Proposed new laws will allow bosses of key public services to sue unions and sack employees who refuse to work, but the Government’s plan has the potential to create just as many problems as it does solutions, according to HR experts.
Downing Street has announced new legislation which, if passed in Parliament, would enforce “minimum service levels” in key public sectors, such as the emergency services and education, effectively limiting the number of workers who can be on strike.
This follows a change in the law in July 2022 which enabled businesses to provide skilled agency workers to fill staffing gaps caused by industrial action.
The plan comes in response to widespread industrial action across a range of sectors in recent months, including rail workers, teachers, barristers, ambulance workers and nurses, in response to poor pay and working conditions.
The law would ultimately give bosses the ability to sue unions and sack employees if these minimum levels are not met.
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On the Gov.uk website, a statement read: “As has been demonstrated over the last year, wide scale and repetitive industrial action can act as a major blockage to economic growth by preventing people from getting to work. Introducing the safety net of minimum service levels to ensure that the public are not put at risk during strike action is the best way of balancing the ability to strike, while protecting the wider public.”
It went on: “The government will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods. That’s why the government will introduce new laws to ensure a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place.
“Minimum safety levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and the government will consult on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors, recognising that disruption to blue light services puts lives at immediate risk."
Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of United Kingdom, said: “We hugely value the work of our public services and we’re reaching out to unions to have an honest conversation on pay, conditions and reform. Industrial action is disruptive for everyone – from people relying on essential services to get to work or care for their family to hard-working business owners whose sales suffer. It also costs those striking at a time when family budgets are tight.
“As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods. While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”
The move has been met with uproar from union figureheads and workers alike, with Sharon Graham, the General Secretary of the Unite union, saying: “Yet again, Rishi Sunak abdicates his responsibility as a leader. Whatever the latest scheme the government comes up with to attack us, unions will continue to defend workers.”
‘Draconian’ anti-strike laws will erode workers’ rights
The government’s decision to bring forward legislation to stop strikes has been criticised by employment expert Julia Kermode of Iwork, who described the move as “draconian”, predicting it to “exacerbate an already ugly situation.”
Kermode commented: “The government seems hellbent on eroding workers’ rights. This draconian law is a worrying step in the wrong direction and will only exacerbate an already ugly situation. People don’t take the decision to strike lightly.
“They are facing severe financial problems and industrial action is a last-ditch attempt to get their voices heard and be paid what they deserve. The government needs to focus on solutions rather than pandering to those of us who may be inconvenienced by disruption.
“Temporary workers should also tread carefully in all of this. The recent law change allowing agency workers to plug skills gaps created by strikes could result in temps unwittingly walking into hostile environments. Real care needs to be taken in informing temps of the situation before they start these roles. Fail to do this and temps will walk out too, and these vital public services grind to a halt.”
'There are more questions than answers'
Martin Williams, Head of Employment and Partner, Mayo Wynne Baxter, said: “In 1972 Johnny Nash wrote a song entitled “There are more questions than answers”. Just over 50 years later this jaunty number could easily be applied to the government’s announcement to take firm and decisive action on strikes in the public sector.
“In many respects the latest is a reworking of previously espoused ideas. There is a similar lack of detail. It is almost as if the government wants to be seen to be doing something without actually doing anything.”
Williams went on: “First problem: this will be primary legislation and will do nothing to deal with the disputes currently in play, unless they continue for a very long time.
“Second, it is likely that any legislation that gets enacted will be challenged in the courts by the unions.
“Third, much is being made of service provisions but arriving at a definition across various industry sectors will be one hell of a task. Bearing in mind the state of some public services when there are no strikes, the government could find itself setting standards it cannot meet in normal circumstances.
“If there are to be dismissals for breaching the legislation who will be dismissed? Everyone in the union? Just those who happened to be ordinarily rostered when a strike was in progress? Just the odd person who would have made the difference to maintaining standards had they not withdrawn their labour?
“Also, if large numbers are dismissed will this not present a problem in having enough trained staff to run a particular service?
“Being able to take legal action against unions is an option, but that means going to court and testing the new legislation.
“Yes, other European countries do have minimum standard requirements in certain sectors, so we could learn from those examples. The irony of taking lessons from EU members is not lost here.
“For the moment, we have sabre rattling. However, the sabre is still in its scabbard and we have to guess how sharp and effective it may be.”