Tomorrow (Wednesday), about the time the House of Lords starts debating regulations on minimum service levels that force trade unions to act as enforcement agents for employers during strikes, and effectively ends the rights of some workers to withdraw their labour, Sheffield City Council will be debating a motion put by an Independent Socialist councillor and seconded by the Liberal Democrat lord mayor.
The Sheffield motion entirely correctly notes that:
“… the Joint Committee on Human Rights has expressed concern that this legislation is not compatible with the UK’s commitments to human rights for workers and trade union members; and the Regulatory Policy Committee has determined that the impact assessment for this bill was ‘not fit for purpose’.”
It calls on Sheffield City Council “to work with local unions and our trades council to oppose this legislation”, and to write to Sir Keir Starmer asking that he pledge any incoming Labour government to reverse fines and other measures taken against unions under it.
I will, meanwhile, be in London for the Green Party, seeking to convince the House of Lords to throw out the following regulations: a code of practice for unions to apply the act, statutory instruments to apply the minimum service rules for the NHS ambulance service and NHS patient transport service, border security and passenger rail services. I have tabled what are known in the jargon as ‘fatal motions’ to use the House’s power to stop them in their tracks.
Unions united in opposition but where is Labour?
Labour members of the House of Lords will be putting forward their official response – ‘regret’ motions that express many of the concerns that both I and the Sheffield councillors share – but will do nothing to stop the regulations from passing and coming into effect within days.
That is despite detailed, strongly worded expressions of concern from the Trades Union Congress and other workers’ representatives. I’ve never seen stronger wording from a professional union than the briefing of the Royal College of Nursing, which says it “vociferously opposes” this “alarming abuse of state power”. It says:
“Parliament must reject the Code of Practice, which seeks to make trade unions responsible for breaking their own strikes.”
The British Medical Association, representing doctors, says:
“We strongly call on parliamentarians to oppose the Code of Practice and regulations.”
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) raised concerns about the draft code of practice – applying its standard principles of balance, clarity and consistency, and practicality – and made recommendations for changes, nearly all of which were ignored. It suggests the code is likely to widen the scope for disagreement and dispute, introducing “additional flashpoints”. Is this perhaps the government’s aim?
Right to strike: government rolling back on assurances
It is worth noting too that the government with its drafting of these regulations appears to be going back on its own promises. Kevin Hollinrake MP, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Business and Trade, told the House of Commons in May: “The reality is that nobody will be sacked as a result of the legislation. There are other disciplinary measures that can take place.” Yet the compliance notice template requires unions to warn a member that “you could also be dismissed as a result” of not following the work notice. And as the TUC points out, the code of practice seeks to impose restrictions on workers’ picketing activities, despite there being no mention of picketing in the act.
The irony of a government that has eviscerated public services, and handed them over to the untender mercies of hedge funds and investment managers, suddenly deciding there should be a minimum service level when workers exercise their right to strike – which may turn out to be at higher levels than many ‘normal’ days – is palpable.
Now after four years in the House of Lords, I know just how regret and fatal motions go – I have seen it all too often. The House tends to reject the fatal motion and, in all likelihood, will approve the regret motion.
Upholding integrity and international law
I will ask the House to contemplate what that regret motion means: we’re saying “this is bad but we are going to let it through anyway”. I am all too aware of the arguments: we are the unelected House, we can’t overrule the ‘elected House’, even though the executive was elected by only 44% of the people who voted and that it is, in reality, if not in actuality, a minority government inaccurately reflecting the views of the majority.
Yes, fatal motions rarely pass, and often are not even put to the vote. But of the 34 that have been voted on since 1997, two moved by a Conservative on the same day in 2000, one moved by a Liberal Democrat on casino licences in 2007, and one moved by Labour in 2012, did pass, meaning the regulations were thrown out.
The 2006 Joint Committee on Conventions report concluded that “the House of Lords should not regularly reject Statutory Instruments, but that inexceptional circumstances it may be appropriate for it to do so”. That led to the Strathclyde Review in 2015 which suggested that the government allow the House of Lords to amend regulations, but the government has done nothing. Reminder: there’s widespread agreement that the regulations are in breach of international law and UK legal standards and that they breach the government’s own promise to the Commons.
A defence of liberty
I do not know how the day will go. But I do know, like the five Tolpuddle Martyrs – sailing off to seven years of penal servitude under the obscure and disreputable Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797 – that the wheel of history does turn. One of them, George Loveless, wrote as he was sentenced: “We raise the watch-word liberty; we will, we will, we will be free!” And many thousands of people bravely continued to work for the freedom of those martyrs – and the rights they espoused – in their absence, eventually winning the men’s freedom. And the right of workers to withdraw their labour was – it was thought – eventually definitively won.
Hope is crucial, it matters, which is one more reason to put down these fatal motions. We know there is significant, strong opposition to these regulations, and a determination to stand firm. If others will not ensure there is parliamentary expression of that, the Green Party will step up to the plate.