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It’s time to ditch the government's draconian anti-strike bill for good

(Alamy)

4 min read

A week ago today the government suffered a humiliating defeat in the High Court over its controversial change to agency worker regulations.

This egregious law – rushed through in the Summer of 2022 – allowed employers to bus in agency workers during periods of industrial action. It was designed to undermine the right to strike – despite widespread opposition from unions and the agency recruitment industry. 

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) rightly warned that using agency workers to break strikes was “wrong-headed” – placing those staff in a terrible position. 

The court judgment couldn’t have been more damning – with former Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng lambasted for his failure to consult properly and for his cavalier attitude towards the impact of the legislation. 

The Strikes Bill threatens to poison industrial relations and drag out disputes

Last week’s ruling should have given the Conservatives pause for thought. But rather than learning the lessons, the government is taking the same reckless approach with the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill– which is back in Parliament today. 

It gives ministers sweeping powers to set a minimum service to be provided during periods of industrial action. Workers who refuse to comply with a “work notice” that compels them to cross picket lines could be sacked and unions sued for damages. 

Like the agency worker regulation changes, the Strikes Bill threatens to poison industrial relations and drag out disputes. 

Don’t just take my word for it. A government impact assessment published last year when ministers looked at introducing the legislation in transport warned minimum service levels could make strikes more frequent.  

And – like the agency worker regulations – you don’t need to look particularly hard to find opposition to the law change. 

The Bill has faced a barrage of criticism a from employers, civil liberties organisations, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, race and gender equalities groups, employment rights lawyers, politicians around the world – as well as a whole host of other organisations. 

Let’s just pick out a few examples. Human rights groups – including Amnesty International – warned the “government has produced no evidence that such draconian measures are necessary” and that they could “cause significant damage to fair and effective industrial relations in this country by making it harder to resolve disputes. 

Leading employment lawyers said the bill could be in breach of international law – and would leave the United Kingdom as an “international outlier” on the right to strike.  

NHS providers said that the bill risks damaging relationships in the NHS between trust leaders and their staff, and between trust leaders and local union representatives at a particularly fraught time – without addressing any of the issues underlying current strike action. 

If this legislation sounds like a recipe for chaos – that’s because it is. The truth is this legislation is unworkable, undemocratic and almost certainly in breach of international law.  The only group clamouring for this legislation are Conservative ministers who are spoiling for a fight with unions.  

And this really matters for the balance of workplace power in this country.  A massive one in five workers could see their right to strike threatened as a result of this bill. That’s 5.5 million workers up and down the country.  

If this legislation makes its way onto the statute book today, the union movement will be ready to show once again that attacks on the fundamental right to strike fall foul of our national and international commitments.  

We won’t stand by and let workers get sacked for defending their pay and conditions. And we won’t rest until this bill has been repealed.   

After last week’s humiliation at the hands of the High Court, ministers should do themselves a favour and spare themselves further embarrassment.  

It’s time for them to ditch the draconian anti-strike bill for good. 

 

Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC)

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