Government invites unions to return to the table and call off strikes

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Business Secretary Grant Shapps.

Ministers are reaching out to unions to invite them to sit down and discuss the evidence that the government will be submitting to the pay review bodies – and hopes that unions will also share their evidence.

If the offer is accepted, discussions will take place between government departments and unions in the coming weeks on issues including pay evidence, workload and conditions in the public sector.

These discussions will help ensure the evidence submitted to the pay review bodies is as considered and informed as possible, including reflecting areas of common ground.

The government says it is clear that the “well-established independent pay review process is the right way to set public sector pay – it provides independent, expert advice and is a neutral process in which all parties play a role. These new discussions would feed into this process and are offered as the government recognises the particular economic challenges the country faces this year.”

The government say unions must also recognise these challenges and “play their part in finding an agreement that balances giving workers a fair and reasonable settlement with continuing to take steps to bring down inflation and protect households’ budgets.”

The inflation-matching pay awards that many of the unions are demanding will make the fight against inflation more challenging, and risks interest rates, mortgage payments and bills rising for people as a result. This would erode the value of any pay increase for public sector workers and hurt households across the country.

While these conversations take place, the government says it is calling on the unions to cancel upcoming strikes in a bid to resolve these disputes constructively through dialogue.

However, the government says it also has a duty to the public to ensure their safety, protect their access to vital public services, and help them go about their daily lives.

A statement on the GOV.UK website says: “The government will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods. That’s why the government will introduce new laws to ensure a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place.”

The government will introduce a bill in Parliament in the coming weeks to take the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic function and deliver minimum safety levels during industrial action.

Minimum safety levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and the government will consult on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors, recognising that disruption to blue light services puts lives at immediate risk.

For the other sectors covered in the bill, which includes health services, education, nuclear decommissioning, other transport services and border security, the government expects to continue to reach voluntary agreements, and would only look to consult on minimum safety levels should these voluntary positions not be agreed.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps said:

We hugely value the work of our public services and we’re reaching out to unions to have an honest conversation on pay, conditions and reform. Industrial action is disruptive for everyone – from people relying on essential services to get to work or care for their family to hard-working business owners whose sales suffer. It also costs those striking at a time when family budgets are tight.

As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods. While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.

As has been demonstrated over the last year, wide scale and repetitive industrial action can act as a major blockage to economic growth by preventing people from getting to work. Introducing the safety net of minimum service levels to ensure that the public are not put at risk during strike action is the best way of balancing the ability to strike, while protecting the wider public. 

The government says this package of measures will see the UK align with many countries across the world such as France and Spain that already have minimum service agreements in place, to prevent large swathes of their economies being ground to a halt by industrial action.   

This week’s reforms follow a change in the law made by the government in July 2022 enabling businesses to provide skilled agency workers to fill vital staffing gaps caused by industrial strike action. At the same time, the government also increased the damages a court can award for unlawful strike action.

Photo: Picture by Brandon Hattiloney / Home Office

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