In our strongly worded submission, we fiercely defend our members’ freedom to strike and warn the government is putting itself on a collision course with nursing staff over the issue.
Under government plans to maintain minimum service levels in hospitals during strike action, some nursing staff would be forced to work or face the sack. It would limit their ability to protest poor pay and working conditions and silence their voice over patient safety concerns. It would significantly lessen the impact of nursing strikes.
The regulations are part of the implementation of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, which we strongly opposed as it passed through parliament. Though it is now law, we continue to try to influence how it will work in practice as new guidance, regulations and measures related to it are consulted on and introduced.
RCN Director of Legal and Member Relations Joanne Galbraith-Marten said: “Rather than resolving disputes and strikes, the government is choosing to erode people’s freedoms instead. Changing the law is a clear sign they’ve lost the argument. At their core, these measures are designed to prevent nursing staff from standing up for their patients.”
Our consultation response stresses that the act legislates for safe staffing on strike days, but the government remains opposed to introducing year-round safe nurse staffing legislation. In effect, workplaces could be more safely staffed on strike days than not.
The RCN argues that the NHS is so understaffed now that every day across the service one nurse may be responsible for 10, 12, 15 or often more patients on a single shift, far too many for safe care.
We also point out that ministers blatantly misled nursing staff about how the legislation would apply to them from the start. In the House of Commons in January, government spokesperson Penny Mordaunt reflected on how responsible the RCN had been in staging safe strike action. She said: “The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is not about nurses. Nursing unions have been hugely responsible when they want to take industrial action, and we have great confidence in the minimum service levels that they have put in place.
“Very explicitly, we are not taking these powers and bringing forward measures regarding nurses at all, and it is quite wrong to suggest that. Instead, we are focusing on where we have deep concerns about minimum service levels – in two blue-light services and in transport.”
In our consultation response we also raise a specific concern that the minimum service level regulations are discriminatory. Because nursing is a 90% female profession, the proposals mark a gendered attack on the freedoms of our members.
They also have a potentially disproportionate impact on internationally educated nursing staff, because their visa and UK residency is conditional on their employment. If they go on strike, they may get sacked, the threat of which could discourage and silence them.
Joanne added: “Ultimately these attempts to curtail the freedoms of nursing staff will only exacerbate our dispute with a government that takes nursing staff for granted. This provocative approach to industrial relations makes further strike action by nurses more likely, not less likely.
“We will continue to campaign against the principles of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act – and all other anti-strike measures announced by the government – and campaign for the Act to be repealed in its entirety.”