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Industrial relations changes gain momentum following King’s Speech

Posted: 09/11/2023

This week’s King’s Speech, the traditional formal opening of Parliament, sets out a high-level summary of the government’s aims for the forthcoming parliamentary year.

While it was light on employment-related measures, the government’s focus on the industrial relations disputes that have been a feature of the past year appears set to continue. After widespread strikes across many public and private sector industries, including by junior doctors, railway workers and teachers, the government reacted earlier this year by introducing the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023, which allowed it to create regulations to provide for a minimum level of service in certain industries.

The proposed new regulations are intended to provide that if a union calls a strike in a particular industry, a number of employees in certain roles will be required to keep working and not strike. This law is intended to be applied to those working in health, fire and rescue, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security.

Following consultations earlier this year, in the King’s Speech Rishi Sunak confirmed that the government will be pressing ahead with minimum service levels for passenger rail, ambulances and border security services. The minimum service levels likely to be imposed vary from requiring a service to be ‘no less effective than if no strike was taking place’ for border security, to 40% of timetabled train services, in the rail industry.

There is not currently a draft of these regulations, but they are anticipated to be in line with the government’s response to each consultation so far. The government hopes to introduce the minimum service levels to avoid disruption during the Christmas period.

Further consultations are ongoing for NHS care, and are anticipated for the education sector.

In addition to this, the government has also announced that it will launch a consultation on removing regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations 2003, which prevents employers from using agency workers to cover for striking staff. In July this year, the government lost a judicial review, brought by several unions and which successfully argued that new legislation allowing agency workers to cover for striking workers was unlawful, because it had not properly consulted on the proposals. Given the heavy criticism of the government by the High Court, it will be interesting to see how it approaches another round of consultation.

It is clear from the King’s Speech that the government intends to maintain the momentum from the previous parliamentary session, and seek to reduce the impact of industrial action across many crucial industries, though it is likely the unions will be fighting them at every turn. As we approach the close of another year, the industrial relations landscape shows no sign of quietening down.

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