The Government is pressing ahead with plans to introduce new legislation for “minimum safety levels” during industrial action.
The Business Department announced that a Bill will be introduced in Parliament in coming weeks to ensure vital public services maintain a “basic function” when workers go on strike.
Minimum safety levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and the Government said it will consult on the “adequate level of coverage”.
The announcement was made amid a wave of strikes, including a walkout by train drivers on Thursday which crippled rail services.
Unions said the move would do nothing to resolve the disputes breaking out across the country.
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.”
The Government said it will invite unions to meet for “honest, constructive conversations” about what is fair and affordable in public sector pay settlements for 2023/24, as part of a “reasonable approach” to avoiding prolonged industrial action.
A statement said: “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 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 called on the unions to cancel upcoming strikes in a bid to resolve the disputes “constructively through dialogue”.
“However, the Government 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,” the statement said.
“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.”
In an interview with Times Radio, Mr Shapps said he hoped the legislation would not have to be used, and discussed the potential for minimum levels to apply to teachers too.
“I hope that having legislated for minimum safety and service levels, we actually never have to use it. That would be the ideal,” he said.
“What we’re saying is we’ll introduce legislation, this will be primary legislation… which will legislate for minimum safety levels, or minimum service levels in areas like education or transport, for example, but as I say, my hope is actually to never really need to use them, each department would then come forward with their own secondary legislation,” he added.
Gary Smith, GMB general secretary, said: “A Government that has presided over 13 years of failure in our public services is now seeking to scapegoat the NHS staff and ambulance workers who do so much to care for the people of our country.
“The NHS can only function with the goodwill of its incredible staff, and attacking their fundamental right to take action will alienate them even further and do nothing to help patients and the public.
“We are always ready to discuss our members’ pay but the Government is refusing to talk about problems as they exist now, instead they want to kick the can down the road.”
The announcement said unions would be bound to follow the legislation and employers could bring an injunction to prevent strikes or seek damages if they went ahead.
Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen said: “Curtailing workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action is always undemocratic and we will look closely at what the Government releases.
“As for minimum staffing, last month’s action was safe for patients because of detailed discussions we chose to initiate with the NHS to protect emergency services and life-saving care. The public respected that and even ministers acknowledged our constructive approach.
“Safe staffing levels that are set in law are what we want to see year-round not just in these extreme circumstances.”
Unison’s assistant general secretary Jon Richards said: “Ministers should focus their time and energy on rebuilding trust and relationships with workers, not silencing and suppressing them.
“Minimum staffing levels in the NHS would be welcomed by the public and health staff every single day of the week.
“The NHS is on its knees because of record vacancies. The idea of limiting legal staffing levels to strike days and threatening to sack or fine health workers at such a time shows proper patient care isn’t ministers’ priority.
“The Government is picking ill-advised fights with NHS employees and unions to mask years of dismal failure to tackle pay and staffing.”
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “This is an attack on the right to strike. It’s an attack on working people, and it’s an attack on one of our longstanding British liberties.
“It means that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t. That’s wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal.
“The announcement offers nothing more to help with this year’s pay and the cost-of-living crisis.
“The only offer of talks is for next year. But we need to resolve the current disputes and boost the pay of public sector workers now.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, said: “Just when you thought the Government could go no lower, ministers say they’re looking to deal with strikes by making them illegal, rather than negotiate with unions.
“PCS members are on strike because they cannot afford the cost of living. We view any attempt to outlaw strikes as an attack on the trade union movement and we will resist that at every stage.”
Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said: “This is an empty offer from the Tory Government, and a meaningless stunt from Grant Shapps.”
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “The idea that we would call off industrial action on current pay issues in order to discuss the Government’s 2023/24 evidence to the Pay Review Body is frankly beyond a joke. It is not even jam tomorrow.
“The rules have already been fixed and there is not a single penny of additional money for NHS pay available from this.
“Every day, it’s a different gimmick from this Government. Perhaps if they focused on the one thing they haven’t tried yet – negotiating with us on NHS pay – then we could make some headway.
“Unless and until they do this, our strikes go ahead on January 19 and January 23.”
Dr Emma Runswick, the British Medical Association deputy chair of council, said: “This Government has failed to ensure anything like minimum standards of patient care or service delivery in the NHS for many months, if not years. It is therefore laughable that ministers are now attempting to bring in anti-union and anti-worker legislation under the false pretence of improving patient safety.
“Rather than fixing the root of the problem – the reasons why so many public sector workers feel they have no option but to strike – ministers are focusing their attention on the rules around industrial action. They are willing to risk infringing human rights while doing nothing about the NHS pay and working conditions crises they refuse to even acknowledge.”