Amendment 33

Part of Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 23 March 2023.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:45, 23 March 2023

My Lords, I suppose I had better start by making clear that I am probing these relevant clauses because I do not think what is set out in the Bill is clear. I also think it is important that we set out where we are on statutory protection for unions. We are certainly probing what could be considered “reasonable”—a word that I find extremely difficult without any further description in the Bill.

Let us start with some fundamentals here. In Great Britain, individual workers who strike, unless otherwise protected, are in breach of their contractual obligations. In the absence of other legal protections, trade unions that organise strikes would almost certainly commit a tort, such as inducement of a breach of contract, and could be subject to damages and injunctions. Currently, unions are protected from liability, and have immunity in the acts that we often talk about, by Section 219 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, provided they comply with various legal requirements such as the rules on strike ballots. Those requirements have been quite onerous in many respects. Perhaps they had the opposite effect to what was intended, because I assure the Minister and other noble Lords that once a strike mandate has been achieved through all those ballots, people who make that decision are then absolutely committed to it, while perhaps there might have been a bit more leeway in the past.

The fact is that once that mandate has been achieved, the union is protected. Under this Bill, they could lose that protection despite going through every legal hurdle set out in the 1992 Act. It is unacceptable for unions to be faced with a position where they are obliged to ensure that members who vote for industrial action do not take part in that action. It is asking them to undermine their own democratically agreed activity. A union could face an injunction or be forced to pay damages if it is not deemed to have taken reasonable steps to ensure that all its members identified in the work notice do not take part in the strike action. The cap for damages was raised to £1 million last year, which could be crippling for any union deemed to have breached what is vague legislation. It could have a chilling effect on the willingness of trade union members to exercise their fundamental right to strike.

We are trying to probe—and I am sure other noble Lords will participate in this debate—exactly what constitutes a reasonable step, as unions have been left uncertain of their responsibilities. My noble friend Lord Hendy has probing amendments to try to clarify what should or should not be a “reasonable step” and how you can work out some sort of definition. I hate to use hyperbole, but it is an outrageous infringement of trade union freedoms to force union members to cross picket lines when strike action has been democratically endorsed by members.

It is also a significant departure from the industrial relations framework in the United Kingdom. I come back to my noble friend Lady O’Grady’s point: I have yet to hear about a single employer, particularly in the six sectors we talk about. In some of them, particularly the nuclear industry, there are already very strong voluntary agreements. We have heard the noble Lord talk about the ambulance service, but it is all those areas. The NHS Providers are extremely concerned about the impact this will have on the very thing that we are saying that this legislation is designed to achieve. It will impact on voluntary agreements. Employers say, “I want a volunteer. I don’t want to force someone to do something, because when I do that they’re not going to be doing the job we all hope they would.”

This legislation has the complete opposite effect from what the Minister is suggesting. When you look at the comments I have already made about the rail industry, it is clear that this is going to aggravate industrial relations and prolong disputes, not minimise them. I hope the Minister can give us a clear indication of what he thinks are reasonable steps for a union to take in these circumstances.