On 21st February 2023, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich spoke in a debate on the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, expressing concerns on workers rights and the broadness of the legislation proposed, and urging that the government reconsider the bill:
The Lord Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich: My Lords, I too look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. There is only me standing in the way, so I will try to be brief.
At Second Reading in the other place, the Government said that the Bill’s purpose was
“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.”—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/23; col. 54.]
At first glance this might seem a straightforward aim. However, as noble Lords and those in the other place have already said, there is much more at stake here than initially meets the eye. I believe that the Bill in its current form creates more problems than those it perceives or seeks to solve.
There has been a terrible increase in industrial action in the past months. We all reflect on why this may be the case. There are serious and legitimate concerns held by those who decide to go on strike about their well-being, as well as the well-being of the services for which they work and that of wider society.
Our public services and those who keep them going are struggling. I am struck—reference has been made a couple of times to this—that it was not that long ago, during the pandemic, that we were lauding those who now feel abandoned. We have also heard reference made to reports of nurses left with no choice but to use food banks, and others who are leaving skilled jobs in public service roles to take up less skilled but better-paid jobs elsewhere.
I would caution against the characterisation of this argument as one of left versus right; I feel I am a bit in the crossfire here. This is about dignity of work and the common good, for the flourishing of the whole of society. For the good functioning of society, it is essential that all workers have a legitimate and peaceful means to seek redress against pay and conditions that leave them unable to make ends meet. Surely, this applies even more to those who provide essential services in the public sector, where discussions about fair remuneration can be dismissed, often by the language of limiting government expenditure. Of course, all negotiations should be conducted in good faith by both parties seeking mutual agreement. I am struck—I am sure we are all concerned—that, at the moment, each side accuses the other of intransigence. However, without full recourse to strike action as the last resort, far from it creating a reasonable balance between those involved, the balance of power seems to be tipped too far in one direction.
I turn to a couple of concerns on the specifics of the Bill, which are shared by my right reverend friend the Bishop of Manchester; we look forward to raising them further in other stages of the Bill. As has been observed by several noble Lords, the Bill is skeletal in its form, opening up multiple ambiguities. It would significantly broaden Secretary of State powers, which can be exercised on very short notice. The Secretary of State would be able to specify the levels of service required during strikes in public services via statutory instruments. As has been observed, the lack of definition for “levels of service” in the Bill gives the Secretary of State full reign on this in secondary legislation, seemingly with little opportunity for proper consultation.
There is also a significant and vague infringement on protections for unions and workers. Indeed, Part 1 of the Bill would add a requirement upon unions to take “reasonable steps” to ensure compliance by their members with a minimum service work notice and, where this is not done, enable employers to sue unions. Part 2 removes workers’ protection from unfair dismissal due to participation in a strike action contrary to a work notice. Such provisions would risk further straining an already overstretched workforce in our public services. Furthermore, as the Bill stands, it is unclear which workers could ultimately be subjected to its measures. I believe these proposals do more harm than good. I urge the Minister and His Majesty’s Government to reconsider this Bill.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Callanan (Con): 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.
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.
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