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Safe minimum service levels to be set in anti-strike bill

Business secretary Grant Shapps has confirmed that legislation to ensure minimum safety levels in health, education, fire, ambulance, rail and nuclear power sectors will be in introduced in the coming weeks as parliament resumes.

It will include a consideration of the minimum service level required in certain sectors to uphold public safety as it recognised “disruption to blue light services puts lives at immediate risk".

The government is set to consult on the adequate level of coverage that will be needed in fire, ambulance and rail services.

Other sectors covered by the bill are expected to reach voluntary agreements on how to uphold minimum safety levels.

Revisit our November/December 2022 cover story on industrial action here: Why does it feel like everyone is going on strike?

Since introduction in October 2022, the bill has been met with union opposition.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) called Shapps' announcement from 5 January, which included an invitation to speak with union leaders, an “attack on the right to strike to defend workers’ pay and conditions".

General secretary Paul Nowak said: “The announcement offers nothing more to help with this year’s pay and the cost of living crisis.  

“The only offer of talks is for next year. But we need to resolve the current disputes and boost the pay of public sector workers now.”

There are concerns that the proposal will worsen employees’ discontent.

Julia Kermode, founder of independent worker support company Iwork, said: “The government seems hellbent on eroding workers’ rights. This draconian law is a worrying step in the wrong direction and will only exacerbate an already ugly situation.

“People don’t take the decision to strike lightly. They are facing severe financial problems and industrial action is a last-ditch attempt to get their voices heard and be paid what they deserve.”

David Hopper, employment partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, said the bill is also unlikely to affect any short-term incoming industrial action.

He said: “This new legislation won’t resolve the current disruption across the country. It will take time to be enacted and there is no guarantee that it will make it past the House of Lords, as only transport strikes are covered by the government’s 2019 manifesto commitment to introduce minimum service levels.”

Even if it becomes law, Hopper said unions are expected to resist the bill and it may be ineffective.

He added: “Minimum service levels also actually risk prolonging strikes, by preventing unions from being able to generate sufficient leverage through causing disruption to secure their demands.”

On 5 January, leader of the opposition Kier Starmer also made his first major speech of 2023 which included a pledge to repeal anti-strike legislation introduced by the current Conservative government.

Hopper added: “The Labour Party has already promised to repeal the legislation if enacted. So, with the polls as they are, these reforms may be of no lasting significance in any event.”