1 Lord Bishop of Guildford debates involving the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Lord Bishop of Guildford Excerpts
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.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
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My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendment 4, and I also support Amendment 5.

Amendment 4 covers the issue of protecting workers from being forced to cross their own picket lines under threat of the sack; it is a fundamental issue which strikes at the heart of trade unionism. The Bill, as it stands, gives bad bosses the power to target and victimise trade union activists by issuing work notices. Although I accept that minor concessions have been made, there are still no sanctions on bosses behaving badly, and we know, unfortunately, that some will do so, given the opportunity. The only way to protect workers fully is to make it absolutely clear that, if a striking worker refuses to cross a picket line during lawful industrial action, they will not lose their legal protections and will not be subject to dismissal. That is why the amendment is so important. Nobody should be forced to make the agonising choice between betraying their trade union principles of solidarity and standing together as workers and potentially losing their job.

Let us dispel the myth that this proposed law follows only what most of Europe already does—what absolute nonsense. This week, over 120 elected politicians from around the world, including from France, Germany, Italy and Spain, have called on our Government to abandon the Bill, pointing out that

“The UK already has some of the most draconian restrictions on trade unions anywhere in the democratic world … Despite this, the UK Government is set on further rolling back worker protections and freedoms”.

On Amendment 5, just as trade union members must be protected from being forced to act against their own interests during a legally organised dispute, so must the trade unions themselves.

This proposed law would, without a doubt, poison industrial relations and victimise workers and their unions. That is why I urge all noble Lords to support both amendments, and particularly Amendment 4.