Amendment 33

Part of Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 23 March 2023.

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Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour 5:00, 23 March 2023

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 33 and 34. I share my noble friend Lord Collins’s outrage at this proposal. It is one thing to set minimum service levels and another thing to specify requisition notices by way of a work notice, but to require trade unions to organise themselves so as to break their own strike is a step that has never before been taken in this country and, so far as I am aware, is not required in any other country in Europe.

I remind the Committee that the provision in the Bill that we are seeking to discuss says

“the strike is not protected as respects that person’s employer if … the union fails to take reasonable steps to ensure that all members of the union who are identified in the work notice comply with the notice.”

So the obligation on the union is to

“take reasonable steps to ensure” that all members comply with the notice. That is a very heavy obligation to put on unions. In principle it is objectionable, but the extent of it makes it even more so.

I cannot develop the objection on principle further, but there are some practical considerations here that perhaps the Minister can consider. We are envisaging a work notice given by the employer to the union, setting out names of a number of workers who are required to work and the work that they are required to do; we remind ourselves that, at the end of the Bill, it is said that that can be on a daily basis. If you have one employer and one strike affecting a small number of workers, that may be a relatively easy obligation to comply with.

However, I remind the Minister that the Bill applies to the education service. I have just looked up the Office for National Statistics site, which tells me that there are 32,226 schools in this country—although in fact I understand from the National Education Union that it balloted only some 24,000-odd of those. Think of that: even if we assume that only half the employers decide to supply a work notice, on a daily basis the unions are going to get 10,000 or 12,000 emails with a list of teachers who are required to be in. The union then has to set that list against its own membership database in order to determine which of them are members of the union, and then has to communicate with each one of them in order to demonstrate that they have taken “reasonable steps to ensure” that those members comply with the notice. This is just nonsense, is it not? It really must be.

Part of the problem is that the Bill does not define “reasonable steps”—that will be left to the courts to determine. I have done enough of these industrial action cases over the last 40 years to know that employers’ barristers—all friends of mine—are going to use every argument in the book to demonstrate that the union has not taken the “reasonable steps” that the employer says it should have. One of those, of course, will be to say that the union did not threaten to discipline any members who refused to comply with the notice or expel anybody, and to ask what it did do.

All of this is against the background of a union having committed itself, after a vote in favour by the members—a vote which meets all the thresholds—to advancing a strike. All the publicity that goes out from the union’s website and journal and in emails to members will say that it is calling a strike on, say, the 24th of the month, starting at midnight, and calling for members to join the strike, go on the picket line and participate—this is their fight and their struggle for better pay and conditions, or whatever it is. However, the union has to demonstrate that it identified those members appearing on a work notice in order to show that it took reasonable steps to ensure that those members complied. This is simply not realistic, and it is not acceptable.