16 February 2023
legislation to enforce minimum service levels during industrial action
The Government has confirmed that it plans to legislate to enforce minimum service levels across multiple sectors during industrial action. It has introduced the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill which had its first reading in Parliament in January 2023.
The intention is to ensure a minimum level of service is provided during certain public sector strikes. Sectors affected by the Bill are healthcare, fire and rescue, education, transport, nuclear installations decommissioning, radioactive waste and spent fuel management, and border security.
The Bill would allow the Government to introduce regulations specifying particular minimum service levels in respect of each of the relevant services, subject to a statutory duty to consult stakeholders. If the Government cannot reach agreement on the definition of such minimum service levels, the Bill will provide it with the power to unilaterally impose these.
The Bill would enable (but not oblige) employers engaged in the provision of relevant services to serve a ‘work notice’ on unions which have given them notice of strike action. In a work notice, employers would have to (i) identify the persons required to work on each strike day to maintain minimum service levels (no more than reasonably necessary and not on the basis of their union membership status); and (ii) specify the work to be carried out by those persons.
A union which is given a work notice should take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure that all its members who are identified in the notice do not take part in the strike. Employees who are identified in a valid work notice but nonetheless still participate in the strike would lose automatic protection from unfair dismissal.
Whether this Bill becomes law remains to be seen. Unions have made it clear that they will resist the new requirements, and it is almost certain that they will seek to bring challenges on human rights grounds (particularly based on its incompatibility with the right to ‘freedom of association’). In addition, the Labour Party has already promised to repeal the legislation if enacted, so any reforms may well not survive beyond the next general election.