The UK government has announced new legislation to enforce “minimum service levels” in eight sectors including the health service in an attempt to tackle a rash of strikes across the country.
Unions representing workers in various sectors — ranging from nurses and paramedics to train drivers — have gone on walkouts to protest at real-terms pay cuts at a time of soaring inflation.
Before Christmas ministers put forward legislation that would have imposed minimum levels in just one sector — the railways.
But on Thursday the government announced that this would be eclipsed by a new bill that could force a certain ratio of staff to keep coming to work in various areas.
Firstly, the government would enforce “minimum safety levels” for fire, ambulance and rail services after a consultation, it said. That was less draconian than Canada, Australia and parts of the US, officials said. All of those places ban strikes by “blue light” services.
Secondly, for other sectors covered by the bill — education, border security, nuclear decommissioning, other health services and other transport services — ministers hope to reach voluntary agreements on minimum safety levels.
But if voluntary deals cannot be reached the government will unilaterally impose new thresholds.
“The government 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 said. “The government will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods.”
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, said he would reverse the legislation if he won the next general election.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said the UK already had some of the most restrictive anti-trade union laws in the western world.
“The Tories are clearly hell-bent on criminalising and victimising trade unions with this threatened onslaught on the right to strike,” he said.
Meanwhile, ministers invited trade union leaders for “honest, constructive conversations”, urging them to “return to the table and call off strikes” after a wave of industrial unrest.
They said they wanted to meet union leaders to discuss what could be “fair and affordable” in public sector pay settlements for the coming financial year of 2023-24.