– in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 21st February 2023.
My Lords, the public expect the essential services that they pay for to be there when they need them. This Bill aims to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights and freedoms of the public to access essential services during those strikes.
The latest ONS data shows there were 843,000 working days lost because of labour disputes in December 2022. This brings the number of strike days lost between June and December to nearly 2.5 million, which is the highest since 1989. Industrial action is disruptive for everyone: for those who rely on those essential services to get to work or care for their families, for the NHS trying to get the backlog down, and for schools trying to recover lost learning after the pandemic. It also, of course, vitally impacts on our local businesses, whose sales and productivity suffer.
While we are pleased that voluntary derogations were eventually agreed for the strike action in health sectors in December 2022 and early this year, I am afraid that is not guaranteed to be the case for future action or in all sectors. Indeed, during the ambulance service strikes in December and January, some derogations were not agreed until immediately prior to the strike action, leaving employers with sometimes only hours, not days, to implement full contingency plans. This creates a great deal of uncertainty for everyone concerned, including the staff, the public, patients and their families. Further, there is no guarantee that where derogations have been agreed the required numbers of staff will not strike on the day itself. This can create uncertainty and inconsistency across the country, and unnecessary risk to patient safety.
While I would emphasise that the Government firmly believe that the ability to strike is important—it is rightly protected by law—the recent industrial action has highlighted the disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public. We need to be able to have confidence that when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk, and so do the public; that is why this legislation is needed.
I turn now to the detail of the Bill, which establishes a legal mechanism to implement minimum service levels for periods of strike action affecting certain services. It achieves this by making amendments to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 that add obligations relating to minimum service levels to the list of requirements necessary for the union’s strike action to be protected from liability in tort.
The legislation will enable minimum service levels to be implemented in key sectors via regulations. The key sectors specified in the Bill are broadly the same set that were defined as important public services in the Trade Union Act 2016, which have long been recognised as important for society to function effectively. The six key sectors are health services, fire and rescue services, education services, transport services, the decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel, and border security. These are the right sectors, given the economic impacts of their potential disruption as well as the impacts on public safety and the ability of the public to go about their daily lives.
Regulations will be tailored to each relevant service to meet legitimate aims, such as safety, public health, access to work and to healthcare, among others. The Government believe it is only right that minimum service levels and the services they apply to are informed by consultations, as required by the Bill, and that there is parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations before they come into effect. This is why these regulations must be approved by both Houses of Parliament before they can be made.
The Bill and subsequent regulations are designed to enable employers to specify the workers required via a work notice in order to meet minimum service levels during strikes within those relevant sectors. Should a union notify an employer of strike action in accordance with existing rules, the Bill will allow the employer to issue a work notice to the union, seven days before the strike, specifying those workers needed to work during the strike and the work that they will need to carry out to secure the minimum level of service.
Work notices must not include more persons than are reasonably necessary to meet the minimum service level and employers must not have regard to whether a worker is or is not a member of a union when producing the work notice. Employers must consult the union on the number of workers to be identified in the work notice and the work to be undertaken, and have regard to any of their views before issuing that notice. Each employer and union must also adhere to data protection legislation regarding those work notices.
To enable a minimum service level to be achieved on a strike day and where a work notice has been issued, a trade union must take reasonable steps to ensure its members, when named on a work notice, comply with it and therefore do not participate in the strike. What is considered “reasonable” will to an extent depend on each specific situation and could include making it clear in its communications with members that, where members are named in a work notice and required to work on a particular day, they should attend work on that strike day. A union which fails to comply with this obligation could lose its protection against liability in tort.
Additionally, if an employee takes strike action despite being named on a work notice, they will lose their automatic protection against unfair dismissal for industrial action. While it is up to the employer, not the Government, as to whether disciplinary or legal action is taken in instances of non-compliance, these measures are necessary to enable employers to manage these situations in the same way as they would now with unauthorised absences or unprotected strike action.
The Bill ensures that minimum service levels align to existing law in respect of taking industrial action and associated legal protections. These provisions are needed to make minimum service levels effective where they apply. This legislation is not about sacking workers; it is about protecting people’s lives and livelihoods by enabling minimum service levels to be applied during strikes.
The Government have already released consultations on the minimum service levels for our blue-light ambulance and fire services and for rail services. These consultations ensure that the public and industry stakeholders, including employers, unions and their members, are all able to provide feedback on what the minimum service levels should be and how they are proposed to work.
Everyone wants to see an end to current strikes and we are doing all we can to negotiate fair and affordable pay settlements with the unions. But at the same time, we must act to protect the public for the future. This legislation is not about stopping or preventing strikes. It simply brings us into line with many other modern European countries, such as Spain and Italy, where minimum service levels are a common way to reduce the impact strikes can have on the public. However, we are not going so far as to ban strikes completely. We are taking a fair and reasonable approach by asking that, before a union takes strike action within a relevant service, they agree adequate voluntary arrangements of cover where they are necessary. Where this has not happened, we will introduce regulations to enable minimum service levels to be applied.
We are of course always mindful of and thankful for the contribution that public sector and other workers make to our country. But if trade unions continue to take disproportionate and potentially unsafe industrial action, we firmly believe that we need to take steps to protect the public. I beg to move.
My Lords, this skeleton Bill, for which the Government have no manifesto mandate, would give the Secretary of State sweeping powers and deny proper parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. It also seeks to override the authority of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament. By attacking the fundamental freedoms of working people, it almost certainly contravenes international law, including ILO convention 87, which the UK signed up to.
Can the Minister confirm that the Bill ultimately gives the Secretary of State powers to set so-called minimum service levels for strikes at 80%, 90% or, indeed, 100%? In which case, would it not be more accurate and honest to title it the “ban strikes” Bill? This morning, the RPC gave the Government’s impact assessment of the Bill a rating; it is red—“not fit for purpose”. The impact assessment published this afternoon says that there will be no impact on the UK-EU trade agreement and its level playing field clauses. However, as the Bill runs alongside other threats to worsen workers’ rights contained in the retained EU law Bill, it would be very unwise to rule out retaliation.
What we do know for sure is that the Government’s evidence base for the Bill is deeply flawed. Countries which Ministers commonly cite as comparators do not, in fact, impose minimum service levels by state diktat; nor do they give free rein to sack striking workers who refuse an order to work. Taking powers to strip nurses, teachers, firefighters, transport workers and others of their livelihoods, when they strike for better pay and conditions, is not generally regarded as a feature of a free society. Only now, at this late stage, are consultations being launched in some of the sectors covered. We do not know yet which employers and grades are affected, how those six sectors are precisely defined, or how many more sectors could be added in the future. What is clear is that arrangements for emergency cover are already agreed in good faith between employers and unions across a range of emergency services, and the Bill risks squandering all that good will.
I have spoken to workers who have been on strike or who have been balloted for action, including a firefighter union rep called Kasey. As a dedicated professional who puts her life on the line to keep us all safe, she asked, “What is the Bill really trying to achieve?” Kasey has a seven year-old daughter to raise and, with inflation running at over 10%, she is struggling to make ends meet. She, along with her colleagues, took the difficult decision to vote for strike action, and the FBU secured an 88% yes vote on a 73% turnout. On the back of that ballot result, the fire service employers have now returned to the bargaining table and improved their offer—but the Bill would pull the rug from underneath such negotiations. If, ultimately, the Secretary of State can unilaterally impose minimum service levels, and workers who do not comply can be sacked, where is the incentive on the employer to negotiate, let alone to come to a fair agreement? Many decent employers, alongside the TUC and the unions, say that the Bill raises more questions than answers, so perhaps the Minister can provide some.
What exactly are the “reasonable steps” which unions are expected to take to ensure that staff comply with work notices or face draconian attacks on their funds, and does this burden on unions also apply in respect of staff who are not union members? If a union is deemed not to have taken these undefined so-called reasonable steps, is analysis from the House of Commons Library correct to contend that all workers on strike in a given sector would lose protection against dismissal whether or not they are named to work?
Could workers who are required to work during a strike but who call in sick on the day be sacked, and what assessment has been made of the impact of such sackings on our public service recruitment and retention crisis, including on workforce morale when it is currently at rock bottom? What would prevent unscrupulous employers using work notices to target and victimise elected workplace union representatives, or to discriminate, directly or indirectly, on the grounds of race, sex or any of the other protected characteristics?
Has the Minister considered the real-world consequences of the Bill? Anyone with IR experience can see that it would poison relations between employers and unions by rigging the balance of power still further against working people, and by seeking to frustrate the effective expression of legitimate grievances.
The UK already has some of the most draconian laws on strikes. However, in my experience, people will always find ways to stand up for justice for their families, their workmates and their communities. It is very likely that there would be more action short of strike action: work to rules, overtime bans, and potentially the disruption of mass sickies and spontaneous walkouts. Disputes would become prolonged, embittered and even harder to resolve, and the Bill would create trade union martyrs, causing more unrest.
I return to Kasey’s question: what problem is the Bill really trying to fix? After all, strikes are merely a symptom, not the cause, of discontent. After more than a decade of pay squeezes, deep funding cuts and now a record number of families turning to food banks, we can all see the pressure. We know the toll that takes on NHS staff, teachers and key workers right across the board, and that, as burned-out public servants leave for better paid and less stressful jobs elsewhere, the recruitment and retention crisis is only making public service backlogs worse. That is why a majority of the public believe that there is a better solution to the current wave of strikes against real-terms pay cuts. It lies in the Government’s own hands, and it is simple: Ministers should come to the table, in good faith, and negotiate.
This shoddy Bill is unfair, undemocratic and unworkable, and that is why Labour is committed to repeal it in its entirety.
My Lords, various circumstances may lead to legislation being rushed through Parliament. We might have to respond to international developments beyond our control: a conflict breaking out, or an urgent need to approve a treaty. There may have been an unexpected incident where it is clear that our current law is inadequate and there is cross-party agreement to work urgently to fill a gap. Alternatively, we may have a Government who find themselves in trouble and cook up some kind of legislative proposal so they can fill their media grid by appearing to be doing something.
There are no prizes for guessing which of those scenarios we on these Benches believe we find ourselves in today. There is no outside pressure or unexpected gap in the law, but we do have a Government who are floundering and seeking to distract attention rather than dealing with the real problems facing our country. I will focus on the crisis in health and social care in my remarks, while other noble friends will speak to transport and broader concerns about industrial relations later.
First, I want to flush out one area which illustrates the hollow political intent behind this legislation. That is the Government’s attempt to sell it as a copy of what happens in other European countries. To hear this Government, of all people, ask for support for regulation on the basis of aligning with EU countries tells us either that they completely lack a sense of irony or that they actually want us to laugh at them. You can imagine someone in No. 10 getting excited about this angle as one which will confound those pesky Europhile Opposition politicians: “How can they oppose this if we point out that it is just like the EU countries that they love?” Gosh, you have really got us there; what can we say? Oh yes, we can say that this is nonsense. There might be an argument for saying that this is alignment if the Government were planning to import French, German or Spanish labour law wholesale, with works councils, collective bargaining and the whole kit and caboodle. Can the Minister confirm today what other elements of EU labour law the Government plan to adopt in the near future? But, of course, that is not what they are proposing, and their argument falls apart as soon as you recognise that each country has a unique way of managing relations between workers and employers that depends on a complex web of relationships and legal powers.
Let us turn to one of the areas that the Government say is a primary driver for the Bill: health and social care. There is as near to consensus as you ever get in politics that the biggest challenge facing our health and care sectors is a lack of staff to provide the services that we need. We discuss these staff shortages in this House continually, and the Government themselves agree that we cannot improve these essential services without solving them.
These shortages pile extra stress on to those who are having to cover gaps, making the idea of going into these essential roles even less attractive. The overriding priority for any Government faced with this situation should be to work at making these professions more attractive, and that does mean looking at pay, but also at the morale of the profession. What we are seeing from this Government is the opposite of that: they set out to give the impression that they are immovable on pay, that they have few ideas on staffing levels, and as icing on that hard cake they come up with this Bill as a warning to anyone who dares to challenge them.
There is nothing in this Bill that will lead to more health and social care staff being hired, but it rather represents another signal from this Government about how they intend to treat those who are employed in these essential services. Staff in the NHS taking industrial action feel caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They are dedicated professionals who would rather be at work caring for people than on the picket line, but they are genuinely concerned that their living standards will keep eroding if they do not take a stand to defend them.
There is an opening for a positive discussion between the Government and those professionals about what a fair settlement would look like, and about how they can work together to ensure that there are adequate staffing levels all year round to help patients and the staff themselves. Instead, under this Bill, the Government will be forcing conversations about staffing levels to happen under threat of sanctions. That is hardly conducive to good dialogue.
The Government have one more trick in their media playbook: the consultations they are running on minimum service levels that are engineered to be able to show public support. There is no option in the consultation to see whether people would rather the Government settled the dispute so that industrial action itself went away—something I suspect would have overwhelming public support in the case of NHS staff—and there is no attempt to explain the trade-offs and complexities involved in a mandated versus a mutually agreed approach.
The Government’s case is not that there has been a failure to provide baseline cover during recent strikes but that they want more consistency and prior notice. But if the price of that consistency is a worsening climate of hostility between employers and staff, we have to ask whether this is worth it. In sectors where there is a queue of people wanting to take on jobs, playing hardball like this might be defensible, but where those queues are empty and our overriding public goal has to be to fill them, this is a very high-risk strategy. As always, we do not wish for the Government to fail, but we would be remiss in our duty if we did not raise a flag where we think this is likely to be the case. The Government have had their announcement and shown that they are not taking the strikes lying down, but the price of following this approach to the bitter end is that it risks undermining their overwhelming priority, which is to improve public service staff recruitment and retention.
It is not too late for the Government to think again about where their time and energy should be best directed if we are to see meaningful, systemic improvements to health and social care rather than a mere manoeuvre past a bump in the road. The risk otherwise is that in pushing hard to establish mandated minimum service levels during industrial action, this very effort will contribute to being unable to maintain what are all too often inadequate levels of service in these vital sectors all year round.
I always find the impact assessments that come with legislation illuminating, and we received the one for this Bill today, which did not disappoint. It shows us another possible way forward. The first option is voluntary minimum service level agreements, with no government incentives, in key public services. The impact assessment suggests that similar benefits could be derived from voluntary agreements, with the main downside being that employers would need to offer incentives in return, perhaps in terms of pay and working conditions.
I close with a question to the Minister and ask him to explain whether this option to make a good-faith effort to negotiate more voluntary arrangements for strike cover was ever seriously explored. This would be a way both to guarantee services and to motivate staff to join and stay in these public services. I suggest to the Minister that in the current climate, we might get further by offering more carrots rather than waving ever-bigger sticks.
My Lords, this is a troublesome piece of legislation. It asks us all a very simple question: when does the right to withhold your labour—that is, to strike—cease to be a right? It answers that question too, and the answer is a bit depressing: the right ceases when, following a ministerial decree, your employer can oblige you to work, and if you fail to do so you can lose your job. That is pretty stark. I am not going to try to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed legislation or the speeches we have just heard. I am more troubled by the idea that a unilateral change in the contracts of employment of thousands of people can be made by a piece of secondary legislation. That is all this Bill is. Forgive me.
Can we start with Clause 1? That is a good place to start, is it not? Here it goes:
“The Schedule … amends Part 5 and other provisions of the 1992 Act to restrict the protection … where provision has been made in regulations”.
It asserts that this is a Bill about regulation-making. It incidentally overrules legislation that came into effect under a Conservative Government—the 1992 Act. How is it done? The Secretary of State may make regulations; we keep being told that. But before we make any regulations, can we please remind ourselves that whatever regulations a Minister may choose to make, he can change them? Not only that: he can change any Act of Parliament. He can change not only any Act of Parliament but any Act of Parliament that we have not yet seen and may yet come before us before the end of this Session. So it is a power to get rid of legislation that we do not even have. It is a rather strange thing.
Now, what does the Secretary of State do? What is his responsibility? Let us look at it. His responsibility goes this far and—lamentably, I suggest—no further:
“Before making regulations … the Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”
He does not have to consult anybody. He can consult whom he likes. Even if he does consult people of admirable quality and dispassion, he does not have to take the slightest notice of them. That is an open-ended entitlement of the Secretary of State about how he should act. This is irrespective of overruling primary legislation. This notice which comes into effect will be produced by the Secretary of State as he or she thinks appropriate, without further consultation with anybody in the field of work, the trade union movement or anywhere else.
Having done that, he then happily drops out of the picture. What happens then, when the regulations have been made, within the six services? I declare an interest: my wife spent all her working life as a paediatric physiotherapist in the National Health Service, and my daughter and granddaughter are both teachers working in the public sector. An employer may give a work notice to a trade union, entitling the employer to identify the persons required to work and have at least this much of a consultation process, one step up from the Secretary of State:
“the employer must … consult the union about the number of persons to be identified and”— good Lord—
“have regard to any views expressed by the union”.
The employer is not bound by them but must just “have regard to” them—that is an interesting phrase in legal terminology, and I do not wish to be the judge who has to decide whether the employer has or has not had regard to the particular views expressed by the union.
Finally, if you do not agree, paragraph 8(2) in Part 2 of the Schedule says that you can lose your employment if you do not go to work. I am not experienced enough to know, but, as a matter of sense, this dictation—from an employer against whom you are striking because the conditions he provides for you are unsatisfactory—does not sound like a recipe for a sensible solution to a difficult industrial dispute.
But, ultimately, it is the way that this legislation is before us. Once again, it deals with very important issues: this is an issue of great principle, and I understand why the Opposition say that, if they come to power, they will repeal this. This is an issue of great principle and moment for hundreds of thousands of people, and it is all being done hidden away in secondary legislation. This will not do.
My Lords, I am pleased to contribute to a debate that addresses six key areas, all of which address public safety. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady O’Neill further on in the debate.
With my noble friend at the Dispatch Box, I attended an all-party briefing meeting on the Bill two weeks ago, and I recall him saying, in the discussion about the Bill, that, despite putting this on the statute book, he hoped it would never be needed. This begged the question: why is it needed? In his opening remarks today, he gave an example of the ambulance service in strike mode, where there were very real concerns about the service that would be supplied. I am concerned that, across all six sectors, we have some form of safety net as far as the general public are concerned, notwithstanding my appreciation of people’s need to strike. I declare an interest: many years ago, I worked for the NHS in an operating theatre. On a personal basis—it was not because I was stinking rich that I could afford to do so—I would not have withdrawn my labour under any circumstances, and I did not: it was an emergency operating theatre.
I agree that there is tension here. Some of the most eminent trade unionists in the country are sitting in this Chamber—I notice the noble Baroness who opened for the Opposition—and they will have a lot of experience. It is quite right that they articulate that because this is a matter of tension, as is so often the case in legislation before this House. Just before this debate, we heard the tail-end of a Third Reading debate on abortion clinics. Tension between competing interests—firmly believed and firmly held views—is the nature of the work we do. At the end of the day, the Government have to use their judgment.
So I recognise that there is a tension between the Bill my noble friend has brought forward and the existing Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. It looks as though the Bill will remove the protection and status from trade unions and workers in areas where minimum service levels are needed. I just want to articulate, if I may, on a personal level. When I leave home and come here during the week, I leave behind carers in charge of somebody I love very much. The last time there was an ambulance strike, I basically said, as I went through the door, “Don’t take him out for a walk today.” That was because I did not want to put that additional risk into his life, because I knew things were really not good with the ambulances.
I have every respect for the ambulance service—I have had many occasions to be grateful to it personally—but that is how people out there feel, whatever their admiration, and there is a great deal of admiration for all those who work in our essential services. That is the mindset that is starting to creep in among people who have responsibility for others. It is, I hope, to relieve that mindset that my noble friend feels there have to be minimum service levels that not only the Government but the rest of us who care for vulnerable people, or who may have accidents or other things that happen to us during the course of the strike, can rely on. There is a creeping fear in this country about what may happen to me or my loved ones. It is a spill-over from the lockdown, I believe, but people are taking a lot more notice of their safety and their loved ones’ safety.
The Government, when they come into office, have a contract with the people to protect them. It is a duty. Article 2 of the convention in the Human Rights Act is about safeguarding the right to life, and the Government should take appropriate measures to safeguard life by making laws and taking steps to protect you if your life is at risk. It is not just a matter of high-profile cases that we might know about that occur around the world or in third-world countries. The Government and Ministers have responsibility for the population of this country, regardless of how they voted, to make sure that our laws do not put that fear into people’s hearts when they shut the door behind them in the morning, that those services we have been able to depend on, particularly in the areas of health, fire and social services, will be there if they are needed in an emergency. That does not take away people’s rights to strike, but it provides what we might refer to as a safety net when it is needed. That is why I support my noble friend.
Of course, I hear what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, says—I never fail to listen, as I am sure we all do, to what he says—and I am very pleased that the affirmative resolution has been written into the Bill for the secondary legislation. As a former member of the Delegated Powers Committee, other members of which are in the Chamber today, I would have found it outrageous had it not been an affirmative resolution. The Minister has quite a hard task. I hope he never has to use the nitty-gritty of the Bill, but there are those of us who are fearful when we close the door behind us, because of the activities of the essential services at the moment—I speak no detriment to them for doing it—and I hope that he will get that balance right.
“The trade unions are a long-established and essential part of our national life. We take our stand by these pillars of our British society as it has gradually developed and evolved itself, of the right of individual labouring men to adjust their wages and conditions by collective bargaining, including the right to strike”.
Today, more than ever before, we must add individual labouring women to that description, but the original words come not from Keir Hardie nor even Clement Attlee, but from Winston Churchill’s 1947 Conservative Party conference speech—even after his legendary wartime leadership and what must have felt quite a bitter defeat in the subsequent general election. Contemporary Conservatives would be wise to learn from the magnanimity of their greatest leader as he built on the Disraeli tradition of protecting the right of working people to organise. Today’s Government should do this, not just for a shot at a better place in history but because it is both principled and politically shrewd.
Over 40 years earlier and long before the right to strike had been enshrined in the international human rights settlement, in which he played a significant part, Churchill observed:
“It is most important for the British working classes that they should be able if necessary to strike—although nobody likes strikes—in order to put pressure upon the employers for a greater share of the wealth of the world or for the removal of hard and onerous conditions”.
In today’s world of union-free and exploitative Amazon warehouses—one of food banks next to investment banks—his 1904 comments could not be more salient. Rights to union recognition, collective bargaining and to withdraw labour are merely the employees’ equivalent of property rights, including to engage in co-ordinated consumer or investment action against unscrupulous companies or foreign powers that exploit slave labour. How can it be regarded as conservative to attack them further?
The mechanism chosen by the drafters of this Bill is itself, as we have heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as illiberal as its intentions. For legislation dealing with minimum service levels not to prescribe what those levels are, and for it instead to leave its stated substance to the Secretary of State and secondary legislation—including amending Acts of Parliament—is yet another executive power grab from the legislature under this Government. It is also a divisive snub to devolved Administrations and crucially to working people themselves. As a number of European trade unionists have already pointed out, Ministers’ comparisons with minimum service levels elsewhere on the continent are false. Other jurisdictions provide for negotiated minimum service levels and lack the harsh supermajorities required for ballots for industrial action imposed here, during years of Conservative rule.
The Government may sidestep Parliament, and employers may impose work notices on individuals to cross picket lines contrary to their conscience. They further may slap debilitating lawsuits on trade unions who do not take so-called “reasonable steps” to ensure compliance. The clear direction of travel is of sacked workers, bankrupted unions, and flagrant violations of international human rights obligations freely to associate and to strike.
How on earth will any of this resolve current workplace disputes caused by an existential cost of living crisis and years of underinvestment in vital public services and key infrastructure by Government and shareholders alike? Surely this can only inflame disagreements that must ultimately be resolved by reasonable negotiation. Services will not be safeguarded, let alone improved, by even more demoralised staff, more time off sick and a range of industrial protests just short of formally striking.
One begins to suspect that this Government’s tactical culture wars are no longer just being waged in the home department. They have now, it seems, spread across Whitehall and the Cabinet—divide and rule instead of unite and govern, and then blame the poorest and most vulnerable in society for the mismanagement, short-sightedness, greed and even corruption of the wealthiest and most powerful.
But incendiary actions have consequences. In the private sphere, the Government will be seen to be siding with intransigent, unscrupulous and profiteering rail companies with which passengers have little sympathy after years of rising fares and diminished service. In the public realm, the Government are abusing their power as legislator, further undermining the nurses and ambulance drivers who are as much the heroes of the pandemic as any serviceperson was during World War Two. Their concerns are as much about the state of the service as their own terms and conditions. These are highly ethical people with whom we trust our lives and those of our loved ones, and, in any event, they are prohibited by law from putting lives at risk during industrial action. Agency workers are already paid multiples of their earnings, while they resort to food banks. What are they supposed to do if employers and Ministers will not talk and will not listen?
No doubt some noble Lords on the Benches opposite are perhaps nostalgic for the days of Mrs Thatcher—as she then was—versus the miners. Here I agree with many commentators that those times were significantly different. Those urging a tough line towards current strife point to the greater numbers of union members in those days. I counter that pits were not located in every community in this country. The traditional all-male workforce was more easily demonised in the shires as consisting of ideological dinosaurs. They were not always led by the more articulate, pragmatic and sympathetic—and often women—trade union advocates of today.
Perhaps I am naive about how government consultants calculate the electoral benefits of constant divide and rule as opposed to one-nation politics. However, current polls would appear to favour my argument that facilitating negotiation rather than more controversial legislation would be a better path for anyone seeking to regain public trust. Alternatively, Ministers can continue to underestimate the sense of fairness and decency of the people they are meant to serve. They can add NHS professionals, firefighters, rail workers and no doubt countless others to the lawyers, climate change and race equality protesters, and refugees already on their ever-growing list of the unworthy and unwelcome, to be abused or ignored.
My Lords, the Bill perfectly epitomises the sorry state this Government have reached and the escalating damage they are doing to our country. For context, I invite your Lordships to cast your minds back to the heady days of 2012. Despite having to wrestle with a worldwide economic crash that originated in America, ours was a respected and proud country. We had just put on the conspicuously successful and joyful London Olympics, during which we had shown how we happily welcome strangers to our shores. We were admired throughout the world for our businesses, science, creative arts, diplomacy, public services and Parliament. Yes, we had problems, such as our long-term failure to tackle poor productivity, but our optimism and self-belief gave us a chance to come together to finally fix those issues.
Where are we now, 11 years later, following seven tumultuous years of Conservative-only rule? We have been hopelessly divided by a near stalemate in the Brexit referendum, a vote that was scarred by blatant dishonesty and Russian interference—which, incredibly, the Government still refuse to investigate. Some of our most successful industries and sources of soft power such as the creative arts have been hobbled by a badly botched trade agreement with the EU.
The Government’s response to Covid was characterised by early dithering, resulting in many extra deaths, and rampant PPE corruption on a scale of which rulers of a banana republic could only dream. Our friends abroad have watched our rapid decline and our Government’s ridiculous boosterism initially with irritation and incredulity, which then became hilarity, and has now reached its nadir in pity for our self-inflicted plight.
The wretched little Bill we are debating today is just the latest salvo in the relentless attack to which this Government have subjected our democracy. It started with the illegal prorogation of Parliament and has continued with frequent attempts to sideline both Houses and excessive use of regulations to make important policy decisions. With the swaggering confidence of a playground bully whose behaviour has never been checked, this Government now table another Bill which relies on Henry VIII powers for all its decisions.
This foolish attempt to suppress strikes is poisonous, unworkable and counterproductive. It comes from a Government who have reached the end of the road, have run out of ideas—if they ever had any—have expelled their most able talents and are left with the dregs and do not care how much damage they do as they head for the exit door. This is a Government who cannot or will not negotiate with striking public sector workers to settle their grievances, and instead seek to restrict their rights to express those grievances. It will not work and will in fact make matters worse by poisoning industrial relations.
The Government will say that they hope never to have to use these powers, that their mere existence will prevent strikes being called. If you have a gun and are not prepared to pull the trigger, you do not have a gun. Striking workers will not take this legislation seriously unless the Government pull the trigger—with all the bitterness that results.
As to whether it will work, the Minister is fond of reminding us that similar legislation exists in other countries, including France. SNCF, the French national railway, was on strike last week and will be striking again on 7 and
Our NHS is struggling to run, with 140,000 unfilled vacancies, to a large extent caused by the Government’s decision to go for the hardest Brexit possible. How will retention of existing staff and recruitment of new staff be helped by the Government switching from clapping to sacking nurses and doctors? Is that really going to happen? I hope not.
The Government aim to attain these powers through a Bill with just six clauses. This Bill is merely the emaciated skeleton of a Bill because all the meat, all the substance, is for Ministers to decide later, however the mood takes them, after Parliament has had its small say. They cannot or will not tell us how the minimum service levels will be set relative to the abysmally low service levels the public are currently enduring, even where there is no strike.
Both sweepingly broad and disturbingly uncircumscribed, this blank-cheque style Bill is exactly the kind of insult to Parliament and parliamentary democracy that we are used to seeing from this Government. I am increasingly convinced that it is yet another product of a room somewhere in the bowels of Whitehall that has a sign on the door saying, “Something Must Be Done Department”, followed by a scrawl of graffiti saying, “Although It Will Only Make Things Worse”.
This dreadful Bill needs to crawl back into the dark space from which it emerged. It is the product of the worst Government I and many others have had the misfortune to witness in our lives; a Government already in their death throes for all to see, no doubt including those within it. The sooner this wretched Government go, the sooner ugly, unworkable and counterproductive ideas such as this Bill will stop blighting our Parliament and our country.
My Lords, I add my welcome to my noble friend Lady O’Neill of Bexley. I hope that this afternoon’s will be the first of many fine interventions from her in this House.
I hope I would have had the courage to have been one of those early strikers. I hope I would have been a Chartist. I hope, had I been a politician, that I would have supported and fought for the Trade Union Act 1871. I am not sure why but I have always been particularly affected by the matchgirls’ strike of 1881—phossy jaw and so much unnecessary suffering.
Yet trade union law is about a balance: a balance between rights that are matched by responsibilities. That is why I was proud to play a part in supporting my old friend and former boss Norman Tebbit when, in the 1980s, the Conservative Government reformed trade union laws to bring back that balance between rights and responsibilities. There were five Employment Acts and a Trade Union Act that dealt with the closed shop, secondary picketing, members’ postal ballots and so much more.
At the time, the Labour Party screamed in outrage, but what happened when Labour eventually got back into power? Absolutely nothing. Labour’s 1997 manifesto promised that the key elements of those Conservative reforms would stay. It said, “There will be no going back”—that is a quote—and none of those terrible trade union laws were repealed. Those laws did not stop strikes; they balanced the rights of trade unions against the rights of others, which is precisely what this Bill seeks to do.
This Bill covers a lot of different sectors. It is interesting that Labour concentrates so heavily on nurses and health workers, with barely a squeak about Mick Lynch and the RMT, but I understand why that is so. Their job is to oppose, just as our job as a House is to improve; frankly, I would be surprised if this House and the Government were not able to find some improvements, if I can put it that way. I listened closely to the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as far as that is concerned.
I have some doubts and questions for my noble friend the Minister about the relevance of lumping nurses and health workers in with train drivers and border staff. There seems to be a spreading consensus in the political world, on both sides of the political divide, that our health services require fundamental reform. The NHS is not the envy of the world. Too often, it looks like something in desperate need of new thinking. That is not the fault of the nurses, so I wonder whether any rearrangement of nurses’ obligations should not wait until it can be part of that fundamental reorganisation of the NHS that we so desperately need. It is a thought; I expect that this House is going to offer plenty of other thoughts too.
The Labour Party says that we can leave it all up to the sense of responsibility of the trade unions. I suspect that I am not the only one in this House who is old enough to remember the way in which Vic Feather, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon opposed Barbara Castle’s Industrial Relations Bill—Barbara Castle, no less. Scarcely a pawn of the wicked employers, was she? Trade union leaders insisted that Mrs Castle’s Bill was unnecessary and gave a solemn and binding commitment that they would ensure fair play. “Leave it to us”, they said. I remember how “Solomon Binding” came along in his great big hobnail boots and kicked that Labour Government to pieces.
Let us bring that up to date. The current train strike has been going on since last June, with eight months of inflicting misery on others—including other workers. Yet Labour wants to go back to Solomon Binding. Perhaps he might make a reappearance in the future but, if he does, he will have to dance much more daintily than he has ever done in the past.
Let me be careful here. It is no great secret that the Labour Party hopes soon to be back in power. Let me offer a thought. Just imagine that world of Labour back in power—I find it very difficult to do so but let us just imagine it. We are told that the Labour Government will repeal this legislation, but I have no doubt that this legislation will survive. No future Government would lay themselves open to the accusation that they are anti-patient, anti-commuter, anti-student and anti-ordinary worker. No Labour Government would risk the accusation that they sold the public interest out to any paymaster. I think that they will do a Blair and move on.
At Second Reading in the Commons, Angela Rayner said that this is
“a vindictive assault of the basic freedoms of British working people.”—[
Some might say that that is precisely what this train strike is—an assault on the basic freedoms of British working people to get to their places of work.
The Bill does not ban strikes. It simply protects the interests of the public and the weakest in our society, who have a right to demand that their basic public services continue, even when Mick Lynch decides that he wants yet more. Do not ordinary people have a right to their train services, their border security, their emergency ambulances, their children’s schooling and their emergency fire support? That is what the Bill is designed to ensure.
Here is another bit of historical context. The first strike in recorded history was in 1152 BC—more than 3,000 years ago, when workers at the royal necropolis of Deir el-Medina went on strike over the late payment of wages. I knew that your Lordships would want to know that. It is still the case that some strikes are necessary and honourable, and the right to strike is an essential and continuing part of our freedoms.
The Bill is not anti-strike; it is pro-worker—those workers who wish to get to work and who have wished to get to work over eight months of Mick Lynch and his ego-trip trying to deny ordinary people the facility to go out and work for their families. I notice that the Labour Party remains very quiet about Mick Lynch and his strikes.
The Bill is not designed to sack people; it is a Bill to keep the country working. The Bill is not an attack on our freedoms; it is a Bill that aims to restore that vital balance between rights and responsibilities, without which freedoms, jobs and basic rights die. That is what this Bill attempts to ensure. I wish it well.
My Lords, here we go again. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, has taken us through some of the industrial relations history, going back many centuries in some cases. It shows that it is a rite of passage for successive Conservative Governments, since Mrs Thatcher and Lord Tebbit, to legislate against trade unions and to minimise their scope for action. We are the old enemy, as has just been very graphically described in that last contribution. It reflects a nostalgia to replay the epic battles of the 1980s, only this time it is nurses and NHS staff, fresh from being applauded in the pandemic, who are now on the front line. It is not coal miners or printers; the world has changed since Lord Tebbit’s high-water years. As can be seen regularly from the polls, these workers who have been taking action are getting a lot of public support at the present time. That must be taken into account.
This is all against the background that we have seen in recent decades of rising inequality, the poor getting poorer and many workers working on a more insecure basis. If you are talking about balance, the other side of this House has got the balance wrong. The right way is to give workers more scope.
By the way, where is the employment Bill we were promised, which was going to give workers in the gig economy greater rights and greater freedom? That is buried somewhere, while staff have been diverted to the exercise that we are debating today.
At the moment, there are mixed messages all over the place from the Government: one minute Ministers are cooing that they want to talk to unions, while the next minute this crude club of a Bill is being swung at the unions, despite the fact that we already have some of the toughest trade union laws in the democratic world.
The Government must face up to the fact that, with inflation running at 10%, with pay in the private sector rising at around 6%, and with the public sector lagging well behind at half that, they have a very big problem in respect of their own employees. In a democracy, you cannot dam the wave of discontent, and this is a legitimate discontent that we are talking about at the moment; you have to find settlements and a way through.
Others will comment on the constitutional outrage of this skeleton Bill, with its absence of any detail about what minimum standards are needed to run, say, a railway or a hospital. The extensive claiming of Henry VIII powers would make even the old king and Thomas Cromwell blush. In his intervention in the debate in the other place, the Member for North East Somerset—Mr Rees-Mogg, no less—put it very well when he invited explicitly your Lordships’ House, our House, not to accept the Bill in its present form. He regarded it as unconstitutional, and he is right on this Bill. Of course, no one can accuse him of consistency, because he is the author of the retained EU law Bill, which will be in a Committee of this House on Thursday, which is also a skeleton Bill, giving wide powers to Ministers to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.
I am not against minimum standards, particularly as far as public services are concerned, but they will work only if they command respect and are fair. In particular, they need to be agreed. Agreements exist in some key sectors already; we heard about the ambulance service, and nuclear decommissioning is another one. In other sectors, nobody has ever thought that they were necessary. If they are going to be necessary, you would assume that the Government would be thinking about how they could get support for such measures, not issuing diktats. In fact, when you look at those countries overseas that have these arrangements, you see they are part of far more union-friendly labour codes than our restrictive regime in the UK. To take just one part of the Bill—the withdrawal of unfair dismissal protection from workers who refuse to work when called in during a strike—no other democratic country has a measure of that kind.
I ask your Lordships to look at the Bill from the point of view of a union. A dispute has arisen and there is a grievance. Before it does anything about it, the union has to hold a secret postal ballot, it has to surmount the thresholds on turnout and majorities, and it has to give due notice to the employer—all of which have been introduced, as we heard in the history lesson given by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. If the union can leap those hurdles, the strike can commence. But once this Bill’s provisions have been enacted, individual members can be called into work, in effect to break the strike. That is what they will be asked to do, and if they refuse they can be fairly dismissed. That is a recipe for a whole lot of extra trouble, at a time when the emphasis should be on finding a solution to the original dispute. The result will be an additional dispute, and a very bitter one at that. In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government stated that no individual worker would be targeted. What happened to that promise? It seems to have disappeared.
It used to be the case that Governments tried to be exemplary employers, setting an example to the private sector; Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and others always made that clear. But now the public sector is in crisis, with pay falling drastically behind many other sectors, chronic staff shortages and too many services not performing acceptably—on a normal day, TransPennine, for example, would struggle to meet any decent minimum service. The Government need an initiative to tackle these real problems, instead of messing around with this tiresome Bill.
Could the Minister put the Bill to one side? Could he consider launching a consultation with the TUC and relevant unions on minimum standards to see whether agreements could be reached where they do not already exist? Let us face it: to get an agreement could require some uprating in pay. That is what some other countries have done, by the way, in their minimum standards agreements. If not, the Bill will, if enacted, inject poison into already difficult situations.
The impact assessment for the old Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill warned of more frequent disputes, as did my noble friend earlier, and more action short of strikes. Others have warned of mass sickies. This is a time for industrial relations statesmanship, not political preening and posturing. It is time the Government took a different course.
My Lords, whoever fixed the date of this Second Reading for Shrove Tuesday must have a real sense of humour.
Only last month, the House witnessed a remarkable debate on two reports—one from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, and one from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. I was privileged to sit through that debate and the overwhelming view was that the Executive were guilty of an abuse of power, which is a threat to Parliament and to democracy, including skeleton Bills and power grabs by Secretaries of State to decide on issues the details of which were unavailable, as were most impact assessments. If they were available, they were totally inadequate. All the detail would be contained in the secondary legislation, which was not available. The extent of those powers, many of them Henry VIII powers, rendered this House’s job of proper scrutiny impossible—a point that was made many times by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and by others again today.
The noble Lord, Lord True, responded to that debate on behalf of the Government and assured us that he was in listening mode. Yet here we are again with a skeleton Bill, a poor impact assessment and no idea of what will be in the secondary legislation, but massive powers to be taken by the Secretary of State to attack trade unions as institutions and to attack their members. The Executive are treating our role as scrutineers of legislation with utter contempt.
I am proud to have been a trade unionist throughout my working life. I was not a full-time official, but I was president of NALGO 33 years ago and president of the TUC 23 years ago. I recognise an attack on trade unions when I see one. The Government are trying to capture the public’s understandable anxiety about the current wave of strikes in the public services to divert attention from the fact that they are doing absolutely nothing to sort them out. It is not just about money; it is about having to witness a decline in the service of which those members are proud.
I am looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bexley. We might not agree on everything, but I well remember her NALGO branch—it is now UNISON of course, as NALGO was its forerunner. It was run by dedicated trade unionists, who were and are also proud local government officers. They hate what is happening to the services that they are supposed to make work, with a 60% cut in their budget over the years. In the 12 years I have been here, the Government have made several attempts to separate trade unions from their members. “If we could only tame these crypto-Marxist full-time officers”—I cannot see my noble friend Lady O’Grady’s face at this moment, but I hope she is looking fierce—“then the trade union members would behave sensibly.” Anyone actually involved knows that it is often the other way around, with full-time officers acting as a brake on the unrealistic expectations of some members.
Who are these threats to the public’s safety? I received a phone call on Sunday from someone at Guy’s Hospital. I commented that it was a pity that she was working on a Sunday and she said they were making every effort to catch up on the backlog. She offered me an appointment for this coming Sunday. No jobsworths there: they were going out of their way to be helpful and catch up on the backlog. Even the Government-friendly newspapers do not seem to have much appetite for demonising the people on strike. I think they know a Government on their uppers when they see one.
“As for consultation, the legislation was drawn up very quickly and in haste. We have not been able to do all the consultation we would like, but noble Lords will be reassured to know that for the actual implementation of the secondary regulations—which will contain most of the detail—we will of course carry out full consultations.”—[Official Report, 11/1/23; col. 1436.]
If this service-level agreement was in the 2019 manifesto, I am slightly surprised that it was “drawn up very quickly and in haste”. Perhaps something that was “drawn up very quickly and in haste” should be rewritten in its entirety or, better still, be put back in that anti- trade union filing cabinet.
I would certainly favour, as the noble Lord, Lord Monks, has just said, minimum service levels between the electorate and the Government. I suspect that the Government would be in breach before the ink was dry on the legislation as they continue to pursue
“private opulence and public squalor”.
That phrase was coined 65 years ago and is a good summary of the Government’s record.
I also asked the Minister last month to help me with a question I was asked by a friend who sits on a school board: how, if a headteacher decided to sack all the staff in their school, would any minimum service or safety level be fulfilled? Would the Government step in to provide the staff? The Minister’s reply was that the Government
“do not desire or wish to sack any public sector workers in any sectors. We are in the business of increasing the number of public sector workers, not sacking them.”—[
If the Government are not going to force the sacking of a public sector worker, what are they going to do? How will they force them to work? Is this just to get hold of trade union reserves, set workers against unions, put fear and insecurity into individual public service workers, and attempt to provide a diversion from a failing, do-nothing Government? This Bill does nothing for good employment relations, nothing for our diminished public services, nothing for the standard of living of our public service workers, and it will not fill a single job vacancy. I am surprised that with so little time left before the next general election, the Government think they can waste precious parliamentary time on this Bill.
My Lords, I too look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. There is only me standing in the way, so I will try to be brief.
At Second Reading in the other place, the Government said that the Bill’s purpose was
“to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect the essential services that they pay for to be there when they need them.”—[
At first glance this might seem a straightforward aim. However, as noble Lords and those in the other place have already said, there is much more at stake here than initially meets the eye. I believe that the Bill in its current form creates more problems than those it perceives or seeks to solve.
There has been a terrible increase in industrial action in the past months. We all reflect on why this may be the case. There are serious and legitimate concerns held by those who decide to go on strike about their well-being, as well as the well-being of the services for which they work and that of wider society.
Our public services and those who keep them going are struggling. I am struck—reference has been made a couple of times to this—that it was not that long ago, during the pandemic, that we were lauding those who now feel abandoned. We have also heard reference made to reports of nurses left with no choice but to use food banks, and others who are leaving skilled jobs in public service roles to take up less skilled but better-paid jobs elsewhere.
I would caution against the characterisation of this argument as one of left versus right; I feel I am a bit in the crossfire here. This is about dignity of work and the common good, for the flourishing of the whole of society. For the good functioning of society, it is essential that all workers have a legitimate and peaceful means to seek redress against pay and conditions that leave them unable to make ends meet. Surely, this applies even more to those who provide essential services in the public sector, where discussions about fair remuneration can be dismissed, often by the language of limiting government expenditure. Of course, all negotiations should be conducted in good faith by both parties seeking mutual agreement. I am struck—I am sure we are all concerned—that, at the moment, each side accuses the other of intransigence. However, without full recourse to strike action as the last resort, far from it creating a reasonable balance between those involved, the balance of power seems to be tipped too far in one direction.
I turn to a couple of concerns on the specifics of the Bill, which are shared by my right reverend friend the Bishop of Manchester; we look forward to raising them further in other stages of the Bill. As has been observed by several noble Lords, the Bill is skeletal in its form, opening up multiple ambiguities. It would significantly broaden Secretary of State powers, which can be exercised on very short notice. The Secretary of State would be able to specify the levels of service required during strikes in public services via statutory instruments. As has been observed, the lack of definition for “levels of service” in the Bill gives the Secretary of State full reign on this in secondary legislation, seemingly with little opportunity for proper consultation.
There is also a significant and vague infringement on protections for unions and workers. Indeed, Part 1 of the Bill would add a requirement upon unions to take “reasonable steps” to ensure compliance by their members with a minimum service work notice and, where this is not done, enable employers to sue unions. Part 2 removes workers’ protection from unfair dismissal due to participation in a strike action contrary to a work notice. Such provisions would risk further straining an already overstretched workforce in our public services. Furthermore, as the Bill stands, it is unclear which workers could ultimately be subjected to its measures. I believe these proposals do more harm than good. I urge the Minister and His Majesty’s Government to reconsider this Bill.
My Lords, it is an absolute pleasure to be making my maiden speech. I start by saying a big thank you for the warm welcome I have received, especially from the staff in this place, who have been fantastic in helping newbies like myself navigate their way around.
It seems unreal that someone from a humble background such as mine is here. My parents came to London from Limerick in 1960 for a better life and better opportunities, as jobs were in short supply in Ireland. They were from fairly large families—Catholic families, before television was invented—but, despite that, they believed in public service and brought both my brother, David, and me up to help others and make a difference.
My mother was of a generation where women stood back. She was a very smart lady whose capabilities, integrity, compassion and strength shone through, as was her mother, my nana Hoban, who pretty much raised nine children while my grandfather worked in England and sent money home weekly. Theirs was a different world to the one we live in today, but they were both of the opinion that you worked for what you got, never had what you could not afford, aspired to make a difference and helped others. These are lessons that stand the test of time.
Those two formidable, capable women were my mentors and a third was my inspiration: the great Baroness Thatcher, elected as the first woman Prime Minister just before my 18th birthday. That meant girls of my generation seeing for the first time that they were not second-class citizens and could compete in a man’s world. So, the young girl from a council estate left school and went to work in insurance, moving on to investment banking—so very helpful in instilling fiscal responsibility, as well as making me comfortable dealing with large amounts of money. This was not the career path expected for a girl educated at a convent girls’ school in south-east London in the 1970s.
Alongside my career, my sense of public service inherited from my parents played out through politics, encouraged by Tony Salter—the husband of the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft—and my noble friend Lord Moynihan. That early involvement in Lewisham politics resulted in my becoming a councillor in Bexley, then leader of the London Borough of Bexley—the career in the City being the casualty of wanting to do right by the residents of Bexley just after I became leader, as I wanted to make a difference.
We did make a difference. We regenerated estates that we were told would never be regenerated, changing the lives of those residents. We are known for our success with recycling: our biggest recycling project was our civic offices, which created regeneration and job opportunities as well as saving taxpayers’ revenue costs. We built schools, including special schools, so that our young people who needed extra support could get it locally. We opened new libraries when others were closing them. We saved the police station that Sadiq Khan wanted to close. We brought Waitrose to Sidcup and when our local general hospital was closed, we worked to turn it into a thriving health provision for local people including cancer care and soon, I hope a state-of-the-art diagnostic centre. Our lobbying should also mean one of the few banking hubs in the country coming to Welling.
Some of those campaigns obviously involved our much missed and beloved Member of Parliament for Old Bexley and Sidcup, the right honourable James Brokenshire, who many Members in this Chamber will have held in the same high esteem that I did. We have made a difference in Bexley, and did it without lots of money. That privilege was rewarded by the residents of Bexley endorsing our leadership for the fifth consecutive time last May, four of them under my leadership. Not only did they endorse our plan to make Bexley even better but they made us the flagship Conservative borough in London. When I started as leader in 2008, people asked “Where’s Bexley?”, but now they ask, “What’s Bexley doing?”
Many in this Chamber and in the other place will think that all London boroughs are the same, but I can tell your Lordships they are not. Neither is the funding equal, so in places such as Bexley we have to make every penny work hard. Local government can make such a difference to the lives of local people, which is why I was honoured to have my noble friends Lady Eaton and Lord Porter of Spalding as my sponsors. I have worked with them both over the years and know they share my passion for what local councils can achieve.
There are many other council ex-leaders in this place, including some London ex-leaders, such as my noble friend Lord True, the Leader of the House, as well as my noble friends Lord Udny-Lister and Lord Greenhalgh, and I am grateful for the guidance and support I have received from my mentor, my noble friend Lady Redfern.
I have seen many changes in my time as leader, and I like to think that being the longest-serving leader in London—a similarity I have with the late Baron Bexley, whom I understand was the longest-serving Chancellor—brought about a maturity that mattered when we were dealing with the pandemic. That really was a testing time, when we moved from getting food and medicine to vulnerable residents, to creating a network of community champions, distributing grants to local businesses as quickly and efficiently as possible, working with health colleagues to set up testing centres, and distributing vaccines—Bexley was the best-vaccinated borough in London. While that was all happening, we were thinking about what the post-pandemic world would be like, so that we could drive the change needed to protect jobs, drive our economy, address health needs, and deal with any post-pandemic issues.
I was also involved in the London-wide pandemic response, and cross-party council leaders worked shoulder to shoulder with multiple partners to show the leadership that London deserved. The value of local government was never more evident, and it shone a light on what happens, or does not, in City Hall nowadays. There must be a better way to spend taxpayers’ money in London, and they deserve better. I am a firm believer in devolution of decision-making to local councils that know their boroughs. If that were the case, boroughs would be bringing forward far better proposals to address air quality than the mayor’s fixation on doing so through taxation. How can it be right that you can pollute the air if you can afford to do so, while creating extreme anxiety for those who cannot afford to do so? But that is a matter for another day.
The Bill is about ensuring that key front-line services are delivered. While its provisions are welcome, I gently remind noble Lords of the vital services that local government provides and commissions, some of which would also benefit from the introduction of minimum standards during industrial action. I firmly believe that local government can and does make a massive difference to people’s lives—and that deserves to be recognised. It is not about just collecting bins and social care for children and older people; it can shape a place, ensure residents get the services they deserve, react to pandemics, and plan for the future.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a straight speaker—I call it as it is—and I hope that, combined with the experience I have, that will contribute in some small way to the valuable work that noble Lords all do in this place. I have a lot to learn, but, with your help, I know I can do it, and I hope I will add some value to what your Lordships already do.
My Lords, first, I declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, along with probably half the Chamber. I will reflect on that magnificently crafted maiden speech from my noble friend Lady O’Neill of Bexley—I do not think that it could have been anything else, could it? For me, she embodies the three Cs, two of which I share with her and one of which I do not. The first is Catholicism: we were both brought up in Roman Catholic households; I had only a little bit of Irish, she had a lot of Irish. That gives you a sense of public service and duty; she really exemplifies that, and it is a great C to embody.
The second is genuine conservatism. We are both children of the Thatcher years and share the belief in freedom within the rule of law, the belief in the hand up rather than the handout, and the belief in working hard and playing by the rules. Our whole lives have been shaped by the great lady—mine was as much as my noble friend’s, even though I am a man. The one C I do not share with her is the third: control. If she—Teresa—remembers, I was a council leader before her. It started with Ian Clement, but the other four victories were hers—I managed only two. She managed four successive victories; that makes five in total. She is right that we ignored Bexley—we thought it was somewhere out in Kent—but, little by little, she has established herself as a titan in local government. She did not just control Bexley, she also controlled Bromley: I remember asking her, “What about Bromley?”, and she said, “He does what I tell him”. She will be a hugely great addition to this House.
I feel that this is a tremendously uncontroversial Bill. As someone who is the son of a surgeon and who has been the first deputy mayor for policing and crime of this great capital city and a council leader, I believe that the Bill is not about pay and conditions but about service. It is about public service involving critical things where, if you do not turn up to work, people die. My father is a surgeon. He was nominated as the presidential surgeon for George Bush Sr. They flew a helicopter and landed on Charing Cross Hospital to practise. In the event of the President being shot, who was going to get him off the table? It would have been my father. What if he turned up and said, “I’m going to go on strike today” or, when someone aged 75 with a leaking aneurysm has two hours to live, the ambulance driver decides to go on strike or says, “It’s the middle of the night—I don’t think I’m going to go to work today because I’ve got to get up in the morning”? As a doctor, you take the Hippocratic oath to keep people alive, and if you are a police officer, you do not have the right to strike—the police have not had one since 1919; you take an oath to serve the public, maintain order and stop criminals.
Service is really important. There are also the fire and rescue services—I am a former Fire Minister. We do not want people to burn in buildings; we do not want Grenfell to happen again. We need firefighters who, in the event of such a tragedy, step up and turn up to work. In all conscience, you cannot have a situation where these critical services are able to strike and simply not turn up to work.
I am a loyal Back-Bencher: I support the Government 100% on absolutely everything. I would really like the Government and my noble friend the Minister not to stop with this but to consider extending this legislation to aviation ground services. Ground services ensure that passengers and cargo are ready to safely take off and land. They are critical.
I want to thank a Cross-Bencher—no, not someone party political but a former Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, who wanted me to mention this, as he is not speaking in this debate: the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. He asked that we include in new Section 234B(3) not police officers who hold the office of constable but police staff who create and provide nationally critical functions such as the call-handling services and forensic investigations. Imagine if you call 999 and they go on strike. These people also provide critical services, and we should extend the Bill to cover them as well.
It is fair to say that my memory of 2022 is not of a winter of discontent but of a year of discontent, with the problems around aviation in the summer, nurses going on strike, ambulance drivers going on strike, and the FBU balloting to go on strike. That has drawn the Bill, which is the appropriate response.
I will just pick up a couple of points in previous speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, is entirely wrong to think that we should get Ministers to sort this problem out. Ministers are not employers. In the same way as with local government, for the leader suddenly to become an employer and undermine their senior officers is entirely the wrong thing to do. You do not create parallel management structures.
I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Allan, that we have to embody a spirit of volunteerism. These are critical services. If we do not have a minimum service level, people can die—it is a simple as that. This is entirely essential stuff.
I am not a great lawyer; in fact, I remember my time studying law as one of abject failure. Therefore, when I listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, I strain my ears to try to pick up everything that he says. Basically, he was saying, “This is not the right way to do this; this is secondary legislation.” For me—I know there are some Latin scholars out there—it is finis justificat modo: the end justifies the means. We can achieve this good by doing it this way, which is why the Government are entirely right to do this.
I have spoken for only four of the eight minutes, so I can relax a bit because I have a lot more to say. I ask the Government and my noble friend the Minister to invoke the spirit of the Gipper, Ronald Reagan. Does my noble friend remember what Ronald Reagan did over 40 years ago when the air traffic controllers went on strike—all 11,359 of them? They ignored his presidential order to return to work so he fired the lot of them, and he made sure they could never work again as federal employees. I ask the Government to invoke the spirit of the Gipper, because he was entirely right. My message to the Government, as a loyal Back-Bencher, is to be bold and brave—no compromise: it will save lives.
I am not quite sure how to follow that, my Lords, but I do so by welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, to this Chamber and our debates and thank her for a crash course in Bexleyism, which has educated me considerably.
Before being elected to Parliament in 1991, I spent 14 years as a national research officer serving postal and telecommunication workers, and I am proud to have been a trade union member for over four decades to help achieve fairness at work.
In September 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak was happy to be photographed on the steps of No. 11 Downing Street with two smiling figures. They were the then TUC general-secretary Frances O’Grady—now my noble friend Lady O’Grady, who spoke so powerfully earlier—and the then CBI director-general, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn. All three were marking their support for a winter economic plan that included an extension to the furlough scheme. They demonstrated and symbolised what progress can be made when unions, employers and government look for a common cause and common ground in a crisis.
Sadly, the good will that was on display from the Government that day has been missing ever since and is nowhere to be found in this minimum service levels Bill. Instead, Tory Ministers have adopted entrenched positions and inflammatory language, denying a fair deal to public service workers and seeking to provoke key workers into action that might lose them public support. Yet nurses, ambulance drivers, doctors and other health workers, firefighters, rail workers—yes, rail workers—education workers, Royal Mail workers and border officials all enjoy public backing, because they all want the same thing we do: a negotiated settlement that delivers a fair deal, a deal that begins to undo the real-terms pay cuts and the damage done to Britain’s public services by over a decade of savage Tory austerity, worsened by soaring costs of living.
The Bill seeks to discriminate against key workers by singling them out: paying them poorly, then threatening to sack them unfairly, with no compensation if they dare to go on strike or refuse to cross picket lines. It would, in effect, outlaw the right to strike, as the Taff Vale case did for five years from 1901, but it would not stop people standing up for fairness at work.
The Bill would prolong disputes, demoralise staff and frustrate the public. People forced to work against their will would quickly turn into quiet quitters, who do what they are paid for and no more. Just look at the impact on our railways when train drivers refuse to be forced to work on their normal rest days and decline to work overtime. Formal set-piece strike action would give way to informal guerrilla tactics, with unpredictable absences and unexpected gaps in coverage as demoralised staff stay home instead of struggling in to work when they feel below par or when they sense the onset of back pain. Some 17 million people in Britain suffer from a chronic health condition. The scope for quiet civil resistance to such punitive legislation is massive.
Where could the Government’s intransigence lead? Might they seek to press-gang the millions of economically inactive people of normal working age, such as the 2.5 million people aged 16 to 64 who last summer were out of the labour force due to long-term sickness? Any minute now, I expect to hear Ministers revive the language from the David Cameron days of workers versus shirkers and Liz Truss’s shameless dismissal of Britain’s workers as
“the worst idlers in the world.”
The Tories always end up attacking those they regard as the undeserving poor. This Bill is just their latest attempt at such punitive, arrogant behaviour towards essential workers they were lauding and clapping during Covid for keeping Britain going.
Ministers are trying to portray union representatives, as Margaret Thatcher did, as the “enemy within”. The truth is that workplace injustice remains rife today, and tackling it is what trade unions are for. The day- to-day experience of trade union officers is of taking the heat out of difficult situations, calming matters down, resolving disputes. They are peacemakers, not troublemakers. In practice, their key role is to help solve problems at work, not to cause them. The Government should be helping them fulfil that role, not making life difficult for everyone by their belligerent attitude.
There was a time when Tory Ministers would insist that public sector pay should be set at levels needed to recruit, retain and motivate the public sector workforce. That left ample scope for negotiation between employers and unions, and for the pay review bodies to do their job without being gagged by their sponsoring ministries or confined to quarters by the Treasury, as has so transparently been the case over current disputes.
Instead, today health staff are finding that they cannot afford to work for the NHS. Last year saw NHS workers quitting for better-paid jobs elsewhere at twice the rate they did at the start of 2020. More than 130,000 unfilled posts, due in part to NHS pay that has failed to keep up with the rising cost of living, have led to unacceptably long waiting lists and massive treatment blockages for patients. The number of workers seeking help from Trussell Trust food banks for the first time has increased by 40% in recent months, and half the NHS Trusts in England have food banks. Surely that is unacceptable.
Every day the Tories delay reaching negotiated settlements only adds to the inevitable cost for taxpayers and loses the Government more of the good will on which our public services have come to rely. The way forward has been shown by the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland: negotiate in good faith, try—you cannot always succeed—to find a compromise, show respect, and try to get everyone back to work, however difficult that proves to be after 12 years of huge Tory cuts in devolved government budgets.
This Bill will not even keep services going, as the public are told. Instead, the real motivation is to enable Tory Ministers to dog-whistle to the base instincts of their right-wing supporters, finger-pointing and scapegoating, instead of treating with respect the workers who save our lives, teach our children, deliver our parcels, organise our trains and protect our borders. It is utterly shameful, and I am delighted that my party will repeal it.
My Lords, I declare an interest as London’s Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience and a member of the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services—a body which, as the Minister will be aware, is responsible for national collective bargaining in the fire sector. I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, on her maiden speech. Having spent many hours in meetings with her and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, during the height of the Covid pandemic as part of our cross-party approach to the pandemic in London, I am confident she will be collegiate where appropriate and make a valuable contribution to the work of this House. I share her Irish roots and, like her, I was inspired to be political by the late Baroness Thatcher, but not because I liked what she stood for.
My position on the Bill reflects that of many of the contributions to the debate from this side and other parts of the House. This is unnecessary legislation. It is an attack on key workers and undermines the fundamental right of workers to withdraw their labour and strike. The Bill will also not work in practice and has many flaws, as many noble Lords have already highlighted. It has been introduced by a Government who want to tell public sector workers, in particular, that they are duty-bound not to strike, irrespective of how they are treated and what they are paid; a Government who want to tell people they previously hailed as heroes that their so-called vocation means that they should take what they are given, rather than what they deserve; a Government who acknowledge it would have been cheaper to resolve the rail strikes but have failed to do so; and a Government who appear to believe that threats of dismissal will be more effective than a grown-up discussion.
The only way to resolve disputes with our key workers is to work with them, not against them. The only way to resolve disputes is negotiation, not legislation. One aspect of this legislation that I find most offensive is the apparent underlying belief on the part of government that trade unions use industrial action and the threat of industrial action lightly.
It is time the Government accepted that the current wave of strikes is driven by desperation and frustration on the part of key workers—our nurses, train drivers and teachers, who keep our country running—not by some sinister motive. This is not the public being inconvenienced, as the Minister stated. This is large swathes of the public exercising their right to strike across many parts of the public sector. It is entirely because of a failure of government to address this desperation through negotiation that we are seeing the current high level of industrial disputes: the right to strike is not the problem.
In the remainder of my time I would like to focus on the rights of firefighters, who, as noble Lords will be aware, are being balloted by the Fire Brigades Union on an improved pay offer from the employers, but who voted decisively and understandably to take strike action if an improved pay offer was not received. The FBU does not, despite the government rhetoric around unions, take strike action lightly. Firefighters, as one told me this morning, join the fire service to protect the public. This is what they want to do, and what they do daily; they do not want to go on strike. There has not been a national fire strike over pay since 2003.
Fire and rescue, along with local government, is an area of the public sector in which negotiations are not held directly with government but involve national collective bargaining with employers’ representatives. The current dispute is in the context of a real-terms cut in firefighters’ pay since 2010 of 12%. Had we not had over a decade of government austerity and government-imposed pay restraint, firefighters might be paid around £4,000 more. The current dispute is in the context of the union being asked by firefighters for referrals to food banks.
I will leave others to speak about the rights of those working in other sectors, but it is just over a year since firefighters were a critical part of our national response to Covid, taking on roles that supported our NHS and ambulance services, with the support and backing of the unions. They do not deserve to have their right to strike removed, and it should not be removed.
In London we have worked hard to maintain good relationships with firefighters and their representative bodies. In addition, the Mayor of London identified additional funding to ensure firefighters could be offered a decent pay rise, albeit one that does not match the inflation caused by the Government’s current cost-of-living crisis. I do not want to prejudice the outcome of the firefighters’ ballot, but I am proud to have worked with Labour colleagues to push an improved offer to fire- fighters, rather than dismiss their pay claim as unreasonable, as the Government appear to with so many public sector workers.
I would also like to address some of the government narrative about strikes, particularly the suggestion that our trade union legislation is much more liberal than other European countries’, and which this Government are using repeatedly to support their arguments for the minimum service level legislation this Bill seeks to introduce.
First, the notion that our legislation is liberal and needs strengthening is frankly laughable, given the existing high bar set for strike action. Secondly, as has already been highlighted in this debate, workers in Europe, including firefighters, generally work in an industrial relations climate with more collective bargaining in negotiations than in the UK. In Germany, France, Italy and Spain, the right to strike is guaranteed under their constitutions.
In Italy, minimum service arrangements are set out in collective agreements between unions and employers. In the UK, fire authorities already have a legal duty to plan for business continuity to ensure the public have a minimum level of fire provision in the event of industrial action. On top of this, the FBU has already negotiated a major incident agreement with fire employers in the event of forthcoming strike action, as the union has always done. This is publicly available, so Ministers should be aware of this.
I cannot emphasise sufficiently that this legislation is unnecessary and erodes the fundamental rights of workers. As recently as when the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, was Fire Minister, the Government also appeared to be of the view that it was not necessary to restrict firefighters’ right to strike, as that was not included in his proposals for major fire reform. Good industrial relations, dialogue with unions and negotiation would be a much more constructive way forward than unreasonable legislation and using inflammatory language in an attempt to justify it. Like others, I urge the Government to reconsider this regressive Bill, but also like others, I have very little hope that Ministers will do so.
My Lords, I want to start by congratulating the noble Baroness on her maiden speech. As a girl brought up in south-west London, I rarely ventured to the wilds of south-east London, and I cannot recall visiting Bexley, so I am grateful to learn so much about it today.
In my previous career as a teacher and lecturer, I was always a trade union member and, indeed, rose to the heights of chair of my branch, but I am far from believing that trade unions are always right. However, I do believe that this is a silly, vindictive and totally counterproductive Bill. Many others here are far better qualified to talk about the basic rights involved in trade union membership, so I will concentrate on two of the details of this Bill—first, the veritable shopping list of occupations it covers, which seems to have no underlying logic or rationale.
What unites fire services, health services, education services and transport services, and what do the Government even mean by those terms? The vast majority of fire, health and education is government-funded and delivered by arm’s-length, government-run bodies. In contrast, transport services are run very largely by private sector companies within a much lighter-touch set of regulations. I am surprised by the vagueness of the terms used, because the Government have had months to tighten up their definitions since they first started threatening this Bill.
There is another fundamental difference. If your house is on fire, you need the fire brigade immediately. A patient suffering a heart attack needs to see a doctor immediately. A child of school age needs to be taught by a qualified teacher. In all those cases, the professional skills concerned cannot be substituted in anything but the most fleeting manner. But if there are no train drivers available, it is usually possible to take the bus and call on the skills of a bus driver instead. Take the car or take a taxi. If you are a long distance away, take a plane. I cannot understand the inclusion of transport on that sector list.
What is meant by education? Do the Government mean schools, covering just the years of compulsory education? If so, why not say so; or does this cover higher education as well? Here, I must declare an interest as chancellor of Cardiff University. Teacher strikes raise issues of child safety and parental inconvenience, affecting a cohort of children less capable of directing their own learning, whereas university students are adults and, in these post-Covid days of digital learning, have alternative resources.
Transport is a cauldron of choice. The Tory manifesto promised this legislation only in relation to the railways, so why has it been broadened? Do the Government intend to include the 600-plus bus companies that operate in Britain, or ferry services, or aviation? Far more people travel by bus than by train and would be inconvenienced by bus strikes. The three services I mentioned are actually much more irreplaceable than the railways. If the trains are on strike, go by bus instead. I can vouch for the excellent long-distance bus services I have taken recently. Or is this still really just a Bill designed to annoy Mick Lynch? Does the term “transport” also refer to freight, which is arguably much more fundamental to our economy than passenger travel?
The second issue is on the implications of minimum service level agreements. On the last rail strike day, I went to Cardiff for a funeral. It turned out to be straightforward: there were hourly trains to Bristol, with a change to a Cardiff train there. The timetable was published in advance, trains ran to time, refreshments were available, tickets were checked and announcements were accurate. That was a minimum service level agreement and it did not need government strong-arm tactics to create it. The leadership within the rail industry has recently made clear its sense of relief that the new Secretary of State is prepared to avoid the angry rhetoric and antics of his predecessor, which made negotiations so difficult.
I am also concerned about the implications of specifying, maybe even by name, those obliged to work to provide minimum levels of service. Railways are complex jigsaws: the Government talk as if all you need are the drivers but if the cleaners go on strike, all the drivers in the world will not enable you to run the railways. Once you start naming individuals—as you would have to in the case of signalling, for example—you are in a very sensitive position regarding the safety and security of the workforce.
We have a Government who are struggling to stimulate a failing post-Covid and post-Brexit economy. A persistent problem across that economy is labour shortages, which are particularly acute in higher-skilled occupations like these. Therefore, is it sensible to threaten to sack the workers you do have if they go on strike? Is it sensible to discourage new recruits by flagging this decline in employment terms and conditions? Of course it is not.
Finally, this is another example of the Government simply ignoring the impact of their legislation on devolution. The Welsh Government were not consulted prior to a government press release on
This is a macho Tory signal that is counterproductive. Ordinary people will not like to be demonised by the way in which the Government are treating people from these professions.
My Lords, this is a modest Bill to ensure that people in our country are given a level of protection against extreme strike action in important public services, and I strongly support it. There has been a lot of misrepresentation about the Bill, notably in the debates in the other place. The right honourable Angela Rayner was wrong to say that it is
“a vindictive assault on the basic freedoms of British working people”.—[
The Bill does not extend the prohibition on strikes beyond the police and Armed Forces, but it is clearly the case that further prohibitions would be perfectly permissible. Prohibitions are much more extensive in other jurisdictions: public sector strikes are illegal in nearly four-fifths of states in the United States of America, and several EU states ban more strikes than we do. The Bill does not go there; it merely provides the means to set minimum service levels in just six categories of services that most people would regard as essential. There are many other services that people would regard as essential: my noble friend Lady O’Neill of Bexley, who is not in her place, mentioned local authority services in her excellent maiden speech and there are others. The Bill does not go that far.
The Bill is about a balance of rights: there is the right to strike, within the legal framework set for strikes, but this is not an absolute right. As with many other rights that are protected in our society, it needs to be balanced against the rights of others—notably, those whose lives are impacted by strikes, even though they are not a direct party to whatever dispute has caused them. The International Labour Organization allows minimum service levels to be set for both essential services and the broader category of public services of fundamental importance. The ILO hence recognises the need to balance rights.
Citizens have a right to a minimum level of transport services so that they may travel to work or for other important purposes, such as health treatment. All school- children, especially the most vulnerable, have a right to education. We all have a right to a level of healthcare and emergency services, and that goes beyond the minimalist life-and-limb cover. These are the sorts of rights that have to be weighed in the balance. Strikers may well want to maximise the impact of their strike action, but that will inevitably have an adverse impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Citizens pay taxes which fund public services, and their rights to those services must be taken into account.
I regret the need for an Act of Parliament to govern the balance of rights, but it is absolutely clear that we need the Bill. On train strike days, sometimes 20% of train services have been available, but they were generally in the wrong place and at the wrong time for many working people. Striking ambulance workers agreed to minimum service levels, but this was done via an arcane derogation process at local level and resulted in a postcode lottery for gravely sick people. Teachers were not obliged to notify their head teacher whether they would be at work and very many did not do so, which made it impossible to plan for a basic level of education to be provided to the children who needed it most. It is the actions of the unions and their members in the current strikes that have led directly to the need for the Bill, and the latest sabre-rattling from the junior doctors merely underlines that need.
I strongly support the Bill, but I am not uncritical of the way that the Government are seeking to get it through Parliament. Parliament should not be expected to pass laws without an understanding of the scale and scope of the impact that they will have. Some very bad habits in relation to impact assessments emerged during the Covid pandemic, largely in, though not limited to, the Department of Health and Social Care. We must not tolerate a cavalier approach to impact assessments for primary or secondary legislation. An impact assessment for the Bill was passed to the Regulatory Policy Committee earlier this month, but that was after the Bill had completed all its stages in the other place. It should have been available before the Second Reading there.
This morning, the Regulatory Policy Committee published its opinion. The impact assessment is red-rated as not fit for purpose and the cost-benefit analysis is weak. I have not been able to read the impact assessment because the hyperlink on GOV.UK was not working this morning. I have just one question for my noble friend the Minister on this: will the Government update their impact assessment to meet the criticisms of the Regulatory Policy Committee before the Bill goes into Committee?
Your Lordships’ House is at its best when it reflects what is important to the people of this country. A recent YouGov survey found that two-thirds of those expressing a view supported minimum service levels, with only one-third against. Let us approach scrutinising the Bill with that in mind.
My Lords, I have to make two declarations of interest before I start. First, for over 20 years, until 2021, I was general secretary of UNISON, the public service union. Secondly, I currently serve as president of PSI, the recognised global body representing public service unions across our world.
Some may say that the proposals in the Bill are vindictive, malicious and retaliation at its best, and they may be right, but I have a far more simple view. In their haste to be seen to be doing something—anything—the Government have put forward a rushed Bill which is deficient to its core; a Bill which has the potential to wreck the social-partnership working that has been the bedrock of the National Health Service for almost a century; and a Bill which is described as having Henry VIII powers on supercharge.
What we have before us is a Bill which has been portrayed as merely bringing us in line with the norms of other European countries. Nothing could be further from reality. The UK already has the most draconian trade union laws in the democratic world. We are an outlier, not a norm.
Instead, what we really have before us is a skeleton Bill, and one which has had little or no scrutiny. This does matter. Just six weeks ago, I had the honour of making my maiden speech during the debate on the Delegated Powers Committee report, Democracy Denied. That report concluded:
“The way our laws are made can have a profound effect upon the lives of millions of citizens—granting rights, imposing obligations, involving enforcement measures”.
The House has before it a Bill that could do just that—a Bill which will curtail the civil liberties of workers and weaken protection from unfair dismissal, and a Bill which gives the Secretary of State unfettered power to amend, repeal or revoke. Parliamentary process is so important. It does matter. Ministers avoiding parliamentary scrutiny call into question trust and confidence in the whole institution. It does matter, because skeleton legislation could lead to government by diktat—something that noble Lords of all persuasions have set out their stall against.
I wish to focus on one of those services named in the Bill: the National Health Service. The NHS is crying out for long-term solutions on funding and workforce planning. It is dependent on the good will of its dedicated workforce, but the workforce is now demoralised and exhausted. It is a workforce that has witnessed too many of its patients dying—too many of them their colleagues and friends. It is a workforce now trying to do the impossible and cover for 140,000 job vacancies. To cap it all, it is now facing legislation to curb its rights. The Bill will do nothing for waiting times, it will not tackle chronic staff shortages or assist recruitment and retention, and nor will it tackle the current pay dispute. Instead, it will attack the very people on whose work and good will our NHS depends. It will erode the very foundation of our social partnership arrangements—arrangements that have served us well
What has happened between last November and now? Only last November we had a government memorandum praising the NHS and fire and rescue services, stating that
“important factors exist to mitigate the impacts of industrial action in those sectors”.
Now, weeks later, the very same Government disparage the life and limb cover arrangements made by ambulance workers. We are told that those very same ambulance workers
“have refused to provide a national safety net”.—[
It is mystifying.
In England, there is no one national ambulance service employer; there are separate ambulance trusts, and trade unions sensibly reach agreements directly with the trust employer. Those agreements reflect local circumstance, geography, demographics and local provision, from Penzance and Peckham to Preston. They deal with anticipated call volumes, the spread of job groups, rapid mechanisms to bring in staff when needed, and constant contact between management and government. Every ambulance and every worker stands ready to deal with an emergency. Now, all those long-standing, robust, jointly agreed arrangements are to be set aside in a frantic attempt to justify this Bill.
The Bill is seriously deficient in so many respects. Misleading statements have been made in an attempt to justify it. It has been rushed through Parliament with undue haste, and it gives unfettered powers to Ministers—a process long criticised by noble Lords. The Bill drives wedges. It is divisive, it is detrimental and it does nothing to resolve the serious crises which our country and our public services are going through. I really question whether the Bill is about life and limb or simply a clumsy attempt to render industrial action ineffective and maybe break a strike—an attempt which may prove to be in contravention of our international obligations as a democratic society.
The report of the RPC is damning. It states that the Bill is not fit for purpose and that the Government have not backed up their assumptions with evidence or considered the likely effects on SMEs. The Government have not assessed how the Bill could make strikes worse; they make assumptions without proper evidence. It could not be any worse. Perhaps it is time for the Government to reconsider their position on the Bill.
My Lords, I have two points to make about this disturbing Bill. The first is as a lifetime member of the First Division Association. We did not often go on strike, not being at the sharp end of working conditions, and the Government were generally well-disposed to the negotiations of our excellent general secretary, my noble friend Lady Symons. However, members of a civil service union will now strike. That signifies serious malfunctioning in their working lives, as my noble friends, who have a range of direct experience of this over many sectors, have elaborated. For the public services to pay the price of the Truss Government’s miscalculation and subsequent inflation, on top of the long-standing wage squeeze, is manifestly unjust. No such constraint is applied to the private sector.
I echo the point powerfully made by my noble friend Lady O’Grady that the defence of unfair dismissal is also quite unjustly curtailed. If I understand paragraph 8 of the Schedule correctly, it looks as if employees can be sacked if they are not covered by a work notice or if their involvement in a strike is considered not to be compliant with one. Will the Minister please clarify this? I remember from my days as a member of employment tribunals that it was already difficult to prove unfair dismissal in quite a few instances.
Secondly, what I find alarming about the Bill is its whole premise that the Executive can dispense with our structure of democracy. My noble friend Lady Donaghy, many other noble Lords on all sides and two highly authoritative committee reports have focused on this, so I will very briefly add my voice.
In principle, Governments have manifestos; they are voted in with a majority and they have a mandate. But they do not thereby have a right to deal Parliament out of the process of implementing that mandate. The Bill erodes the role of the legislature by putting crucial detail into secondary legislation, which gets scant scrutiny and no scope for amendment. That weakens the essential arm of democracy—it is Parliament which decides what the law shall be, in our rule of law. In our system, laws are not intended to be made through skeleton Bills, wide delegated powers or untrammelled Executive fiat, even over laws not actually made yet, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, pointed out. The Bill abounds in just such provisions.
The instances of Clause 3 and Clause 2 in the Schedule mean that neither Parliament nor the public will be able fully to grasp what the law will actually mean. What, for instance, is a minimum level of service? How much of the education sector is covered? School caretakers? Ofsted? In effect, if all these clauses stand, Parliament will have been stripped of the capacity fully to scrutinise how people will in fact be affected by the law. The result is that Parliament would lose the capacity to reflect the interests of the electorate properly. It is not surprising that impact assessments have been slow in coming, because there is so little concrete information for the analysts to work on.
We did not subscribe to a rule of law made by the Executive. That carries the elective dictatorship—already a problem, as noted by a distinguished Conservative Lord Chancellor—a step too far. It fundamentally undermines the accountability of the Government to Parliament.
Finally, our Parliament has weathered many blows over the centuries of its evolution. This is one which needs to be comprehensively dealt with. This Bill is not the right way to use law and it is very far from the right way to tackle workplace protest against intolerable conditions. To remove Parliament from the process of law-making is a dangerous assault on our democracy. “Taking back control” rings hollow indeed.
My Lords, I recently asked on Twitter: “What do you call a corrupt, far-right Government that bans strikes, bans protests that are too noisy, suppresses the right to vote, gives police spies legal immunity, takes the power to make or reject laws away from Parliament and hands it to Ministers?” I had quite a few replies, most said “fascism”, which was fair enough, but there was one response that said “scared”. This is a Government of the rich who are making suitcases full of money while avoiding paying their taxes and I think they are scared. No one but a terrified Government would keep bringing these terrible laws to your Lordships’ House.
The Government are scared that the people on PAYE suffering from inflation, high interest rates and 13 years of Tory austerity are going to demand their money back—the money that was stolen with the PPE fast track and numerous other government scams that have put money in the pockets of their friends while fleecing the taxpayer.
Many of those on strike in the last few months have not had a proper pay rise for the last decade. Instead of earning respect for years of being underpaid for the work they do and carry on doing, they are lectured on the need for further restraint by the richest Prime Minister in this country’s history. Clapping does not pay the bills. We heard that after Covid and it is still true.
Instead of meetings and compromise, the workers are being hit with draconian laws. Ministers are being given huge powers that could see them ban strikes across six public services, potentially involving millions of workers. These are not minimal powers or targeted powers; they are the powers of a dictatorship, which can be interpreted by Ministers as widely as they choose.
There is no recognition, as we have heard, of the “life and limb” provisions that are already in place during strike action, which exempt certain categories of staff from strikes where there may otherwise be a direct danger to people. The Government do not recognise existing agreements because they, once again, wish to invent a problem that does not exist, in order to justify a right-wing policy that suppresses opposition. They have done it with voter ID and the clampdown on the right to protest. Of course, the Johnson Government ended a ban on employment agencies supplying workers to temporarily replace striking workers. That ban had been in force since 1976, but the Tories overturned it.
What happens when teachers and nurses do not get paid enough? We get the situation we have today. People give up on public service and move to the private sector instead. The number of children packed into school classrooms goes up and the results go down. The number of NHS staff vacancies gets longer and so do the waiting times. Those who can pay, go private. Money will buy smaller class sizes in private schools, just as money will buy a shortcut to healthcare. That is ultimately why many in this Government do not want to give a pay rise that matches inflation. Austerity is a political choice. If we taxed the rich, we could pay the deserving. The truth is that many in this Government want public services in a permanent state of collapse because it matches their privatisation agenda. These anti-strike laws are an attempt to stop public servants from protecting our public services.
I will be brief, because a lot of people have said a lot of incredibly valuable things—mostly on this side of the Chamber, obviously. I have two final things to say. First, this thing about minimum service levels—the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked about this—what does it mean? I wonder what it means, because this Government have not managed to hit a target ever since they were elected, so I cannot think how they are going to manage minimum service levels. Secondly, on the Minister’s opening—a fine opening, Minister—the public expect essential services to be there when they need them. Why do the Government not get round the table and negotiate? Why are they behaving like complete and utter oafs? I really hope that we can throw out this Bill and I am thrilled that Labour will repeal it as soon as it gets into power—that will not be too long now.
My Lords, I had hoped to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, but unfortunately his name was scratched from the list.
Why are the Government introducing this Bill? First, and most obviously, it was in my party’s 2019 election manifesto. Secondly, it is to ensure minimum service levels in key public sector areas of employment, to try to ensure that any clear danger to human life is averted, as far as it can be, by ensuring a basic service during strike action. Thirdly, they have been forced into this action now by the sheer level of strikes that occurred last year and continue to be planned for this year, which are adversely affecting the national economy and many people throughout the country, including working parents.
As my noble friend the Minister stated in his opening remarks, in December alone, 843,000 working days were lost due to labour disputes, the highest since November 2011. By comparison, the monthly average in 2019 was only 19,500 days. The Centre for Economics and Business Research forecast the direct cost of all these strikes and the indirect cost of worker absences due to rail strikes to be at least £1.7 billion over the eight-month period to January, or 0.1% of expected GDP over this period.
Cebr also states that unresolved industrial disputes are having an adverse impact on growth at a time when many forecasters expect—and in some cases, it would seem, want—the economy to be in recession. There is a clear and urgent need for this legislation. Recent strikes have demonstrated the disproportionate impact strikes can have on the public and have cost the economy at least £6 billion.
It is not only the effect of teachers going on strike without being required to inform the headteacher of whether they would be striking so that the head can plan for the care of the children coming into school, but the knock-on effect for two-parent working couples, as one has to elect to stay, often at a moment’s notice, to look after their children. The place of work that parent was due to be at then has its own employment issues and challenges to deal with. As for single-parent families, I need say no more.
On the face of it, some public sector pay is low. For example, basic pay for a newly qualified nurse would be £27,000 a year. With overtime, unsocial hours and London weighting, this could increase to £31,000, but the Government Actuary’s Department states that their total package amounts to £50,000. About a third of this is in their defined salary pension scheme, with the rest in other benefits. Given the choice, I am sure many public sector workers might like to take an enhanced salary with a commensurate reduction in their pension—but they are not being given that choice.
A close member of my family is a very committed nurse, having been in the NHS all her life. She has voted for strike action for the first time. When I asked her what her salary was, she was able to tell me. That was not the case when I asked what her total package or her pension was worth, or what percentage contribution her employer paid. For every £1 a nurse puts into his or her pension, a further £3 to £6 in benefits accrues from the employer, with a total pension contribution of 20.6%. Furthermore, their pension scheme allows them to activate it from the age of 55, allowing for a phased retirement.
I must make it clear that I do not begrudge nurses these benefits, because we all know that they work under great pressure, often in appalling conditions and, sadly, in some cases, with little leadership shown by their bosses. It is true that since 2010 they have seen their actual pay—that £27,000 or £31,000—fall in real terms. But if the cake was cut in a different way, as I have alluded to earlier, I am sure that many public sector workers would not be striking for these unattainable pay awards, which Labour itself has said are not sustainable. Increasing all public sector pay by 11% would cost £28 billion, equivalent to an extra £1,000 for every UK household, because of all the on-costs of the pension packages. The average wage for a teacher in 2021 was £42,000, but they were also benefiting from an employer pension contribution of nearly 24%. In my county, Norfolk County Council’s employer contribution was a staggering 37%.
While in recent years—it was not always thus—some private sector pay has been outstripping public sector pay, government regulations stipulate that a private sector employee must pay a 5% contribution to a defined contribution scheme, not a public sector defined salary pension scheme, and their employer must pay the balance of 3% to take it up to 8%. Some employers share the burden equally, with a 4% contribution. So, you can see a huge disparity in pension benefits that rarely gets aired in public debate. Any large pay awards north of the independent NHS Pay Review Body recommendations will, of course, make these already generous pensions even more unaffordable, as well as making the total package very attractive. Indeed, pension contributions being paid in by today’s workers and their employers are being paid straight out to already retired public sector workers.
I cannot see my arguments turning government policy around; we are where we are. Hence, I lend my support to the Government and to the Bill. In these circumstances, when so many days of work are being lost, with crises such as the Ukrainian war and the massive mountain of debt that has been built up by the country’s handling of Covid, we really must insist on minimum service levels being maintained and legislated for. That is why I support the Bill.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, although I disagree with him. I begin by congratulating the two maiden speakers, in a way, in this debate: the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bexley, and, if I can put it this way, my noble friend Lady O’Grady, who I believe was speaking from the Front Bench for the first time—and what a very good speech it was.
This Government are beginning to lose their way, and the Bill before us today proves it. In the face of today’s prolonged industrial action by many in our society, including the nurses, ambulance drivers and—by a margin of 98%, I read today—junior doctors, who not so long ago we stood on our doorsteps to cheer during the darkest days of the Covid pandemic, this Government have now been driven to introduce a Bill that will not solve any of the underlying problems.
No one is denying the strike action that is taking place or the number of days lost; the ONS tells us that it is the greatest number since 1990. However, the Government should use their existing powers to allow negotiations between employers and trade unions to succeed and create the conditions in which they can succeed, not bring in a Bill that takes up valuable parliamentary time and, in my view, offers no prospect that its passage would make any contribution to solving the problems caused, because significant sections of the public sector workforce in the UK have become worse off in recent years. That is a fact—that is what we call the cost of living crisis and why the Government themselves have recognised the need to take action and help with energy bills. The Government know that working people have become worse off. You can hardly blame those who have been driven to take strike action when many of them would have preferred not to.
The real arguments to be made in the current situation are about unfairness—of all kinds—and not about inventing a new law to attack both the rights of trade unions and the workplace rights of individuals. This is a good point at which to put on the record that I myself, like many Members on this side of the House and no doubt in various places around the Chamber as well, am a member of a trade union. I suppose I should also say, in the interests of transparency, that my son is a teacher whom I last met when he was on strike, walking outside this building.
I am no expert on the various public sector pay bodies. Fortunately, we now have Members in the House of Lords with the most enormous expertise from the trade union world, many of whom we have heard from today or will hear from later. This is a debate and not a history lesson—although if the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, was in his place, I would say that I think the matchgirls’ strike was in 1888, not 1881—but the House knows of the struggles of the last 200 years for the establishment of trade unions and rights at work. Just because these rights have been hard won does not mean that they do not always need to be defended—because they do, and they certainly do now.
I want to give an example—I ask your Lordships to forgive me; coming late in the order, I find myself thinking that most people have made most of the points I want to make—of the individual right against unfair dismissal. As I understand it—and I am grateful to the Library for its briefing—trade unions are protected from liability for such acts by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, provided that the union complies with all other legal requirements such as those dealing with strike ballots and giving proper notice. This Bill would remove this protected status from trade unions for any strike they induced people to take part in where they failed to “take reasonable steps” to ensure that all workers identified and requested to work by a work notice complied with that notice. Moreover, the Bill would remove this protection
“for any employee who takes part in a strike contrary to a valid work notice. Any such employee will not be automatically regarded as unfairly dismissed under … the Employment Rights Act 1996 if the reason … for the dismissal is because they took part in the strike.”
In other words, the individual rights of workers are at stake in the Bill, as well as those of trade unions as a whole.
There are two other points I want to make. First, as others have said, this is yet another example of a skeleton Bill. At some point, somewhere, whether in this House or another place, someone is going to have to say that enough is enough, because otherwise the Executive will fatally undermine the legislature. In my hand I have a single sheet of paper, and that is the entire content of the Bill right there—others have made this point very well.
Noble Lords may remember we had a debate in the Chamber about a year ago, triggered by the noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, on skeleton Bills. The House would be wise to remember what was said then. We have grown all too accustomed to skeleton Bills but that does not mean that we should be. Laws affect our lives and rights; they should not be made by bypassing the very institutions which are supposed to be a check on power. At the time, the noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, gave her own explanation as to why she thought they were used. She said, in summary, that when you are in government, you are so anxious to get stuff done that if a Minister is told they can do it by way of statutory instrument rather than by primary legislation, of course that is going to be attractive to them. Very few people would react otherwise. Who would not be relieved to think that you could do it that way? I daresay there are former Ministers in the Chamber, on all sides of the House, who understand these sentiments.
In fairness, I also want to refer to the words of then Cabinet Office Minister—who is now the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House—in defence of the skeleton Bill approach. He said, over a year ago, that rigorous processes are in place within government to justify the use of proposed secondary legislation contained in Bills and that
“This process ensures that there is a steady flow of statutory instruments being laid before Parliament and therefore, I hope, facilitates better scrutiny.”—[Official Report, 6/1/2022; col. 791.]
It may be that the flow of statutory instruments has been steady but that does not mean to say that the amount of them has not been too great.
If I may, I will quote a Member of this House who is staring at me at this moment. When he was Lord Chief Justice, as I understand it, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said that if Whitehall gets into the habit of using Henry VIII clauses
“we are … in … danger of becoming indifferent to them”.
In summary, if the Government persist—as they do in this legislation—in using such Bills to push all the detail to later, ultimately Parliament will not really know what it is that we are being asked to approve, and that is dangerous for democracy. In view of the time, I will leave it there, but this is an area for scrutiny in Committee, if nothing else.
My Lords, I first draw attention to my interests as listed in the register.
This is an unnecessary Bill. As Conservative Home, the online daily Conservative newsletter, said last Sunday, it will achieve nothing and should be dropped. I have never before in this Chamber quoted Jacob Rees-Mogg, but he said in reference to this Bill in the Commons that
“skeleton Bills and Henry VIII clauses are bad parliamentary and constitutional practice.”—[
I ask my own side to reflect that, in a democracy, power changes, and to further reflect whether we would be happy if a Labour Government made extensive use of these fundamentally undemocratic instruments. I think we would not be. I think we would be getting up all the time and protesting about it.
To come back to the Bill, I remind noble Lords that the ILO general secretary and the United States Labor Secretary both deny backing it. They were quoted as being vaguely in favour. They are not—they are both against it. The TUC and the CBI regard it, to put it mildly, as unnecessary and likely to interfere with good industrial relations, not to build them.
I come now to my area. Within the aviation sector the Bill has been greeted with dismay. Noble Lords may remember that I am the honorary president of BALPA, the pilots’ union. The impact assessment for the transport strikes Bill, which was introduced as the initial legislation, said at paragraph 100 that the proposals could lead to greater use of action short of strike. Paragraph 101 says that the proposals could increase the frequency of disputes, meaning
“an increased number of strikes could ultimately result in more adverse impacts in the long term.”
Paragraph 103 says that it could increase operational costs for employers, with a particularly onerous burden on small operators. Finally, paragraph 106 says that it could have a
“negative impact on industrial relations, which could have detrimental impacts for all parties.”
My colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, pointed out the wide variety of what is meant by transport. What do we actually mean? We have aircraft, we have the Eurostar, we have trains, we have buses and we have school buses. There is no such thing as “transport” and this Bill is far too widely drawn. My contention is that aviation should be excluded altogether; by definition, no air service is ever guaranteed, as the captain of the aircraft must always be satisfied it will be concluded safely or otherwise they do not take off. This is a fundamental principle of aviation.
Are we saying that the Secretary of State, at least a week before a flight in question takes off, is going to assume the authority of the captain of the day and insist a flight is operated? Will they do so despite, first, the weather; secondly, the technical state of the aircraft; thirdly, without knowledge of whether sufficient crew have reported or will report for duty; and, finally, despite all the other things a pilot must consider? It has always been accepted that a pilot can personally say, “I am sorry, I just feel ill. I can’t take off”. That is an excuse. You do not send £300 million-worth of equipment and 300 passengers into the sky at the whim of a Minister. This is a highly technical operation, and, frankly, it has just not been thought through.
When faced with industrial action, airlines often decide on the day not to let aircraft take off because it puts all the aircraft in the wrong places, and trying to break a strike makes for a toxic environment, and an aircraft company does not want that.
Finally on this topic—and my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh mentioned it—we have been approached by Menzies, sellers of jelly babies, asking whether we could
“Probe the government as to whether they could include aviation ground services under the legislation.”
Is the Minister now going to get a list of which sweets can be sold by Menzies, present it with the list and say, “You must find someone to sell them”? What is next? Will Pret a Manger be covered? Will it have to produce the sandwiches?
I suggest to the Minister that it is time to go back to the drawing board. As we all know, it is an offence in English law to waste police time. This Bill is wasting Peers’ time. HMG are going to lose a number of votes on this and they are going to deserve it. When I first came to this House, the then Conservative Chief Whip told me that the difference between the Lords and the Commons was that in the Commons you won votes by numbers whereas in the Lords to win votes you had to win arguments. The fate of this Bill is going to prove her right.
We really are in desperate straits when we come up with a Bill such as this, which, frankly, is not thought through. It is not actually particularly a Conservative measure; it is more a panic measure. People are not pleading for this, and if the Government try to implement it they will soon find that public opinion has drifted away from them. This is a Bill which will never be implemented. I suggest that I am going to put down an amendment that the commencement date be after the next general election, so that we can put Labour on the spot to not implement it at all.
My Lords, it is a genuine pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, whom I have known for many years in various capacities. I believe that the Front Bench opposite would do well to listen to both his intricate technical knowledge and his general principles in relation to the Bill.
As many noble Lords have already said, this proposed legislation is anti-democratic, draconian, counter- productive and unnecessary. I shall not speak to each of those elements of the Bill but there is ample evidence in the briefing from the TUC for all of them. I do, however, wish to say a few words about the draconian nature of the proposals. They would be unacceptable at any time but, in the context of the longest pay squeeze for decades, in the middle of a cost of living crisis and with the failure to recruit enough workers to provide our vital public services, they are both draconian and ill conceived.
As my noble friend Lord Monks said, in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government pledged to ensure
“that sanctions are not directed at individual workers”.
However, what we see in this skeleton Bill—I will not go there; everyone has discussed it already—is that, if a person specified in a work notice takes strike action, work notice notwithstanding, they will lose their protection from automatic unfair dismissal. This is not only unacceptable for the individual concerned; it also begs the question as to whether the strike might be deemed unlawful. The Library briefing suggests that the whole strike will be deemed illegal and the protection of all employees against automatic unfair dismissal would thereby be removed, meaning that all employees could therefore be sacked—a point made by my noble friend Lady O’Grady. Can the Minister say why the Government have changed their position from that stated in the 2019 Queen’s Speech?
Given the Government’s abject failure to recruit to the thousands of vacancies in health and education, what assessment have they made of the impact of these proposals on recruitment and retention in those aspects of the public sector? I remind the Minister that the Government missed their own targets for the recruitment of secondary school teachers by 41%; that 13% of the teachers who qualified in 2019 have already left the profession; and that one in eight maths lessons—our Prime Minister is a great fan of them—is being taught by a teacher who is not qualified in the subject. That is not the level of service that our young people should expect.
These are the issues to which this Government should turn their attention, rather than seeking to place further restrictions on the right of workers to strike in pursuit of legitimate demands. The proposals in the Bill, such as they are, are simply not compatible with international law. In saying that other jurisdictions have minimum service levels, the Government are completely silent on the different legislative frameworks that obtain. Sectoral collective bargaining is an approach that obtains in many European countries; we do not see it here in the UK.
Those who are engaged with the work of the International Labour Organization know that it has already raised concerns about existing UK labour law, which the Government have failed to address. I am pleased to quote Tonia Novitz, a professor of labour law at the University of Bristol:
“Far from bringing the UK into line with the standards and practices of other European states … the proposed minimum service legislation constitutes a further departure from established norms and treaty obligations.”
I am sure that the Minister disagrees. Can he say how the Government have addressed the prior outstanding recommendations from the ILO on the right to strike in the UK?
The TUC briefing makes it clear that local arrangements are put in place during industrial action. It is therefore unnecessary to grant such sweeping powers to a Secretary of State to determine minimum service levels. Let us consider the fire and rescue services, as my noble friend Lady Twycross did; bear in mind that the firefighter establishment has suffered a 20% cut since 2010. Since 2004, Ministers have told the public that there is no need for national standards, and that emergency response is a local matter so is nothing to do with them, yet free rein is now to be given to a Secretary of State to make determinations. As a union that takes public safety very seriously, the FBU signed a major incident agreement—noble Lords have heard about this already—with fire employees through the national joint council, covering the whole of the UK, on
As to earlier disputes, the FBU co-operated to deliver the level of cover sought by the employers. In previous periods of strike action, Ministers and chief fire officers have assured the public that communities are safe and measures are in place. Unless that was untrue and the public were misled, there can be no justification for replacing those agreed arrangements and that system with a draconian imposition. Good industrial relations and the avoidance of industrial action are possible through collective bargaining and what the FBU calls “cordial social dialogue”. Draconian diktats are counterproductive.
Perhaps the Minister could comment on the Regulatory Policy Committee’s report—it was referenced by my noble friend Lady O’Grady—which states that the impact assessment
“has not clearly established a counterfactual supported by evidence, outlining what is expected to occur in the absence of legislation being introduced. The Department describes, within the policy background section that voluntary action already occurs, yet later in the IA … the Department assumes a baseline service level of provision of zero. This is a conservative position to take, given that voluntary provision of service in sectors is uncertain.”
It would seem to follow, then, that this proposed legislation is indeed unnecessary and draconian. Its being introduced before any of the relevant consultation with sectors has been completed is simply not acceptable.
My Lords, I will try not to repeat and cite every speaker with whom I have agreed but I congratulate the previous two speakers: my BALPA colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who sits on the Conservative Benches these days but nevertheless understands that industrial relations cannot be conducted through draconian government decrees, as the Henry VIII powers in this Bill envisage; and my noble friend Lady Blower, who explained the difficulties with the Bill. I speak as the son of a former branch secretary of the NUT.
In a debate a few months ago, I asked the Minister whether the Government believe in the right to strike. He rather sheepishly proclaimed that they do. I think he should have added in the small print, “As long as they’re not effective”. In other words, the Government have the right to have draconian interventions—often at the last minute, as the powers in this skeletal Bill would allow—and lay down what service will be delivered and which workers will work. That is a recipe for disaster.
I was going to congratulate the Minister on two things: first, the shortness of this Bill, although others have pointed to the disadvantages of that; and, secondly, his sudden conversion to all things European in citing his apparent understanding of what goes on in Germany, Spain and elsewhere. I hope that he shows the same enthusiasm when we return to the retained European legislation Bill later in the week.
The reality is that the Bill exists because, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe—I nearly called him “my noble friend”—said, this is a panic measure. We are in a period with a lot of strikes happening, for different reasons but at the same time. They appear to be cumulative and the Government are panicking. They want to be seen to be doing something, so they have come up with this Bill, which originated as part of a more balanced Bill of employment rights—that seems to have disappeared—then as part of a transport Bill, from which this provision has been greatly expanded. This is not the way to make legislation, or how the House of Lords should allow legislation to be made. A large part of the Bill should be rejected by this House, if not the whole of it.
I should have said that in addition to my declared interests, I am a veteran of the previous so-called winter of discontent. I was one of those crypto-Marxist officials with one of the unions involved at the time. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, who is no longer in his place, on the history of that and the subsequent period. My recollection is somewhat different. Yes, the unions made a lot of mistakes in that period. For example, we did not include gravediggers in the areas which were to be immune from strike action. That lost us a lot of public support. However, by and large there was no threat to life or limb.
I see that my noble friend Lord Donoughue, who has experience from the other side, is no longer here but I say to your Lordships that the Callaghan Government stopped talking. I recollect, two or three days before Christmas, going with a bit of paper that was drawn up by myself and my friend Lord Gladwin, a future Member of this House, to give to the then Government. It set out possible terms which had been agreed with the general secretaries of the other unions concerned. That was rejected by the Callaghan Government. A month later, the strikes began. We obeyed notice of strikes even then, though it was not at that time compulsory in law. A month or so later, the Government had to settle with the unions on almost identical terms to those that we had presented two months earlier.
When Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Government took over, she learned some of those lessons. She is wrongly depicted in some ways as the equivalent of Ronald Reagan, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, said. She did not negotiate herself, of course, but she did allow her officials to negotiate. There was continued industrial unrest in the early years of the Thatcher regime but she kept the door open. Agreements were reached, sometimes after strikes. I recall that she even agreed after the water strike that there would be compulsory arbitration through ACAS and that the Government would agree to its terms. We have none of that in this Bill—there is no ACAS involvement, as my noble friend Lady Donaghy said. There are better ways of operating. There are better ways of conducting industrial relations than threatening long-standing arrangements between employers and unions or imposing new ones when a strike is threatened.
I do not like to compare the Minister with his late Majesty Richard III, but at the beginning of the play that King says,
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer”.
It did not work out too well for him, and I am afraid that this Bill will not work out too well for the Minister either. There is an alternative and he should learn from history. The alternative is to sit down now and negotiate. For as long as the Government refuse to do that, we will have a winter of discontent.
My Lords, it is always good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, particularly in a debate such as this, where he has such a long and detailed recall of history over many decades. I listened to him with respect; it is genuine respect rather than just saying that, even though I do not agree with him on a number of points. He used “repetition” in his introductory remarks, and I address the first of the four remarks that I wish to make to that.
First, purely by chance, I came across something which His Holiness the Pope said the other day. He was telling his priests not to bang on for too long, to limit what they say in their homilies—that is RC speak for sermons in the established Church—and generally to get on with it. I think that six minutes, which is what His Holiness said, is quite a long time. We are luxuriating in eight minutes tonight but repetitive arguments will dominate all the proceedings of this Bill, as they dominated all the proceedings of the public order legislation. There is nothing wrong with saying it again and again in the hope that it sinks in, but we must recognise that in the end, we must act.
I applaud what my honourable and right honourable friends are doing in this Bill. We have seen the same argument used again and again, over protests and demonstrations, before debates on the Public Order Bill came to their end. We are going to get the same things again about the right to strike in this debate. There will be more than a spot of déjà vu in this Chamber over the next few weeks and months because we are all struggling—the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and I, and other noble Lords—to find a balance between what it is right to strike about and the needs for individual and publicly recognised, or sought after, levels of safety and protection. Getting that balance right is fiendishly difficult. We would be foolish to say that this or that is a solution. I would always keep lives and livelihoods first in mind, in a world where self-restraint is steadily being screened out, which concerns me a lot.
Secondly, does my noble friend the Minister think the current arrangements that ban certain occupations—essentially the Armed Forces, the police and some prison officers—from striking are adequate today, since they were first thought of in the 1960s? There have been so many challenges since, particularly the growth of global terrorism, which we did not know about 30 or 40 years ago, and the huge back and forth in the flowing global movement of people seeking safety. Why should they not seek a better life as well, in a time of easier if sometimes very dangerous travel that we all recognise? The situation is dramatically different from what it was in the 1960s.
It is not easy to be a prison officer and I thank them for what they do, but the time may be coming when no prison officers should strike at all. The same goes for the challenging and sometimes dangerous work done for us all by our border forces, not only at sea but at land borders such as ports and airports, screening out terrorists. There is a strong case for them not being able to strike either. I do not want to alarm the business managers on my side of the House—I would hate to do so—so I promise and pledge that I will not introduce egregious amendments during the passage of this Bill, which will be long and drawn-out enough. However, I hope that in return I get a serious answer from the Minister about these issues, which need to be discussed as time goes on.
Thirdly, the areas of public service covered by the Bill vary in their substance. I do not say, diminishingly, that one is more important than another, but surely there is a qualitative difference between the never clearly-defined NHS “life and limb” cover, which I have never seen a satisfactory definition of, and education. Of course, education is essential, but in a different way. Obviously, that is important to students for their future happiness, prospects and way of life. I noticed that the phrase “industrial action” came from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, I think. We need to dump that expression because it does not cover adequately the huge range of things that we looked at in the Public Order Bill and are now looking at in this Bill. Also, “essential” needs to be defined.
It is rather poignant, but some decades back the Association of University Teachers—that long-buried union—demonstrated about some unclear provisions that they were worried about in their pensions. Believe it or not, outside Carriage Gates, there was a capped and gowned figure holding up a placard containing the persuasive legend, “Rectify the anomaly now”. If that is the best that could be done in advancing arguments, I do not think it was very persuasive—and it certainly was not very chantable by those demonstrators.
Fourthly and lastly, we cannot any longer fantasise that, as a last resort, our Armed Forces can always step in and cover all exigencies. We know that, in the 1960s, there were more than half a million people in the Armed Services—about 250,000 in the Army. On
I note that I have gone beyond the time laid down by His Holiness the Pope, but just short of the time set down by the business managers.