Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Alan Brown Excerpts
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.

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Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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The right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) said that this was a partisan debate. Of course it is a partisan debate, because we either believe in the right of workers to strike or we do not, so, clearly, it is a partisan debate. She spoke about SMEs struggling because of strikes. I can tell her that SMEs in my constituency are more worried about their energy bills going through the roof and the lack of Government support that is coming down the line from April onwards.

We know that this is “anti-strike legislation”—those are not my words, but the words of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland from the Dispatch Box last week at Scotland questions. He boasted that his Government were introducing “anti-strike” legislation in a rare bit of honesty from the Dispatch Box.

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy keeps going on about minimum ambulance cover, but the reality is that this is an attack on millions of public sector workers. The explanatory notes tell us that this is a Tory manifesto commitment about tackling transport strikes. Although the Conservatives might hide behind that manifesto commitment, that commitment has nothing to do with clamping down on the NHS or on teachers. The Conservatives claim that it is about safety, but, as I said earlier, the word “safety” is not used once in the Bill or in explanatory notes. The reality is that this is an ideological war on the unions, which the Tories somehow think will curry favour with the public. It is a misty-eyed look back to Margaret Thatcher taking on the National Union of Mineworkers. It was a battle that she won, but it was a battle that resulted in the closures of mines and left communities devasted and thousands of workers on the dole. Do we really want to go back to sacking workers and putting them on the dole? That is what this is all about.

We know that this is an ideological war, because, in this period of Tory governance, the Government have already given us the Trade Union Act 2016, introducing voting thresholds, and then, last year, the legislation to allow employers to hire agency staff to break strikes. There is no doubt that this Government want to end strikes, effectively removing the ultimate backstop on collective bargaining.

The Bill not only facilitates an attack on workers, but enables employers to potentially sue unions for damages. It is no wonder that it is opposed by the TUC, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Unison, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing among others, and I certainly support them in opposing this.

The legislation is nothing more than an attack on democracy—an attack on the rights of workers to withdraw their labour, and a further attack on devolution. Neither the Scottish Government nor the Welsh Government want this legislation, but, yet again, this legislation will be imposed on the devolved nations. In Scotland, this is further proof that the Westminster straitjacket does us no good at all. We could have had employment and workers’ rights devolved, but, unfortunately, Labour resisted those powers coming to Scotland. However, even the STUC has now called for the devolution of employment rights to Scotland, so perhaps Labour should consider that, instead of listening to Gordon Brown’s rehash of broken promises.

It is worth noting that the Bill does not impact Northern Ireland, as employment law is already devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, so, yet again, the so-called most powerful devolved Parliament in the world—the Scottish Parliament—has fewer powers than the Northern Ireland Assembly, and this proves it.

This ideological attack comes from someone who, as Transport Secretary, was non-existent when it came to dialogue and communications, and that was confirmed by the unions. He was somebody who was blocking the DFT from agreeing deals, and now we have that same person in post leading the charge for anti-strike and anti-worker legislation. Given the Secretary of State’s form, we know that he is up for a fight, but even if wins this fight, he will be destroying worker relationships for good. These are hard-pressed workers, particularly from within the NHS, who are struggling at times with the pressures that they are under. Who seriously thinks that not negotiating and threatening workers with the sack for striking will help matters? It is utterly insane. As the rail unions pointed out at the Transport Committee last week, deals have been agreed where DfT and UK Ministers are not involved. Clearly the union asks cannot be too unreasonable, when RMT and ASLEF have agreed deals with ScotRail and the Scottish Government, deals in Wales and deals with Merseyrail, for example—deals with Governments and authorities that have been hamstrung by the Tory austerity imposed on them, yet still managed to agree deals.

The Tories tell us they are the party of workers. That phrase fools no one, but they also tell us they are all about a high-wage, skilled economy. Yet, as we have heard, when workers ask for a wage rise they are told no, that it is unaffordable; even worse, in the case of the rail unions, the Secretary of State quotes figures that he thinks show how well paid all rail staff are. That is really telling: the Secretary of State is effectively saying, “Train drivers are overpaid—how dare they ask for a wage rise?”. That is insulting beyond belief.

The Tories can forget saying they want a high-wage economy. They were quite happy for the rail companies to pay dividends during the pandemic. They were quite happy for Virgin Trains East Coast to walk away from the London North Eastern Railway franchise owing billions of pounds, but they always go for attacking workers.

It is the same with the Secretary’s rhetoric about this legislation mirroring what happens elsewhere in Europe. His soundbites are easily proven to be false. Indeed, the general secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions, Jan Willem Goudriaan, argued that comparison by the UK Government of this Bill with existing laws in other EU countries was misrepresenting the situation, because all minimum service levels in Europe are agreed through negotiation. Moreover, the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, Esther Lynch, said:

“The UK already has among the most draconian restrictions on the right to strike in Europe, and the UK government’s plans would push it even further away from normal, democratic practice across Europe”.

Pablo Sánchez Centellas, a spokesperson for the EPSU, was much more succinct, saying, “It’s bollocks.” The Secretary of State should reflect on the true position of this proposed legislation compared with what is happening in Europe.

It also seems that this legislation is in breach of article 11 of the European convention on human rights, especially with regard to proportionate action. Richard Arthur, head of trade union law at Thompsons Solicitors, said the Bill raised,

“very serious legal question marks”,

and anticipates legal challenges under article 11 of the ECHR and convention 87 of the International Labour Organisation. He has also rightly pointed out that the human rights memorandum that accompanied the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill set out reasons why minimum service levels were not justified in fire services, health settings or education, yet that is what the Government now propose. By default, this Government are now going against their own previous human rights opinion. What kind of madness is that?

When it comes to the International Labour Organisation, which the Secretary of State likes to reference, its idea of minimum service requirements is clearly intended to be based on endangerment to life, personal safety or health. This wide-ranging legislation goes way beyond those parameters. The ILO makes it clear there should be an independent arbitration body, yet this Bill is completely silent on such a body. Why is that?

It is also clear that any minimum service level is supposed to be just that—a bare minimum. We have no idea what this Government will railroad through via statutory instruments. Statutory instruments cannot be amended and the last time a Government was defeated on a statutory instrument was in 1979, so we know all power rests with the Government there.

As Liberty has observed, the Bill does not create any form of minimal service. Liberty also confirms that MPs debating this legislation on Second Reading will not know exactly what they are voting for, so all the Tory MPs in the Chamber who are going to take part in the debate and then trot through the Lobby will do so blind to what the future legislation and regulations on minimum service will look like. It is an affront to democracy. Any Tory MP who claims to care about parliamentary sovereignty cannot possibly vote for this Bill.

The Bill is made worse by the Henry VIII power that allows amendment and revocation even of future legislation not yet passed. We can see how the Government are ramming this Bill through Parliament with minimum scrutiny and a proposed programme motion allowing just five hours for Committee. It really is an assault on democracy. The fact that the Bill comes into effect immediately once passed, so that work notices and actions can be taken by employers for strikes that have already been voted through, shows just how ridiculous this assault on workers is.

The impact assessment for the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill observes that on a strike day in July 2022, 20% of rail services were still in operation. Right away that suggests to me that a minimum level of service was operating. What do the Tories really think a minimum service is, if 20% is not a bare minimum? There are huge ramifications here for rail workers overall, because if this Government force through a high threshold of minimum service, strikes by signalmen and track operatives will effectively be banned. A high minimum service will force all those guys to work to keep the tracks in operation and the trains running, effectively blocking strikes by the back door.

What will minimum service look like for teachers? Where does that fit in with all the talk about safety? What happens to train companies that cannot provide a minimum service at the moment, especially if union members decide not to work on their rest days and to work to rule? Where will that leave this Government on minimum service level obligations?

The overview in the explanatory notes makes it clear that the ability to sack workers is a key aspect of the Bill. That is the polar opposite of what was said when a transport strike Bill was listed in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019, when it was stated that workers would not be discriminated against. Why are the Government now threatening people’s livelihoods?

Despite what the Secretary of State says, it is also clear that this legislation will allow employers to target those they think are part of an awkward squad. Allowing employers to decide who has to work on notified strike days clearly infringes on workers’ rights to withdraw labour. Instead of the illegal blacklisting previously done by some companies, employers now can name workers they want to break a strike, and sack those workers if they stay true to their beliefs. How can that be deemed acceptable?

The sacking aspect is the proof that this is nothing to do with minimum cover by ambulance staff, as the Secretary of State likes to tell us. It also ignores the fact that section 240 of the 1992 Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) keeps saying, allows for preserving life and limb, and that unions have their own practices to comply with that legislation. For fire services, the Secretary of State could also utilise the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, if he felt the desire to do so.

It is crystal clear that this legislation is not required. It is an attack on democracy and the right to strike; it will prolong industrial disputes, not resolve them; it will allow individual workers to be targeted through work notices; and it is politically stupid. We have to wonder why this Tory Government are looking to antagonise something like 7 million workers across these sectors. It also shows an astonishing level of incompetence to bring in legislation that potentially allows them to sack essential workers in vital sectors where there is already a shortage of skilled workers.

The public can see through a Government who partied while clapping the nurses and now threaten them with the sack. They should follow the lead of the Scottish Government and get around the negotiating table. The resolution of the ScotRail dispute has been commended by both the RMT and ASLEF. There are no strikes planned in the health service in Scotland and the pay deal being implemented by the Scottish Government is one that the UK Government should replicate as a starting point when they get around the negotiating table.

It is outrageous that the Scottish Government, who have been negotiating in good faith with the unions, will now have this legislation foisted upon them—legislation that Westminster could use to force work notices through in Scotland against the wishes of the Scottish Government and that could ruin otherwise good working relationships in Scotland. Employment law should be devolved to Scotland, but even that would now just be a sticking plaster. It is perfectly obvious that what Scotland now needs is the full powers of a normal, independent country.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Chair of the Transport Committee.