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Bishops criticise Government’s Bill to restrict strike action

28 March 2023


Lecturers at the University of Bristol, supported by the University College Union, hold strike action in the city last week. They called for pensions, fair and equal pay, reasonable workloads, and an end to short-term contracts

Lecturers at the University of Bristol, supported by the University College Union, hold strike action in the city last week. They called for pensions,...

THE Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has joined the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, in criticising government proposals to restrict strike action.

In a House of Lords Committee debate on Thursday, Dr Walker supported several opposition amendments to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.

The amendments sought to reduce the extent to which the new law would limit the power of unions by requiring high levels of service during strikes in a wide range of industries, and to protect workers who were served with a work notice during industrial action.

The previous week, Bishop Mullally warned that the proposed law was “open to abuse”, referring to a “complete lack of clarity about how [the new law] could be used” (News, 10 March).

Dr Walker drew attention to the existence of “Henry VIII Clauses” contained in the Bill, which would allow the Government to amend it in the future without going through the parliamentary process.

He expressed concern 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.”

The Labour peer Baroness Chakrabati was among those who questioned whether the Bill’s required levels of service met the UK’s obligations as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, and as a member state of the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Under-secretary for the Department for Energy, Security and Net Zero, Lord Callanan defended the Bill, however. “The Government firmly believe that the Bill is compatible with our convention rights and complies with all international conventions that the UK is signed up to,” he said.

“Our Bill does not prohibit strikes or other industrial action, but it does enable employers to continue to deliver a minimum service level to their users and stakeholders during and notwithstanding that action.”

Lady Chakrabati, who is a former Shadow Attorney General, said that it was “important to put these commitments in the Bill because it will make our courts the ultimate referees of whether future ministers, when exercising these broad regulatory powers, are actually complying or not”.

The proposed amendments to the Bill came from Labour and Liberal Democrat peers. All were dropped without going to a vote, but could be resurrected at the next stage of the Bill’s progress through the House of Lords.

Dr Walker spoke in favour of an amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Fox, which would have introduced a stipulation that “all options to avert a strike [must] have been exhausted” before minimum services rules were allowed to come into effect.

Dr Walker said that this seemed to be common sense. “Surely it is appropriate that, if a work notice is to be issued, it is issued only when all the options to avert a strike have been exhausted,” he said.

Responding on behalf of the Government, Lord Callanan said that the requirement would put a “burdensome requirement on employers”.

“Employers are already incentivised to avoid strike action due to the substantial cost and disruption that it causes them,” he said.

Dr Walker also expressed concern that, under the terms of the Bill, employees who did not comply with a work notice could be sacked, suggesting that such a punishment would be disproportionate.

“Some lesser maximum penalty would be more appropriate,” he said, and referred to the Royal College of Nursing, which argues that sacking workers for this offence “would exacerbate severe nursing workforce shortages”.

He also emphasised the emotional impact of work notices. “Were I a worker issued with such an instruction, the stress I would suffer in consequence could quite likely render me unfit to turn up to work on the day — and, as I trust your Lordships have begun to recognise, I am a fairly tough nut.”

There was a danger, he said, that striking workers who were not subject to work notices could also have their livelihoods threatened under the terms of the Bill, because, if a union is not adjudged to have taken “reasonable steps” to have complied with the requirements, the whole strike could be deemed illegal, and those taking part would consequently face losing their jobs.

Dr Walker argued that trade unions wanted to find mutually agreed solutions, which were the only solutions that worked in practice. “But if the Government adopt a more heavy-handed approach to strike action in those sectors where they have what elsewhere might be called coercive control, or if employees feel pressed to do so under fear of civil action, as we have heard today, this risks further division and delays agreement. . .

“In its present form, the Bill will not reduce the short-term destruction caused by strikes; rather, it will lead to longer and more damaging strikes.” This, he said, “is not in anybody’s best interests”.

The Labour peer and employment law barrister Lord Hendy proposed several of the amendments, saying that there was “no further justification, after the many Acts restricting [rights to industrial action] since 1980, for yet further restrictions or limitations on the capacity of workers to defend their living standards”.

Those supporting the various amendments were criticised by the Conservative peer Baroness Noakes, who said that they were trying to “rip the heart out of the Bill”.

Lord Hendy admitted that he would like to “kill the Bill”, but that this was not the intention of his amendments.

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