to rail and other services.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. He has raised it with me offline. I am of course very happy to have a proper discussion with him about that, and I know that Transport Ministers would also be happy to.
On making unions responsible for forcing workers to comply with work notices, does the Minister not understand that unions work for and on behalf of their members, and reflect their wishes? If their members wish to go on strike, how is it just or moral to force unions to make their workers break that strike?
There is a balance to be struck, and what I think is just and moral is ensuring that public services are maintained. That is the balance that we are trying to ensure. We are not at all saying that people cannot strike; we are saying that a minimum service level should be maintained during the strike.
Lords amendment 5 would mean that there were no consequences for trade unions that failed to meet their responsibilities. If we remove the consequences for trade unions that fail to take reasonable steps, we will be far less likely to achieve minimum service levels, as trade unions might attempt to persuade workers not to comply with work notices, and to take strike action instead.
Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that minimum service levels are achieved. The approach that the Government have chosen is fair and proportionate. As with Lords amendment 4, Lords amendment 5 makes the Bill ineffective, and the Government disagree with it. We also disagree with Lords amendments 6 and 7, which are tidying amendments tabled following the passing of Lords amendment 5.
To close, the Government disagree with all amendments but their own, for the reasons that I have given. I hope that the other place will reconsider its amendments and agree to withdraw them, so that we can, in line with the wishes of the elected House, get on with rebalancing the rights of workers with the right of the public to go about their daily life.
Let me start by drawing the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, which reflects the fact that I am a proud trade unionist, and have been for a very long time. As the Minister outlined, today we return to the Conservatives’ sacking nurses Bill because the other place has reached the same conclusion as us: this Bill is as unworkable as it is unnecessary. It is not just an almighty, anti-democratic attack on working people, but a threadbare Bill that does not stand up to a shred of scrutiny. Today we consider a number of Lords amendments.
Let me be clear: Labour Members oppose this Bill in its entirety, and we stand ready to repeal it when in government. That said, we thank Members of all parties in the other place who made the thoughtful and sensible amendments that we are considering tonight. They do not solve all of the very long list of issues with this legislation, but they take the sting out of its worst elements to a significant extent. For that reason, Labour Members will reject all attempts by the Government to remove the amendments.
This evening, we will hear a raft of excuses for the Bill, and for why we cannot uphold the Lords amendments. We will hear that the Bill is about protecting public safety—well, I don’t know; there are not many Government Members here and willing to defend it. We will hear that Government Members all want minimum service levels all the time, but it is Tory Ministers who are failing to provide the minimum service levels that we need in our public services.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that nurses are taking action in order to protect patients? We hear continually about cases in which there are only two nurses on a night shift, trying to manage a ward of 30 patients. Is that not evidence that nurses are taking action because they have been pushed to the brink? Are they not doing the right thing by holding the Government to account through their actions?
I absolutely agree. I worked alongside my hon. Friend on workers’ rights for many years. I was a care worker for many years, and had to take industrial action once. People, especially in public service, do not do that lightly. The nurses’ union took its first ever industrial action recently. We have seen an unprecedented amount of strike action, and there is an absolute crisis in vacancy numbers in our public services because of this Government. The real risk and danger to public services at the moment is from this Conservative Government. After 13 years in office, they have really run down our public services, and they are not listening to the people who are trying to deliver those services.
Does the right hon. Member agree that one of the most frustrating things about the Bill, which appears to be totally ineffective, is that the minimum service levels that it sets out are very often not met in normal working times?
The hon. Member makes a crucial point, which I was trying to make to the Minister: on non-strike days, minimum service levels do not apply at the moment. Many of the people providing our public services are absolutely screaming at the Government, “We need more people working in those services. We are having record vacancies. We are having people leave the profession because of the mismanagement by this Conservative Government.” Take our fire and rescue services: how does the closure of 80 fire stations across the UK keep the public and our brave firefighters safe? Take our precious NHS: how does having 7.3 million patients left on waiting lists keep people safe? And take our overstretched schools: how do record teacher vacancies keep our children safe?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Regulatory Policy Committee’s opinion, published on
I absolutely agree. How will threatening key workers with the sack in the middle of an unprecedented recruitment and retention crisis do anything to provide the level of services that the public deserve?
We will also hear tonight that the Bill brings us into line with international standards, but what does the Minister have to say to the ILO’s director general who slammed down the Bill in January? The Minister did not effectively answer the questions that were put to him during his opening statement. What does he say to President Biden’s labour Secretary, who also raised concerns?
We are going to hear that the Bill is the only way to bring strikes to a close. We are now in May and there is no end in sight to the current wave of industrial action, harming the public, small businesses and, not to mention, the workers who lose a day’s pay. Might I give the Minister some friendly advice? Strikes are ended by getting round the table, not by insulting the very workers who kept the country going during the depths of the pandemic.
The Bill is one of the most sinister attacks on working people I have seen, and I speak as a trade unionist, an employer and a Member of this House. It gives Ministers the power to threaten every nurse, firefighter, health worker, rail worker or paramedic with the sack. Other Government Members wanted even more people to be in scope. I do not think they want anybody anywhere to have trade union rights in this country. This is being done at their whim. They have literally gone from clapping nurses to sacking nurses.
In the words of my noble Friend Baroness O’Grady, Lords amendment 4 is about
“the individual freedoms, dignity and livelihoods of workers.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 829, c. 1242.]
Labour is proud to support that amendment. We ask any Government Member—there are not many of them here—who believes in the right to protection from unfair dismissal to vote with us tonight.
We also stand by the provision in Lords amendment 4 to require employers to serve work notices and to prove that individuals have received them. The Government’s proposal not only threatens workers, but burdens employers, including our overstretched public services and small businesses. That only goes to show the Bill’s complete unworkability and proves the point of all employers who have condemned it.
The Bill also represents an almighty attack on trade unions—unions made up of ordinary working men and women. We are all grown up enough to acknowledge the integral role they play in our economy and our democracy. I think we can all agree that attempts to attack their ability to represent their members is morally, economically and democratically wrong. In its original form, the Bill would require them to take “reasonable steps” to ensure compliance work with notices, without any clarity on what that means. The Government have effectively conceded the flaws in their drafting of the Bill in their concession on Lords amendment 3. That is welcome, but not enough. The Minister asks us to vote tonight for vague and unclear wording that gives us no idea of what they actually require trade unions to do. So we will vote to keep Lords amendment 5 and by extension, Lords amendments 6 and 7.
The right hon. Lady has not really mentioned Lords amendment 1, although I note that she said that Labour Members would vote to retain it, and that is welcome. Given that Lords amendment 1 would limit the territorial extent to England, does that mean that Labour now recognises the need to fully devolve employment law to Scotland to completely protect us from Westminster?
We want a Labour Government for the whole United Kingdom, but we also appreciate Lords amendment 1 and the devolved powers. We believe in devolution. We were the party of devolution. We were the ones who gave devolution because we absolutely believe in it, but we also believe that we need a Labour Government to get rid of the Conservative Government in Westminster so that we can change the whole United Kingdom for the better.
Another one of the most troubling aspects of the Bill has been the profound lack of scrutiny. The Bill presents the Secretary of State with huge and unchecked powers to set, impose and police minimum service levels and to amend, repeal and revoke primary legislation. This is about not just laws that the Government already have passed, but even those we pass in the future, yet we have no real idea why they would need that power nor how they intend to use it.
Where there has been measly scrutiny, the wide-ranging consensus has been that the Bill is a total disaster. The Regulatory Policy Committee called it “not fit for purpose”. The Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Joint Committee on Human Rights sounded the alarm. The impact assessment was also published late, finding that this legislation could lead to more industrial action and have unknown knock-on consequences. Consultations have been launched in a haphazard way and only for certain sectors, without any explanation. There has been no meaningful consultation on the Bill as a whole, not least with the very people that it will have an impact on. If the Government had nothing to hide, they should have nothing to fear. Labour Members will vote to keep Lords amendment 2 and to protect the democratic scrutiny that the House is meant to provide.
There are serious concerns about what the Bill will mean for devolution. I have mentioned the unprecedented Henry VIII powers, which allow Ministers to make decisions about services that are entirely run by the devolved Administrations, including the elected Governments of Wales and Scotland. The Bill sets a dangerous precedent, using powers reserved to Westminster in one area of law to interfere in other areas that have been devolved. Perhaps the Minister has noticed that the Welsh Senedd and the Scottish Parliament have refused legislative consent. There has been no attempt to seriously engage with them or with devolved Administrations with powers over sectors listed in the Bill, including not just London, but my patch of Greater Manchester. This is a question not of changing the devolution settlement, but of defending it from the threat of the Bill. That is why we will vote to uphold Lords amendment 1.
This is one of the worst pieces of legislation in modern times, and looking over the last 13 years, that says a lot. But it is not just Labour Members who think that. The Bill has been widely and routinely condemned by: the Regulatory Policy Committee; the Equality and Human Rights Commission; the Joint Committee on Human Rights; NHS providers; the rail industry; the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; the CEO of the confederation of recruitment companies; the CEO of the NHS Confederation; President Biden’s labour Secretary; the ILO; all UK trade unions; the TUC; the Welsh and Scottish Governments; the former Secretary of State, Mr Rees-Mogg; Stephen McPartland; the Transport Secretary; the Education Secretary—what a shambles! If it was not so serious, it would be a joke. This is from a Government who are desperately trying to distract from the 13 years of their own failings and who are playing politics with key workers’ lives.
The Bill is shoddy, unworkable and unnecessary. For the sake of every nurse, teacher and firefighter across the UK, and for the sake of our British democratic institutions, I urge the whole House to join us in supporting the thoughtful and sensible amendments from the other place and to vote down the Government’s vindictive motions tonight.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow the shadow Minister, Angela Rayner. I agree with what she said, and I welcome her comments on devolution protecting the devolved Parliaments. I also welcome the commitment from Labour to repeal this legislation if it is in Government, but I would point out that there have already been a number of Labour U-turns recently, and now we have heard the mantra that Labour is not going to be in power to do the job of repealing nasty Tory legislation, so there is a concern that Labour will not do what its representatives have promised at the Dispatch Box. It is also amazing that in an earlier intervention from the Tory Benches, we heard the mantra that the Tories are the party of workers. The party of workers will not even have one Back-Bench contribution to today’s debate on the Lords amendments—that is how interested they are in the workers in reality.
Lords amendment 1 is very welcome. However, I have to point out that it is slightly bizarre that it was the Labour Lords who voted through that amendment, which limits the territorial extent of the Bill to England, while Labour MPs previously abstained on our amendment 32, which would have required the consent of the Scottish Parliament for the Bill to apply to Scotland. Why did Labour MPs not previously vote for our amendment 32? Was it because of the Bain principle? What has changed?
However, Lords amendment 1 hopefully means that Labour recognises the democratic deficit of Westminster overruling the wishes of the devolved Administrations. It means recognising that it is for the devolved Administrations to decide what is right for our nations, so by default—as per the question I asked in my intervention earlier—it means that Labour should now be recognising the need for employment rights to be devolved. The Scottish Trades Union Congress backs that position as well: its general secretary, Roz Foyer, has previously stated that
“Now more than ever, Scotland needs the devolution of employment law to outlaw, once and for all, the use of zero-hours contracts, giving workers security, certainty and workplace rights from day one of their employment.”
It really is time for Labour to get on board with the concept, and commit to the devolution of employment rights and the legislation to do so.
It is also worth noting that there was no need for Lords amendments to protect Northern Ireland when it comes to the Bill’s territorial extent. That is because Labour previously devolved employment law to the Northern Ireland Assembly, so if it is good enough for Northern Ireland, clearly the so-called most powerful devolved Parliament in the world should also have employment law devolved. At the Dispatch Box, the Minister tried to justify Westminster interfering yet again because somehow, Wales and Scotland will be disproportionately hit with strikes if Westminster does not impose its will. The reality is that Scotland has seen the least strike action out of all the nations, because we have better trade union relations and have actually negotiated in good faith with the unions. That is how we get less strike action, not Westminster imposing legislation that we do not want on the devolved Parliament.
Some 61 Liberal Democrat Lords also voted for Lords amendment 1, so the same challenge now goes to the Lib Dems: do they now agree that employment-related legislation should be devolved? Christine Jardine usually likes to intervene; it would be good to know what the Lib Dems’ position is on employment law, if they are voting to protect Scotland in terms of the territorial extent of the Bill. No? We are not getting anything from the Lib Dems. Finally, if we are talking about the theme of democratic deficits, is it not incredible that there are 14 elected Liberal Democrat MPs in this House and 83 Liberal Lords down the road? Does that not just show the democratic deficit of the unelected place?
The key thing about Lords amendment 1 is that in protecting the devolved Administrations from the Tory assault on workers’ rights, it also respects the wishes of the voters in the devolved nations. The Tories can loosely argue that they had a transport minimum services Bill as part of their manifesto, and they can argue that they were voted in to deliver on their manifesto, but given that the Tories were roundly rejected once again in Scotland and Wales, it is quite clear that they do not have any mandate whatsoever to implement the Bill in Scotland or Wales.
As we pointed out previously, as Liberty and others have observed, and as the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne observed as well, the Bill allows unknown assaults on the devolved Administrations. The Henry VIII clauses that allow both existing and future legislation to be overruled are completely outrageous. The Tories continually deny that they are making power grabs while enacting enabling legislation to interfere in devolved matters—again, the Minister’s comments from the Dispatch Box illustrated that perfectly. Now we have the genius that is Lord Frost, who negotiated the Brexit deal that he now tells us is absolutely rubbish, arguing for powers to be stripped from the Scottish Parliament. As the Tories lurch further to the right, what is to say his view will not prevail? Lords amendment 1 in itself does not prevent other attacks on devolution, but it does stop anti-strike legislation being imposed on the devolved Administrations. As such, I fully support the amendment, while recognising that we still need to fully devolve employment law.
Turning to Lords amendment 2, I have to start by saying yet again that the entire Bill is shameful in its intent. It gives way too much power to the Government, and it is being rammed through Parliament—not only was its impact assessment published after the Bill went through the Commons; it was classed as “not fit for purpose” by the Regulatory Policy Committee. As such, Lords amendment 2 adds a bit of transparency by requiring the Government to consult on minimum service levels and assess the impact on the right to strike, as well as on the effectiveness of services and on the wider public—information that the Government should be seeking to understand anyway. The Government should embrace the amendment instead of opposing it. This is about demonstrating that their intent is not solely Government imposition and conflict with trade unions and employees, so they really should think again about supporting the amendment.
The UK Government like to remind us—as happened earlier, when the Minister was at the Dispatch Box—that minimum service levels exist in other countries. However, as I said previously, those requirements are agreed through negotiation. The general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, Esther Lynch, has said that
“The UK already has among the most draconian restrictions on the right to strike in Europe. The UK government’s plans would push it even further away from normal, democratic practice across Europe.”
When the Minister refers to what goes on in other European countries, he really should read up much better. Lords amendment 2 does not even bring the UK back in line with international norms, but it provides more transparency and it should not be controversial.
I will now turn to Lords amendments 4 and 5, and consequential amendments 6 and 7. Amendment 4 seeks to remove the most pernicious aspect of the Bill: the concept that employers can name particular individuals to comply with a work notice, forcing them to make the horrible decision between crossing a picket line and risking being sacked for exercising what should be their fundamental right to strike for fair pay and conditions. No matter what flannel the Government put on it about minimum service levels existing in other countries, the sacking of individual workers for noncompliance will make the UK an international outlier. Amendment 4 will rectify that by ensuring that a breach of a work notice is not a sackable offence, which of course is the international norm.
Amendment 5 removes another awful part of the Bill: the removal of protections for unions. It should not be considered even remotely acceptable that the Government are putting obligations on unions to ensure that employees comply with work notices. As Liberty has pointed out, proving that unions have not taken reasonable steps is completely unworkable, especially as the Government have not even defined what “reasonable steps” would look like.
The Government also need to understand the wider human rights concerns around the Bill. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote in its report on the Bill,
“We find it hard to see how it is compliant with Article 11 ECHR to expose any participant in industrial action to the risk of dismissal simply because a trade union fails to take unspecified ‘reasonable steps’… In our view, the Government has not provided sufficient justification for this consequence or explained why the minimum service scheme could not be effective without it.”
Quite clearly, Lord amendment 5 has to be agreed to in order to prevent such a breach of human rights. The JCHR also highlighted the lack of an alternative mechanism allowing for independent resolution of disagreements that would meet the standards of the ILO, and the outrageous aspect of employers being able to claim up to £1 million in damages against unions.
Even worse in terms of how the Bill operates, new section 234E in the schedule forces unions effectively to act in a manner contrary to their very purpose by forcing them to work against the interests of their members and undermine their own legal strike action. As it stands, the Bill is just a vehicle for conflict with unions and employees. It is so obvious, and it is a sign of a Government with no long-term intention of having collegiate collective bargaining and who want to do their best to make unions and strikes impotent, instead of understanding that striking is a last resort following failed negotiations.
Lords amendment 4 rightfully puts duties on the employer to serve notice and to prove they have served it correctly on an individual. If we are to believe the Government’s premise that minimum service levels are about health and safety and the protection of life, it should hardly be onerous to expect an employer to ensure that work notices are correctly served.
In summary, the Government should accept Lords amendments 4, 5, 6 and 7. Assuming that the Government win the votes tonight, I hope that the Lords do the right thing and reinstate the amendments, as well as Lords amendment 2. With Lords amendment 1, it is no small irony that it is unelected Labour and Liberal Lords who recognise the democratic deficits of Scotland and Wales having unwanted policies imposed upon us. It is time that Labour recognised that these Lords amendments are at best a sticking plaster. We need full devolution of employment law and workers’ rights to Scotland. Labour must commit to that if it is to form part of the next Westminster Government. While we obviously want full independence, full devolution of employment law is a pragmatic step forward. That reflects the wishes of the trade unions, which I would hope a proper Labour party would be reflective of, because we know that that lot over there on the Government Benches certainly are not listening.
I rise this evening as a proud trade unionist, proud to declare my interest as a member of two great unions—Unite and Unison—and proud to represent a constituency that is at the heart of the labour movement. I know that every single worker who marches in the Durham miners’ gala will be opposed to this Bill, which is autocratic, undemocratic and unworkable. It is autocratic because it gives enormous powers to the Secretary of State through Henry VIII powers, reducing Parliament’s role to a rubber stamp. It is undemocratic because it is another poorly written Bill rushed through Parliament that will undoubtedly see the intervention of the courts after Royal Assent. It is unworkable because trade unions and their members will not accept this blatant attack on their rights, and nor should they.
Since the Combination Act 1799, the party on the Government Benches has tried to suppress working people’s rights, but it has never succeeded in that, and it never will. The right to strike is a fundamental human right that goes hand in hand with freedom of association. History shows us that working people are never afraid to challenge an oppressive Government. We have seen that in the recent wave of industrial action, where workers are prepared to fight for decent pay, against poverty wages, for secure jobs and for their communities. They will continue, whether or not this Bill becomes law, and the public will be on their side.
Ministers could have used this time to negotiate with trade unions, tackling the real causes of industrial unrest. Instead, they have wasted Parliament’s time with a Bill that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has said falls short of human rights obligations. Amendments made in the other place have sought to put flesh on this skeleton Bill—amendments that the Government will reject this evening.
It is disgraceful that this Bill seeks to undermine devolution using Henry VIII powers. I commend my hon. Friend Beth Winter on her amendment in Committee, and I welcome the amendments from the other place. The British Government should not be interfering in areas where they have no responsibility. It will simply deepen the divide between London and the devolved Governments, and it is a joke that Ministers talk about public safety during strikes when the Bill itself does not even mention safety. It is all just a smokescreen to attack workers’ rights even further.
On the Government’s watch, austerity has removed 20% of firefighters since 2010, making all our lives less secure. It is the same with nurses. Tens of thousands left the job they love just last year, and now the Government want to make nurses’ lives and the lives of millions of other workers even harder. Why are Ministers not tackling the causes of this issue—the cost of living crisis that is making the lives of my constituents a misery?
Either way, the Bill will need to be repealed as soon as possible, and I am pleased that the leader of the Labour party has committed to doing so. Whether or not Conservative Members agree with the scope of the Bill, there can be no doubt that it is autocratic, undemocratic and unworkable. Conservative Members, who claim to be democrats, must on principle oppose the Bill and join Labour MPs in the Lobby this evening.
It is a pleasure to be called in this debate, and it is a pleasure to follow Mary Kelly Foy. I am glad that she touched on point that any future Labour Government would repeal this Act. I am just struck, as was my hon. Friend Alan Brown, by the quote from Mr Lammy, who said:
“We can’t come into office, picking through all the conservative legislation and repealing it… It would take up so much parliamentary time. We need a positive agenda.”
If a positive agenda is not standing up for the principle of human rights and democracy, I do not know what is. Perhaps when the Labour Front Bencher sums up at the conclusion of the debate, they will outline exactly how quickly this Bill will be repealed from the statute book, as well as anti-trade union legislation more generally.
As others have done, I declare an interest. I am a member of the Unite trade union, which opposes this Bill, and I am happy to stand in solidarity with it. We are very much beyond the looking glass when it takes Members of the House of Lords to be the people standing up for the principles of democracy and human rights; none the less, I thank their lordships for the amendments they have made to the Bill.
As I was sitting here listening to the Minister opening the debate, I found it rather ironic that we are discussing minimum service levels when the Conservative party’s Back Benchers have literally not turned up for this debate. Other than Bill and Ben, the PPS flower pot men, there are literally no other Conservative MPs here to scrutinise this legislation. If the Government want to talk about minimum service levels, let us have Conservative MPs who campaigned for Brexit by talking about Parliament taking back control coming here to talk about the horrific Henry VIII powers that give unprecedented power to a Secretary of State who would be completely out of control.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun mentioned that statistically, when we look at the amount of industrial action that has happened across these islands, Scotland has had the lowest. That is because we take a partnership approach with trade unions. Yes, there are times when the Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland will have difficult conversations with trade unions, but by and large we understand that the best way to resolve those disputes is to come to the table, not to use legislation as a way of trying to strike down the trade unions and to big up the likes of Mick Lynch and Sharon Graham as some sort of bogeyman or Grinch. That is exactly what this Bill is designed to do. It is designed to be a wedge issue for the next general election, and that is why it is so important that Labour Members stand up and oppose this Bill, even if they cannot stand on picket lines.
Lords amendment 1 relates to the principle of devolution. I was certainly heartened by what we heard earlier about the opposition to Lords amendment 1, but the reality is that First Minister Humza Yousaf, First Minister Mark Drakeford in Wales and the Governments in both Wales and Scotland have outlined their absolute opposition to this Bill, which we consider to be an affront to democracy and to the basic fundamental human right to withdraw one’s labour. That is one reason I would like to see employment law devolved to the Administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff. It is good enough for Northern Ireland. Let us not forget that because of the territorial application of this Bill, we will find ourselves in the ridiculous situation where healthcare staff who go on strike in Scotland, England and Wales will be subject to the sack, whereas people in Northern Ireland who choose to use their fundamental human right to withdraw their labour will not. For a Government who talk about how important the Union is and how important it is that we do not have divergence of policy, this does rather fly in the face of that argument.
Tonight we will vote against all the Government’s motions on the Lords amendments they are opposing, but when the Bill goes back to the other place, I urge their lordships to hold firm against this Government. They should not give in, because Parliament was told we would be taking back control, and all we are seeing is a Government running out of control and running roughshod over some of our most basic rights. Of course, we were told Brexit was all about strengthening employment rights. The Government talk about that, but what they have brought forward is this tawdry Bill, which once again tramples all over people, just as Thatcher tried to do.
The warning to people in Scotland is that, for so long as they continue to have Conservative Governments they did not vote for—indeed, they have not voted for them since 1955—they will continue to get legislation that tramples on workers’ rights. The only way to protect our Parliament and to protect our workers’ rights is with the powers of independence, not Tories whom we did not elect.
I rise to support the Lords amendments and to oppose the Government’s intention of rejecting them. I am no longer a trade union member, but I was, so a lot of this Bill offends my belief in the right of the individual to withdraw their labour and the rights of the trade unions.
Lords amendments 4 and 5 would tackle the unfair obligation on the trade unions to ensure that members comply with a work notice. The thought of sacking anyone for going on strike is particularly difficult for me, because I actually have experience of that. I have experience of my husband being sacked, in 1989-90 in Aberdeen, because he went on strike. I know the damage it did to us and to a lot of people’s careers. To take away the right to object to what people believe is an unfair practice or to ask for better pay is, to me, a contravention of rights that people have fought long and hard for in this country. So I will be voting no on those two motions, as will the other Liberal Democrats.
On Lords amendment 1—
The hon. Member is coming on to Lords amendment 1, and I hope she will support that amendment on the Bill’s territorial extent. Has she had time to think further about the earlier point that the logical extension of the Liberal Democrats supporting amendment 1 is the devolution of employment law to Scotland?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, but remind him that we are here to discuss this Bill and its implications, which are very serious. Yet again, there is an attempt to divert us on to the constitutional issue, which in this particular instance is not appropriate. Yes, I will be voting against—
Not at the moment, thank you. I have not actually finished speaking—
Order. For the sake of clarity, may I say that the hon. Lady is absolutely right? This is a very narrow debate on these Lords amendments.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I will tell the House exactly how we are going to vote: we will vote no on the Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 1. Like the Labour party, we are very proud of the devolution settlement in Scotland and the achievement of devolution in Scotland and in Wales, which I would remind SNP Members they actually opposed at the time. They campaigned against it, because they were in favour of independence and did not want devolution, so the commission did not involve them. But that is not what we are here to talk about. We are here to talk about this Bill.
No, thank you.
The Bill is fundamentally flawed, not least in the fact that it will do nothing to address the current shortfalls in employment in the public sector. It will do nothing to protect the rights of patients in hospitals, which as Angela Rayner said, are what the nurses who have been on strike are seeking to protect. It will do nothing to help them.
The arguments against this Bill were rehearsed thoroughly on Second Reading, and I do not want to spend too much time going through them again, but I pay tribute to the Lords for their amendments, which do go some way to addressing the failings that so many of us identified on Second Reading. The Liberal Democrats will be voting no to the Government’s attempts to reject the Lords amendments, because they would improve what is a flawed—I believe, fundamentally flawed—Bill.
In its original form, this Bill represented what many call a sackers charter, because it was a mishmash of unworkable draconian assault on workers’ rights. I would say it is one of the biggest setbacks for workers’ rights in generations. If it passes, it will shackle trade unions, ordinary workers and a whole list of people struggling for fair wages in so many sectors of our economy. It will place unacceptable restrictions on the fundamental right for workers to withdraw their labour, and to defend their and their colleagues’ pay, which at the moment mostly seems to mean defending themselves from the Government’s inability to offer fair pay rises in so much of our public sector.
Worst of all, particularly in a sector such as the railways, the Bill will worsen industrial relations, create more delays on rail and create a worse situation for passengers. It will worsen industrial relations overall. I note that one union did successfully get a decent pay rise, because the Government clearly could not stomach the fight with it. It was our beloved firefighters who did actually get a decent raise out of this Government.
This Bill is anti-democratic because it gives the Secretary of State enormous power to define and introduce minimum service requirements. It is draconian because, in its original form, workers could be sacked for participating in industrial action supported through their own democratic processes. By the way, with trade unions facing enormous damages, we should bear in mind that they are the biggest voluntary organisation movement in this country, with more than 6 million people, and the majority of the reps do not get a single penny for the trade union work they do.
The Bill is also counterproductive, because the Government’s own analysis says that minimum service levels could lead to more strikes and more non-strike industrial action—in other words, action short of strike—so what on earth is the point of going ahead with it? It is unnecessary to its very core, because it is already custom and practice, especially in the NHS and the blue light services, for cover to be agreed by unions during industrial disputes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on that very point, because I used to negotiate those deals with employers when I was head of health at Unite. Those negotiations are about the relationship that we build between the employer and the worker, but that will not be possible under the Bill, which is why employers have asked that it does not proceed.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. When we cast around for anybody actually supporting the Bill who is not a Minister or on the Conservative Benches, we struggle to find anyone. In fact, the Rail Safety and Standards Board chief executive has said nobody thinks this is workable and that it will worsen industrial action. The chief executive of Greater Anglia, who is obviously involved in the railway industry, has said nobody —nobody—in the whole of the rail industry has even asked for this. Then, as we heard from my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner and many other Members who have spoken, there are the condemnations from the ILO general secretary.
This attack on rights is making our country an international laughing stock. The Government have said many times that the Bill matches or is very similar to some of the minimum service level processes in many other countries, but there is not a single person in Europe saying this is good idea, because it is not anything like what is in place in comparable countries around the world—not at all. One in five workers could be covered by this Bill’s provisions. They are the nurses, firefighters, teachers, paramedics, rail workers, civil servants and key workers the Government praised during the pandemic, who are all at risk of arbitrary dismissal. What a slap in the face for the heroes we clapped for weeks on end during the pandemic.
Let me turn to Lords amendment 4, on unfair dismissal. Currently, workers who are on strike are automatically deemed to be unfairly dismissed if they are sacked when taking part in an official, lawful strike. The Bill as introduced would remove that protection for those named by an employer in a work notice. It would mean that someone disciplined for not following a work notice could lose their job and then their livelihood. Lords amendment 4 is much fairer. It would reverse that measure and prevent the failure to comply with a work notice from being regarded as a breach of contract or constituting lawful grounds for dismissal. To be fair to the Government, I have not heard even them say that people should be sacked for trying to enact democratic rights. That would be a U-turn on what the Government said when minimum service level legislation was first brought forward. It was pledged in the 2019 Queen’s speech that
“sanctions are not directed at individual workers.”
The Bill clearly does do that, but the Lords amendment would help the Government to develop the policy set out in their own manifesto, so why not go ahead and back it tonight?
Staffing shortages within public services are at record levels. NHS job vacancies number 133,446, and one in eight newly qualified teachers left their job in the first year of teaching—yes, one in eight teachers are leaving the job in the first year of taking it up. No wonder we have such a crisis in education. Sacking workers for speaking up about their pay and conditions will worsen morale and worsen the staffing crisis in so many of our most important sectors. NHS Providers has gone further and warned that without this amendment, asking trusts to enforce work notices will damage relations and the good will that is already in place and that, as my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell said, is crucial to successful local negotiations.
In the other place, Baroness O’Grady said that no other European country with minimum service levels does this—that is the point I made earlier. She said it will make Britain
“an outlier in Europe and would constitute a gross infringement of an employee’s individual freedom.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 829, c. 1234.]
Without Lords amendment 4, the Bill will constitute a fundamental violation of workers’ freedom and the democratic right to withdraw one’s labour. Something that makes me proud to be British is that we fought for and won that right over the past 200 years or more.
Lords amendments 5, 6 and 7 are on union rights. In its original form, the Bill will place trade unions in an untenable position when their members democratically vote for industrial action. We have the recent example of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which got even higher numbers in its second ballot for industrial action than it did the first time. We hear from the Rail Minister that we ought to put the deal straight to the members, but perhaps the RMT should put it straight to the members, as they would probably vote against it by an even bigger margin.
The Bill states that if unions fail to “take reasonable steps” to ensure that their members who democratically voted for industrial action cannot participate in that same action, they could face an injunction or be asked to pay huge damages. Strikes could be regarded as unlawful, stripping workers of all protections, including but not limited to automatic unfair dismissal protections. We have some pretty big trade unions in this country, and for unions with more than 100,000 members—there are quite a lot in the TUC—damages could be more than £1 million. That is £1 million taken by this Government from workers who are democratically making decisions about their future and to defend their pay, more often than not against that very same Government. It is outrageous.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights stated that it is
“hard to see how it is compliant with Article 11 ECHR to expose any participant in industrial action to the risk of dismissal simply because a trade union fails to take unspecified ‘reasonable steps’ required in respect of those subject to a work notice.”
That is not technical jargon; it means that the threat of litigation, and the obligations on unions to help ensure compliance with work notices imposed by employers, would require unions to act in a way that would undermine their own industrial action and their responsibility to represent their members. That is what union members pay their subs to do.
The right to strike is a hallmark of any democratic society, and it is recognised and protected by United Nations treaties, ILO conventions, the European social charter, and the European convention on human rights. When many people in those organisations condemn the Bill as unworkable, unnecessary and an attack on rights in this country, that tells me that this measure has been driven by political machination and the desire to have a distraction from a failing Government, and has little to do with enhancing industrial relations in this country.
Lords amendment 5 and the subsequent technical amendments would protect unions from being forced into undermining their own otherwise lawful and legitimate strike action. It would also remove an employer’s recourse to secure injunctions to prevent unions from conducting a strike that has been legally balloted—something that has happened for decades in this country and is seen as one of the fundamental cornerstones of our democracy. I urge Members across the House to vote against the Government’s motion to reject Lords amendment 5 and the related technical amendments.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said, the scale of international and civil society criticism is pretty extensive. The list is huge. The chief executive of the Rail Safety and Standards Board, the managing director of Greater Anglia and NHS Providers have also said that the Bill will damage relationships and trust between staff and leaders. The director general of the ILO has rebuked the Government over it. The US Secretary of Labour has said:
“I would not support anything that would take away from workers” and 121 politicians from 18 countries recently signed a joint statement opposing the Bill. That included signatories from the Government parties in Australia and Spain as well as the former Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. These are not some left-wing rabble turning up to say, “Hey, this is something we don’t want”—these are respected global leaders saying that our country is in the wrong place on this Bill.
In addition, an open letter has been written by 50 civil rights groups, including Liberty, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam, which all condemned the Bill. Race equality organisations, including the Equality Trust, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Runnymede Trust—all respected, established organisations—have all raised concerns that black and minority ethnic workers could also be unfairly targeted. Campaigners for women’s rights, among them the Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, the Equality Trust and the Women’s Budget Group, have also warned that women could be disproportionately affected. No one who is not on the Government Benches thinks that the Bill is a good idea—not employers, not workers and not the international community. So I would like to hear at the end of the debate from the Minister: why is he so insistent on pushing ahead with something that is both unworkable and so undemocratic? Perhaps, for once, the Government could sanction the people around the negotiating table to end the industrial disputes in teaching, in the NHS and in the transport sector and instead put British workers and our rights first.
I declare an interest as a trade unionist with more than 50 years’ experience and as a proud member of Unite the Union. I rise to speak in support of amendments 5 and 4, tabled by Lord Collins and Baroness O’Grady, among others, but before I turn to the substance of those important and thoughtful amendments, I want to say that no number of amendments could ever make the Bill acceptable to those of us on this side of the House who believe in the fundamental right of workers to pursue fair and equitable treatment at work. Its central purpose—to prevent workers from exercising their right to take strike action—is an affront to the most basic principles of democracy, and the idea of forcing a worker to cross their own picket line strikes at the heart of trade unionism.
Not for the first time, this Government have suffered the ignominy of being condemned by the international community for their deviation from democratic norms, with 121 politicians from more than 18 countries recently condemning what they described as the
“the UK Government’s attempt to limit workers’ rights and its attempt to justify it with comparisons to international norms.”
The Bill’s specific provisions, especially those that seek to make unions liable for the actions of their members who fail to adhere to work notices, betray an utter ignorance on the part of Ministers about the nature of employment relations in the UK. The Bill is opposed not just by the trade unions, but by the vast majority of the business community. Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, expressed the feelings of many when he said that the Bill will serve only to poison industrial relations in this country and exacerbate the disputes that it seeks to end. This is yet another dangerous gimmick from a Government who at every stage have refused to settle demands for fair pay from public sector workers.
I want to single out Lords amendment 4, tabled by Baroness O’Grady, which would provide a much-needed safeguard for workers from the almost inevitable exploitation of work notices by unscrupulous employers. Amendment 5, tabled by Lord Collins, would excise proposed new section 234E, which would oblige trade unions to ensure that their members comply with a work notice. That is surely one of the most abhorrent measures in the entire Bill. It would in effect compel trade unions to undermine the effectiveness of their own lawful actions. It is a proposal as ludicrous as it is alarming and it should be consigned to the scrapheap.
I have closely followed the contributions in the other place concerning the Bill and salute the attempts to mitigate the worst excesses of what nevertheless remains a vindictive, anti-democratic and unworkable piece of legislation. I have no doubt whatever that Government Members will refuse altogether to listen to the concerns raised in the other place, and I say with absolute certainty that the Government will shortly come to regret this deplorable attempt to restrict the rights of their citizens.
I am pleased to speak in this important debate in support of Lords amendments 4 and 5 to the minimum service levels Bill. As a proud member of a trade union, I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The Bill is a fundamental attack on working people’s rights and freedoms, meaning that workers are at risk of being punished for exercising their right to strike. As someone who has been on strike as a teacher, I know that the decision to withdraw labour is not an easy one; it is a last resort when workers feel they have no other option; when conditions and pay are no longer tolerable.
The Bill would make seeking an injunction easier and broaden the circumstances that allow this process to take place. Therefore, where strikes are fairly balloted and otherwise lawful, employers would have more scope to be able to bring an injunction against trade unions under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, potentially putting a stop to fair industrial action and flying in the face of fundamental workers’ rights. As the Bill broadens the circumstances under which minimum service levels apply, that means a poor employer could issue a work notice where one is not needed, to workers they know are part of the trade union, and sack them for failure to comply with the notice when they strike, as they are likely to do. The Bill allows scope for bad employers to use loopholes to target specific employees. Amendment 4 seeks to prevent this from being possible; it would be a huge backward step. Amendment 5 aims to ensure that unions are not obliged to ensure that their members have to comply with work notices, which would undermine their own otherwise lawful strikes.
Furthermore, the Joint Committee on Human Rights says that the penalties imposed on trade unions and workers for failing to comply with work notices are “severe” and that the Bill would be likely to lead to disproportionate involvement from employers, particularly where a strike does not involve risk to life and limb. The Committee said that the Government should reconsider whether “less severe measures” would be more effective. Lords amendment 4 would prevent workers from being vulnerable to dismissal for failure to comply with a work order.
The Bill is unworkable and the Government know it. The Transport Secretary admits that it will not work, the Education Secretary does not want it and the Government’s own regulatory watchdog has called it “unfit for purpose”. It offers no solutions and it would not have prevented the recent wave of industrial action. It is a distraction from 13 years of failure. So why are the Government insisting on pushing ahead? They have rushed this through Parliament, presented the findings of the impact assessment to the Bill late and provided only four and a half hours for the Committee of the whole House.
There are serious concerns about how the Bill will be implemented in practice. In countries such as Spain and France that already have minimum service levels in place, more days have been lost to strikes than in the UK and that can lead to legal battles, which further delay solutions to industrial action.
In 1984, striking mineworkers in Barnsley were branded “the enemy within” by the Government when they went on strike to defend their industry. We still feel the economic effects of that political attack. Today, the Government are again blaming hard-working people—this time, for the Government’s economic failure.
I rise to speak in support of all the Lords amendments, but I especially want to focus on Lords amendment 4 and Lords amendments 5 to 7, because they are about protecting two key democratic principles: the rights of the worker to withdraw their labour; and the role of trade unions to represent workers—and not bosses and not the Government—when workers decide to withdraw their labour.
Lords amendment 4 would mean that a failure to comply with a work notice would not be deemed to be a breach of an employment contract, so the person could not be dismissed as a result. Lords amendments 5 to 7 would ensure that trade unions do not have any responsibility to ensure that their members comply with the work notice. We need to be clear about what the Bill is about and why the Lords amendments are necessary. The Bill is about perverting the role of trade unions in our democratic society. It is about trying to turn the trade unions into not the servants of workers, but the servants of bosses, or even the servants of a Conservative Government.
How can the Government argue that it is reasonable for the role of a trade union to include encouraging its own members to cross picket lines in a strike that has been declared lawful and that its members have voted for? It is obscene. It is an attack on key freedoms. It is incredible that we even have to speak out in defence of those basic principles. For all the Government’s talk that the Bill is about public safety and service levels, these Lords amendments get to the heart of the Bill. It is a fundamental attack on the rights of individual workers to strike and on the role of trade unions. This wretched legislation will see workers who have democratically voted for strike action forced by their employer to go into work. That is why Opposition Members are saying that it is an attack on the right to strike.
As I have said, the Bill will see trade unions forced to play a role in policing their own members into work—and if they do not, they will face legal action and heavy fines. What kind of role would trade unions have if trade union officials near picket lines are not persuading trade union members not to go to work, but obliged by this legislation to persuade trade union members to break democratically agreed upon strike action? If we think about it, it is very sinister. It is an unprecedented encroachment on the role of trade unions in our democratic society. It is a fundamental attack on one of our core democratic rights. [Interruption.] It is almost like bringing in legislation requiring the Minister to stand near polling stations and request that people vote Labour. I give way.
I would. My hon. Friend is always light on his feet in the Chamber, as he has shown, but I would be happy to give way to the Minister if he has anything of merit to say as this pernicious piece of legislation passes through with no acceptance by the Government of the common-sense and democratic decency of the amendments from the other place. Their anti-strikes Bill is no one-off—this is why the Lords amendments are so necessary. It is part of an authoritarian drift by a Government who, as we have heard, are desperate to close off any challenges to their reactionary agenda, be that at the ballot box, on the picket line or on protests.
The Bill, this attack on the right to strike, follows restrictions on the right to vote through the disgraceful voter suppression strategy. It follows restrictions on the right to protest through the disgraceful Public Order Act 2023. This anti-strikes Bill, like the Public Order Act and voter ID, should be thrown into the dustbin of history.
It is deeply concerning that, in 2023, we are having to rely on members in the other place to send these Lords amendments back when we are facing such draconian attacks on democratic rights, including the democratic right to strike, the democratic freedom to withdraw labour and the democratic role of trade unions to represent their members—workers, not bosses and not the Conservative Government.
I end by refuting the Government’s empty claim that this legislation is really about bringing the UK into line with International Labour Organisation norms. That is absolutely not the case. I previously tabled an amendment, backed by 30 Members on a cross-party basis, to prevent this legislation from being enacted until a judge had certified that the UK was meeting its International Labour Organisation obligations. The Government refused to accept that amendment; I wonder why. Perhaps it is because they know that their claim that the Bill brings us into line with other countries and International Labour Organisation standards is hollow rhetoric. The truth, as the European Trade Union Confederation has said, is that
“The UK already has among the most draconian restrictions on the right to strike in Europe, and the UK government’s plans would push it even further away from normal, democratic practice across Europe.”
Members do not need to be trade unionists to understand the common sense and democratic decency of these Lords amendments, and they certainly do not need to be socialists. Any Member of this House who values the hard-won freedoms of individual workers and trade unions in our society should back these Lords amendments. Not to do so would be completely shameful and go against the hard-won democratic freedoms that we have secured in this country through struggle. Indeed, it is shameful that we have had to protest outside Parliament today and to argue for those freedoms in this Chamber tonight.
Let me start by referring the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests and the fact that I am a proud member of the Glasgow city branch of Unison, one of the largest trade unions across these islands.
Like many other Members, including my hon. Friend David Linden, I am completely puzzled as to why there seems to be industrial action on the Government Benches every time we discuss industrial action law. Could it be that Government Members are so outraged by this Bill, and indeed support the Lords amendments, that they are at the TUC rally outside? I doubt it somewhat. Or is it simply the fact—as I believe to be the case—that Government Back Benchers do not have the confidence in their own arguments for this legislation to come here and defend the Government’s position?
It seems that the unelected House—the comrades in ermine down the corridor—has a greater understanding of what happens in workplaces across these islands than the Government do, and we can see that in some of the amendments. It is quite incredible that the Government oppose an amendment that would make it the employer’s responsibility to serve a work notice. The Government then say that they want to keep the measures in the Bill for dismissing a worker. This is quite incredible.
Imagine the scene. The day after industrial action, a poor individual who went on strike goes back to their work and is asked by the employer, “Where were you yesterday?” They are going to answer, “I was on strike.” But they are then told, “Well, you were served a work notice,” and that person will rightly say, “Where’s the proof from you as the employer that I was served a work notice?” The employer is going to say, “Under the legislation, we don’t need to serve the work notice, but we have the right to dismiss you, because we think you should have been served one,” and they will end up being dismissed—with no right, incidentally, as I understand the legislation, to an employment tribunal. You really could not make this up.
The Government also oppose a sensible amendment to ensure oversight of the powers in the Bill. A Government who are confident in their own legislation should welcome an amendment to ensure oversight of the Bill and a Committee of each House to look at how the powers are exercised. Of course, as the Minister has indicated, he opposes that Lords amendment, too.
Then we have Lords amendment 1. I heard the Minister say that industrial relations is reserved. Well, not quite, Minister, because when there are elections to Scotland’s Parliament or the Senedd in Wales, political parties—at least the sensible and good ones—will have in their manifestos how industrial relations should be addressed in areas of devolved competence. That would seem the sensible approach for a good political party to take, which is why there are debates in both those devolved Parliaments about the fair work agenda. We should have more of those debates in this place—but of course, the Government would not know fair work or the fair work agenda if it crossed them in the street.
The reason I think the Lords have got it right in their amendment 1 is that the Government seem to believe, and take the position, that they know better than the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Senedd about devolved areas of responsibility. In seeking to reject Lords amendment 1, the Government are arguing that Ministers at Westminster level have the expertise to know what the minimum service levels should be in transport, health or anything else in Scotland or Wales, when they cannot even manage their own minimum service levels in this Chamber. What chance have we got that they will understand?
If anyone seriously believes that a Minister in this place has an understanding of what the minimum service level should be in a devolved competence, then I would suggest that they must be a right Michael Blackley. Frankly, you could not make it up. It is laughable position, and the Lords have got it right. In this respect, the law should apply to England only, and then England’s representatives should decide whether, possibly, the legislation should apply at all.
My hon. Friend is making excellent points about the importance of industrial relations and Scotland having the expertise to deal with that. Does he agree that industrial relations in Scotland in recent years have been much improved on the situation under the Westminster Government, certainly in negotiating pay and conditions for workers in Scotland?
I thank my constituency neighbour for that excellent intervention, because as my good Friends the Members for Glasgow East and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) indicated earlier, the area of the United Kingdom with the least industrial action is Scotland. That is because there seems to be a mature relationship between employers and trade unions in Scotland—far more mature, it would seem, than in England, for example, where we see Government Ministers bashing trade unions on a daily basis on the sofas of breakfast television.
I want to end my remarks, because I am conscious that others want to speak in this debate. The fact that the Government want to dismiss workers for exercising the human right to withdraw their labour is what makes this an absolutely despicable and disgraceful piece of legislation, which would tie them in with countries such as Russia and Hungary. We might think that those are not examples that the Government should follow. It seems quite frankly bizarre that they do want to follow them. I will be in the No Lobby tonight, because I agree with these Lords amendments.
I would like to declare my interests as a proud trade union member all of my life.
Obviously I want to discuss the amendments from the other place, but I have to say that this should basically be classed as the anti-strike Bill. This is a Bill that very few people want, far less like. Despite the fact that there are very few people on the Government Benches, we will watch them flow through the Lobby tonight—again, to attack working people of this country. Nor should we be surprised by any of this, because when the Government are down—when they are out; when they are under pressure; when they are out of steam and have nothing left to say, after 13 years of destruction of this country—what can bring them together? The answer is attacking trade unions, attacking working people and, we should not forget—and we will never forget—attacking key workers, because that is what this Bill does. It is about culture wars and politics of distraction. Like rats when cornered, they revert to type.
The amendments from the other place are extremely important. The thinking behind each of the amendments is that people understand the real intentions of the Bill. They are not what has been suggested by the Minister and others on the Government Benches. We need to be honest about what the Bill is actually about.
If someone working in any industry who is a member of a trade union, and who has a ballot—with this country’s restrictive legislation—and jumps through the hoops of the threshold and wins that, they have a majority for industrial action. The issue might be pensions, or it might be health and safety, for heaven’s sake. In an attack on working people introduced in this place, this legislation states that regardless of the ballot result from that democratic process, they are expected to ignore it. They could be under pressure from the boss, the employer and then the Government. Under the new legislation, if I was at a workplace and I had been advocating action—as a last resort, as it always is—I would break the law.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the significant amount of industrial unrest over the last several months and, indeed, years, where people do not think they are listened to, the introduction of this legislation will deepen their resolve? They will show by their actions that they will not tolerate an attack on their freedoms and their basic employment and human rights.
It is extremely important that people understand that once we see nurses, doctors, teachers and key workers facing the sack, there will be resistance in this country. I kid you not, there will be resistance in this country like we have never seen before, because these are basic human rights. We cannot instruct ordinary hard-working people; key workers; the people who got us through the pandemic; the people who put the Great in Great Britain. We cannot, under any circumstances, allow this legislation to sack individuals.
Lords amendment 4 refers to the work notice. My friend, Chris Stephens, eloquently made the point about the notification of a work notice. If someone has not had notification of a work notice, how could they ever be accused of breaching it if they are not aware that they have it? This is pretty simple stuff. I am not a barrister or a solicitor, but I understand it. And you know what, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Members on the Government Benches understand it, too. There is no doubt about that. When those people are asked the following day, “Why weren’t you here? You had a work notice,” and they reply, “I didn’t have one”, they will be told, “You did. How did you not understand that?” They can be sacked for that. Under this legislation, they can be sacked for not adhering to something that they did not even know they were part of. How bad is that?
It is actually worse than the hon. Gentleman is presenting it, because the person dismissed would not have the right to go to an employment tribunal.
Absolutely. I fully agree with those sentiments.
When employers are considering who they might wish to give the work notice to, Lords amendment 3 suggests that when deciding whether to identify a person in a work notice, an employer cannot consider whether the person “has or has not” taken part in trade union activities, made use of their services or had a trade union raise issues on their behalf. That amendment should not be needed in the UK in 2023, because everybody clearly understands that if bosses give work notices, they have a clear idea who they will give them to: the trade union reps and the people who do not have a fantastic employment record. That is why that Lords amendment about who the company identifies for a work notice is really important.
In reality, this legislation is simply a battering ram against ordinary working people. I have mentioned the resistance that will be shown in this country if we start sacking the nurses, the teachers and the posties. Blaming the posties for breaking the universal service obligation; blaming the teachers for education in their classes; blaming the nurses for the backlog—you name it, that is what the bosses will do. That will start under this legislation, as they will have the power to sack people. This is a sackers charter, no doubt about that, criminalising our heroic workers.
There will be resistance like we have never seen before. The difference is that the public are on the side of the workers on this one, so be ready. I raise a stark warning: be ready. When the bosses have the books out, ready to sack individuals, and when the Government are telling them who to sack and what the reasons might be, they should be ready for the resistance, because there will be huge issues. How can the Government expect a trade union to take responsibility for individuals who might not want to accept a basic human right? It is bizarre. It is absolutely crazy. I am trying to explain it, but it is very difficult; it is not simple. The trade unions have a huge role to play.
The Bill not only escalates an already febrile atmosphere in this country; it is a vicious attempt the pin the problems that we have on trade unions, from a party that has completely run out of steam. When will the Government start doing their job, for heaven’s sake? How many more hospital appointments need to be set back? How many teachers need to be made redundant or letters and parcels be delivered late before they stop making excuses and demonising workers, and get on with the job that they were elected to do?
My hon. Friend is making an outstanding speech about the reality of industrial relations. Does he agree that trade unions do not have any jurisdiction over their members; it is the members who have the jurisdiction over the trade unions? Therefore, it is for the members to decide what action they take or do not take. The Government do not seem to get it.
My hon. Friend makes a good and valid point that the trade unions are the workers themselves. It is as simple as that.
In conclusion, will Government Members tell us why we are not having a minimum service Bill for non-strike days? In the past year or so, in particular when the paramedics and ambulance workers have gone on strike, efficiency has increased and has been first class on strike days. On non-strike days, like the 360-odd days other than those strike days, unfortunately what we see is people lying on pavements or having heart attacks who cannot get an ambulance. Let us look at a Bill for non-striking days so we can enhance the efficiency of all of the services outlined tonight. If the Minister did that, he would get our support.
I thank all Members, on both sides of the House, for the robust debate we have had as the legislation has passed through both Houses. It is fair to say that the discussion and debate about the legislation has pretty much divided along party political lines. Our position is that this legislation strikes a balance between the right to strike and the right of the public to go about their daily business and daily lives.
It is also fair to say that we could have chosen an option that went much further. As I said earlier, the USA, Australia and Canada have completely banned strikes in certain sectors, prohibiting them completely. Spain and Belgium have similar legislation on minimum service levels. Indeed, in France there are penalties of up to six months in jail for anyone who is under a requisition notice to return to work.
It is interesting that many Opposition Members have talked about restricting the right to strike. Well, we already restrict the right to strike for the armed forces, the police and prison officers. Will Opposition Members repeal that legislation to allow people who work in those parts of our society to strike? There are already some restrictions; we are putting in place sensible restrictions that are already in place in many other countries.
The guidance from the International Labour Organisation says:
“A minimum service may be set up in the event of a strike, the extent and duration of which might be such as to result in an acute national crisis endangering the normal living conditions of the population.”
It is clear the ILO supports the kinds of measures we are putting in place. I have heard Opposition Members say that no one wants this legislation but interestingly, when surveyed, 56% of the public say that they do, against 31% who do not.
Earlier today, the deputy Leader of the Opposition tweeted her support for the 121 politicians who have condemned the Bill. May I gently urge her to look at some of the people who signed that letter? Some of those signatories are anti-Zelensky, anti-Ukraine, anti-Israel and pro-Russia. I urge her to look at that again and withdraw her tweet.
We believe the legislation strikes the right balance between the right to strike and the rights of the public to go about their daily business and protect their livelihoods. There have been over £3 billion of costs to our economy because of these strikes, which is putting many businesses and many jobs in danger. The Bill presents a fair balance between the rights of workers and the rights of the public.
The Minister is generous in giving way. He mentions balance. Can he tell me what is balanced about a piece of legislation, which he supports, whereby an employee who does not get a work notice can be dismissed?
There have to be measures that employers can use to make sure people comply with the work notice—that is how it works in many other countries. The reality is that nobody will be sacked as a result of the legislation. There are other disciplinary measures that can take place. We already have derogations in place on a voluntary basis that do not always prove ineffective. We are formalising the process to allow these measures to take place in other vital public services.
The amendments would make the legislation ineffective, which is why I urge all Members on both sides of the House to vote with us and disagree with the amendments.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.