Strike-curbing plans extended to Passport Office without consultation

Border security services during industrial action must be "no less effective than if a strike were not taking place”, Home Office says
PCS Passport Office picket line in Peterborough for strikes in April. Photo: Paul Marriott/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

07 Nov 2023

HM Passport Office has been flung last-minute into the government’s striking-curbing minimum service levels plans.

The government has said it will lay legislation to introduce minimum service levels for rail, ambulance and border security staff before Christmas, in a bid to limit disruption and ensure public services continue during strikes.

The minimum service levels for border security will apply to Border Force officials and “selected HM Passport Office staff where passport services are required for the purposes of national security”. The Home Office had previously indicated only the inclusion of Border Force employees.

PCS, the civil service’s biggest union, has said it will consider ignoring the legislation, which aims to ensure minimum service levels are met during strike action.

Under the legislation, border security services will need to be at a level that where “they are no less effective than if a strike were not taking place”, Downing Street said.

The plans follow the passing of the government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act in July, which gave ministers the power to introduce minimum service levels across multiple sectors. The act required consultation and secondary legislation for each sector to implement this.

The Home Office had initially said its plan to introduce minimum service levels would focus on Border Force officials. Its consultation, carried out from August to October, did not mention HMPO or passport services once and did not say that Passport Office staff would be consulted.

In a foreword to the consultation, home secretary Suella Braverman said: “In the first instance, we are considering the key border security services delivered by Border Force – which is at the forefront of all our work to secure our border. The consultation therefore asks, in particular, for your views on how we should construct a minimum service level for Border Force.”

She added: “I would however be keen to understand whether you think this is the right way forward – and if not, to hear your suggestions about which other organisations should be included, in order to ensure we continue to protect border security.

In its response to the consultation, published yesterday, the Home Office said the majority of respondents called for only Border Force to be included, with no suggestions that HMPO should be involved.

However, the department said: “Following further consideration of the issues, we consider that we should include such passport services as may be necessary for national security reasons on a strike day, such as the collection and dissemination of intelligence.”

The legislation will apply to the following services within Border Force and HM Passport Office:

  • The examination of: persons arriving in or leaving the UK; goods imported to or exported from the UK; and goods entered for exportation or brought to any place in the UK for exportation
  • The patrol of: the sea and other waters within the seaward limits of the territorial sea adjacent to the UK; and the UK’s physical borders.
  • Passport services as may be necessary for national security reasons on a strike day, such as the collection and dissemination of intelligence.
  • The collection and dissemination of intelligence; and the direction and control of those engaged in providing these services.
  • The enforcement of health-related protocols, including protocols designed to inhibit the transmission of disease, such as passenger locator form.

The Home Office said it would include the latter two services despite a majority of respondents disapproving. It said that without the former, “we do not think it would be possible to properly maintain border security”, and that the latter “would be a critical border function in the event of a health emergency”.

‘Blatant attack on democratic right to strike’

Where minimum service level regulations are in place and strike action is called, employers can issue work notices to identify people who are reasonably required to work to ensure minimum service levels are met. Unions must take reasonable steps to ensure its members comply with work notices, or face losing their legal protection from damages claims and could be fined up to £1m.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "This blatant attack on trade unionists would strip away from our members in the Home Office who work as border security staff and in the Passport Office the democratic right to take strike action.”

He said the “hostile legislation” is “an attempt to essentially criminalise the act of strike action and to punish civil servants, railway workers and ambulance staff for their audacity over the past year to demand a fair pay rise at a time of skyrocketing inflation”.

Serwotka also warned: “We will have no choice but to resist this attack on our members and workers across the movement by building mass opposition, which may include a strategy of non-compliance and non-cooperation to make this legislation unworkable.”

The regulations for border security services will mandate that they remain “no less effective than if a strike were not taking place” and that all ports and airports should remain open on a strike day – both proposals that a majority of consultation respondents opposed.

Most respondents argued that “all activities should be suspended or slowed down” on a strike day.

The legislation will also stipulate that, on a strike day, Border Force should be able to deliver border security services without relying on cover from other parts of the civil service or the armed forces. The Home Office said the majority of consultation respondents agreed with this. During strikes at Border Force last Christmas, armed forces and civil servants were brought in to cover for striking staff. 

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, previously told previously told CSW he expected a "cursory consultation which will do nothing to dilute the impact of this toxic and unworkable legislation".

As a “compensatory” measure for the restriction of the ability of officials to strike, the Home Office said it will commit to engage in conciliation for national disputes in relation to border security where the relevant unions agree this would be helpful.

Home secretary Suella Braverman said: “We must never allow strike action to compromise our border security or cause significant disruption to passengers and goods at our borders.

“The Armed Forces have commendably stepped up to fill vital roles during recent industrial action, but it would be irresponsible to rely on such short-term solutions to protect our national security.

“The minimum service levels announced today will ensure a fair balance between delivering the best possible service to the travelling public, maintaining a secure border and the ability of workers to strike.”

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