Granting above-inflation pay deals to public sector workers “is not the sensible way to proceed”, the business secretary said today, as he unveiled further details of anti-strike legislation in parliament.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Grant Shapps set out government plans for a law that it claims will ensure “minimum safety levels” during industrial action taken in some public sector settings.
The introduction of the bill to parliament comes as the government faces ongoing disputes with unions in the public sector, including the health service, over its pay awards for staff for 2022-23.
NHS nurses and ambulance staff are gearing up to stage further strike action over the row this month, in the wake of an initial round of stoppages in December.
On Monday, health unions met with the health and social care secretary, Steve Barclay, but the discussions failed to resolve the dispute or head off the upcoming industrial action.
In his speech today, Mr Shapps said the government wanted to “resolve disputes, where possible, while delivering what is fair and reasonable to the taxpayer, as well” and claimed “some progress” had been made within the public sector rows.
“At the moment, all households are struggling; the repercussions of high inflation caused by Covid and Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, and this government absolutely focused on tackling that,” he said.
Mr Shapps stated: “Granting inflation-busting pay deals, which step outside of the independent pay review settlement process, is not the sensible way to proceed, and it won’t provide a fair outcome.”
Instead, he said ministers would work to “find meaningful ways forward with unions”, and to “work with employers to improve the process and discuss the evidence” for the 2023-24 pay round for next year.
The business secretary added that evidence for next year’s settlements had now been submitted to relevant pay review bodies.
But unions, including the Royal College of Nursing, have insisted that the only way to resolve the disputes and avert strike action is by negotiating on this year’s pay deal, for 2022-23.
“Granting inflation busting pay deals is not the sensible way to proceed, and it won’t provide a fair outcome”
Health unions have been calling for pay increases in line with or above inflation, including the RCN, which has been campaigning for a 5% plus inflation rise, which currently equates to 19%.
Instead, most NHS nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been handed a £1,400 rise – in line with the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body.
Meanwhile, Mr Shapps today told MPs that the government “has a duty to protect the public’s access to essential public services” as he introduced the controversial Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
“Whilst we absolutely believe in the right to strike, we’re duty bound to protect the lives and the livelihoods of the British people,” he said.
“I’m introducing a bill that will give government the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic by delivering minimum safety levels, ensuring the lives and livelihoods are not lost.”
The legislation would cover six “key areas”, which Mr Shapps said were “critical for keeping the British people safe and society functioning”.
These included health, education, fire and rescue, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning.
As part of the bill introduced today, Mr Shapps reiterated that the government intended to consult on “what an adequate level of coverage looks like in fire, ambulance and rail services”.
For other sectors covered by it, including health, he noted that ministers hoped to reach minimum service agreements on a voluntary basis that meant “we don’t have to use that power in the bill”.
According to the government, unions would be “bound to follow this legislation and will risk the employer bringing an injunction to prevent the strike from taking place or seeking damages afterwards if they do not comply with their obligations”.
Mr Shapps thanked the RCN, which he said had worked with health officials at a national level for its organised nurse strikes in December to “ensure safe levels of cover were in place when they took industrial action”.
“They kept services like emergencies and acute care running,” the business secretary said during his statement to the Commons.
“They showed that they could do their protest in a reasonable and mature way whilst withdrawing their labour. As ever, they put the public first, we need all our public services to do the same.”
He claimed it was risks created by ambulance workers, where minimum safety levels could not be agreed during recent strikes or for those due to take place tomorrow, that were a cause for concern.
“This will result in patchy emergency care of British people and this cannot continue,” according to Mr Shapps.
While the true impact this legislation may have on nursing remains unclear, some members of the profession raised concerns to Nursing Times after the proposals were first mooted last week.
Some nurses believed the new law could attack democratic rights, while others warned that it could drive more staff out of the profession.
Also speaking in the Commons today, deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, claimed the legislation was a “sacking nurses” bill and an “outright attack on the fundamental freedom of British working people”.
Ms Rayner warned: “We all want minimum standards of safety, service and staffing. It’s the ministers failing to provide it.
“Does [Mr Shapps] not accept that trade unions and workers already take steps to protect the public during action?”
She added: “We need negotiation, not legislation.”
Also in response to today’s statement, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “Health leaders share the government’s concern that in the event of industrial action, there should be minimum levels of staffing in place to make sure that the most vital services can continue to run, and that patient safety is not compromised.
“This is why they work closely with local trade union representatives to agree reasonable exemptions to where strikes are expected to take place,” he said.
But he warned that issues like burnout, staff shortages, and pay failing to keep up with living costs would not be changed by the legislation, “as it does not address the fundamental concerns facing NHS staff”.
“Instead, it could be seen as an attempt to silence workers in their hour of need and to sweep the problem under the rug,” warned Mr Taylor.
“If the government is serious about supporting the NHS and ensuring people get the care they need, it must be prepared to negotiate meaningfully with the unions on pay,” he added.
Health unions have been approached for a response to today’s introduction of the bill.
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was introduced in parliament today, 10 January, meaning it has taken its first step on the journey towards potentially being passed and becoming law.