– in the House of Lords at 3:40 pm on 7th December 2022.
To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to minimise disruption to essential services over the Christmas and new year period, given proposed strike action by workers in several sectors.
My Lords, as a responsible Government, we have been planning and continue to prepare for a wide range of scenarios. Tried and tested contingency measures are in place to minimise the impact of potential strike action on the public. Our priority over the coming weeks is to limit the disruption to the public as much as possible and protect critical services over Christmas and the new year.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. On the health service, is it not the case that this dismal negotiation over what constitutes a category 1 emergency—that is, life-threatening—itself risks further increasing unnecessary loss of life if people are deterred from ringing 999 in their hour of need? On the wider situation across the transport network, regardless of people’s views on the overall merits of particular pay claims, is it not the case that we all, both in this House and in the other place, have a responsibility to say unequivocally that it is wrong to bring the economy to its knees and threaten mass damage to people’s livelihoods, particularly in the hospitality sector, at this critical time of year?
On the noble Lord’s first point, I will write to him as it is really for the Department of Health and I do not know the answer. On his wider point, I agree with him that it is very important that people take account of what is happening across the country and how industrial action has affected businesses in lots of different sectors, as he said. Of course, we regret the decisions taken by multiple unions to strike. We greatly value the work of the public services but pay deals have got to be fair and affordable.
Can the Minister confirm whether, in the scenarios that are being planned for, the deployment of regular and reserve military manpower might be called upon? If that is the case, can she also confirm whether the new, revised chapter of last year’s integrated review might reverse the decisions on reductions in the manpower strength of both the Army and the Volunteer Reserves?
Although I sympathise with the noble and gallant Lord’s points on the wider question of the Army, this is not something that I can comment on. However, I can say that, as he knows, the Government are able to utilise the military aid to the civil authorities protocol as a last resort to respond to major strikes. It is a tried and tested process that covers a range of risks, obviously including strike action. We are stepping up contingency measures, with around 2,000 military personnel, and some civil servants and volunteers, currently being trained to support a range of services if the need arises.
My Lords, it suits the Government to claim that these are union disputes but is it not the case that the members of those unions have voted unanimously for action because their living standards have been squashed so much by this Government? Instead of interfering in those negotiations, would it not have been better for the Government to have tried to find a solution to the rail and health service strikes rather than sitting back and claiming that they are nothing to do with them?
The Government have done a great deal to try to move things forward. On rail, which the noble Lord referenced, a new and improved deal, backdated, at 4% this year and 4% next year, has been offered. But although we want pay deals to be fair and affordable, and want independent pay review bodies to help with that process, our number one priority must be tackling inflation, which currently stands at 11%.
My Lords, does the Minister understand that Royal Mail is being destroyed by the current management, and that although it would be very disappointing that the strike may stop some Christmas cards getting through, the vast majority of the public, particularly in rural areas, realise that the working conditions of ordinary post men and women across the country are being changed deliberately? This is not a dispute about pay; it is about how the Royal Mail wants to destroy letter posts throughout the country.
I have a great deal of admiration for Royal Mail. The way that it kept going and delivered all our mail through Covid, and has changed its operating model to do parcels and compete with others, is amazing. We are in touch with Royal Mail. It has well-developed contingency plans for strikes and will continue to do what it can to keep services running through December. We continue to monitor the dispute closely, and obviously urge people to post early for Christmas. There is a wider process of change within Royal Mail, and the noble Baroness makes some important points.
Is it not a tragic comment that the present situation in the railways appears to be that those who are putting in the pay claims will get 9% over the next few years but those on lower pay will get an extra payment as well? It may be that the union leadership is looking for another 1% or 2%, but is not the fact of the matter that, against that background, they are going to cause chaos and confusion for a huge number of people, a lot of whom earn a lot less than those who are going on strike? Must one not hope that, in the interests of their own industry, and the rail industry, the membership of the unions, and the RMT in particular, will show a rather more constructive approach than their leadership?
That is often the case; my noble friend is right. As I have already said, they were offered an improved deal. Obviously, negotiations are a matter for unions and employers, but we are clear that the dispute on the railways has gone on too long. We will continue to facilitate negotiations to reach an agreement that is fair: fair to workers, to passengers and to taxpayers. I think that upping the strikes over Christmas risks driving even more people away from the railways, at a time when passengers and businesses should be taking advantage of the festive period.
My Lords, that being the case, why is it that this Government spent the summer aggravating the situation and failing to sit down with representatives to negotiate a settlement? That is why we have ended up in the situation we are in.
As I said, the Government do not negotiate; it is for the employers and the unions to get together. There have been negotiations that involve not only pay but changing practices, which I strongly support and which will help with services and productivity on the railways, which I strongly support. I regret that people cannot come together and come to an agreement on this, which will help to save the railways’ future.
My Lords, the Minister referred to the deployment of military. I want to follow the question of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton. There are proposals that the military be deployed to replace ambulance workers who are on strike. How many serving military personnel are qualified paramedics or have the formal equivalent recognised qualification, and are not currently on, just back from, or due to go on deployment? We know that our military is under considerable pressure as well.
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. These are the sorts of details that the military, the COBRA unit and the departments that may need help from the military are looking at on a contingency basis. One problem we have is predicting what is going to happen with the strikes; every day there seems to be an announcement of different plans, and we are trying to work to make sure that the strikes do not happen.
My Lords, looking at my notes, I see that it is the turn of the Conservative Benches.
Noble Lords may recall the long ambulance strike of the 1980s that lasted six months and more. The military actually enjoyed the experience because it had real casualties to deal with instead of the pretend ones used in paramedic training—the military then had more paramedic training than the civilian ambulance drivers in the NHS. Is not our recollection of the 1960s and 1970s that, if the Government intervened in every strike to ensure that some improved offer was made above what the employers wished to make, it made every strike seem successful and encouraged people to vote for more strike action in the succeeding round? Whatever happens this year—and we hope we can resolve these issues—we must not return to the old wage-price spiral that was so destructive in those days.
I agree with my noble friend, and that is a very good point on which to end this useful exchange.