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Bishop of London warns Government not to pursue anti-union legislation

10 March 2023

Alamy

Nurses demonstrate outside St Thomas’ Hospital in central London at the start of last month

Nurses demonstrate outside St Thomas’ Hospital in central London at the start of last month

THE Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has warned the Government that a proposed law regulating unions is “open to abuse”.

Bishop Mullally was speaking in the House of Lords on Thursday during the Committee stage for the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.

The Bill would require trade unions to guarantee a certain level of service during strikes, and remove the legal protections that prevent unions from being sued if these levels are not met.

Bishop Mullally expressed concern at a “complete lack of clarity about how [the new law] could be used”, and said that it was therefore “open to abuse”.

A former Chief Nursing Officer (while training for the priesthood), Bishop Mullally advised the Government on matters related to nursing.

“I have been a union member,” she told peers. “I joined as a nurse — and as an NHS manager and a civil servant in the Department of Health — because I wanted protection.

“The relationship with unions was critical: it was the way in which we improved patient care. One of my overall concerns about the Bill is that it has the potential to break down the relationship which is so vital for patient care.”

Bishop Mullally said that the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, agreed with her concerns about the Bill.

Defending the nurses who have recently taken industrial action over pay and working conditions, she said: “The reality is that those who work in the NHS do not take strike action easily. They choose to do it only because they are frustrated that their voices are not being heard when they express their concerns about patient standards, workforce levels, recruitment and retention, and the role that fair pay plays in this.”

She asked whether, rather than passing a new law the Government should instead be “spending more time listening to and addressing the concerns of health-care staff, to hear the solutions they believe they have to ensure that patients get the care that they require.

“The reason staff in the health service are striking partly relates to morale, and also to trust. I am concerned that the Bill will undermine the trust that is there, and further undermine morale.”

She compared the issue of morale to the Government’s decision last year to revoke the requirement for all NHS workers to be double-vaccinated against Covid-19 (News, 2 February 2022).

The proposed law could affect a range of public services, including health-care workers, teachers, and the transport industry. On announcing the Bill, the Government said that would focus first on fire, ambulance, and rail services.

In a speech in January, the leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, said that, if the Bill became law, his party would repeal it if they won the next election.

A briefing paper published by the House of Lords Library emphasises that the Bill is intended as a response to “ongoing strike action in many areas of the public sector, which has seen disputes on a scale not seen for many years”.

It notes that provisions of the Bill have “come in for significant criticism from opposition parties, who have described the Bill as an attack on the right to assembly and discrimination protections — as a result of the proposed changes to the legal framework on unfair dismissal — and thus also in contravention of the UK’s obligations under international law”.

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