Amendment 33

Part of Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 5:15 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) 5:15, 23 March 2023

The simple fact is that the Minister tries to keep repeating a narrative that the Government are on the side of the public and, somehow, the Opposition are not. Actually, that is not the case, and, as I said before, the public will not be fooled.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Markham is here, because we had a discussion about the six sectors. There was a manifesto commitment on transport, but then that disappeared, especially when an impact assessment said that the law would not work and would prolong disputes, with greater impact on the public, so it is not worth doing. Now, we have had discussion about six sectors, a number of which have very strong voluntary agreements that work. Employers have told us that where people volunteer to do something, against their conscience, which is what we are talking about, it will be more effective. In the health service, NHS Providers is telling us that that is what it wants to do: it wants to ensure that people volunteer and that there are proper cover arrangements. What we are moving to here is compulsion, penalties and dismissal. It will have the complete opposite effect to what the Minister has said.

The problem about “reasonable steps”, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has said, is that it is often up to courts to define and interpret. It is used in our common law. I have been distressed at times at how courts have deemed something to be reasonable, especially in the context of trade unions. The Minister has given us an example, whereby the reasonable step is for the union to communicate—simply to communicate. If the union provides notices that there will be minimum service levels, that reasonable step should include a range of communications. The Minister therefore excludes the idea that there is a requirement to insist, to discipline or to take other measures that may be deemed reasonable.

I come back to a fundamental point. There is another issue here: unions are able to organise strikes, but not because they have constitutional right to do so in this country—they do not, sadly. That is the difference from European countries, where they do have that constitutional right and so the question of minimum service levels is something that is an exception to the constitutional right. The Minister talked about incentives in an earlier debate. Often, it is the statute that says that you must incentivise people to work in those circumstances and not to exercise their constitutional right to strike. We do not have that here.

It is extremely worrying that a properly constituted, legal strike could end up being deemed illegal because a court decides that a union did not take “reasonable steps” for a small minority of its members—well, possibly a small minority, but who knows? The problem is that we do not know what minimum service levels are in different circumstances; we do not know whether it is 20%, 30%, 40% or even—in the case of some of the emergencies that we have been talking about—100%.

This comes back to a fundamental constitutional position. This is a skeleton Bill that is asking Parliament to give Ministers powers that will impact hugely on rights that have been fought for over the last 120 years. I am certainly not happy with the Minister’s response. I have no doubt that he will continue with his narrative, but it does not provide the answers to these fundamental questions that we are searching for. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 33 withdrawn.

Amendments 34 to 36A not moved.