Government pressing ahead with ‘minimum safety levels’ legislation

T

he Government is pressing ahead with plans to introduce new legislation for “minimum safety levels” during industrial action.

The Business Department announced that a Bill will be introduced in Parliament in the coming weeks to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a “basic function” when workers go on strike.

Minimum safety levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and the Government said it will consult on the “adequate level of coverage” for these sectors.

The announcement was made amid a wave of strikes, including a walkout by train drivers on Thursday which crippled rail services.

Unions reacted with fury to the move, saying it would do nothing to resolve the disputes breaking out across the country every week.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps said: “We hugely value the work of our public services and we’re reaching out to unions to have an honest conversation on pay, conditions and reform.

“Industrial action is disruptive for everyone – from people relying on essential services to get to work or care for their family to hard-working business owners whose sales suffer. It also costs those striking at a time when family budgets are tight.

“As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the Government must also protect life and livelihoods. While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”

The Government said it will invite unions to meet for “honest, constructive conversations” about what is fair and affordable in public sector pay settlements for 2023/24, as part of a “reasonable approach” to avoiding prolonged industrial action.

A statement said: “Ministers are reaching out to unions to invite them to sit down and discuss the evidence that the Government will be submitting to the pay review bodies – and hopes that unions will also share their evidence.

“If the offer is accepted, discussions will take place between government departments and unions in the coming weeks on issues including pay evidence, workload and conditions in the public sector.

“These discussions will help ensure the evidence submitted to the pay review bodies is as considered and informed as possible, including reflecting areas of common ground.

“The Government is clear that the well-established independent pay review process is the right way to set public sector pay – it provides independent, expert advice and is a neutral process in which all parties play a role.

“These new discussions would feed into this process and are offered as the Government recognises the particular economic challenges the country faces this year.”

The Government called on the unions to cancel upcoming strikes in a bid to resolve the disputes “constructively through dialogue”.

“However, the Government also has a duty to the public to ensure their safety, protect their access to vital public services, and help them go about their daily lives,” the statement said.

“The Government will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods.

“That’s why the Government will introduce new laws to ensure a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place.”

We are always ready to discuss our members’ pay but the Government is refusing to talk about problems as they exist now, instead they want to kick the can down the road

Gary Smith, GMB general secretary, said: “A Government that has presided over 13 years of failure in our public services is now seeking to scapegoat the NHS staff and ambulance workers who do so much to care for the people of our country.

“The NHS can only function with the goodwill of its incredible staff and attacking their fundamental right to take action will alienate them even further and do nothing to help patients and the public.

“We are always ready to discuss our members’ pay but the Government is refusing to talk about problems as they exist now, instead they want to kick the can down the road.

“There are huge questions over the NHS Pay Review Body, as ministers’ actions have consistently undermined its independence. The process needs real reform and our members need a much stronger commitment than we heard today.”

The announcement said unions would be bound to follow the legislation and would risk employers bringing an injunction to prevent strikes from taking place or seeking damages if they did not comply.

The Government called on the unions to cancel upcoming strikes in a bid to resolve the disputes “constructively through dialogue”.

“However, the Government also has a duty to the public to ensure their safety, protect their access to vital public services, and help them go about their daily lives.

“The Government will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods.

“That’s why the Government will introduce new laws to ensure a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place,” the statement added.

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: “Curtailing workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action is always undemocratic and we will look closely at what the Government releases.

“We will meet with ministers to see their evidence for the pay process. However, only negotiations on our dispute can avert the planned action this month and I urge the Prime Minister to show a renewed sense of urgency, grasp the nettle and negotiate with nurses without further delay.

“As for minimum staffing, last month’s action was safe for patients because of detailed discussions we chose to initiate with the NHS to protect emergency services and life-saving care. The public respected that and even ministers acknowledged our constructive approach.

“Safe staffing levels that are set in law are what we want to see year-round not just in these extreme circumstances.

“We’ve long campaigned for governments to be accountable for safe and effective staffing levels in NHS and social care to prevent one nurse being left with 15, 20 or even 25 sick patients.

“The evidence is unequivocal – safe staffing saves lives and having the right number of registered nurses on duty has a direct impact on the safety and quality of patient care. Today’s highly unsafe situation is what is driving our members to say ‘enough is enough’.”

Our members have already indicated their willingness to take industrial action and there is nothing in this announcement that will persuade us not to proceed to a formal ballot as planned

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect said: “This hollow invitation ignores the fact that a majority of public sector workers are not covered by a pay review body, including nearly all civil servants. We have been calling for years for this to be rectified, something which the Government has consistently ignored.

“These workers have been some of the most harshly treated over the past decade of real-terms pay cuts, and now the Government is signalling its intent to leave them out once again.

“Our members have already indicated their willingness to take industrial action and there is nothing in this announcement that will persuade us not to proceed to a formal ballot as planned.”

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