Grant Shapps unveils new powers in strike laws

Business Secretary Grant Shapps has set out plans to enforce minimum service levels during strike action, including for ambulance staff, firefighters and railway workers.

Under the bill, some employees would be required to work during a strike and could be sacked if they refuse.

Mr Shapps said the aim was to protect lives and livelihoods.

But unions said the proposed bill was "undemocratic, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal".

And Labour said it would repeal the legislation if it wins the next general election.

The new bill, published on Tuesday, comes amid a wave of industrial action across public services, with unions calling for pay increases to keep up with the rising cost of living.

But it is not set to become law until later this year - provided it gets past opposition in the House of Lords - so will have no impact on the current strikes.

The government is seeking to extend legislation on public transport already making its way through Parliament to cover other sectors.

Ministers will get the power to set minimum safety levels for fire, ambulance and rail services under the bill, which will apply to England, Wales and Scotland.

They would also have the power to set minimum levels of service for health, education, nuclear decommissioning and border security but hope to reach voluntary agreements in these areas.

Ministers will decide the level of service required for each sector during strikes following a consultation.

Employers will then be able to issue a "work notice" to unions, setting out who is required to work during a strike.

Under the legislation there would be no automatic protection from unfair dismissal for an employee who is told to work through a notice but chooses to strike.

If a strike is not conducted in accordance with the new rules, employers would be also be able to sue unions for losses.

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said it was "utterly stupid" and "insulting" for Mr Shapps to go from thanking nurses to proposing to sack them for striking.

"We all want minimum standards of safety, service and staffing. It is the ministers failing to provide it," she said, adding that the public was being put at risk every day by the crisis in the NHS and staff shortages.

Mr Shapps told MPs: "No one is talking about sacking nurses... nothing we are announcing today in this bill from the despatch box is about getting rid of nurses any more than any employment contract has to be followed."

He added that the government "absolutely believes in the right to strike" but it is "duty bound" to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public.

"We don't want to use this legislation but we must ensure the safety of the British public," he said.

Mr Shapps said the proposed legislation was similar to existing laws in Spain and France - and it would not break European human rights laws.

Conservative MPs spoke in support of the plans in the Commons but one, Stephen McPartland, said on Twitter it was "shameful" to target individual workers and "order them to walk past their mates on [the] picket line or be sacked".

The head of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Paul Nowak, said that if it became law the legislation would "prolong disputes and poison industrial relations - leading to more frequent strikes".

"This legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don't comply," he said.

"That's undemocratic, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal."

The TUC said it would hold a national "protect the right to strike" day on 1 February in protest against the bill.

Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack called the bill a "shameful attack" on democratic rights and key workers.

Mick Lynch, head of the RMT transport union, said the "draconian legislation" sought to "punish workers" for demanding decent pay and working conditions.

The GMB union, which represents some ambulance workers, said the bill would "alienate" NHS staff further by "attacking their fundamental right to take action".

Ambulance staff in England and Wales are preparing to walk out on Wednesday, while nurses in England and teachers in Scotland are also set to strike next week.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps: "We are duty-bound to protect the lives... of the British people"

Angela Rayner asks Grant Shapps about strikes in the public sector: "Any chance of a deal this year?"