Anti-strike bill ‘fails to meet UK’s human rights obligations’, MPs and peers say

Joint committee warns that proposed laws are ‘not justified and need to be reconsidered’

Controversial legislation designed to curb strike action fails to meet the UK’s human rights obligations, MPs and peers have warned.

The joint committee on human rights has said the government’s proposed anti-strike laws are “not justified and need to be reconsidered”.

The committee warns the legislation would clash with requirements under article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees freedom of association for workers.

The strikes (minimum service levels) bill would mandate minimum service levels for critical industries even on strike days, meaning some workers must stay on duty in industries such as health, transport, fire service, border force, nuclear and education.

The proposals, which moved rapidly through the Commons and are now in the House of Lords, do not set out what the minimum service levels should be, but hand ministers the power to impose minimums through secondary legislation.

The law would apply across England, Scotland and Wales and make it easier to sack striking workers and leave unions at risk of million-pound fines.

In the report, MPs and peers call on Rishi Sunak’s government to reconsider the legislation. They say that “without the government providing specific evidence establishing a pressing social need for minimum service requirements in respect of each of the very broad categories of service set out in the bill, compliance with the requirements of article 11 ECHR remains unclear”.

The committee said the penalties that would be imposed on trade unions for failing to comply with the bill would be “severe”.

“In our view, they may amount to a disproportionate interference with article 11, particularly in circumstances where the strike does not involve essential services and risks to life and limb,” they said.

“The government should reconsider whether less severe measures, such as loss of pay or suspension from work for employees who fail to comply with work notices, could be effective.”

The committee chair and SNP MP, Joanna Cherry, said the bill needed amending to address some of the “deep flaws”.

“Heavy handed sanctions are compounded by vague rules that would leave striking workers and unions in confusion as to whether they had been met or not,” she said.

“The sectors included in the bill are also ill-defined, risking overreach into areas only tangentially linked to the maintenance of vital public services. This means the bill, in our view, is likely to be incompatible with human rights law which provides a right to association and with it, protection for strike action.”

Unions have been demonstrating outside parliament against the bill, which has also been criticised by civil liberties groups. In January, Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, promised her party would repeal the bill, saying it was one of the most “indefensible and foolish pieces of legislation to come before this House in modern times”.

“This cross-party committee is just the latest expert body to conclude the government’s shoddy bill is not just unworkable but likely unlawful,” she said.

“It’s time for ministers to go back to the drawing board, not plough on with a dog’s dinner of a policy that will do nothing to resolve disputes and instead risks pouring petrol on the fire.

“If it does pass on the back of Tory votes, the next Labour government will repeal it.”

The Trades Union Congress general secretary, Paul Nowak, said the “nasty” bill should be “junked immediately”.

“MPs, Lords and civil liberties groups are queuing up to condemn this draconian bill,” he said.

“These spiteful new laws are an affront to human rights and are a deliberate attempt to restrict the right to strike – a fundamental British liberty. The government is steamrolling through parliament legislation that will give ministers sweeping new powers to sack workers who take action to win better pay and conditions.

“The Conservatives are trying to keep people in the dark. But make no mistake – this bill is undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal. And crucially it will likely poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them.”

A government spokesperson said: “The purpose of this legislation is to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public and ensure they can continue to access vital public services.

“We note this report and will consider it in full, but the government needs to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect essential services to be there when they need them.”


Emine Sinmaz

The GuardianTramp

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