All 16 contributions to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

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Monday 16th January 2023

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This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Grant Shapps Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Grant Shapps)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government firmly believe that the ability to strike is an important element of industrial relations in the UK. That ability is rightly protected by law, and we understand that an element of disruption is likely with any strike. However, we also need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect the essential services that they pay for to be there when they need them. We must be able to have confidence that when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk. As has become clear from recent industrial action, that is not always the case, so we need a safety net in place to ensure that the public do not become collateral damage.

Steve McCabe Portrait Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will make a little bit of progress first. Right now, up and down the country, households are struggling with the repercussions of high inflation caused by covid and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The UK is not alone in feeling the pressure, which is also felt by many other countries, particularly within the European Union. Recently, the Prime Minister outlined the Government’s priorities: to build a better, more secure and more prosperous future, one that this country and our workforce—public or private—fully deserve. By halving inflation, growing the economy and getting debt down, we can ensure that our vital public services are fit. As the Government get on with those priorities, we also have a duty to protect access to vital public services which, let us not forget, the public are paying for through taxation.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Secretary of State, I believe in the fundamental right of a worker to withdraw their labour, whether that happens to be from an employer or against the Government. I understand that at this time many people feel the same, and for those who are toying with this idea, let me say that the ambulance service, nurses and doctors, for example, have been able to ensure that there was an emergency service. Do the Government really believe that withdrawing the right of a worker to withdraw their labour is what they are about?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I always think that people think very carefully about this issue, and they are right to do so. We are operating within the context of a crisis in global growth. The International Monetary Fund states that a third of the world will be in recession this year, caused by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine—[Interruption.] I am surprised to hear Labour Members yawning and moaning. Putin invaded Ukraine—[Interruption.] What Labour Members do not seem to realise is that what then happened to energy prices caused a crisis that has put up inflation throughout the western world.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will just make this point because I think Labour Members may find it useful. Those prices going up throughout the rest of the world, including here, has also pushed up wage claims. But I do not think we should get into a 1970s spiral, where we end up with higher wage claims and higher wage settlements, with higher wage claims and inflation continuing for ever. That is a cycle we must break. Clearly, if we were to meet all the inflation busting demands of the unions, that would make life harder not only for some but for every single family in this country. That is why we cannot do that. The Government are therefore absolutely clear: we want constructive dialogue with the unions, and the public have had enough of the constant, most unwelcome, and frankly dangerous, disruptions to their lives.

Richard Burgon Portrait Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab)
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I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. Last week, Human Rights Watch warned that

“fundamental and hard-won rights are being systematically dismantled”

in the UK. Is this anti-strike legislation part of the danger that Human Rights Watch is warning about?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The International Labour Organisation itself says—I will cover this shortly in my speech—that it is perfectly proper to have a balance between minimum service levels and people’s right to strike. I support the ILO in saying that; I absolutely agree it is right. I note, however, that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the fact that he has received £94,000-plus from unions. Now, I have no issue with him receiving that money from unions—I do not think that we should have taxpayer-funded political parties in this House—but I think it is only right that when Opposition Members stand up, they reflect what is on their records, which is that they have received a lot of money from unions and now seek to represent them in the debate.

Millions of people who rely on essential transport to get to work or to family commitments now every day have the extra stress of worrying about making alternative, sometimes costly, arrangements because of the forever strikes. There are those who, at the most terrifying time of their lives—perhaps with a poorly loved one—do not know whether an ambulance will arrive, because the unions have refused to provide a national safety net. [Interruption.] I hear the barracking and understand that Opposition Members do not want to hear what people throughout the country are feeling, but it is a fact that when strikes are on and ambulances are unable to find out from their unions whether they will operate, that is an additional concern for members of the public—including Opposition Members’ constituents, whom they seem rather not to care about in this case. I am surprised about that.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will make a little progress.

Then there are children, who are desperately trying to catch up on the lost learning—

Karl Turner Portrait Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will give way shortly; I will make a little bit of progress.

Those children are desperately trying to catch up on learning that they missed throughout covid, and again they are unsure about whether they will be able to get to school. There are also the businesses throughout the land whose sales and productivity are suffering. They are terrified that, at a time of high inflation, their livelihoods are at risk along with those of their employees.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Could the Secretary of State give us a little more indication of how he will consult on and agree minimum standards in the railway industry?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will set out in a bit more detail the way in which the legislation will work in a while, but, briefly speaking, secondary legislation by regulation will be used in each individual sector to come to the right balance. I will explain that in more detail, if my right hon. Friend is patient.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will give way in just a moment. I have already taken more interventions from Opposition Members than from Government Members.

I think it is true to say that there comes a time when we cannot let such a situation continue. That is why we need minimum safety and service levels to keep livelihoods and lives safe. It is frankly irresponsible, and even surprising, for the Opposition to suggest otherwise.

Karl Turner Portrait Karl Turner
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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He wants to talk about minimum safety levels. The reality is this: after 12 years of a Tory Government, minimum safety no longer exists in our NHS. A paramedic contacted me directly at the weekend to say that he had begun his shift at 7 am expecting to sign off later that evening, and spent the entirety of that shift sitting outside Hull Royal Infirmary because there was no bed available for his patient, whose life he had saved. There is not any safety in the NHS as a result of the Tory Government. The Secretary of State needs to acknowledge that before we move on to discuss anything else.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I am surprised by how the hon. Gentleman, who normally speaks a lot of sense in the House, put his point across. Yes, of course it is the case that the NHS has been under unbelievable stress, not least because of two years of covid and all the backlog that has been created. It is worth reminding Labour Members that, had they had their way, we would have been in lockdown for a heck of a lot longer and those cases would have been even worse. I do not follow the logic of his argument. He seems to be arguing that just because there are times of danger, we ought, by design, to enable a system that prevents unions in the ambulance service from telling the NHS when ambulances will be there and what the minimum service would be. That is the issue that we seek to address today.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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If this is all about safety, why is the word “safety” not used once in the Bill or its explanatory notes?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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It is fairly obvious to say that a minimum service level in railways, for example, is about people’s livelihoods rather than safety, but that the NHS and the ambulance service not agreeing nationally is a minimum safety level issue. I would have thought that was pretty straightforward.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will just make a little bit of progress.

The Bill will ensure that we protect the ability of workers to take industrial action, but that we also protect the public from disproportionate disruption to their daily lives and that, to put it simply, one person’s right to strike does not infringe on someone else’s right to life and limb.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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There is an array of riches. I will give way to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Secretary of State has never negotiated a minimum service agreement in the NHS. I have. The Secretary of State is completely fabricating what happens. It is the trade unions who work with the staff and the employers to put a safe agreement—

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. I will rephrase what I was saying. The reality is that safe agreements are negotiated between the staff and the employers. That happens on the ground; the process and the outcomes protect the NHS, because that is what staff want to do. Will the Secretary of State ensure that he reflects the truth of what happens in the NHS?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I would just say to the hon. Lady, who I know has received money from GMB, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Unite the union, CLP among others—nothing wrong with that; I am just putting it on the record—that she is wrong factually about the way the last two strikes, last week and in December, occurred.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I am actually answering the hon. Gentleman’s colleague’s point. One at a time.

The way that ambulance strike worked was that the NHS was unable to find out in advance from the ambulance unions where and when, nationwide, cover would be provided. It is the NHS that said that, not the Government. As a result, the NHS has not been able to put the appropriate level of cover in place in advance. If by chance we are wrong about that, there is a safety mechanism in the Bill for that. Although we are taking primary powers, should Parliament so decide, we have said we do not want to use them if voluntary arrangements can be made. I refer Opposition Members to the voluntary arrangements—

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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Let me finish the first point and move on with the speech.

I refer Opposition Members to the voluntary arrangements that were successfully made with the Royal College of Nursing, which did provide a national guarantee. In that case, it would not be necessary to put the measures in place.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I hope the House will appreciate that there are a lot of people who want to contribute. I want to give people the opportunity to do that in their own speeches. [Interruption.] If Members do not mind, I will turn to the detail of the Bill.

The Bill establishes a legal framework to implement minimum safety and service levels during periods of strike action. It will achieve that by amending existing legislation, the Trade Union and Labour Relations Concili —[Hon. Members: “Consolidation”] Thank you folks. The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. I was trying get the word “conciliatory” in there for Opposition Members. The legislation will allow regulations to be made to ensure that specified services cannot shut down completely when workers strike. That is to maintain crucial and, in many cases, life-saving services. The relevant sectors specified in the proposed legislation are: health services; fire and rescue services; education services; transport services; decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel; and border security.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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Can the Secretary of State help me with this? The human rights memorandum that accompanied the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill last October stated specifically that the Government’s legal advice was that it is not justifiable or necessary in a democratic society to have such restrictions in emergency and patient care services, in fire and rescue, or in education—only in transport. That does not appear in the human rights memorandum that accompanies this Bill. Has the Government’s legal advice changed or have they just changed their mind for reasons of political convenience?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The hon. and learned Lady must surely have noticed that we have subsequently had disruption in the NHS, including in the ambulance service. What has happened in that disruption is that although the nurses have very sensibly provided a national level of safe service, unfortunately the same has not happened in the ambulance service. That is why this legislation is required in other areas at this time.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I have given way once to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), so I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham).

--- Later in debate ---
Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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Order. Before the Secretary of State answers the hon. Gentleman, I remind the House that it is important that we use moderation in our language and that we do not impugn the motives of others. That is not how we want the debate to continue. It is an important subject, so let us try to introduce moderation into our discussion.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester is absolutely right about the reason for requiring minimum standards.

Amy Callaghan Portrait Amy Callaghan
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will in a moment, if I can make a little progress.

Using the powers proposed in the Bill, regulations will set out the specific services within each sector in which a minimum level of service will be applied; they will also set out the levels themselves. Those regulations will be tailored to each relevant service, taking account of the different risks to public safety or the impacts on daily life and on the economy. The Bill is clear, however, that such regulations may be made only after appropriate consultation and the approval of both Houses. Of course, the Government may choose not to use the regulation-making powers in the Bill if adequate voluntary agreements, where necessary, are already in place between employers, the relevant sectors and the relevant unions.

Amy Callaghan Portrait Amy Callaghan
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I thank the Secretary of State for acknowledging my presence in the Chamber after so many attempts to intervene. Will he now pass comment on the fact that life-and-limb cover already exists in legislation and that the true purpose of this shameful Bill is simply to erode workers’ rights?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I simply do not accept that point. Although it is true that life-and-limb measures exist, we have seen through the many months of rail closures and the strikes that took place last week and in December that unfortunately minimum service levels in one case, and actually minimum safety levels in another, have simply not been available. I know that Opposition Members do not want to accept this fundamental point, but their constituents’ lives are being put at risk by the NHS’s inability to put the correct cover in place with sufficient notice. They seem to imagine that the Army will just be there at no notice and with no ability to organise which areas of the country it needs to be in. That, I am afraid, is not a practical way to run the—[Interruption.]

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. I cannot hear the answer that the Secretary of State is giving to the question. There is no point in just shouting when he is actually answering the question.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I suppose the fundamental point is that we hope very much that, in many cases, we will not need to use the powers conferred by the legislation, but we have seen that that will not always be possible.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
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I am a member of the GMB. I happen not to have received any money from the GMB, although I would be proud to do so—certainly a lot prouder that I would be of receiving £2.5 million from Lubov Chernukhin. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this legislation cannot possibly be used to sort out the present winter of discontent? If anything, it will make it far more difficult to secure a resolution of any of the individual strikes, and therefore it is just political posturing.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I think the GMB will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s pitch for some money. If he gets that money, it will join the £120 million that the unions have supplied to the Labour party since 2010.

I make this point only because it is relevant to today’s debate. We must be here to represent our constituents, and our constituents know from paying attention to the recent strikes that when the Royal College of Nursing worked with the NHS, it was able to provide timely assurances at a national level to ensure that the most critical services—including chemotherapy, critical care, paediatric and A&E—were not affected, which shows that even when parties disagree, they can do so in a mature manner. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case.

During recent strike action by the ambulance service—this has been referred to a couple of times, and I want to read it out because it is written down—the NHS has not been reassured by the relevant union that it can rely on the current system of voluntary local derogation, which I think is what the hon. Member for York Central was talking about earlier. It could not rely on those arrangements to ensure that patient and public services were provided. Last week, and in December, arrangements were being disputed right up to the wire—right up to the last minute—which created uncertainty and left officials with little time to organise contingency measures such as military support. That is the situation that we cannot, in all conscience, allow to continue.

Charlotte Nichols Portrait Charlotte Nichols (Warrington North) (Lab)
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I declare that I am a proud member of a trade union, and was a trade union officer for a number of years before coming here. In fact, I have probably been part of 1,000 or so pay-and-conditions negotiations, all of which were resolved, with employer and employees all perfectly happy with the outcome. That is something that the Secretary of State has been unable to do, whether in relation to the railway or much more widely, which is why we are having this debate. Can he accept that he has failed, and it is time to get the trade unionists into the room and to put this legislation in the bin, where it belongs?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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Let me say this, in fairness to the hon. Lady. It is the case that the employers and the unions, and more recently Ministers as well, have been meeting, and it is also the case that even when there have been ministerial meetings—including in Scotland and Labour Wales—the disputes have continued. So we clearly cannot continue to rely on voluntary arrangements to ensure the safety of the people we represent. After all, strokes and heart attacks do not respect boundaries such as trust borders. I am intrigued to know what Labour Members would say to their constituents, perhaps grieving constituents who have lost loved ones because of some sort of postcode lottery.

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti (Meriden) (Con)
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Last week, during my weekly surgery, a constituent asked me why the Labour party was too scared to ask its trade union colleagues to come to the table and negotiate a peaceful resolution—[Interruption.]

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
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I could not figure out why Labour was scared to encourage trade unionists to come to the table. Why does the Secretary of State think Labour is so scared of securing a peaceful resolution of the strikes?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I think there are 120 million very good answers to that question. We have an opportunity to keep people, their families and their jobs safe during periods of disruption, and that is what we intend to do.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will give way in a moment, but I want to make a little progress first.

The Bill and subsequent regulations are designed to enable employers to specify the workers required to meet minimum safety and service levels during strikes within relevant sectors. This will be done through work notices.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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As I have said, I will in a moment, but I want to make some progress.

Should a union notify an employer of a strike in accordance with the existing normal rules, the Bill will allow the employer to issue a work notice to the union specifying the workers needed to work during a strike to secure the minimum level of safety and service. Employers will be required to consult the union on the number of workers to be identified in the work notice and the work to be undertaken, and have regard to the union’s views before issuing that work notice.

Dawn Butler Portrait Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab)
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Members on the Government Benches seem to think that none of those who are striking lives in their constituencies, which I find quite strange. Will the Minister confirm that, once his words have been scrutinised in this Chamber, if any are found to be misleading or incorrect, he will return to the Chamber and correct the record as soon as possible—preferably by the end of the week?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I am sure that the normal parliamentary rules apply, so I would never stand here and seek to do such a thing. In the interests of transparency, I will mention the £11,100 that the hon. Member has received from the CLP union in this House—[Interruption.] Sorry, that the CLP received from Unite the union, I should say to satisfy Opposition Members.

Officially, the work notice—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members would let me just explain how this operates—

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. It really is important that we hear what the Secretary of State has to say. It is also important that any reference to donations or payments is accurate.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I should have referred to what the CLP received from Unite the union. Hon. Members are absolutely right to correct me at the Dispatch Box.

The work notice must not list more people than reasonably necessary to meet the minimum level of safety and service. Employers must have no regard to whether someone is or is not a member of the union—or even the CLP—when deciding whether they need to be included in that work notice. Each employer and union must also adhere to data protection legislation.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)
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I am proud of my union membership, which is recorded in the register of Members’ interests, and I used to be a full-time union organiser. The Minister claims that the public’s existence and lives are at risk because of the disputes. Does he not appreciate that thousands of nurses and other workers are leaving the national health service, and thousands of teachers are leaving their profession, because of stress, low pay and underfunding? That is what is causing a great deal of stress and problems for the public. Instead of reaching for the statute book and trying to legally constrain trade unions from their legitimate action, why does the Secretary of State not address the fundamental causes: poverty pay, stress, bad conditions and inadequate service in all parts of the UK?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The right hon. Gentleman should note that there are 40,000 more nurses now, and more doctors too. It is important to say that I agree with him, for once, because we are trying to work constructively—as we should—to bring strikes to a conclusion, but we must not do so at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of our constituents. It is not the case that the strikes are always perfectly safe for our constituents. That is why we must act. Unions must take reasonable steps to ensure that members do not participate in strikes if they have been named in a work notice. It is up to unions to ensure public safety and not put lives at risk. Only if they fail to do so could they face civil action in court.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I will make a little more progress, because I think that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would like to hear from other Members, and I have been as generous as possible in allowing interventions.

The Government, unions, employers and workers have a role to play in ensuring that essential services continue even during strikes. That is what we are ensuring. This approach is balanced, reasonable and, above all, fair. Countries such as Australia and Canada have the ability to ban outright those strikes that would endanger lives, such as in some blue-light services. However, this legislation does not seek to ban the right to strike. The Government will always defend the principle that workers should be able to withdraw their labour. In fact, the only time that the right to strike was removed from emergency services was by the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George, as part of the Police Act 1919. We do not propose to follow the Lib Dems’ example.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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We are living in a time when democracy and freedom are under threat across the world. The right to strike is an important one. [Interruption.]

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Thank you for clarifying that, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State just mentioned that minimum service levels exist in many other countries, including Italy, Spain and France. I do not know whether Opposition Members have ever been to France, but the French have been known to strike. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my Chelmsford constituents should have the same benefits on strike days as those living in France, Italy and Spain?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no reason that her constituents should suffer lesser protection than people who live in other European nations, most of whom are recognised on most days for being particularly pro-union and helpful in their settlements. I cannot see why Opposition Members would object.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give way in just a moment, but I would like to get through a bit more first.

All that we are saying is that, in certain services in these important sectors, the right to strike must be balanced against the needs of the public to rely on a basic level of life-saving care. The legislation simply brings us into line, as my hon. Friend just said, with many other modern European nations, such as Spain, Italy, France and Ireland. They use minimum service levels in a common-sense way to reduce the impact of strikes. The International Labour Organisation itself states that minimum service levels can be a proportionate way of balancing the right to strike with the need to protect the wider public. That is what we are doing. Our own unions subscribe to and support the ILO, as do we.

Florence Eshalomi Portrait Florence Eshalomi (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op)
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On the claim of minimum safety levels across Europe, is the Secretary of State aware that, according to the OECD, France lost, on average, 112 days per 1,000 workers between 2008 and 2018? Spain lost 76 strike days, and Italy lost 42. Yet the UK lost only 20 strike days. Will the Secretary of State admit that this law is just to ban people from taking the legal action to strike?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I agree that we have had a good working relationship for the last several decades. The hon. Lady is right to point out that, as a result, over the last two or three decades we have typically suffered fewer strikes than some in continental Europe. As I have explained a number of times, we have seen in recent months a flare-up of strikes that are putting people’s lives and livelihoods at risk. This Government will not stand by and watch that happen.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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There is a lot of focus on in Europe, but I would like to focus on Gloucestershire, where nurses have chosen not to strike. I thank them for that and for all the work they do in Stroud. I see nothing in this legislation that will prevent them from making the difficult decision to strike, or from joining their colleagues in unions. We are protecting those rights. It is the minimal standards that the public needs.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about minimum standards. For anyone who cares about the ability to take industrial action and to strike, what we are doing here enshrines that. It does not remove people’s ability to strike, but it prevents union bosses who perhaps are not as reasonable as the RCN from calling strikes that potentially put people’s lives at risk. That is a very different proposition, which I am proud to support.

The Government expect to consult on minimum service levels for ambulance, fire and rail services first. It is expected that these consultations will be published during the passage of this Bill. At the same time as bringing forward the legislation, the Government are doing all they can to continue the discussions that everybody is calling for to ensure that we get a pay settlement with unions that is affordable for the unions, for the country and for the workers paying for it.

Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab)
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As far as I can tell, the Government have ruled out voluntary options 1 and 2 in their assessment, on the basis that they will be ineffective, particularly where unions and employers have major disagreements. The question is: why and how have the Government arrived at that decision now, in advance of the legislation itself?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is because we were given adequate demonstration from the recent strikes that unfortunately in some cases the unions involved have not acted in the national interest, whereas others—the RCN, for example—have very much done so. I want to stress what I said at the top of my speech, which is that I do not want us to have to use this legislation if it is not required. We have live strikes going on, so we will be able to see where it is required and where it is not.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I feel I have been generous in allowing interventions and it is right to complete my segment so that others can get on and speak.

We are mindful of and thankful for the contribution of public service workers in this country, but where unions insist on disproportionate and sometimes plain unsafe levels of industrial action without informing the NHS, for example, and others, we must take the necessary steps to protect the public.

Tommy Sheppard Portrait Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many people died in the care of the national health service during the recent periods of industrial unrest who would not have died had the provisions of this Bill been in force at the time?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The problem, as people will recognise, is that as we do not have a nationally agreed level of coverage—particularly in the ambulance service—it is difficult to know or predict what would have happened if the Army had not stepped in. I know from talking to colleagues and officials that one of the problems was that, because of the late notice and the randomised trust-by-trust agreements, they have been unable to put in a national framework that would mean that it would not matter if you lived in Islington North or somewhere else; you would still get coverage on strike days. We said in our manifesto, and I repeat now, that it is not fair to let trade union leaders undermine the livelihoods of others, and nor is it fair for them to put lives and livelihoods at risk.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Secretary of State see the irony in expecting unions to ensure minimum safe service levels on strike days when his own Government are failing to do so on every other day? What does he make of nurses’ reports that staffing levels are in fact safer on strike days because the unions are negotiating appropriate cover compared with non-strike days?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I did not quite follow the hon. Lady’s point on the railways. The railways on strike days are finding it hard to offer any services at all, even for key workers and the people the Opposition sometimes claim to represent the most, such as the hard-working cleaner or the hospital porter. The people who cannot do their jobs remotely are unable to get to their jobs and they are losing money. They are becoming fed up with the forever strikes where the unions simply will not put the offer to their members in order for the members to have a say. Minimum service levels are important for that reason, and I have covered numerous times why we think minimum safety levels protect people’s lives.

In this Second Reading debate, we are simply asking the unions to tell us when they are going to withdraw their labour so that we can agree a minimum safety level. This is hardly revolutionary stuff. It is just a common-sense safety net to keep the public safe and ease some of the enormous anxiety that they have felt over the last few months. Failing to support the Bill today will mean that Members who oppose this legislation are essentially prepared to put the safety and welfare of their own constituents at risk. I commend the Bill to the House.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kevin Hollinrake)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. Will she point out where there are any criminal sanctions attached to the proposed legislation? As far as I can see, there are absolutely none. It is important that we do not scaremonger in that way.

Kate Osborne Portrait Kate Osborne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If we attack the trade unions, which are made up of members who are workers, then we are attacking the workers.

The Government’s proposed legislation and the response I just got show the contempt in which they hold working people. The Government do not care about working people. They do not care about our communities who are struggling to survive in the face of unaffordable food and energy bills, and struggling to deal with the cost of living crisis and 13 years of cuts by the Conservative party. We already have the most restrictive workers’ rights in western Europe, and it is an affront to democracy that this Government are trying to restrict them further.

Of course, the Government know that the Bill is not workable. It will be held up in the other place, if it gets that far, and in the courts. They only care about attention-grabbing headlines—about moving the Overton window so the people of this country will accept more and more restrictions on their rights.

Minimum service levels already exist: our NHS teams ensure that priority calls are dealt with, and teachers ensure that special educational needs children are catered for. What we need is for the Government to provide a minimum service level every day. We hear daily of workers struggling to cope with current staffing levels. The Government should be looking at ways to address the NHS staffing crisis, not making it worse.

The Government need to accept that the reason so many sectors are saying “enough is enough” and taking industrial action—we heard the announcement today that the teaching unions will take action, and I send my solidarity to them—is the Government’s failures. The firefighters, NHS staff, transport staff and education staff that the Bill targets are the very people who saw us through the pandemic. If the Bill passes, no doubt the Government will eventually seek to apply the legislation to workers in more sectors. Instead of inflaming the situation, they should start dealing with the causes of increased strike action: low wages, fuel and food poverty, and cuts to public services.

The Bill is part of the Government’s plan to restrict all our rights and to demonise and criminalise those who are just trying to survive. As I said at the start, it is an act of political violence. The Government should do the right thing for the country and withdraw it.

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kevin Hollinrake)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to the debate.

The clear objective of the Bill is to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public by enabling minimum service levels to be applied to our vital public services during strikes. It does not ban the right to strike. It finds the right balance, which was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra)—who made some important points about the needs of business—and my hon. Friends the Members for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), for Guildford (Angela Richardson), for Southend West (Anna Firth) and for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti).

Let me turn to some of the other points raised today. Like others on both sides of the House, I pay tribute and express our gratitude to our public sector key workers. That point was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) and for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), who have vast experience of working in the public sector. I have my own personal experience, as my mother worked in the public sector all her life—a life worked to rehabilitate offenders. I am aware of the contribution that public sector workers make to our society.

The deputy leader of the Opposition seeks to blame this Government alone for the challenging times we face, but she seems conveniently to forget that we are still not free from the after-effects of the covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. I was very interested in a point she raised in her speech, when she said, “We would have resolved this dispute long ago.” At what figure? Would it have been 11% across the public sector? That would have cost the taxpayers of this country £28 billion. That is £1,000 per household per annum. Maybe the leader of the Opposition will reflect on that now that he is here, obviously having had a call from his union paymasters.

Members ask why the Government are focusing on legislating and not resolving the disputes. The Government recognise the pressure of the cost of living on people. That is why we have committed to halving inflation and growing the economy, and why we have provided £26 billion to support individuals and businesses. We are investing billions more in schools, the NHS and social care. All that supports workers.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) is right to highlight the devastating impact of strikes on the economy—£6 billion, including £2.5 billion of lost income to the hospitality sector alone. That is why Ministers across Government have been meeting unions to resolve the disputes where it is possible to do so.

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister talks about the cost of strike action, but will he agree about the cost of the damage that the previous Prime Minister and the previous Chancellor did to our country and all the taxpayers and workers who we on the Opposition Benches are supporting today?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would highlight the downward pressure already placed on inflation, the changes to the money markets following the action taken by our Chancellor and Prime Minister and the stability being delivered through their future plan.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will shortly. Ministers across Government have been meeting unions to resolve the disputes where it is possible to do so. It is obviously apparent that unions exist to represent union members. Apparently, from today’s debate, so does the Labour party. The shadow Cabinet alone has received £350,000 since 2019. It is important to reflect on those figures. We need to have the confidence that when workers strike, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at risk, so we need the power to act. That is why this legislation is needed. The public expect us to act. It is no wonder that YouGov polling for The Times published last week found that 56% of voters support this legislation and only 31% are against it.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister will know that under this Bill it is possible for the Government to designate workers to perform under a contract when they have voted to go on strike. Will he at least give an assurance that there will be no attempt by any Secretary of State to designate a union official to break a strike that they have encouraged their union members to be involved in?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will deal with work notices later in my speech, but it is clear that it is up to employers to decide what workers are needed on certain days, and there is no discrimination between people who are union members and people who are not. That is very clear in the legislation. Hon. Members have questioned the sectors within the Bill. The sectors in scope of the Bill are justified as these sectors are where strike action causes disproportionate disruption to the general public.

Gagan Mohindra Portrait Mr Gagan Mohindra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is making an excellent summing up, as always. Could he reaffirm that public opinion is with this side of the House rather than with the Opposition?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think that the polling is very clear. We have heard precious little about what the public think of this. We heard a lot about the impact on public sector workers, but the public themselves are with us on this legislation.

The Government have already announced their intention to consult on the application of minimum service levels for rail, ambulance and fire services. I welcome Members’ questions and suggestions on how minimum service levels will operate in specific services, and I note in particular the helpful contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for West Dorset (Chris Loder). I look forward to the contribution of key stakeholders and experts during the consultation process. The Government will also engage with the devolved Administrations during the consultation process. The Government have been clear, however, that we may choose not to use the regulation-making powers in the Bill if adequate voluntary arrangements, where necessary, are already in place between employers in a relevant sector.

This legislation also equips employers to manage instances where a worker takes strike action despite being named to work on a strike day. It is at the discretion of employers as to what action, if any, is taken, and we hope that employers are fair and reasonable. The claim that it is a policy of this Government to sack workers is an unfair exaggeration.

I want to touch on the international examples, mentioned in the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris). The concept of minimum service levels is not new. They are used all over the world, including in the USA, Canada and a number of European countries including Spain and Italy. We all want to see an end to these strikes.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

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Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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No, we still have another two and a bit minutes to run, so I am using my discretion not to accept that.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In response to questions regarding the consistency of this legislation with the UK’s—

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163).

The House proceeded to a Division.

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21:58

Division 139

Ayes: 49

Noes: 482

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
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22:18

Division 140

Ayes: 309

Noes: 249

Bill read a Second time.
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22:31

Division 141

Ayes: 306

Noes: 252

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill (Money)
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22:43

Division 142

Ayes: 305

Noes: 49

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kevin Hollinrake)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.

It is well known that the first and foremost job of any Government is to keep the public safe. Every one of us in this Chamber will know of people who have been impacted by industrial action. Every one of us will know constituents who work hard and expect access to essential and life-saving services when they need them. It is clear that that is not happening in all cases. That is why this Government are taking proportionate and sensible steps through the Bill. Our position, which has the support of the majority of our constituents—in a recent YouGov poll, 56% of those polled said that they support the legislation—is that we need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the ability to keep the lives and livelihoods of the British public safe.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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The Minister has started with a red herring about keeping people safe. Can he explain, then, why teachers and education are included in the Bill?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Clearly, there is a wider context for children. It is about services and safety—those are both contexts in this—as well as livelihoods. All those things are affected when people do not provide a minimum service level.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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If I may, I will respond to the question from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). All those things are affected when there is a universal strike. The Bill is about guaranteeing a minimum service level.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy to give way to the hon. Member for Coventry South.

Zarah Sultana Portrait Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for giving way. This anti-worker, anti-strike Bill applies to the fire and rescue service, which has seen a 30% cut in central Government funding since the Tories came into power, with one in five firefighter jobs being lost. Today the Fire Brigades Union won a historic ballot against another insulting real-terms pay cut. Does the Minister agree that if the Government really cared about minimum service levels, they would properly fund the fire and rescue service, alongside other key services, and give pay rises, rather than this pathetic attempt to cosplay as Thatcher, pretending that firefighters and workers are the enemy rather than the people keeping the country running?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Negotiations need to go on. This does not stop—

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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On a point of order, Mr Evans, is it acceptable for Members to speak on an issue and not declare an interest when they have received money from trade unions?

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Nigel Evans Portrait The First Deputy Chairman
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That is exactly the same point. Let us just move on please. We have got a lot to deal with today, and it is six hours of protected time.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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In answer to the point from the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), negotiations need to continue, and they need to be fair to workers, but also to the taxpayer, which I will touch on in a second.

I reject the characterisation of this Bill by the Opposition, who clearly put their relationship with their unions over the interests of this country. This is not a radical Bill. What we are doing is not even new. We are taking reasonable, proportionate and balanced steps and aligning ourselves with many of our European partners, such as France and Spain.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)
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Will the Minister accept that health and safety legislation in this country—to ensure guards on machinery, for example, to stop people’s hands being chopped off—was won because workers withdrew their labour? Does he understand that the ambulance workers and the nurses say that the very reason they are going on strike is to make sure that the service is safe? What he is saying at the Dispatch Box is complete rubbish.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. On nurses, we already have voluntary agreements, yet still they go on strike. The two things are consistent and are not mutually exclusive, but I recognise his point on the right to withdraw labour and bring attention to certain things, whether pay or other matters at work. It is absolutely right that people should be able to do that, but it should not prevent others going about their daily business and, indeed, feeling safe in terms of such things as healthcare.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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In relation to safety—others have mentioned this—the nurses that I have spoken to and been on the picket line with have told me that they want better pay and conditions and more staff, but they have also made sure that at no stage was emergency cover not available. The ambulance service staff who went on strike always made sure emergency cover was available. It is really a matter of staffing and wages. Does the Minister, who I respect greatly, understand that nurses have already ensured cover, and all they are looking for is fair pay?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The hon. Member makes an important point. We are happy with the agreement we have with the Royal College of Nursing, and that is why we are not consulting on minimum service levels for nurses. On ambulances, we got only last-minute agreements—we had to negotiate on a trust-by-trust basis—that provided no confidence that the service would be in place and did not cover things such as strokes and chest pains in all cases. That would put somebody who is worried about having a stroke in a state of anxiety, and that is what we are trying to protect against.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make some progress.

We clearly want to resolve these disputes, but we must do it in an affordable way. An inflation-matching pay increase of 11% for all public sector workers would cost £28 billion, which would put just under £1,000 on to the bills of every household in all our constituencies. That is on top of the Opposition’s spending plans, which would add £50 billion of recurrent costs annually on to our economy, where we are already running a £175 billion deficit. As we have seen in recent months, we cannot take the market for granted, so that level of borrowing is absolutely unsustainable.

The disputes are already costing our economy and threatening businesses and livelihoods. The estimated cost to the economy so far is £6 billion, including £2.5 billion to the already challenged hospitality sector. I will conclude my comments there. I am happy to hear contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. I will listen with interest and look forward to responding later.

Angela Rayner Portrait Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
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I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I continue to be a proud trade unionist and I am proud to represent my constituents in the Chamber when I speak today.

We are in an absurd situation: we are back to debate the Conservatives’ sacking nurses Bill—[Interruption.]— not just nurses, but millions of other key workers. The Bill is controversial and divisive, and as irrational as it is impractical. It is strongly condemned by all Opposition parties.

Some 110 amendments and new clauses have been selected for consideration today, including more than 35 tabled by the Labour Front-Bench team. Given that we have had just a few days to draft and table them, that is quite some feat. We will have only five hours to debate those amendments, however, with no reasonable timetable; there would have been more if we had had that. We have had no line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill and we are unable to hear any evidence. The Government have simply prevented the House from doing its job, so it will be left to the other place to scrutinise the legislation properly, which should be a major concern to us all.

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Angela Rayner Portrait Angela Rayner
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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think we all have an interest in ensuring that we have good, valuable public services. Like our other key workers, firefighters put in place local agreements to ensure that services continue if life is at risk or there are major incidents. There is not a single firefighter who would not attend a major incident. These are our brave heroes who run towards danger when the rest of us run away. There are also already legal obligations on fire services to provide contingency plans for strike days, dating back to the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Yet again, we have a Government fixated on creating a problem and trying to fix a problem that does not actually exist, instead of dealing with the problem that they have created—penalising and causing great hardship for our key workers, such as the firemen and women who protect our lives every single day.

Can the Minister promise that we will get separate assessments of the impacts of this legislation on all six of the sectors named? Can he guarantee that there will not be any impact on workforce numbers? Can he guarantee that work notices will not put undue burdens on overworked, under-resourced employers? Can he guarantee that equalities law will be upheld and that these new measures will not be used to discriminate against workers with protected characteristics? I fear we already know the answer to that question.

That brings me to our biggest concern with this Bill: the “sacking key workers” clause—

Angela Rayner Portrait Angela Rayner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I gave the Minister the opportunity to back our amendment. I give him the opportunity to intervene now and say that he will back the amendment and that he does not want to sack those nurses or key workers, as is set out in the current Government proposal. I will happily stop again and allow the Minister to confirm that.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated dissent.

Angela Rayner Portrait Angela Rayner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No. Thought not. The “sacking key workers” clause will give the Secretary of State the power to threaten every nurse, firefighter, health worker, rail worker or paramedic with the sack—on his whim. These are the workers who got us through the pandemic; the workers who run towards the danger as the rest of us run away; the workers who have been pushed to exhaustion by austerity. And how does the Secretary of State pay them back—by ripping up their protections against unfair dismissal, with no regard for our NHS, schools, or transport lines that cannot cope with mass sackings. How can he seriously think that sacking thousands of key workers will not just plunge our public services further into crisis?

One hundred and thirty-three thousand and four hundred—that is the latest vacancy number in our NHS. One thousand six hundred—that is the latest number of teaching vacancies. One hundred and twenty thousand—that is the number of new vacancies that City & Guilds estimates the rail sector will see in the next five years. We all know that we have a national staffing recruitment and retention crisis and that business groups from the Confederation of British Industry to the British Chambers of Commerce are crying out for vacancies to be filled. How is this a rational and proportionate response? Labour Members are not the only ones asking that question. Has the Secretary of State listened to the right hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) who said earlier this month:

“I will vote against this shameful Bill…It does nothing to stop strikes—but individual NHS Staff, teachers & workers can be targeted & sacked if they don’t betray their mates.”

The right hon. Gentleman understands the Bill, but the Minister clearly does not understand his own Bill. I know that many Conservative Members will share the feelings of the right hon. Member for Stevenage, and that they will be uncomfortable with this awful attack on individuals and with taking away workers’ basic freedoms and removing hard-won basic rights and protections.

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Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy
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I could not agree more with the hon. Member. Government Members must remember that these nurses, teachers and firefighters are themselves the general public who they claim are the ones feeling the pinch and who have the right to a decent service. They are the people who are striking now.

To finish, this Bill just shows, if ever proof were needed, that this is a Government whose every action is allowing the rich to get richer and the poor to become poorer.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the Committee for their contributions.

Consistent with the contributions that have been made, this Government firmly believe that the ability to strike is an important element of industrial relations in the UK—it is rightly protected by law—and we understand that an element of disruption is likely with any strike. However, we need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect the essential services that they pay for to be there when they need them. We need to be able to have confidence that, when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make a little progress and then bring the hon. Member in, although I might cover his point in my next comments.

To respond to some of the points made in the debate, particularly on scrutiny and process, clearly the consultations offer plenty of opportunities for hon. Members, their constituents, employers and unions to play a role in shaping minimum service levels before regulations are made, and both Houses will be able to provide additional scrutiny.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

A lot of the remarks made this evening have focused on safety, but section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 provides workers with the means to contest the adequacy of safety arrangements and withdraw their labour—they can walk away. Given that, can the Minister explain to the Committee which statute would take precedence: the Employment Rights Act 1996 or this Bill?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think it is quite clear. I was interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) when she talked about the International Labour Organisation and its specifying of minimum service levels. It has stated that they do apply to essential services but could also apply to other services, such as education and railway workers. We think the legislation is consistent with international law and the International Labour Organisation.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give way one last time; then I want to make some progress.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sorry, Minister, but that really does not address the point I made. There is an inalienable right under the Employment Rights Act 1996 for people to withdraw their labour. It is nothing to do with the International Labour Organisation. We are going to have two UK statutes that are in direct conflict with each other; which one will prevail—that Act or this legislation?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to confirm that point, but we absolutely believe that this legislation is lawful and compatible with human rights legislation and international obligations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) made a typically insightful and thoughtful speech that no doubt provoked thinking on both sides of the Committee. He talked about the Henry VIII powers in the legislation, but I reassure him that they are restricted only to genuinely consequential amendments. I do not believe they are as wide ranging as he set out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) was absolutely right—this was also reflected in the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth)—that we are not anti-union, but we are pro-protecting the public.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make some progress, if I can. I may come back to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury speaks with great authority on these matters and, as I said, pointed out clearly that the ILO says that as a general principle MSLs are not restricted to essential services, as some Members have claimed, and can cover other elements such as education and railway workers. She also said quite rightly that from their speeches the Opposition seem to want the country to grind to a halt.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is irresponsible for a Minister to come to this House, when there is a clear conflict in the law that needs to be interpreted, without that interpretation and just to say that he is going to write to us. That is irresponsible. Will he now define to us what reasonable steps he expects a union to take to comply with the legislation as it is and to instruct its members to go to work during a strike? What are those reasonable steps?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That would be for a court to decide—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Of course it would be for a court to decide, because the only action that can be taken against a union can be by the employer in the courts. A union would then define what the reasonable steps would be. I will move on.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make some progress, if I can—

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, I will not.

On the other points, the impact assessment will be available shortly. It is fair to say that we see the Bill as having a net benefit to the economy. Individual impact assessments will support secondary legislation.

To respond to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), we do not believe that the Bill reduces requirements for employers to adhere to health and safety and equality legislation. It is compatible with convention rights and international obligations—

Richard Burgon Portrait Richard Burgon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, I am making some progress.

The Bill does not target union members, as clearly stated in proposed new section 234C(6) on page 4 of the Bill. In terms of devolution, we believe that minimum service levels are necessary across Great Britain, but we are of course keen to engage with the devolved Governments through consultation.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I give way one last time.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The Welsh Government and the Scottish Government have already made it crystal clear that they oppose this legislation; why is the Minister seeking to ram it though at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons and completely ride roughshod over the devolution settlement?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This legislation is subject to parliamentary scrutiny. This is the Parliament of the United Kingdom: it has every right to legislate. We believe this is needed across Great Britain, and industrial relations are clearly reserved to this Parliament.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, I will move on.

As we have made clear, we hope not to use the powers in the Bill if adequate voluntary agreements are in place where they are necessary. However, we cannot continue to rely on existing legislation or voluntary arrangements to help protect the lives and livelihoods of the people we represent. The public and workers reasonably expect the Government to intervene to protect people’s lives and livelihoods, and that is what we are doing by ensuring that essential services continue, even while workers are exercising their right to strike.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Commencement

Amendment proposed: 32, in clause 5, page 2, line 15, at end insert—

“(2) But no regulations may be made under this Act or the Schedule to this Act before the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament statements of consent to the Act from—

(a) the Scottish Parliament,

(b) Senedd Cymru, and

(c) the Greater London Assembly.”—(Alan Brown.)

The intention of this Amendment is to prevent the Act coming into operation until after consent to the Act has been obtained from the Scottish Parliament, Senedd Cymru and the Greater London Assembly.

--- Later in debate ---
21:56

Division 162

Ayes: 46

Noes: 321

Clauses 5 and 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
--- Later in debate ---
22:10

Division 163

Ayes: 247

Noes: 318

Amendment proposed: 4, page 3, line 31, at end insert—
--- Later in debate ---
22:22

Division 164

Ayes: 250

Noes: 317

--- Later in debate ---
22:36

Division 165

Ayes: 246

Noes: 315

Schedule agreed to.
--- Later in debate ---
Grant Shapps Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Grant Shapps)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

While I am sure that the House would like me to enter back into some of the key arguments at this hour, I think I will for the purposes of brevity stick to the main principle at stake here, which is quite simply this: in many democratic countries throughout the world, and particularly among our European neighbours, we find that strikes are often banned entirely in what we would refer to as the blue light services. Yet in this country, the only blue light service to have strikes banned was the police in 1919 by a Liberal Prime Minister. I know of not a single member of the police who has ever lost their job as a result of that sensible restricted right to strike.

We are not proposing a Bill that would prevent people from being able to strike in other blue light services or in other areas. We are not doing what we have done with the police or with the Army in this country. We are not doing what they have done in other European nations or in countries across the world, including Canada, Australia and large parts of America. We are not doing any of those things because we respect the right to withdraw labour. Rather, through this legislation, which I note was receiving large majorities in the House this evening, we are simply proposing to protect people’s lives and to protect people’s livelihoods.

I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, how is it that Members in this House can look at their constituents and say to them that they should not have the right to an ambulance if they have a heart attack, a stroke or a serious illness? Why should that be left to a matter of chance, depending on their postcode as to whether those vital services turn up? Furthermore, after years of disruption through covid, why should our children have to miss school? Why should it be that people who work for themselves and rely on their own ingenuity to get their jobs and to take home money be denied over months and months the opportunity to get to work? We move this Third Reading this evening because we care about people in our workforce and their livelihoods and about our constituents and their ability to access vital services. That is why I commend this Bill to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
23:00

Division 166

Ayes: 315

Noes: 246

Bill read the Third time and passed.

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
2nd reading
Tuesday 21st February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 30 January 2023 - (30 Jan 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Lord Callanan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (Lord Callanan) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the public expect the essential services that they pay for to be there when they need them. This Bill aims to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights and freedoms of the public to access essential services during those strikes.

The latest ONS data shows there were 843,000 working days lost because of labour disputes in December 2022. This brings the number of strike days lost between June and December to nearly 2.5 million, which is the highest since 1989. Industrial action is disruptive for everyone: for those who rely on those essential services to get to work or care for their families, for the NHS trying to get the backlog down, and for schools trying to recover lost learning after the pandemic. It also, of course, vitally impacts on our local businesses, whose sales and productivity suffer.

While we are pleased that voluntary derogations were eventually agreed for the strike action in health sectors in December 2022 and early this year, I am afraid that is not guaranteed to be the case for future action or in all sectors. Indeed, during the ambulance service strikes in December and January, some derogations were not agreed until immediately prior to the strike action, leaving employers with sometimes only hours, not days, to implement full contingency plans. This creates a great deal of uncertainty for everyone concerned, including the staff, the public, patients and their families. Further, there is no guarantee that where derogations have been agreed the required numbers of staff will not strike on the day itself. This can create uncertainty and inconsistency across the country, and unnecessary risk to patient safety.

While I would emphasise that the Government firmly believe that the ability to strike is important—it is rightly protected by law—the recent industrial action has highlighted the disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public. We need to be able to have confidence that when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk, and so do the public; that is why this legislation is needed.

I turn now to the detail of the Bill, which establishes a legal mechanism to implement minimum service levels for periods of strike action affecting certain services. It achieves this by making amendments to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 that add obligations relating to minimum service levels to the list of requirements necessary for the union’s strike action to be protected from liability in tort.

The legislation will enable minimum service levels to be implemented in key sectors via regulations. The key sectors specified in the Bill are broadly the same set that were defined as important public services in the Trade Union Act 2016, which have long been recognised as important for society to function effectively. The six key sectors are health services, fire and rescue services, education services, transport services, the decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel, and border security. These are the right sectors, given the economic impacts of their potential disruption as well as the impacts on public safety and the ability of the public to go about their daily lives.

Regulations will be tailored to each relevant service to meet legitimate aims, such as safety, public health, access to work and to healthcare, among others. The Government believe it is only right that minimum service levels and the services they apply to are informed by consultations, as required by the Bill, and that there is parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations before they come into effect. This is why these regulations must be approved by both Houses of Parliament before they can be made.

The Bill and subsequent regulations are designed to enable employers to specify the workers required via a work notice in order to meet minimum service levels during strikes within those relevant sectors. Should a union notify an employer of strike action in accordance with existing rules, the Bill will allow the employer to issue a work notice to the union, seven days before the strike, specifying those workers needed to work during the strike and the work that they will need to carry out to secure the minimum level of service.

Work notices must not include more persons than are reasonably necessary to meet the minimum service level and employers must not have regard to whether a worker is or is not a member of a union when producing the work notice. Employers must consult the union on the number of workers to be identified in the work notice and the work to be undertaken, and have regard to any of their views before issuing that notice. Each employer and union must also adhere to data protection legislation regarding those work notices.

To enable a minimum service level to be achieved on a strike day and where a work notice has been issued, a trade union must take reasonable steps to ensure its members, when named on a work notice, comply with it and therefore do not participate in the strike. What is considered “reasonable” will to an extent depend on each specific situation and could include making it clear in its communications with members that, where members are named in a work notice and required to work on a particular day, they should attend work on that strike day. A union which fails to comply with this obligation could lose its protection against liability in tort.

Additionally, if an employee takes strike action despite being named on a work notice, they will lose their automatic protection against unfair dismissal for industrial action. While it is up to the employer, not the Government, as to whether disciplinary or legal action is taken in instances of non-compliance, these measures are necessary to enable employers to manage these situations in the same way as they would now with unauthorised absences or unprotected strike action.

The Bill ensures that minimum service levels align to existing law in respect of taking industrial action and associated legal protections. These provisions are needed to make minimum service levels effective where they apply. This legislation is not about sacking workers; it is about protecting people’s lives and livelihoods by enabling minimum service levels to be applied during strikes.

The Government have already released consultations on the minimum service levels for our blue-light ambulance and fire services and for rail services. These consultations ensure that the public and industry stakeholders, including employers, unions and their members, are all able to provide feedback on what the minimum service levels should be and how they are proposed to work.

Everyone wants to see an end to current strikes and we are doing all we can to negotiate fair and affordable pay settlements with the unions. But at the same time, we must act to protect the public for the future. This legislation is not about stopping or preventing strikes. It simply brings us into line with many other modern European countries, such as Spain and Italy, where minimum service levels are a common way to reduce the impact strikes can have on the public. However, we are not going so far as to ban strikes completely. We are taking a fair and reasonable approach by asking that, before a union takes strike action within a relevant service, they agree adequate voluntary arrangements of cover where they are necessary. Where this has not happened, we will introduce regulations to enable minimum service levels to be applied.

We are of course always mindful of and thankful for the contribution that public sector and other workers make to our country. But if trade unions continue to take disproportionate and potentially unsafe industrial action, we firmly believe that we need to take steps to protect the public. I beg to move.

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions on what is, in the Government’s view, a very important Bill. There is clearly a wealth of expertise on this topic across the House, not least among the large number of ex-trade union general secretaries we seem to have on the Opposition Benches, who have all contributed well. Of course, I sense the strong feeling on this issue. As is usual in this House, we have had a thorough and engaging debate; most of the speeches have been thoughtful and I certainly listened with interest to what Members had to say.

I start, as many others did, by congratulating my noble friend Lady O’Neill on her excellent maiden speech. Unlike some others, she kept it relatively uncontroversial. It is a pleasure to see her in place today, and I am glad she has chosen this debate to make the first of what I am sure will be many well-informed contributions. I first met my noble friend during a visit to Cory’s Riverside Heat Network a few years ago and I am delighted, as an energy Minister, that we are welcoming someone with such a passion for energy. She has done some tremendous work as Bexley Council leader; she pioneered its decarbonisation vision and made Bexley a flagship Conservative borough. My noble friend and I have many things in common. We both have Irish parents: she has two and I have one. We both started our careers in local government. Hers was considerably more successful than mine: she became a council leader, and I was one Conservative out of 66 councillors in Gateshead. So, she did much better than I did in that respect. Congratulations to her on an excellent maiden speech.

I will do my best to respond to as many as possible of the contributions made and issues raised, but as always, time is limited and I apologise in advance if I do not have enough time to address everybody’s contribution. Let me start with concerns about the design of the Bill, raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady, Lady Donaghy, Lady Whitaker, Lady Jones and Lady Kennedy, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the noble Lords, Lord Strasburger, Lord Monks, Lord Prentis, Lord Whitty, Lord Fox and Lord Collins, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, my noble friend Lord Balfe and probably some others I have missed. I maintain that it is right that the detail of specific services and minimum service levels be set out in secondary legislation—that is not something for primary legislation. As a number of Members have observed, the Government published consultations on establishing MSLs in ambulance services and fire and rescue services on 9 February. Yesterday, we published a consultation on minimum service levels for rail.

It is entirely proper and legitimate for the Government to enable employers, employees, trade unions and their members and, most of all, of course, the public, who are affected by all of this, to contribute to the consultations. We had a lot of contributions from so-called vested interests, but we did not have much on behalf of the great British public. So, they will all be able to contribute and the Government will seek approval from both Houses of Parliament before any regulations come into force. I can also confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, that we would expect to engage ACAS as part of the consultation process.

When it comes to the sectors included in the Bill—mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady, Lady O’Neill and Lady Randerson, as well as my noble friends Lady Browning, Lord Dobbs and Lord Greenhalgh—as I said in my introduction, the key sectors covered are broadly the same set that were listed as important public services in the Trade Union Act 2016 and which have long been recognised as important because of the far-reaching consequences for members of the public who are not involved in any way in that dispute.

As many other Members have done, I pay tribute to what I thought was a very moving speech by my noble friend Lady Browning. It was a heartfelt contribution, explaining personally how people have to live with the increased anxiety of not being able to get an ambulance during a strike. They have had to adjust their lives accordingly. I totally agreed with her contribution. It demonstrates the disproportionate impact that strikes can have on the public and why, therefore, this legislation is needed, especially for health services. As she said, minimum service levels aim to relieve that mindset. It is therefore only right that these sectors are included within the scope of the legislation.

Many people have been left worrying about whether an ambulance will be there when they need it. The rail strikes have left people unable to access their work, their healthcare and, in many cases, their education. Some people have probably been unable to access their church services, led by the right reverend Prelate, although we would need to consult further on whether that would be regarded as an essential service.

With regard to the specific transport services, as raised by my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, the Government have identified passenger rail as a priority to be consulted for implementation first. My noble friend Lord Leicester explained why, quoting the relevant statistics on the impact of rail strikes from the Centre for Economics and Business Research. The direct cost of all strikes and the indirect cost of worker absences due to rail strikes so far is at least £1.7 billion over the eight-month period to January 2023. The Opposition are very keen to talk about nurses and healthcare; I note that they are slightly less keen to talk about rail strikes. Cebr also says that

“unresolved industrial disputes are having an adverse impact on growth”

at a time when many forecasters expect the economy to be in recession.

Before minimum service levels are introduced in any other transport services, we would, of course, consult to ensure that all evidence and stakeholder views are fully considered. This would include employers and industry experts. Obviously, we recognise that each transport service is unique and consultation will be key to ensure that we get this right. As regards other services, I am happy to confirm to my noble friend Lord Balfe that the Government currently have no plans to implement minimum service levels on coffee or sweet shops.

I reassure the number of noble Lords who expressed concern about the powers in the Bill to amend primary legislation, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the noble Lords, Lord Strasburger, Lord Monks and Lord Whitty, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. Before I turn to Clause 3, I want to be clear that proposed new Sections 234B and 234F contain no such Henry VIII powers. There is no intention or ability to use Henry VIII powers to set the minimum service levels. These powers are strictly limited to Clause 3, and the powers in this clause can be exercised only to make amendments that are necessary to give effect to the Bill; they are therefore truly consequential. It is a standard clause included in much legislation, with standard wording. Drafting includes the references to Acts passed later in the same Session for the simple reason that those Acts might have been drafted before this Bill becomes an Act, and therefore may not take it into account. That is the only reason.

Many noble Lords spoke in a greatly entertaining way about the international comparisons that the Government are using when referring to this legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, referred to this, as did the noble Lords, Lord Allan and Lord Strasburger. As I said in my introduction, most major European countries have some version of minimum service levels for their key public services. In fact, many countries go further. Some, such as the USA, Australia and Canada, go much further and ban strikes completely in some blue-light services. As noble Lords will know, the approach to setting minimum services levels differs from country to country, taking into account their different circumstances; but can we please not have some of the wild exaggerations that some noble Lords made about the consequences of this legislation. This is common across many other perfectly well-functioning liberal democracies.

Many Opposition Peers also accused the Government of focusing on legislating and not on resolving the disputes. We have always said that we wanted to reach an agreement. Ministers across government have been meeting with the trade unions to attempt to resolve these disputes where it is possible to do so and, crucially, where it is affordable to the taxpayer. In some cases, I am pleased to say that settlements are being reached. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, observed, just this afternoon, while we were in this Chamber, the Government have published a joint statement with the Royal College of Nursing announcing their agreement to enter a process of intensive talks. Both sides are committed to a fair and reasonable settlement.

There is no question that industrial action can have a disproportionate impact on everyone: on members of the public who rely on essential services to get to work or to care for their families; on the NHS trying to get the backlog down; on schools trying to recover the lost learning after the pandemic; and on local businesses whose sales and productivity suffer. We need to have confidence that, when workers strike, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at risk. It is therefore necessary, in our view, to have the power to act if required.

A number of noble Lords were entirely reasonable to raise the devolved Administrations and their involvement. The noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Randerson, were right to mention this important issue. However, the plain fact is that industrial relations is a reserved matter. The Government have a duty to protect the lives and livelihood of their citizens across Great Britain. The disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public are no less severe on people in Scotland or Wales, and they have every right to expect the Government to act to ensure that they can continue to access vital public services during strikes. We obviously recognise that, in some cases, this will affect employers operating services which are devolved. The Government have published consultations on the application of MSLs for ambulance services, fire and rescue services, and rail services. As part of the development of MSLs in those areas, and the consultations that are legally required to inform these, we will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations on the geographical scope of the regulations.

A number of noble Lords suggested that this could be a vehicle for firing workers—a point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Whitaker, the noble Lords, Lord Strasburger, Lord Monks and Lord Hain, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Let me once again assure them that this is misleading as to what this legislation will actually do. The Bill equips employers to manage instances where a worker takes strike action despite being named on a work notice for that particular day of strike action by removing the employee’s automatic protection against unfair dismissal for industrial action. It is at the discretion of the particular employer, not the Government, as to what, if any, disciplinary action is taken in these circumstances. We hope that employers are fair and reasonable, and take this sort of action only where it is necessary. It is no different from employers managing instances of non-compliance for any other unauthorised absence.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, the noble Lord, Lord Allan, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, all spoke of the use of “reasonable steps” in the Bill. There are a range of steps that trade unions could take, and what is considered reasonable will depend on each specific situation. First and foremost, a trade union should not call a union member identified in a work notice as required to work on a particular day out on strike that day. The trade union could also encourage those individual members to comply with the work notice, and make it clear in their general communication with members that where members are named in a work notice, and therefore required to work on a particular day, they should attend work on that strike day.

A number of noble Lords spoke about our international obligations and considered arguments on this point were made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady O’Grady, and the noble Lord, Lord Allan. As we have said, the Government are confident that the Bill is compatible with our international obligations, including the European Convention on Human Rights. As all Ministers do, I had to sign a statement of compatibility before I introduced the Bill in this House and, as all Ministers do, I did that on legal advice. As the minimum service levels framework is developed, the Government will continue to uphold their international obligations, including those under the TCA.

I was pleased to hear my noble friend Lady Noakes speak passionately in her support of the Bill, and, in particular, about balancing the rights of the public with the rights of the ability of workers to strike. That is fundamentally what the Bill seeks to achieve. Other noble Lords spoke similarly on international labour obligations, including the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady and Lady Kennedy, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. Some have said that it is wrong for the Government to set minimum service levels via regulation, rather than via negotiation or independent arbitration. That point was also raised by the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Liddle.

We have consistently said that we hope we do not have to use the powers in the Bill and that, where possible, if unions can agree on voluntary arrangements where they are necessary, that is obviously better than having to legislate. Where we have to bring forward regulations, these will be subject to consultation and scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament. We think that it is fair and reasonable to enable employers, employees, trade unions and their members, and the public as a whole, to participate in the process of setting minimum service levels, and then for them to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before they are applied. This would not necessarily be the case if the minimum service level was simply agreed between the employer and the union.

It was right that the noble Lords, Lord Monks and Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, spoke passionately about the naming of individuals as part of the Bill. To be clear, the Bill enables employers to issue work notices to specify the workforce required to achieve the minimum service level for that strike period. Trade unions are required to take reasonable steps to ensure that members identified in the work notice comply with that notice. Therefore, the trade union needs to see the work notice and know which union members may be named to be able to take those reasonable steps. Individuals named on a work notice will be notified of this as regards themselves only; the work notice will not be a public document. In addition, there are no sanctions or consequences for individuals if the minimum service level is not then achieved.

The impact assessment for the legislation has now been published, as a number of noble Lords observed. Overall, we expect the legislation to be of net benefit to the economy. We have of course noted the RPC’s comments and will consider whether it is possible to revise the impact assessment to address them. Impact assessments will also be published for all subsequent regulations on minimum service levels. We believe that many of the concerns expressed by the RPC will be addressed when those are published.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Grady and Lady Donaghy, and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, expressed concerns that union members would be targeted individually and unfairly by employers in work notices. The Bill is clear that an employer must not have regard to whether a worker is a member of a union, or a particular union, when issuing a work notice. Nor does the Bill do anything to diminish other protections against discrimination, which, I hope, addresses the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sahota.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, suggested that the Bill enables unilateral variation of employment contracts. It is true that legislation made under the Bill will affect the relationship between some employers and some workers, and that they will be required to comply with it where applicable, but in that respect it is no different from most employment legislation. The Bill does not provide employers with powers to unilaterally vary employment contracts; it merely allows the giving of a work notice which adjusts the circumstances in which workers may lawfully go on strike. I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord that any of that is akin to unilateral variation.

Some noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Prentis, and my noble friend Lady Noakes, raised the existing life and limb law. Disproportionate impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the public still occur during strikes, despite Section 240 of the 1992 Act being in place. The aims of MSLs are to balance the ability to strike with the rights of the public to access the vital services they depend on during those strikes. The purpose of Section 240 is to allow for criminal prosecutions for those who intentionally and maliciously endanger life or cause serious injury to a person by going on strike. In my view, these are two fundamentally different aims, and, as my noble friend Lady Noakes flagged up, the right to access key services clearly goes beyond life and limb.

I will also take on board and consider the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, about the Home Office guidance in the Manchester Arena tragedy and follow that up with him.

Finally, a number of noble Lords rightly raised the issue of the pressure that the cost of living is putting on people and our public services. That is why we have committed to halving inflation and growing the economy, and why we have provided £26 billion to support individuals and businesses. We are investing billions more in schools, the NHS and social care, and all that of course supports those who work in those services. The Government respect the vital work that public sector workers do on the front line to protect the lives of others—a point we have made a number of times and will continue to make.

Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I reiterate what I said in my opening remarks: the Government support workers’ ability to strike; it is an important part of industrial relations that is rightly protected by law. The Bill seeks to maintain a balance between the ability to strike on the one hand, and on the other the public’s right not to be subjected to disproportionate impacts as they try to go about their daily lives and access essential public services. My noble friend Lord Patten was right when he said that striking the balance between the ability to strike and the right of the public to be safe and protected is difficult, but we believe that our approach is a proportionate way to provide this important balance. I am happy to confirm to him that the Government have no intention of banning the ability to strike. As my noble friend Lord Dobbs so eloquently put it, the Bill is intended to keep the country working.

To encourage further engagement with the Bill, links to the consultations will be circulated to participating Peers after this debate. In the meantime, I of course look forward to discussing the Bill further with Members in Committee. With that, I beg to move.

Bill read a second time.
Moved by
Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That the bill be committed to a Committee of the Whole House, and that it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House that they consider the bill in the following order: Clause 1, Schedule, Clauses 2 to 6, Title.

Motion agreed.

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Thursday 9th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Amendment Paper: HL Bill 97-I Marshalled list for Committee - (7 Mar 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Lord Callanan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (Lord Callanan) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have contributed to this exciting—almost, in some respects—debate about the main issues we will discuss as the Bill progresses.

Let me start by addressing the point made by a number of noble Lords—including the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Fox and Lord Hendy—on the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Of course, we are grateful to the committee for its work, and, in the normal course of events, we will respond to the report in full. Let me say, before then, that this Government do consider that this Bill is compatible with the ECHR.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out, on the introduction of the Bill I made a statement under Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act that the provisions of the Bill are compatible with convention rights. Indeed, I have to do so on all the Bills I introduce into this House, and I have been doing a lot of that recently. I say to the noble Baroness that this is a duty I take very seriously. I would not just wake up in the morning and sign a bit of paper. I respond to legal advice that I receive, as I do on every Bill, and I often go back and query that legal advice, because I take my duty to sign that statement seriously. I can tell the noble Baroness that I was happy to do so in this case, because I am confident that the Bill strikes the right balance between the ability to strike and the rights and freedoms of others.

It is a question of balance, and I am grateful for the comments from my noble friend Lord Henley, who is actually a member of the committee, in his helpful speech. As he pointed out, the report does not say that the Bill is not compatible with the ECHR. Regulations that set minimum service levels in specified services will, of course, need to be compatible with the ECHR, including Article 11, and the Government will ensure that they introduce regulations that are compatible. Obviously, failure to do so would result in a breach, and a court would be able to grant such remedy as it considers just and appropriate should a union or others take a matter to judicial review. I am sure there is a lot of thinking about that at present.

In response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about when the provisions would apply, and the issue of retrospectivity, I agree with my noble friend Lady Noakes. It will of course apply only to future action. After Royal Assent, we need to lay the appropriate regulations, which would need to be approved by both Houses before the legislation can come into force.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked me whether employers can discriminate against trade union members when issuing a work notice, I am happy to confirm to the noble Baroness that the Bill is clear that employers should have no regard to trade union membership when they are issuing work notices.

Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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My noble friend Lady Donaghy also raised the issue of recommendations that refer to trade union activities. The real fear here is that a bad employer could use a work notice to victimise and discriminate against not only union members, which, as the Minister says, is covered by the Bill, but against elected union workplace representatives. I wonder whether the Minister can give us reassurance that moves will be made to ensure that that cannot happen. It clearly cannot be right that an employer could victimise elected union representatives in the work notice. We hope it would never happen, but we cannot rely on hope.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I think the noble Baroness was, in effect, asking me to consider amendment 4 from the JCHR, which is what the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, was referring to. I was about to come on to that. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, is getting slightly ahead of herself. There are in fact later amendments, Amendments 27 and 28, tabled by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that seek to achieve a similar effect to that recommended, and we are going to have a fuller debate on that in group 10. So, if the noble Baroness will forgive me, I will address those points in more detail when we get there.

To restate why this legislation is needed—because this has been a general debate—let me set on record the Government’s position that there needs to be a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect their essential services, which they pay for through their taxes, to be there when they need them. The minimum service levels aim to restore this balance in order to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public from disproportionate impacts and results of strike action. This important protection should be afforded, in our view, to members of the public without delay, which is why we are opposed to the amendments seeking to delay the imposition of this legislation.

Amendment 1 seeks, in effect, to extend the impact that strikes can have on the wider public. It would ensure that strikes could continue for up to six months of the whole strike mandate period after the Bill comes into force without the relevant minimum service level being applied. Parties, including employers, unions and workers, will have sufficient notice of minimum service levels prior to their application via, for example, the consultation or parliamentary processes that will need to take place before those regulations come into force. So our view is that further notice is not necessary.

Amendment 50 seeks to delay commencement of all provisions of the Act, including the regulation-making powers, until two years after the day on which the Act is passed. My noble friend will be unsurprised to know that the Government do not support this amendment. Practically, the legislation will not take effect, as I have said, until the regulations are made to specify the relevant services that minimum service levels shall apply to and the levels of service that an employer can require its workers to provide in relation to strikes. This amendment would mean that the earliest point at which minimum service levels could be enforced in practice is two years after the Act is passed.

Amendment 51 would result in further delays that essentially duplicate the work and the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that has already been published, requiring yet another report before minimum service regulations are made. Again, we feel that this would be unnecessarily burdensome and serve no practical purpose, because these amendments would just delay the implementation of MSLs. I realise the Opposition would like to do that, but it is not the position of the Government. Therefore, we cannot accept these amendments, which, for no good reason or constructive purpose, would significantly extend the disproportionate impact that strikes can have on the wider public, on which lives and livelihoods depend. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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I completely support the Minister’s aspirations for the public to be able to conduct their lives without disruption. They want to be able to use transport and health services. But when the minimum service levels are decided by whoever it will be—we are unclear—will the Government be penalising those employers who do not provide them on non-strike days as well? I just wondered. We do not know what the minimum service levels will be. If 50% of the trains need to run, that would mean all signalpeople would have to work. I would like to be able to use the same Bill to have a go when I cannot get a train, the ambulance does not come or what have you, but it is the fault not of the strikers but of the organisations or institutions. Can the Minister extend this Bill so that I can use it to sue the people who do not deliver the services I need to live my life?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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The noble Baroness says that these regulations will be imposed by whoever feels like it. They will be imposed by this Parliament because we are consulting on minimum service levels in three areas that will be subject to regulations. Each sector is different, which is why we have laid some consultations on the regulations; we are interested in hearing views. Again, the noble Baroness is getting ahead of herself. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, has amendments in later groupings similar to what the noble Baroness wishes to bring about; perhaps if she restrains her enthusiasm, we will get to these points later.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I just want to pick up the point about consultation. The Bill talks about six sectors but the Minister keeps referring to three consultations. Those consultations do not cover all the people in the sector who are referred to in the Bill. Can the Minister give us an idea of who in those six sectors will be consulted and when? We have had three consultations on a narrow element; not everyone in transport or health has been consulted, for example. Can the Minister give us a timetable and an idea of who will be consulted and when?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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Clearly, the answer to the noble Lord’s question is that anybody can respond to the consultation. We have issued three draft statutory instruments in three sectors; we are interested in hearing responses from trade unions, members of the public, et cetera.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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Can I answer the noble Lord’s first question before he asks me another? If we choose to move ahead—if the Bill is passed and the powers are granted—and we think it sensible to impose minimum service levels in other sectors that are allowed by the Bill, again, we will publish a draft consultation and people can respond to that in due course. The noble Lord has another question.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I asked the Minister a specific question but I am afraid that he did not answer it. Do the three consultations that have been issued cover all the categories of worker within that sector, as mentioned in the Bill? If not, when will other people in that sector be consulted, and what will the timetable for the others be? My understanding is that not all transport workers have been consulted on that draft.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I am sorry if the noble Lord finds this confusing. On the sectors where we have introduced draft regulations—let us take the example quoted by the noble Lord of rail services—those consultations are in rail services. If other transport workers, in relation to whom we have not yet chosen to introduce minimum service levels, wish to respond to that consultation in generality, of course they can do so. We will take their interests on board.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I hope that we will come back to this. I keep coming back to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, which always echo in my mind: policy and legislation. We have legislation but no idea what the policy is. The Government have committed to consult. There are six sectors that will be affected by this Bill. The Government have started consultation only in small parts of those sectors. For example, in transport, they have consulted only on passenger rail, not on freight rail or buses or any other element of the Bill. When are those elements going to be consulted? When are the Government going to start launching that?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I am not quite sure what the noble Lord is saying. Is he saying that he wants us to introduce minimum service levels in all those sectors as well? If he does, I will take that comment back to the relevant Secretary of State; perhaps they will wish to introduce MSLs in those sectors as well. However, as the noble Lord has observed, the categories in the Bill are fairly widely drawn. In the short term, we, as a Government, have chosen to consult on regulations in those specific sectors. It may be that, in future, if Parliament grants us the powers, we will consult on additional regulations but, at the moment, we have no plans to do so. We have consulted on those three particular sectors.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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Can the Minister explain why this approach to the legislation was adopted? I know why I object to it. I know why the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, objects to it. I have a view about the importance of primary legislation. When people’s rights and freedoms are being constrained in this way, there should be foreseeability; by the way, when the Minister answered earlier on Section 19(1)(a) and how seriously he takes the obligation to make a statement on compatibility—I believe him—he did not set out his reasoning as to how this is in accordance with law in terms of foreseeability.

Pragmatically, I just want to ask him this: why was this approach adopted rather than the approach of formulating the policy in each area first? Frankly, purpose-specific primary legislation should then be brought to deal with a minimum service agreement in one sector that could not have been achieved by consent.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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In some sectors, of course, some minimum service levels have been agreed by consent. We have said that, if that MSL is sufficient and we view it as adequate, we may choose not to regulate in those particular sectors.

With regard to Section 19(1)(a) statements, the Government do not comment on legal advice that they receive; that is a long-standing tradition for all parties in government. I can say only that I take my legal obligations seriously, as all Ministers do. I read the legal advice that I am given. If I have queries about it, I go back to the lawyers and ask them for further details. In this case, I was satisfied that the Bill’s provisions are compliant; therefore, as is my legal duty, I signed the declaration before the Bill was introduced to Parliament.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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We are going to return to these areas as we progress through the clauses.

I just want to return to my noble friend’s point; the Minister only sort of answered the question. This Government started off with a manifesto commitment and a pledge to introduce minimum service levels in transport. That has sort of disappeared. Now it is a broad power—so broad that we will have no idea of who will be captured by this primary legislation until we see secondary legislation, which we will not be able to amend or adjust in order to take other factors into account. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is absolutely right about what we have heard across the House.

I come back to the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which states:

“The case has not been adequately made that there is a ‘pressing social need’ for imposing minimum service levels across the breadth of categories currently set out in the Bill. For example, the category of ‘education services’ is so broad that it might apply as much to private tutors and evening class teachers as to school teachers. Similarly, ‘transport services’ could include private taxi drivers.”


That is the point I am making: at what point will taxi drivers be next in line? The Government have these powers. We are giving them these powers. It comes back to Article 11. Surely, when we make laws, people ought to know how, or whether, they will affect them. We will not know that until a Secretary of State plants a statutory instrument; as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said, such instruments are not fair because we will not be able to amend them. In his report to this House, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, criticised this method as being fundamentally undemocratic because, as he said, these are not technical issues; they attach to fundamental human rights. That is the opinion across the House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, what we are trying to probe here is why any category is within the ambit of the Bill and why they have been specified. We will come back to the specific amendments in the group, but the noble Lord asked a question worth remembering: is it proportionate and necessary to have the Bill, bearing in mind that we have arrangements for minimum service levels—we have called them a range of things and noble Lords have referred to them—and they work? The noble Lord referred to circumstances in which they have worked, so we come back to the question: what is the point of this Bill?

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, is absolutely right to ask—the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said this too in his contribution on the previous group—why the very narrow, specific group,

“decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel” ,

has been included, given that there has not been a dispute or action that would require the Bill being applied. Surely we legislate for a reason. This highlights the fact that, as was said by my noble friends Lady Chakrabarti and Lord Whitty—whose contribution was absolutely right—we are increasingly seeing this as a political issue. It is not about resolving industrial disputes and providing support; it has another agenda.

On fire and rescue services, the Joint Committee on Human Rights mentioned the 2004 Act, and the Civil Contingencies Act also comes into play, where there are legal obligations. The Government have to understand that they are raising minimum service levels at a time when people in the public sector are striking because they are so concerned about the failure to meet minimum service levels. That is what doctors and nurses are worried about. I have heard from many nurses, including Members of this House, who have made that point—who would never have considered going on strike, ever. They made it very clear that, when they were in service, they would not have gone on strike, but they understand that the difference between then and now is in how nurses are valued, seen and even respected. That is the difference now. I heard the chair of the Police Federation make exactly this point on television. On the police not being able to strike he said that, when that was introduced, they were told that they would be compensated; it would be recognised that they had that obligation to serve the community. They do not feel that now, after a 17% reduction in their real wages. That is what people are really concerned about.

We are probing the categories that have been included because it seems so arbitrary. It comes back to the question of who is being consulted and when. It is not the six categories; it is not a broad range of people, even though the powers in the Bill will cover those areas. What is the minimum service level for border security? I hope the Minister can answer that. Is it a two-mile queue at Dover? Is it a completely blocked M20? Is it my having to wait three hours at Luton Airport because there was not sufficient staff? What is the minimum service level in those categories?

As it moves through Committee, I think the Minister will struggle to justify why the Bill is being introduced. It is a terrible Bill that does not do what it—supposedly—intends to.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I thank all three speakers in this debate. Amendments 2, 5, 11 and 12 seek to alter the sectors and services that are within scope of having minimum service levels implemented. Amendment 2 would stop minimum service levels being applied to education services for those over the age of 16 and rescue services in relation to fire and rescue services. Amendments 5, 11 and 12 would each remove one of the identified sectors from the Bill.

Amendment 2 specifically seeks to align the meaning of “relevant services” with the definition of “important public services” in existing legislation. The practical effect of this would be that minimum service levels would not be able to be applied to education services provided for those who are over the age of 16 and services which constitute “rescue services” in the context of fire and rescue. I am really not sure how that could work in practice, bearing in mind that the same personnel often provide the same services.

Strike action in these sectors has the potential for far-reaching consequences for members of the public who are not in any way involved in a dispute. This applies equally to education services for those aged over 16, as well as fire and rescue services, which is why they have been included in the legislation. In my view, it would simply not be right for students who attend a sixth form or further education college or university to be automatically ruled out of scope of minimum service levels while pupils aged 16 and under are not. Their education is no less valuable or important.

Additionally, there should be the potential for employers in the fire and rescue services to consider rostering staff to provide minimum service levels in response to road traffic incidents or in flood responses. Bizarrely, the amendment seems to be intended to prevent that. If you have a number of firemen on duty, those same firemen will be responding to house fires as well as car accidents, for instance. I do not see how there can be a distinction.

Let me also highlight what the legal ambiguity of this amendment could lead to. Subsection (4) of new Section 234B, as currently drafted, lists the key sectors that MSLs can apply to. There would then be a conflict between that section and the existing Section 226(2E) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, over which the amendment would presumably seek to take precedence. On that basis, I therefore cannot support it. The Government will set out, via consultations, what services may be in scope of minimum service levels, just as the published consultations for fire, ambulance and rail services that we debated in the previous grouping have done.

On the remaining amendments, the key sectors outlined in the Bill stem broadly from the 1992 Act, as amended by the Trade Union Act 2016, as they have been long recognised as important for society to function effectively. As I have already said, strike action in these sectors has the potential for far-reaching consequences for the public. Fire and rescue services, as I said, routinely deal with emergency incidents that pose an immediate risk to the public, and strike action could impact on public safety. The Government take the same view that ensuring safety at nuclear sites is also of the highest importance, so it is right that nuclear decommissioning is within scope. Finally, without a permanent and skilled presence at the border, there is a significant risk to the security and prosperity of the UK. I will respond to the noble Lord, Lord Collins: of course, many other countries, because of the way that their border security is structured, actually prohibit strikes completely in border services, so we are not going that far.

The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, will know better than I do that some policing services are already restricted from striking. But I do take on board his point about the other essential elements of the policing service that relate to that.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, can I just ask—

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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Let me respond to the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, and then the noble Lord can come back. I will take on board the points of the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, inquire for more details from the Home Office, and come back to him in writing. I will now take the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Collins.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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No-one disputes what the Minister is saying in terms of the importance, particularly with emergency services, of that requirement. Can he tell us what assessment he made of the existing legislation, both the Civil Contingencies Act and the 2004 Act, in relation to this? What we are debating is why the Bill is necessary. It is not clear that the Minister has made the case.

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Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I accept that the Labour Party does not believe that we have made the case; that is why we are having this debate. We picked the sectors because they were broadly in line with the 1992 Act, but of course there are good cases to be made for additional sectors, as the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, has intimated—

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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Can the Minister answer the question?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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We will take on board all of the requests for additional services to be included. Of course, we have considered the effects of existing legislation as well, but there is, apart from the bans in certain sectors, no other legislation in the UK at the moment indicating the provision of minimum service levels. We know that some minimum service levels are provided by agreement between unions in some areas, but not in others at the moment—

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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Can I press the noble Lord? I think it is a fundamental point; he cannot just dismiss this with, “Oh, we did an assessment”. Tell us. The 2004 Act and the Civil Contingencies Act cover these areas. Why does he need this additional Bill in those particular sectors?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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The Act does not cover minimum service levels in those sectors. I do not understand the point that the noble Lord is making. There are no minimum service level Acts in the UK at present; I think that in one of the contributions—it might have been the noble Lord’s—the point was made that MSL legislation does not apply in the UK at the moment. It is not something we have done previously, but we now consider that to be the case. I will take the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister. I think the two points that are emerging, that I would be grateful for assistance with from the Minister, go like this. The first is that on one level, these six areas are very broad—this was highlighted, in a way, by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. For example, “health services” is incredibly broad: everything from dental hygiene to ambulance services. Some of these things are potentially emergency blue-light services and some are not.

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On the point about the Civil Contingencies Act, that is a very broad power to safeguard life in public emergencies. The regulation-making powers in that legislation would allow Ministers very quickly to create and enforce minimum service level agreements if the country was truly at risk.
Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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We do not feel that the Civil Contingencies Act gives us the power to impose minimum service levels in the sectors that we have identified, which is why we are seeking this additional primary legislation, but I accept that there is a balance to be drawn. Noble Lords have seen two elements in the debate today between certain Members who do not want the legislation at all and do not believe in the principle of minimum service or safety levels, as it has been referred to—

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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It is not correct to say that we do not believe in minimum service levels or in protecting people—far from it. As my noble friend will say later, we have negotiated and achieved minimum service levels across the board. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, mentioned the fact that they have been achieved. We are asking whether this Bill damages the co-operation and support for those minimum service levels. We think it will; it will harm the situation.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I think that comes down to the essence of the political disagreement, and maybe I was not exposing myself correctly, but certainly the Opposition disagree with the minimum service levels legislation. I accept that in some areas the noble Lord might believe in minimum service levels but, as I have said, if voluntary negotiations are in place in certain sectors, that is preferable to the heavy hand of legislation, and we accept that. However, in the case of ambulances, some unions in some areas have agreed minimum service levels and others have not, so we think it is right to have the back-up of legislation in case we need to reach for it, but we hope that we do not need to use it.

As I was saying in response to the intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, this is about the essential political balance and what services should be included. I think the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, makes a good case that policing services should be included, and I will get him a full reply on that. That is the essential political judgment that the Government took when we were drafting this legislation about what services should be included, but I accept that there is political difference of opinion. Some people think they are too broadly drawn, some people think they are not widely enough drawn and some Members think additional services should be included. I can present only the legislation and view that the Government took on this at the time.

With that, I have concluded my remarks in response to the group, so I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Fox, will feel able to withdraw the amendment he moved on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments and speeches on this group. I think we are beginning to draw the lines a little more clearly. First, I am delighted that the Minister has come out as a bulwark against legal ambiguity. I will clean up our legal ambiguity by withdrawing Amendment 2 shortly, if he clears up his legal ambiguity by withdrawing the Bill.

Looking at the rest of the debate, I think I am beginning to see the problem, which is the difference between minimum service levels and emergency cover. Some of the services highlighted in this Bill are emergency services; they are services that you need in extremis. Some of them are in the Bill, and some of the ones that the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, mentioned are not. Some of them, particularly transport, are not generally services that you need in extremis. In that case, minimum service level is an appropriate term.

For the others, emergency cover is covered in the Civil Contingencies Act, and the trade union Acts of 1996 and 2002 are more appropriate. In reverting to the language of minimum service level when referring to services that are required in extremis, the Minister is accidentally or deliberately missing the point. I think we will come back to this on a number of occasions, so it would be helpful if the Minister can be persuaded to understand it, even if not to agree with it. On the basis of trying to bring us all together, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 2.

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage
Thursday 9th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

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Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Amendment Paper: HL Bill 97-I Marshalled list for Committee - (7 Mar 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, it is with a heavy heart that I welcome the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Markham—to this Committee. That heavy heart is for a few reasons. The first is that in his time in your Lordships’ House I have found him to be one of the kindest and least combative members of the Government, so I can only imagine what he feels about applying this kind of approach to industrial relations in the health service.

That takes me to my second real regret about this aspect of the Bill. Of course I find the Bill objectionable per se, but I find it particularly distasteful in relation to health services. That is because these people have been the heroes of the pandemic. I am personally embarrassed that it feels like a very short time ago that I was standing with my neighbours, practically in tears, bashing pots and pans in gratitude to these people. We in this House are now talking about imposing minimum service levels on them, as if that is necessary.

What is more, some categories of these health workers are highly regulated and ethical professionals. Even outside pandemic circumstances, we all put our lives and those of our loved ones in their hands. We trust them to do things that we do not understand: that is the level of trust that we have in these people. It is, in the words of the right reverend Prelate, a terrible statement of a lack of trust—it undermines a sacred trust—for politicians to be inflicting this on these highly ethical health workers. I really wonder, if we were to have a focus group or a poll of the public, and measure the trust index of different categories of people in public life and in different professions, where nurses, doctors and other health workers would sit, compared to—dare I say it—lawyers and politicians.

That takes me to a further regret, which was put so well by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, who, if he is not careful, is going to be competing with his noble friend Lord Paddick for who is the most legally literate non-lawyer. He hit on a very important point that is specific to health services: the litigious possibilities. In relation to the Bill more generally, we have already touched on the dangers of litigation in relation to whether the Secretary of State chooses to make regulations in an area or not. Some people might seek to challenge the making of regulations but, of course, there is also the possibility of judicial review by other groups of the Secretary of State not making regulations. This will come whenever something is effectively delegated to executive discretion. That executive discretion can be subject to judicial review and litigation. Governments of both stripes get annoyed with judicial review, but there it is: it is part of our rule-of-law system in a constitutional democracy.

In addition to that potential for litigation, we then have the negligence lawyers. As the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, put it so well, we now have oceans of possibility of claims made against particular employers for potentially not issuing these notices in circumstances in which they did not think it was necessary. To be in hospital is to be sick, and there will sometimes be bad outcomes, and we now have this new possibility for litigation about the extent to which issuing or not issuing work notices may have contributed to your loved one’s demise. That needs to be considered.

The Minister was not here during debate on the earlier group, so to help him out I say that he could borrow the script of his noble friend Lord Callanan. In relation to some points, he said, “I can’t explain this point to you because, of course, it is legal advice that I have taken; I’ve taken it very seriously but I can’t tell you what’s in the legal advice.”

When other points were put to the ever-resilient Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, he said, “The reason why this is in and that is out is a political decision”. It is either legal advice, which he will not comment on, or a political decision as to why these categories are so broad—or why there are six of them and not seven. If we wanted more, he was saying, the Government would give us more, but they would not give us fewer. The point is not about the length of this list of services but about the precision and rationale that went into making these choices.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, says that it is all very well talking about the unions on the one hand and employers on the other, but I think she said that the Government are taking powers for themselves to act on behalf of service users. There are two points there: one is that when we talk about as many people as we are in the context of providers of health services, that is a lot and they are service users and providers at the same time. But the other, which was the crucial element in her remarks, is that the Government are taking powers for themselves. They should not be doing so. If legislation is truly necessary in relation to health services or anybody else, it should be for Parliament to have a Bill before it that is specific enough to provide foreseeability, in accordance with the law, and therefore comply with convention rights.

In the end, I have to hand it to the right reverend Prelate: the issue is about health services being too broad. As my noble friend Lady O’Grady of Upper Holloway asked, will it cover Amazon? I look forward to the answer on that because it would be pretty sweeping and concerning if it did. “Health services” is broad; it is not precise as a concept. My real sadness about health services being attacked in this way is the issue of trust. The Government should be building trust, post pandemic most of all, between people and vital healthcare workers and not undermining it.

Lord Markham Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care (Lord Markham) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, for their amendments. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for her kind words.

Amendments 3 and 4 seek to remove the health sector and health services from being within scope of having minimum service levels implemented. As my noble friend Lord Callanan said earlier, the key sectors outlined in the Bill broadly stem from the 1992 Act, as amended by the Trade Union Act 2016, as they have long been recognised as important for society to function effectively. Strike action in some areas of health services can put lives at risk or cause serious harm to patients. As my noble friend Lady Noakes rightly pointed out, it is about protecting the patients; that is why we have brought this provision. It has the potential for far-reaching consequences for members of the public who are not involved in the dispute. That is why we are looking to include the health services within the legislation.

I will try to answer some of the specific questions from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, the noble Lord, Lord Allan, and others on why we are including health in the minimum service levels. We need to point only to recent experience in the ambulance negotiations, where there were concerns that many trusts were not sure, right up until the night before, whether derogations would be approved. The thinking behind the need for consultation was that we can have that certainty.

At the same time, the nurses’ and the doctors’ unions said, in their recent strikes, that they would not cover A&E. In those circumstances, noble Lords must accept that there was a real possibility of not being able to provide A&E services, which would obviously threaten the lives of patients. That is why we feel the need to put those protections in the minimum service levels. However, the most important thing in all this is that the Bill is just enabling legislation; our sincere hope is that it is never needed.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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On the recent actions, the Minister talked about how often discussions went to the wire and agreements were reached the night before. Are there any instances he would share with the Committee in which the cover of the voluntary arrangements actually failed, as opposed to going to the wire but getting there in the end?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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We absolutely try to guard against that possibility and get there in the end. The sincere hope is that none of this is ever needed but, as both the nurses and the unions are saying that they will not provide A&E cover—we are seeing a lot of dates where there might be strike action by more than one union at the same time—I think all noble Lords can see a real possibility that A&E services could not be provided in those circumstances. It is those aspects we are trying to protect here. The hope is very much that it is never needed because the trusts, as has happened to date, will be able to put in place the right voluntary agreements. That is the purpose behind this.

I will try to answer the questions raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, the noble Lord, Lord Prentis, and others, about trying to undermine the trust between the hospitals, in this instance, and employees. I go back to the position that it is for the trust to work with local unions to work out what the best level is, in the hope and knowledge that this will probably never be needed. It is just enabling legislation because we can see that there are circumstances, as I mentioned before, where it might be needed.

I will try to answer some other questions. On the point about the treatment of devolved Governments, I go back to the point of it being up to individual trusts.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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Before the Minister moves away from the trust issue and the point made by the right reverend Prelate, does he think that the threat of this law will impact trust and confidence in the current arrangements? Does he sincerely believe that the threat being introduced will not impact that trust?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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I believe that the principles are there in the derogations. Again, I believe no one wants to see any circumstances where there is a threat to life. That is felt uniformly by all of us and everyone in wider society. At the same time, the point I made is that, if you have nurses, doctors and ambulance workers all on strike at the same time and all saying that they are not going to provide A&E cover, we can all see the very real prospect that that is going to be a threat to life and limb. Those are the circumstances that we are talking about.

To answer the question from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, if a trust within a devolved Government does not want to take this up, it does not have to. In exactly the same way, a trust in England does not have to take this up if it does not feel that it is needed, but it is there as a last resort.

To further answer some of the questions on whether that could involve private companies, maybe the best example is the case of the train services. That is obviously a different aspect of this, but in some areas of health we know that we are moving towards a digital world. As the noble Baroness knows, it is something I am personally responsible for. We can see digital services being the backbone of the health service more and more. In some cases, their ability to be there will be vital for the protection of life and limb. These may be unlikely circumstances but, in all honesty, I can see circumstances where that would need to be involved if it meant that there was some risk to life and limb.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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I have not been participating in this group, but I have been for the rest of it. I am intrigued by that answer. I am wondering how a private company would know that it falls within the remit of the Bill. Is the first time it would find out when it is required by the Government to deliver a work order to its employees? Will there be some other form of formal notification that may fall within the ambit of this legislation when it commences?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord. This again relates to consultation. In all of these circumstances, for services that we think could be critical, we would go through the 12-week consultation process, followed by the 12-week implementation period. That is how the private company in this example would know there was a possibility of becoming involved in this, and there would be the consultation process to consider the matter fully.

On whether this is compatible with Article 4, again, we are talking about only circumstances where people potentially going on strike would cause a threat. We have circumstances like that already: the police and the military are not allowed to strike, and it is not considered that that conflicts with Article 4. So I do not think there is a read-across in the same way—

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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In the two cases that the noble Lord mentioned, commitments were put in place for both the Army and the police. Does he think that those sorts of commitments should be given to our health service workers, who delivered a lot during the Covid epidemic, as he knows?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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We all agree that they did a huge amount. I do not think that there is a particular difference in circumstances: the principle behind the derogations today is to provide that life cover. That is absolutely there, which is why the hope and the thought is that this legislation might never need to be used. As I said, it is very much a back-pocket thing because, in the circumstances described today, it has managed—

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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“Health services” need not be as broad in the Bill. In his gracious response, the Minister talked about the life and death level of risk. If that is the case, why should the provision not be narrowed from “health services” generally, which is incredibly broad—it covers everything from dental hygiene to nutrition advice—and tightened to the life and limb cover he refers to?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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We are talking about the absolute minimum services. As I said, we had the consultation process. Clearly, we would be saying that this is an area where there is a real concern over the risk to life and limb—that would not apply to some of the noble Baroness’s examples—and we would then go into the 12-week consultation period to work through that. The burden will be very much on us to show that that risk to life and limb absolutely is there, because that is that principle behind all of this.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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So is the noble Lord saying that those are the circumstances in which the powers in the Bill would be introduced? If so, can he explain passenger transport to me?

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Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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I am well versed only in the area of health, and I will defer to my noble friend to deal later with that. I am replying specifically on health.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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The Minister needs to understand that we are taking the whole Bill in this Committee, not just the health part—we are thankful that he has come to speak to that part. But we are trying to understand how we have train services at one end and resuscitating people on the verge of death at the other, and we are trying to find a common legal structure that fits them all. Does the Minister agree that there is a big difference between the minimum service level on a commuter line from Croydon and the minimum service level in an accident and emergency hospital? Can he explain how we are supposed to square those two issues within the framework of this legislation?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord. I believe that there will be a group of amendments specifically on transport later on. That will be the opportunity to answer those questions. I have been drafted in—dare I say it—at the last moment, because it is a very important issue and I wanted personally to talk about the health aspects, which I am attempting to do, so please forgive me if I try not to stray into other areas. There will be the opportunity to discuss transport later on.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan, asked who wants this. It is a backstop power. Trusts will never need to use it if they do not want to. I believe that most trusts, and I hope all, have excellent relations and are able to make sure that these provisions are never used or needed.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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It is helpful having the Minister here—we appreciate it—because he will be responsible for those health trusts. I am cautious about the notion that it is a backstop power. It is something that the Minister repeats often, but is he concerned that there will be pressure either for the legal reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and I have outlined—that there will be judicial processes that force trusts to think that they have to impose a minimum service level whether or not they want to—or just political pressure? The Government have brought this legislation in. If trusts say, “Look, we don’t want to impose this, because we think it is bad for our area”, are Ministers really going to sit back and say, “Fine, we’re not going to bother”?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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As I answered earlier on the devolved Governments, by definition, we accept that different trusts have the ability to work out what is best for their own area. Clearly, devolved Governments will each have their own opinion on how they want to act. The same principle exists in each place. We are not saying to each trust, “Thou shalt enact it in this way”; we are just giving those backstop powers. The most important thing here, which I think we all agree on, is for there to be the ability in all circumstances to protect life and limb. If doctors, nurses and ambulance crews all go on strike at the same time and say as part of that that they do not want to provide A&E cover, that is a circumstance where we are not able to provide those minimum services. I think that most fair-minded people would conclude that there is a risk to life and limb in that case.

The points made about civil claims—I know that they are very much the concern of the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Patel—will be addressed in considering later amendments.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Portrait Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (CB)
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I want to take up the Minister’s point in relation to devolved Governments and health services. As I understand him, assuming the Bill goes through and the Secretary of State for Health decides that there is to be a minimum service level, that does not compel the Governments in Scotland and Wales to adopt it; it is completely voluntary for them, just as it is for trusts. Have I understood the Minister correctly? If neither trusts nor the devolved Governments are in any way bound to impose this, it seems to me a matter of such importance that it ought to be dealt with by specific provision in the Bill. Otherwise, one will have problems for the future. The last thing we want ever to do is to have to rely in any actions that follow on an assurance given in this House—not that I am doubting it for a moment; it is just a question of clarifying how this works. It is a matter of such importance that it must be clarified. The Bill can easily be amended to make it clear, both in respect of devolved Governments and of health trusts, that these are the standards set but the devolved Governments do not have to impose them.

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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Again, my understanding is that there will be later groups of amendments where we will talk specifically about the devolved Governments, so there will be further opportunities then to discuss this matter. However, on the principle the noble and learned Lord raises, we are setting down, in consultation, what we think the minimum service levels need to be to protect life and limb in these circumstances. In the case of ambulances, which was mentioned, that covers the ability to answer 999 calls, to categorise whether it is a category 1 or category 2 call—by the way, we are not seeking to change the definitions of category 1 and category 2—and to ensure that those calls can be answered, because they are life-threatening circumstances. To enact that, it is up to the employer—in this case, the trust—to work with local unions to ensure that it is in place, and how trusts decide to do that is up to them. It would be fantastic if they never needed to refer to that, but we, the Government, want to protect these circumstances so that we will not have occasions when A&Es are unable to operate.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Portrait Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (CB)
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It may be that we need to go into this matter in some more detail, but what concerns me is this: I do not really know the detail of health law but let us assume that trusts are under a legal duty to carry, and to provide for, hospital services. So I assume that the Minister is saying that, as this goes forward, there will no comeback from the Government on a failure to exercise a legal duty to follow that, if they decide, “No we don’t want to impose this”. There will be no comeback, because it will be up to them.

This becomes very important when one turns to the liability of trade unions, because if a liability is imposed on the health trust for failing to comply with minimum standards, and it does not do so for various reasons, is there any consequential liability to the trade unions? This is quite a difficult and important subject, but for the devolved Governments, and, in this case, for health trusts, it is critical to know to what extent they are bound, when they take a different judgement on how to deal with the strike, to follow the minimum standards established by the Government. It is a critical question, and I do not want to be unfair to the Minister by making an intervention.

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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I thank the noble and learned Lord for his comments. As I have said, in these circumstances we are talking about putting in place those minimum service levels for the trust to be armed with and to be able to enact. We are not trying to put in place any legal framework that we can use to go back and sue the trust for not holding to it, and we are not trying to put legal obligations on the trust to do it. Instead, we are trying to give an enabling ability, to be used only, as I said, as a backstop in these circumstances, and with the hope that they will never need to take that forward.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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I appreciate that the framework of the Bill as a whole is not the Minister’s responsibility; he is in Committee to talk about health services in particular. So I will ask him a question specifically on health services. Given his very clear answers that he anticipates the life and limb health provision being a matter only for the Bill, would it not be wise, advisable and appropriate for the reference to “health services” in the Bill to be tightened, so that it is clear that the regulation-making power is only about the life and limb provision he has talked about so extensively and explicitly?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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Again, I believe that it is trying to work off the 1992 definitions and work. The beauty of these debates, as I have come to appreciate about the House of Lords and the job that it does, even in the short time that I have been involved, is that they make sure, through this good critical challenge, that we can ensure that the legislation is doing exactly what we want it to do. We need to make sure that we get those definitions correct and, clearly, the beauty of where we are at this stage is that we have that ability. I thank noble Lords for that, and I hope that they can see by my responses that this is something that I want to make sure we get right.

I am glancing through the remaining questions—but I hope that I have answered the substance of the questions.