All 3 Lord Prentis of Leeds contributions to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023

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Tue 21st Feb 2023
Thu 9th Mar 2023
Thu 23rd Mar 2023

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Lord Prentis of Leeds Excerpts
Lord Prentis of Leeds Portrait Lord Prentis of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I have to make two declarations of interest before I start. First, for over 20 years, until 2021, I was general secretary of UNISON, the public service union. Secondly, I currently serve as president of PSI, the recognised global body representing public service unions across our world.

Some may say that the proposals in the Bill are vindictive, malicious and retaliation at its best, and they may be right, but I have a far more simple view. In their haste to be seen to be doing something—anything—the Government have put forward a rushed Bill which is deficient to its core; a Bill which has the potential to wreck the social-partnership working that has been the bedrock of the National Health Service for almost a century; and a Bill which is described as having Henry VIII powers on supercharge.

What we have before us is a Bill which has been portrayed as merely bringing us in line with the norms of other European countries. Nothing could be further from reality. The UK already has the most draconian trade union laws in the democratic world. We are an outlier, not a norm.

Instead, what we really have before us is a skeleton Bill, and one which has had little or no scrutiny. This does matter. Just six weeks ago, I had the honour of making my maiden speech during the debate on the Delegated Powers Committee report, Democracy Denied. That report concluded:

“The way our laws are made can have a profound effect upon the lives of millions of citizens—granting rights, imposing obligations, involving enforcement measures”.

The House has before it a Bill that could do just that—a Bill which will curtail the civil liberties of workers and weaken protection from unfair dismissal, and a Bill which gives the Secretary of State unfettered power to amend, repeal or revoke. Parliamentary process is so important. It does matter. Ministers avoiding parliamentary scrutiny call into question trust and confidence in the whole institution. It does matter, because skeleton legislation could lead to government by diktat—something that noble Lords of all persuasions have set out their stall against.

I wish to focus on one of those services named in the Bill: the National Health Service. The NHS is crying out for long-term solutions on funding and workforce planning. It is dependent on the good will of its dedicated workforce, but the workforce is now demoralised and exhausted. It is a workforce that has witnessed too many of its patients dying—too many of them their colleagues and friends. It is a workforce now trying to do the impossible and cover for 140,000 job vacancies. To cap it all, it is now facing legislation to curb its rights. The Bill will do nothing for waiting times, it will not tackle chronic staff shortages or assist recruitment and retention, and nor will it tackle the current pay dispute. Instead, it will attack the very people on whose work and good will our NHS depends. It will erode the very foundation of our social partnership arrangements—arrangements that have served us well

What has happened between last November and now? Only last November we had a government memorandum praising the NHS and fire and rescue services, stating that

“important factors exist to mitigate the impacts of industrial action in those sectors”.

Now, weeks later, the very same Government disparage the life and limb cover arrangements made by ambulance workers. We are told that those very same ambulance workers

“have refused to provide a national safety net”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/23; col. 55.]

It is mystifying.

In England, there is no one national ambulance service employer; there are separate ambulance trusts, and trade unions sensibly reach agreements directly with the trust employer. Those agreements reflect local circumstance, geography, demographics and local provision, from Penzance and Peckham to Preston. They deal with anticipated call volumes, the spread of job groups, rapid mechanisms to bring in staff when needed, and constant contact between management and government. Every ambulance and every worker stands ready to deal with an emergency. Now, all those long-standing, robust, jointly agreed arrangements are to be set aside in a frantic attempt to justify this Bill.

The Bill is seriously deficient in so many respects. Misleading statements have been made in an attempt to justify it. It has been rushed through Parliament with undue haste, and it gives unfettered powers to Ministers—a process long criticised by noble Lords. The Bill drives wedges. It is divisive, it is detrimental and it does nothing to resolve the serious crises which our country and our public services are going through. I really question whether the Bill is about life and limb or simply a clumsy attempt to render industrial action ineffective and maybe break a strike—an attempt which may prove to be in contravention of our international obligations as a democratic society.

The report of the RPC is damning. It states that the Bill is not fit for purpose and that the Government have not backed up their assumptions with evidence or considered the likely effects on SMEs. The Government have not assessed how the Bill could make strikes worse; they make assumptions without proper evidence. It could not be any worse. Perhaps it is time for the Government to reconsider their position on the Bill.

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Lord Prentis of Leeds Excerpts
Lord Hendy Portrait Lord Hendy (Lab)
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My Lords, I have the honour to serve on your Lordships’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. As noble Lords will know, in our 27th report we dealt with this particular Bill.

There is an issue which arises in relation to these two amendments. I would like to read to your Lordships just three paragraphs from our report. Paragraph 17 says that

“the Government are ‘of the view that the detail required to set the level of service for each relevant service is not appropriate for primary legislation’. But the Memorandum does not explain why setting out any detail on the face of the Bill would be inappropriate. Parliament is not allergic to matters of detail, particularly where it relates to an important matter such as the right to strike.”

Paragraph 19 says:

“The Government have chosen to put no detail in the Bill in relation to minimum service levels, leaving the matter entirely to regulations. Important matters of detail should be included on the face of the Bill, perhaps with a power to supplement those matters in regulations.”

At paragraph 23, in conclusion on this aspect—there are other aspects to be dealt with—we say:

“Given the absence of an exhaustive or non-exhaustive list in the Bill of the matters that can be included in regulations, the unconvincing reasons for this power in the Memorandum, and the absence of indicative draft regulations illustrating how the power might be exercised, the House may wish to press the Minister to provide an explanation of how the power to set minimum service levels in new section 234B(1) of the 1992 Act is likely to be exercised. In the absence of a satisfactory explanation, we regard the power as inappropriate.”

I looked at the consultation paper that emerged in relation to health services, which has already been remarked upon. It is confined simply to the ambulance service. I looked to see what the criteria for setting minimum service levels might be. I can see that, right at the end, there is half a page suggesting to consultees that they might wish to specify category 1 and/or category 2, and that in respect of one service they might be favourable to a percentage of the ambulance service being carried out. But there is nothing, as far as I can see—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—to indicate what the metrics are. What are the factors to be taken into account in setting minimum service levels?

This is not just for the ambulance service. As has already been remarked, in Amendment 4, my noble friends set out a whole list of potential categories of worker in the health service—and very diverse it is too. What is it that the Government have got in mind to formulate the way in which the minimum service levels will be articulated in respect of each of these trades, professions and subcategories of worker? That is my question to the noble Lord.

Lord Prentis of Leeds Portrait Lord Prentis of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I support Amendments 3 and 4 in the names of my noble friends Lord Collins and Lady O’Grady. Noble Lords will know that I have already expressed my opposition to the Bill and, in particular, my opposition to skeleton legislation such as this, which gives Ministers unfettered powers to amend, repeal or revoke, calling into question parliamentary scrutiny, which matters.

Amendments 3 and 4 relate to health and would remove health services from the Bill. Quite simply, this Bill has the potential to wreck the partnership working that has been the bedrock of industrial relations in our NHS over 70 years. The workforce is 75% women, as we have heard, and 29% ethnic minority. In relation to health, the Bill is rushed. It is deficient to its core. It weakens protections against unfair dismissal. It flies in the face of ILO labour standards, and it could violate the Human Rights Act. Much of the Government’s argument rests on the ambulance service, which has just been mentioned.

In November, the Government praised the NHS, stating that important factors exist to mitigate the impact of industrial action in that sector. It was put forward as a really good way of working when it comes to industrial action. But by January, the same Government said that ambulance workers had refused to provide a national safety net. What an about-face in only six weeks. Why did it happen? What had been discovered that was not there before? Nothing could be further from the truth. Unions and staff representatives reach direct agreement with their employers. They do it before any action is taken, not on the day. It includes call volumes, rapid mechanisms to bring staff in if needed and constant contact with management. They reflect local circumstances. I do not know how many people have seen the folders of procedures—I would love to give a copy to the Minister—but they are not just two or three pieces of paper; they are whole folders of procedures. The Minister said that a number of ambulance trusts stated that they were not getting agreements to enable them to be satisfied. Where are those trusts? We asked employers which trusts are not happy, and said that we would talk to them, and we were told in no uncertain terms that they did not know where the information had come from.

Looking at, say, the ambulance service, and at whether it needs this additional restriction on taking industrial action, I am not too certain why this should be the case. The Government criticised ambulance workers for guaranteeing only category 1 999 calls. This is misleading. Calls in category 2 are answered if the call has been put through by a clinician, and usually only half of category 2 calls are an emergency. The Government have run two successful pilots where category 2 calls have been directed to alternative services rather than being dealt with by the 999 system. So why does this Bill call for 100% answering of 999 calls—the so-called minimum standard—when in 2022 the figure answered on a normal day was 77% and in 2017 was only 76%?

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

Lord Prentis of Leeds Excerpts
Joking aside, the DPRRC’s report—I am not going to read it out verbatim because it has already been before your Lordships’ House—is damning about the powers that are contained in Clause 3. When the Minister writes his letter in response to this report, I hope it says he agrees with the DPRRC and that he takes on its recommendations when it comes to clipping the wings of this extremely undemocratic clause. I beg to move.
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?