Rishi Sunak’s new anti-strike laws would prevent certain job holders from ever being able to take industrial action, Labour’s deputy leader said during fiery exchanges in the House of Commons.
Angela Rayner promised on Monday that Labour would repeal the government’s anti-strikes bill, saying it was one of the most “indefensible and foolish pieces of legislation to come before this House in modern times”.
She said that enforcing minimum service levels would mean some roles – like railway signal operators – would never be able to withdraw their labour.
But the business secretary, Grant Shapps, struck a combative tone in the exchanges, referring to the union funding for Labour MPs who intervened in the debate and said the opposition were putting lives at risk by opposing minimum service levels.
The new law would apply across England, Scotland and Wales and would mandate minimum service levels for critical industries even on strike days, meaning some workers must stay on duty in industries like health, transport, fire service, border force, nuclear and education.
The first Commons vote on the bill came as Shapps was sharply criticised by the legislation watchdog, the regulatory policy committee, which said he had failed to set out an impact assessment.
Rayner, the Labour deputy leader said it was a “vindictive assault on the basic freedoms of British working people” and that it would add huge burdens to staff and take away the right to strike entirely for many workers.
At the second reading of the bill, Labour and the SNP said they would vote against it, with Rayner dubbing it the “sacking nurses bill”.
“He [Shapps] knows that Network Rail may mandate that all signal operators will need to work. You need signals, even if just two trains are running. How can the minister say this does not remove their right to strike?”
Shapps said the new law was “a common sense safety net to keep the public safe and ease some of the enormous anxiety that they felt over the last few months.”
He said: “Failing to support this bill today means that members who oppose this legislation are essentially prepared to put the safety and welfare of their own constituents at risk.”
Under the new legislation, employers will be able to issue a work notice to staff required to meet minimum service levels. Those workers who take industrial action regardless of being requested to work lose their right to automatic protection from unfair dismissal.
Rayner said it would not prevent “unscrupulous employers from targeting trade union members with work notices … is this legislation a licence for blacklisting?”
The TUC has accused the government of fast-tracking the bill without proper checks and balances – saying consultations on how the regulations will work have not been published and very little detail on how minimum service levels are intended to operate.
Unions have been demonstrating outside parliament against the bill with some pledging legal action if it makes it through both Houses of Parliament.
Legislation on minimum service levels on transport were part of the Conservative manifesto but not the widespread application to other industries that the bill proposes. That could give peers in the House of Lords some room to object to the bill.
The TUC is organising a day of protests against the bill on 1 February, which will be the first day of industrial action by teachers after the National Education Union voted to strike over pay.