Ministers have announced anti-strike legislation to enforce “minimum service levels” in six key public services including the NHS and schools as Rishi Sunak scrambles to get a grip on industrial disputes.
The government plans to introduce a law in the coming weeks that is expected to allow bosses in health, education, fire, ambulance, rail and nuclear commissioning, to sue unions and sack employees if the minimum levels are not met.
Unions reacted furiously to the plans, which Keir Starmer said he would repeal if Labour formed the next government, setting out clear dividing lines with the Conservatives on workers’ rights before the next general election.
Minimum service levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services, with the government consulting on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors, to address concerns that disruption to blue light services puts lives at risk.
However, it will also reserve the power to impose minimum service levels in the other three public services, although ministers expect to reach voluntary agreements in these areas and say they would only impose the anti-strike law if this was not possible.
Under the original plans last autumn, union members who were told to work under the minimum service requirement but refused to do so could lose their jobs. The new law will back employers bringing an injunction to prevent strikes or seeking damages afterwards if they go ahead.
The earlier bill, drawn up by the former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg but now dropped, also proposed tougher thresholds for industrial action to take place. It is unclear whether these will be revived by the new legislation.
The business secretary, Grant Shapps, who has previously taken a hardline position towards the unions, said: “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.”
With the country still facing further strikes this winter, which the new law would come in too late to prevent, ministers are also urging the unions to cancel planned industrial action, suggesting that if they do so then pay rises could be on the table next year.
They invited union leaders to hold talks on next year’s pay review in an attempt to resolve current disputes “constructively through dialogue”. Sunak has already ruled out pay demands for this year despite millions of workers struggling with the cost of living.
After a major speech in east London, Starmer told reporters: “I don’t think this legislation is going to work. I’m pretty sure they’d had an assessment that tells them that it is likely to make a bad situation worse.
“We will look at what they bring forward but if it’s further restrictions then we would repeal it. The reason for that is that I do not think legislation is the way you bring an end to a dispute.”
Gary Smith, the general secretary of the GMB, said: “A government that has presided over 13 years of failure in our public services is now seeking to scapegoat the NHS staff and ambulance workers who do so much to care for the people of our country.
“The NHS can only function with the goodwill of its incredible staff, and attacking their fundamental right to take action will alienate them even further and do nothing to help patients and the public.”
The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, said curtailing workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action was “always undemocratic” and the union would look closely at the government’s plans next week.
She added: “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.
“The evidence is unequivocal: safe staffing saves lives and having the right number of registered nurses on duty has a direct impact on the safety and quality of patient care. Today’s highly unsafe situation is what is driving our members to say ‘enough is enough’.”
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