After an eventful passage through Parliament, the government’s controversial Minimum Service Levels Bill was granted royal assent on 20 July 2023, meaning it will now become law.
Minimum service levels (MSLs) are designed to ensure that a minimum service continues to operate in specified sectors – currently passenger rail services, ambulance services, and fire and rescue services – during any period of strike action. Where minimum service levels are in force, employers can issue a work notice ahead of any strike action, to specify the workforce required to maintain necessary and safe levels of service. Employers must consult with the relevant unions on the number of persons and the work to be specified in the notice and take their views into account.
The bill has been watered down from its original reading, following strong opposition from the House of Lords. However, the final round of amendments tabled was rejected in the House of Commons. The government rejected the House of Lords’ view that consultation with the ILO was necessary, as it argued that it had already carried out an assessment that the bill was compatible with the UK’s international obligations.
Although the MSL legislation will now come into force, MSLs will not take effect until the regulations that detail the sector specific MSLs are implemented. The government is currently reviewing responses to the recent public consultations on the appropriate approach for delivering MSLs in passenger rail and blue light services. Acknowledging that there was a case for providing further detail on the ‘reasonable steps’ that a trade union must take to ensure that workers comply with a work notice, government minister Kevin Hollinrake confirmed that the government will introduce a new statutory code of practice, so that all parties are clear what the obligations of trade unions will be under the act, and that there will be a further statutory consultation, including with ACAS, in respect of this code of practice.
Mr Hollinrake commented: “This legislation is an appropriate balance between the ability to strike, and protecting lives and livelihoods. The UK remains a world leader for workers’ rights and these new laws will not prevent a union from organising industrial action.”
Unions have been quick to condemn the passage of the act, with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) vowing to fight it ‘tooth and nail’. TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “No-one should be sacked for trying to win better pay and conditions at work – especially in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. But that is exactly what this draconian legislation will allow. These new laws will give ministers the power to snatch away the right to strike from a massive one in five workers – that’s 5.5 million people.
“Make no mistake, the TUC will fight this pernicious legislation tooth and nail – exploring all options including legal routes. We won’t stand by and let workers get sacked for defending their pay and conditions.”
We can expect further scrutiny of the government’s assertion that the legislation complies with the UK’s international obligations. A letter written by the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation to the Secretary of State on 18 July 2023 stated: ‘It is clear that the bill introduces provisions which weaken or reduce existing law in relation to the protection of the fundamental right to strike and which do not respect or implement ILO Convention 87.’ Of course, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said something very similar.
The Labour Party has reiterated that a future Labour government would repeal the bill.
For further information on this issue, please contact Chris Syder or another member of the Penningtons Manches Cooper industrial relations team.