'The government has lost the plot'

Unite reiterates absolute opposition to new anti-strike bill after its second reading in the Commons

Reading time: 6 min

The government’s new anti-strike bill – which is now being rushed through Parliament – had its second reading in the Commons on Monday (January 16).

Unite and other unions have lambasted the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill as an anti-democratic power grab by the government which will severely curtail the right of union members to take strike action.

Commenting, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “It’s official — the government has lost the plot. The country is riven with crises and their answer to that is a preposterous attack on the trade unions. The government is out of touch with reality. How will devoting precious hours in parliament to unwarranted and unprecedented attacks on trade unions do anything to resolve the cost of living crisis, the crisis in the NHS or soaring energy costs?”

Unite also rubbished ministers’ claims that these blatant attacks on the right to strike are to protect the public by providing a legal minimum service level.

Graham added, “People are dying unnecessarily in the National Health Service because of a decade of cuts and life-threatening austerity. So right now the government isn’t delivering minimum service levels. Not because of strikes by ambulance workers but because the government has created this crisis. The ‘Strikes Bill” is undemocratic and unworkable and will fail. We will not stand for it”.

The government voted in favour of the minimum services bill at its second reading on Monday evening by 309 votes to 249.

Speaking in the Commons debate last night, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said, “I cannot recall a measure that is at once so irrational and so insulting. Not only is it a vindictive assault on the basic freedoms of British working people, but this legislation is as empty of detail as it is full of holes.”

Rayner went on to demand that business secretary Grant Shapps apologise to paramedics, who she said he had ‘awfully smeared’ during parliamentary debates, when he previously suggested that paramedics were failing to agree ‘life and limb’ cover during strikes.  

Unite’s leader Sharon Graham herself contested this assertion last week when she said, “Our ambulance workers, like other NHS workers, never go on strike without first putting these agreements in place.”

In fact, on recent strike days, ambulance workers have willingly agreed to leave picket lines to respond to emergency calls.

“If [Shapps] understood how the ambulance service works he would know they are negotiated with local managers to ensure that all the specific situations in each NHS Trust are taken into account,” Graham added. “It is highly irresponsible and misleading to suggest otherwise. The British people are very capable of seeing through this absolute toffee.”

Unite has dispelled many of the myths that the government has peddled since it introduced the Bill last week, including the lie that provisions in the Bill will bring the UK in line with other countries in Europe that have minimum service levels.

Many of the countries the government has cited as having minimum service levels also have very progressive industrial relations. In France, for example, 98 per cent of the entire country’s workforce has collective bargaining coverage.

Meanwhile, in Spain – also held up as an example – social dialogue is embedded in it constitution, meaning the requirement to consult with ‘social partners’ like trade unions is an absolute right.   

What’s more, the government has very conveniently left out an important fact about its plans for minimum service levels – if the Bill goes through, workers who are asked to come into to work to maintain minimum service levels but who end up taking strike action could be sacked. In no other European country is this the case.

Unite has also expressed deep concern over the sweeping power given to ministers in a Bill that is severely lacking in any detail. The Bill seeks to introduce minimum service levels in the NHS, education, fire and rescue, border security and nuclear decommissioning, with ambulance services, rail and fire to be the first to have minimum service levels imposed on them.  

Under the proposed Bill, employers could issue a ‘work notice’ ahead of a strike, stipulating the specific workforce they would need to meet minimum service levels – but the levels themselves will entirely be set by ministers, and not by employers. Individual workers listed on the ‘work notice’ would then lose their right to unfair dismissal if they went on strike.

Unions, too, would be faced with onerous penalties, including injunctions or being forced to pay damages, if they do not take so-called ‘reasonable steps’ to stop members who are listed in a work notice from striking.

There is no detail in the Bill about how minimum service levels will be set by ministers, which would  give them to freedom to set them at whatever level they like – including up to 100% cover – in effect banning strikes altogether.

Other concerns Unite has over the Bill include its total lack of meaningful consultation – Secretaries of State will decide who they should consult with over minimum service levels, which may be established before the Bill even reaches Royal Assent.

Unite is also concerned about the lack of scrutiny and accountability; that it will damage good industrial relations; that it puts an unprecedented duty on unions to undermine their own strikes; and that it attacks both workplace democracy and human rights and civil liberties, as well as attacking devolved powers in Wales and Scotland.

Unite is determined to fight this Bill tooth and nail – stay tuned on UniteLive for more information on the Bill, as well as how you can help us fight this shameless attack on workers’ rights.

By Hajera Blagg