If, as the Minister has said, the legislation does not breach our international obligations—if it did, it would be a serious matter that would be a source of great shame—why not include this commitment in the Bill itself as a safeguard, as my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti suggested? That is all that the amendments seek to do. Surely the only reason to oppose this would be that the Government knew that they were breaching their international obligations with the Bill as it stands, and that they do not really care. I very much hope that this is not the case, but the Minister has a chance today to clear this up by supporting the amendments, and I genuinely and sincerely urge him to take the opportunity to do so.
Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 32B in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Collins, and to support my noble friend Lord Hendy’s amendments too. Amendment 32B is all about ensuring that regulations made as a result of the Bill’s provisions do not conflict with protections in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. There is a real concern about this; we have already heard several times that the impact assessment received a red rating from the RPC. Looking at that impact assessment, there is a question about whether the Bill would have an impact on trade and investment, and the answer given by the Government is no. That concerns many of us, as we know that the EU-UK TCA is our most important trade agreement with our closest trading partner.

I declare my interests in that, when the TCA was being negotiated, I was the general secretary of the TUC and a member of the steering committee of the European TUC. We had some very simple priorities on jobs, protecting workers’ rights and protecting the Good Friday agreement, so we were very keen to secure what we called a level-playing-field clause in that trading agreement to ensure that workers’ rights, conditions and jobs could not be undercut. That was really important to us; we worked really hard on it in the four years it took to secure the agreement. I met Monsieur Barnier a number of times, as well as David Frost—now the noble Lord, Lord Frost—and parliamentarians from the EU and the UK. Together, we campaigned for that clause to prevent unfair competition on the back of lowering labour standards. That was not an academic concern; there were real concerns that, in some quarters, the Brexit dividend was discussed as being one that would involve worsening workers’ rights, especially in respect of the working time directive, which put safe limits on working hours, paid holidays, rest breaks and equal treatment for agency and temporary workers.

At that time, we were also very conscious that several members of the Cabinet were co-authors of that now-infamous pamphlet Britannia Unchained, which specifically described opportunities to worsen workers’ rights. That level-playing-field clause is vital: it provides for non-regression and for no weakening of what are described by the ILO as “fundamental rights at work”, including

“health and safety standards … fair working conditions … information and consultation rights”

and protections for the “restructuring of undertakings”. If the UK breaks that commitment, it would have an impact on trade and investment.

The EU can impose temporary remedies, including trade sanctions. Of course—I hope the Minister is aware—the ETUC, of which the TUC remains a member, can raise a complaint directly with the European Commission. That is why the recent European Commission report saying that it was monitoring very closely developments in respect of fundamental workers’ rights, including the right to withdraw labour, should be taken so seriously. It is not covered in the impact assessment, as I have said, but I think that the Minister at one point said—correct me if I am wrong—that he would consider looking at whether that impact assessment needed to be revised. If he is willing to consider that, this is a key area that is vital for trade, investment and jobs, and it would be worth looking at it again. I very much hope that he will consider this amendment in that light.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, I fully expect the Minister to stand up and tell us that none of these amendments, which have been put so well by noble Lords, is necessary. I expect him to say that there is no possibility of the Bill, once it becomes an Act, breaking or impairing our relationship with the international organisations that noble Lords have mentioned. I wonder how he will be able to say that, given the nature of the Bill.

We come back to its skeletal nature and the answer which nobody seems to know to the question “What is a minimum service level?” Until we know, we do not know whether the Bill breaks any agreements that we have with organisations in this country or around the world. I refer your Lordships to our previous debate in Committee, in which we discussed correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, in which he represented the issues around the fire and rescue services. I remind noble Lords that, after I prompted him on why the consultation had raised the issue of the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Callanan—said that one thing the consultation sought to probe was that the minimum service level would include the ability to cope with issues on that scale. He did not disagree with me when I came back and said that that implied that 100% of the fire and rescue services in an area would need to have been named in the work order under a minimum service level. In effect, that would ban striking.

In the event of such a minimum service level, that calls into question our relationships with the ILO, the EU under the TCA and others, because it is a de facto ban on striking. It may or may not upset those relationships, but I want the Minister to be able to say what minimum service level is being modelled when he tells us that we do not need to worry.

Lord Callanan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (Lord Callanan) (Con)
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My Lords, I sometimes wonder when I listen to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, whether I need to bother replying to these debates, because he has written my speeches before I get up. For the benefit of the House, I will go through this anyway.

Amendments 18A, 18B, 32B and 36C all relate to the UK’s international obligations. Before I deal with the amendments in detail, it is worth reiterating, as I have previously and as we debated last time round with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that the Government firmly believe that the Bill is compatible with our convention rights and complies with all international conventions that the UK is signed up to. I signed a statement to that effect.

Amendment 18A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, looks to ensure that the Bill does not prevent people from taking strike action and cannot be used to create an offence. I oppose this amendment because its effect would be to prevent any minimum service levels from being implemented at all. He will understand my reservations, given how the Bill is drafted in respect of the operation of work notices and where an employee would lose their automatic protection from unfair dismissal for industrial action if they participated in a strike while being named on a work notice. To be clear, our Bill does not prohibit strikes or other industrial action, but it does enable employers to continue to deliver a minimum service level to their users and stakeholders during and notwithstanding that action.

The Bill is about balancing the ability to strike with the rights and freedoms of others. Preventing minimum service levels being implemented does not strike a balance; it would merely maintain the current disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public—although I expect that that is a cause of legitimate disagreement between us.

Amendment 18B would ensure that the regulations did not compromise our obligations under the trade and co-operation agreement. However, given the reiteration I made earlier, we believe that this amendment is duplicative and unnecessary. The Government remain committed to our international obligation and respect the process of the respective governing bodies in providing any rulings that are required concerning compliance. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, has a desire for relevant international conventions and treaties, and their associated governing bodies, to have a greater role in respect to minimum service levels in Great Britain. But my argument here is that incorporating decisions by supervisory committees into domestic primary legislation, as this amendment seeks to do, goes way too far.

Amendment 32B, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, seeks similarly to prevent minimum service regulations being made where they could be said to be within scope of the trade and co-operation agreement and other international obligations. As I stated at the outset, the Government firmly believe that we are entitled to bring forward this legislation—many other European countries already have similar legislation—which I remain satisfied is compatible with all the international conventions the UK is signed up to. The noble Baroness will, of course, be aware that there are existing mechanisms for monitoring adherence to the trade and co-operation agreement—if indeed there are concerns from EU member states or the European Commission, although I do not believe there will be.

In any case, I am surprised if anybody thinks that ensuring that the public are able to access some level of service in key sectors, including emergency services, during strike action goes to the heart of the TCA, not least because many EU member states already have minimum service level arrangements in place. Indeed, in some of the services we have mentioned, some member states ban strike action completely in those areas. As drafted—and perhaps not intentionally—this amendment would prevent minimum service levels regulations being made at all, which, given that is the purpose of the Bill, we clearly cannot accept.

Finally, on Amendment 36C from the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and to respond to the points the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, made, as I have stated previously, the Government firmly believe that the Bill is compliant with convention rights and international conventions. The Bill also enables regulations to be made in a way that is compliant with the convention rights, and on making those regulations, Secretaries of State will need to carefully consider the relevant articles of the ECHR, alongside international conventions, if they choose to suggest minimum service regulations to Parliament. So they will also have to make similar statements.

I highlight that this amendment seeks to restrict minimum service levels so that they can be made only where they are necessary to provide protection for the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population. While the protection of life and health are indeed important aims of minimum service levels in areas such as healthcare—

Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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I apologise to the Minister—it took me a while to find this on my system. He referred to minimum service levels being common in other European countries. I submitted a Written Question on this, to which the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, replied:

“The Government does not believe that direct comparisons with other European countries are particularly helpful because of the different administrative and legal frameworks governing industrial action.”

The Minister will also be aware that the overwhelming majority of the other countries in Europe that are cited provide for negotiated minimum service levels, not state diktat.

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Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, this is a slight change of gear from where we just were. This is a probing amendment, and it uses the idea that work notices can be used only after all other avenues have been exhausted. It returns a little to the thought experiment I was trying to have, which is the applying of the Bill, or the Bill if enacted, to what we have witnessed in the Government’s management or mismanagement of the public sector strikes that we have just been going through.

No matter what the strike and no matter which the sector, disputes are settled only when there is negotiation. The Government seem to have taken a long time to understand this with the disputes that we have just come through. The rail strike has been going on since June, and the nurses’ strike started in the autumn, but only in the last few weeks have these strikes begun to end, thanks to negotiation. Why did it take so long? Why were so many operations delayed? Why were so many people’s lives, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, pointed out, disrupted by service delays in, for example, the train services?

Strikes are an extreme action for all workforces—workforces do not willingly go in for them—and that is certainly true in the health service. We have to remember that in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing, this is, as far as I know, the first time that nurses have balloted and decided to strike. This is in a sense a very hard decision for those employees. I wish to probe the Minister in that context. Had these measures been available—had a minimum service level for the health service or the train services been in place—when and how would they have been deployed? Indeed, would they have been used differently in the two different services, one being essentially an emergency service and the other a transport service?

There has been no clarity on how these minimum service levels could and will be used. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, and I think the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, himself, have said that they would be a matter of last resort. However, negotiating is in fact the last resort that brings people to the table and ends strikes. Where does the minimum service level fit in the pantheon of industrial relations here? That is what this amendment seeks to probe.

What we saw with the strikes that have been going on is that the decision to negotiate can only have been a political decision. The launch of the Bill was associated with that political decision and designed to shift the blame or the balance of blame to other sources. The only reason we saw movement is because in the end the Government decided that they had to negotiate with the health unions and started to gradually lift the blockers that they had been using on the train employers in order to move things forward. This is the evidence of how we see the Government operate. They are the ones who brought forward this measure, so how does this measure fit into that sort of behaviour? I beg to move.

Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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My Lords, it is worth reminding ourselves why it is necessary to scrutinise this Bill in such detail. The RPC’s latest Independent Verification Body Report confirms that, since 2021, there has been an alarming increase in the number of impact assessments that have been red rated—not fit for purpose—and, of course, this Bill is one of them. There were no red ratings between 2016 and 2021; since 2021, there have been eight.

Turning to the amendments, which I am very pleased to support, one of the other fundamental flaws of the Bill is that it takes a provocative, one-sided position on industrial relations. Its partisan approach fundamentally offends people’s sense of fair play. The public are all too aware how real-terms cuts in pay and underfunding of public services have led to a crisis in staffing levels and service backlogs. Strikes are merely a symptom of worker discontent and, as all the polls show, that discontent is often supported and shared by service users.

As many noble Lords have observed, workers never take the decision to vote for strike action lightly and unions always want a negotiated settlement, but sometimes it seems that the only way some employers understand the true value of labour is when that labour is withdrawn. The task of government should be to help prevent disputes, or at least to help resolve them when they happen, not to throw fuel on the fire, but this Bill is based on the premise that strikes are the fault of workers and unions, as if they were never caused by the failure of employers to listen, compromise or negotiate, by years of government underfunding and cuts, or by the frustration that arises when the Government take so long to put more money on the table when, had they acted earlier, the dispute could have been settled months before without any need for a strike.

The Bill imposes yet more draconian requirements on unions, but no commensurate obligations on employers or government. Ultimately, it gives the Secretary of State the whip hand to weaken workers’ bargaining power and attempt to render a strike meaningless.

The partisan stance of the Bill is a fundamental flaw, but the naming of individual workers in work notices is the provision that many find most shocking. Why is it necessary for the Secretary of State to require that work notices list the names of individual workers who will be required to work, rather than just numbers—as I am aware that a number of employers have suggested? In response to a Written Question I asked, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, said that the Bill provides:

“enforcement mechanisms to maximise the assurance that Minimum Service Levels (MSLs) will be achieved on strike days”—

in other words, naming of individual workers is necessary in order that they can be threatened with the sack.

How will the Secretary of State ascertain whether that list of individual names has been chosen without bias, discrimination or a vindictive attempt to target trade union activists? What will be the process and additional Civil Service resources needed to do that effectively? I genuinely do not know. Can the Secretary of State add or remove individual names, should a legitimate complaint be made? In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, when minimum service legislation for transport only was first planned, the Government pledged to ensure that

“sanctions are not directed at individual workers.”

What changed?

At Second Reading, the Minister asserted:

“This legislation is not about sacking workers”—[Official Report, 21/2/23; col. 1563.]

but of course it is precisely about sacking workers. The legislation expressly provides for the power that workers—nurses, firefighters or teachers—who disobey a notice to work during a strike for minimum service levels, perhaps unilaterally imposed by an employer and sanctioned by the Secretary of State, can be sacked. Crossing fingers and hoping that it will never happen is no comfort to those workers whose jobs are on the line. Key workers who kept Britain running during the pandemic and who were lauded as heroes now look set to become martyrs. Why is that, when emergency cover, where genuinely needed, is already arranged through mature agreement rather than diktat?

It has been so difficult to secure answers to many of the questions raised in this Committee, but nevertheless I will repeat another one. If a named worker calls in sick on the strike day that they have been notified to work, can they be sacked too—yes or no?

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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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.

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Moved by
22: The Schedule, page 3, line 34, after second “a” insert “recognised”
Member’s explanatory statement
Restricts the giving of work notices to trade unions which are recognised (either by an employer or statutorily).
Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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My Lords, in scrutinising this Bill there is always a risk that we miss the wood for the trees. The core concern remains that this Bill allows the Executive to take sweeping powers, avoiding proper parliamentary accountability and scrutiny, and to do so at the cost of fundamental human rights and freedoms.

The trade union movement is by far the biggest democratic membership organisation in this country. Millions of people join unions because the evidence is that membership is the best way to win better pay and conditions. Millions more recognise that by tackling exploitation and discrimination, and by upholding safety standards and providing, for example, second-chance learning opportunities to hundreds of thousands of workers every year, British trade unions perform a great public service.

The Minister often talks about balance, but the balance of power is already rigged in favour of employers and against working people. A key measure of that is that, at best, average wages have stagnated for well over a decade and workers’ share of the total wealth they produce has been shrinking.

Ministers claim that they are acting in the best interests of service users, but the majority of service users do not agree. For example, according to a poll for “Politics Home”, junior doctors are backed by a ratio of nearly 2:1. The bottom line is that service users trust public servants more than they trust Ministers. As IFS director Paul Johnson said in the wake of the Budget:

“You can’t keep cutting the pay of teachers, nurses and civil servants, both in real terms and relative to the private sector, without consequences for recruitment, retention, service delivery, morale and - as we have seen … strikes.”

Strikes are always the last resort. However, as has been vividly illustrated over the last few weeks, it is only because of that right to strike that the Government and employers have come back to the bargaining table and improved pay offers to rail workers, firefighters, health staff and, hopefully soon, teachers and others too.

The amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Collins probe the Government’s appetite for taking sensible steps to prevent work notices being used to stop meaningful strike action, and to avoid victimisation, protect health and safety and protect equality rights. Without a prior requirement for an equality impact assessment, as set out in Amendment 30, there is nothing to help prevent direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of race, sex and other personal characteristics. This, of course, is not an optional extra. The Government have a duty under the Equality Act and under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination. We already know that this Bill will have a disproportionate impact on women—for example, nurses and cleaners—and on black and ethnic minority workers, who are significantly overrepresented in health and transport. The TUC and others have argued that by reducing union bargaining power, this Bill will be a huge step backward for tackling racism at work.

On a number of occasions, the Minister has been asked about protection against victimisation for elected workplace union reps, but I do not believe that it has been addressed adequately so far. Amendment 27 provides that opportunity. On all sides of this Committee, many of us are appalled that an employer and, ultimately, the Secretary of State propose to name individuals to work during a strike and to sack them if they refuse to obey. I anticipate that the Minister may suggest—indeed, he has suggested—that workers and reps who are victimised could make a claim to an employment tribunal, but that is cold comfort when your livelihood is stripped away. I remind the House that the NHS is not the only service suffering backlogs: the average waiting time for a first hearing at an employment tribunal is now 335 days for a single claim, or 55 weeks for multiple claims.

On Amendment 22, during day 1 of Committee, I asked the Health Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Markham, whether, in principle, Amazon could be included within the scope of “health services”, alongside other private companies, for the purpose of the Bill. I still have not had time to read the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Markham, with the attention it deserves, but the noble Lord certainly confirmed on the day that, yes, Amazon could be included in principle. I raise that for a couple of reasons. First, Amazon is a powerful multinational corporation that is notorious worldwide for its anti-trade union activities and oppressive treatment of workers. As I mentioned, Amazon warehouse workers in Coventry are now being paid £11 an hour—it is interesting that Amazon has raised this, in the wake of the first strikes that they have ever taken in this country.

Noble Lords will be aware of a GMB investigation using freedom of information requests that shows that one pressure on our ambulance services is the surge in call-outs to Amazon warehouses in the run-up to black Friday, a time of year when Amazon workers are under huge pressure to achieve targets. It is an inhumane pace of work that poses a danger to health and increases the likelihood of accidents—hence the spike in call-outs.

My other reason for raising the Amazon case is that those workers are of course on strike for union recognition, which they do not have yet. They want an agreement to collectively bargain with the employer on vital matters like pay, rest breaks, health and safety, but so far, shamefully, Amazon is refusing to recognise the union. In principle, if Amazon could be included in minimum service levels, as we were told, it could just draw up a work notice to force those workers to break their own strike. It would not even have to go through the pretence of consulting with the union, because it refuses to recognise one. In fact, any bad employer covered by the Bill could see this as an incentive to derecognise unions, and all with the blessing of this Government. What happens if the workers refuse to obey? They face the sack. If the union is deemed not to have taken these undefined “reasonable steps” to force them to work, it would be hit by legal action and all striking workers could be sacked. So Amendment 22 seeks to prevent the Bill becoming a licence for bad employers who refuse to recognise, or who want to break, trade unions.

Finally, regarding Amendments 24 on reasonable steps for employers, and Amendment 31 on assessments of health and safety, and consultation with trained and expert workplace health and safety union reps, the key concern has been the apparent lack of government understanding about the realities of running services in the six sectors and how to do so safely. For example, noble Lords will be aware, which is something of an irony, that the PR around the Bill claims it is about safety, when one of the key issues driving rail disputes has been the axing of safety maintenance jobs and safe staffing levels on platforms. Of course, the risk of dangerous overcrowding on platforms is something that would be made only worse by the Bill.

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Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I will seek further legal advice. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that if the provision already exists in other applicable legislation, there is no need to duplicate that provision in another statute. I will certainly check that with the lawyers for the noble Lord.

Amendment 29 seeks to require the employers to be satisfied that the work notice does not identify more people than reasonably necessary before giving a work notice. However, as we set out in new Section 234C(5), the employer is already required to not identify more persons in the work notice than are reasonably necessary for the purposes of providing MSLs.

Amendment 30, meanwhile, seeks to require the employer to assess the equality implications of the work notice. Again, in our view, this is not necessary. The Bill does nothing to reduce the existing obligations of employers under the Equality Act 2010. As I said, there is an existing legal provision that continues to apply. There is no need to restate it.

Finally, Amendment 31 seeks to require the employer to assess the health and safety implications of the work notice and consult health and safety representatives. The Government’s view is that the current requirements in the Bill strike the right balance between the views and perspectives of employers and unions to enable a reasonable and fair work notice to be issued. As I have said, the Bill explicitly requires that employers must consult the relevant trade union and have regard to its views before issuing a work notice.

Adding any further steps or requirements to this process will result in disproportionate and costly burdens for employers and could result in delays to the issuing of a work notice by the employer and therefore delays to minimum service levels being applied. I fully accept that this may well be the purpose of the amendment, but I hope the Opposition understand why the Government cannot accept it. Additionally, when drawing up work notices, employers must still adhere to the relevant requirements set out in existing health and safety law. That is unchanged by this legislation.

For these reasons, the Government resist these amendments.

Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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I thank the Minister—I think—for that response. Many of us raising legitimate concerns about this Bill are quite disturbed that the argument for naming individuals seems to be that you have to name individual workers so that they can be threatened with the sack and that it is necessary to share those names with employers so that they can be required to take reasonable steps or face significant sanctions, including seeing the entire workforce stripped of protection against unfair dismissal.

The whole basis of this Bill seems to be born of a “command and control” school of management where you order people to work rather than seek agreement, which I think most modern management is about. That is why it is particularly frustrating for those of us who are critics of the Bill, because we know that where minimum service levels are genuinely needed for safety issues and made by agreement, whether or not those agreements have been made at the last minute—so be it; that is often the case—they are much more likely to work effectively than anything proposed in this Bill.

I could make a number of points. I thank the Minister for his point about Amazon, but I feel I have now heard very confusing messages across this Dispatch Box from him and the noble Lord, Lord Markham, so I will want to come back and clarify that.

At some point I would like an opportunity to explain more clearly the real concerns in the trade union movement about victimisation and derecognition. They are not being brought up to put obstacles in the way of this Bill. They are born of real-life experience, both of trade union officers representing shop stewards, convenors and reps who have been victimised and of many of our families who have been through this. The penalty of victimisation is so high—to have your livelihood removed is massive. I would like to pursue this area in other ways if possible, because I am sure we can convince the Minister of the sincerity of that concern and the need for genuine protection.

It is confusing why there are specific references to not selecting people on the basis of trade union membership but not extending that to those who hold trade union office and lay leadership positions.

I could go on, but I will leave the Minister with one last question. I have yet to meet a reasonable employer who wants this Bill. I have had plenty queueing up to tell me that it is wrong, immoral or maybe just unworkable and will make matters worse from a pragmatic perspective. Can the Minister tell us of a single employer or group of employers batting for this Bill? I have yet to meet one. I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment 22 withdrawn.
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Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 41 in my name and the names of my noble friend Lord Collins and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, and support the amendments tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Hendy.

Many of us agree that one of the most disturbing features of the Bill is that it hands employers powers to name individual workers in a work notice and potentially force them to work against their will, through a strike, without their individual consent or the agreement of their union—or face the sack. Many employers in the public and private sectors have told us very clearly that they do not want this authoritarian power because it would sour industrial relations. If the Bill is enacted, they fear that they would come under undue political pressure to exercise that power. The publication of WhatsApp messages, as I mentioned previously, between the then Health and Education Ministers revealed that at the very same time as they were publicly praising, clapping and thanking key workers for their efforts during the pandemic, privately they were describing those same workers and their unions—unions are made up of workers—with contempt.

The noble Lord, Lord Callanan, has often sought to reassure us by saying that he hopes the powers will never be used and that there would be no undue pressure. However, I am sure that he would agree—I might even get a smile out of him—that if Gavin Williamson was Education Minister today, on the evidence of those WhatsApp messages, he would be straining at the leash to ensure that academy schools pulled that trigger. That is the fear.

The Government have continually cited France, Italy and Spain as countries that also provide minimum service levels. However, unlike in the UK, in each of these countries the right to strike is a constitutional right. Perhaps the noble Lord can also confirm which of these countries, if any, have provided a blanket power to remove protection against dismissal for individually named striking workers? I submitted a Written Question on this subject, but the response I received did not answer the Question. What is more, it took 15 days rather than the expected 10 not to answer my Question. In fact, the answer, as we have heard, is zero. None of those countries does that.

Can the Minister also explain and justify a gaping hole in the consultations issued on the Bill so far? Those consultations failed to ask whether respondents agree with the Government that it is acceptable to sack individual firefighters, ambulance staff and rail workers if, for example, for reasons of conscience they do not comply with the work notice. Could it possibly be that this is not in the consultation because Ministers know that they will not get the answer that they want? Most fair-minded people find the idea of such sackings abhorrent. The sacking of individually named workers who refuse to comply would be catastrophic for workers’ rights, staff morale and industrial relations in this country. I remind the Minister that NHS job vacancies currently stand at over 133,000 and that 17% of newly qualified teachers leave within two years.

Not so long ago, following a public outcry about what happened at P&O, Government Ministers condemned its scandalous behaviour, and rightly so. Ministers said then—I quote from the 24 January government press release—that unscrupulous employers

“must not use threats of dismissal to pressurise employees into accepting new terms”.

But the Bill provides powers to do exactly that: to pressurise key workers into accepting terms under threat of the sack. These key workers’ heroic work through the pandemic has earned the public’s respect and gratitude. One firefighter was moved to write a letter about his experiences. He says that he has been proud to work for the service for 15 years, including being deployed to Nepal following the devastating earthquakes in 2015; that he and his colleagues have a can-do attitude and have provided emergency cover voluntarily when needed through industrial action; and that they entered the service because they want to help people. He warns against this legislation and says that it is unnecessary, given that arrangements for emergency cover are already in place, and says that Ministers

“can’t simply legislate away the depth of anger and frustration we feel about how we’ve been treated. The Bill could lead to individual workers like me being sacked for taking part in legal and democratically decided industrial action over issues which are genuinely of concern to society in general.”

Taking the power to sack workers whose names are chosen unilaterally by employers, as sanctioned by Ministers, is understandably perceived as deeply provocative. If this firefighter refused to comply with the work notice, does the Minister really imagine that his colleagues would stand by and let him be sacked? Some argue that the Bill is intended to be provocative but, if so, that would be foolish. The provision to sack workers flies in the face of all industrial relations common sense and any sense of human decency.

I know that we are covering the same ground, but it is not just named individuals who could be vulnerable to the sack, as the Joint Committee on Human Rights made clear in its report:

“We find it hard to see how it is compliant with Article 11 ECHR to expose any participant in industrial action to the risk of dismissal simply because a trade union fails to take unspecified ‘reasonable steps’ required in respect of those subject to a work notice.”

I will not go on, but I look forward to the Minister's response—or, better still, an indication that this Government will remove that right to sack striking workers from the Bill.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. At the risk of provoking further interventions, I will start by replying to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. I do not know the legal definition of victimisation, but her understanding of it is clearly different from mine. I would define it as something like “subjecting an individual to degrading, unfair treatment”. In effect, a work notice says to an employee, “You fulfil your contract, as has been previously agreed, as normal. You come into work, do your normal contracted job and get paid for it.” In any definition that I understand, that is not victimisation. Obviously she has an alternative view, but I do not believe that it would come under the definition.

I will directly address the point by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady. I have said it before and will say it again: this legislation is not about sacking key workers. Let me be very clear about that. She inquired about the outline of the Bill: it is about protecting the lives and livelihoods of the public by enabling minimum service levels to be applied on a strike day. If people comply with the legislation, then there is no question of anybody being sacked on the basis of it.

This group of amendments seeks to ensure that no detrimental action could be taken by an employer against persons who are named on, but then fail to comply with, a work notice. There would be no consequences for participating in a strike despite being named on a work notice. The whole intention of these amendments is not to achieve a balance between the ability to strike and the rights and freedoms of the rest of us to go about our normal daily business—to get an ambulance, to attend the health service or to have a firefighter come to put out a fire in my property. This is about ensuring that strike action can continue with no consequence whatever and with no regard as to whether a minimum service level will be achieved. That fundamentally cannot be accepted by the Government.

For a minimum service level to be achieved, it strikes me as obvious that enough people need to attend work and therefore workers need to be appropriately incentivised to do that. The legislation achieves this by removing the automatic protection from unfair dismissal where employees participate in strike action despite being named on a work notice. While it is at the discretion of employers rather than the Government as to what, if any, action is then taken against employees in those circumstances, we think it vital that the Bill equips employers to manage instances of non-compliance, just as they would in any other case of unauthorised absence, to enable them to achieve that minimum service level. As my noble friend Lady Noakes observed, employees retain all their existing protections against discrimination—a very good point that further reinforces why these amendments are not required.

Overall, we believe that the approach in this legislation is fair and reasonable and ensures that there is the balance, which we have talked about so often, between the ability to strike and the rights and freedoms of everyone else to go about their daily business and use essential public services. Removing the ability for there to be any consequences whatever for failing to comply with a work notice would likely lead to strikes being more disruptive, as we have seen, when compared with the level of service that employers would be able to provide by applying a minimum service level that allows for these consequences.

Finally, there is a point of detail. Amendments 32 and 32A, if implemented, would cause a significant legal conflict with Part 2 of the Schedule, which makes amendments to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to make clear that there is no automatic protection from unfair dismissal for an employee who is identified in a valid work notice but participates in the strike contrary to that work notice.

In conclusion, I resist these amendments on the grounds that they seek to sustain or increase the disproportionate impact that strikes in these key areas can have on the public as a continuation of the status quo, a continuation of the public being disproportionately impacted by strikes and a continuation of lives and livelihoods being put at risk by those strikes. Therefore, I cannot accept these amendments.

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Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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I totally agree, by the way, with the noble Baroness that there are areas of our common law in particular, and some statutes, where the inclusion of the adjective “reasonable” by itself will do the trick. I disagree that it is appropriate here because we are asking unions to do something that is inherently counterintuitive to their raison d’etre, which is to organise workers, in extremis, to go on strike. If one is saying to the union, “You are now having to push against the grain of your whole existence, the existence of your organisation, and your freedom of conscience and your association, which you are entitled to under the convention and the ILO”, and if one is pushing them in the opposite direction, one has to be very specific and proportionate about the nature of that totally counterintuitive duty.

Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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If I can elaborate even further, it is not necessarily the issue of being counterintuitive or not; if there is a voluntary agreement, both parties enter into that voluntary agreement with good faith. So if, as we have discussed many times before, safety is genuinely at risk and there are life and limb agreements, unions and employers work incredibly closely together to secure the consent of individual workers, and issue them with what we call exemptions to go across that picket line. That can all happen. But as soon as you introduce the law and remove that requirement for agreement, why is it our responsibility to make this work? It is not our responsibility; it is the employer’s responsibility. You cannot have it both ways. If we are going to have a voluntary agreement, we will do our best to honour and make that voluntary agreement work. If the state intervenes and dictates to workers under threat of dismissal, it simply will not work.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to those who have contributed to the debate.

It should go without saying that, to achieve a minimum service level, employers, employees and trade unions all have a part to play, and the Bill makes clear what those respective roles are. As many Members have quoted, unions are required to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that the union members named in the work notice comply with the notice. If they do not, they will lose protection from legal claims.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, I say that there are a range of steps that trade unions could take, and what is considered reasonable can depend, as my noble friend Lady Noakes made clear, 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 its general communication with workers that, where members are named in a work notice and therefore required to work on a particular day, they should work on that particular strike day.

Before turning to the individual amendments, I will respond to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, about what would happen if a number of the workforce are sick on the day of the strike. As I indicated to the noble Lord from a sedentary position, the responsibility of the unions is to take “reasonable steps”, as it says in the Bill. If union members named in a work notice are off sick, it is not the responsibility of the trade unions to find other members to take their place; it is the responsibility of employers to ensure that enough work notices are issued to fulfil that minimum service level.

Amendments 34 and 34A seek to diminish the responsibility of unions to take reasonable steps to ensure that their members who are named on a work notice actually attend work rather than participating in strike action. These amendments would remove any obligation on the trade unions to notify their members of the need to comply with a work notice and not to take part in the strike, which, in my view, would reduce the likelihood that a minimum service level will be maintained or achieved. Therefore, the Government are unable to accept them.

Amendment 33 goes further and seeks to ensure that unions have no responsibility whatever for ensuring that their members comply if they have been named on a work notice. It also ensures that there are no consequences for failing to meet that responsibility. I submit that that is an attempt to disrupt the balance between the ability to strike and the rights and freedoms of others, and therefore the Government cannot accept the amendment.

If a union member does not cross a picket line when identified on a work notice, this will of course negatively affect the employer’s ability to achieve the minimum service level at all. The picket line is usually a critical place for a union to exercise persuasion over its members, and we have seen some egregious examples of that. However, the Bill and the achievement of minimum service levels would be substantially undermined if the union’s obligations did not extend to picketing, and therefore we cannot accept Amendment 35.

The responsibility of the union to take reasonable steps is a continuing one, because the impact on the public is the same if a minimum service level is not achieved, whether or not that results from picketing activities. Therefore, the Government cannot accept these amendments, which would significantly reduce the responsibilities of trade unions. Our view, which is reflected in the legislation, is that they need to play their part in ensuring that essential services continue during strikes. As always, we encourage unions to act responsibly and to fulfil their statutory duty that will be established by the Bill if it becomes law. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, will withdraw his amendment.

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Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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My Lords, I get the impression that the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, did not necessarily want to associate himself with the whole Bill, but was asking questions about who was included and excluded and why.

From our Labour perspective, one of the key worries about the Bill has been: are we going to see executive powers taken to add in sectors at different stages without proper scrutiny, proper accountability or consultation? Many see this as an attempt to ban strikes, a fundamental human freedom, through the back door. It might get to the stage where it would be easier to have a list of sectors not covered as opposed to those that are.

We oppose this amendment; fundamentally, because it fails to address the root causes of the problems people face. I hesitate to advise the noble Lord, who knows far more about this than I do, but since 2010 we have seen police funding cut by £1 billion. We have seen huge cuts to police officer numbers of 20,000 and a similar number of support staff being cut. In the Casey report, it was pointed out that those cuts in support staff were having a direct impact on police officers, who were having to cover that work too and that impacts the effectiveness of the service.

It seems to me that these are far bigger issues at a time when so many staff in the police service and elsewhere are facing real-terms pay cuts year after year, which have a real impact on morale, recruitment, retention and our ability to deliver the high-quality service that we all want to see. My sense is that it would be much better to focus on tackling the root causes of concern and discontent rather than suppressing the symptoms.

Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Murray of Blidworth) (Con)
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I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate and in particular my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh and the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, for their amendment.

This amendment seeks to require the Government to undertake a review into whether and to what extent the legislation has met its objectives and whether the legislation should be extended to additional services, particularly police support services. On completion of the review, the report would be laid in Parliament. The Government are committed to reviewing the impact of the Bill within five years of when the first secondary legislation comes into force. Given that the detail of minimum service levels will be set out in the regulations that follow the Bill, this is an appropriate approach and timeframe.

On the specific point about extending the Bill to additional services, it is worth repeating that the key sectors covered by the Bill are broadly the same set of services that were listed as important public services in the Trade Union Act 2016, which have long been recognised as being important for society to function effectively. The 2016 Act did not include policing, in part because the prohibition on police officers taking strike action meant that this was not felt necessary.

Police staff across the country make an exceptional contribution to policing and we are grateful for the professionalism and dedication they show in their work. Police staff, including police community support officers and other members of the police workforce who do not have warranted powers, have no restrictions on their right to take industrial action and there are no provisions currently in place to provide minimum service levels. However, chief constables have a statutory duty under the Civil Contingencies Act to ensure that plans are in place to maintain key services when instances such as a strike occur. When police staff have taken strike action in the past, police forces have put in place plans to ensure resilience among their police officer workforce to ensure that essential front-line services are maintained.

Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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Similar responsibilities apply in the fire service, in respect of the Civil Contingencies Act, so why is it necessary to include fire services in the Bill?

Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con)
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The context for the police is clearly different from that for the fire service, in that the vast bulk of police officers, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, are covered by the provisions of the earlier legislation precluding them from striking. As we discussed, this puts them and the force in a different category.

Contingency plans are largely based on the redeployment of police officers to cover operational staff roles. Police officers are of course prohibited from participating in strike action and, therefore, chief constables are able to meet any such obligations under the Civil Contingencies Act. I hope that goes some way to address the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. The Government currently have no intention to add to the sectors covered by the Bill, and any future amendments would require separate primary legislation.