The Minimum Service Bill : ‘a ludicrous bill’

26 April 2023, Debate in the Lords on amendment 3.  This amendment would prevent an employee being sacked for refusing to cross a picket line.  This is in the event of an employee being issued with a work notice, forcing them to work during a strike.

A Conservative argument in favour of the amendment:

Lord Balfe

My Lords, this amendment really shows what a ludicrous Bill this is. The clause that we are dealing with is unworkable. As noble Lords know, I have to declare an interest as an executive honorary president of the British Airline Pilots’ Association. I have talked in this House before about the fact that this Bill allows the Minister for Transport, our good and noble friend Lady Vere, to identify a pilot and order him, a week before the plane takes off, to fly to Washington. That is ludicrous. If you live in the real world of aviation, you will know that a plane is not cleared for take-off until the pilot certifies that it should take off, something like two hours before it leaves. You have to consider weather and whether the level of staffing is correct—and then the pilot is the captain of the plane, responsible for ensuring that the alcohol levels of the staff are not breached. Unless you let people make a decision, you are just running yourself into trouble.

Aviation is about 70% unionised. Is the employer going to identify some people who are not in the union and tell them to go to work, rather than people who are in the union? You have the same group of people, and some of them are in and some are out. How are you going to decide that, and how will you decide matters such as illness? What happens if someone rings up and says, “I think I’ve got Covid”? Are you going to be able to withdraw their protection from unfair dismissal? Of course not.

This clause, above everything else, demonstrates the weakness and stupidity of the Bill. The idea of naming people in a work notice could come only from the desk of someone who has never had to do it, frankly.

I want to look at Amendment 5. The reason put forward in a note to me for the proposal in the Bill was that the minimum service levels would be far less likely to be achieved as trade unions may attempt to persuade workers not to comply with work notices. That is fairyland. Trade unions spend more of their time and money on our friend the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and his colleagues in the law than is probably sensible. At every stage, they look at the law and say, “We must not break it”.

In my experience, the executive of a trade union, and particularly the local branches, will spend more time persuading the hotheads not to do stupid things than they will encouraging them to do so. It is, for instance, a regular occurrence that a number of British Airways staff believe that they can take actions that are clearly in contravention of the law. It is the job of the executive to say to them, “You will damage the union”; it is not the job of the executive—it never has been—to say, “Behind the scenes, do you think you could do this?” That is not the way that trade unionism works.

I say that as someone who has been involved in trade unionism, for my sins, for over 60 years. It is 60 years since I first became a branch official. Throughout a lifetime of serving in different trade union branches, executives, and now as president of a TUC union, I have always been impressed with how the workers we represented wanted to get it right. They have often had very good reasons for feeling annoyed with the employers, but the job of the union, as a structure, has been to canalise the dispute in such a way that it is within the law and is a compliant dispute that attempts to achieve the objectives that the workforce is looking for. One reason we have trade unions in this country is to provide a bit of balance.

The Bill is not even sensible. It will not work. I hope that, when it goes down the corridor, our new Prime Minister will look at it and say, “For God’s sake, let’s just bury it”. There are far more important challenges facing Britain today than passing an unworkable Bill to annoy one section of the population—not to mention the 1.5 million trade unionists who voted for the Conservative Party at the last election. They will probably vote for it again because they do not vote according to their union; they vote according to their class interests. Most of my union members vote for the Conservative Party.

Let us be aware that this is not a matter where a Conservative Government have to stand up to the unions—they are standing up to their own supporters. Ordinary members of trade unions have worked hard to help the country become the prosperous country that it is. This sort of legislation is just the sort of damn nonsense that people look at and say, “My God, they just do not understand, do they?” They do not say that the Government are trying to do something. The general reaction to this Bill, I am afraid, among my trade union friends is that the Government do not understand what they are doing. I urge the Minister to send it back down the corridor and ask them to bury it in a nice big box somewhere.

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