What “new tough laws” on industrial action could the Government be planning?

New legislation is likely to be part of the Government’s response to a growing number of unresolved disputes in a wide range of key sectors, including health, education and transport. While we don’t have any concrete details of the Government’s plans yet, there are some clues in recent policy initiatives.

What has happened recently?

The last major change to industrial action legislation happened in March 2017, when most provisions in the Trade Union Act 2016 came into force. The key change was the introduction of ballot thresholds which need to be met before a trade union can lawfully call for industrial action, over and above the need for a majority vote in favour. These comprise a 50% turnout requirement for all industrial action ballots. In addition, where “important public services” are involved, a least 40% of those balloted must vote in favour of the proposed industrial action.

In July 2022, the Government implemented another important change, removing the prohibition on employment agencies supplying agency staff to cover for striking workers.

In October 2022, the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill received its first reading in Parliament. If implemented, this would create a legal framework to implement minimum service levels in specified transport services during strikes.

What are the options for further change?

There are two obvious adjustments the Government could make which would build on recent changes, though neither of these would be effective in relation to the current disputes.

One would be to raise the ballot thresholds introduced in 2017, or perhaps more likely, amend the definition of “important public services” to widen the application of the 40% yes vote requirement. The current definition includes health, schools, transport, fire services and border security but could be further extended – for example to postal services and logistics.

The other change would involve extending the minimum service levels planned in relation to transport strikes to other sectors.

One final option, which the Government has not ruled out at the time of writing, would be to ban strikes in emergency services altogether. That would be the most controversial of all the policies under consideration. The Government will be aware that there are already constraints on industrial action in these sectors. These derive partly from the criminal law, but perhaps more importantly from voluntary cooperation between the relevant unions and employers to ensure the any industrial action does not endanger life.

In making any changes the Government would need to secure the necessary political support for any new legislation, and well as reaching what it believes to be the right balance between conciliation with the unions and confronting them.

Note: The Government published the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill on 10 January 2023.  See this post for an analysis of the Bill.

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