Amendment 6

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:48 pm on 26 April 2023.

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Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd:

Moved by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd

6: Clause 3, page 2, line 9, leave out from “Act” to end of line 11 and insert “of Parliament.(6) This section does not apply to—(a) an Act or Measure of Senedd Cymru, or(b) an Act of the Scottish Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would mean that the power of United Kingdom Ministers to amend primary legislation does not apply to Acts of the Scottish Parliament or Senedd Cymru.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee)

My Lords, I shall speak to both Amendment 6 and Amendment 7— Amendment 7 being the more important. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, for supporting these amendments. I have tabled these amendments because this Bill, in its application to Scotland and Wales, is impractical, undemocratic and will make the services there worse. Let me briefly explain each of those points.

First, on impracticality, the main services—that is health, education and ambulance services—are all devolved. It simply is not practical for the Secretary of State for Health or the Secretary of State for Education, as advised by their departments in England, to deal with the position in Wales and Scotland. They do not deal at all with health and education in Wales or Scotland. They are run differently, on a basis of very different legislation to that in England. Let me explain why by reference to Wales.

As to health, under Welsh legislation it is the Welsh Ministers who give direction to the employers—the local health boards and trusts—about their functions. It is Welsh Ministers who have a role in setting pay and conditions in accordance with Welsh regulations and directions and the priorities of the Welsh Ministers.

As to ambulance services, these are run in Wales under the direction of a joint committee of health board chief executives, which has commissioned the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust to run the services for the whole of Wales. Those same health board chief executives are appointed by Welsh Ministers, who are of course accountable to the Senedd. How can an English Minister set minimum service levels for Wales and interfere in this structure when the Minister and the department have no basis whatsoever for doing so, no interest in the policy, no interest in the priorities and do not really understand either the demographics or geography of Wales.

As to education, in Wales it is the local authorities that, with the governors, employ the staff. There are substantial differences in structure: there are no academies in Wales; funding, unlike in England, is not hypothecated; and minimum qualifications for teachers are different. Pay and conditions are set by the Welsh Government for the needs of the curriculum in Wales which, quite apart from bilingualism, is different to that in England. How can a Minister who knows all about education in England, yet has not been able to work out a policy for minimum service levels, set minimum service levels for education in Wales, about which the Minister knows absolutely nothing?

Overall, the position of the employers who have to decide whether to give a work notice in Wales and Scotland will be different to that in England. I have already set out the difficulties in dealing with Amendment 3. They will have to take into account different public law duties under different legislation, and the views of the Governments of Wales and Scotland, who have the power to give directions. Again, one can see a wonderful field day for lawyers.

Secondly, in my view, it is wholly wrong and contrary to basic democratic and constitutional principles for this to apply in Wales and Scotland. The responsibility for dealing with these services is not that of the UK Government but the Welsh and Scottish Governments under the legislation applicable in those nations. The Governments there were elected to run these services and are wholly responsible and accountable to the electorate for them. The English Government—the UK Government—are not accountable. It is therefore wrong in principle to undermine that accountability and democratic choice.

This is underlined by the refusal yesterday of the Senedd to give legislative consent. His Majesty’s Government will argue that the refusal is irrelevant, as it is not a matter for the Senedd or the Scottish Parliament because the Bill concerns a reserved matter, industrial relations. With the utmost respect to government lawyers, that is nonsense: the Bill is not about industrial relations but about devolved services. As has been explained, there is a fundamental failure to understand what the Bill is about. Secondly, the Senedd is the body democratically accountable for services, not the UK Government. Therefore, unless amended, this will be another piece of legislation where the Sewel convention is ignored. I have spoken of this before, but it is now being ignored at the heart of devolution, in services that have been run in Wales and Scotland for a very long time.

Thirdly, it will make matters worse for the people of Wales and Scotland by undermining the ability of the Welsh and Scottish Governments to manage their own relations with their staff and employees. The management of those relationships is different from, and has generally been more successful than, that of the Government responsible for England. Applying the Bill to Wales and Scotland is effectively taking away power from those who have responsibility for the management of the relationship, for the negotiations and for the setting of pay and conditions. It will undermine their ability to do this successfully. It is simply an arrogation of powers in matters over which the Government in England have no responsibility. Power without responsibility is a recipe for disaster for the people of Wales and Scotland, for which the Government, in respect of these services, have no responsibility at all.

In summary, the UK Government, which are under the law responsible only for health, ambulances and education in England, should not be interfering in areas for which they have no responsibility in Scotland and Wales. It is impractical, wrong in principle and makes no sense. The real problem is that this is yet another attempt to undermine devolution and give strength to those who wish to see the union weakened.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has spoken very powerfully and comprehensively on this, and I am delighted to offer my support on both these amendments, which reflect how badly written this Bill is. It reflects a Government in a temper tantrum in the face of a period of determined and effective trade union action. I can hear government Ministers stamping their feet in a fit of rage and the result is this badly drafted Bill.

The report of the Select Committee on the Constitution condemns the Bill for being “skeletal” and declares that the concept of minimum services levels is insufficiently specified. This problem is particularly acute in relation to the devolved Administrations, because it is surely up to them to decide what minimum service levels should apply in their own countries in their own circumstances.

I will give two very concrete examples. First, in relation to health services, ambulance response times might quite reasonably be very differently specified in Wales and Scotland because in the Highlands of Scotland and rural mid-Wales the distances travelled are massive. Secondly, if you look at Welsh-medium education, dare I say it, it is unlikely that a UK Minister would even understand the minimum service levels they would have to specify. It is totally inappropriate that it should be in their hands.

At the heart of these amendments is the fact that most of the services specified are, of course, devolved and have a close impact on devolved services at the very least. Education, health, fire and rescue and most transport services are in the hands of the devolved Administrations, which are democratically accountable for the running of those services, yet the UK Government want to intervene in that relationship. That intervention will inevitably sour employer-employee relationships and inevitably mean worse services for the people of the countries concerned.

It will create a seriously muddy situation. Minimum service levels should be down to the democratically responsible Governments concerned, and in these services that is the devolved Governments. The muddy waters will be even more troubled by the information referred to earlier in Amendment 3 from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, that in practice employers will have to issue work notices in order to avoid being sued.

So, we have employers in devolved Administrations working to the devolved Governments which are going to have to act in response to UK Government actions. This is not practical, so for all these reasons I believe the Government need to draw a halt to their many steady and determined attempts to undermine devolution, and this Bill needs to apply only to England.

Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Judge

My Lords, I support both these amendments, speaking, if I may, from a Scottish point of view. I endorse entirely what has been said by my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd and by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

I would like to come back to the point about legislative consent, because I very much regret the fact that the Government have not sought that from the devolved legislatures. It is pretty obvious that it would have been withheld, but the fact that they never did that itself tells one a great deal about the Government’s attitude to devolution.

The fact is that almost all the services that we are concerned with—health, education and so on—are devolved. It follows that industrial relations in relation to these services are in the devolved area. We see this in Scotland day after day. Discussions about pay and conditions for nurses, junior doctors, ambulance workers and so on are dealt with in Scotland by the Scottish Government because they are dealing with devolved areas. Therefore, industrial relations in relation to these services really are within the devolved area and should have nothing to do with Ministers in Whitehall. There is a basic misconception about the approach the Government have taken in the Bill in relation to these devolved areas. Without elaborating on the other points that have been made, it is because of that very basic misconception that has misguided the Government from the start that I support these two amendments.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 6:00, 26 April 2023

I am glad of the opportunity to support these amendments and to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for introducing them and noble Lords for the supporting arguments that have been put forward so far.

Wales has a long and honourable tradition of trade unionism. It has been constitutional trade unionism. There has been an interesting situation over the past 20 years where mainly Labour-led Governments have had to negotiate with trade unions in Wales. Of course, there have been differences of opinion, and give and take, but generally the attitude and the atmosphere have been positive. The last thing we want is to see legislation from Westminster or anywhere else cutting across that and becoming an excuse for things that then go wrong. We want the responsibility for these matters to lie with our Senedd in Cardiff and no doubt likewise in Edinburgh. For that reason, I very much hope these amendments will be passed.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

My Lords, I point out that Scotland and Wales have separate trade union organisations. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, would like to tell us of some of the divisions, difficulties and challenges that she faced within the TUC in getting a common position. One should not underestimate the fact that both these countries have a separate tradition and, importantly, a separate structure. So if orders are going to be given and trade unions are going to be disciplined, they are going to have to be disciplined in more than one jurisdiction. I would be very interested to hear from the noble Baroness the difficulties that she sees in trying to make this work, when quite rightly the trade union movements in Scotland and Wales have separate structures, often separate policies, which may be congruent but are separate, and separate ways of existing and negotiating.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench

Speaking as a Scotsman and a unionist, I strongly support the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. It seems to me that if one is to maintain the union, it is important to maintain the devolution settlement. This Bill undermines the devolution settlement.

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)

My Lords, I want to make a few brief points. Of course, the noble and learned Lord is absolutely right that defining and managing service levels is a devolved matter. It is how you manage and define them. So when it comes to defining minimum service levels, who has responsibility? It is not the Government. It is actually going to be the responsibility of the devolved institutions and devolved Governments. Let me say this: this is not about devolving employment rights. Employment rights are in a single market and they are clearly defined. This is about service levels. We had debates in Committee about how to define service levels on non-strike days. The devolved Governments are going to be responsible for that, and that is the democratic accountability. That is why it is really important that we support these amendments.

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

My Lords, Amendments 6 and 7 relate, as has been said, to the devolved Governments. Amendment 6 seeks to remove the power for the Secretary of State to make consequential amendments to primary legislation made by the Scottish Parliament or the Senedd Cymru. This amendment was previously tabled in Committee, and no one will be surprised to know that the Government’s position remains unchanged.

As I have previously stated, the powers in Clause 3 can be exercised only to make amendments that are necessary to give effect to the Bill; they are therefore truly consequential. Employment rights and duties and industrial relations are reserved in respect of Scotland and Wales. It is therefore right that the Secretary of State has the power to make consequential amendments to primary legislation made by the Scottish Parliament or Senedd Cymru, if required, to ensure that the new legal framework operates in a coherent way across the whole of Great Britain. As always, the Government will engage with the devolved Governments as appropriate should consequential amendments be required to Acts of the Scottish Parliament or the Senedd Cymru.

Amendment 7, meanwhile, seeks to limit the territorial application of this Act to England. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, tabled a similar amendment in Committee, and the Government continue to resist this change for the same reasons that I set out then.

As has been said numerous times in this debate, once regulations for minimum service levels are in force for a specified service, if a trade union gives notice of strike action, it is then the employer’s decision whether to issue a work notice ahead of the strike, specifying the workforce required to achieve the minimum service level for that strike period. If the employer is the Scottish Government or the Welsh Senedd, it is their decision whether or not they use this legislation. Of course, we hope that all employers will want to do so where needed —as was said in relation to the amendments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, employers must consider any contractual, public law or other legal duties that they have—but the Bill does not contain a statutory requirement to do so. No one is forcing them to use this legislation.

We will, as we have done throughout this legislation, continue to engage with the devolved Governments as part of the development of minimum service levels in those areas and the consultations that would be required that are informing these decisions. The Government have a duty to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens across Great Britain. The disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public are no less severe in Scotland or Wales, and the people there have every right to expect the Government to act to ensure that they can continue to access vital public services, which they pay for, during strike action.

I hope—again, perhaps without too much optimism—that noble Lords will therefore feel able not to press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee)

My Lords, I considered whether to press both amendments to a Division, but it seems to me that the critical one is Amendment 7. If the Act is not applicable to England, Amendment 6 is, in effect, consequential and falls away. I therefore intend to withdraw Amendment 6 but will ask to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 7.

There are two fundamental reasons for that. First, it is essential that we do not undermine devolution. The devolution Acts give the responsibility for services to the devolved Governments. If the devolved Governments fail to deliver those services, they can be booted out at the next election. That is democracy, which I had hoped this Government believed in.

Secondly, the argument that the Minister has put forward—that the Governments in Wales and Scotland are the employers and can themselves determine whether the notices should or should not be given—is misconceived. As I sought to say, they are not the employers. The employers are the trusts and the local authorities. Probably wrongly, I did not press Amendment 5, but the Government now have to bear the consequence.

If they had agreed to my amendment, the point the Minister made might be a good one—but they did not. The consequence is that it is not up to the Governments of Scotland and Wales. They will have interests and points to make, just as no doubt the UK Government will have to the English authorities. But, ultimately, it will be for the employers. Therefore, this is an outright interference in the running of services in Wales and Scotland. They are at the heart of devolution. This, if anything, proves that what this Government want to do is undermine devolution and thus weaken the union. I will therefore press Amendment 7 in due course, and in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 6.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Clause 4: Extent