Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 23rd March 2023.
Moved by Lord Fox
21: The Schedule, page 3, line 34, after “may” insert “if all options to avert a strike have been exhausted”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to ensure that work notices are only issued where all options to avert a strike are exhausted.
My Lords, this is a slight change of gear from where we just were. This is a probing amendment, and it uses the idea that work notices can be used only after all other avenues have been exhausted. It returns a little to the thought experiment I was trying to have, which is the applying of the Bill, or the Bill if enacted, to what we have witnessed in the Government’s management or mismanagement of the public sector strikes that we have just been going through.
No matter what the strike and no matter which the sector, disputes are settled only when there is negotiation. The Government seem to have taken a long time to understand this with the disputes that we have just come through. The rail strike has been going on since June, and the nurses’ strike started in the autumn, but only in the last few weeks have these strikes begun to end, thanks to negotiation. Why did it take so long? Why were so many operations delayed? Why were so many people’s lives, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, pointed out, disrupted by service delays in, for example, the train services?
Strikes are an extreme action for all workforces—workforces do not willingly go in for them—and that is certainly true in the health service. We have to remember that in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing, this is, as far as I know, the first time that nurses have balloted and decided to strike. This is in a sense a very hard decision for those employees. I wish to probe the Minister in that context. Had these measures been available—had a minimum service level for the health service or the train services been in place—when and how would they have been deployed? Indeed, would they have been used differently in the two different services, one being essentially an emergency service and the other a transport service?
There has been no clarity on how these minimum service levels could and will be used. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, and I think the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, himself, have said that they would be a matter of last resort. However, negotiating is in fact the last resort that brings people to the table and ends strikes. Where does the minimum service level fit in the pantheon of industrial relations here? That is what this amendment seeks to probe.
What we saw with the strikes that have been going on is that the decision to negotiate can only have been a political decision. The launch of the Bill was associated with that political decision and designed to shift the blame or the balance of blame to other sources. The only reason we saw movement is because in the end the Government decided that they had to negotiate with the health unions and started to gradually lift the blockers that they had been using on the train employers in order to move things forward. This is the evidence of how we see the Government operate. They are the ones who brought forward this measure, so how does this measure fit into that sort of behaviour? I beg to move.
My Lords, it is worth reminding ourselves why it is necessary to scrutinise this Bill in such detail. The RPC’s latest Independent Verification Body Report confirms that, since 2021, there has been an alarming increase in the number of impact assessments that have been red rated—not fit for purpose—and, of course, this Bill is one of them. There were no red ratings between 2016 and 2021; since 2021, there have been eight.
Turning to the amendments, which I am very pleased to support, one of the other fundamental flaws of the Bill is that it takes a provocative, one-sided position on industrial relations. Its partisan approach fundamentally offends people’s sense of fair play. The public are all too aware how real-terms cuts in pay and underfunding of public services have led to a crisis in staffing levels and service backlogs. Strikes are merely a symptom of worker discontent and, as all the polls show, that discontent is often supported and shared by service users.
As many noble Lords have observed, workers never take the decision to vote for strike action lightly and unions always want a negotiated settlement, but sometimes it seems that the only way some employers understand the true value of labour is when that labour is withdrawn. The task of government should be to help prevent disputes, or at least to help resolve them when they happen, not to throw fuel on the fire, but this Bill is based on the premise that strikes are the fault of workers and unions, as if they were never caused by the failure of employers to listen, compromise or negotiate, by years of government underfunding and cuts, or by the frustration that arises when the Government take so long to put more money on the table when, had they acted earlier, the dispute could have been settled months before without any need for a strike.
The Bill imposes yet more draconian requirements on unions, but no commensurate obligations on employers or government. Ultimately, it gives the Secretary of State the whip hand to weaken workers’ bargaining power and attempt to render a strike meaningless.
The partisan stance of the Bill is a fundamental flaw, but the naming of individual workers in work notices is the provision that many find most shocking. Why is it necessary for the Secretary of State to require that work notices list the names of individual workers who will be required to work, rather than just numbers—as I am aware that a number of employers have suggested? In response to a Written Question I asked, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, said that the Bill provides:
“enforcement mechanisms to maximise the assurance that Minimum Service Levels (MSLs) will be achieved on strike days”— in other words, naming of individual workers is necessary in order that they can be threatened with the sack.
How will the Secretary of State ascertain whether that list of individual names has been chosen without bias, discrimination or a vindictive attempt to target trade union activists? What will be the process and additional Civil Service resources needed to do that effectively? I genuinely do not know. Can the Secretary of State add or remove individual names, should a legitimate complaint be made? In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, when minimum service legislation for transport only was first planned, the Government pledged to ensure that
“sanctions are not directed at individual workers.”
At Second Reading, the Minister asserted:
“This legislation is not about sacking workers”—[Official Report, 21/2/23; col. 1563.]
but of course it is precisely about sacking workers. The legislation expressly provides for the power that workers—nurses, firefighters or teachers—who disobey a notice to work during a strike for minimum service levels, perhaps unilaterally imposed by an employer and sanctioned by the Secretary of State, can be sacked. Crossing fingers and hoping that it will never happen is no comfort to those workers whose jobs are on the line. Key workers who kept Britain running during the pandemic and who were lauded as heroes now look set to become martyrs. Why is that, when emergency cover, where genuinely needed, is already arranged through mature agreement rather than diktat?
It has been so difficult to secure answers to many of the questions raised in this Committee, but nevertheless I will repeat another one. If a named worker calls in sick on the strike day that they have been notified to work, can they be sacked too—yes or no?
Amendment 21 seems to be just common sense. Surely it is appropriate that if a work notice is to be issued, it is issued only when all the options to avert a strike have been exhausted. As we keep hearing today, work notices bring serious consequences with them. As the Bill stands, it could lead to an individual employee losing their job. Beyond that, if trade unions do not take “reasonable steps” to comply with the work notices, they could face significant financial damages and the strike could be classified as illegal. If that happens, all the workers taking part in that strike risk losing their livelihoods.
Therefore, it is not clear what these “reasonable steps” are. The Joint Committee on Human Rights is not clear either, saying that
“the provision requiring trade unions to take ‘reasonable steps’ may fall foul of the requirements of Article 11”.
What assurances can the Minister give us that whole swathes of workers will not lose their livelihoods through this? Work notices should never be used lightly, especially in their current form. Amendment 21 provides some safeguards to ensure that this does not happen.
We can see from recent weeks and months, as other noble Lords have said, that trade unions want dialogue. They want to discuss matters of concern. They want to find mutually agreed solutions, which are the only solutions that actually work in practice. But if the Government adopt a more heavy-handed approach to strike action in those sectors where they have what elsewhere might be called coercive control, or if employees feel pressed to do so under fear of civil action, as we have heard today, this risks further division and delays agreement. If we allow work notices to be issued when other avenues to settle a dispute have not been fully explored, perhaps for political reasons of the day, that will, in my view and in the view of many others, extend and escalate disruption.
In its present form, the Bill will not reduce the short-term destruction caused by strikes; rather, it will lead to longer and more damaging strikes. That is not in what the Minister referred to earlier today as my parishioners’ best interests. It is not in anybody’s best interests.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Allan referred earlier, in relation to Amendment 15, to the key issue of human rights. The amendments in this group look at other aspects of this concept. Amendment 23 in my name seeks to examine the practicalities of an employer specifying a minimum service level. Other speakers have referred to the problems associated with this. It is going to be an invidious process. Let us look at how this will work.
The Secretary of State grandly specifies a minimum service level, then washes his or her hands of the practicalities and the personnel implications of it, because employers will have the job of implementing it. The Government will say that it is voluntary, as the Minister said earlier today, but at the same time, she made it clear that employers will be under some level of pressure from the Government to implement minimum service levels. This simple Amendment 23 makes it clear that employers need to specify only the number of employees in each role rather than by name in their work notice.
I realise that in many workplaces the identity of those people will be obvious, simply because the workplace or the group of people is too small to avoid being able to identify them. But there are issues about public identification that relate to individual public safety. In this era, when online fame—or infamy—can come about very suddenly, there are real concerns about the personal safety of anyone identified by name in a work notice, as well as that of their families. There are other complex issues to be considered. It is okay for large groups of workers; for example, if you specify in your work notice that you need 100 nurses, that is a fairly anonymous process. But what about the identity and protection of the person concerned when you specify that you need one anaesthetist?
How will employers choose who is specified? This, too, will be an invidious process, however they try to approach it. Which 100 nurses, and which one anaesthetist, will have to work? As an employer, if you choose non-union members, that might be understandable, because you will perhaps have an easier ride with those individuals, but it is not acceptable that people who choose not to join a union should receive a greater obligation to be nominated and specifically identified on those days, rather than just going into work in the normal course of events. What about choosing only keen trade union members, as opposed to rank-and-file members? Obviously, however you approach it, you are causing huge controversy, whichever way an employer jumps.
It is so much better to work with employees on a voluntary basis. This has been done in many cases during the recent spate of strike action, and it has worked well. The Bill would destroy that way of working.
My Lords, I will now reply to the debate on Amendment 21, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and Amendment 23 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, which have been grouped. These seek to limit how and when a work notice can be issued by an employer.
Amendment 21 seeks to place an additional and, in our view, burdensome requirement on employers in relation to issuing a work notice. Amendment 23 seeks to alter, fairly fundamentally, how a work notice operates. Both amendments would create unnecessary uncertainty for employers, unions and workers around their respective obligations for work notices.
Amendment 21 requires the employer to exhaust all options to prevent a strike before they issue a work notice. However, it is my submission that employers are already incentivised to avoid strike action due to the substantial cost and disruption that it causes them. If a trade union has given notice of a strike under Section 234A of the 1992 Act, which must happen before any work notice can be given, it seems reasonable for the employer to assume that the options to avoid a strike have, in fact, already been exhausted for the purposes of producing a work notice.
It is also not clear what the test would be for an employer to show that all the options had been exhausted to prevent a strike, creating significant uncertainty for employers and trade unions. The Bill does not prevent employers and unions continuing to negotiate to reach a settlement on the broader trade dispute and, we would hope, for the strikes to be called off. However, we know that negotiations can be complex and can cause uncertainty, so all parties, especially the public, need the fundamental reassurance that the minimum service will operate on a particular strike day. Therefore, the Government resist this amendment.
Amendment 23 seeks to alter how work notices are to operate by specifying that the work notice must identify only the number of persons required to work during a strike rather than actually naming them. There are a number of problems with this approach. First, trade unions are required under the legislation to take reasonable steps to ensure that members identified in the work notice comply with that notice. For that to be true, the trade union would need to see the work notice and to know which union members have been identified as required to work in order for it to take those reasonable steps to ensure that those members attend work rather than going on strike. Secondly, this amendment could lead to confusion between employers and workers about who exactly is required to work, particularly in instances where a large number of individuals are employed to deliver essentially the same duty—for instance, call handlers. There would no longer be workers
“identified in a work notice” for the purposes of paragraph 8(3) in Part 2 of the Schedule. Consequently, the provision removing the automatic protection from unfair dismissal would presumably also not apply, and therefore cannot be accepted.
I reassure noble Lords that individuals named on a work notice will be notified of this as regards themselves only. They will not be issued with the work notice itself, and the work notice will not be a public document. Unions will be bound by data protection law in the usual way, and there will be no sanctions or consequences for individuals if the minimum service level is not then achieved.
Identifying individuals to work in advance of the strike day helps to provide clarity for workers, unions and employers about who exactly is required to work and the arrangements for that particular working day, as well as strike. Without this we believe it will cause confusion and would potentially lead to minimum service levels not being achieved, continuing the disproportionate impact strikes can have on the public, as well as potentially costly and unnecessary litigation between unions and employers.
Finally, let me pick up on the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady.
Would the Minister accept that there is tremendous scope for victimisation in the provision that he is talking about, which this probing amendment is opening out? If the work notice is imposed on union officials—convenors, shop stewards, secretaries or whatever—they are in an extremely vulnerable position. They may have been doing the negotiation. They may have been regarded by the employer as awkward. All of a sudden they are put in the frame to say that you are coming into work, regardless of the role they may have played in the origins of the dispute. Is this not a victimisation permit for employers to use in all kinds of circumstances?
I worked in a place where the senior steward had been sacked and was victimised, and it is quite a common occurrence—other colleagues here will perhaps know more about that than me. It seems that the Government are giving a blank check to employers to take on individuals who are prominent in the union, and putting them in an impossible position of being summoned in by the employer at the same time as they may well have been leading the workers in the particular dispute that is taking place. What would the Minister say about that idea that he is giving a charter for victimisation?
I understand the noble Lord’s concerns but I do not believe he is justified in his worries. The Bill is clear that an employer must not have regard to whether a worker is or is not a member of a union when issuing a work notice. If an employee feels that they have been unfairly targeted then they can raise a grievance with their employer or ultimately take legal action to challenge whether the work notice complied with the law. That would then be a matter for the courts to decide.
I have listened with great care to what I think has been an analytical destruction of the very heart of this Bill. If, as the noble Lord has already enunciated, the right to take action for unfair dismissal is automatically removed by this Bill, how on earth can an individual take a grievance?
I do not understand the point the noble Lord is making.
I used to teach industrial relations a long time ago—I may be rusty. The purpose of unfair dismissal protection is that the employer cannot arbitrarily take away the right of a person to their employment unless they have good cause. If they have declined, and have taken a grievance following the notice they have been given, and unfair dismissal protection has been withdrawn, how can that grievance procedure be proposed and implemented?
They lose their protection only if they do not comply with a work notice. The whole principle of this—as the noble Lord has studied industrial relations, he will understand—is that, for a strike to be lawful, effectively you are breaking the contract you have with your employer. If the strike is lawfully called, you are entitled for the purpose of industrial action to break that contract. This merely reinstates that contract between you and your employer. If a work notice is issued and you do not comply with it, it would be treated as an unauthorised absence. There is no intention to say that that will result in dismissal. I would have thought that that would be very much a last course. As I said at Second Reading, we do not believe it will result in people being dismissed. We believe people will comply with the regulations and the law, and that the Bill will have the effect that we intended.
I am sorry but I did not quite understand the Minister. I can see that dismissal for refusing to comply with a work notice might be a matter of last resort for the employer, but we are dealing here with the potential for bad employers to take the opportunity to sack somebody, and they might sack somebody without notice. If they do that, there is no possibility at all of the worker taking up a grievance. I do understand what other legal avenues there might be for such a worker—I can visualise none.
I was responding to the point I was asked about, and I made the point that, under the Bill, it is clear that an employer must not have regard to whether a worker is or is not a member of a union when issuing the work notice. I was outlining procedures that they could then follow if that was the case. Ultimately, they could challenge it in court, and that would be a matter for the courts.
I was going to go back to the point from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, but I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, wants to intervene.
In order to reassure me on the issue of names becoming public, the Minister said that names would not be made public and—I assume this is what he meant—would remain private between the employer and the employee. I just want to tease out how this will actually work. Apart from the fact that the person concerned would turn up at work on that day and so it would no longer be private, how would trade unions and other workers be able to challenge any of this legally? How would they challenge the overall balance of the decision-making of the employer and the fairness in the way in which all this has been carried out, particularly if someone were to end up losing their job as a result of the whole process? How would there be any legal assurance about this if the whole thing is cloaked in mystery?
Let me outline the procedure for the benefit of the noble Baroness. The work notice will not be a public document. The Bill makes it clear that current data protection legislation applies, while allowing the employer to provide the work notice to a trade union so that the Bill can be effective. Under the Bill, trade unions are required to take reasonable steps to ensure that their members who are identified in the work notice comply with that work notice. The trade union therefore of course needs to see the work notice and to know which union members may be named, in order to enable it to take those reasonable steps. Unions will otherwise be bound by data protection law in the usual way. Additionally, while those named on a work notice will be notified about that regarding themselves only, they will not be issued the work notice itself. Naming individuals to work in advance of the strike day helps to provide clarity to the workers, to unions and to employers regarding arrangements for that working day as well as the strike.
If the Committee will now permit me to move on and answer the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, that may provide some clarity on the Government’s thinking in this respect. The first question the noble Baroness asked was whether Secretaries of State have a say in who is identified in a work notice. Fundamentally, the work notice is a matter for the employer, so there is no way that Secretaries of State can influence who is identified on a work notice.
Secondly, the noble Baroness asked whether a worker would be in breach of a work notice if they were sick on the relevant strike day. Workers should of course be supported if they are unwell and cannot work, and it remains the case that if a worker is too unwell to work, they are not obliged to work under a work notice. I hope that provides the clarity the Committee is seeking on this point, and I therefore hope that the noble Lord can withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, this debate has revealed—or rather, not revealed—more than I expected. I am grateful to the Minister for imaginatively making things up as he goes along, which is what this seems to be. We have a Bill in which none of the details is included, and we are relying on the Minister to flesh out from the Dispatch Box how the Bill will work. [Interruption.] I am not talking about what the Bill is, but how it will work.
At least two misapprehensions are driving that interpretation of how the Bill will work—not what it says in law, but what it will do. The first is that the nature of the service sectors the Bill has identified is such that they are politicised. The Minister’s description of the interplay between employer and employee is an unrestrained free-market description, but we know—and this is why I was talking in the last group about using the current dispute as a model—that this is not a pure-play employee/employer relationship. There are three parties in this dispute, and the third party is the Government. By experience, behind the scenes and sometimes in front of the scenes, the Government have been part of the process of progression of these disputes, and in the end, they have been the arbiter of whether or not they were settled. So the Minister’s description of the nature of the dispute in which these minimum service levels and work orders would be used is an inaccurate model for us to consider.
The Minister speaks of the unions and the workforce as if they are two separate entities. We have to understand what the Minister thinks a union is. In large part, the union is the workforce, so keeping the work order secret from the workers by giving it to the union is an interesting concept.
The second misapprehension is that the Minister is expecting the union to oversee the work order, which is a list of names. We know from the Bill, because it specifically says so, that the names on that list could and should be either union members or non-union members. How does the union deal with the non-union members? Is it fair for the non-union members to have their names on the union’s list? These are the sort of practical details we do not have to hand because we do not have a description of work orders and minimum service levels. That is the problem the Minister is having to deal with and is working very hard to do so.
I will look very hard at Hansard because I find it very difficult to understand how the Minister sees the unions and the workforce operating independently in a workplace. Leaving that to one side, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 21.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.