Is there logic to the government’s strike restrictions?

Credit: PA

I've rarely read legislation so lacking in underlying coherence and logic as today's bill from the government that would significantly restrict the right to strike - and I quote - in "health services, fire and rescue services, education services, transport services, decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel, and border security".

The first thing to note is the sheer breadth of the services that would be affected, and - by implication - the millions of employees whose right to withdraw their labour could be restricted.

The government says that in the first instance it will use the proposed new powers in the bill to impose "minimum service regulations" for "fire, ambulance and rail services", and nothing else.

But that is not what the bill would put into law. It gives the business secretary the right to draw up minimum service levels in all of the industries I cite above, on pain of costly damages for trade unions that fail to provide those service levels.

So presumably, since the act specifies the whole of "transport", bus and tram drivers could be told not all of them can strike at any one time.

And both cab drivers and the DVLA seem to be in scope, whatever the government says is its intention. Similarly "health services" could mean public and private, or even pharmacies.

And "education" presumably means Eton as much as Gasworks Comp. Also what is meant by "border security"? Does it include the passport office, as well as border officers? And why is only nuclear decommissioning specified?

Why not operators of nuclear plants? Which gets me to the nub of what's weird - and some would say unnerving - about the bill.

It's simply not clear whether it's designed to protect our safety, our prosperity or simply our convenience.

The right to strike is a basic human right. And perhaps it should be restricted if lives are potentially put at risk by industrial action - though all the public service unions, especially those representing ambulance workers - are at pains to stress that as a matter of practice they never strike in the absence of agreeing minimum service provision with employers on a voluntary and mutual basis.

Unions say the Bill is an attack on the fundamental right to strike, as ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana explains

But by no stretch of the imagination are lives likely to be lost when the trains don't run, or teachers walk out, or the queues are hideously long at Heathrow. It's no coincidence that when ministers and officials talk about the new law, sometimes they talk about minimum services, and sometimes about minimum safety.

The two are very different, though ministers seemingly want the confusion. If what they really want to protect is vital core services where there are de facto national or local monopolies, why doesn't this bill also include Royal Mail, or energy suppliers, or maintenance of internet cables, or water?

I thought at first that the common factor in the industries specified in the bill is they're all publicly owned or publicly funded.

But as I said above, private providers are in scope. And if it was about ring-fencing vital public sector monopolies, then anyone working in the law courts would have their right to strike limited by statute.

In the end this bill looks like a hastily drawn response to the current wave of public sector strikes, an attempt to prove that ministers aren't powerless.

But there's a compelling argument that what's driving these strikes is a sense among public service workers that they're not valued highly enough, in either a monetary or more general sense, by government or wider society.

And it is very unclear to me that limiting one of their basic civil and human rights, the right to take industrial action, will make them feel any more valued.

By the way, this critique should not be seen as a particularly left wing one.

I've spoken today to libertarian Tory MPs, who are as uncomfortable with this legislation as Labour MPs. This is an argument as much about personal freedoms as about worker solidarity.

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