The Royal College of Nursing has called for the government to scrap its controversial anti-strike bill after an assessment of the legislation was deemed “not fit for purpose”.
The Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC), an independent government watchdog, has this week given a red rating to the government’s impact assessment for its Strike (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
It found that the government had failed to consider all impacts of the legislation and that some parts of the impact assessment were not backed up with evidence.
“Drop the bill entirely and work with unions to resolve these disputes”
The new bill would give ministers power to impose new minimum service levels when industrial action takes place.
If passed it would allow an employer to bring an injunction to prevent strike action, meaning that nurses who have democratically and lawfully voted to strike could be forced to work.
The legislation also introduces a possibility of nursing staff being sacked if they do not comply to the regulations.
The RPC published its opinion on the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) impact assessment, in time for the bill’s second reading stage in the House of Lords.
The watchdog ruled that the BEIS’s impact assessment was “not fit for purpose” as it had not considered all impacts of the bill and some parts of the impact assessment were not backed up with evidence.
For example, the government has not yet published details about how these regulations how minimum service levels will operate on strike days.
In addition, the RPC said that as future minimum services levels “have not yet been chosen by the department”, specific impacts that may arise “remain unclear”.
The watchdog noted that while in the impact assessment the government had considered alternatives to the proposed bill, it had not evaluated them in any detail and were provided “only on a summary sheet”.
One alternative option which was mentioned was having voluntary minimum strike service levels and strike exemptions, known as derogations, which are negotiated between trade unions and employers ahead of strike days.
Derogations were used in recent strike action from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which made some staff such as critical care nurses and cancer nurses exempt from striking.
However, the RCN warned recently that should another round of strikes take place, it intended to escalate the action so that derogations would no longer apply.
In its impact assessment the government used the scale of strike action from 2022, which involved a variety of sectors, and the impacts it has had on the public, as a rationale for bringing minimum service levels into law.
However, the RPC ruled that while the bill “balances minimum levels of service with the right for workers to strike”, the impact assessment “does not consider or discuss the rationale behind workers’ decisions to strike”.
Additionally, the impact assessment did not consider action short of strike that may be taken, such as working to contracts and refusing overtime.
In recent weeks, action short of strike has been undertaken by nurses belonging to the union Unison, which is also in an industrial dispute with the government over pay.
Meanwhile, another key issue identified by the RPC was that the cost benefit analysis within the impact assessment was “weak” as it was unclear what evidence had been used or the relevance of the evidence provided.
The RPC report said: “While the analysis that is included in the impact assessment is clearly set out, the department makes use of assumptions in the analysis which are not supported by evidence.”
However, the watchdog did note that BEIS had included a “sizeable section” in its impact assessment setting out potential risks that may arise from introducing the bill, including an acknowledgement that it may lead to further strike action.
As a result of the watchdog’s assessment, the RCN has called for the government to drop the Strike (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
RCN general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, said: “This is a damning assessment of the government’s attempt to stifle the rights of workers.
“The independent committee is saying the bill is not fit for purpose and should essentially go ‘back to the drawing board’.
“The government is ploughing ahead with an ill thought through bill that allows for nursing staff to be sacked for taking otherwise lawful strike action.
“Ministers would be better listening to the mounting opposition, drop the bill entirely and work with unions to resolve these disputes.”
Typically an impact assessment should be submitted by the government before a bill is laid before parliament and in time for the RPC to issue an opinion alongside it.
However, BEIS submitted its impact assessment late to the RPC and after it had already passed through the House of Commons – a move that the watchdog heavily criticised in its report.
“The department did not follow its own policy for the timely submission of an [impact assessment] to the RPC for scrutiny to enable parliament to consider both the [impact assessment] and the RPC’s opinion,” the RPC said.
It added that this decision had prevented the watchdog from issuing a review notice, which could have allowed BEIS to “rectify [the] shortcomings” of the impact assessment and receive a green-light for the legislation.
The Trade Unions Congress (TUC) accused the government of “ducking scrutiny” and “shortcutting” proper regulatory process by submitting the impact assessment late.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “The government is investing far more time and energy in steamrollering this bill through parliament than it is on resolving disputes.
“Instead of scheming up new ways to attack the right to strike, ministers should get pay rising across the economy – starting with a decent pay rise for public sector workers.
“The staffing crisis blighting our public services will only get worse if the Conservatives continue to hold down wages in our schools, hospitals and crucial services.”
A government spokesperson said: “Our legislation is sensible and proportionate and will protect our economy and the public from being disproportionately impacted by strike action.
“We are engaging with the RPC to fully understand the reasons for their assessment and considering their feedback.”