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Anti-strike bill: RCN lobbying sees dismissal clause debated in Lords

24 Mar 2023

We’re working with peers on an amendment that would protect workers from being sacked for taking part in otherwise lawful strike action.

Nursing staff on picket line

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill has been debated in the House of Lords this week as part of its passage through the UK parliament. We strongly oppose the bill and don’t think it’s fit for purpose. We used the debate on the bill as an opportunity to highlight our opposition and influence proposed changes.  

When bills pass through parliament, there’s a chance to change their wording using amendments. We’re working with peers on an amendment that would see the removal of a provision that would allow workers to be sacked for taking part in otherwise lawful strike action. The bill in its current form dictates that some employers could require employees to work during a strike and those employees could be dismissed if they refuse.   

This poses a fundamental risk to our members' rights and would exacerbate severe nursing workforce shortages. The amendment was tabled in the House of Lords by former chief nursing officer, Sarah Mullally, the Lord Bishop of London, following discussions with the RCN. 

During the first debate of this amendment, several members of the House of Lords referenced the RCN and our position. The Lord Bishop of Manchester reflected our concern that the sacking of nursing staff “would exacerbate severe nursing workforce shortages” and therefore the bill is not in the interests of patients. Lord Fox reminded peers that in the 106-year history of the RCN this is the first time that nurses have balloted and decided to strike in England. 

Our concerns that the bill represents an attack on nursing, a profession in which women and minority ethnic people are disproportionately represented, was also raised by Baroness O'Grady, speaking on behalf of the Labour Party. She said that by reducing union bargaining power, this bill will be a huge step backward for tackling racism at work. 

Unfortunately, as the amendment did not have the backing of the UK government, it was not “accepted” which means it won’t be taken forward in this stage of the parliamentary process.  However, there is still an opportunity for this to be debated and considered again at the next “report” stage in the House of Lords.

RCN Director for England Patricia Marquis said: “Curtailing the freedom of nursing staff to take part in lawful industrial action is undemocratic and an attack on their human rights. We’re urging members of the House of Lords to oppose this bill as a whole, but at the very least vote for the amendment we’re supporting to prevent workers from potentially being sacked for going on strike. 

“This bill is a distraction from the real issues of severe workforce shortages, patient safety and decades of underinvestment across health and social care. We’ll continue to strongly oppose it as it passes through parliament.”

The bill proposes that there should be a basic level of service when industrial action takes place. This would allow an employer to bring an injunction to prevent strike action and to seek damages afterwards if trade unions don’t comply. 

In a previous debate in the House of Lords, we backed an amendment in conjunction with the British Medical Association (BMA) about minimum service levels and safety.

The amendment proposed that minimum service levels for health services can’t be made unless the UK government has first established appropriate and legally enforceable staffing levels across health services for non-strike days that are greater than those required on strike days.   

Find out more about the bill and what it might mean for nursing staff in future.

Page last updated - 22/08/2023