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Employment

What is the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) bill and why are trade unions saying it’s anti-strikes?

Unions and human rights campaigners have labelled the controversial bill an attack on the fundamental democratic right to strike

Paramedics joined nurses at a rally outside Downing Street during strike action. Holly @SocialistHB

Generally referred to as the Strikes Bill, or the anti-strikes bill, this new legislation making its way through parliament could see public sector workers including nurses sacked for going on strike.

With Britain buckling under 12 months of major strikes that have forced some of the most essential services to close, the prime minister has faced mounting pressure to bring the disruption to an end. 

His plan? Not to bring public sector pay in line with inflation for doctors, nurses, teachers and more across the country, but to make striking for better pay and conditions futile, by forcing some workers in health sectors, rail, education, fire and border security, to run a reduced service during strike days or face losing their jobs. 

The introduction of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, has sparked anger among unions, who say they will take legal action to resist this attack on the fundamental democratic right to strike

Mick Lynch, leader of the railway union RMT, recently told parliament’s transport select committee that he believed the law would be a “disaster”.

“It will be a complete pig’s ear,” Lynch told MPs. “It is unsafe, it will not work and will not serve passengers.”

Lynch also warned that the bill would spark “novel” forms of industrial action as well as wildcat strikes if workers are banned from striking in the traditional way. 

With the controversial bill recently hitting a major set-back in the House of Lords, we look into what it could mean for workers, and when it might get made into law. 

What is the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill?

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was introduced by the government to require staff in key sectors — health, transport, education, fire and rescue, and border security — to maintain a skeleton service even on strike days. 

Staff who refuse to do so could risk losing their jobs.

“As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods,” said Grant Shapps in January, the former transport secretary who was unable to reach an agreement with railways union the RMT before leaving the role in September.

“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.”

How much progress has the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill made in parliament?

The bill has passed through the House of Commons and has faced scrutiny from the Lords who have passed four amendments that could vastly change its power. 

An amendment tabled by former chief nursing officer, Sarah Mullally, the Lord Bishop of London, altered the bill so that if a worker refuses to follow a work notice from an employer issued during strike action, they cannot be fired. 

This would mean that even if an employer gives a written order to a trade union citing minimum service levels during a strike, a nurse who refuses to abandon the strike cannot be fired.



Labour peer and former TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that without the amendment, the bill could lead to “a shameful and ultimately self-defeating spectacle of nurses and other key workers, whom not so long ago we all clapped, being sacked.”

The Lords also voted to limit the bill’s measures to England, arguing that Wales and Scotland should not be subject to it.

The bill faces further scrutiny as the Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC), which analyses new pieces of legislation, recently found that an assessment by ministers on its impact was “not fit for purpose”.

“The bill will provide powers to introduce minimum service levels during strikes across a range of prospective sectors, with those levels to be set through secondary legislation,” the committee found.

“Our red-rating reflects the insufficient assessment of the impacts of the bill on small and micro businesses as required by the better regulation framework.”

How have people responded to the ‘anti-strike’ legislation?

The proposals have sparked anger among unions, which say they will take legal action to resist this attack on the fundamental democratic right to strike

Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, has called the bill “spiteful”, “unworkable” and “almost certainly illegal”, vowing to fight the plans through parliament and through the courts. 

He said: “The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty – but the government is attacking it in broad daylight.  

“These draconian new curbs will tilt the balance of power even more in favour of bad bosses and make it harder for people to win better pay and conditions.” 

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Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow international trade secretary, argued that the proposals are a “wholly ineffective” method to address the current wave of strike action, claiming that the legislation would only “aggravate” the situation.

Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at human rights organisation Liberty said the proposals “completely undermine the purpose of striking, and will make it much harder for workers to exercise their basic rights”.

“In the face of an unprecedented cost of living crisis, it’s never been more important to protect everybody’s rights to freedom of association and assembly

“We must fight back against this power grab and defend our right to organise and strike.”

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