UK government’s anti-strike bill trashes civil liberties, says Labour

Labour on Monday accused the UK government of trashing centuries-old civil liberties as ministers put forward new legislation in parliament that would blunt the impact of industrial action by public sector workers.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said that although many MPs from the ruling Conservative party believed in the principle of civil liberties, “with this bill they are burning freedoms for which we fought for centuries”.

The bill, which would mandate minimum service levels during strikes, is the government’s response to the worst wave of industrial action in decades, as nurses and ambulance staff, rail and postal workers and civil servants demand higher pay to shield them from the surge in living costs.

Business secretary Grant Shapps said the approach was “balanced, reasonable, and above all fair”. He added that some western countries had gone further by banning outright blue light service workers from staging walkouts.

Strikes are now set to spread to the state education system, after the NEU teachers’ union secured a mandate for action at 23,400 schools across England and Wales and set dates for seven days of national and regional walkouts.

The Royal College of Nursing also escalated its campaign on nurses’ pay on Monday, setting dates for fresh industrial action across England and Wales on February 6 and 7 if there was no progress in talks with ministers by the end of this month.

The proposed legislation, which would force named employees in key sectors to keep working during walkouts, has dismayed trade unions. They say it would have a “chilling effect” on workers’ willingness to exercise their right to strike.

It is also under fire from employment lawyers, who say it may be impractical, and employer groups, who say it could simply prolong disputes.

“Make no mistake — this is undemocratic, unworkable and likely illegal,” said Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, which is preparing to challenge the bill in the courts when it becomes law.

The bill gives ministers broad powers to set requirements in a very wide range of services.

The government will use the bill to impose minimum service levels on ambulance, fire and rail services after a public consultation. It could also set requirements in education, border security, nuclear decommissioning and other transport and health services if there is no voluntary agreement.

Darren Newman, a specialist in employment law, said ministers were taking powers so broad that they “could apply to steam railways going up Snowdonia if the government wanted”.

Even employers are concerned that the legislation would force them to name the individuals required to work to ensure a minimum service.

Rail industry executives say that in areas such as signalling, where a handful of staff are crucial to the network running, this could in effect ban particular individuals from striking — a likely breach of their human rights.

The TUC has called the bill “draconian”, arguing that it puts individuals at risk of dismissal if they walk out regardless, and unions at risk of punitive fines if they do not compel their members to cross picket lines.

But Newman said employers would be unlikely to fire staff who did not turn up to work as requested because doing so would simply worsen a workforce dispute.

They would also find it difficult to sue unions for damages because the impact of strikes in the NHS or schools, for example, was felt largely by the public, rather than in financial loss to the employer.

The government has been criticised by the independent watchdog that vets the quality of regulation for failing to produce impact assessments for the new legislation. The regulatory policy committee on Monday said departments were expected to produce IAs “before the relevant bill is laid before parliament”.

Ministers have cited minimum service requirements in other countries, although experts say there are major differences with similar laws in France, Spain and Italy.

But the TUC said the central problem with the bill was that “you can’t legislate away dissatisfaction”.

Neil Carberry, head of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, said strike laws should aim to “channel and resolve” conflicts. Otherwise, he said, they risked leading to “wildcat action, poorer service and the emergence of unaffiliated, more problematic groups than trade unions”.

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