Defeating the UK Government's bid to restrict worker's rights to strike

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I rise to oppose the motion moved by the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp). I do so because the proposed Bill is disproportionate and unnecessary, and an attack on a fundamental British liberty—the right to withdraw labour in a legal trade dispute with an employer.

It is not as though we have not already experienced a full-frontal attack on the rights of workers who are in dispute with their employer under this Government. I draw the attention of the House to yesterday’s Order Paper, which I am sure hon. Members have read. Page 34 gives details of “Remaining Orders and Notices”, and states:

“Business in this section has not yet been scheduled for a specific date. It has therefore been set down formally to be taken in the Chamber today but is not expected to be taken today.”

What could this business be? Point No. 3 on the Order Paper is a motion on trade unions in the name of “Secretary Greg Clark”, dealing with political funds. Point No. 4 is also a motion on trade unions from the Secretary of State, dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Transport) Regulations 2017. Point No. 5 is a motion on trade unions dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Fire) Regulations 2017. Point No. 6 is—you’ve got it—a motion on trade unions dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Border Security) Regulations 2017. Point No. 7 is a motion on trade unions dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Education) Regulations 2017, and point No. 8 is a motion on trade unions dealing with the draft Important Public Services (Health) Regulations 2017.

The Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Croydon South would restrict the rights of people in the workplace further, even before the Government have brought into force their latest full-frontal attack on workers. We all know that if the Bill were allowed to proceed, it would simply be the thin end of the wedge of even more anti-trade union legislation from the Conservatives, because this is what they do when they are in power—dogs bark, birds fly and Tories attack workers’ rights.​
In the press, as he did in his speech, the hon. Gentleman framed his Bill specifically as a response to the Southern rail dispute, but of course it goes much further, as it covers transport in general, the national health service, and fire and ambulance services. This is not just about one industrial dispute, whatever its rights and wrongs. The Bill is about further restricting the long-fought-for right of workers in a free society to withhold their labour.

The hon. Gentleman talks about disproportionate industrial action, but it is important to bear in mind what the proportions really are. There were 106 strikes in 2015—the last year for which we have figures—which is an eighth of the number of strikes that took place in 1985. That equates to a loss of 0.003% of all working days in 2015, when 81,000 workers went on strike. That is the lowest level since records began in 1893.

Let us look at the type of so-called disproportionate action that occurs in the industries that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. One of the most widely covered strikes this year was that of British Airways workers, who have taken a total of five days’ action to protest against their poverty-level pay. For those workers, that action was a real hardship and sacrifice. On average, mixed fleet cabin crew—the category was introduced deliberately to create a second-class group of workers at the company—earn £16,000 a year including allowances. Willie Walsh, the boss of the parent company, pocketed £6.5 million. That is the very definition of “disproportionate”.

Industrial action is already highly regulated, especially in the light of the execrable Trade Union Act 2016, the regulations under which I mentioned earlier and are yet to be brought into force. Through that Act, the Government created specific strike thresholds for important public services—50% of the union membership must vote, and 40% of those entitled to vote must be in favour of industrial action for a strike to be legal—but even that is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman. His Bill would put the decision about whether workers can withdraw their labour into the hands of High Court judges. Ironically, that is one group of workers whose pensions the Government are unable to touch. In the light of today’s events, I would have thought that Conservative Members might be more wary about handing over decisions to judges, but that is another matter.

The proposal is also insidious because it comes from the same party that is picking the pension pockets of nuclear workers in places such as Sellafield. The Government’s latest raid on the pensions of nuclear workers will adversely affect communities such as Copeland, where a large number of nuclear workers live. At the time of privatisation, promises were made to ensure the protection of their pensions. During the Committee stage of the Bill that became the Enterprise Act 2016, I tabled amendments that would have ensured that workers in that sector would be exempt from the public sector redundancy cap. The Government refused to support those amendments, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has now announced its intention to save the Treasury a reported £660 million from those workers, despite the promises that were made when the industry was privatised. It will not escape the attention of the workers of Sellafield—and, indeed, the voters of Copeland —that the Conservatives are not only seeking to make it ​more difficult for people to take action in specified industries, but robbing those people of their promised pensions.

Where was the hon. Gentleman’s concern for ending industrial disputes when the Government promised to bankroll Southern in this dispute using taxpayers’ money? The Government have inserted clauses into franchise agreements setting out that any losses accrued by the rail company in the event of industrial action can be compensated by the Government using taxpayers’ funds, which removes any incentive for the company to come to the table.

Where was the hon. Gentleman’s concern for consumer access to our critical national services when the Prime Minister dismissed the humanitarian crisis in our hospitals as “overblown”? The real problem facing our national health service is not a handful of days of doctors’ strikes, but this Government’s policy of systemic and constant underfunding, understaffing and overworking. Where was his concern for consumer access to our critical national services when we saw train fares rise again in the new year? Labour protested against the price hikes, but there was no ten-minute rule Bill from the hon. Gentleman about people’s right to a reasonable fare when traveling to work.

There is another way to deal with industrial relations. The Labour Government in Wales recently introduced their own trade union Bill. They are a Government who understand that workers are not an “enemy within” to be isolated and vilified, and that workers themselves are consumers who contribute to the economy and are members of the community. That is the approach that the hon. Gentleman should be advocating. This Bill is an attack on working people by a party that is bankrolling employer intransigence with public money in the very industry that he has been talking about, and I hope that the House will reject it.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

The House divided:

Ayes 127, Noes 206.