Amendment 32

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 23 March 2023.

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Lord Fox:

Moved by Lord Fox

32: The Schedule, page 4, line 37, at end insert—“(9A) Failure to comply with a work notice may not—(a) be regarded as a breach of the contract of employment of any person identified in the work notice, or(b) constitute grounds for dismissal or any other detrimental action.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would protect employees from detrimental action for not complying with a work notice.

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

My Lords, the Minister may feel a sense of déjà vu in this group, but the point is to turn the focus to the individual worker named on the work order. This is not about the union or the company; it is to amplify the effect that this Bill can have on the individual. That is why I am happy to present Amendment 32 and to support the other two amendments in the group.

Amendment 32 would protect employees from the detrimental action of not complying with a work order. The point here is to amplify that, at the moment, failure to comply with a work notice could be regarded as a breach of contract. This amendment seeks to remove that possibility. Why? Because we are looking at a list that is prepared by an employer, with no sense of what criteria that employer is using to deliver the list. The employer assesses the number of people, and indeed the names of those people, who are required to produce a minimum service level that a Minister has decided with very little recourse to Parliament. It is the individual who is at the end of that chain, over which they have no control or power whatever. That is the point I seek to emphasise here. It is the individual at the end who will carry the can for this Bill, if it becomes an Act.

I have proposed this amendment because I want to emphasise very clearly that, although the Minister says the Bill is not about wanting to sack people, it can, and because it can, it will be used in the future to sack people for not complying with work orders—work orders produced in a process over which employees have essentially no power or ability to appeal whatever. It is an absolute infringement of their freedom. That is why I propose this amendment. Under the Bill, the employee could be sacked for taking strike action that has been agreed by a democratic ballot, it having gone through all the hoops that the Government require such ballots to observe. Because the employer has decided to put them on a list, the employee cannot do that.

From everything that has come from the Dispatch Box so far, I think it will be hard for the Minister to understand this. However, it is something my colleagues on these Benches and I have discussed a lot, and which we find to be a really important element of the Bill. It is about the relationships between unions and their employers, and between the employers and the Government, but in the end, it is about a fundamental individual right, and this Bill removes that right. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Fox. My Amendment 32A simply amplifies the noble Lord’s amendment and takes it a little further.

As I understand it, and the Minister will correct me if I have misunderstood the Bill, the consequence of being requisitioned and then refusing to work during a strike is that there will be no protection from unfair dismissal. As many other Members of the Committee have already said, if that is the case, bad employers—of which there are some—will use that as an excuse to be rid of people who they regard as trouble-makers, whether or not they are union activists.

The purpose of these amendments is to build in some protection. The first provision in Amendment 32A is that the employer would have to demonstrate that a work notice was sent to the worker and was received by her. Secondly, the amendment would mean that a refusal to comply with a requisition order is not to be regarded as a breach of the contract of employment, which it otherwise invariably would be. Thirdly, such a refusal would not be grounds for dismissal. Fourthly, failure to comply with a work notice would be a protected trade union activity.

This goes back to the point the Minister dealt with earlier. The Bill does not say that taking part in a strike—in particular, taking part in a strike when the worker is subject to a work notice requiring her to work on a particular day—is a protected trade union activity. In the absence of that, Section 146 of the 1992 Act, which protects against detriment on grounds of membership or activity, and Section 152, which protects against dismissal on grounds of membership or activity, simply will not apply. It is essential and necessary for the Bill to specify that membership and activity are protected, or at least that refusal to comply with the requisition notice is such a protected activity, otherwise the worker will be left with no protection at all. That is clearly contrary to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. You cannot penalise workers for going on strike. It is simply impermissible and in breach of Article 11 of the European convention.

We cannot assume that all employers are good employers. If that was the case, we would not need unfair dismissal law at all. But for the bad employer seeking to exploit this, may I endeavour to explain the legal situation as I see it? The bad employer decides to identify a worker to be requisitioned under a work notice. That worker refuses to comply with the notice, and the employer then sacks them. They are sacked on legally solid grounds, because striking is in fundamental breach of contract; it is regarded by law as a repudiation of the contract of employment. That means that avenues under the contract, such as the right to bring a grievance, disappear as the contract ends. Likewise, there will be no claim for unfair dismissal, because, unless I have misunderstood the Bill, that is the effect of the provisions, and there will be no remedy for breach of contract. If the worker goes to a court and says that she was dismissed improperly by her employer, she will be met by the employer’s answer that she was in fundamental breach of her contract and so cannot complain that the employer breached it.

I can see no legal avenue whatever for a worker who refused to comply with a requisition order and has been sacked instantaneously by their employer. Therefore, with the greatest respect, perhaps the Minister might reconsider his earlier answer when he said that there were some remedies or avenues available.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop 4:30, 23 March 2023

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 41 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, to which my right reverend friend the Bishop of London has added her name, and the other amendments in this group. My right reverend friend regrets that she is unable to be in her place today. In fact, given that she is at this very moment leading a debate among fellow bishops on the subject of sexuality, I think she would much rather be here in your Lordships’ House alongside me. Therefore, in supporting these amendments, I wish to include a number of points which she would undoubtedly have made had she been here.

As we have heard earlier today, including from the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, proportionality is a central principle of law. I hope that noble Lords will allow me to draw attention from these Benches to an important biblical perspective on that topic. I suggest we should respect the limitations set by Moses over 3,000 years ago in the Hebrew scriptures. When Moses laid down a simple rule,

“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”,

he was not advocating mutilation as the proper means of punishment. He was making the crucial point that the punishment must never exceed the gravity of the offence.

Dismissal for failing to comply with an instruction to work on a strike day is, in my view, the view of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and, I suspect, the view of many others, grossly out of all proportion. I also wonder how enforceable it would be. Were I a worker issued with such an instruction, the stress I would suffer in consequence could quite likely render me unfit to turn up to work on the day—and, as I trust your Lordships have begun to recognise, I am a fairly tough nut. Will the Minister therefore agree to explore, before we reach Report, whether some lesser maximum penalty would be more appropriate?

Moreover, as the Royal College of Nursing has said, sacking workers for failing to accede to such an instruction to work

“would exacerbate severe nursing workforce shortages” that we already face. Nursing vacancies are already high—is it more than 43,000? That is a 10% increase over the last 12 months. There are similar shortages elsewhere in the public sector.

The first day in Committee highlighted major unresolved questions about the application of the Bill. The breadth of the roles under the titles of “health services” and “transport services” is huge. Providing minimum service levels that are of the same urgency, and providing for penalties of the same severity, for those who drive blue-light emergency vehicles and the driver of my local 98 bus is absurd.

The amendments in this group would continue protection of employees’ rights and would protect our workforces from further exacerbation of already severe shortages. I urge the Minister to accept them.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. We have already discussed at length the proportionality concerns about the minimum service level agreements being imposed per se, but now we get into the sanctions and consequences for trade unions in what will follow, but also for individuals. We must now talk not just about the vital human rights principle of proportionality that we discussed before but about the vital principle of non-discrimination.

This gives me the opportunity to reflect on an earlier exchange between the Minister and my noble friend Lady O’Grady of Upper Holloway. There was a dissonance about this concept of victimisation. As I understand it, the Minister was saying, “For goodness’ sake. It’s not victimisation to say that there needs to be a minimum service level agreement to protect the public, and therefore there have to be work notices”. However, what perhaps the Minister did not hear or understand is that when you give employers the power to pick and choose between individual employees, we are opening up the Pandora’s box of abuse of power. When we legislate in your Lordships’ House, we have to guard against potential abuses of power.

If employers, scrupulous or otherwise, are allowed to pick and choose between individuals, some people will never be on the list but other people will be, and sometimes the people will be selected for that list on grounds that include their race, sex, sexuality and possibly even their role within trade union activity. I think that is the point my noble friend was trying to make to the Minister, and this is the power that is being handed to individual employers, in contrast with years of struggle for protection against discrimination, including discrimination on the grounds of trade union activity as well as membership.

If, as I fear, the Minister will not pause the Bill or introduce greater parliamentary protection before the powers can be triggered in the first place, please will he look at the powers given to individual employers over groups and particular employees in the workplace, because it is invidious and, I think, very dangerous?

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, it seems to me that the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Hendy, are finding yet another way to try to deprive the Bill of any effect. In their own ways, they are trying to make it entirely voluntary to take part in the provision of minimum service levels, if requested by an employer. That runs completely counter to the policy intent of the Bill.

If noble Lords think that the Bill needs to be modified in some way to reflect their concerns, it is incumbent on them to produce amendments which find a practical way through that. To simply, in effect, make compliance with a minimum service level work notice voluntary is unacceptable in the context of the Bill. Although I understand the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, makes, those issues are already covered by discrimination law. The concern she has about being selected on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation or race is already covered by discrimination law and does not need to be protected again in the Bill.

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

Does the noble Baroness accept that in Committee, there are two sorts of amendments: there are amendments which are very practical and designed to be used as a template for changing the Bill, and there are probing amendments? I point out that I made it very clear that the latest two groups I was speaking to were probing amendments. On that basis, I think her criticism is invalid.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for engaging so specifically and constructively in the debate, but I do not think she appreciates just how difficult it is, even under the present law, for people to go to a tribunal, with or without the assistance of lawyers or their trade unions, to demonstrate that they were picked on for one of these reasons. Now, in this Bill, a specific protection against unfair dismissal is being removed. An employer will say, “No, no, X, Y or Z was picked for this other reason. They are essential to the service”. It just happens to be the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who is essential to the service every time and not, for example, my noble friend Lord Hendy, who of course is the expert. If I am always essential to the service and he is not, it will be very difficult for me to demonstrate that it was discriminatory, when the whole purpose of the Bill is, as the noble Baroness said, to remove protection from unfair dismissal.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

The purpose of the Bill is not to remove protection for unfair dismissal; the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that minimum service levels can be guaranteed for those who rely on the services, and we are trying to find practical ways through that. I was inviting noble Lords to find ways did not simply rip the heart out of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour

I just say to the noble Baroness that there is nothing wrong with conformity being voluntary. The whole basis of the ILO jurisprudence is that minimum service levels and requisitioning should be agreed voluntarily between the unions and the employers. In most of the countries of Europe where they have minimum service levels, volunteers are sought to provide the minimum service. That is also true in this country. We have been hearing for days about the local agreements that are reached in all the six sectors identified here.

That is done on a voluntary basis, and the people who do the work volunteer to do it. They speak to their union, and the union says, “Somebody has to do it; you’re going to do it”, and they say “Okay, fine if that is the price of having the industrial action and bringing pressure to bear to maintain our standard of living, that is the price I am prepared to pay”.

There is nothing wrong with voluntariness. It does not detract from the rest of the machinery of the Bill in setting minimum service levels and issuing work notices, if that is really what the Bill is intended to do.

Photo of Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Labour 4:45, 23 March 2023

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 41 in my name and the names of my noble friend Lord Collins and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, and support the amendments tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Hendy.

Many of us agree that one of the most disturbing features of the Bill is that it hands employers powers to name individual workers in a work notice and potentially force them to work against their will, through a strike, without their individual consent or the agreement of their union—or face the sack. Many employers in the public and private sectors have told us very clearly that they do not want this authoritarian power because it would sour industrial relations. If the Bill is enacted, they fear that they would come under undue political pressure to exercise that power. The publication of WhatsApp messages, as I mentioned previously, between the then Health and Education Ministers revealed that at the very same time as they were publicly praising, clapping and thanking key workers for their efforts during the pandemic, privately they were describing those same workers and their unions—unions are made up of workers—with contempt.

The noble Lord, Lord Callanan, has often sought to reassure us by saying that he hopes the powers will never be used and that there would be no undue pressure. However, I am sure that he would agree—I might even get a smile out of him—that if Gavin Williamson was Education Minister today, on the evidence of those WhatsApp messages, he would be straining at the leash to ensure that academy schools pulled that trigger. That is the fear.

The Government have continually cited France, Italy and Spain as countries that also provide minimum service levels. However, unlike in the UK, in each of these countries the right to strike is a constitutional right. Perhaps the noble Lord can also confirm which of these countries, if any, have provided a blanket power to remove protection against dismissal for individually named striking workers? I submitted a Written Question on this subject, but the response I received did not answer the Question. What is more, it took 15 days rather than the expected 10 not to answer my Question. In fact, the answer, as we have heard, is zero. None of those countries does that.

Can the Minister also explain and justify a gaping hole in the consultations issued on the Bill so far? Those consultations failed to ask whether respondents agree with the Government that it is acceptable to sack individual firefighters, ambulance staff and rail workers if, for example, for reasons of conscience they do not comply with the work notice. Could it possibly be that this is not in the consultation because Ministers know that they will not get the answer that they want? Most fair-minded people find the idea of such sackings abhorrent. The sacking of individually named workers who refuse to comply would be catastrophic for workers’ rights, staff morale and industrial relations in this country. I remind the Minister that NHS job vacancies currently stand at over 133,000 and that 17% of newly qualified teachers leave within two years.

Not so long ago, following a public outcry about what happened at P&O, Government Ministers condemned its scandalous behaviour, and rightly so. Ministers said then—I quote from the 24 January government press release—that unscrupulous employers

“must not use threats of dismissal to pressurise employees into accepting new terms”.

But the Bill provides powers to do exactly that: to pressurise key workers into accepting terms under threat of the sack. These key workers’ heroic work through the pandemic has earned the public’s respect and gratitude. One firefighter was moved to write a letter about his experiences. He says that he has been proud to work for the service for 15 years, including being deployed to Nepal following the devastating earthquakes in 2015; that he and his colleagues have a can-do attitude and have provided emergency cover voluntarily when needed through industrial action; and that they entered the service because they want to help people. He warns against this legislation and says that it is unnecessary, given that arrangements for emergency cover are already in place, and says that Ministers

“can’t simply legislate away the depth of anger and frustration we feel about how we’ve been treated. The Bill could lead to individual workers like me being sacked for taking part in legal and democratically decided industrial action over issues which are genuinely of concern to society in general.”

Taking the power to sack workers whose names are chosen unilaterally by employers, as sanctioned by Ministers, is understandably perceived as deeply provocative. If this firefighter refused to comply with the work notice, does the Minister really imagine that his colleagues would stand by and let him be sacked? Some argue that the Bill is intended to be provocative but, if so, that would be foolish. The provision to sack workers flies in the face of all industrial relations common sense and any sense of human decency.

I know that we are covering the same ground, but it is not just named individuals who could be vulnerable to the sack, as the Joint Committee on Human Rights made clear in its report:

“We find it hard to see how it is compliant with Article 11 ECHR to expose any participant in industrial action to the risk of dismissal simply because a trade union fails to take unspecified ‘reasonable steps’ required in respect of those subject to a work notice.”

I will not go on, but I look forward to the Minister's response—or, better still, an indication that this Government will remove that right to sack striking workers from the Bill.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. At the risk of provoking further interventions, I will start by replying to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. I do not know the legal definition of victimisation, but her understanding of it is clearly different from mine. I would define it as something like “subjecting an individual to degrading, unfair treatment”. In effect, a work notice says to an employee, “You fulfil your contract, as has been previously agreed, as normal. You come into work, do your normal contracted job and get paid for it.” In any definition that I understand, that is not victimisation. Obviously she has an alternative view, but I do not believe that it would come under the definition.

I will directly address the point by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady. I have said it before and will say it again: this legislation is not about sacking key workers. Let me be very clear about that. She inquired about the outline of the Bill: it is about protecting the lives and livelihoods of the public by enabling minimum service levels to be applied on a strike day. If people comply with the legislation, then there is no question of anybody being sacked on the basis of it.

This group of amendments seeks to ensure that no detrimental action could be taken by an employer against persons who are named on, but then fail to comply with, a work notice. There would be no consequences for participating in a strike despite being named on a work notice. The whole intention of these amendments is not to achieve a balance between the ability to strike and the rights and freedoms of the rest of us to go about our normal daily business—to get an ambulance, to attend the health service or to have a firefighter come to put out a fire in my property. This is about ensuring that strike action can continue with no consequence whatever and with no regard as to whether a minimum service level will be achieved. That fundamentally cannot be accepted by the Government.

For a minimum service level to be achieved, it strikes me as obvious that enough people need to attend work and therefore workers need to be appropriately incentivised to do that. The legislation achieves this by removing the automatic protection from unfair dismissal where employees participate in strike action despite being named on a work notice. While it is at the discretion of employers rather than the Government as to what, if any, action is then taken against employees in those circumstances, we think it vital that the Bill equips employers to manage instances of non-compliance, just as they would in any other case of unauthorised absence, to enable them to achieve that minimum service level. As my noble friend Lady Noakes observed, employees retain all their existing protections against discrimination—a very good point that further reinforces why these amendments are not required.

Overall, we believe that the approach in this legislation is fair and reasonable and ensures that there is the balance, which we have talked about so often, between the ability to strike and the rights and freedoms of everyone else to go about their daily business and use essential public services. Removing the ability for there to be any consequences whatever for failing to comply with a work notice would likely lead to strikes being more disruptive, as we have seen, when compared with the level of service that employers would be able to provide by applying a minimum service level that allows for these consequences.

Finally, there is a point of detail. Amendments 32 and 32A, if implemented, would cause a significant legal conflict with Part 2 of the Schedule, which makes amendments to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to make clear that there is no automatic protection from unfair dismissal for an employee who is identified in a valid work notice but participates in the strike contrary to that work notice.

In conclusion, I resist these amendments on the grounds that they seek to sustain or increase the disproportionate impact that strikes in these key areas can have on the public as a continuation of the status quo, a continuation of the public being disproportionately impacted by strikes and a continuation of lives and livelihoods being put at risk by those strikes. Therefore, I cannot accept these amendments.

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

With each group of amendments that passes, I get the impression that the area of carpet between me and the Minister is getting larger. The differences are getting larger rather than smaller, which is disappointing because sometimes in Committee they can be narrowed, but I do not get that sense. In describing the change in a person’s contract so that on one day they are able to strike with legal protections and on the next day that contract is unilaterally changed, I do not have to use the word “victimisation”. I can use some other word, perhaps “unfair” or “wrong”. That is the fundamental difference between me and the Minister, and that is what is causing the carpet to expand. Acknowledging that this was a probing amendment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 32 withdrawn.

Amendments 32A and 32B not moved.