The government has issued a response to the online petition against their proposed new anti-strike laws. The article, which is online here and reproduced below, gives some important insights into their thinking.
Most of the emphasis is on “ensuring that services vital for the British people’s lives and livelihoods […] maintain a basic function.” The threat of an outright ban on striking is invoked, by reference to other countries where fire and ambulance workers are banned from striking, although the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, in whose name the statement is issued, says it “does not wish” to do that in Britain.
The statement claims the law does not restrict “the ability to strike”, but in the very next sentence confirms that it does precisely that for any workers designated as part of the minimum service complement.
Despite occasional references to safety, there is also much emphasis on “disruption”, suggesting Tory voters’ “right” not to be “disrupted” in any way is at least as prominent in ministers’ minds as the professed sentiments about a right to access vital services.
But it is a sentence near the beginning of the statement that is perhaps most revealing. The statement says: “Following introduction of the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, the situation on industrial action has changed significantly. Union bosses continue to dismiss the reasonable recommendations of independent pay review boards, which the Government has accepted, in favour of above-inflation pay demands which threaten to push up pay for everyone.”
This makes clear that the intent of the laws is as much about disciplining unions for having the temerity to demand above-inflation pay rises, and to take action aimed at winning them. If workers won’t meekly accept wage cuts and falling living standards, the Tories are telling us, then we will have to be legally coerced into acceptance by the impositions of restrictions on our one effective means of doing anything about it.
The law must be seen in the context of the Tories’ wider attempts to crack down on dissent through new laws restricting the right to protest. This is an attack on democracy, free speech, and civil liberties as much as an attack on workers’ rights.
The Government believes in the ability to strike. However, this must be balanced against our first duty: to preserve the lives and livelihoods of British people by protecting essential services.
Following introduction of the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, the situation on industrial action has changed significantly. Union bosses continue to dismiss the reasonable recommendations of independent pay review boards, which the Government has accepted, in favour of above-inflation pay demands which threaten to push up pay for everyone. Prolonged disruption, not just to transport but to a range of essential services, has had significant impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the public.
Therefore, the Government thought it only right to introduce the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, a bill which secured minimum levels of safety and service across a larger number of key sectors.
This legislation seeks to ensure that services vital for the British people’s lives and livelihoods, like rail, ambulances, and fire services, maintain a basic function, delivering minimum levels of safety and service during strike action. Only by doing this can we fulfil our basic duty to the public.
The ability to strike is a critical part of industrial relations in the United Kingdom, and it is rightly protected by law. This Government understands, too, that an element of disruption is inherent to any strike. But recent industrial action has caused unprecedented disruption for everybody; for members of the public who rely on rail to get to work or care for their family; for NHS staff trying their best to deliver care for patients; for children in schools trying to recover months of lost learning after the pandemic; and for local businesses who lose employees and custom at a time when they need it most.
This legislation does not seek to impede the ability to strike. At most, it restricts the ability to strike only for those workers named in a work notice, who are required to work to ensure that a minimum level of safety and service can be maintained during strike action.
This is not a radical move; it is similar to what can be seen in other modern European countries. Some countries, including Australia and Canada, have the ability to ban strikes that endanger life outright, such as in their ambulance and firefighting services. We do the same for our police force, but we do not wish to do that with other public services.
We hope that we will not have to use the powers in this Bill where adequate voluntary agreements are in place. However, we cannot continue to rely upon existing legislation or voluntary arrangements to protect the people we represent.
This legislation, therefore, represents a reasonable, balanced, and – above all – fair response, which protects the right to strike whilst ensuring a minimum level of safety and service for everyone.
Department for Energy Security and Net Zero