Unions brand anti-strike legislation 'draconian' as government sets out plans

Even if the Bill does become law it won't happen before the next round of industrial actions, as Anushka Asthana reports

New laws requiring a minimum level of service from firefighters, ambulance staff and rail workers during industrial action could lead to yet more strikes, ministers have been warned.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps set out new legislation in the Commons on Tuesday that could also see employees sacked for striking and unions sued by employers if they breach the law.

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was condemned as "draconian", "undemocratic" and illegal by unions, who warned they would “poison industrial relations”, reduce unions' bargaining power and could lead to them intensifying industrial action in the future.

Mr Shapps said the plans are in line with laws in other European countries and would “protect the lives and the livelihoods of the British people”. It is expected to take six months to get through Parliament.

The business secretary said the government would consult on what an “adequate level of coverage” would be in fire, ambulance and rail services.

He said: “The British people need to know that when they have a heart attack, a stroke or a serious injury, that an ambulance will turn up and that if they need hospital care they have access to it.”

The GMB, a union representing ambulance workers, said Mr Shapps' claims that they have not provided appropriate cover on strike days were untrue and an "extraordinary attack", pointing out that NHS workers have left picket lines to help with urgent calls.

“The public know who is to blame for the crisis in our NHS – this government. And people will be disgusted that, in a matter of months, they have gone from clapping health workers to legislating to sack them," a spokesman said.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT transport union, said: “The only reason this draconian legislation is being introduced is because they have lost the argument and want to punish workers for having the temerity to demand decent pay and working conditions.”

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to fight the UK government’s legislative proposals for minimum service levels during industrial action “every step of the way”.

Nicola Sturgeon vowed to fight the UK government's minimum service level proposals "every step of the way". Credit: PA

Scotland’s First Minister has said the SNP and government will oppose the “anti-trade union” legislation at both Westminster and Holyrood.

She said: “Unfortunately, employment law is reserved to Westminster but I don’t believe that should be the case. I think it should be the responsibility of Holyrood.

“I oppose that legislation. I believe that while I don’t want to see workers having to take strike action, the right to strike is a fundamental right in a democracy.

“And the way you resolve industrial disputes is by negotiations, not by legislating to take away workers’ rights.

“This is a Conservative government that has proven itself in the past to be no friend of workers and to be willing to take away workers’ rights."

“The SNP both at Holyrood and Westminster will oppose this anti-trade union, anti-worker legislation every step of the way.”

The comments come after the government failed to reach an agreement with unions on Monday, meaning ambulance strikes will go ahead on Wednesday, while nurses are due to strike again next week and junior doctors are voting for ballot action too.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT transport union, called the plans 'draconian'. Credit: PA

The Bill will also cover education, border security and nuclear decommissioning sectors, but Mr Shapps said he hoped that agreements could be reached with unions in those workplaces to avoid having to use the legislation’s powers.

Mr Shapps told ITV News he was "really hopeful" that talks with unions "will lead to some sort of conclusion but if they don't, it's very important there's minimum safety levels in place".

When pressed on whether nurses could be sacked under the new legislation, he replied: "Well only in the same sense that any employment contract of course says the same thing. So there's nothing unusual about that."

Unions say the Bill is an attack on the fundamental right to strike, as Anushka Asthana explains

The business secretary told MPs the ambulance strike involving tens of thousands of staff in England and Wales underlined the need for the legislation.

He said that while the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) had agreed service coverage on a national level for its strike, paramedics and ambulance drivers had not done so, meaning that “health officials were left guessing at the likely minimum coverage” putting “lives at risk”.

With around 25,000 ambulance workers due to go on strike again on Wednesday, Mr Shapps told MPs there would be “patchy emergency care” as a result, adding: “This cannot continue.”

Ambulance responses are split into categories, with category 1 being the most life-threatening such as cardiac arrest, while category 2 covers conditions such as stroke, heart attack and sepsis.

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No blanket agreement has been reached on responding to category 2 calls, with unions and trusts agreeing locally which category 2 calls will receive a response during the strike.

The West Midlands Ambulance Service said an agreement had been reached for all category 1 calls plus other life-threatening cases such as heart attacks, strokes, difficulty in breathing and maternity cases.

In other trusts, the picture is less clear.

NHS England urged people to still call 999 if their condition is life-threatening but to turn to NHS 111, pharmacies and GPs for non-urgent needs.

Military personnel were brought in to help cover the last ambulance strikes. Credit: PA

Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Paul Nowak warned the minimum service legislation would risk further strikes.

“This legislation would mean that, when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply. That’s undemocratic, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal,” he said.

“Let’s be clear, if passed, this Bill will prolong disputes and poison industrial relations – leading to more frequent strikes.”

Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack called for “a mass movement of resistance to this authoritarian attack”.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “This Bill is another dangerous gimmick from a government that should be negotiating to resolve the current crisis they have caused.”

Frank Ward, interim general secretary at the TSSA transport union, said the plans were “wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal”, adding: “Our union totally opposes this move to bring in what amounts to further draconian anti-strike laws which are a clear attack on the rights of working people in our country.”