Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Excerpts
Moved by
4: The Schedule, page 4, line 40, at end insert—
“234CA Protection of employees (1) A person is not subject to a work notice if the person in question has not received a copy of the work notice.(2) It is for the employer to prove that an individual received a work notice.(3) Failure to comply with a work notice is not to—(a) be regarded as a breach of the contract of employment of any person identified in the work notice, or(b) constitute lawful grounds for dismissal or any other detriment.(4) Having regard to subsection (3), failure to comply with a work notice is deemed to be—(a) a trade union activity undertaken at an appropriate time for the purposes of sections 146 (detriment on grounds related to union membership or activities) and 152 (dismissal of employee on grounds related to union membership or activities), and(b) participation in industrial action for the purposes of sections 238 (dismissals in connection with other industrial action) and 238A (participation in official industrial action).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would prevent failure to comply with a work notice from being regarded as a breach of contract or constituting lawful grounds for dismissal or any other detriment.
Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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My Lords, I will speak to the amendment in my name and the names of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and the noble Lord, Lord Fox. This amendment would ensure that an individual employee named in a work notice cannot be sacked or sanctioned if they do not comply. In short, it would avoid the risk of a shameful and ultimately self-defeating spectacle of nurses and other key workers, whom not so long ago we all clapped, being sacked.

Employees are currently protected against unfair dismissal for the first 12 weeks of a lawful strike. In Committee, there were strong concerns around the Committee that this Bill, as currently drafted, unilaterally removes that protection from individual key workers named in a work notice who do not comply, and that this is not compatible with the UK’s obligations on human and labour rights. No other European country with minimum service levels gives employers the power to take away the livelihoods of workers in these circumstances —not one. This would make Britain an outlier in Europe and would constitute a gross infringement of an employee’s individual freedom.

The scope of the sectors covered by the Bill so far means that an estimated 6 million workers could see their employment contracts unilaterally changed in this fundamental way—and all by secondary legislation. Most of these workers are women. In sectors such as health and transport, as we have heard, they are disproportionately black and ethnic minorities. It would not matter that there has been a democratic vote, or that a union has successfully overcome the many draconian obstacles to mounting a lawful strike.

Every worker is vulnerable, because individual workers who have lawfully voted for strike action would be entered into a P45 lottery. If they are unlucky enough to be individually named on a work notice and disobey for reasons of sincerely held belief, they could be lawfully and instantly sacked. This Bill does not even require an employer to prove that they ensured that the worker concerned received a copy of the work notice. Instead, employers are given the power to effectively requisition individuals under threat of losing their livelihood. Most right-minded people find that disproportionate, dictatorial and fundamentally unfair.

Not so long ago, the Government agreed. When the railways minimum service levels Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech in 2019, the Government promised that sanctions would not be directed at individual workers. This amendment seeks to redress the balance and address that injustice. It would ensure that the freedoms and livelihoods of individual workers are protected. It would prevent the creation of a P45 lottery. It would reassure many unions and employers, including NHS employers, which say that the threat to sack strikers, even before this Bill is enacted, is poisoning industrial relations and making difficult situations much worse.

After all, dismissing key workers would do absolutely nothing to tackle the blight of public service staff shortages and backlogs on the country. Since the Minister confirmed that employees named on work notices who call in sick on the day cannot be sacked, it would avoid the potential chaos of making emergency cover much more difficult to plan and deliver. At Second Reading, the Minister stated unequivocally that

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

This amendment would ensure that the Minister’s commitment is met.

Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendment 4, to which my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London has signed her name. Bishop Sarah sends her apologies that she cannot be here, but we both strongly support the amendment, not least given reports that many important voices across the healthcare world, including the Royal College of Nursing and NHS Providers, are similarly supportive.

The basic principles and urgency of the Bill are understandable, given the events of the past months. At the same time, those events themselves reflect the very low levels of morale and trust across many of our essential services, and an overly robust approach at this point would only exacerbate the situation further— in effect, pouring fuel on the fire. The idea that the failure to comply with a work notice should be regarded as a breach of contract or grounds for dismissal, thereby removing existing protections for the employee under the 1992 Act, would seem to reflect that overly robust approach. Were this amendment to be passed, the relevant trade union would still hold some liability, ensuring that this would still remain a useful and functioning Bill.

My friend the right reverend Prelate is understandably concerned about this from a healthcare angle, particularly given her former role as the youngest ever Chief Nursing Officer. From that perspective, passing the Bill without this amendment would seriously damage the co-operation and good will required for successful local negotiations in the somewhat febrile atmosphere in which we find ourselves. NHS Providers points out that, were individuals to go on strike contrary to a work notice and then be fired, unions could, and most likely would, take other action, either through work to rule or calling in sick en masse. Both would undermine the Bill’s primary and laudable purpose to provide safe levels of care. So, if that purpose is at the heart of the Bill, supporting this amendment seems to me to be essential.

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Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I do not think it is a different thing at all. If action is prohibited completely, as it is in the three countries I mentioned—let us take, for example, fire services—there is no provision for workers to take any strike action at all. If they do so, they are in breach of their contracts—presumably they can be dismissed, in those countries. I think the comparison is completely valid.

I turn to the amendments. To achieve a minimum service level, employers, employees and trade unions all have a part to play, in our view, and the Bill makes it clear what those respective roles are. The amendments in this group would remove key parts of the legislation, which we believe are necessary to make it effective, and I suspect that is the aim of those who tabled them. As such, I take the same position as I did in Committee and resist these amendments.

Amendment 4 seeks to remove the consequences for an employee who participates in strike action while being identified in a work notice. The approach taken is both fair and proportionate. It enables employers to manage instances of non-compliance with a work notice in exactly the same way that they would manage any other unauthorised absence. I repeat the point for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Collins: this is not about sacking workers, nurses or anyone else. An employee loses their automatic protection from unfair dismissal for industrial action if they participated in a strike contrary to a work notice, as indeed they would lose their unfair dismissal rights if they participated in any other form of strike action that was not in accordance with the law, just as failing to attend work without a valid reason does not necessarily mean that they will be dismissed. It simply enables employers to pursue disciplinary action if they believe it is appropriate, but it is ultimately at their discretion whether or not to do so.

Amendment 4 also provides that individuals identified in a work notice are not subject to the work notice unless they have been given a copy of it, and the employer must prove that the individual has received it. However, under the current drafting, employees lose their automatic unfair dismissal protection for going on strike in contravention of a work notice only if the employer notifies them that they are required to work under a work notice and of the work that they must carry out. I believe that this additional requirement is both unnecessary and duplicative; it could also be inappropriate as workers could be given a work notice which identifies thousands of other workers.

Amendment 5 seeks to ensure that unions have no responsibility for ensuring that their members do not participate in strike action and attend work instead if they have been named on a work notice. It also ensures that there are no consequences for failing to meet that responsibility. I suspect this is an attempt to disrupt the balance between the ability to strike and the rights and freedoms of others to go about their lawful business, which is ultimately at the heart of the Bill.

If employees are not incentivised to attend work on a strike day when they have been identified on work notice, or if a trade union has no responsibility to ensure that its members comply, the effectiveness of this legislation will be severely undermined. I suspect noble Lords opposite know that their amendments will do exactly that, and I am sure it is therefore no surprise to them that I cannot support them on this occasion. Given the direct disruption that these amendments will have on the ability of the public to go about their normal, lawful business, I ask noble Lords—without too much optimism—to feel free to not press their amendments.

Baroness O'Grady of Upper Holloway Portrait Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for that response, but Amendment 4 is about the individual freedoms, dignity and livelihoods of workers. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.