Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 12:45 pm on 23rd March 2023.
Lord Allan of Hallam:
Moved by Lord Allan of Hallam
15: The Schedule, page 3, line 31, at end insert—“(5) Before making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a statement outlining how the regulations are both necessary and proportionate.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Secretary of State to outline why regulations made under this section are necessary and proportionate before making them.
My Lords, throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government have repeatedly said that we are talking about last-resort measures that they are reluctant to, and hope they will not have to, introduce. In this group, we will test the extent to which they genuinely see these as last-resort measures.
Collectively, the amendments could be described as seeking to introduce additional elements of friction, before the Government move to regulating for these minimum service levels. Friction can be a useful thing in the right places: if I wish to enter my own house, I would like that to be as frictionless as possible, but if the police would like to enter it to carry out a search, I would like there to be a reasonable level of friction, with them having to prove why they have the ability or need to do that, and to go before a court to have their need tested in front of others. So, here, we are trying to put those kinds of friction in place so that Ministers do not do what we fear: rush to regulate in the heat of action in the same way that they have rushed to bring this legislation before us in the first place.
Amendment 15 in my name uses two concepts that are familiar to those who work with human rights legislation—the notions of necessity and proportionality. I am not practised in public human rights law, so I will defer to the noble Broness, Lady Chakrabarti, who I am sure will have things to say on this group of amendments. However, I have had to make decisions on freedom of expression and surveillance questions on online platforms where these tests are useful and applied because they seek to balance different rights that we have. It has been generally accepted in our debates that we are talking about fundamental human rights here—the right of an individual to withdraw their labour. When considering whether the Government in the public interest can override that right, these necessity and proportionality tests are the right ones, just as they are in other contexts such as freedom of expression and surveillance.
I am sure that the Government in their response will refer to the human rights certification that is on the front page of every piece of legislation and say that it is an implicit commitment. Of course, no British Government could ever not apply tests of necessity and proportionality because they have signed off the legislation as compliant. However, there are significant advantages to making these tests explicit in this section of the Bill.
The amendment would force the Minister to consider the tests and to apply them explicitly before making regulations, and to publish their deliberations for scrutiny. In practice, this would mean that the Minister would have to ask the team that is putting together the case for the regulations to show its workings; this would have significant value if those workings were available to all of us. That is not least of defensive value for the Government, because at some point they will have to explain why they felt compelled to make the regulations and why they passed the threshold.
I look first at the necessity test. The Minister would need to be satisfied that all other avenues had been tried, which in this case largely means negotiated agreements to provide cover. The risk with the Bill as it stands is that Ministers will be satisfied with vague assurances. They will ask, “Did you ask for voluntary cover?” “Yes, Minister, we did.” “Did they agree?” “No, Minister, they didn’t.” “Okay, let’s move to a regulation.” The test may be no more than that and, indeed, in the letter that has just arrived from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, which we are now considering, one senses an element of that with the Government’s argument around ambulance services: “We asked; we didn’t get one and we therefore now need this piece of legislation.” That is not good enough and, if this is truly a last resort power, we want the Minister to press for all avenues to have been explored including the potential offer of carrots to the workforce for agreeing to provide minimum services, as has happened in many other countries. We debated that at length on the first day of Committee. It is not simply a question of employers ordering their workforces to provide minimum service levels; in many institutions there is a negotiated agreement whereby something is offered to the workforce in return for providing minimum service levels. What we do not want is a necessity test that bypasses and ignores that option altogether. By putting that explicitly in the Bill, the Minister would have to be satisfied that all reasonable steps had been taken and there was no other way in which to guarantee minimum service levels. That is the right necessity test when one is overriding somebody’s fundamental rights, as we have all agreed is happening in this case.
I turn now to the proportionality test. It is included to make sure the provision is done properly. There is a risk of a superficial version of this test—one which is effectively a cost-benefit analysis. We have seen this again in the context of the ambulance debate. The Government will argue that the benefits of having life-saving ambulance cover outweigh the cost of some workers not being able to strike. At that superficial level that sounds reasonable, but it is not a true proportionality test. To do that properly we need to dig into the next level, where we look at the likely actual impacts. There are two areas where the proportionality test might be more complex. First, if there is any likelihood that workers could end up being dismissed—as we have accepted is a potential outcome of this legislation—in this case the costs are dramatically different and that equation would change. Providing emergency cover versus dismissal of workers is a different test from emergency cover versus simply losing the right to strike.
Secondly, if the regulations did not result in more people showing up for work—for example, because people take other forms of industrial action, which they are entitled to do; there are all sorts for ways in which the climate could be poisoned to such an extent that one ends up with fewer people at work than one would have done absent the regulation—the benefits would not have been realised and the proportionality, the cost-benefit equation, changes. This amendment therefore proposes the kind of proportionality test that I hope the Minister would apply by rigorously looking at all the costs and benefits, and is then prepared to publish and defend that analysis rather than making simplistic assumptions. The amendment simply seeks to introduce that rigour with publication to make sure that it happens.
Other amendments in the group will add other forms of beneficial friction and I will leave it to their proponents to argue for them, but I hope that I have made a reasonable case for the Government to accept the additional clarity offered by Amendment 15. I beg to move.
I speak in support of every amendment in this group, even at the risk of offending the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. At first blush, her Amendment 17 enhances my noble friends’ amendment and does no mischief to it whatever because. by including the impact of the legislation on service users in the list of other groups of people affected, she has, perhaps inadvertently, introduced an element of proportionality into the assessment of the legislation. I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam. I perhaps would not have chosen his friction metaphor because it is the legislation itself that is introducing friction into what ought to be partnership industrial relations. This group may not be Henry VIII on stilts, but it is Henry VIII revisited. What every amendment in the group at least purports to do is to introduce an element of transparency into the process before the Secretary of State inflicts these regulations on the public or on Parliament.
I want to be clear, as I have been in the past, that the Bill is not desirable or necessary but if such minimum service level agreements were in a particular instance desirable, necessary and proportionate to comply with convention rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Allan, rightly pointed out, it would be for a number of reasons better for everyone—including Ministers—to do this by way of purpose-specific primary legislation. In a moment where it was truly necessary to impose these agreements because they could not be reasonably negotiated, it would be better for legal advocacy to do this by way of purpose-specific primary legislation. Why? Because it would be purpose-specific and because any court subsequently considering the necessity, proportionality and compliance with the law of the measure would give greater deference to the scrutiny and process undertaken in both Houses of Parliament in the context of a Bill rather than regulations.
Finally, under our human rights settlement in this country, at least at the moment, primary legislation may never be struck down by the courts. Even if the Bill was not necessary and proportionate in the instances that I identified, when it becomes an Act of Parliament it cannot be struck down. If the Government are really to be believed that these measures are only in extremis, are not political tub-thumping, are not about trying to divide the unions from the workers, and so on—and that the Bill is about ensuring a level of service when it cannot be reasonably negotiated—Ministers would be very wise to take the rather sage advice of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and pause this legislation, having opened up the argument, in order to save the possibility of purpose-specific and sector-specific primary legislation down the road in the event that, in one sector, there was such a problem and people were behaving so unreasonably that a service could not be guaranteed in a way that was reasonable. We heard different arguments from Ministers in the previous debates about what the test should be: whether it should be life and limb or, perhaps, based on annoyance; in the context of the Public Order Bill, it is about “more than minor” disruption.
Assuming that the Government will not agree with me and will not pause this legislation, at least today, the second-best option is greatly to beef up the process of parliamentary scrutiny and public transparency before such a draconian measure as a minimum service level agreement is imposed by government. I certainly cannot imagine that Ministers can object to a turbo-charged scrutiny procedure for matters that I really do not think should be dealt with by secondary legislation at all, for the reasons I previously gave. What is the possible objection from any Minister to, for example, Amendment 15 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, which proposes a statement setting out why the regulations are “both necessary and proportionate”?
What possible objection could there be, not least given that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, has set out his statement on the cover of the Bill that he thinks it complies with the convention rights? If he is thus convinced, surely, he would have no objection to any specific regulations made thereunder setting out reasons, in a statement before both Houses, why the regulations are necessary and proportionate. That is the convention test in terms of the European convention; there are other conventions to which we will come in later groups of amendments. I am really interested in the Minister’s response to why something as innocent and desirable as Amendment 15 should not be welcomed with open arms.
Similarly, a bit a more granular detail about impact is provided in Amendment 16, which is enhanced by Amendment 17, thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. Various other process amendments in this group are also designed to give Parliament greater access to ministerial reasoning before being faced with the “yes or no” choice that secondary legislation puts before both Houses. That is one of the fundamental objections to doing very grave things by way of secondary legislation: we are always told, “Well, Parliament can always disagree”, but Parliament cannot amend or refine; it has to say yes or no to the Government of the day. That is particularly difficult for Back-Benchers of the governing party, whichever party is in power.
If Ministers will not listen to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who is very experienced in this area—by the way, I agree with his assessment that, historically, Conservative leaders and Ministers have not always been so anti-trade union; I will not bore noble Lords again with references to Disraeli and Churchill, but they are all over the history books, so it is a shame that the Government are going down this path—and if the Government insist on the Bill and will not pause it, surely they should welcome pretty much every amendment in this group, or some version of them.
I say to the noble Baroness that, early in my career, I asked a senior trade unionist who had been the best Minister of Labour, and he said Walter Monckton followed by Iain Macleod.
That is even more wisdom from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.
That concludes what I wanted to say about this group of amendments, and I look forward to hearing later, I hope, a word of consensus from the Minister in response.
My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has tried to damn my amendment with faint praise, so I had better explain it and my approach to this group of amendments.
First, I remind the Committee that this is not draconian legislation, as the noble Baroness has just suggested. It does not impose minimum service levels; it merely allows the Government to specify minimum service levels, which can then be imposed via work notices if employers so choose. That is all this legislation is doing.
This group of amendments, in various ways, is trying to make the process of establishing regulations specifying minimum service levels more difficult, and to make them harder to get through Parliament by putting more hurdles in their way. The Bill already requires consultation; indeed, consultations have already been published for three instances of minimum service levels, and that process will run its course. The departments will then produce their minimum service levels and the appropriate statutory instruments, which will be accompanied by impact assessments. All of this is perfectly ordinary practice; it does not need any of the amendments in this group.
I tabled Amendment 17 simply because the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked in his Amendment 16 for an assessment of the impact on
“workforce numbers … individual workers … employers … trade unions … and … equalities.”
Just for the sake of balance, I wanted to remind the Committee that there is the other side: people who are affected by strike action and who want to receive services. The point of my amendment is to say: I do not support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, but if you are going require something such as this, it should not give just a one-sided picture; it should be balanced. To that extent, I am grateful for the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.
I am grateful for that gracious response from the noble Baroness. Whatever her motivation, I agree that service users should be included in that list, not least for the reasons set out earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam.
One thing that the noble Baroness could read is the original impact assessment for the transport Bill, which said—and I will come back to this point—that there will be an impact on service users because disputes will be longer and industrial relations will be worse. The problem we have had is that that Bill and this Bill had impact assessments there were red-rated. The noble Baroness should focus on that.
Indeed. The point is that the noble Baroness opposite and I disagree, perhaps, about what the effect will be on service users and others, but the test is necessity and proportionality, as was set out so well earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam. Whatever the motivations, it is a good addition to the list, in my view.
As for the noble Baroness’s point that this is will all be voluntary and the legislation will not impose anything on anyone, that really does not hold as a matter of law—not least because, as we discussed earlier, the “may/must” point is really significant; it is not hypothetical. It is hugely significant that, when one is a given a power—whether the Secretary of State is given a power to make regulations or an employer is given a power to issue work notices—they must exercise that power rationally. They cannot ignore that they have that power; they will face litigation. That is compounded in this area because the employers may well be contracted by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State would then have the purchasing power—the significant contractual power as the buyer of the service at one end—and would also wield regulations with the other hand. It is not completely ingenuous to suggest that this is all just helping the discussion and that there is no element of compulsion in it.
My Lords, much of the debate on this Bill has been concerned with its substantive content, but my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti draws attention to a major problem with the Bill; namely, its form.
I remind noble Lords that last year two committees of this House reiterated long-standing principles for drafting legislation. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I have the honour to be a member, in its report Democracy Denied?, and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in its report Government by Diktat, set out those principles, which were overwhelmingly endorsed in the debate in the House on
I turn to my Amendment 36A in this group, which is my attempt to give some substance to—or to redress—the omission pointed out by the Delegated Powers Committee in its report on the Bill. I will read two short paragraphs from our report. Paragraph 19 says:
“The Government have chosen to put no detail in the Bill in relation to minimum service levels, leaving the matter entirely to regulations. Important matters of detail should be included on the face of the Bill, perhaps with a power to supplement those matters in regulations.”
That is my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti’s point. The conclusion, which the committee reached at paragraph 23, is:
“Given the absence of an exhaustive or non-exhaustive list in the Bill of the matters that can be included in regulations, the unconvincing reasons for this power in the Memorandum, and the absence of indicative draft regulations illustrating how the power might be exercised, the House may wish to press the Minister to provide an explanation of how the power to set minimum service levels in new section 234B(1) of the 1992 Act is likely to be exercised. In the absence of a satisfactory explanation, we regard the power as inappropriate.”
My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti says that we can make it good by passing primary legislation. I wonder whether the Government will consider the possibility—even at this stage—of introducing amendments to put those omissions into the Bill to give it at least some semblance of meeting the format and principles for the drafting of legislation.
My Lords, we should be indebted to my noble friend Lord Allan for introducing the concept of necessity and proportionality. It is a shame because, in an ideal world, the Minister would have stood up at Second Reading and set out at the outset the necessity and proportionality of the Bill. That did not happen, with due respect to the Minister, so we are having to have that debate now in Committee.
We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, that the Government’s preference is to negotiate, rather than compel these MSLs. I believe that she is sincere when she says that, but we must look at what has been happening with the disputes. We have had several real-world examples going on around us. To take the rail dispute, for example, it is absolutely clear that the Secretary of State, operating behind the scenes, prevented decisions being made that would have shortened that dispute. Had this legislation been in existence, how would the Secretary of State’s hand have been strengthened even further? Would we be any closer to a resolution now? I suggest that we would have been a lot further away.
When it comes to the health disputes, it took months before the Government got around the table with nurses and doctors to negotiate and do what was needed to end those disputes. It is not clear to me that the idea that “We would rather negotiate” is absolutely on the table. We know very well that “We would rather stand back” has actually been the Government’s approach. We have to take the Government on the evidence that we have seen, rather than what we have heard in your Lordships’ House.
I turn to the short, but excellent and pithy, debate that we have been having. With the fear of damning the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, yet further, I say that she is completely correct to focus us on the users of the services. However, I would say that the impact of days that make up a year of service disruption through strikes, regrettable though these are, is far smaller—thank goodness—than that of the day-to-day service that people experience. Perhaps the noble Baroness could focus her not inconsiderable energies on improving the day-to-day services that her Government are delivering for consumers across this country. That is the real world that most of them experience: the everyday service, not the strike day service. So perhaps she could use her energies in that direction—I am sure that everything would get better if she did.
I will say a few words about Amendment 40 in my name and a little bit about the friction that the Bill is creating within industrial relations or, indeed, in the case of my amendment, with recruitment. It is really a probing amendment to ascertain from the Minister whether he thinks that the Bill will impact the morale of existing workers and, more specifically, the ability to recruit new people. The existence of the Bill, whether or not it is used, will have a communicating effect both on the current and future employees of these services. The Government need to take that into consideration.
In an earlier group, noble Lords talked about the chronic shortage of people in many of the sectors that we are dealing with here—health, education and others. I realise that job security is not something that many Ministers experience—although the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, is perhaps an exception to that, having been a Minister for many years—but I ask him to empathise on the subject of job security, and indeed task security. As I say, that may not be something that he has experienced widely. We have to remember that the employment market is a seller’s market; there is a shortage of people to go into these services. Therefore, it is absolutely not helpful if the Government make the prospect, or the sense, of working in these services less good and less favourable.
I am not necessarily suggesting that this legislation does that. I am asking the Government what work they have done to assess what effect this legislation would have on employee morale and future recruitment. Can the Minister set out the response and the nature of that work, statistically and qualitatively? If the work has not been done, why not?
My Lords, I am sorry to come into the debate quite late; I had not realised we were getting so close to the end. I support Amendment 20 from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and Amendment 40 from the noble Lord, Lord Fox. I regret that I have been unable to be in my seat at earlier stages, but I am grateful that my right reverend friends the Bishops of London and St Edmundsbury and Ipswich have passed on my concerns. Amendments 20 and 40 are absolutely invaluable. If this Bill is—regrettably, in my view—to become law, it must have all necessary consultation and evidence gathering before it.
Amendment 20 would require that an assessment of health and safety performance in the affected sector is made prior to minimum service regulations, and that is critical. As other noble Lords have said, if we look at this past winter, it is valid to ask whether what might be considered a minimum service level is reached on a daily basis even when there is not a strike going on. Assessing the level of service provided in periods when the service is not affected by strike action, and requiring that to cover the most recent 12 months, creates an important benchmark.
Amendment 40 would introduce a necessary review of the impact on recruitment and retention of staff. Research by the TUC suggests that the recruitment and retention crisis is ongoing. Something like two-fifths of public servants say that the implications of this Bill have made them more likely to consider leaving their job in the next three years. We have a crisis of vacancies in many sectors. This is not going to help.
Earlier today the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, asked a pertinent Question about the performance on the west coast rail line, and I was glad to be able to ask a supplementary to that. If nothing else, that exchange should have made clear to every one of us in this House that there is no point in setting minimum service levels for strike days when current performance is so depleted. Such poor provision of services, often exacerbated by the low morale consequent upon poor or aggressive management practices, means that acceptable minimum levels of service are just not available to customers or the public even on normal working days.
There is a duty on all of us who govern our nations to go beyond the most basic economic calculations when we are legislating to do so for the common good and human flourishing—something set out in the teaching of many religious denominations. This Bill, as drafted, fails that duty.
My Lords, I rise to speak in favour of the amendments listed. I look to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and assure her that I will not, at this point, offer my support to her amendment; I am sure that will give her great comfort. I will not repeat the points I made at Second Reading, but I believe this Bill undermines basic democratic and fundamental rights. I believe it is dangerous. It is barely drafted and badly drafted. I thank my friend the executive dean of Leeds, Professor Johnson, for the advice he has given me on the Bill.
I equally thank the Equality and Human Rights Commission and will refer to its recommendations now. I hasten to add that the commission, in my opinion, has been much muffled and muted during the last 18 months. Let me quote:
“Having carefully considered the issues, we believe the Bill raises several human rights considerations, specifically in relation to Article 4 (Prohibition of Slavery and Forced Labour), Article 11 (Freedom of Assembly and Association) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) that require careful scrutiny.”
I believe that these amendments provide for that.
To pick at random out of the commission’s substantial documents, paragraph 4 says:
“In the human rights memorandum that accompanied the earlier Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill”— to which my noble friend Lord Collins referred earlier—
“now superseded by this Bill, the case for the lawfulness of similar provisions was made partly by distinguishing the Bill’s transport-focused clauses from measures affecting other sectors, including health and education. In that document, the Government recognised the importance of existing measures to mitigate the impacts of industrial action in health, education and fire and rescue services. For example, some healthcare sector trade unions already provide
Paragraph 5 says:
“It is not clear what consideration has been given to these existing measures in the current Bill. We advise that more detail may be needed to articulate a legitimate aim for imposing Minimum Service Levels (MSLs) on each sector impacted by the Bill.”
I now turn to paragraph 11, to which I referred at Second Reading:
“Finally, we are concerned that an employee would lose automatic unfair dismissal protection not only if they fail to comply with a work notice, but also if their trade union has failed to take reasonable steps to ensure compliance: an employee will not know before participating in a strike whether that is the case or not.”
I could go on. For those reasons and many more, I urge noble Lords, if not now then when these amendments come back, to give their full support.
My Lords, I also welcome the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. We have worked together, and one of the things I have always been impressed with, particularly on the Finance Committee we served on jointly, is her insistence on decisions being clearly evidence based. That is what this series of amendments is seeking, because at the moment the only evidence we have is an impact assessment that was judged to be red-rated by the Regulatory Policy Committee—not fit for purpose. It was published after the MPs in the other place had scrutinised and passed the Bill, so they did not even have an opportunity to see the red-rated impact assessment.
The noble Baroness has raised the important point that industrial action affects the economy and all kinds of things, not just people travelling to work. It has a cost, and it has a cost for a purpose. When I studied industrial relations, many economists tried to make me better understand that strikes brought two sides together because they had costs imposed on them. The problem we face now is that some of the costs, particularly in the rail industry, are hidden. A rail employer does not suffer any cost from industrial action because the Government indemnify it for those costs, so there is no imperative on the employer to reach a settlement. I suspect that is why the public realise who is to blame for the length of these disputes. The public are not as easily fooled as the Government think they are.
Importantly, the impact assessment on the transport strikes Bill said it would have a
“negative impact on industrial relations, which could have detrimental impacts for all parties” and increase the frequency of disputes, meaning that
“an increased number of strikes could ultimately result in more adverse impacts in the long term”, particularly on users of the service. Many noble Lords will have seen NHS Providers make the very same point in its briefings to this Committee, saying that it will directly impact good industrial relations and the ability to resolve any disagreements and disputes.
That is why this series of amendments is important. I like my noble friend’s point about friction—you want to ensure that there are processes to go through before a Minister uses the powers this Bill gives them. My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti is absolutely right; they also try to increase transparency over why a decision has been made and how a conclusion is reached on what a minimum service level is. As we have heard in previous debates, certainly everyone involved in the health service would be intrigued to know how you set a minimum service level and how it would compare to non-strike days. Similarly, in Oral Questions we had questions about levels of service in transport.
There is a very strong view in the impact assessment on the transport strikes Bill. I was interested to see the questions put in the Select Committee. Transport Focus, the government body, said things we need to hear: “A volunteer is worth 10 pressed men—it is often said, but true, and we would see consequences if this type of MSL were ever put into place, but it seems like unknown territory. We are curtailing the right to strike and making things worse.” The sectors are so broad in this Bill—it is more than transport, as we have debated. The Rail Freight Group said that it was quite happy that it was not in scope, but the Bill is now written in such a way that it could be. It said, “We are not in scope, and that is a situation we are actually quite happy with, because freight is a private sector operation. Our members do not see a particular role for the state to get involved in industrial relations between employer and employee”. Phil Smart of the Rail Freight Group said: “Our Members feel it is their responsibility to sort out their industrial relations with their own staff. We think that is the responsible thing to do. We think we might end up somewhere we don’t want to go if we see the state as taking a role in determining industrial relations in private companies.”
That is precisely what is wrong with this Bill and its imposition—I use that term because the noble Lord will no doubt repeat comments he has made before, and the noble Baroness the Minister has also said, “It is up to companies: there is no statutory obligation”. But he who pays the piper calls the tune. I am sure we will see Governments use these powers, whether through funding or other forms of coercion. No one will be fooled. I think it is dangerous for the Government; my advice to them is to stay out of industrial relations—it will only end in tears.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his helpful advice. I will be sure to pass it on to the Prime Minister.
He was slightly less successful than the current one.
Each amendment in this group seeks to add additional evidence-gathering or reporting requirements or scrutiny to the regulation-making powers in the Schedule to the Bill. Before addressing them, perhaps the Committee will permit me a moment to reply to the rather general points made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree with him. Recent strike action has demonstrated the disproportionate impacts strikes can have on the public, presumably including his parishioners. They have been unable to access work and healthcare or attend education classes and are worrying whether an ambulance will be there when they need it. Businesses are also crucially affected by industrial action; 23% of them could not operate fully due to industrial action in the UK in December and 2.4 million strike days were lost between June and December. I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate does not believe his parishioners need protecting from these actions, but this Government certainly do.
I have every concern for my parishioners and the members of the various parishes, schools and chaplaincies—everyone in my diocese, whether they are Anglican or otherwise. However, I do not believe that this legislation is taking us in the right direction or that passing it will create better ambulance, train or hospital services for the people in my diocese. We may disagree, but I assure the Minister that I speak on behalf of everyone in my diocese.
They will also get to vote in democratic elections and make their feelings clear. By the very nature of the legislation, if a strike is taking place with no minimum services, given that this Bill imposes minimum services, his parishioners will get a better level of service once it goes through. However, we should have debated these points at Second Reading. I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate could not be present then.
Amendment 15, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Allan, seeks to require the Secretary of State to lay a Statement before each House outlining how the regulations that set minimum service levels and specify the relevant services are both necessary and proportionate. As my noble friend Lady Noakes, who has had to go to the Financial Services and Markets Bill in Grand Committee, pointed out, this amendment adds unnecessary duplication. Sufficient checks and balances before the regulations can be made are already built into the legislation. This includes the need to carry out consultations and the requirement that regulations must be approved by both Houses before they can be made.
Key stakeholders, including employers, employees, members of the public—perhaps even churches—trade unions and their members are all encouraged to participate in the consultations and have their say in the setting of these minimum service levels before they come into effect. Parliament, including Select Committees, as they already have done, will have an opportunity to contribute to the consultation. Following the consultation, the Government will consider all representations and publish a response setting out the factors taken into account in determining the minimum service level to be specified in those regulations.
Subsequent regulations on MSL will be accompanied by an Explanatory Memorandum which will outline the legal effect of the regulations, to address the complaints of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and its rationale and why they are necessary. Impact assessments will also be published alongside the regulations, which will then be subject to the affirmative procedure. We think this approach is appropriate; it is a common way for secondary legislation to be made.
Amendment 36, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, also requires the relevant Commons Select Committee to publish a report on how the Act will impact that sector before regulations are made. This will delay the implementation of minimum service levels—I suspect that is its intent—and extend the disproportionate impact that strikes can have on the public.
Amendment 36A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, would require the Government to lay draft regulations before each House of Parliament at least 28 days before the regulations are intended to be made, with an Explanatory Memorandum setting out factors taken into account in determining the MSL. These additional steps are, in our view, unnecessary and duplicative for the reasons that I have set out. The Government resist Amendments 16, 17, 20, 36 and 36A.
Amendments 38 and 39, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, would place limitations on the consultation provision, which the Government again resist. In the Government’s view, Amendment 39, as drafted, would not have the effect that noble Lords perhaps intended. In reality, it would require consultations to be published within a six-week window after the Act is passed, meaning that, by their very nature, future consultations after this period would then not be possible. Amendment 38 would prevent consultations taking place at all after the Bill has achieved Royal Assent. Both amendments would remove the ability to specify minimum service levels on an ongoing basis and, in our view, unduly limit our ability to respond appropriately as circumstances change—again, I suspect that this is the purpose of those who tabled the amendments. Key stakeholders are all encouraged to participate in the consultations to help shape the way MSLs operate. As I have made clear in previous responses, the Government have already published consultations on implementing minimum service levels in ambulance, fire and rescue, and rail services.
Amendment 40, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, would require the Secretary of State to lay a copy of a report in both Houses of Parliament, no later than six months after the Act is passed, setting out the findings of a review into the impact of the Act in regard to six key sectors. The noble Lord will be unsurprised to hear that I resist this amendment on the grounds that all the potential impacts of minimum service levels, including those on staffing, etc cetera, and the other factors the noble Lord mentions, will be considered as part of the process of making detailed regulations for those specified services. As I have set out on numerous occasions, these regulations will be accompanied by detailed impact assessments. We have also committed to conducting the usual review of the full impact of the Act within five years of the first secondary legislation coming into force. We believe that is a much more appropriate timescale to review the impacts.
I apologise to the Committee if I have spoken at length but there were a lot of amendments in this group. I hope I have been able to provide at least some reassurance on the consultation processes that we intend to undergo prior to making regulations, as is required by the Bill.
I was going to say that I hope noble Lords will feel able not to press their amendments, but I see that some noble Lords are seeking to intervene.
I want to ask a question of the Minister, just to be clear in my own mind. The trade unions say that the Government do not need these powers to enforce minimum service level agreements because they are reasonable and negotiate voluntarily and will continue to do so—they say it is not necessary to legislate. The Government disagree with that and legislate. Then, when some of us say that there needs to be a transparent process and proper consultation because this is such grave legislation for trade union rights, the Minister responds by saying, “No, no—we do it anyway, so we don’t need to put that on the face of the Bill”. Is there not a contradiction at the heart of this argument? The Government will legislate only one way: for powers for the Secretary of State but never for scrutiny of the Secretary of State. How is that consistent with what the Government say to unions, who are saying do not legislate for this because reasonable agreements will be negotiated in any event?
On a number of occasions, including the first day of Committee, I have made it clear that if voluntary arrangements are in place, which there are in some services, that is our preferred approach. However, it is the case in certain ambulance services that those voluntary arrangements were not agreed until literally the night before the strike action was due to take place, and indeed some trade unions then changed their minds about voluntary arrangements. We therefore think it is appropriate to have the back-up power. If they can be agreed, that is our preferred approach. The approach outlined by the noble Baroness is the normal process of consultation. If Parliament chooses to give the Government these powers—we will see the outcome of the debates in both Houses—then we will consider whether it is appropriate to make these regulations or not, given the circumstances in each case. Those regulations will then be further approved by Parliament.
I have two points. In answering the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the Minister used the ambulance service as an example of the Government having to use the power. I understood that it was the employer that used the power, and in the case of ambulance workers the Government are not the employer. Can the Minister perhaps square that language?
In a rather less difficult answer, in dismissing one of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the Minister said that the process of publishing information at parliamentary level would take too much time. It is on the record that a recent former Transport Secretary of State said that the Bill will not solve the current problems. What is the Government’s time target for this, given we know that the Minister thinks one of the amendments would take too much time? What is sufficient time? When do the Government expect the Bill to be in place, all other things being equal, and what is the hurry?
On the noble Lord’s first question, as he well knows, it is the Government’s job—or duty, if we get the legislation through—to make the regulations, and then it will be at the discretion of employers whether they use the powers that are given to issue work notices. We have debated this many times.
With regard to the timetable, these things are beyond my authority level. It depends how quickly the Bill goes through Parliament, how many amendments there are, how long ping-pong takes, and the scheduling of the legislation by the usual channels. I hope we will get the legislation through as quickly as possible. Of course, I hope that we never need to use it, as I have said before, but we think it is appropriate that the power should be there as a backstop.
My Lords, I am sorry to trouble the noble Lord a moment further, but could I invite him to express a view on the report of the Delegated Powers Committee? It points out that there is no detail in the Bill and criticises it for that. Does the noble Lord accept that criticism?
We will be responding in due course to the report from the Delegated Powers Committee. I entirely accept that this is a wide secondary-legislation-making power for the Government, but we think that it is appropriate in these circumstances.
With that, I urge noble Lords not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I am sorry the Minister did not feel comfortable accepting the amendments in this group, but I think it has been a helpful debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, both talked about the potential for inserting friction into industrial relations. These Benches very much agree that that may be the effect of these regulations, so we think it is right to insert a certain level of friction into the legislative process to try to head off what may be a very poor outcome.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who I understand is now in Grand Committee, talked about the measures as being “not draconian”, which is an interesting framing. However, the fact is that they impact on people’s fundamental rights. Whether it impacts one person, a thousand people or a hundred thousand people, the general principle is that one should be much more careful with any legislation that affects fundamental rights. My amendment was trying to make sure that we had a framework which reflected that.
There is an old maxim that if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In this Bill, the Government are granting themselves the power to create a hammer which will be offered to employers, but employers may prefer to meet their staff with other tools, such as cash or commitments to a negotiated settlement. In this debate, concerns have come out once more about what happens when the only tool you offer employers is the hammer and the potential knock-on effects of that.
It is right that we are testing whether the Government really will use those powers only in extremis, because “can’t” is often used when “won’t” is closer to the truth, until “won’t” becomes “will” and “can’t” is miraculously turned into “can”—as we have just seen with the recent move to settle the health disputes. That is another example of the Government saying that something is impossible—like minimum service levels are impossible—and then it becomes possible. I hope the Government will strengthen the Bill before Report to make sure that “can’t” really means “can’t” when it comes to negotiated minimum service levels. With that hope, and not yet entirely jaded by experience, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendment 16 not moved.
I am unable to call Amendment 17, as it is an amendment to Amendment 16.
Amendment 18 not moved.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.25 pm.