Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 23rd March 2023.
Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway:
Moved by Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway
22: The Schedule, page 3, line 34, after second “a” insert “recognised”Member’s explanatory statementRestricts the giving of work notices to trade unions which are recognised (either by an employer or statutorily).
My Lords, in scrutinising this Bill there is always a risk that we miss the wood for the trees. The core concern remains that this Bill allows the Executive to take sweeping powers, avoiding proper parliamentary accountability and scrutiny, and to do so at the cost of fundamental human rights and freedoms.
The trade union movement is by far the biggest democratic membership organisation in this country. Millions of people join unions because the evidence is that membership is the best way to win better pay and conditions. Millions more recognise that by tackling exploitation and discrimination, and by upholding safety standards and providing, for example, second-chance learning opportunities to hundreds of thousands of workers every year, British trade unions perform a great public service.
The Minister often talks about balance, but the balance of power is already rigged in favour of employers and against working people. A key measure of that is that, at best, average wages have stagnated for well over a decade and workers’ share of the total wealth they produce has been shrinking.
Ministers claim that they are acting in the best interests of service users, but the majority of service users do not agree. For example, according to a poll for “Politics Home”, junior doctors are backed by a ratio of nearly 2:1. The bottom line is that service users trust public servants more than they trust Ministers. As IFS director Paul Johnson said in the wake of the Budget:
“You can’t keep cutting the pay of teachers, nurses and civil servants, both in real terms and relative to the private sector, without consequences for recruitment, retention, service delivery, morale and - as we have seen … strikes.”
Strikes are always the last resort. However, as has been vividly illustrated over the last few weeks, it is only because of that right to strike that the Government and employers have come back to the bargaining table and improved pay offers to rail workers, firefighters, health staff and, hopefully soon, teachers and others too.
The amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Collins probe the Government’s appetite for taking sensible steps to prevent work notices being used to stop meaningful strike action, and to avoid victimisation, protect health and safety and protect equality rights. Without a prior requirement for an equality impact assessment, as set out in Amendment 30, there is nothing to help prevent direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of race, sex and other personal characteristics. This, of course, is not an optional extra. The Government have a duty under the Equality Act and under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination. We already know that this Bill will have a disproportionate impact on women—for example, nurses and cleaners—and on black and ethnic minority workers, who are significantly overrepresented in health and transport. The TUC and others have argued that by reducing union bargaining power, this Bill will be a huge step backward for tackling racism at work.
On a number of occasions, the Minister has been asked about protection against victimisation for elected workplace union reps, but I do not believe that it has been addressed adequately so far. Amendment 27 provides that opportunity. On all sides of this Committee, many of us are appalled that an employer and, ultimately, the Secretary of State propose to name individuals to work during a strike and to sack them if they refuse to obey. I anticipate that the Minister may suggest—indeed, he has suggested—that workers and reps who are victimised could make a claim to an employment tribunal, but that is cold comfort when your livelihood is stripped away. I remind the House that the NHS is not the only service suffering backlogs: the average waiting time for a first hearing at an employment tribunal is now 335 days for a single claim, or 55 weeks for multiple claims.
On Amendment 22, during day 1 of Committee, I asked the Health Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Markham, whether, in principle, Amazon could be included within the scope of “health services”, alongside other private companies, for the purpose of the Bill. I still have not had time to read the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Markham, with the attention it deserves, but the noble Lord certainly confirmed on the day that, yes, Amazon could be included in principle. I raise that for a couple of reasons. First, Amazon is a powerful multinational corporation that is notorious worldwide for its anti-trade union activities and oppressive treatment of workers. As I mentioned, Amazon warehouse workers in Coventry are now being paid £11 an hour—it is interesting that Amazon has raised this, in the wake of the first strikes that they have ever taken in this country.
Noble Lords will be aware of a GMB investigation using freedom of information requests that shows that one pressure on our ambulance services is the surge in call-outs to Amazon warehouses in the run-up to black Friday, a time of year when Amazon workers are under huge pressure to achieve targets. It is an inhumane pace of work that poses a danger to health and increases the likelihood of accidents—hence the spike in call-outs.
My other reason for raising the Amazon case is that those workers are of course on strike for union recognition, which they do not have yet. They want an agreement to collectively bargain with the employer on vital matters like pay, rest breaks, health and safety, but so far, shamefully, Amazon is refusing to recognise the union. In principle, if Amazon could be included in minimum service levels, as we were told, it could just draw up a work notice to force those workers to break their own strike. It would not even have to go through the pretence of consulting with the union, because it refuses to recognise one. In fact, any bad employer covered by the Bill could see this as an incentive to derecognise unions, and all with the blessing of this Government. What happens if the workers refuse to obey? They face the sack. If the union is deemed not to have taken these undefined “reasonable steps” to force them to work, it would be hit by legal action and all striking workers could be sacked. So Amendment 22 seeks to prevent the Bill becoming a licence for bad employers who refuse to recognise, or who want to break, trade unions.
Finally, regarding Amendments 24 on reasonable steps for employers, and Amendment 31 on assessments of health and safety, and consultation with trained and expert workplace health and safety union reps, the key concern has been the apparent lack of government understanding about the realities of running services in the six sectors and how to do so safely. For example, noble Lords will be aware, which is something of an irony, that the PR around the Bill claims it is about safety, when one of the key issues driving rail disputes has been the axing of safety maintenance jobs and safe staffing levels on platforms. Of course, the risk of dangerous overcrowding on platforms is something that would be made only worse by the Bill.
No doubt rail companies have already told Ministers, just as they have told us, that the Bill is totally unworkable. The Rail Safety and Standards Board chief Mark Phillips said that this legislation,
“won’t make the slightest bit of difference”, to how many trains the industry can be run because of operational and safety concerns. He also expressed views about the Bill’s unworkability in respect of workers calling in sick on the days of strikes. Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the train drivers’ union ASLEF has observed:
“To run 20% of trains would require 40% of the drivers. It is not as simple as just reducing the number of drivers (and other staff) to 20%. There are issues around route and traction knowledge ... have the right drivers in the right places.”
The Government’s plans could also extend the disruption caused by industrial action over a much longer period. It is not just the unions that are saying so. Again, as has been recognised, the Department for Transport’s own impact assessment for the transport strikes Bill suggested that MSLs could increase the frequency of strikes and industrial action short of strike action, as well as having an adverse impact on industrial relations.
The Minister confirmed previously that workers named in a work notice could only be forced to work their contractual hours. Yet the safe delivery of many of our public services, from NHS wards to classrooms, crucially depends on voluntary unpaid overtime, far above those contractual hours. So perhaps the Minister can explain how a minimum service will be defined when a so-called normal service depends so heavily on overtime, whether paid or unpaid. Would employers and the Government simply require 100% of the workforce to break their own strike to achieve that so-called minimum? So far, the Government have been unable or unwilling to tell us. Little wonder then that many people see the Bill as a barely disguised bid to ban strikes by the back door.
My Lords, I support the amendments in this group, but the contribution by my noble friend Lady O’Grady is a heck of an act to follow. I should like to talk specifically on Amendments 25 to 28, which deal with the serious issue of targeting specific workers, especially, I say to the Minister, trade union activists. On reflection, I could have raised this in the debate on Amendment 21, but it is appropriate to do it here.
These amendments in the name of my noble friends Lord Collins and Lady O’Grady contain the issue of work notices and the potential for bad bosses to target, humiliate and victimise trade union activists—as has been raised by my noble friends Lord Monks, Lord Hendy and Lord Blunkett. Unfortunately, history is full of examples where bad bosses, given the opportunity, victimise workers in struggle. I say this seriously. I am talking about bad bosses. I have met many good bosses in my lifetime.
Let us go back 30 years, when the major players in the construction industry blacklisted hundreds of activists, humiliating them by depriving them of making a living and denying that they were ever doing so—and there are many other examples that I could give. In the Bill, we have notices issued to break a strike. Is the Minister really telling me that the bosses will not target activists, shop stewards, branch officials, conveners and even health and safety reps? Let nobody say that this will not happen; it will, and there is absolutely no protection in the Bill for trade union activists.
It is all very well for the Minister to say that an employer cannot use union membership as the basis for choosing which workers are compelled to break their strikes—although there seem to be no sanctions whatever if they choose to ignore this—but there is nothing to stop them choosing union activists, and experience tells us that they will. Strike leaders will obviously be at the top of the bosses’ hit lists, but nobody is safe from being forced to make the agonising choice between betraying your trade union principles of solidarity and standing together as workers, or potentially losing your job.
Let us take health and safety nominated reps. They do a great job for workplaces but, as my experience tells me, they can be somewhat pedantic, both to companies and, on occasions, to trade unions. They are not even protected and are therefore open to discrimination if they are told to cross a picket line that other workers have voted for. Their independence will be compromised, and this will not help companies or businesses going forward.
The disgraceful thing in the Bill is that it gives employers the right to list trade union members who have already jumped through hoops to vote for a strike and will now be forced to betray their colleagues and their own principles. If they do not, they can also be fired. Surely that is unacceptable in 21st-century Britain. The Joint Committee on Human Rights certainly thinks so: in its hard-hitting report, it suggests an amendment very similar to Amendment 27. The amendments here go further and offer broader and vital protection for trade union activists in particular, and I urge Members to support them.
I conclude with a very simple question for the Minister: is this legislation intended to be used by bosses to target, humiliate and even victimise strike leaders and other trade union activists? If not, why is there nothing in the Bill preventing this from happening? We need to know, and we need to know now.
I will speak very briefly to this group of amendments; I will make no attempt to emulate the speeches from either the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, or the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, who have great experience in the union movement.
In the Bill, there is a specific requirement for the unions “to take reasonable steps” to implement work orders. On these Benches, there is still no understanding of what “reasonable steps” actually means and what legal jeopardy unions would be in if they did, or did not do, particular activities. However, I characterise this collection of amendments as causing the employers to take reasonable steps not to victimise members of the union as a result of this legislation. Therefore, it adds a mirror to the reasonable steps that the unions have to observe, so that the employers should similarly observe the same steps—and I support the spirit in which the amendments have been delivered.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, mentioned private sector deliverers. Having read the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, my reading is that he rules providers such as Amazon out of the remit of this legislation. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm whether my interpretation is correct. I credit the noble Lord, Lord Markham, with coming to your Lordships’ House and participating in Committee. We had no such benefit of a Transport Minister, and we still do not know the position of private sector suppliers of services in the transport industry. While we seem to have an explicit ruling out of private sector deliverers in the health service, we have no such ruling out in the transport sector. Will the Minister, in responding to or confirming my interpretation of the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Markham, also tell us whether the similar and other deliverers of private sector services, which are crucial to the railway industry, will be included in the remit of the Bill, or, as in the health service, not included?
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this short debate: the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Hendy, Lord Woodley and Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady.
Amendments 22 and 24 to 31 all relate to placing additional requirements on the process of issuing our famous work notice. It is the view of the Government that the current requirements in the Bill strike the right balance between the views and perspectives of employers and unions to enable a reasonable and fair work notice to be issued. The Bill explicitly requires that employers must consult a relevant trade union, and have regard to their views, before issuing a work notice. Additionally, work notices must not include more persons than are reasonably necessary to meet the minimum service level and employers, as I said earlier, must not have regard to whether a worker is or is not a member of a trade union when producing that work notice.
I respond, first, to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, who waxed lyrical about Amazon warehouses. While it is possible for a private business to be in the scope of minimum service level regulations, if they provide a relevant service as specified within the regulations, I am happy to reassure the noble Baroness that the Government have no plans or intentions to apply minimum service levels to Amazon.
Amendment 22 tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Hendy, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, would limit the issuing of work notices to recognised trade unions only. However, it is of course possible that strikes can be called by recognised and unrecognised trade unions, which can lead to disproportionate impacts on the public. It is therefore our view that MSLs must be able to be applied where a union, recognised or not, provides a strike notice to an employer.
I move on to Amendments 24 to 31 from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady. Amendment 24 looks to ensure that employers cannot name more persons than necessary to secure the minimum level of service. However, it is already recognised that employers should not roster more people than are needed to achieve a minimum service level, so that some workers can continue to take strike action if they wish to—that is the whole principle of the Bill. That is why the Bill already requires employers not to identify more persons than are reasonably necessary. This enables the employer some limited flexibility in providing for contingency to respond on the day to any operational incidents, sickness or other types of absence. In our view, the existing approach strikes the right balance and provides sufficient safeguards for workers. To go further would limit or eliminate an employer’s flexibility, which could then mean that minimum service levels—the whole point of the legislation—would not be achieved.
Amendments 25 and 26 both look to ensure that each individual is able to go on strike for at least part of the period of the strike, notwithstanding any work notice. The Government resist these amendments for three reasons. First, the number of days on a strike notice could be substantial across both short and long periods for which the union has a mandate to strike. It is therefore reasonable that some workers may need to work more than 50% of those strike days, especially if their colleagues are off sick, on leave or attending training. Secondly, these amendments would cap the minimum service level and reduce the influence of the consultation, and those who respond to it, in the setting of the minimum service level. Thirdly, Amendment 26 appears to prevent any work notice being given where there is only one day given on a strike notice, which therefore creates a loophole which could be exploited—that may have been the purpose of the amendment.
Amendments 27 and 28 look to require the employer to ignore a person’s trade union activities or use of trade union services in deciding whether to identify a person in a work notice. However, we believe the Bill already sufficiently protects against any discrimination regarding a worker’s union status when employers are preparing their work notices. The trade union activity or services that a union member may have been involved in are connected to whether they are a union member, which, as we have already said, the employer must not have regard to.
Additionally, existing legislation—Section 146 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992—already provides a remedy for workers who are discriminated against on union grounds, and that section will continue to be applicable here. Therefore, we believe the amendment is duplicative in nature.
My noble friend Lord Woodley raised the issue of a health and safety rep, who does not necessarily have to be a union rep or even a union member but may well be victimised because of their activity in protecting workers. Will the Minister ensure that is explicitly addressed?
I do not accept the word “victimised”. A work notice effectively says that somebody has to fulfil their whole working contract as normal, whereby they come into work and get paid for it. That is not victimisation in any conventional sense of the word.
The Minister raises Section 146 of the 1992 Act, which protects against detriment on union grounds, as he rightly says. But “union grounds” means either union membership or union activity, and Section 151 is the same protection against dismissal on grounds of union membership or union activity. Can the Minister explain why only union membership is protected in this Bill and not union activity?
It is because, as we already said, Section 146 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act already provides a remedy for workers who are discriminated against on union grounds. That section will remain applicable here, as I said earlier.
I apologise for intervening again. The point is that Sections 146 and 151 specify membership and activities, whereas this Bill protects against discrimination on the grounds of union membership alone. If the same protection against union activity is required in Sections 146 and 151, it should be required here as well. The obvious implication, if you were arguing a case in court, is that that protection is not given under this Bill, otherwise it would have been included.
I will seek further legal advice. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that if the provision already exists in other applicable legislation, there is no need to duplicate that provision in another statute. I will certainly check that with the lawyers for the noble Lord.
Amendment 29 seeks to require the employers to be satisfied that the work notice does not identify more people than reasonably necessary before giving a work notice. However, as we set out in new Section 234C(5), the employer is already required to not identify more persons in the work notice than are reasonably necessary for the purposes of providing MSLs.
Amendment 30, meanwhile, seeks to require the employer to assess the equality implications of the work notice. Again, in our view, this is not necessary. The Bill does nothing to reduce the existing obligations of employers under the Equality Act 2010. As I said, there is an existing legal provision that continues to apply. There is no need to restate it.
Finally, Amendment 31 seeks to require the employer to assess the health and safety implications of the work notice and consult health and safety representatives. The Government’s view is that the current requirements in the Bill strike the right balance between the views and perspectives of employers and unions to enable a reasonable and fair work notice to be issued. As I have said, the Bill explicitly requires that employers must consult the relevant trade union and have regard to its views before issuing a work notice.
Adding any further steps or requirements to this process will result in disproportionate and costly burdens for employers and could result in delays to the issuing of a work notice by the employer and therefore delays to minimum service levels being applied. I fully accept that this may well be the purpose of the amendment, but I hope the Opposition understand why the Government cannot accept it. Additionally, when drawing up work notices, employers must still adhere to the relevant requirements set out in existing health and safety law. That is unchanged by this legislation.
For these reasons, the Government resist these amendments.
I thank the Minister—I think—for that response. Many of us raising legitimate concerns about this Bill are quite disturbed that the argument for naming individuals seems to be that you have to name individual workers so that they can be threatened with the sack and that it is necessary to share those names with unions so that they can be required to take reasonable steps or face significant sanctions, including seeing the entire workforce stripped of protection against unfair dismissal.
The whole basis of this Bill seems to be born of a “command and control” school of management where you order people to work rather than seek agreement, which I think most modern management is about. That is why it is particularly frustrating for those of us who are critics of the Bill, because we know that where minimum service levels are genuinely needed for safety issues and made by agreement, whether or not those agreements have been made at the last minute—so be it; that is often the case—they are much more likely to work effectively than anything proposed in this Bill.
I could make a number of points. I thank the Minister for his point about Amazon, but I feel I have now heard very confusing messages across this Dispatch Box from him and the noble Lord, Lord Markham, so I will want to come back and clarify that.
At some point I would like an opportunity to explain more clearly the real concerns in the trade union movement about victimisation and derecognition. They are not being brought up to put obstacles in the way of this Bill. They are born of real-life experience, both of trade union officers representing shop stewards, convenors and reps who have been victimised and of many of our families who have been through this. The penalty of victimisation is so high—to have your livelihood removed is massive. I would like to pursue this area in other ways if possible, because I am sure we can convince the Minister of the sincerity of that concern and the need for genuine protection.
It is confusing why there are specific references to not selecting people on the basis of trade union membership but not extending that to those who hold trade union office and lay leadership positions.
I could go on, but I will leave the Minister with one last question. I have yet to meet a reasonable employer who wants this Bill. I have had plenty queueing up to tell me that it is wrong, immoral or maybe just unworkable and will make matters worse from a pragmatic perspective. Can the Minister tell us of a single employer or group of employers batting for this Bill? I have yet to meet one. I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 22 withdrawn.
Amendment 23 not moved.
Amendments 24 to 31 not moved.