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Sat, 4 February 2023

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Tories Question Whether Rishi Sunak Will Ever Toughen Strike Rules

Tories Question Whether Rishi Sunak Will Ever Toughen Strike Rules

A series of strikes will take place across the winter (Alamy)

4 min read

Senior Conservative figures have privately admitted they now believe tough new laws to curb strikes are unlikely to come into force before the next election without enhanced "determination" from ministers.

Sunak is believed to be keen to accelerate a pledge made by his predecessor Boris Johnson to legislate for minimum service in certain sectors in an attempt to limit disruption caused by strikes, but a number of Tory insiders are frustrated by inaction so far. 

Up to 100,000 workers are expected to strike across a wave of walk-outs this winter, with strikes across the rail network, as well as by NHS nurses, ambulance workers, border force staff and postal workers set to begin in the coming days. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has said major rail strikes throughout the Christmas period were a response to the government's attempts to "ratchet up the dispute".

A Downing Street spokesperson insisted it was "right" to look at further options to "curb the impacts" of strikes, but was unable to set out any plans for limiting winter disruption.

One Conservative MP told PoliticsHome they believed the new rules could only have a "medium to long-term impact" anyway as they felt it was unlikely they would be brought into force ahead of a predicted general election in May 2024.

They explained that the tougher strike rules would take at least six months to implement after passing through Parliament because of their complexity, and felt they had "no choice" over going to the polls by Spring 2024. 

"You cannot implement this in such a short period of time before the election," they said.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said on Wednesday that there was "no specific" timeframe for introducing the party's 2019 manifesto pledge to guarantee minimum service levels during rail strikes, while admitting the laws would "clearly" not be brought in in time to offset disruption this year.

"The Bill has been introduced in Parliament, it hasn't yet had a second reading, I can't give the committee a specific time on that," he told MPs. 

"Whilst that legislation may improve the service that passengers receive on strike days, my priority is to try and resolve the industrial dispute so we don't have strike days. That is how you give better service to passengers is to resolve the disputes rather than have slightly better service on strike days."

Harper also admitted that any changes to strike rules were "not going to be something that is going to help with the industrial action we face today."

But a former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome they were "not persuaded" that ministers could not speed up the process to limit the disruption.

"The minimum service bill was in the manifesto so could not be blocked by the Lords, and would surely be something that would rally Tory MPs rather than open up divisions," they said.

"Secondary legislation can certainly be done within a few weeks max. I see no reason why a determined government could not push faster if it wished to."

Strike sign in railway stationLabour deputy leader Angela Rayner has already defended the new strike action, saying the decision would not have been made "at a drop of a hat".

"These people who are going on strike are going to lose pay, they will lose their pay at a time when they will need it most," she told BBC Breakfast.

"This is a militant government that is not dealing with the issues and not resolving this strike action, and it’s frustrating. The system is absolutely crumbling without the strikes. Anyone who gets on a train now in the north knows that you’re praying if you’re going to get to where you need to get to."

But a civil service source suggested the government was hoping that continued disruption across Christmas would "sour" public support for unions.

"Rail [unions] risk squandering the goodwill they have built up in recent months with the decision to strike over Christmas," they told PoliticsHome

"[Ministers] are walking a tightrope because they can't afford to meet all these different pay demands, but they also don't want to seem to be escalating the situation by giving the impression they are not listening to concerns.

"The minimum service plans risk will get tied up in parliament and in the courts, so the main hope is the continual barrage of strikes sours the public mood against the unions. It's very risky."

The government is also braced for a series of other strikes across the winter period, including by postal workers and civil servants working for the DVLA.

Members of the Royal College of Nursing are also set to take the unprecedented step of striking on 15 and 20 December over concerns over pay and working conditions in the NHS.

But ministers have insisted they are prepared for the action, saying there was "well-oiled contingencies" in place to limit the impact on emergency care.

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