Moved by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
As an amendment to the motion in the name of Lord Sharpe of Epsom, to leave out all the words after “that” and to insert “this House declines to approve the draft Strikes (Minimum Service Levels: Border Security) Regulations 2023 because they expose trade unions to liability of up to £1 million, make trade unions act as enforcement agents on behalf of employers and His Majesty's Government, and reduce the rights of workers to withdraw their labour, and will prohibit around 75 per cent of Border Force workers from taking part in strike action.”
My Lords, I rise to move my fatal amendment on the border security minimum service levels regulations. I will be very brief in doing so, in the interests of progressing the business of the House, particularly given the fine balance of our numbers. I am not going to repeat all my previous statements and arguments but, for the record, that does not mean that I am in any way withdrawing any of them.
I agree with virtually everything that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, just said about these being, in some ways, the strictest of the regulations before us today. Some 70% to 75% of staff are losing the right to strike; in many smaller places, there is effectively no right to strike. We are taking that right away from people. However, that would really be a stronger argument for my fatal amendment. In that context, the regret amendment does not really achieve anything, as I have said before. I will, however, just reflect on one comment that the Minister made, repeating statements that the Government have often made before. If the Government are committed to conciliation for national disputes, this is a kind of rhetorical question, but it is worth asking. Can the Minister confirm how he can speak for future Governments, because these are the regulations we are laying now?
My Lords, this is perhaps the most curious of the three statutory instruments aimed at particular sectors. I say that because it seems that the Government have chosen to pick a fight with one of the groups of public sector workers with which, to my knowledge, they do not currently have a full-blown dispute. Perhaps there is one coming; perhaps that is why Robert Jenrick has just resigned. He must know something that we do not. Given the choice of sectors, why did the Government choose to accelerate this one over other public services which are currently in trouble? It seems strange. Clearly, as other speakers have said, it is not a very long measure, and noble Lords will be happy to know that my speech will be shorter.
At the heart of this, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the intent of the measure is that the strike-day service from Border Force should be no less effective than on a non-strike day, and services should cover all the areas normally running—port and airport services, passport services and so on—as the Minister has set out. I do not need to explain that when the minimum service level is no less effective than the everyday service level, that basically means almost everybody is required to go to work. In this case, the estimate from the TUC is that 70% to 75% of the employees of Border Force on a normal day will be required to attend on a strike day.
If a union can legally call a strike, but must then tell three-quarters of its members to ignore that strike, this is a looking-glass world. It would be more efficient if the employer sent out un-work notices and the union informed its members which ones could actually strike; that would cut out the middleman and we could get to the result quicker. But that is not how industrial relations should work, and it is certainly not how good industrial relations have worked. If there is no dispute in Border Force now, I cannot help thinking that this in no way improves the possibility of not having one in future.
As we have said before, these regulations effectively ban strikes in Border Force. If that was the Government’s intention, they should have used primary legislation and truthfully expressed that ambition. Instead, they have deployed Ministers to dissemble as they hid behind a skeletal Bill. Once again, we will take the TUC’s advice and support the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, if he chooses to move his Motion.
My Lords, further to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I understand that the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 applies to England, Scotland and Wales. However, it is interesting that, while labour relations are devolved, Border Force, HM Passport Office and so on are not; they are reserved.
In light of this legislation, if it is important to the Government, how does the Minister intend to provide similar measures in Northern Ireland? How does he maintain the integrity of the single reserved agencies? How does he ensure similar terms and conditions for staff across the United Kingdom, given the restricted extent of these regulations? As he said, this is important legislation. I will be interested to hear how he can say that, on the one hand, it is a devolved matter but, on the other, Border Force, His Majesty’s Passport Office and so on are not because they are reserved matters. How does the Minister deal with that?
My Lords, I am grateful for all the contributions and will address the points that have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has tabled a Motion to regret this statutory instrument because
“the draft Regulations contain policy detail that was not included in primary legislation contrary to the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee; and … given that the impact assessment acknowledges that some workers’ right to take industrial action will be affected or denied… they are too prohibitive”.
I do not agree. The 27th Report of Session 2022-23 of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, published on
“the House may wish to press the Minister to provide an explanation of how the power to set minimum service levels … is likely to be exercised”, and the second, as I have already said, is that
“the House may wish to press the Minister to provide an explanation of how the power to define ‘relevant services’ … is likely to be exercised”.
I respectfully submit that both those recommendations have now been addressed through the regulations themselves and in this debate.
I also respectfully disagree that the regulations are too prohibitive. The Government committed to introducing statutory minimum service levels on strike days in a range of sectors, including border security. That was to establish a fair balance between the ability to strike and enabling people to go about their daily lives. The ability for staff to take strike action is an integral part of industrial relations. However, the security of our borders is something that we cannot compromise on; that is why this measure is proportionate. We must also consider the disruption caused to, and the costs incurred by, passengers and businesses that expect the essential services they pay for to be there when needed.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me about the consultation. We are grateful to all those who responded to it. As noted in our formal response, we received 69 online questionnaires and a further nine written responses, but we consider that those who responded have a reasonable expectation of confidentiality, which is why we have not identified them.
In the consultation we ran in the summer, we made it clear that we were considering applying these regulations to Border Force and other organisations. We invited respondents to identify any organisations they thought should be in scope. Following the consultation, we considered it important to include critical passport services in the regulations. Passport services required for the purposes of national security could include, for example, identifying stolen passports and forged documents. In practice, as I said in opening, we think that we would require around a dozen employees from the Passport Office to work on a strike day, if necessary.
Our commitment on conciliation is clear. To partially answer both noble Lords’ questions on Northern Ireland, there are issues in the background with Northern Ireland that we are working through. I will return to those subjects in writing.
The public rightly expect us to maintain a secure border—as I said, that is why this is proportionate— in balance with the ability of workers to strike. The Government believe that these new border security minimum service levels will do that. I hope noble Lords will join me in supporting these regulations, which I commend to the House.
My Lords, I note that the Minister did not address my admittedly unanswerable question about the next Government. The news from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, might make us wonder when the next Government, or at least the next Prime Minister, might arrive. In light of the hour, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle’s amendment to the Motion withdrawn.