What is the 'minimum service' strike legislation the government is set to bring in?

Right in the middle of a week of rail strikes, the government has confirmed it is bringing forward plans to limit the impact of future industrial action by public service unions - Paul Brand reports

January is set to see a wave of industrial action brought by a range of employees, including rail workers, bus drivers, teachers in Scotland, ambulance workers and nurses.

The government is pressing ahead with plans to introduce new legislation for “minimum safety levels” during industrial action, as the government attempts to get a grip of the strikes.

The Business Department announced that a Bill will be introduced in Parliament in the coming weeks to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a “basic function” when workers go on strike.

We explore how the proposed legislation could affect the right to strike:

What does 'minimum service' mean and what public sectors could be impacted?

The legislation is set to enforce "minimum service levels" in a range of sectors, covering the health service, rail, education, fire, nuclear decommissioning and border security.

The minimum service level - which would require a proportion of union members to continue working - will not resolve the current wave of strikes.

Ministers have said they would consult on an "adequate level of coverage" for fire, ambulance and rail services, with minimum safety levels set for these sectors, as disruption puts lives at "immediate risk".

For the other sectors covered in the bill, the government says it expects to be able to reach voluntary agreements.

Unions would be bound to follow the legislation and would risk employers bringing an injunction to prevent strikes from taking place or seeking damages if they did not comply.

ITV News' Amy Lewis explains the main elements of the proposed legislation

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said if his party won the next general election - expected to take place in 2024 - it would repeal the law.

"We'll look at what they bring forward, but if it's further restrictions, then we will repeal it," Sir Keir told journalists following a speech on Thursday.

Labour made clear that, not only would it oppose its passage through Parliament, it would also look to delete it from the statute books if elected to Downing Street.

What is a “work notice”?

Once the minimum service level has been set, employers will be able to issue a “work notice” to their staff, which will identify the employees required to work during the strike in order to provide that minimum service levels.

They will also set out the type of work those members of staff are required to do.

Work notices must be issued at least a week before a strike begins, unless employers and trade unions agree otherwise.

When issuing a work notice, employers must not require more people to work than are “reasonably necessary” and cannot base decision about who is needed on whether they are members of a trade union or not.

The penalties for ignoring a work notice could be steep, with workers facing the sack and trade unions vulnerable to being sued.

What else has the government said about strikes?

In a major speech outlining his legislative priorities in the new year, Mr Sunak said his government’s door is always open for dialogue on strikes.

"We’re very keen on dialogue. The government’s door is always open,” he said, when asked how strikes will be resolved without paying more.

Mr Sunak added that “people should have the right to strike”, but said “that has to be balanced with the right of the British public to go about their lives without suffering completely undue disruption in the way we’ve seen recently.

"And that’s why I have said we will introduce new legislation that restores that balance and crucially protects people’s lives as well as their livelihoods.”

On Thursday, Business Secretary Grant Shapps 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.”

The Bill is expected to meet significant opposition, especially in the House of Lords, which could delay its passage.

How have unions reacted to reports about anti-strike legislation?

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train driver's union Aslef, has said legislation to enforce minimum service levels during strikes could lead to longer periods of industrial action in order to have the same impact.

Mr Whelan - whose union members walked out over pensions and pay on Thursday - said unions will take the government to court if they do go ahead with such proposals, which he believes will make railways unsafe on strike days.

He said that there has been minimum service levels in countries all over Europe for years, but it’s never been enacted as it doesn’t work "logistically".

Mick Whelan talking to the media whilst joining Aslef members on the picket line at Euston station in London. Credit: PA

“I haven’t seen the legislation, but what I’ve garnered is that we would have to negotiate with each different company a minimum strike level," Mr Whelan said.

“If say the strike minimum levels were 20%, we were told in the past that we didn’t run full railway services during the fire brigade strike and the railway was unsafe, so we’d be doing something unsafe.

“Also, would we have to take more days action, to equate to the same level of effect that we have from one day now?

“Coming to the table will resolve this – threatening us with sacking or more pernicious legislation when we already have the worst trade union legislation in Europe, isn’t going to solve the issue.”

Pat Cullen (centre) joins members of the RCN on the picket line outside the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, in December. Credit: PA

Royal College of Nursing General Secretary Pat Cullen said that "curtailing workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action" is undemocratic.

“We will meet with ministers to see their evidence for the pay process," she said.

"However, only negotiations on our dispute can avert the planned action this month and I urge the prime minister to show a renewed sense of urgency, grasp the nettle and negotiate with nurses without further delay.

“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 NHS and social care to prevent one nurse being left with 15, 20 or even 25 sick patients.

“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’.”

Unison’s assistant general secretary Jon Richards said: “Ministers should focus their time and energy on rebuilding trust and relationships with workers, not silencing and suppressing them.

“Minimum staffing levels in the NHS would be welcome by the public and health staff every single day of the week. That could avoid people being left lying in agony on A&E floors or dying in the backs of ambulances.

“The NHS is on its knees because of record vacancies. The idea of limiting legal staffing levels to strike days and threatening to sack or fine health workers at such a time shows proper patient care isn’t ministers’ priority.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services, union added: “Just when you thought the Government could go no lower, ministers say they’re looking to deal with strikes by making them illegal, rather than negotiate with unions.

“PCS members are on strike because they cannot afford the cost of living. We view any attempt to outlaw strikes as an attack on the trade union movement and we will resist that at every stage.”

Do other countries have similar strike legislation?

The government has stressed similar legislation already exists in Western Europe, including France and Spain.

Spanish regulations have, for example, required airlines and staff to maintain a minimum service.

Last August, minimum service levels were brought in by the Ministry of Transport in Spain to combat a scheduled Ryanair cabin crew strike.

A statement from the ministry at the time said the minimum services had been established with the goal of “comparing the general interest of citizens, and in particular their mobility needs, with the right to strike of this group of workers”.

According to the local authorities law in France, a region's local representative (prefect) can "requisition any property or service, require any person necessary" to maintain public order, hygiene, tranquillity and safety.

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