Prime minister Rishi Sunak is reportedly poised to set out legislation aimed at limiting the impact of public-sector strikes on key services – hours after publicly praising NHS workers and other officials who are part of an unprecedented wave of industrial action over pay.
Just over two months into his tenure at No.10, Sunak set out broad-brush priorities for the year that broached the cost-of-living crisis, NHS performance and public-sector strikes over pay – which have placed civil servants, nurses and paramedics in dispute with employers.
The prime minister said “a lot of misinformation” was circulating about the strikes and that he wanted people to “clearly understand” the government’s position.
“We hugely value public sector workers like nurses,” he said. “They do incredibly important work.
“That’s why we want a reasonable dialogue with the unions about what’s responsible and fair for our country.
“And in the coming days, we will update you on the government’s next steps.”
Hours later, The Times reported that Sunak is preparing to announce new laws that will enforce “minimum service levels” in six sectors, including the NHS and border security – which have both been hit by strikes over pay in recent weeks.
Border Force staff who work for the Home Office staged eight days of strike action over the Christmas period that affected six airports and the port of Newhaven, prompting around 600 army personnel to be drafted in to provide emergency cover.
A similar number of servicepeople were trained up to provide cover for striking ambulance staff at five trusts in England last month.
According to the The Times, the new legislation would also cover fire and rescue services, education and railways.
Quoting a government source, the paper said strikes in the relevant sectors would be illegal if unions refused to provide an agreed minimum level of cover. Employers would be able to sue unions and potentially dismiss union members who refused instructions to work.
“This legislation will remove the legal immunity for strikes where unions fail to implement a minimum level of service. The strikes will be illegal. Ultimately, people could be fired for breach of contract,” the source said.
Tim Sharp, a senior employment rights officer at the Trades Union Congress, said ministers should expect unions to challenge the law change in parliament and the courts.
“The Conservative government’s plans would be a significant curb on working people’s fundamental right to strike to defend their pay terms and conditions,” he said.
“The measures are unworkable, counterproductive and almost certainly in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS – the civil service’s biggest union – said Sunak’s speech had provided very little confidence that an agreement could be reached to end the current wave of public-sector strikes.
“If Rishi Sunak is serious when he says he values public sector workers, then he would give our members an above-inflation pay rise to help them through the cost-of-living crisis and beyond,” he said.
“If he is serious about having a reasonable dialogue, then he knows how to get hold of me. I’m waiting for his call. There’s no point in him saying the government’s door is always open when there’s no money on the table.”
In his speech at the Plexal co-working space in east London yesterday, Sunak stressed the role private-sector innovation has to play in improving pay and productivity.
“Some people think innovation is about gadgets and geekery – a nice-to-have, peripheral to growth compared to the traditional levers of tax and spend,” he said.
“That’s exactly the mindset we need to change. Let me tell you why innovation is so important.
“Over the last 50 years, it was responsible for around half of the UK’s productivity increase. New jobs are created by innovation. People’s wages increased by innovation. The cost of goods and services reduced by innovation.
“And major challenges like energy security and net zero will be solved by innovation. The more we innovate, the more we grow.”
Sunak said the government would reduce the burden of taxation on working people “as soon as we can”.