Amendment 6

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 9th March 2023.

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Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway:

Moved by Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway

6: The Schedule, page 3, leave out line 27Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would remove “education services” from the Bill.

Photo of Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Labour

Amendments 6 and 7, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Collins, seek to test the inclusion of education in the Bill.

No doubt the Minister will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to repeat all the arguments that I made on health, but the concerns about compatibility with international law and the protection of human rights are just as pronounced in respect of the education sector. The Government need to justify why education is included in this skeleton Bill.

Under international law, when fundamental rights such as the right to withdraw labour are at stake, it is not sufficient to impose minimum service levels simply because strikes are disruptive, however inconvenient they may be; nor can the Government seek to justify curtailing the right of education workers to withdraw their labour on life and limb grounds.

I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why the Government’s mind has changed so radically in respect of the education sector from the view set out in their human rights memorandum attached to the transport strikes Bill. It said:

“In the education sector, there are various statutory duties on schools (and in particular head teachers or governing bodies) regarding the organisation, management, and control of a school, safeguarding and supervision of children (both on and off site) and health and safety duties regarding pupils which will impact on contingency arrangements needed in the event of strike action. For example, DfE Guidance for school leaders, governing bodies and employers handling strike action in schools provides statutory guidance on using volunteers to cover striking teachers and outlines how schools are often organised into ‘family groups’ enabling them to pool staff to ensure minimum services are delivered, and thus minimising the impact on children … The large number of employers in the education sector would also likely make minimum service arrangements difficult and very burdensome to implement.”

That is what the Government’s own advice said.

Yet again, the Government stand accused of attempting to distract from the causes of the dispute by attacking the fundamental rights of staff. Even using the most conservative IFS figures, between 2010 and 2022 average teacher salaries were cut in real terms by at least 11%. That has led to a recruitment and retention crisis and burnout among those who remain. The public get that the root cause of this dispute needs to be tackled. Polls show that a majority of those who express a view support teachers taking strike action, and anybody who has tuned into Mumsnet will have seen there is significant support for teachers there, too. Yet again, it is regrettable that the Government have failed to launch a consultation so that the views of the public and those most affected can be taken into account by both Houses of Parliament. We also really do need an adequate account from the Minister of how these proposals will work when education is a devolved matter and the consent of the devolved nations is withheld.

I also want to highlight the very real impact of what will happen if the Government persist with this Bill and with attacking teachers and their unions. The consequences for education services could be far-reaching. As I have argued before, suppressing strikes will not deter workers who feel they have a just cause. We know that the current strikes have been prompted by years of real pay cuts and the devastating impact and consequences of recruitment and retention issues. Unless the root causes of the strikes are addressed, if this Bill becomes law, we will simply see an upsurge in other forms of action. Just to give noble Lords an example of how real that is: using ONS data, the TUC calculated that the Government benefited to the tune of £8.6 billion from unpaid overtime by public sector staff last year, with an average of over 8 million hours of unpaid overtime each week.

As we saw in the recent WhatsApp leak, teachers’ work ethic may be described by some Ministers—or former Ministers—in a contemptuous fashion. But it is worth remembering that in that unpaid overtime league, teachers are near the top. Contrary to the view expressed by the then Education Secretary that teachers do not want to work, our schools only survive because staff put in hours and hours of unpaid overtime each and every week. Imagine what would happen if that good will was withdrawn with, for example, a work to rule.

I see no evidence in the Government’s red-rated impact assessment that any of this has been addressed in any serious fashion. There is a very real cost to getting this wrong—all the more reason why this Bill should be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I have to inform the Committee that if Amendment 6 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 7 by reason of pre-emption.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business)

My Lords, I was hoping that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, would leave me something to say, and I think there is a small window of opportunity. The Minister will be pleased to know that it is a small window, as I note he is on his seventh Haribo and may need further sustenance if we go on much longer. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for coming and speaking to this. It is very good to have the portfolio holders to address this, and I really appreciate that.

In the to and fro on Amendment 2, we began to nail what the Government mean by “education services”. The Minister said that it is more than just up to 16 but she did not go further. We are still not clear whether it covers further education and higher education, so Amendment 7 is a useful starting point in trying to set out in some detail what education services the Government have in mind. There are others—cleaning and janitorial services, for example—that are not included in that but are crucial to the safe running of a school. Anything that the Minister can say about what the Government feel is within the scope of the Bill would be helpful.

I am going to focus on schools because that appears to be where the Government are focused at the moment, but I am happy to be guided in other directions by the Minister. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, said, there was strike action in schools by members of the National Education Union in February and further action is planned, apparently, with strike action from the National Association of Head Teachers taking place in Wales; in Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland and two other unions are also planning future walkouts. So this is a serious issue.

We should be aware that there are a number of wide potential implications when there is a teachers’ strike. There are issues around child safety, parental inconvenience and the economic aspect for parents, who may then need to arrange childcare. Of course, there are also the effects on a cohort of children who may be missing out on essential education. There are ballots going on, so this is a real issue.

In order to understand this issue—indeed, to understand it at the micro, school level—I will assume that this Bill has been passed and the Government have established a minimum service level for schools. At the heart of this is the question of how the Bill is going to operate. There are very many schools and therefore a great number of employers in the school sector. I am interested in how the Government expect to enforce a minimum service level in schools. Who will be the employer who may field a work order? Is it the head teacher? Is it the unpaid, volunteer governors? Is it the local authority? If it is the local authority, how will free schools fit into this because they do not have a local authority? Is the governing body of a free school then the accountable employer? Clearly, the Government will have thought through every detail here. I am very keen to hear the details of how the Government expect to manage minimum service level delivery at the school level.

Perhaps the Minister could then tell us how many teachers in a school will make up the minimum service level. I am not aware of any state schools that have too many teachers; indeed, most of them tell us that they have too few teachers and too few classroom assistants. So what will be a minimum service level for teaching children in our schools in the event of a strike? Will it be everything that they are doing now—in which case, as we will discuss in other areas, the strike would, in effect, be banned—or something else, such as childminding? If it is childminding, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, has set out the requirements that already exist under the statutory duties for schools and in the Department for Education’s guidance, which require head teachers to take into account the implications for how children are looked after and safeguarded in the event of a strike.

It is good that the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, is here. I really want to hear about all of that micro detail because it is understanding the detail that will help us to see inside the Bill and bring it to life. Because it is such a skeleton Bill, it is impossible for us really to understand the cogs and wheels that will fit together and deliver a minimum service level for our schools.

However, as the noble Baroness said, this does not address the real issue in our schools. We cannot talk about schools without mentioning that teachers are demoralised and feel undervalued. There is a funding crisis across all our schools. This all plays into the debate that is going on around our schools. There is clearly a crisis in teacher retention and recruitment for our schools, driven by years of pay cuts but also by that frustration with the system. Can the Minister tell us how the threat of this Bill helps to improve the morale of teachers in our schools? What is this governmental body language doing for our teachers? Whether or not it is ever used, the Bill sets a tone in the relationship between government and our teachers and not one that we should be propagating.

I am very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, is here and look forward to her answers to our questions.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated 4:15 pm, 9th March 2023

My Lords, I am perplexed by this Bill and how it is worded. I am beginning to think that some deal has been done to promote the concept of an elected House of Lords because, if everything goes to statutory instruments and regulations, I am not sure of the purpose of the current revising Chamber. Perhaps some reverse Henry VIII amendments should be put in to assist that process, because this kind of business is as bad as it gets in that context.

In referencing my voluntary rather than unpaid interests, while “morale” has been mentioned, I home in on this question of the practicalities within schools. Can the Minister confirm whether any schools or larger multi-academy trusts have requested the inclusion of education and thereby schools in this legislation? If so, what rationale have they used to request that inclusion? Schools are struggling with the complexity of negotiating the additional contact hours that the Government are requiring of teachers.

My experience is primarily within the red wall. I am bemused at the politics. I have always found a Government of any colour, flavour or party picking on a particular section of the electorate and giving the impression that they are targeting them to be quite bad politics. Therefore, I am perplexed at what this is meant to do. Certainly, the parents within the red-wall areas of the country are in no way antagonistic towards a group such as teachers occasionally taking industrial action. It is very rare, but I have never witnessed or heard any antagonism in relation to that. There is sometimes sympathy, and often an agnostic position, but of the hundreds of thousands of emails that I have ever received, there has never been one on this issue. I have never heard it from a single person, even when such disputes have been in play.

That perplexes me, but something else really worries me. Can the Government confirm that the absentee rates in English schools are at the highest level in our history—27.5% on average? Is it true that in the more deprived areas, which would incorporate the red wall and beyond, it is at 33.5%, so one in three is not attending school at the moment? There are many reasons, particularly the aftermath of the pandemic and lockdown, but the behavioural issues are with younger children rather than older children, in secondary school years 7 and 8, which has not been the norm historically. Do the Government agree that with this absenteeism level, the critical factor is the good will of teachers and the flexibility of teachers to work beyond normal contract hours with those families and pupils to get the pupils back into school or to hold them in school?

That is the experience that I see and hear coming through very powerfully, and it correlates further—to elaborate a little on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady—in that, the more successful a school is, the more motivated the teachers tend to be. The more motivated the teachers are, the more flexibility they have and the more successful the school is. Those little bits on the side that teachers do, assisting individual pupils, are critical to how a school performs in the league tables and to what we deem a successful school.

We are in a crisis of the worst absenteeism in our schools in recorded history. How does that fit into the Government’s strategy on this? It seems to me that the inclusion of education—indeed, the whole Bill—makes no political or legislative sense. From my point of view, the inclusion of education will have the reverse impact to what the Government want on a system that is in crisis, because of the pandemic, in a way that it has never been before.

Photo of Baroness Blower Baroness Blower Labour

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mann, in many respects. I began teaching in 1973 and I can count on the fingers of both hands—probably not even using them all—the number of times that I have been on strike. One of the reasons why I was not on strike in the early phases of my career was because we had sectoral collective bargaining: we could make an impact on what was happening with our pay and conditions. I very much regret the loss of collective bargaining in education because it has had a material impact on the way in which teachers are able to pursue issues with their own pay and conditions.

However, let us move on to what the Bill would do. The noble Lords, Lord Mann and Lord Fox, are of course right: there is a very serious situation with regard to recruitment and retention of teachers. That is one of the reasons why there is such a high rate of parental and carers’ support for the action that teachers are taking. To take just one example, one in eight maths lessons in schools in England is taught by someone who has no qualification in mathematics. What chance do we have of providing coherent maths teaching to the age of 18 or 19, as the Prime Minister would like, if we cannot provide it for all the children who have it at the moment?

I cannot tell you how many emails, messages and phone calls I had after people read the WhatsApp messages. The notion that a Secretary of State would say that all teachers were work-shy and did not like or want to go to work beggars belief, to be honest. For anyone who has never been a teacher, I can tell you that teaching is not for everybody, and there are people who voluntarily leave teaching because going into a classroom every day and not being successful is devastating. That is why lots of people leave the profession—because they cannot manage the stress of not just the teaching but all the accountability measures. We really need to hang on to the teachers we have, who are still going to school every day and, for the most part, enjoying their jobs, notwithstanding the terrible levels of pressure that they face. We really need to make sure that we have a proper retention system.

It seems to me that threatening those teachers with the possibility that they will be sacked if they have legitimately voted for and taken industrial action, very much as a last resort—as I am sure everybody in this Chamber knows and as has been said by Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, the joint general secretaries of the NEU—will not only risk the possibility of more people leaving teaching, but I cannot imagine that anyone is going to want to come into teaching when there are so many difficulties and challenges that we have at the moment.

On the other issue about cogs and wheels, I am not in favour of the fragmentation that we have seen in our education service, but fragmentation we have. The idea that we can have a minimum service level across 26,000 or 28,000 schools, not accounting for alternative provision and so on, simply is not workable. Much more importantly for me, it is not desirable. It conveys exactly the wrong impression to teachers, and we need to be talking up teaching—I am very prepared to do it—because even on a slightly bad day it is a wonderful job when you are actually in there with the children. It is not so great when you are dealing with Ofsted, and when you look at your pay at the end of the month, but it is fantastic when you are actually dealing with children and young people.

This is absolutely the wrong place to be going. I oppose this Bill in its totality, but I certainly oppose what is being said about education in this.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I just wanted to rise briefly to follow up on a couple of points we made in the previous group that I think are applicable here. In some ways, we are dealing with apples and pears; the Health Minister talked about the legislation as being essential because of life and death situations, and I do not think that any of us, however much we value education, would argue that we are in the same game here. But on another level it is apples and apples, because the problem with both the framings in the Bill is that they just say “health services” or “education services” in this incredibly vague way. I think that some of the same criticisms about foreseeability and predictability apply here, as they did with the previous group.

Specifically in the context of education, I am keen to hear from the Education Minister a similar assurance to that we were given by the Health Minister that these are permissive powers: that affected entities may give work orders, but that they will never be forced by the Government to do so. Even if a minimum service level is established in education, I hope we are going to hear that no school, college or university would be made to give work orders; they are simply empowered to do so. I hope that will be the Government’s position; that would be consistent with the previous group. Even if they agree that this is the case, I still have concerns about the effect in practice, as I did with the previous group.

I have children who are, at the moment, in a school affected by strikes. The school is managing incredibly well; it is keeping the children in exam years in school and finding ways to safeguard the others. The principal writes to us and explains why he supports his striking staff and why they deserve a better deal. That principal is never going to implement these work orders if the Government put them in place, except in two circumstances. I think we need to explore that in the context of all the powers in this Bill.

The first circumstance is that the Government in some way try to make the principal give work orders that he does not want to give to his staff. They can do that through funding mechanisms—“You don’t have to give the work orders but, if you don’t, we’ll kick your windows in”. That is not really a free choice, yet we have to worry that this is the intention of the Government. Certainly if this Government stay in power, that is the way they would handle future disputes: “Now we’ve done the minimum service levels, there is no excuse for any school not to implement it and issue work orders, whether they like it or not”.

The second mechanism was again raised on the health trust situation, and I think it is also relevant here. It is that an educational institution feels legally vulnerable if it does not implement the minimum service levels. It could be the case for schools, but it is particularly a concern for universities. We already see universities being sued by students for alleged failures to deliver the service that they signed up for. I will not go into the rights and wrongs of those cases, but again you can imagine a situation in which a university says, “Our industrial relations are good. Yes, there is a strike. Yes, we can manage it. Yes, there is a government regulation that talks about minimum service levels, but we don’t want to give work orders to our staff because we think that will worsen the situation, not improve it”, and then find itself subject to legal action. With that threat hanging over them, the leadership of our education institutions ends up doing things it does not want to do and has not chosen to do.

The word “may” sits in the Bill and is at the heart of everything. I think this Minister will say, as the previous Minister said, “This is all optional—a backstop power—and we are not going to force anyone”. That only works if the Government can give us assurances that they are not going to run a protection racket—“Issue the work orders or we kick the window in”, name and shame, or whatever mechanism they want to use—and that they have taken the advice that says that even if they have implemented the regulations, our institutions are not required to implement them and cannot be sued through civil claims simply for failing to implement a minimum service level in a regulation under this legislation.

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour 4:30 pm, 9th March 2023

My Lords, in the previous group I drew attention to the fact that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report criticised the absence of detail in the Bill in relation to the provision of minimum service levels. In that group, the Minister explained to us that the criterion in setting minimum service levels in the health sector would be life and limb. Will the Minister say what the criteria are for the setting of minimum service levels in the education sector? What factors are going to be taken into account? A second and related point is about how the minimum service level is to be set. Is it going to be some percentage of the hours that teachers do, or something of that kind? What is it that the Government have in mind by way of a metric to measure the minimum service level?

As an associated point, what is the metric that employers will use to identify the workers necessary in a work notice to implement the minimum service level? My noble friend Lady O’Grady pointed out in opening the debate on this group that millions of hours are given by public service workers, and hundreds of thousands of those hours are provided by teachers in unpaid voluntary overtime. Quite clearly, the minimum service level, still more the work notice, presumably cannot specify that teachers have to work a minimum service which includes voluntary unpaid overtime, so the minimum service that could conceivably be specified is limited to the 35 or 38 hours or whatever it is per week specified in the contract of employment of each teacher. Effectively, if the Government implement 100% minimum service levels, there will be a work to rule. All the teachers will do the absolute minimum hours that their contract specifies. I invite the Minister to help us on how that could possibly be exceeded in a minimum service level and on what it is that the Government have in mind, taking that very important factor alluded to by my noble friend into account.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, it is a pleasure, as my noble friend Lord Markham said earlier, to respond to your Lordships’ critical challenge. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness Lady O’Grady; it really is a pleasure to be across the Dispatch Box for their amendments. I put on record the Government’s appreciation for all teachers, teaching assistants and staff who work across our schools and colleges and in higher education for the extraordinary and valuable job that they do.

Amendments 6 and 7 seek to remove the education sector and education services that are within scope of having minimum service levels implemented. As noble Lords know, the key sectors outlined in the Bill broadly stem from the 1992 Act as amended by the Trade Union Act 2016, and they have long been recognised as important for society to function effectively.

The noble Baroness asked why we need minimum service levels in education services. She can probably anticipate my answer, which is twofold: first, they have far-reaching consequences for children, who are potentially denied access to education if their teachers or other staff are on strike, and, secondly, it has an impact on their parents, many of whom work in other critical services but are unable to go to work. It is only right that these essential services, which the public pay for and expect to be there when they need them, are included in the Bill so that there is a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public. The Government therefore cannot support the amendments.

Amendment 7 would exclude the vast majority of education services from the Bill. The Government believe it is right that the detail of specific services and minimum service levels is set out in secondary legislation. I am afraid that is why, in response to the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Hendy, who asked for specific detail on criteria and metrics for minimum service, I am unable to give that detail to the Committee today.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My understanding is that the policy in this area is perhaps more developed in health, where I understand a public consultation has been published in relation to ambulance workers. That is not the case for education.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business)

In the spirit of trying to help, I can understand why specific MSLs are not possible, but the department must have in mind what it thinks a school would do and deliver in the event of a strike. Are we looking at essentially safeguarding, as I said, or are we looking at teaching a full curriculum for that school? Or could there be something, such as my noble friend mentioned, in teaching particularly crucial years in the school and then safeguarding the others? Could she give us some sense of what that looks like?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Genuinely in the spirit of being helpful, those are matters for a consultation if the Secretary of State decides to proceed with one.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

If I may correct the noble Baroness, the Health Minister was not setting out the consultation, which is restricted to the ambulance services. He was specifically talking about accident and emergency and life and limb. So the Department of Health clearly has reached a conclusion that was not subject to responding to a consultation.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I can only repeat that the Secretary of State is currently considering all options. When I am able to say more on this matter, I will be delighted to come back to the House to do so.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I will be delighted to write or take questions on this matter on the Floor of the House.

If I may continue, I will try to address some of the other points that noble Lords have raised. I think I said that on Amendment 7, which would exclude the vast majority of education services from the Bill, the Government believe it is right that the detail of specific services and of minimum service levels is set out in secondary legislation. The Government have no plans currently to move ahead with secondary legislation. Although this legislation gives us the power to introduce minimum service levels within education services, it is not our intention to do so in the short term because it is our strong preference to proceed by agreement and through guidance.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, asked about consultation. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is considering all options at the moment. When those become clear, as I said, I would be delighted to update the House. The noble Baroness also asked about the ECHR memorandum and the reference to education. Since the Transport Bill was introduced, we have seen other essential services brought to a standstill. Therefore, the Prime Minister looked again at the issue and felt that disruption had spread beyond transport. Taking account of recent events as well as other evidence, there are a number of important services where the public should be protected, including children’s education, which should be protected against the disproportionate impacts of strike action for the future.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

If I may interrupt again, I think this is important because we are dealing with a skeleton Bill that outlines six sectors in which the Government will be given powers. What the Minister is saying—I do not want to put words into her mouth—is that, in respect of education, there is a hope that they will never use the powers that this Bill gives them, because it will be inappropriate. Therefore, I do not quite understand why education is there at all.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Lord is obviously entitled to wonder; I think he goes a little far. We have been absolutely clear that we prefer voluntary arrangements.

In terms of employers, obviously local authorities are the employers for local authority schools. For academies and free schools, the academy trust is the employer. The noble Baroness, Lady Blower, and the noble Lords, Lord Mann and Lord Fox, asked if I believed that these agreements would—

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business)

In the event that the Government eventually implement this, is it the local education authority that would draw up the work order and put the names on it, or is it the head teacher of the school who would draw up the work order and list the names of the teachers who are required to attend?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

It is the employer, so the employer in the case of a local authority-maintained school—which is about 60% of our primary schools and about 20% of our secondary schools—would be the local authority. It would be the academy trust in relation to academies and free schools. The specific trust is the employer, and therefore it would be the board of the trust.

In relation to teacher morale and the impact of these potential minimum service levels on teacher morale, I would not want to generalise about that, but there are a number of issues that are clear from surveys, research and talking to teachers that really matter to them. One, of course, is salary; the second is workload, and the third is the behaviour that they deal with in their schools. All three are very important, but some noble Lords—I am guessing that the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, is among them—will have seen the same survey that I saw, which showed very clearly that teacher morale matched very closely to levels of behaviour and/or the calmness within an individual school. Within the department, we are working really hard on all those issues.

Those also connect to attendance, which the noble Lord, Lord Mann, raised. I do not entirely recognise the figures that he quoted. He might have been referring to frequent absence, rather than daily attendance. Most recently, on an average day, in our state-funded primary schools, 93.3% of children were in attendance; in secondary schools it was 92.2% and in state-funded special schools it was 88.3%.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated

The Minister is absolutely right that those are the government statistics, but are they not the worst in our history? That was my point: through no fault of the Government, but because of the pandemic, we have a major crisis in schools and this has been thrown on top of it. Why worsen the situation?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 4:45 pm, 9th March 2023

We absolutely know that the pandemic has had a terrible impact on school attendance. That is why I say that the strikes at the moment are particularly unhelpful for children when we are trying to send a clear message that school is not an optional extra but something that you go to every single day. To have renewed disruption is not helpful for those children or the message that we are trying to send them. I am not confident, but I hope that I have reassured the Committee enough that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour

Can I just inquire about the Minister’s proposition that all options are being considered? Can she say whether the possibility has been excluded from consideration of requiring teachers under a work notice fulfilling a minimum service level to carry out unpaid voluntary overtime?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am not aware of the details, but I am not sure that it would be appropriate to comment at this point.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

Is the Minister able to answer a brief question in relation to the role of school governors? They actually employ the staff—that is engage the staff. Do the Government not have concerns that these volunteers could be deterred from taking part in what is already a demanding, onerous and very skilled job by problems such as having to identify those members of staff who are needed for a minimum service level, added to their already onerous responsibilities?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I have already been repetitively clear that the Government would much prefer to see voluntary arrangements in this area. Again, having been a governor of a school, as many of your Lordships probably have, it is not about picking one single thing that is going to make it more or less stressful. We need to be very clear that the role of governors is incredibly important. We appreciate them enormously and offer them the support that they need to do their role.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Can I just reiterate this point? The Minister says that she and her department would much prefer voluntary arrangements, as they work and they support them. What is her view, or the department’s view, of the impact of threatening to take these powers on those voluntary arrangements? Does she think that it might undermine the voluntary arrangements that she has been advocating?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We very much hope that it would have the opposite effect.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

I am sorry to press the Minister once more on my noble friend Lord Hendy’s point, but I do not think it is inappropriate because it goes to an important principle in this legislation. If there are some current services in the public space—education is the specific example given in this context—that are being provided at current levels only through a great deal of unpaid, extra hours of voluntary work, is it part of the policy behind the Bill that it is possible for a Secretary of State to prescribe minimum service level agreements that mandate unpaid voluntary work?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

It would obviously depend on the contractual arrangements in place. My understanding is that not every case would be the same.

Photo of Baroness Blower Baroness Blower Labour

One of the issues in teaching is precisely that all the voluntary activity is entirely without contractual arrangements. I am sure the Minister will agree that, if we bear down on people’s arrangements in the way this legislation proposes, good will—which is how we normally describe it—will evaporate as teachers will not feel valued and will certainly not feel properly rewarded.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I think the only thing I can say is that all these matters would be taken into account in any consultation if the Government decide to proceed.

Photo of Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Labour

I thank the Minister, in particular for her willingness to carry on the conversation, whether on the Floor or through correspondence, as it has become clearer and clearer that there are number of specific major problems with this Bill that people will be looking for answers on.

On why the Government have shifted their position from that set out in the memorandum on human rights attached to the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, I felt it was a nice try, but it does not address what the Government’s position was—including the fact that there are already safeguarding and health and safety provisions in place. That is important when considering whether this is a proportionate response to fundamental human rights for workers—liberties that we have long treasured in this country.

The key message from the Minister’s response is that there is an intention to take the power but not to use it. As my noble friend Lord Collins said, it is clear that there would still be a very real impact on voluntary good will and morale. As the Minister acknowledges, that has a direct impact of the quality of the education services provided to children and is important to parents. I still feel very concerned about what scope there might be for undue pressure to come on trusts, governors and other institutions to wield and activate this power, even though it may be against their better judgement. Then we get into that highly dangerous territory, for any government of any stripe, where a strike becomes politicised. That point was made before regarding health, and it is a serious one.

I do believe that the Minister has a wise head. I encourage her to think about what it means in practice if you have an individual teacher, named and issued with a work notice, who is highly likely to be a union member who has voted for strike action. As there is nothing in the Bill to prevent this, they may have been picked on because they are a union rep or activist or because, like millions of ordinary working people in this country, those named teachers may simply hold the strong belief that they should have the individual freedom to withdraw their labour.

The Bill would ensure that, regardless, those teachers would be required to work against their will and their own conscience. They would be required to walk past their workmates, crossing a picket line—the main purpose of which is to persuade workers not to do so. The union must encourage them to comply, even if the notice was issued without the union’s agreement. All of this would be under threat of the sack. Potentially, if these mysterious “reasonable steps” are not taken, all those teachers would lose their protection against unfair dismissal.

I remind the Minister of the words of her colleague, the Conservative MP for Stevenage. He said it was “shameful” that

“individual … teachers & workers can be targeted & sacked if they don’t betray their mates.”

I encourage the Minister to talk to her colleagues and save them from themselves because this would be a disaster for industrial relations, our education service and for our children. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Amendment 7 not moved.