BMA lobbying reaps changes to strike bill

by Tim Tonkin

Peers secure legal protections for trade unions and consultation on minimum staffing levels proposal 

Location: England
Published: Friday 28 April 2023

The Government has suffered setbacks in its efforts to introduce laws curbing industrial action, after the Lords endorsed legislative changes backed by the BMA.

Peers voted in favour of a series of opposition amendments to the Government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, following a report stage debate in the Lords on 26 April. 

The bill has been criticised by the association and other trade unions who have warned the prospective law would diminish existing rights to strike action by allowing employers to issue ‘work notices’ imposing minimum staffing requirements, to unions considering industrial action. 

The BMA has further warned that the Government’s proposals would confer wide-ranging powers to the secretary of state for business and put staff and unions failing to comply with work notices at risk of dismissal from employment or legal action. 

Following extensive lobbying efforts by the association, a number of peers brought successful amendments to the bill. 


Legal protection

These included an amendment preventing employers from taking legal action against trade unions deemed to have not taken 'reasonable steps' to ensure staff adherence with work notices put forward by the Labour peer Lord Collins, which passed by 220 votes to 196. 

A further amendment put forward by Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Fox and endorsed by 221 votes to 197, ruled that powers allowing the health secretary to define minimum service levels should be withheld from the bill subject to consultation and review. 

Peers also made changes to the bill that would prevent the dismissal of staff who do not comply with a work notice, as put forward by former Trade Unions Congress general secretary Baroness O’Grady. 

Warning that the bill in its existing form would see ‘unilateral changes’ to up to six million workers’ employment contracts, Baroness O’Grady said her amendment would remove the ‘shameful and self-defeating spectacle’ of health professionals and other workers being sacked for engaging in industrial action. 

She said: ‘This amendment would ensure that an individual employee named in a work notice cannot be sacked or sanctioned if they do not comply. In short, it would avoid the risk of a shameful and ultimately self-defeating spectacle of nurses and other key workers, whom not so long ago we all clapped, being sacked. 

‘[This amendment] would reassure many unions and employers, including NHS employers, which say the threat to sack strikers, even before this bill is enacted, is poisoning industrial relations and making difficult situations much worse.' 

She added: ‘Dismissing key workers would do absolutely nothing to tackle the blight of public service staff shortages and backlogs on the country. 

Following yesterday’s amendments, the bill will return to the Lords for its third reading on 9 May, ahead of a final vote in the House of Commons.  


Human rights

Concern over the implications of the Strikes bill have not been limited to trade unions with a report published last month by the Joint Committee on Human Rights warning that the proposed legislation was potentially incompatible with existing human rights law. 

In its briefing to peers, the BMA emphasised the UK already has some of the ‘toughest’ trade union laws in Europe, while adding that ministers must engage with doctors and other healthcare workers if they are serious about ensuring adequate staffing in the health service.  

It said: ‘The BMA has long called on the Government to ensure safe staffing levels across the NHS, but it has failed to take the action needed to do so.  

‘The Government is focusing on minimum staffing levels as a reason to curtail strike action, but protecting the NHS is one of the reasons healthcare workers are striking and considering striking. 

‘Instead of heavy-handed legislation that risks undermining legitimate trade union action, the Government should focus on meaningful negotiation with unions and addressing the critical, ongoing challenges facing the NHS.’