Amid a wave of industrial action—particularly in key public sectors such as nursing, teaching and transport—the government has proposed new legislation which would require striking workers to comply with “minimum service” standards.
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which seeks to give the government powers to set levels of “minimum service” in “essential” sectors such as health and education during strike periods, was passed through the House of Commons on 30 January. The Bill is set to have its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday (21 February).
With the new legislation at the centre of fierce debate, government ministers and some Conservative MPs have compared the proposals to laws in other countries.
Last month, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said minimum service levels “are present in France, in Italy, in Spain”, and that they were supported by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), while then-business secretary Grant Shapps claimed the legislation “simply brings us into line [...] with many other modern European nations, such as Spain, Italy, France and Ireland”.
In a debate in Parliament on 30 January, business minister Kevin Hollinrake claimed: “This is not a radical Bill. What we are doing is not even new. We are taking reasonable, proportionate and balanced steps and aligning ourselves with many of our European partners, such as France and Spain."
Conservative MP Anna Firth also said: “This is pragmatic legislation that will bring the UK in line with other countries, such as France and Spain, which already have such legislation in place."
These claims have been rejected by opposition MPs. For example, during the same debate, Labour MP Ian Lavery said: “It is not the same in Italy. It is not the same in Germany. It is not the same in France. It is different”. Richard Burgon, also a Labour MP, said: “[The government] know that the ILO does not support the legislation and that it does not bring us into line with other European countries."
It is generally correct that many European countries, including all of those mentioned above, have some form of minimum service levels for public service workers. But this doesn’t mean the new Bill is directly equivalent to legislation in other European countries.
There are important differences, both in terms of who gets to decide on what the minimum service levels should be and what right to strike workers actually possess.
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What are the current laws on strikes, and what new powers does the Bill contain?
The proposed Bill covers Great Britain (so England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland, where employment law is devolved). This fact check focuses on the situation in Great Britain.
Employees in Great Britain do not have a general legal “right” to strike. Unions only have the freedom to strike when the law grants them legal protections, in the absence of which striking employees could be found to be in breach of their contractual obligations and unions could be sued.
According to the House of Commons Library, police officers, members of the armed forces and some prison officers are specifically prohibited from striking.
While there are no other legal bans on workers striking, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 makes it an offence to to take industrial action if it is known or believed that taking action could endanger human life or cause serious bodily injury, or expose “valuable property” to destruction or serious injury. This has led some unions to create “life and limb cover” policies—designed to ensure that particularly vital services are protected to maintain a level of public safety—during strikes.
For example, ambulance trusts and nursing unions arranged life and limb cover during recent strikes to keep critical services operating.
If passed, the new Bill would allow the relevant secretary of state to decide the minimum service level workers in certain sectors are expected to maintain during strikes. This would apply to six public service sectors—health, fire and rescue, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security.
If unions or workers fail to comply with these levels they could lose protections against being sued or dismissed.
How does this compare to other European countries?
Senior ministers and Conservative MPs have compared the Bill to laws already in place in “modern European nations”, with a focus on France, Spain, Italy and Ireland.
It is correct to say that these countries already have minimum service legislation which puts limits on the way in which public service workers are permitted to strike. But the four countries apply those rules in different ways:
- France has had minimum service requirements affecting some sectors since 2008, with legal minimums now established in areas such as public broadcasting, control of nuclear materials, air traffic control, passenger transport, education and air passenger transport.
- Italy has a broad list of what are defined as essential services subject to minimum service requirements during strikes, including health services, waste collection and disposal, energy supply, the service of justice, protection of the environment, surveillance of museums, transport, payment of pensions and wages, education, postal services, telecommunication services and public broadcasting.
- In Ireland, essential services are defined in a code of practice as those “whose cessation or interruption could endanger life, or cause major damage to the national economy, or widespread hardship to the Community and particularly: health services, energy supplies, including gas and electricity, water and sewage services, fire, ambulance and rescue services and certain elements of public transport”.
- Spain does not have a specific list of essential services, but the nation’s constitution and legislation both require “certain services essential to the community” to be maintained during a strike. If a strike is declared in companies providing essential public services, the governing authority may decide on the necessary measures to keep the service running, and the government may adopt appropriate intervention measures.
In some respects then, the minimum service level rules in some other European countries are much more sweeping, as they cover a much wider list of services.
But there is also a difference between the way the law functions in the above countries, and how it will work in Great Britain if the Bill passes.
Dr Steven Daniels, a senior lecturer in law and politics at Edge Hill University, told Full Fact: “The government is right when it says other countries do have minimal service bills in place or minimal service laws. That is correct.
“But by and large, I'd say the largest difference between a lot of these countries is the relationship between governments and trade unions. So in the UK case, there is no specific piece of legislation that guarantees the right to strike. Compare that to examples such as Spain, where their 1978 constitution does specifically guarantee the right to strike.
“There are protections in the UK against striking, but the right to strike itself isn't actually entrenched in UK law.”
Secretaries of state would have the power to set ‘minimum service’ levels
Another crucial difference with many other European countries is the way in which minimum service levels are set. Dr Joelle Grogan, senior researcher at UK in a Changing Europe, told Full Fact: “In the greatest majority of states, the determination of what a minimum service level should be—including who works, and when—is by agreement between the employer and the employee."
“So there's an agreement between the employer and the respective trade union as to what constitutes a minimum service level.”
But this process of agreement or consultation is not what is being proposed by the UK Government.
Instead, the Bill in its current form states that the Secretary of State has the power “to specify minimum service levels”, and that in terms of consultation “before making regulations [...] the Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”.
In its press release on the Bill, the government says there is an expectation on “parties in these sectors to reach a sensible and voluntary agreement”, but adds this will “be kept under review and the Bill gives the government the power to step in and set minimum service levels should that become necessary”.
This is different to the situation in many European countries, where trade unions are explicitly consulted on minimum service levels and where, if an agreement cannot be reached between unions and their employers, the matter becomes subject to independent arbitration or a court process.
Dr Grogran told Full Fact that Italy follows most other European countries in having minimum levels set by collective agreement (or an independent body if an agreement can't be reached), though Ireland, Spain and France have different arrangements:
- Ireland does not have specific legislation on industrial relations, but rather a code of practice which is not legally binding. This code does say minimum service levels should be based on a principle of cooperation, or through the Labour Relations Commission if an agreement can’t be reached.
- In Spain the government can set minimum service levels, but the required level of service needs to be proportionate—balancing the needs of the community to access services with the fundamental right to strike. There has been union criticism when officials have allegedly failed to engage with unions and instead imposed disproportionate minimum service levels.
- In France, minimum service levels are set by legislation in a number of sectors including primary schools and hospitals, while in other sectors, minimum service levels can be set by the government or administrative authorities.
The European Public Service Union has briefings with more details on the rules in France, Italy, Ireland, Spain and Germany.
A UK Government spokesperson told Full Fact: “The purpose of this legislation is to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public and ensure they can continue to access vital public services, by applying minimum levels of safety and service during strikes.
“All countries have different legal and constitutional frameworks, but the fact remains that minimum service levels have been operating in countries such as Italy and Spain for many years.
“The government will always protect the ability to strike, but we also need to maintain a reasonable balance between the right of workers to strike with the rights of the public, who work hard and expect essential services they pay for to be there when they need them.”
What is the International Labour Organisation’s view?
Mr Sunak claimed that the International Labour Organisation (ILO)—a United Nations agency which helps “set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes” across 187 member states—“supports minimum service levels”.
However the BBC has reported that the ILO’s director general highlighted the importance of dialogue between employers and employees and voiced concerns that he was "very worried about workers having to accept situations" due to a fear of losing their jobs.
An ILO committee has said minimum service levels “could be appropriate”, but that they should only be possible in three scenarios:
- where the interruption of services “would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population”,
- for “services which are not essential in the strict sense of the term but where the extent and duration of a strike might be such as to result in an acute national crisis endangering the normal living conditions of the population”
- for “public services of fundamental importance”.
The ILO guidance also says: “The determination of minimum services and the minimum number of workers providing them should involve not only the public authorities, but also the relevant employers and workers organisations.”
Again, this is not what the UK Government is currently proposing.
Dr Grogan explained: “The difference of the proposal in this draft bill is that determining what the minimum level of service should be is at the discretion of a government minister. The bill does not envision a negotiation between employer and trade union, or arbitration by an independent body (as would follow both ILO and European standards).
“This is very, very, very unusual. This is not like what we would see in almost any other state [...] we're not acting like Europe.”
When Full Fact asked Number 10 about this, we were referred to a response to an urgent question, provided on 24 January, in which Mr Hollinrake said: “The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognises minimum service levels can be a sensible solution to protect the public from serious consequences of strikes. Many countries in Europe and around the world who are also signatories to the ILO have minimum service levels in place covering a range of key services.”
Full Fact has contacted Mr Shapps, Mr Hollinrake and Ms Firth for comment.