British Business Secretary Grant Shapps challenged opposition parties in a parliamentary debate Tuesday on plans by the government to impose restrictions on industrial actions in certain sectors, saying it supports the right to strike but also wants to take into account the interests of the public.
The new bill comes amid a wave of industrial action across the public sector as workers seek pay rises in the face of rising living costs.
Shapps said that while the bill is being discussed and passed in the House of Commons, the government will consult on what a minimum level of service should look like in fire and rescue, ambulance services and rail.
“Members of the opposition who object to minimum safety levels, well, they’ll need to explain to their constituents why it is that if you have a heart attack, a stroke, or life-threatening illness on a strike day there are no minimum safety standards in place,” he said.
The government is looking at six key sectors, including health, education, fire, rescue, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning.
“We must ensure the safety of the British public,” Shapps added.
Opposition accuses government of ‘disastrous chaos’
Angela Rayner, the main opposition Labour Party’s deputy leader, told the House of Commons about a person who waited more than an hour for an ambulance and in the meantime died, and that was not on a strike day.
“That is because of the disastrous chaos we have in the system under this Conservative government,” she said.
Rayner asked if Shapps would admit that the government considered banning some key workers from joining unions. She asked the business secretary how sacking key workers won’t make services worse.
Shapps denied the claim, going on to say that the government is not banning strikes but making sure a minimum safety level is in place.
According to Rayner, the legislation is a distraction method used by the government for the problems it has created in the first place.
“How he goes on with one breath thanking nurses to sacking nurses (is) not just insulting but utterly stupid. There is no common sense about this at all. He says he recognizes pressure faced by key workers, but he knows the NHS cannot find the nurses they need to work on the ward. He knows the trains don’t run even on non-strike days, such is their shortage of staff,” she said.
The deputy Labour leader openly named ministers who also disapprove of the bill — Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and Transport Secretary Mark Harper.
SNP says strike safety bill ‘stinks’
Scottish National Party (SNP) spokesman Alan Brown slammed the new bill, saying it’s part of a “rightwing culture war” which “stinks.” He agreed with Labour’s stance and blamed the ruling Conservatives for tanking the economy and accused the government of forcing “ordinary people” to pay for its mistakes.
Brown said it has not been easy in Scotland either, but the government there has committed to fair negotiations with striking workers.
Shapps has said the opposition needs to hear the details of the legislation before expressing their criticisms.
Labour MP Sam Tarry said Britain is one of the most restricted and anti-worker countries in the world. Tarry said the government is responsible for the failed talks with the unions and he believes the strikes could end in multiple sectors had the government wanted.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Jim Shannon said the strikes within the National Health Service (NHS) are not just about money but also safety in hospital wards. Shapps said the government is trying to relieve the pressure post-COVID but noted that he recognizes the pressure on hospitals.
Unions label bill ‘undemocratic, unworkable and illegal’
Paul Nowak, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said if the legislation becomes law, it “will prolong disputes and poison industrial relations, leading to more frequent strikes.”
The details are still to be unfolded, but the government says service levels were a safety issue.
Nowak said the legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply.
“That’s undemocratic, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal,” he said.
Fire Brigades Union General Secretary Matt Wrack called the bill a “shameful attack” on democratic rights.
“This is an attack on all workers, including key workers, who kept our public services going during the pandemic. It’s an attack on Britain’s COVID heroes and on all workers. We need a mass movement of resistance to this authoritarian attack,” he said.
MPs will be debating the bill next week, and once it makes it through the House of Commons, where the Conservatives have a majority, it will then be reviewed in the House of Lords, where the ruling party has less influence.