A controversial clause in the government’s anti-strike bill, which threatened to sack striking nurses, has been defeated in the House of Lords.
Lords and baronesses voted for an amendment to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which would protect workers from being dismissed for taking part in otherwise lawful strike action.
The proposed bill is set to 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 otherwise democratically and lawfully voted to strike could be forced to work.
Peers gathered in the house to debate the bill at its report stage, where an amendment was tabled which sought to protect workers from the threat of dismissal.
The former chief nursing officer for England and Lord Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, was among those who tabled the amendment, following discussions with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
Amendment four ensured that failure to comply with a work notice from an employer was “not be regarded as a breach of contract” and would “not constitute lawful grounds for dismissal”.
During the debate Baroness Fraces O’Grady, who supported the change, said: “This amendment would ensure that an individual employee named in a work notice cannot be sacked or sanctioned if they do not comply.
“In short, it would avoid the risk of a shameful and ultimately self-defeating spectacle of nurses and other key workers, whom not so long ago we all clapped, being sacked.”
Baroness O’Grady warned that without this amendment, individual workers who had lawfully voted for strike action would be “entered into a P45 lottery”.
She said: “Employers are given the power to effectively requisition individuals under threat of losing their livelihood.
“Most right-minded people find that disproportionate, dictatorial and fundamentally unfair.”
“This bill is a distraction from the real issues of severe workforce shortages, patient safety and decades of underinvestment across health and social care”
In addition, the Lord Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson, warned that passing the bill without this amendment would “seriously damage the co-operation and good will required for successful local negotiations” between employers and workers.
He added: “NHS Providers points out that, were individuals to go on strike contrary to a work notice and then be fired, unions could, and most likely would, take other action, either through work to rule or calling in sick en masse.
“Both would undermine the bill’s primary and laudable purpose to provide safe levels of care.”
Meanwhile Lord Martin Callanan argued that the amendment “would remove key parts of the legislation” which the government believe to be necessary to make it effective.
“This is not about sacking workers, nurses or anyone else,” he told the house.
“It simply enables employers to pursue disciplinary action if they believe it is appropriate, but it is ultimately at their discretion whether or not to do so,” Lord Callanan added.
Peers from all parties voted to pass amendment four by 232 votes to 201.
The RCN, who has supported this amendment since it was first introduced to the house, has welcomed the victory for striking nurses.
RCN director for England Patricia Marquis said: “Curtailing the freedom of nursing staff to take part in lawful industrial action is undemocratic and an attack on their human rights.
“This bill is a distraction from the real issues of severe workforce shortages, patient safety and decades of underinvestment across health and social care.
“We’ll continue to strongly oppose it as it passes through parliament.”
During the reading, peers also voted in favour of another key amendment, which states minimum service levels cannot be introduced until a consultation on their “potential impact” has been carried out, published and reviewed by a committee of each House of Parliament.
Meanwhile an amendment was also agreed to limit the reach of the legislation to England, exempting Scotland and Wales from the bill’s measures.
The amended bill will now go to the final reading in the House of Lords on 9 May.