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but sometimes it seems that the only way some employers understand the true value of labour is when that labour is withdrawn.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.

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lord Allan referred earlier, in relation to Amendment 15, to the key issue of human rights. The amendments in this group look at other aspects of this concept. Amendment 23 in my name seeks to examine the practicalities of an employer specifying a minimum service level. Other speakers have referred to the problems associated with this. It is going to be an invidious process. Let us look at how this will work.

The Secretary of State grandly specifies a minimum service level, then washes his or her hands of the practicalities and the personnel implications of it, because employers will have the job of implementing it. The Government will say that it is voluntary, as the Minister said earlier today, but at the same time, she made it clear that employers will be under some level of pressure from the Government to implement minimum service levels. This simple Amendment 23 makes it clear that employers need to specify only the number of employees in each role rather than by name in their work notice.

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I can see no legal avenue whatever for a worker who refused to comply with a requisition order and has been sacked instantaneously by their employer. Therefore, with the greatest respect, perhaps the Minister might reconsider his earlier answer when he said that there were some remedies or avenues available.
Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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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.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. We have already discussed at length the proportionality concerns about the minimum service level agreements being imposed per se, but now we get into the sanctions and consequences for trade unions in what will follow, but also for individuals. We must now talk not just about the vital human rights principle of proportionality that we discussed before but about the vital principle of non-discrimination.

This gives me the opportunity to reflect on an earlier exchange between the Minister and my noble friend Lady O’Grady of Upper Holloway. There was a dissonance about this concept of victimisation. As I understand it, the Minister was saying, “For goodness’ sake. It’s not victimisation to say that there needs to be a minimum service level agreement to protect the public, and therefore there have to be work notices”. However, what perhaps the Minister did not hear or understand is that when you give employers the power to pick and choose between individual employees, we are opening up the Pandora’s box of abuse of power. When we legislate in your Lordships’ House, we have to guard against potential abuses of power.

If employers, scrupulous or otherwise, are allowed to pick and choose between individuals, some people will never be on the list but other people will be, and sometimes the people will be selected for that list on grounds that include their race, sex, sexuality and possibly even their role within trade union activity. I think that is the point my noble friend was trying to make to the Minister, and this is the power that is being handed to individual employers, in contrast with years of struggle for protection against discrimination, including discrimination on the grounds of trade union activity as well as membership.

If, as I fear, the Minister will not pause the Bill or introduce greater parliamentary protection before the powers can be triggered in the first place, please will he look at the powers given to individual employers over groups and particular employees in the workplace, because it is invidious and, I think, very dangerous?

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Lord Prentis of Leeds Portrait Lord Prentis of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I speak in support of this group of amendments, particularly Amendments 42 and 44, which, if agreed, would remove the unfettered power of the Secretary of State to amend, repeal or revoke primary legislation.

The strikes Bill is not a slight tinkering of existing legislation. What the Committee has before it is a far-reaching Bill. It is a draconian Bill which curtails the fundamental right to strike, weakens protections against unfair dismissal, violates ILO standards, and introduces the possibility of front-line workers facing dismissal for taking part in lawful industrial action. What we also have before us is a skeleton Bill, which until now has had little or no scrutiny—a Bill which has been rushed. It has been described as having Henry VIII clauses on supercharge and, as we have just heard, as a skeleton Bill lacking bones.

It is only 10 weeks since I had the privilege of making my maiden speech in support of two House of Lords committee reports which go to the core of our democracy: Democracy Denied? and Government by Diktat. In that debate, I spoke of the public’s growing distrust of our Parliament, not just in the devolved nations but throughout the UK. I acknowledged that the reasons for this were complex and that concern about the increasing use of statutory instruments was not something you would hear discussed in the pub or the supermarket, or even around the breakfast table. So why does it matter?

It matters because the processes of Parliament through which we govern are so important. They instil trust and confidence in our democracy. Secretaries of State who avoid parliamentary scrutiny call into question that very trust and confidence in our whole institution. It matters because global confidence in our economy is intrinsically bound up with confidence in our democratic traditions, and it matters because skeleton legislation could lead to the very government by diktat that noble Lords of all persuasions have set their stall against.

That is why the Bill we have before us today is so fundamentally flawed. It flies in the face of both those reports and, unless amended, it will give unfettered powers to the Secretary of State to revoke or amend primary legislation through regulation. That is why Amendments 42 and 44 are so important.

The Bill is deficient in so many respects. It is vindictive and divisive, and it does nothing to deal with the serious crises our public services are facing. The report of the Regulatory Policy Committee, which we have heard about, states that the Bill is not fit for purpose—a damning indictment by any standards. NHS Providers states that it will undermine partnership working in the NHS. The Joint Committee on Human Rights criticises the:

“Heavy-handed sanctions … compounded by vague rules”.

Comparisons made with other European countries simply do not stack up and have been roundly dismissed by those countries themselves. If the Bill becomes law, there is a real risk of contravening our international obligations. For me, it is simply unnecessary and harmful.

In the last few weeks we have seen public service workers, their unions and employers coming together to reach agreements, trying to help so many workers and their families who are suffering. Yes, it may have taken far too long, but both sides are now at the table, doing what they do best: talking, negotiating, reaching accommodations, finding ways forward and, most of all, working to restore relationships for the future. This Bill will damage all that good work. It is vindictive and malicious and it will set the scene for conflict and retaliation for the next decade, just at a time when there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I ask the Minister to accept Amendments 42 and 44. Failing that, I ask him to explain why he will not. More than that, I ask him to think again. Surely it is time for the Government to reconsider their position on the Bill and put it on the back burner, where it deserves to be.

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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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?

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I will talk to our Amendments 42, 44 and 45; I also support Amendments 37 and 43. My noble friend Lord Prentis mentioned the debate we had on the reports from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the Delegated Powers Committee, Democracy Denied? and Government by Diktat. The two chairs of the committees at the time led the debate and reflected opinion across the House. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said that this is a trend: these are not just technical statutory instruments but impinge on people’s fundamental freedoms. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, reminded us, and it has been repeated many times, that these are fundamental policy positions that can be debated and considered but not amended or revised. They cannot reflect all the things we have been talking about, particularly consultation.

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Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate on this group. I am particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for painting a picture of King Henry VIII strutting across the Field of the Cloth of Gold on a pair of stilts.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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What an awful mistake to have made—I am very sorry and correct the right reverend Prelate’s territory. This is a serious group of amendments. The fact that it comes at the end of a day, and a long week, should not detract from that seriousness.

Listening to the Minister’s response, I was struck by the tone, which is: “This is a perfectly reasonable process. We are having a consultation and doing this and that. These people can contribute, and Parliament can contribute through the consultation”. It is for Parliament to make these decisions—not for the Government to do so, allowing Parliament to feed a little into the process.

The Minister has proposed the particular frame that we see in Clause 3 too many times. He went through a short list of Bills. I am aware of two of those, having participated in them, and I spoke against that power on both occasions. None of those is seven pages long and devoid of the detail required, but that is what the Bill is.