1 Lord Henley debates involving the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero

Thu 9th Mar 2023

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Lord Henley Excerpts
Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do not find this kind of deliberate strife—a confected division of our very troubled country—amusing at all, and I look forward if not to the noble Baroness’s response then to that of the Minister in due course.

Lord Henley Portrait Lord Henley (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I sit on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and therefore my name is attached to that report. We have heard various descriptions of the report coming from the Opposition Front Bench, the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, my noble friend Lady Noakes and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, put it, the report asks some questions and raises doubts about whether the Bill is compliant. We had only a very short time in which to look at the Bill, because it is being brought through rather quickly. We had one evidence-taking session, and we sent out a call for evidence, to which there were a number of responses. I cannot say that our examination of the Bill was as in depth as it would have been for any other Bill. Nevertheless, I can say that the descriptions of the report from the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat Front Bench are not quite the same as what I have heard from my noble friend Lady Noakes or even from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who, quite rightly, set out that, although we raised doubts, we did not give that damning report that was the impression one got from the speeches from the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat Front Bench.

I would have signed up to the report only if I was happy with it. Although the report raised some doubts, it did not say, “This is not compliant”; it made it clear that we thought that there were questions to be answered. Those questions will, quite rightly, be answered by the Government when my noble friend the Minister comes to respond today and, no doubt, at later stages. There was not time either for my noble friend or whoever is the responsible Minister to come to the committee and give evidence; no doubt they would like to have done so, and no doubt there will be a possibility of their doing that in future.

I just want to make it clear that there are different ways of looking at the report. What my noble friend Lady Noakes, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and I are saying is probably a better picture of it than what we heard from the Opposition Front Bench.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I certainly would not want to mislead the Committee. What I was trying to say at the beginning is that the problem with the Bill is that we do not know what it is going to lead to. As the report states—my noble friend raised this point—

“the requirement for trade unions to take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure their members comply with a work notice issued by an employer does not provide the clarity needed to guarantee that trade unions and employees will know when this duty has been met and when it has not … As drafted, the provision … may fall foul of the requirements of Article 11”.

I shall keep coming back to this point: we simply do not know how our rights will be impacted, because it is not clear or foreseeable.

I think that it is an excellent report; I was not overegging it at all. There will be a lot more questions on this as we move through Committee. My other point is that not only are we not clear about what is foreseeable, but we are now hearing from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that this legislation would apply even though a union has complied with all the current statutory legal obligations.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is here, because I remember the 1980s as he does, including the legislation that had to be passed. There are many hoops, so somebody who starts at the beginning of an official, legally recognised dispute, will then be told half way through, as a consequence of this potential legislation, that they do not have the right to go on strike. Worse still, there will be a legal obligation on the union to tell them that they cannot go on strike. So the union which organised the ballot for them to strike and has met all the statutory requirements is suddenly being told that they have to take reasonable steps. What does that mean? Does it mean that they instruct the person not to go on strike? I hope that the noble Lord can clarify that for me.

Lord Henley Portrait Lord Henley (Con)
- Hansard - -

Like my noble friend Lord Forsyth, I also remember the 1980s. Probably one of the problems of this House is that we can all remember the 1980s slightly too well—possibly excluding one or two other younger Members of the House.

I am not accusing the noble Lord of misleading the House. These things are always just a question of tone. Certainly, with the great many reports that come to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, it is matter of getting the tone right, so that we can all come to an agreement. On that committee, and I am sure it is true for a great many other committees, we always try to get agreement from every member; that helps to give greater effect to the report. Interpreting the tone of the report is important. That point was the only reason I wanted to make a contribution; I was not planning to speak on the Bill. I will probably stay here for much of the rest of the debate to make sure I can contribute as appropriate; I will ensure that I have a copy of the report in front of me.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am surprised that anybody has been able to check whether the Bill is compliant with human rights legislation, because there is nothing in the Bill. I try very hard to read the legislation that comes before us, but I cannot always do it because I have tomes and, as I am not in a party, I have no one to outsource it to. However, I did not have much trouble with this Bill, because there is nothing in it—and, in a way, that is the problem. So although I am not keen on human rights legislation, I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that this is some big conspiracy against human rights legislation. But I cannot tell what I think about the Bill in relation to that point.

If we forget the human rights aspect, the problem with the skeletal nature of the Bill is that employment rights are important to millions of people in this country, and they were long and hard fought for. If there is a risk of their being taken away, we are not all just going to sit here and say, “Well, we will trust you, even though you haven’t written it in the Bill”.

I have so many questions. At Second Reading, the Minister stressed that a process of consultation would be required before regulations on maintaining

“minimum service levels are introduced”.—[Official Report, 21/2/23; col. 1640.]

But with whom are they consulting? The fact is that we are discussing minimum services and we do not know what the minimum services are. Is it 90% or 50% of services? Will it be different for different services? It is inevitable that this will make it open to conspiratorial questions; people will ask, “What are they up to?”

All the time, I just keep thinking that the consequence of this is that overstretched public services will have to assess these minimum services, which I think will waste endless amounts of their time when we have a crisis of public services. Named individuals may be persuaded to vote for strike action—it is perfectly within their right to persuade them, if there is an argument as to whether they will go on strike or not—and decide to go on strike, which is quite a big decision to make, but then they are named by their employer as somebody who has to strike-break and cross a picket line. If you refuse to do that, you jeopardise everybody else’s employment rights and get the union sued, so you can understand that concern. As an aside, strike-breaking and crossing picket lines is a point of principle that some of us we will not defy; it is a big deal for us. I wanted to make that one bit of clarification.

I just do not know why we need the Bill, and there is nothing in the Bill to tell me why we need the Bill, because—and I think this relates to some of the points made in the Opposition Front Bench’s opening speech—is it not the case that many of the sectors mentioned in the Bill already have their own minimum service requirements? They are often voluntary, but sometimes not. Only in 2019, in the Queen’s Speech, we were told that we needed a Bill to ensure that people could depend on their transport networks; they were trying to legislate on minimum service in transport. At the time, I wondered why they were picking on transport workers, but the point was that they felt it was so important that they had to mention transport. However, now they are just throwing in everybody else. So it has changed from having any kind of democratic requirement; that would imply that this is because more people have gone on strike, but the Bill comes across as a Bill to stop strikes, and, surely, that is one of its problems.

We have the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, which allows the Secretary of State to provide and to maintain services and facilities in fire and rescue situations. That was given to him, and, while I did not agree with it, he has that legislation. In the education sector, there are various statutory duties on schools regarding the safeguarding and supervision of children and so on.

Do not get me wrong, I do not agree with all the strikes that have been called recently—I am not in those unions, and I might argue against them—but that is not the point; the point is that we are talking about fundamental rights. They are not human rights; they are long-established employment rights, and the Bill does not tell us which ones are being taken away. It will inevitably cast the Government as people who are indifferent to workers’ rights. I have defended the Government on the Retained EU Law Bill when people have said that they are using it to smash workers’ rights; in response, I have said, “Don’t be so conspiratorial”. I am not helped in defending the Government on that when they bring this Bill forward which is about attacking workers’ rights.