Anti-strike legislation announced by the Government could see unions face legal action from employers if minimum staffing levels are not met during times of industrial action.
Legislation to be introduced to Parliament in the coming weeks will set minimum safety levels for public services during industrial action, and set out measures for employers to take legal action against unions if they are not met. Trade unions even say the bill could lead to staff being fired for taking part in strikes.
Grant Shapps, the business secretary, said in a statement: ‘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 Trades Union Congress general secretary Paul Nowak, said that under this new legislation ‘when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t.’ Adding: ‘this is wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal’.
The legislation will set minimum service levels for six key industries, including fire, ambulance and rail services.
However, for health services, education, nuclear decommissioning, transport, and border security, the Government expects to reach ‘voluntary agreements’. The Government also stated that it would legislate safety levels if voluntary agreements could not be reached.
The announcement has drawn widespread criticism from unions, which have called the bill ‘undemocratic’ and pointed out that the Government has failed to set minimum safe staffing levels for healthcare during periods without industrial action.
Pat Cullen, RCN secretary general, said that curtailing workers right to strike ‘is always undemocratic’ and that ‘we will look closely at what the government releases next week’.
Ms Cullen added ‘As for minimum staffing, last month’s action was safe for patients because of detailed discussions we chose to initiate with the NHS to protect emergency services and life-saving care. The public respected that and even ministers acknowledged our constructive approach.
‘Safe staffing levels that are set in law are what we want to see year-round not just in these extreme circumstances. We’ve long campaigned for governments to be accountable for safe and effective staffing levels in the NHS and social care to prevent one nurse being left with 15, 20 or even 25 sick patients. Legislation exists in other parts of the UK and England is lagging behind.’