Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill: Bishop of Manchester supports amendments on worker protection and parliamentary scrutiny of legislation

On 23rd March 2023, the House of Lords debated the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill in its second day of committee. The Bishop of Manchester spoke in the debate, in support of numerous amendments:

  • Amendments 20 & 40, that would require reviews of how the legislation would affect recruitment and of the meaning of minimum service levels
  • Amendment 21, which would seek to ensure that work notices are only issued where all options to avert a strike are exhausted
  • Amendment 41, which would preserve existing protections from unfair dismissal, including for an employee who participates in a strike contrary to a work notice under the bill
  • Amendments 37 & 43, which would allow for parliamentary scrutiny of sections of the bill, and remove the ability for the Secretary of State to make regulations that repeal primary legislation and would make all regulations made under this section subject to the affirmative procedure

Amendments 20 & 40:

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I am sorry to come into the debate quite late; I had not realised we were getting so close to the end. I support Amendment 20 from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and Amendment 40 from the noble Lord, Lord Fox. I regret that I have been unable to be in my seat at earlier stages, but I am grateful that my right reverend friends the Bishops of London and St Edmundsbury and Ipswich have passed on my concerns. Amendments 20 and 40 are absolutely invaluable. If this Bill is—regrettably, in my view—to become law, it must have all necessary consultation and evidence gathering before it.

Amendment 20 would require that an assessment of health and safety performance in the affected sector is made prior to minimum service regulations, and that is critical. As other noble Lords have said, if we look at this past winter, it is valid to ask whether what might be considered a minimum service level is reached on a daily basis even when there is not a strike going on. Assessing the level of service provided in periods when the service is not affected by strike action, and requiring that to cover the most recent 12 months, creates an important benchmark.

Amendment 40 would introduce a necessary review of the impact on recruitment and retention of staff. Research by the TUC suggests that the recruitment and retention crisis is ongoing. Something like two-fifths of public servants say that the implications of this Bill have made them more likely to consider leaving their job in the next three years. We have a crisis of vacancies in many sectors. This is not going to help.

Earlier today the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, asked a pertinent Question about the performance on the west coast rail line, and I was glad to be able to ask a supplementary to that. If nothing else, that exchange should have made clear to every one of us in this House that there is no point in setting minimum service levels for strike days when current performance is so depleted. Such poor provision of services, often exacerbated by the low morale consequent upon poor or aggressive management practices, means that acceptable minimum levels of service are just not available to customers or the public even on normal working days.

There is a duty on all of us who govern our nations to go beyond the most basic economic calculations when we are legislating to do so for the common good and human flourishing—something set out in the teaching of many religious denominations. This Bill, as drafted, fails that duty.


Lord Callanan (Con): Each amendment in this group seeks to add additional evidence-gathering or reporting requirements or scrutiny to the regulation-making powers in the Schedule to the Bill. Before addressing them, perhaps the Committee will permit me a moment to reply to the rather general points made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree with him. Recent strike action has demonstrated the disproportionate impacts strikes can have on the public, presumably including his parishioners. They have been unable to access work and healthcare or attend education classes and are worrying whether an ambulance will be there when they need it. Businesses are also crucially affected by industrial action; 23% of them could not operate fully due to industrial action in the UK in December and 2.4 million strike days were lost between June and December. I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate does not believe his parishioners need protecting from these actions, but this Government certainly do.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: I have every concern for my parishioners and the members of the various parishes, schools and chaplaincies—everyone in my diocese, whether they are Anglican or otherwise. However, I do not believe that this legislation is taking us in the right direction or that passing it will create better ambulance, train or hospital services for the people in my diocese. We may disagree, but I assure the Minister that I speak on behalf of everyone in my diocese.

Lord Callanan: They will also get to vote in democratic elections and make their feelings clear. By the very nature of the legislation, if a strike is taking place with no minimum services, given that this Bill imposes minimum services, his parishioners will get a better level of service once it goes through. However, we should have debated these points at Second Reading. I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate could not be present then.

Amendment 21:

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: Amendment 21 seems to be just common sense. Surely it is appropriate that if a work notice is to be issued, it is issued only when all the options to avert a strike have been exhausted. As we keep hearing today, work notices bring serious consequences with them. As the Bill stands, it could lead to an individual employee losing their job. Beyond that, if trade unions do not take “reasonable steps” to comply with the work notices, they could face significant financial damages and the strike could be classified as illegal. If that happens, all the workers taking part in that strike risk losing their livelihoods.

Therefore, it is not clear what these “reasonable steps” are. The Joint Committee on Human Rights is not clear either, saying that

“the provision requiring trade unions to take ‘reasonable steps’ may fall foul of the requirements of Article 11”.

What assurances can the Minister give us that whole swathes of workers will not lose their livelihoods through this? Work notices should never be used lightly, especially in their current form. Amendment 21 provides some safeguards to ensure that this does not happen.

We can see from recent weeks and months, as other noble Lords have said, that trade unions want dialogue. They want to discuss matters of concern. They want to find mutually agreed solutions, which are the only solutions that actually work in practice. But if the Government adopt a more heavy-handed approach to strike action in those sectors where they have what elsewhere might be called coercive control, or if employees feel pressed to do so under fear of civil action, as we have heard today, this risks further division and delays agreement. If we allow work notices to be issued when other avenues to settle a dispute have not been fully explored, perhaps for political reasons of the day, that will, in my view and in the view of many others, extend and escalate disruption.

In its present form, the Bill will not reduce the short-term destruction caused by strikes; rather, it will lead to longer and more damaging strikes. That is not in what the Minister referred to earlier today as my parishioners’ best interests. It is not in anybody’s best interests.


Amendment 41:

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 41 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, to which my right reverend friend the Bishop of London has added her name, and the other amendments in this group. My right reverend friend regrets that she is unable to be in her place today. In fact, given that she is at this very moment leading a debate among fellow bishops on the subject of sexuality, I think she would much rather be here in your Lordships’ House alongside me. Therefore, in supporting these amendments, I wish to include a number of points which she would undoubtedly have made had she been here.

As we have heard earlier today, including from the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, proportionality is a central principle of law. I hope that noble Lords will allow me to draw attention from these Benches to an important biblical perspective on that topic. I suggest we should respect the limitations set by Moses over 3,000 years ago in the Hebrew scriptures. When Moses laid down a simple rule,

“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”,

he was not advocating mutilation as the proper means of punishment. He was making the crucial point that the punishment must never exceed the gravity of the offence.

Dismissal for failing to comply with an instruction to work on a strike day is, in my view, the view of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and, I suspect, the view of many others, grossly out of all proportion. I also wonder how enforceable it would be. Were I a worker issued with such an instruction, the stress I would suffer in consequence could quite likely render me unfit to turn up to work on the day—and, as I trust your Lordships have begun to recognise, I am a fairly tough nut. Will the Minister therefore agree to explore, before we reach Report, whether some lesser maximum penalty would be more appropriate?

Moreover, as the Royal College of Nursing has said, sacking workers for failing to accede to such an instruction to work

“would exacerbate severe nursing workforce shortages”

that we already face. Nursing vacancies are already high—is it more than 43,000? That is a 10% increase over the last 12 months. There are similar shortages elsewhere in the public sector.

The first day in Committee highlighted major unresolved questions about the application of the Bill. The breadth of the roles under the titles of “health services” and “transport services” is huge. Providing minimum service levels that are of the same urgency, and providing for penalties of the same severity, for those who drive blue-light emergency vehicles and the driver of my local 98 bus is absurd.

The amendments in this group would continue protection of employees’ rights and would protect our workforces from further exacerbation of already severe shortages. I urge the Minister to accept them.


Amendments 37 & 43:

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I support Amendments 37 and 43 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Fox.

Many noble Lords have already commented on the Bill’s skeletal nature—I will not repeat their comments here. Amendment 43 would insert an invaluable safeguard, removing overreaching Secretary of State powers to amend, repeal or revoke primary legislation through secondary legislation. Liberty writes that, as it stands, Clause 3 is a “broad Henry VIII power”—we have heard that monarch referred to several times today; I fear I may refer to him again in a moment. It is also a prospective power that allows the Government to amend and revoke legislation not yet passed.

The delegated powers memorandum seeks to justify this power as a prudent provision to deal with any necessary consequential amendments identified in the Bill’s preparation. As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, reminded us, this means that the Government are taking this exceptional power either because they are not sure what they want to achieve or because they do not know how to get there. I do not believe either of those to be an adequate justification, and I am delighted to hear that Jacob Rees-Mogg may be of a similar opinion.

I enjoyed the remark of a noble and learned Lord earlier today that this is “Henry VIII on stilts”. It left me wondering whether I should be imagining the young Henry, fit and active, or the monarch in his latter—shall we say rather less athletic?—years. The older Henry would have crashed off his stilts to huge personal injury and embarrassment. I fear that the Bill, if enacted in its present form, without adequate parliamentary scrutiny of the exercise of these Henrician powers, will be an equally damaging and embarrassing moment in our nation’s governance.

Will the Minister please reflect on these probing amendments and come back to this House on Report with something more fit for the role and responsibilities of this kingdom’s Parliament in the reign of Charles III?


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