Moved by Baroness Randerson
14: The Schedule, page 3, line 31, at end insert—“(5) Regulations made under this section in relation to strikes affecting services in an area for which an elected mayor is responsible may not be made without the consent of the elected mayor for that area.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the consent of the relevant elected mayor before minimum service levels could be set in relation to an area for which an elected mayor was responsible.
My Lords, I will speak to the amendments in the group starting with Amendment 14 in the name of my noble friend Lord Fox. This group is all about devolution. The Government have hyped up their commitment to devolution in England, so Amendment 14 is in line with the proposals in the levelling-up Bill and in Bills on the powers of existing mayoral authorities. In England, an increasing number of those have great powers over transport—for example, bus franchises—so it is logical that elected mayors should be consulted by the Government before they intervene with minimum service levels.
I move on to Amendments 19 and 49 in my name, which refer to the much stronger devolution that has existed in Wales and Scotland and, we hope, will be returned in Northern Ireland in due course. Amendment 19 refers to Part 1 of the Schedule, which relates to minimum service level regulations that may be applied by UK Government Ministers to the list of services specified in the Bill. The key point is that most of these services—health, fire and rescue, education and most of transport—are devolved. Only the decommissioning of nuclear installations, management of radioactive waste and so on, and border security are reserved matters falling to the UK Government. Once again, we have this Government riding roughshod over the core business of devolution. Even border security could be argued to be a very legitimate interest to the devolved Administrations. For example, the Welsh Government owns and runs Cardiff Airport, and that would clearly be directly affected if there were a dispute with border security staff. Similarly, the safe and efficient operation of the several very important and significant Welsh ports is of direct concern to the Welsh Government. In practice, you could not impose a minimum service level without consultation and close co-operation.
I need to point out here that the Welsh Government have a much more positive relationship with public sector trade unions than that between the UK Government and trade unions in England. Although they have not totally avoided strike action in Wales recently, it has certainly been much less intense and acrimonious. The Welsh Government have adopted more of a social partnership approach, and we have seen none of the provocative rhetoric that we have seen in England.
Amendment 19 is very modest: it simply asks for an obligation for proper consultation with Welsh and Scottish Ministers before regulations are made. It reflects similar provisions in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. It specifies that a senior Minister of the Crown should undertake this consultation because we have lately had repeated evidence that this Government have failed to interact at the appropriate level with Ministers in the devolved Administrations, whom they seem, on occasion, to regard as insignificant juniors. Very recently, in the debate on the retained EU law Bill, we were repeatedly referred to officials as the appropriate level for such links. If the UK Government decide to intervene to specify minimum service levels for devolved services, that is a political decision, and the very least that they should do is ensure that Ministers take the lead in that political process.
Quite apart from the need to respect devolution, there is considerable scope for confusion if the UK Government decide to define what they regard as an MSL without close liaison with the devolved Administrations. Let us take health as an example: waiting times for treatment are defined differently in Wales and England, as are ambulance response times, so one size definitely does not fit all. The very simple Amendment 49 takes a much more radical approach. By leaving out “Wales and Scotland”, it would limit the extent of the Bill to England. That would reflect the points that I made previously: most of the public services specified are devolved, and even those which are not have a close interaction with devolved services.
During the pandemic, for instance, we became acutely aware of the differences in organisation and ethos between the UK Government’s approach and that taken, for instance, in Wales, but which I also observed in Scotland. There are plenty of stresses in the delivery of Welsh public services. I do not defend the current standard of some of those. They are under acute stress. If this comes to a head in the form of strikes, it is unlikely that dictation from the outside by the UK Government will help the situation.
Finally, I remind noble Lords that the UK Government are just the Government for England when we talk about strikes in schools or in the NHS, for instance, and other services specified in the Bill.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 49. All the points arise in relation to it, so I do not think it necessary to go into the other amendments. I will make six points.
First, I do not believe that it is contested that a number of the services covered by the Bill are effectively within the control of the Governments of the nations of Scotland and Wales, and that is reflected everywhere in the consultation that has so far been made. However, when you take that, you have to consider whether you can disentangle services during periods of strikes from services elsewhere. On our previous day in Committee, the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Patel, eloquently put why it is quite impossible to disentangle them. What I simply do not understand at the moment is why, if you have a minimum standard on a strike day, that is not the minimum standard across all these areas on every other day. How can the public be expected to think that in strikes there is a minimum standard? There is not.
This is a critical point because it goes to my second point: the purpose of this Bill. The Government, relying, no doubt, on their legal advice, take the view that this has nothing whatever to do with Wales and Scotland. They assert as a matter of constitutional law that this is an entirely reserved matter. With her usual clarity, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, explained the purpose of the Bill, which is what I tried to summarise in my first proposition: it is to do with services; it is not a Bill to do with industrial relations, employment rights and duties. Clearly, this is not a reserved matter and therefore, you need a legislative consent Motion. Unfortunately, the question of whether you need a legislative consent Motion has fallen into disuse. It is a real problem, which I have raised many times in this House, that the Sewel convention is in serious danger of not being a convention any longer.
You can look at the legal analysis from a different point of view, but that is sufficient because you pick up in there the point that, even if this whole thing can be disentangled, you ought to realise that this is not a matter entirely for the Government of the United Kingdom but for the Governments in Cardiff and Scotland. Even if you do not agree with my analysis of the law, it is really important that you engage with those Governments—a point picked up in the earlier amendment. I am always extremely grateful for the very warm words of the Minister on this but, as many have said, you are judged by your deeds, not your words. The deeds in this case are all one way, and that is to try to whittle down the powers of the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales and thereby weaken the union.
My third point is that even if you could disentangle and ignore what was said in the previous debate, and even if you do not want to engage, it is not practical to think that Secretaries of State in England can make decisions in respect of minimum service levels in Scotland and Wales. One of the consequences of devolution has been that the ignorance in Whitehall of how these services are run in Wales and Scotland increases year by year. It is not a criticism; it is just the fact of devolution. Let us take, for example, education. We have no idea yet how they are proposing to specify minimum standards in education. I assume that the Secretary of State is competent to decide the minimum standard so, if you go by subject matter, what is the minimum standard of bilingual education to be? It is not something that I imagine engages the Whitehall mandarins in the department concerned with education. You can multiply this—the ambulance service, for example—right across the spectrum. So, even if it is possible to do it and even if you ignore the devolution settlement, it is simply not practical.
I go on to my fourth point. Even if practical, the effect is to remove responsibility from the person who deals with the workforce. I know this Government have great skill in industrial relations, but in saying that the Bill is all about industrial relations—which, of course, it is not; it is to do with minimum standards—they obviously feel that by imposing their own views on industrial relations on those responsible for the negotiations in Wales and Scotland, they can do better. I am not sure that their track record really justifies that conclusion. If one looks back to the events of recent years, the Governments in Scotland and Wales have generally been more successful in dealing with negotiations in relation to these services than His Majesty’s Ministers in Whitehall. What you are doing by this Bill is effectively taking away power from those who have responsibility for the negotiations. There is a well-known quotation about power without responsibility, to which is unnecessary to refer.
That takes me to the fifth point I want to make, which is that the consequences of this undermine democracy and accountability. One of the great virtues of this House is that it attaches great importance to accountability. By transferring responsibility for minimum services, the Bill is taking it away from those who are accountable to the people of Wales and Scotland. It is quite wrong that we should proceed on this basis.
My sixth and final point is this. When you sit and think, you must ask yourself, why is this Bill being put forward? Normally, as I understand the way we have traditionally been governed in this country, you work out the policy first and legislate second. What is happening in this Bill is that you legislate first and think second. Now that we turn to devolution, there is yet another problem. Had we proceeded in the right way, we would not be in the mess this Bill is getting us into. I suggest that if you look at the consequences for devolution, you see yet another reason why this Bill, a skeletal Bill, should not proceed. I shall add just one scintilla to that—it is a point I do not want to develop any further. This Bill is Henry VIII on stilts. Looking at a Bill of this kind, we have not yet examined whether you should put into such a Bill a clause that limits the Government’s power to override the devolution settlement. I do not know. This is a subject that we ought to be debating, but I think it unnecessary to add to the length of what has already been too long a speech on these points.
My Lords, since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, used what I said earlier in aid of his arguments, I thought I ought to say a few words. First, unfortunately I do not speak for the Government in any respect. Indeed, the Government are generally to the left of my views, so my views are indeed my own. I have said that this Bill is about protecting service levels, in particular for those who have paid through their taxes for public services to be provided to them. That is the aim of the Bill. The means of the Bill is via trade union and industrial relations legislation. That is a reserved matter, and I think the Government have to accept the point.
Having said that, I of course agree that the devolved Administrations should be consulted on minimum service levels because they are bound to affect their citizens. I believe that the devolved Administrations would want to be involved in any consultation, to put across the views of their citizens as to the appropriate minimum service levels that their citizens should be demanding. However, I do not think it goes beyond that, and I do not think it is necessary to go to the extent of the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, which talks about meaningful consultation. They are of course going to be consulted on these matters.
When the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, introduced Amendment 14, she very carefully said that elected mayors should be consulted. That is not what Amendment 14 says. It says that regulations cannot be made
“without the consent of the elected mayor for that area.”
That would mean, for example, that any minimum service level which affected a train service between London and Manchester could be vetoed by either the elected Mayor of Greater Manchester or the elected Mayor of London—or indeed Birmingham. That seems to me to be complete nonsense. I believe they should be consulted because they will want to input the views that protect services for the residents in their areas, but we should not go as far as requiring consent.
My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendments 19 and 49 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, which try to mitigate in one and contain in the other the level of interference that the Bill intends to make into areas that are clearly devolved. This is in a long line of legislation that has trampled over the accepted responsibilities of devolved Governments. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act, the Nationality and Borders Act, the Subsidy Control Act, the Elections Act, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and the retained EU law Bill are just a few of the Bills that have impacted on the devolved Administrations.
On this occasion, in the Bill’s list of six services to be targeted I found only one that was reserved and that was border security, though I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that airports and ports will be dragged into that. Health services, education, fire and rescue services, transport services and the decommissioning of nuclear plants are devolved responsibilities, and the elected Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd are ultimately accountable for the delivery of these services. The Minister and his colleagues have no electoral mandate to interfere in these services. Not only does the Bill seek to allow government Ministers to interfere in devolved areas of competency but it does not even have the good manners to outline in the body of the Bill how they would use these powers. Parliament is yet again being asked to put its name to a blank cheque.
It may surprise the Minister to know that both the Welsh and Scottish Governments have respectful working relationships with trade unions in their countries. In Scotland, the fair work framework has a different model of industrial relations from that adopted by the UK Government. The framework states that there are many examples in Scotland and elsewhere of how the collective voice of trade unions working with employers has addressed the wide range of organisational challenges and contributed to organisational improvements. The Welsh Government are committed to the Fair Work Commission in Wales, which respects and encourages trade unions to have a significant role in workplaces, society and policy-making. How different that is from the approach taken by this Government. These fair work arrangements do not prevent industrial disputes but allow constructive dialogue between government, employers and trade unions, so that when disputes occur there is greater good will to resolve them.
In support of these amendments, I particularly appreciate the insistence of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that consultation must mean more than lip service, with Amendment 19 specifying that it must be
“with a view to reaching an agreement.”
Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I think it is important to have that in—how many consultations do we really believe have changed thinking?
While it would be better if the Bill is not taken forward at all, if it is, it should not apply in Scotland and Wales. I would support particularly then Amendment 49. What the Bill has achieved is a strong case for devolving employment law to Holyrood and the Senedd. As explained quite entertainingly and enjoyably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, the Sewel convention has been abused time and again so that it is no longer meaningful. There is an urgent need to rethink the balance between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. As we approach the 24th anniversaries of the opening of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd, we should remember that these institutions were established to allow the people of Scotland and Wales to make decisions about how their countries should be run. This must not be undermined by such poorly framed and unnecessary legislation as this Bill. I urge noble Lords to support these amendments.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, and to add to her remarks. I strongly support Amendment 49 and point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that the phrase in Amendment 19 of consultation implying a view to meeting an agreement is particularly important because in this Bill we are talking about devolved competencies directly, and I am afraid the track record has not been that good. Indeed, the Bill seems to have been announced without any prior consultation with the Welsh Government at all, and officials have been reluctant to share substantive information relating to the Bill which is not in the public domain but does affect devolved competencies.
In paragraph 141 of Schedule 7A to the Government of Wales Act it would seem that legislative consent is required over aspects of health, education, fire and rescue, and certain transport services. But the Welsh Government appear to be set to vote overwhelmingly to refuse legislative consent, and for good reason. As the Government themselves have conceded, the services are
“run differently in England, Scotland and Wales and are the responsibility of Scottish and Welsh Governments respectively.”
With that responsibility comes a requirement to set pay and terms and conditions of service, and those cannot be disentangled from strategic and operational decisions taken in Wales and Scotland. To give those powers to Westminster and override the devolved legislations would effectively undermine their ability to run the services that they run as effectively as they see fit to meet the needs of the population—the population which have voted those devolved Ministers into their positions in government.
There is a different approach to the unions, as has already been said. There is a model of social partnership, which I am familiar with in Wales. It was notable that, even going back to 2015, the junior doctors did not go on strike in Wales whereas they did in England, and the current rail strikes have shown a different pattern of working because an agreement was made with Transport for Wales.
It certainly is not incidental that this has been included in the Bill, because it threatens the Welsh Government’s ability to maintain a model that is interwoven with those responsibilities, as I have said. In fact, those services are essential to the running of the devolved nations. The approach would undermine accountability in Wales, as the Bill provides no role for the Senedd, despite the strong argument that it has the competences to legislate in areas contained in the Bill. The Secretary of State being able to set minimum service levels for local services in most parts of England is already questioned by some, but it seems almost an affront to devolved responsibilities to say that that could override the responsibilities in the devolved nations.
The consultation process set out in the Bill fails to specify who should be consulted; it is whoever the Secretary of State sees fit, and they do not seem to have to pay regard to the outcome of that consultation. That means there is no role for the Welsh Ministers, who are actually responsible for running the services. If the Bill is passed, the backdrop to negotiations undertaken in Wales will be fundamentally altered. There is a concern—a valid one, I think—that that could be used for political ends, because there is no protection in the Bill from a Secretary of State who wishes to provoke or prolong a dispute for political ends.
Sadly, no Minister in Wales or Scotland can take comfort from assurances given and being told that they will be consulted. Similar assurances were provided over the financial powers in the internal markets Act, but those are now being used to ensure that Welsh Ministers cannot take the decisions over EU successor funds provided in the form of the shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up fund. I hope the Committee will see that in order to maintain the integrity of the UK, it will be important to take Wales, Scotland and, I think, Northern Ireland out of the wording in the Bill.
Has the noble Baroness realised that the Bill does not actually require any employer in Wales to issue a work notice? The only thing that the Secretary of State will be doing is setting minimum service standards. The implementation via work notices is entirely at the option of the employers, which will be either the Welsh Government or one of the various Welsh bodies that are answerable to the Welsh Government. I understand the point that she was trying to make, but she was implying that the UK Government were interfering in the operation of the services, which the Bill does not come close to doing.
I remind the noble Baroness that we have already had a debate over the difficulty of setting minimum service levels and the dangers thereof. Minimum levels for nursing have already been set in Wales, for example, so we cannot disentangle the one from the other. That is the point that I was trying to make.
Yes—“Come into my parlour”.
I attended the Wales TUC and the Scottish TUC for well over a decade—some might say I do not have a home to go to. That helped me to understand the completely different cultures of those countries and the completely different relationship that the workforce, the trade unions, employers, Governments and successive Administrations had with each other, and the respect that successive Governments had with the trade unions. It is not just that this is a damaging Bill; it is an affront to those countries that there should be some imposition of power. That is what we are talking about, not whether employers should be forced to issue a work notice but that there will be an overall power, the details of which are not known, which the Welsh and Scottish Administrations will have to accept.
We are talking here about the tone of employment relations, which has always been completely different. It has been conducted in a non-legalistic way. There have been as many strikes, and I am not saying that the services are particularly better in Wales or Scotland, but the tone of the relationship is what could be so badly damaged.
It was most interesting at Question Time today for those noble Lords who were here to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, talking about the distinction between the workforce and the trade unions. I have been trying to make the point all along that this Government are doing their best to separate trade unions from their workforce. The noble Baroness was very keen to assure the House that she was not blaming the workforce for people not doing non-contractual rest-day work; she was blaming the trade unions for those members not doing non-contractual rest-day work. That in any case is a bad practice that has grown up over the years, which has really been because members have wanted a better standard of living, but are we really saying that a minimum service level will have to include this non-contractual rest-day working, or will it not include it? Or will it not be mentioned at all in any document?
The Minister is shaking his head and smiling. I realise that he must be getting very fed up of listening to all of this. Maybe that will help the Government next time to bring forward a Bill that actually has some content in, and then he will not be so bored.
I do not know how many people here watched “Boys from the Blackstuff”—some Members are certainly too young for that—but I am reminded of the character called Yosser Hughes, who went around saying “Gis a job”. In this case it is the Government saying, “Gis a power. We don’t know what we’re going to do with it, we can’t tell you yet, we promise to consult you, but gis a power.” I think the Government are hoping that, if they carry on repeating that for long enough, everyone will sit back and say, “Oh all right, let’s see what they do with it”. As far as I am concerned, that is the main principle: the Government are asking us to give them a power and not telling us how they will use it.
My Lords, there is a feeling growing up or being put around this House that somehow the Conservative Benches are historically against trade unions. These Benches are not historically against them. I spent 25 years in the European Parliament, and my noble friend the Minister spent some years there. I spent some time on the European Economic and Social Committee, which, as with Scotland and Wales, bases itself on trying to get a consensual view of industrial relations. If you want to improve the wealth of the country, that is the way forward. That is what made the German economy as successful as it is today: the works councils and the compulsory consultation. We seem to be in danger of drifting in the opposite direction, but I remind the Minister that the great tradition of Christian democracy in Europe, which has a much wider following than conservatism, is based on working between social partners.
This legislation is, let us say, imperfect. It has great difficulties and is almost unworkable, and I do not know why the Government are pursuing it. I hope that maybe at the end of this series of debates they will decide to pause it and not go forward. As these amendments show, it is going to be very difficult to implement, even if the Government wanted to. Set aside the local mayors, which I think are impractical; railway trains run between our countries and planes fly between them, while I am told that some services, such as organs and blood in the health service, are organised on a national basis so that people can get the best service wherever they live. We are after all in a United Kingdom, as this party often says.
I ask the Minister to look at hitting the pause button on this piece of legislation because even if it is passed it will not work, and it is not good government to pass legislation that just will not work.
My Lords, this has been an incredibly valuable discussion. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, is absolutely right. One of the problems we have is that, in the past, good governance was Green Papers, White Papers, a debate about policy and then a considered approach to what sort of legislation would be appropriate. The other thing we are jumping around between is the question: is this about minimum service levels, or is it a power grab by the Government?
The reality is that we have minimum service levels, but they are negotiated locally, taking in many factors. As the noble and learned Lord said, we are talking about devolved matters. It is the responsibility of the Welsh and Scottish Governments to set up and organise their health, education and other services. It is not just about the devolution settlement. I have heard Government Ministers, on the levelling-up agenda, talk about how we want to push responsibility locally. But suddenly that sort of politics goes out of the window when it comes to trade unions. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said about his party, but the simple fact is that this is a power grab by Ministers.
We will no doubt hear the Minister respond that work notices are a matter for employers, and no one is forcing people. Let me ask the question: if the Minister is going to set the minimum service levels but a local authority, a devolved mayor or the Welsh Government do not force through work notices, will that leave those authorities that fail to implement it in the way the Government suggest open to legal action? Will they face a challenge from those who claim they were denied services? We need a very clear answer to that question. The Bill was published without any consultation of the people who will have the responsibility to deal with it and implement it. Even the consultations taking place now are using language that I find difficult to understand, in terms of the responsibilities of devolved authorities and local mayors.
I am trying to avoid being repetitive—I know that will get the Minister’s head nodding—but fundamentally we will keep coming back to certain principles. Let us just focus on these amendments and have some clear answers to questions. If it is down to the devolved Administrations and local mayors to determine something, does it leave them vulnerable to legal challenge?
The noble Lord might like to note that, as we were sitting, we received an email from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, which partially responds to his question. It would be rather helpful if we could have letters from Ministers with some notice, rather than simultaneous to our arrival in this Committee. It reinforces the uncertainty around legal redress, the point which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, just made.
I appreciate the noble Lord drawing that to my attention. I have not had the opportunity to read the email, so maybe I will be jumping back up when the Minister responds and I have been able to read it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for their amendments. Amendments 14, 19 and 49 relate to devolved matters, either via devolved Governments or local government. Amendment 14 seeks to require the consent of elected mayors before minimum service levels could be set in an area for which an elected mayor is responsible. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is right to point out that this is unworkable. Consultations have been published on minimum service levels for ambulance, fire and rail services, and we welcome the engagement of elected mayors on those consultations. Similarly, Amendment 19 seeks to require consultation with Scottish and Welsh Ministers before minimum service level regulations are made in Scotland or Wales, with a view to reaching an agreement. Amendment 49 seeks to limit the territorial extent of the Bill to England.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised concerns about the impact of this legislation on devolution, and this is an important issue. However, employment rights and duties and industrial relations are reserved in Scotland and Wales. That said, I reassure her and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, that my noble friend the Minister met both the Welsh and Scottish Governments to discuss the Bill.
The Government have a duty to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens across the United Kingdom. The disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public are no less severe on people in Scotland and Wales or on those living in areas with elected mayors. They have every right to expect the Government to act to ensure that they can continue to access vital public services during strikes.
The Government therefore resist these amendments. However, as I said earlier, nothing in the Bill requires an employer, which might include a devolved Government or an elected mayor, to issue a work notice. That would include the example of Cardiff Airport that the noble Baroness cited.
On that point, which is repeatedly coming up, would the noble Baroness be able to assure the Committee that we can have a clause in the Bill—because courts sometimes interpret “may” as meaning “shall”—that makes it very clear that no legal obligation whatever rests on any person whatever to implement the minimum standards set out in the Bill, unless the employer decides to implement a notice? If the case the Government are making is that the Bill has no effect unless the employer does something, that needs to be spelled out with crystal clarity. If the Ministers would like, I will have a go at drafting a clause to save the overburdened so-called parliamentary counsel.
I repeat at the Dispatch Box that under the Bill it is a statutory discretion and not a statutory duty for employers as to whether to issue a work notice. It is a matter for the employer to consider any contractual or other legal obligations it has in taking this decision.
We of course hope that all employers will want to apply minimum service levels where they are needed. In reference to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, I say that, before making minimum service level regulations, government departments need to consult on the appropriate minimum service for their sectors. This will enable detailed evidence to inform the development of minimum service levels in specific services. This includes understanding the differences between services in each sector across Great Britain and the implications for setting minimum service levels. We will continue to engage with the devolved Governments on the geographical scope of the regulations.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, is correct that of course we would rather have a negotiated agreement on minimum service levels. I also reiterate, in response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on why my noble friend was shaking his head, that we think there has been a misunderstanding. There is no statutory duty but, as I said, rather a statutory discretion under the Bill for employers to issue work notices.
Does the Minister understand the concern and the problem? “May” can become “must” if someone sues an employer for not having issued work notices, on the basis that the Secretary of State took the view that a minimum service level requirement should be there but the employer chose not to issue work notices but to carry on negotiating, et cetera, and a third party then challenges that discretion and the more gentle decision made under it. That is how “may” can become “must”, and that means litigation, cost and more aggravation. I believe that this is the concern that was expressed by the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench last time and put so eloquently today by the noble and learned Lord.
I hear and understand the noble Baroness’s concerns, but I default to the Government’s position: the Bill gives only a statutory discretion, not a statutory duty, to the employer on whether to issue a work notice.
I will pursue this “may/must” argument from a slightly different direction. One of the arguments made in the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Markham, is that the unsatisfactory nature of the current situation is that the Government were unable to secure a national agreement from the ambulance services on the level of cover. The Minister will be aware that we do not have a national ambulance service; we have a series of ambulance services across the country. Under the “may/must” doctrine that the Minister set out, it is perfectly possible that one ambulance service in one area “must”, while another one chooses not to; in other words, we would still have a patchy service across the United Kingdom and the Government would have failed to achieve the objective that the noble Lord, Lord Markham, set out in his letter. So, given the good faith that I put in the Minister’s comments, I do not understand what problem this solves, because the compulsion—or lack of it—within the Bill means that we still do not have a national agreement on service levels.
The Government’s position is that we would rather have a voluntary agreement than a compulsion to issue notices. Of course, we would hope that each employer would choose to accept minimum service levels, because the Government are here to protect the level of service available to all UK citizens, not just those in England.
The noble Baroness has set up a whole new stream of thought because now she is saying that there is an ability for government to compel the employer to give a notice. We all hope that there will be voluntary agreement—that is where we are now, and it is what the Bill seeks to undermine.
I do not accept the noble Lord’s points at all, but I will continue my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Of course, we would rather have a negotiated agreement on minimum service levels, but the Government resist these amendments. I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords—I feel I have not entirely—on “may” versus “must” and the compulsion, the statutory discretion or the statutory duty. With those comments, I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister and all who took part in this useful debate. We started with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, who pinpointed the persistent erosion of devolution. He called the Bill “Henry VIII on stilts”, and the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, called it “Gis a power”—I think both phrases will stick in our memories. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that of course the devolved Administrations will be consulted, but the problem is that, persistently, they have not been consulted at the right levels and the right point in time. There has been a thin façade of last-minute, low-level consultation, and this has not worked—it is not consultation in the proper sense of that word. The Minister did not reassure me when she said that it was complete nonsense that elected mayors should need to give consent—that shows a lack of understanding of the concept of proper consultation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, gave us a useful long list of recent Bills that have undermined devolution—I will copy it out when I read Hansard so that I remember each one. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, took the points further by raising the fear that UK Ministers would use powers in the Bill for political ends. The truth is that this is a heavily political issue and, in England, the wrong sort of political interference has created problems in industrial relations that have not existed in Scotland and Wales to the same extent, because industrial relations have been handled with more sensitivity there. I have no doubt that the UK Government have their own reasons for wishing to sharpen relations with the unions, but that is nevertheless a political issue.
I will refer specifically to the challenge of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about the Secretary of State setting an MSL for the NHS in Wales, for example. That MSL could be at variance with that already set in Wales—that is a problem in itself—but what happens when Welsh NHS leaders choose not to implement that MSL? The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, both confirmed that, in their view, this would be fertile territory for lawyers—let us put it that way. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, pointed out that this is a totally impracticable Bill and, even if it were passed, it would not work—I agree with him totally.
I thank the Minister for her comments. She said she hoped that employers will want to apply MSLs, so the Government are clearly encouraging that—we are not on neutral territory. But that seems at variance with the idea that the Government want voluntary agreements, as she said next. As my noble friend said, we have voluntary agreements now, and that is what is being disapplied by the Bill. I am not reassured by the Government’s answer, and this is yet more evidence, if we needed it, that the Government are out of their depth on the Bill and do not know how it will or could be applied.
Finally, I will of course be withdrawing my noble friend Lord Fox’s amendment, but, in light of the lengthy letter from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, that we received after these proceedings started—as far as I can manage to read it on my phone, it seems to be at variance with some of the Minister’s points—I will quite possibly come back to these points on Report. When Ministers cannot agree on the interpretation of a Bill, we need to probe further. I withdraw Amendment 14.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.