Schedule - Minimum service levels for certain strikes

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:46 pm on 21 June 2023.

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Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

There are three motions before the House. I am grateful for the fact that both Houses have reached agreement on the appropriate territorial application of the Bill, but I regret that we have not yet reached agreement on some remaining issues. I must once again urge the House to disagree with the Lords amendments before us. Again, the Bill has been amended in ways that would delay implementation or seriously limit the operation of minimum service levels. That would mean that we could not provide the all-important balance between the ability of unions and their members to strike and the ability of the wider public to access, during periods of strike action, the key services that our country needs. I will briefly summarise for the House the reasons why the amendments remain unacceptable to the House.

First, through Lords amendment 2B, the noble Lords seek to introduce additional consultation requirements and new parliamentary scrutiny processes. We recognise the importance of ensuring that the public, employers, employees, trade unions and their members are all able to participate in setting minimum service levels. That is why we ran consultations on applying MSLs to ambulance, fire, and passenger rail services on that basis. The Government maintain that the Bill enables the appropriate consultation to take place, and we are confident that the affirmative procedure will allow Parliament to conduct proper scrutiny of secondary legislation.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

Proposed new section 234F of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, inserted by the schedule, says,

“the Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

Does that not mean that there is no obligation to consult at all? The Secretary of State can decide that no one needs to be consulted. Does that not show the importance of the Lords amendment?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

If there is anybody whom the hon. Gentleman thinks was not able to contribute to the consultation, I ask him to please let me know, but it was open to anybody to make a submission to the consultation, and all those submissions will be properly assessed by Ministers and officials.

I turn now to the Lords amendments that would restrict the ways in which we can ensure that minimum service levels are achieved, Lords amendment 4B still leaves employers powerless to manage instances of non-compliance when workers strike contrary to being named on a work notice.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

Could the Minister set out the timescale for the consultation and how he intends to carry it out?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

As the hon. Lady may know, our initial consultations closed around the middle of May—9 May to 11 May. Those submissions will now be considered, and we will report back to the House accordingly.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

To be absolutely clear, Lords amendment 2B addresses the concerns that many of us in this place have about the right to strike and how it will be protected. How are the Government going to ensure that these minimum service levels are fair and balanced and do not affect that right to strike?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

We are very clear that we want to maintain the right to strike. Previous derogations, which we very much appreciate, have not interfered with people making their views known through industrial action. We do not expect that situation to change. As I say, the consultation ran for a good period of time, and the submissions are now being considered. Of course, we want to make sure that people have been properly consulted and that the regulations are fit for purpose.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I will make a little progress, but I will make sure that both Alan Brown and Chris Stephens get a chance to make their points.

The Bill takes the same approach as to any other strike action that is not protected under existing legislation. Lords amendment 5B may suggest that the other place accepts that trade unions should have a role to play in ensuring that minimum service levels are met, but in reality under, that amendment, whether and how the unions encouraged their members to comply with work notices would be at their discretion. Unions would be able to induce people to strike as normal and take steps to undermine the achievement of minimum service levels. That is clearly directly counter to the objectives of the policy.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

The Minister has said that the consultation has already closed, but the whole point of the Lords amendment is to oblige the Government to consult on draft regulations when they bring them forward and to publish impact assessments. If the consultation has already closed, that proves that there will be no transparency going forward, does it not?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

Not at all. There will be further scrutiny of the minimum service levels when they are brought forward, in the usual way that legislation passes through this House. Those regulations will be considered by both Houses.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

In response to Christine Jardine, the Minister indicated that the Government agree with the right to strike and want to protect it. However, rejecting Lords amendment 4B does not do that, because the consequence would be that employers would have the right to dismiss a worker taking part in industrial action, with no recourse to a tribunal. How does that protect the right to strike action?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

Because it requires people who are named in a work notice to turn up for work, which is common in other jurisdictions that use minimum service levels in order to ensure that the public can go about their daily lives and businesses continue to operate. It does not interfere with that ability.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister is an honourable person, and I know that he understands the issues and where we are coming from. Decent, ordinary people vote to strike only when they feel voiceless and invisible to management. Government and big business can prevent strikes by listening and acting before that stage is reached, but the right to strike must always be a last-ditch possibility, and those people must reserve that right. Does the Minister understand that and agree with it?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

As always, I entirely agree with all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. Of course strikes should be a last resort, and workers should be able to take industrial action when they feel their voices are not being heard. I do not think there is anything in the Bill that cuts across that. Hon. Members may disagree, but that is our position, and it is a position we have maintained throughout the passage of the Bill.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

No, I have given way twice to the hon. Gentleman.

The Government maintain that there must be a responsibility for unions to ensure that their members comply. Without that, and without any incentives for employees to attend work on a strike day when identified in a work notice, the effectiveness of the legislation will be severely undermined. Unfortunately, I do not consider that these amendments are a meaningful attempt to reach agreement. I fear that we are having a somewhat repetitive debate that is delaying us getting on with the important business of minimising disruption to the public during periods of strike action, and I encourage this elected House to disagree with the amendments.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Today, we consider a number of Lords amendments that will go some way towards making the Bill slightly less draconian than it currently is, but will not make it a Bill that we can ultimately support. I start by paying tribute to Members in the other place who have done their best to ameliorate the Bill with the sensible amendments that we are considering, and which we will be supporting. What those Members understand is that the Bill is the act of a weak Government who have lost the authority and the will to govern for everyone; a Government who prefer legislation to negotiation, diversion to resolution, and confrontation to consultation. How Ministers have the gall to come to the Dispatch Box and talk about the importance of minimum service levels when we have seen the decimation of our public services under this Government—with a record 7.4 million patients left on waiting lists, record teacher vacancies, and ever-increasing response times to calls to the police—is beyond me.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

My hon. Friend is making excellent points. I have heard from doctors in Wirral West who firmly believe that the Bill represents an intrusion on legitimate trade union activities, undermines workers’ rights to representation, and would leave unions unable to effectively represent their members. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I do agree with those doctors. I will go on to explain why the Bill is an attack on basic freedoms and liberties that I thought this country held dear.

Turning first to Lords amendment 2B, as we know, the Bill presents the Secretary of State with huge, unchecked powers, throwing scrutiny and democracy out of the window. We think it is entirely reasonable that if a Secretary of State wants the power to set, impose and police minimum service levels, they should be accountable for the impact of those powers and able to demonstrate what their impact will be. Requiring them to conduct a proper impact assessment on the use of those powers and hold a consultation on any specific proposals they have could be helpful to a Secretary of State, because they cannot possibly know how every nook and cranny of any particular sector operates and what is needed to deliver a minimum service level—assuming they can define what one is.

If the Government think that it is such a wonderful idea to introduce minimum service levels in the sectors covered by the Bill, they should not fear scrutiny of their proposals, consultation with those directly affected, or challenges to their assumptions. My fear is that the Government fear all of those things. When the Regulatory Policy Committee described the Bill as “not fit for purpose”, one would have hoped that any sensible and rational Government would put a little bit of effort into talking to people to make sure that their own Bill had even a remote chance of working, but I suspect that—like so many things that we hear from this Government—they do not look beyond the easy headline and do not think through the consequences of their actions.

I will turn briefly to Lords amendment 5B, which attempts to deal with what is essentially a full-blown attack on the independence of trade unions and their members. I know that the Government have been raising the bar ever higher on the number of members required to vote in favour of industrial action. However, even they must see that putting a requirement on a trade union to take action to stop some of its members from participating in industrial action once they have voted in favour of it—as proposed new section 234E of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 would do—undermines the very essence of what a trade union stands for.

We have never had an adequate explanation of what reasonable steps a union is expected to take in those circumstances. The Minister previously told us that it would be a matter for the courts to determine, but that represents an abject failure by the Government to do their job. Are they really saying to trade unions that they can face damages of up to £1 million if they fail to comply with the Bill, but that they will have to wait for a court to decide what they need to do to avoid that liability? That is ludicrous, dangerous, and a potentially disastrous situation for any trade union to be in. This amendment removes Government interference in lawfully and democratically made decisions by an independent non-governmental organisation, and removes the completely disproportionate risk that trade unions face if they fail to adhere to the undemocratic, unspecified and unconscionable requirements of this provision.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central 1:00, 21 June 2023

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

My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the jurisdiction of trade unions. I have said this in the House before, but Government Members just do not seem to understand it. It is the members of the trade union who determine what happens within a trade union—it is not a general secretary or even an executive, but the members—so how are they, as individual members, going to instruct workers to attend work?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

That is really a question for the Minister, and one that I think the Government have failed to answer adequately. I think the point my hon. Friend makes is a good one. When Conservative Members traduce the union barons, they actually traduce every single member of the trade union who has voted in support of industrial action, and I am afraid that that is no way for any Government to operate.

I would ask Conservative Members, not that there are many here, to consider what the Bill actually means. Representatives of trade unions will be required to encourage, cajole, advise, pressurise or even demand that their members cross a picket line. They will be asking trade unions to actively go against the very thing they were set up to do. I would say that it is a bit like asking a Conservative MP to vote in support of higher taxes, but I guess that, with the highest tax burden in over half a century, we may have to drop that particular analogy.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. I am a proud trade unionist, but I am also a former schoolteacher. I am concerned not only about the administrative burden that this requirement for employers to serve work notices on staff will create, but about the risk of damaging relationships within the workplace. He is talking about people being required to cross picket lines, and that would most definitely be a case in point. I am very concerned, because schools and hospitals in particular operate through staff collaborating with each other, and risking those relationships is a very dangerous thing to do.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why so many employer organisations are also against this Bill, because they understand what it will do for industrial relations: it will make them worse, not better. I would ask Conservative Members to think carefully about what they are asking trade unionists to do, which is to go against deeply held, genuine and sincere beliefs—

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I intervene to give my hon. Friend a chance to get his throat in order. Does he agree with me that, first and foremost, the Prime Minister withdrew his Labour on Monday with the intention of not showing leadership, which is a remarkable feat on the part of a Prime Minister? Does my hon. Friend agree that these are the death throes of a Government who have really run out of steam? They are trying to blame everybody else for what is going wrong. They are going for a cheap headline and have created this piece of legislation, which is anti-trade union and anti-democratic, to try to throw the blame on to the trade unions and workers, and away from where it really lies—with this Government.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention—I think my voice has returned, thankfully—and he is absolutely right. This Bill is counterproductive because ultimately it will not quell the concerns of many people in those sectors that have taken industrial action. Taking away the right to strike will not take away people’s concerns; it will just make them worse, and it will prolong anxiety, concern and discord.

Again, I ask Conservative Members to think about what they are asking trade unions to do—to go against deeply held, genuine and sincere beliefs. Whether or not they agree with the right to strike, do they really think in all conscience that this is something that sits comfortably with notions of dignity, respect and freedom? How would they feel if they were compelled to take actions in direct contravention of their own values?

Finally, I turn to Lords amendment 4B. It attempts to tackle the pernicious heart of this Bill, which seeks to destroy the basic freedoms that the trade union and Labour movement have fought to secure over the course of history. From the Chartists to the founding of the TUC, the trade unionists at Taff Vale and the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, the working people of this country have faced a long and arduous struggle to improve their working conditions, and fundamental to that struggle has been the right to withdraw labour. When Conservative Members inevitably vote down this amendment, they are saying to their constituents—the teachers, doctors, nurses, bus drivers and train drivers—that their voice does not matter and that, should they dare to withdraw their labour in search of better terms and conditions, they do so at their own risk.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

The shadow Minister is being very generous in taking interventions. The heart of the Lords amendment is to protect workers who have been dismissed so that they have recourse to a tribunal. That is a fundamental human right, is it not?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

One would have thought so, and that is probably why the Equality and Human Rights Commission has expressed great alarm at this Bill. If the Government want to give themselves the power to threaten every firefighter, every teaching assistant and every paramedic with the sack when they exercise their democratic right to withhold their labour, they should think very carefully about what they do with that power, because in a free society no Minister should hold that power—not that Ministers seem to understand what this Bill actually does, because the Minister said last time:

“The reality is that nobody will be sacked as a result of this legislation.”—[Official Report, 22 May 2023;
Vol. 733, c. 103.]

I know that the Government chose to bypass the normal line-by-line consideration of this Bill, but one would have hoped that the Minister had read as far as the schedule, because it does actually contain the power to sack people for going on strike.

Even if the Government do not understand the powers they are giving themselves under the Bill, they ought to understand the principle of the withdrawal of labour in the event of a dispute. As my hon. Friend Clive Efford has mentioned, many Conservative Members withdrew their labour the other night. In fact, 200 of them had no difficulty in doing so. Indeed, former Prime Minister Johnson withdrew his labour after he disagreed with the report from the Privileges Committee. So they should understand that the principle of people withdrawing their labour is an important one. It is a basic and fundamental right that every one of our citizens should enjoy in a free and democratic society. We are not serfs required to provide toil to the lord of the manor or conscripts engaged in a war against an invading force; we are citizens of this country, and in a free country the right to withdraw labour should be protected and respected.

Even if Conservative Members believe that the requirement to send someone into work against their will is somehow consistent with a free and democratic society, they should at least consider the fact that the Bill as it stands means an employee can be sacked for failing to comply with a work notice, even if they say they have not received it. Yes, someone can be sacked for not complying with a work notice without any challenge to it legally, and they can also be sacked for not complying with it even if they have never seen it. How is that justice, how is that reasonable and how is that good industrial relations? It is a recipe for injustice, for toxicity and for abuse by employers who want to get rid of the most troublesome employees.

I will not list all the organisations that have condemned this Bill, but two of the main employers in the key rail and health sectors have called this out for what it is, because they know that rather than resolve industrial disputes, this Bill will prolong them. They know that the kind of restrictions this Bill places on people are anti-democratic and not in the best traditions of this country. It is no wonder that even members of the Cabinet have criticised this Bill. Indeed, this week we had the shameful news that the United Nations, through the International Labour Organisation, has called on the Government to respect international law, such is the threat that this Bill poses to it. No, we cannot accept this tawdry, vindictive, unworkable disgrace of a Bill. This Bill attacks the people who keep this country going, and the sooner the Government realise that the politics of division will not work, the better.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

I want to start by simultaneously condemning and praising the Lords, because although I still disagree with the premise of unelected peers for life, I respect the work ethic of some of those who have been trying to improve this God-awful Bill. It also shows that, while the Tories can stuff the place with their cronies and donors, the issue with cronies and donors is that they cannot be bothered to turn up, do their work and vote accordingly, as in the case of Baroness Mone, who is absent after pocketing millions of pounds for selling dodgy personal protective equipment to the NHS. On the Lords as an institution, we have a perfect illustration of the Labour leader’s continued flip-flopping. Overnight he has gone from wanting to abolish the Lords to now planning to stuff it full of Labour peers when he gets into government. It is pretty shameful.

I am disappointed that the Lords did not hold out on an amendment to restrict the Bill’s extent to England only, which would recognise the position of the devolved Governments.

I commend the Lords in their consistency on other matters pertaining to the Bill. Lords amendment 2B would require the Government first to publish draft regulations, and then to undertake impact assessments on their effects and to consult with representatives of trade unions and employees. That is hardly an onerous request—in fact, it is just putting in place basic transparency. Throughout the Bill’s passage, the Tories have been eager to tell us that it is about health and safety, minimum service levels and allowing the public to get to work. If that is the Bill’s real intent, and it is not a draconian attack on the rights of workers to strike, surely the Government should be willing to comply with the requirements of Lords amendment 2B.

Paragraph (c) of the amendment perfectly encapsulates the rhetoric of the Tory Government about balancing the impact of regulations on the general public with complying with workers’ rights to strike. Given all the quotes and speeches from Tory Ministers and Back Benchers, surely they should be content with the amendment and be confident that they can comply with it and set out the aims of any draft legislation, allowing the public to understand its intent and impact. If the Government were true to their stated aims, the amendment could mean them backing trade unions into a corner with transparency. At a stroke, the amendment would take away claim and counter-claim on the impacts of any regulations, as the impact assessments and consultations would be crystal clear to everyone involved. What is it that the Government are objecting to, because the Minister certainly did not make that clear earlier? The Minister said that the consultation is already closed, which means there is no transparency going forward.

In voting to disagree with the previous Lords amendments, the Government said that it was because the Bill already contains adequate consultation requirements. I have already illustrated that the Government are completely at it with that statement. If we look at proposed new section 234F of the 1992 Act, the Secretary of State is required only to consult such persons that he or she considers “appropriate”. That clearly leaves the door open to consult nobody at all.

Subsection (5) of proposed new section 234F advocates that any consultation requirements can be satisfied before the passing of the Bill. How is that even logical? According to the Government, adequate provision takes the form of consulting who they decide they want to consult, and in the absence of any doubt, any past consultation, past Government rhetoric or past announcements will count as satisfying these non-consult requirements. That is certainly a much easier pathway for the Government than having to bother to undertake impact assessments, proper consultation and parliamentary scrutiny in the form of a Joint Committee to review these impact assessments. The reality is that, with Lords amendment 2B, Parliament has a choice to take control or to cede unlimited powers to a Secretary of State.

Turning to Lords amendment 4B, I refer to the Government’s response to Lords amendment 4, which shows their real intent. They have said that the reason for objecting to Lords amendment 4 is

“in order for the legislation to be effective, it is necessary for there to be consequences for an employee who fails to comply with a work notice.”

The Government rationale is clear that the legislation is intended to be the “sack the workers, sack the nurses, sack the doctors and sack the train drivers Bill”, plain and simple. Forget the pretence that this legislation brings the UK into line with other countries that the Government keep telling us have minimum service levels legislation on the right to strike, because this legislation brings the UK into line not with other democracies, but with Russia and Hungary.

Lords amendment 4B provides some protection for workers—protection from malicious employers and protection for individual workers and, in particular, union representatives to stop them being targeted by employers. Surely the Government must agree with proposed new subsection (1) under Lords amendment 4B that a person is not subject to a work notice if they have not received it. This Government demand that people prove who they are before they can exercise their right to vote, but at the same time they seem to believe that a worker can be sacked for not complying with a work notice they have not actually received. It is preposterous. Proposed new subsection (2) confirms that the employer has to prove that the work order was served and received in compliance with subsection (1). Any decent employer would do that anyway, but it makes sense for an employer to have to prove that to ensure no unfair dismissal claims. Otherwise, I return to the point that the sacking of workers is clearly a key outcome and sanction that this Government intend.

No longer is there any need for illegal secret blacklisting, because all employers now have to do is the sack awkward squads for not complying with notices they did not receive. That is how open to abuse the legislation is in its current form, and it is outrageous that the Government are moving against Lords amendment 4B. They are bringing in legislation to make it easier to sack workers when we do not have enough workers to fill vacancies. It is truly perverse that the Government are sticking with such draconian legislation to make it easier to sack key workers.

Lords amendments 5B, 5C and 5D attempt to provide some protection for the unions. It is crystal clear that the Government are trying to break the unions by making them agents of employers to make employees comply with work notices. It is utterly bizarre and outrageous. Unions are formed by worker members and are intended to work on behalf of those members. They cannot and should not be forced to work against the wishes of their own members. Amendment 5B is a much slimmed-down version of Lords amendments 5 to 7, which the Government rejected because they want the legislation to have maximum impact in attacking workers and union rights.

Lords amendment 5B also removes the outrageous aspects of proposed new section 234E of the 1992 Act, which allows employers to recover losses from a union, even if the union has taken the reasonable steps under proposed new subsection (1). Thinking about that subsection alone, unions can be forced to pressure workers to comply with work notices, which is an infringement of the aims of a union. Even if a union caves in and takes reasonable steps, the employer can still sue the union for losses. How can that be right if the union is complying with the legislation?

In summary, the Lords amendments are intended to protect workers from being targeted by work notices; to ensure that an employer serves and proves receipt of a work notice so that workers cannot be sacked for non-compliance with a notice they have not actually received; to make sure that workers are not sacked for non-compliance full stop, which is in line with international norms; and, finally, to prevent unions from being forced to undermine their agreed action on behalf of members. The Government’s intent is clear, so I hope that the Lords stick to these simple, basic protections. Yet again, this Government are going to dismiss basic rights and freedoms out of hand. To call themselves a party of workers is a complete and utter shambles.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East 1:15, 21 June 2023

I will briefly touch on the reasons why I think it is important that this elected Chamber does the right thing and rejects the Government’s opposition to the message from the other place. I will focus on two amendments—Lords amendments 4B and 5B—that go to the heart of this matter and the heart of this pernicious Bill. They relate to the protection of employees and protections for unions.

The context for this Bill, as have said before, is that we have a Government who are increasingly desperate, draconian and authoritarian. We have seen that in the restrictions on the right to peaceful protest and on people’s ability to cast a vote at elections, and now we see it with this draconian attack on trade unions. How can anybody in this place believe that it is in any way acceptable for workers to be sacked if they fail to cross a picket line in a strike that has been lawfully called and conducted, even under the restrictive and onerous requirements we have in this country? How can that be viewed as acceptable in any way?

I will conclude on the protection for unions. I do not want to detain the House for long, because a few people want to speak and there is limited time. Lords amendment 5B is fundamentally necessary because the Bill is an unprecedented attack on the role of trade unions in our society and our democracy. The Minister should not need to have it explained to him that trade unions in our society are independent bodies representing workers. Trade unions in our democracy are not meant to be agents of a Government. They are not meant to be agents of an employer. They are not there to ensure that the bidding of a Conservative Government or a big corporation is done. Unless Lords amendment 5B is backed, unions will be required to take steps to persuade their members to cross picket lines and go to work during lawful disputes, or they will face gargantuan fines.

That is truly chilling. It changes the role of trade unions in our society. That is no small matter; it goes to the very core of what the trade union movement in this country has been about for hundreds of years. Failure to support Lords amendment 5B is a failure to stand up for a basic democratic principle. Conservative Members can snigger about it, but there was a time when even Conservative MPs understood the independence of trade unions.

Let us be clear: the Bill allows the Secretary of State or an employer to set minimum service levels and to issue work notices requiring workers to break a picket line and go into work, and unless we back Lords amendment 5B, the Bill will require trade unions to help the Government and the bosses to achieve that aim. It is draconian and anti-democratic. It should be opposed by everybody in the House, whether or not they are a socialist, a trade unionist, a Conservative Member, a Labour Member or a Member of whatever party. It should be opposed by anybody who believes that trade unions in our democracy are there to represent the will of the workers and their members, not that of the Conservative Government or the boss of a company. It is basic democratic stuff that takes us back hundreds of years. The legislation needs to be resisted if we in this place have any respect whatsoever for our democracy and the democratic role of our independent trade unions, which are there to support the workers, not to support the Government or bosses against their will.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

All I can say about legislation like this is that the Government should be careful what they wish for. This is possibly the most significant piece of trade union legislation introduced in this country for a century—right back to Taff Vale—because it strikes at the basic human right to strike. Because it is so significant, wise people in the House of Lords—I rarely say that—have tabled Lords amendment 2B. All they are saying to the Government is, “This is such a significant piece of legislation that you really do need to consult on its detail and implementation.” Without that detailed consultation, I think that a whole range of problems will be exhibited.

I will give one example from my constituency, which I have raised before. How can there be a minimum level of service for air traffic controllers? It does not exist. Therefore, in effect, the legislation means that constituents who are air traffic controllers will not have the right to strike any more. If that is what the Government want, they should be honest and explicit about that.

Again, the Government should be careful what they wish for. Individuals who are trade unionists will see the Bill as the withdrawal of their right to strike, because at any time an employer will be able to say to that individual, “You have got to work.” If that individual says, “Well, I want to go on strike,” they could be sacked, and they would have no protections left in law. That is an attack on the basic right to strike. What will those individuals do? Large numbers of them will not comply. Then what happens? It will escalate into an even more significant dispute.

The legislation also says to a trade union, completely contrary to three centuries of history, “You will be required to discipline your members for not working.” That basically means that the Government will cause conflict within that particular union, or across the trade union movement overall. Maybe that is what the Government are all about.

When the legislation was brought forward, I thought that the motivation for it was one of two things. The first possibility was that the Government were panicking because of the scale of industrial action taking place, not realising that the vast majority of those industrial disputes would, as always, be settled by negotiation. That is what has happened with most of them. If it was not panic, it was something more sinister. It was Ministers thinking, “Why waste this opportunity? Why not bring forward the legislation that we have wanted for generations to undermine the right to strike?”. If that was the Government’s motivation, I tell them that they cannot implement legislation, no matter how hard they try, if it goes against the grain of our history, which is to respect workers’ rights, because those have been fought for over generations.

The Bill will exacerbate the industrial relations climate in this country. The Government should at least accept the Lords amendments, because they go some way towards establishing a piece of legislation that may be seen as implementable through consultation and through the protection of rights. If they go ahead like this, I can see nothing but further conflict. That will undermine the commitment across the House to try to develop a growth economy again, rather than one held back by disputes, some of which have been engineered in recent times because of the cost of living crisis.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

I, too, refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In opening the debate, the Minister skirted round amendment 4B and just said that the Government were opposed to it. A number of us intervened at the time, but I really do think that he needs to consider the Government’s position carefully, particularly on that amendment, because it gets to the heart of the Bill and why so many of us are expressing concerns about the attacks on natural justice and on human rights.

Lords amendment 4B asks that employees receive a work notice in good time. It seems fairly uncontroversial that a work notice should be issued to a worker in good time if they are to attend their work. If we do not accept the amendment, we will end up with a scenario where someone returns to work after a day of industrial action and is told they are being dismissed with no evidence whatsoever that they have been given a work notice. Of course, the Government do not want to give the responsibility for the work notice to the employer, so the employer will have no obligation at all to serve an employee with a work notice, but they could dismiss them the very next day after industrial action.

Let me emphasise that the employee would have no recourse to an employment tribunal. Surely it is a fundamental human right, and fundamental to natural justice, that if a worker is dismissed, they have recourse to a tribunal to challenge that decision. That, to me, seems fairly self-evident and obvious, but the Government are allowing a situation where rogue employers will be able to dismiss a worker for taking part in industrial action with no recourse to a tribunal, and they will not need to evidence the fact that that worker was served with a work notice.

The Government find themselves in a preposterous situation by opposing Lords amendment 4B, so I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of these questions. Is it really the Government’s position, as I have outlined, that it is okay for an employer to dismiss those on strike and that they will not need to provide evidence that the employee was obliged to go into work? It is ludicrous.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

While the Government clearly do not want workers to have access to justice through the employment tribunal, of course those workers’ human rights will have been infringed, so will they not have access to other courts to challenge this egregious legislation?

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

Hopefully the Minister will answer that question.

The Minister did say in answer to my intervention that it happens in other countries. Yes, it happens in Russia and Hungary. Are Government Members really going to justify the Bill by saying, “It happens in other countries like Hungary and Russia”? Is that the Government’s example? Let me name another country—Italy, where workers can be disciplined but short of dismissal. But the Government do not want to follow the Italian model; they want to be in line with Hungary and Russia. It is incredible that the Government have found themselves in that position.

I hope that the Lords hold firm if the amendments are rejected. Amendment 4B is a fundamental principle of natural justice, and I hope the Minister will explain why he is against that principle for workers in this country.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) 1:30, 21 June 2023

I thank Members for their contributions. It is fair to say that we will have to agree to disagree. We believe that this legislation is a proportionate response that gives the Government the power to ensure a safe level of service in areas such as health, transport and border security, so that people’s lives are not put at risk and they can work, access healthcare and safely go about their daily lives.

I will touch on one or two points raised by right hon. and hon. Members. I have a great deal of time for the shadow Minister, Justin Madders, though perhaps we do not agree so much in this debate. He asked who we govern on behalf of, and he listed very important people in our society—our nurses, train drivers and border security officers. But is he properly representing the many other stakeholders in this debate, such as pub landlords, restauranteurs, hoteliers and people seeking urgent medical treatment or trying to get to work or to see family? There have been 600,000 cancelled appointments as a result of the strikes of recent months and £3.2 billion of economic detriment—much of that to our restaurateurs, hoteliers and pub owners. It is important that their voices are heard, too.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I hear what the Minister is saying, but that is an argument to ban strikes altogether. Is that not what he is doing?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

We have been clear that there is a balance between people being able to seek industrial action and being able to go about their daily lives. That is the balance that we are trying to strike. He asked if we fear scrutiny; not at all. What we fear is delay. That is what the Opposition parties are trying to bring about: delay in wrecking amendments.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

Will the Minister expand on the point made by my hon. Friend Justin Madders and give us a list of the people whom he thinks should be able to go on strike? Who are the ones he approves of?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

Any person who is legislated for in these measures should be able to go on strike, subject to minimum service levels. It is quite clear, and we have been consistent all the way through.

In response to Alan Brown, our objection to the amendments is the delay that they will cause. We want to ensure that people can go about their daily lives. John McDonnell raised some points about reasonable steps. Unions will not somehow have to compel people to go to work; we are asking them to undertake reasonable steps to ensure that people comply with a work notice. In fact, we were willing to set out in the Bill what those reasonable steps would be, but the right hon. Gentleman’s counterparts in the other place rejected such measures.

Richard Burgon talked about the independence of unions; of course we respect that. It is true that if a union fails to take reasonable steps, the strike would be unprotected, as it would if the trade union failed to meet other existing requirements in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, such as balancing requirements. This is not a departure from the existing position.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

The Minister keeps talking about wrecking amendments, but how is obliging an employer to ensure that an employee has received a work notice a wrecking amendment?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to other points in Lords amendment 4B: proposed new section 234CA(4) of the 1992 Act is a wrecking amendment because it says there is no contractual obligation for someone to comply with a work notice. That drives a coach and horses through the Bill.

Chris Stephens talked about how other jurisdictions deal with requiring people to go to work under a work notice. He may be aware that in France, people can be subject to criminal charges if they do not comply with a work notice. These are proportionate measures. We must make the view of the elected House as clear as possible, and avoid any further delay to fulfilling our duty to protect the lives and livelihoods of those we represent.

Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2B.

Division number 261 Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill — Schedule - Minimum service levels for certain strikes

Aye: 281 MPs

No: 204 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


The House divided: Ayes 283, Noes 205.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 2B disagreed to.

More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings onthe Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, 22 May).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).

Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 4B.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)

Division number 262 Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill — Schedule - Minimum service levels for certain strikes

Aye: 276 MPs

No: 208 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


The House divided: Ayes 277, Noes 209.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 4B disagreed to.

Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendments 5B, 5C and 5D.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)

Division number 263 Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill — Schedule - Minimum service levels for certain strikes

Aye: 277 MPs

No: 212 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


The House divided: Ayes 280, Noes 214.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendments 5B, 5C and 5D disagreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H(2)), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing with their amendment 2B, 4B and 5B, 5C and 5D.

That Kevin Hollinrake, Mike Wood, Alexander Stafford, Jane Stevenson, Justin Madders, Navendu Mishra and Alan Brown be members of the Committee;

That Kevin Hollinrake be the Chair of the Committee;

That three be the quorum of the Committee.

That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Ruth Edwards.)

Question agreed to.

Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.