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 Woodley Lord Woodley Labour 5:00, 23 March 2023

My Lords, I support these amendments and want to complement and supplement the contribution of my noble friend Lord Hendy. As he said, these amendments deal with the fundamental issue of protecting trade unions from being forced to act against their own interests during a legally authorised dispute.

Like my noble friend, I find one of the most appalling parts of this skeletal Bill the requirement for trade unions

“to take reasonable steps to ensure” members comply with a notice to strike-break. Ensuring compliance is the role of the trade unions, according to the Bill. What on earth does that mean in practice? There is nothing in the Bill to guide us here. How can unions be expected to police their own members who, after all, are simply ordinary workers who voluntarily joined the union? They pay their subscriptions and expect their union to support their democratic decisions, especially during disputes.

How is compliance normally ensured? How does the state ensure that people comply with its laws, for example? Again, as my noble friend Lord Hendy said, it is by threat of sanction or some kind of punishment. Is that what is meant here? Are trade unions supposed to threaten their own members with some kind of punishment if they do not cross their own picket lines? It is ridiculous. It is certainly not clear in the Bill whether that is or is not the case. But you can bet one thing: the bosses will see it that way.

What if the bosses or, ultimately, the courts decide that this punishment is not harsh enough? What if it is decided that the union did not take so-called “reasonable steps” or threaten punishments harsh enough to ensure that its members complied with the employer’s work notice? What then? Well, the whole strike loses legal protection, as does the union. What does that mean? The Minister in the other place was very clear in his letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when he said that all workers would

“lose their automatic protection from dismissal for industrial action”.

In short, they could face the sack. There is no dispute about what was said in the other place.

However, the Minister justified this by comparing it to “balloting requirements” for unions—if they are not satisfied, the whole strike is unprotected. But, with the greatest respect, balloting requirements are black and white and very clear: it is in law and practice whether a union has satisfied them, and, if a union messes up, as unfortunately unions sometimes accidentally do, it admits it and reballots. But no members are put at risk; they are not threatened with discipline or the sack.

But “reasonable steps”, open as it is to interpretation, is not at all black and white, and with nothing in the Bill spelling out what is meant by this, the unions are flying blindfold while their members are held hostage to fortune. For example, what if a worker refuses to go to work because other members of their family are on strike? If a worker goes on the sick—not “is on the sick”, Minister—how can the union be held responsible in such circumstances? Not only can all workers on strike be fired, but the union itself could be fined vast sums of money and sued for damages, and all for not being ruthless enough in ensuring its own members’ compliance with a work notice designed to undermine its own legally balloted strike action. With the greatest respect, this is unacceptable, and all of us must fiercely resist it. This restriction strikes at the core of trade union activity and, together with the lack of clarity in the Bill on what counts as “reasonable steps”, it is therefore a breach of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as my noble friend Lord Collins mentioned. I urge all Members to support these amendments.

I have another basic question for the Minister: what exactly is meant by “reasonable steps” to ensure compliance? Is it a stern word on the picket line, or down the pub? Maybe it is naming and shaming members who are nervous about strike-breaking—or is it simply the union disciplining workers if they do not comply? What is a reasonable step? We need clarity, or we are flying blindfold.