“This is a pernicious Bill that shames the House and the nation. It is designed to attack and demoralise public service workers who are taking industrial action.”
By Labour Hub
The Government is waging an unprecedented war on the right to strike. Here are some edited extracts from some of the better contributions to the parliamentary debate on the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill on Monday January 16th.
Jeremy Corbyn MP:
The Minister claims that the public’s existence and lives are at risk because of the disputes. Does he not appreciate that thousands of nurses and other workers are leaving the National Health Service, and thousands of teachers are leaving their profession, because of stress, low pay and underfunding?
That is what is causing a great deal of stress and problems for the public. Instead of reaching for the statute book and trying to legally constrain trade unions from their legitimate action, why does the Secretary of State not address the fundamental causes: poverty pay, stress, bad conditions and inadequate service in all parts of the UK?
Angela Rayner MP:
I cannot recall a measure that is at once so irrational and so insulting. Not only is this legislation a vindictive assault on the basic freedoms of British working people, but it is as empty of detail as it is full of holes. We will oppose the sacking of nurses Bill, and it is not just about nurses but about the many key workers who we clapped and who kept our services going in the face of the pandemic. We will vote against this legislation tonight, and the next Labour Government will repeal it…
Working people are facing the largest fall in living standards in a generation. In-work poverty, insecure work and financial insecurity are rampant. Inflation is in double digits. It is in this context that we have seen the greatest levels of strike disruption in 33 years, with ambulance workers taking their first major strike action in decades and the first ever strike in the history of the Royal College of Nursing. Our posties, train drivers, Border Force, health workers, train cleaners and even Ministers’ own officials have taken action too. The Prime Minister will not admit it, but this is a crisis and it is a crisis of the Government’s making. This legislation does nothing to resolve the problems that they have caused…
If the Secretary of State for Transport mandates that 50% of trains need to run on strike days, he knows that Network Rail will mandate that all signal operators need to work, because signals are needed even if just two trains are running. How can the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy say this Bill does not remove their right to strike?
Kate Osborne MP:
The Government are on a mission to take power from the people, with restrictions on the right to protest, restrictions on democracy with voter ID, the removal of huge chunks of human rights through their Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill—that will scrap more than 4,000 pieces of legislation, many of which cover the basic rights of people in this country—and now this disgraceful attempt to criminalise workers taking legitimate industrial action.
Each of those power grabs commits political violence on our communities. As with most of this Government’s policies, this attempt to deny workers what is universally regarded as a fundamental human right seeks to divide communities and pit worker against worker, forcing some of them to walk past their colleagues and cross picket lines—although everyone here knows that I never have and never will cross a picket line.
Dawn Butler MP:
The Bill… is dishonest; it is an insult to trade unions, which are the aspirational vehicle of the working class; and it is an insult to Parliament and parliamentary procedures… It allows the Government to amend and revoke any future legislation passed in this Session, so what is the point of Parliament? No matter what we say or pass, the Government can turn around and say, “We want to change it,” or, “We want to revoke it.” That is against what every single Member of Parliament has been elected to do.
Clive Lewis MP:
The Bill is also part of a longer term, anti-democratic trend, and part of a raft of anti-democratic legislation passed by the Government. It is a trend of transferring power away from workers and citizens, and eliminating their limited rights and freedoms in the workplace and across society. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 criminalised political protest. The Elections Act 2022 will disenfranchise millions through voter ID, and it undermined the independence of the Electoral Commission. The Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 limits the power of courts to remedy unlawful Government action on the part of the Executive. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 means that 6 million in this country could now be stripped of citizenship at the whim of the Home Secretary, and although the Government have temporarily gone quiet on this, we know they also want to repeal the Human Rights Act.
The British public have had enough of being told by this Government to suck up failing privatised public services, corrupt politicians, collapsing living standards, a dying environment and a falling democracy. They have had enough of being told that there is no alternative, that politicians will always be caught on the take, that the rich and powerful will always be able to buy influence, that foodbanks are inevitable, that the NHS will always be in crisis, that our rivers will always be polluted, and that a race to the bottom on employment rights is inevitable.
History will show that the Bill is the act of a Government on the ropes, bereft of direction, and lashing out at the very public they claim to protect. This grim 50-year-old ideological experiment is in tatters all around, and I will be voting against this piece of rubbish.
Ian Byrne MP:
This is a pernicious Bill that shames the House and the nation. It is designed to attack and demoralise public service workers who are taking industrial action as a very last resort. I have spoken to nurses, firefighters, civil servants and posties in Liverpool at our food pantries, who have been forced into food poverty because of the wages that they have received after 12 years of austerity—a political choice made by the Tory Government in 2010. We are now living through the wreckage of that choice, with the destruction of our NHS and public services.
Let us be clear: the reason why these workers are having to take industrial action in the first place is because of the Government and their decisions. Never, ever forget that the hunger and poverty that many public sector workers face at the moment is a political choice that the Prime Minister unfortunately finds so easy to make.
We have a multi-millionaire Prime Minister who will never know what it is like to feel hungry—he will never fear the creep of poverty at the door of his home—telling public sector workers facing this dire situation that they will be sacked if they withdraw their labour when they are simply saying, “Enough is enough.” It is obscene.
Barry Gardiner MP:
This Bill is perhaps the most egregious example yet of a measure brought forward by an increasingly autocratic Executive to strip Parliament of its role in determining what, for many of us, is a critical area of employment and human rights.
It gets worse. The primary legislation that the Secretary of State can amend or repeal is defined to include an Act of the Senedd or the Scottish Parliament. That should set alarm bells ringing for all of us, nationalists and Unionists alike. What is being proposed is that the Secretary of State in Westminster should have the power by regulation to override devolved legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd—and to do so with minimal scrutiny in this House. If the Executive had intended to provoke constitutional outrage and call into question the very basis of the devolutionary settlements, they could not have designed a piece of legislation better guaranteed to do so.
Cat Smith MP:
My constituents want a minimum service level when it comes to transport. Unfortunately, they are served by train companies such as Avanti or TransPennine Express, so even when it is not a strike day, getting a train on time is sometimes impossible. My constituents want to know that when they phone an ambulance it will get there in time, but the reality for many constituents I have heard from, particularly in rural parts such as Preesall and Knott End, is that when they phone an ambulance, the waiting times not on a strike day are already unacceptable.
This legislation is not an attempt to fix our public services and to resolve the disputes that are raging around the country right now; it is to distract from the failure.
Andy McDonald MP:
It was always going to come to this, where the ideological and deliberate attack on workers, along with the carefully choreographed under-resourcing of the public services that the people of this country hold dear over these past 13 years, which have been so blatantly carved up by the spivs and the profiteers, comes hard up against the inevitable neoliberal endgame of in-work poverty; and where workers are left with no choice other than to stand up for themselves and their service by withdrawing their labour.
They do so not simply because their wages are insultingly, woefully insufficient and shrinking in value, and do not pay enough for them to pay their soaring bills, and rip demand out of the beleaguered and disastrously managed economy; they do so also in order to save the very service that they so cherish.
Zarah Sultana MP:
This new law would see key workers such as nurses, railway workers, firefighters and teachers fired for going on strike—from clapping nurses to sacking nurses. The Government say that it is about safety, but that word is not mentioned even once in the pages of the Bill. They say it is about bringing us in line with other European nations, but Britain already has some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in the western world. No matter what they say, it is definitely not about resolving current disputes; it is only about inflaming tensions and making negotiations harder. What the Bill is really about is shifting the balance of power: weakening the power of workers and making it easier for bosses to exploit them and for the Government to ignore them.
I will finish with a message to those watching at home who are not sure about the strikes. If your pay is too low and your bills are too high, if you are struggling to make ends meet, and if you cannot get a doctor’s appointment, you are not alone. But the problem is not striking workers, immigrants, refugees, trans people or whoever the right-wing press are scapegoating today. The problem is this Tory Government, their 13 years of disastrous rule and the rigged economy they have built. Alongside record numbers of food banks, Britain has record numbers of billionaires, record profits for big businesses and record wealth for the top 1%. Let us bring together everyone who has had enough and, from the picket line to Parliament, let us fight for a better deal.
Rebecca Long Bailey MP:
The Government do this in the full knowledge that the provisions of the Bill are almost certainly illegal. That includes breaching the Human Rights Act 1998, the European convention on human rights, International Labour Organisation conventions and various other statutes.
The Government shamefully claim that the reason behind this legislation is that NHS trade unions were not providing minimum service agreements on strike days. That just is not true. Our ambulance workers, like our nurses, have never gone on strike without first putting agreements for life-and-limb cover in place.
John McDonnell MP:
We know what the motivation for the Bill is… The motivations are these. First, the Bill is an attempt to try to threaten those in negotiations at the moment. Well, that has really worked: today, nine out of 10 teachers voted for industrial action. The second was the usual distraction. In the past, when Tory Governments were failing, they would usually create a war… The real motivation is the one that they have had since the 1980s, which is to shift the balance of power from labour to capital and from workers to employers. That strategy has worked. It has worked so well that it has impoverished working-class people, and that is why they are coming out on strike. They cannot survive on the wages that they have got.
Labour Members will oppose the Bill in this House. There will be opposition in the other place as well… The real opposition will not come in here; it will be out there. It will be from working people—trade unionists. When the first trade unionist is sacked and the first trade union is fined, the Government will foul the industrial relations of the country for a generation, and the people will be out there. I will be out there with them.
- You can find the full text of the debate on the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill in Hansard here.
- This article was originally published by Labour Hub on January 18th, 2023.