Minimum service levels and the right to strike

Government’s proposed anti-strike laws will soon be debated by MPs

Rail workers holding banners and union flags outside Ashford International Station in Kent
Rail workers holding banners and union flags outside Ashford International Station in Kent
(Image credit: Stuart Brock/Anadolu Agency via Getty Image)

The government has confirmed plans to set minimum service levels during industrial action and allow rail, fire, ambulance and other key public sector bosses to sack employees who refuse to work during strikes.

Under new legislation announced by ministers on Thursday, the government will reserve the power to impose a minimum standard of service on employees working in public health, education and at nuclear plants. Unions which fail to allow for these minimum service levels during strikes could be sued by employers for damages.

Grant Shapps, the business secretary, said the government had a duty to “protect life and livelihoods”, as well as “the freedom to strike”. Minimum service levels would “restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption” during public sector strikes, he said.

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The measures will “not resolve the current wave of strikes”, said the BBC, and critics have accused Rishi Sunak of “silly posturing and game playing” rather than attempting to solve the crisis.

‘More far-reaching measures’ dropped

Government sources have suggested that some of the most hardline proposals included in the original anti-strike bill drawn up by Jacob Rees-Mogg will be dropped from the new legislation.

According to The Times, Sunak vetoed “measures that would have increased the threshold for strike ballots, doubled the notice for industrial action from two weeks to a month and banned ambulance workers from striking”.

No. 10 is reportedly concerned that the House of Lords might still delay the legislation, potentially pushing the entire strike law back until after the next general election.

Under parliamentary convention, the Lords can delay proposals not included in a party’s election manifesto. As transport strikes were the only type of industrial action featured in the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto pledge to introduce minimum service levels, the new law is likely to “face significant opposition” in the Lords, said the BBC.

The proposed legislation – which will apply in England, Scotland and Wales – is expected to be published next week. MPs are expected to debate it the following week.

‘Silly posturing’

The “anti-trade union legislation”, as The Guardian described it, has sparked a “furious backlash”. Paul Nowak, the Trades Union Congress (TUC)’s general secretary, said the proposals were “an attack on working people” which trade unions “will fight... every step of the way”.

Unions have claimed that the law breaches human rights legislation and threatened legal action against the government. “Yet again, Rishi Sunak abdicates his responsibility as a leader,” said Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham in a statement. “Instead of silly posturing and game playing, he should step up to the plate, act as a leader and start negotiating to resolve the crises his government has created.”

Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, the trade union for train drivers, pointed out that bosses can already fire employees who strike for more than six weeks. In a statement, he said that many European countries have had minimum service levels in place for years but “they have never been enacted because they don't work”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has pledged to repeal the legislation if his party wins the next general election. His deputy, Angela Rayner, accused Sunak of “wasting time on shoddy hurdles that even his own transport secretary admits won't work”.

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