New anti-strike code prompts human rights concerns

The code of practice for nurses who wish to strike, approved by MPs, gives employers discretion to impose compulsory work orders threatening the right to strike
Nurses on strike outside Northern General Hospital, Sheffield

The code of practice for nurses who wish to strike, approved by MPs, gives employers discretion to impose compulsory work orders threatening the right to strike

Nurses on strike outside Northern General Hospital, Sheffield
Nurses on strike at Northern General Hospital, Sheffield Picture: John Houlihan

The code of practice that nurses will have to follow during industrial action to avoid being sacked has been approved in the House of Commons, sparking concerns employers will be given ‘broad discretion’ to impose compulsory work orders.

New anti-strike code of conduct approved by MPs

The code of practice follows consultations on the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, a new law allowing ministers to impose minimum levels of staffing during industrial action by nurses, ambulance staff, paramedics, doctors, border control, railway workers and those in other sectors deemed essential.

The draft code, approved by MPs on 28 November, outlines the ‘reasonable steps’ that trade unions will have to follow to ensure their members issued with work orders comply and do not cross the picket line.

They include identifying their members, encouraging individual members to comply with a work notice, instructions for picket supervisors and warnings around ‘inducing members to strike’.

The code of practice has prompted the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) to write an urgent letter to the secretary of state for business and trade Kemi Badenoch expressing ‘serious concerns’ about the legislation and its compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998.

Crossbench committee concerned over removal of legal protection for striking workers

The crossbench committee of MPs and Lords criticised an ‘insufficient’ consultation process before the law was passed and the ‘severe consequences’ of staff losing legal protection against being dismissed for participating in industrial action.

The letter says: ‘In March 2023… we raised a number of serious concerns about the compatibility of that bill with the UK’s obligations under international law, including in particular the right to free assembly and association guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

‘We do not consider that the consultation process that preceded these regulations being laid was sufficient to meet these concerns.’

The letter also highlights a lack of options for voluntary arrangements to be made between employers and trade unions, which have proved successful during ambulance strikes to cover high priority emergency call outs.

The letter adds: ‘They [the regulations] would leave the decision whether to impose them through a binding work notice entirely in the hands of the employer.’

Legislation ‘effectively ends the right to strike’ and may put front-line jobs at risk

The committee, chaired by MP for Edinburgh South West Joanna Cherry, asked the government to clarify how the right to strike can be ensured when the legislation allows for minimal or no disruption to services.

Unison’s acting head of health Helga Pile said: ‘Unison has said all along this legislation was totally unnecessary and sets a higher bar for safe staffing during NHS strikes than at any other time. This code would tangle unions and employers in needless extra layers of red tape. Instead of local arrangements that meet patients’ needs, the focus would be on simply complying with incoherent legal requirements.

‘Ministers have ignored all union concerns and effectively ended the right to strike for many health workers, which will make it harder to make pay deals and raise legitimate concerns. And there’s a real risk front-line workers could be sacked for taking part in lawful industrial action.’

The RCN said they continued to oppose the act and are preparing advice for nurses and RCN representatives for action to challenge it.

A Department for Business and Trade spokesperson said they would respond to the JCHR in ‘due course', adding: ‘The Minimum Service Levels legislation is compatible with all our international obligations – many members of the EU already have Minimum Service Levels legislation in place covering a broad range of services.

‘We’ve been clear that there needs to be a reasonable balance between the right of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect essential services that they pay for to be there when needed.’

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