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by Margaret Taylor
14 March 2023
In Context: Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

In Context: Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill has been introduced at Westminster with the aim of forcing trade union members to provide a minimum level of service during industrial action.

What is it?

As its name suggests, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill seeks to give powers to the government to establish minimum service levels that must be provided by workers during any period of industrial action. It relates to six sectors – health, transport, education, fire and rescue, border security and the decommissioning of nuclear installations – and would enable employers to issue work notices to striking staff.

Strike action is currently allowed under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. So long as certain requirements are satisfied, such as balloting staff and informing employers, the 1992 act protects workers against dismissal and prevents trade unions from being sued for inducing members to breach their contracts.

Some unions, particularly those representing healthcare workers, already exempt members – either individuals or entire service areas – from taking part in agreed strikes to ensure the safe running of services. Known as derogations, these exemptions are made in agreement with employers and are focused on the preservation of life. Nurses will, for example, continue to staff chemotherapy units while the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) negotiates ‘major incident agreements’ with employers. 

The bill seeks to make such measures mandatory by empowering relevant government ministers to stipulate minimum service levels that employers can then demand workers adhere to. It would also amend the 1992 act to restrict trade unions’ protection against legal action and to remove employees’ automatic protection from unfair dismissal if the minimum services are not delivered.

Why has it been introduced?

In short, to try to deal with the mass disruption currently being caused by multiple ongoing disputes taking place across the country.

When introducing the bill, business secretary Grant Shapps said the focus is to “keep the public safe”. “Whilst we absolutely believe in the ability to strike, we are duty-bound to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British people,” he said. 

Will it apply in Scotland?

Yes. It is a Westminster bill introduced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is being split in three as part of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s latest government reshuffle, but as it relates to employment law it is a fully reserved matter.

What do the unions make of it?

They are far from happy. One of the main points of industrial action is to cause disruption to people’s everyday lives as that is how unions highlight the importance of the jobs being done by striking workers. Requiring unions to continue to provide the service they are withdrawing waters down that effect.

STUC General Secretary Roz Foyer, who is working with the SNP’s Westminster group to try to defeat the bill, has called it a “pernicious assault on our working rights” and said it is “just one part of the UK Government’s nefarious war against working people throughout the country”.

Teachers union the EIS called the proposed legislation the “latest attack on public sector workers from an increasingly out of touch, very right-wing UK government wishing to deflect from its own ineptitude”; Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said it is “another desperate act of an authoritarian government out of touch with working people”; and  Mick Lynch, head of the RMT transport union, said the “draconian legislation” has been proposed to “punish workers” for demanding decent pay and working conditions.

Union leaders have also voiced concerns that the affected sectors have been too broadly defined, meaning jobs that do not directly impact on the preservation of life will be sucked into the bill’s scope.

What are other people saying about it?

Although the SNP-led administration at Holyrood has also had to deal with public sector strikes, the party has made it clear that it defends workers’ right to take such action. Despite this, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that if the legislation is enacted the Scottish Government should have the power to set the minimum service levels required in relevant devolved areas such as education and health.   

Westminster’s joint committee on human rights said the bill, which is currently making its way through the Lords, is “not justified and needs to be reconsidered”. Committee chair Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP, said the bill contains “heavy handed sanctions” and “vague rules” and is “likely to be incompatible with human rights law”, which protects the right to protest.

The committee has suggested that less-severe sanctions, such as loss of pay or suspension rather than outright dismissal for employees who fail to comply with work notices, “could be effective”.

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