Sir Nicholas co-sponsors Bill to regulate industrial action.
Sir Nicholas Soames MP was one of the co-sponsors of Chris Philp MP’s Bill which was voted down by the Labour Party, quite against the interests of the travelling public.
24 January 2017
House of Commons
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a bill to regulate industrial action by those providing certain critical national services; to define critical national services to include railways, operators providing buses, trams and underground railways, the National Health Service and fire and ambulance services; to require those taking industrial action in relation to critical national services to demonstrate that the matter in dispute is such that the adverse effects on the provision of service to the public caused by the action is proportionate and reasonable; to provide for the High Court in England and Wales and the Court of Session in Scotland to adjudicate on proportionality and reasonableness of action and to determine a minimal required level of service to the public to be provided in the case of such action taking place; and for connected purposes.
Trade unions have a long history of campaigning for workers’ rights, stretching back to the 19th century. Trade unions ushered in an era of regulated working hours, holiday pay, sick pay, maternity pay, health and safety at work and decent wages. I applaud those achievements, fought for by trade unions and made law by past Parliaments. I respect what trade unions have achieved in the past 150 years, and I understand that the right to strike is inseparable from the struggles that led to these victories that have helped to civilise our country. But we must also recognise that strikes have a profound effect on the wider public, especially where those strikes occur on critical national services. It is time to consider again the impact that strikes have on the wider public, and to protect the public as well as uphold the right to strike.
A few weeks ago, I received a heart-rending message from a constituent, Jenny Lehane. She said that tears were streaming down her face as she wrote about the effect of the recent Southern Railway strikes on her family. She wrote that she had to get her six-year-old son to walk to a bus stop at 5.30 in the morning when the trains were not running so that she could get to work and her son could get to school. She said those responsible should
“hang their heads in shame”,
and she attached a photo of her son trudging disconsolately down a cold, dark street wrapped in his blanket.
That is the human impact of nearly 40 days of strike action that the RMT and ASLEF have taken in the past few months, most recently only yesterday, to say nothing of the unofficial strike action and work-to-rule that have been taking place on non-strike days. The operator, Southern rail, must shoulder a great deal of blame. I am not here to defend it; in fact, I think it should lose the franchise. But there is no question that the strike action has made a bad service unusable in the last six months.
In this case, I do not believe that the unions have a substantial complaint. No one is losing their job. No one is getting a pay cut. Every single train currently scheduled to run with two members of staff will continue to be scheduled to run with two members of staff. The dispute centres simply on who opens and closes the doors, and whether the train can still run if the conductor does not turn up for work. The rail regulator says that there is no safety issue, contrary to the union position. In fact, millions of trains have run perfectly safely since 1984, including 1.5 million trains in the last five years, without a single fatality. All of London underground runs with driver-operated doors perfectly safely, as does most of continental Europe. The RMT is disputing these issues simply to retain its ability to shut down the rail network in the course of future strike action by its conductors.
It is on this flimsy pretext that 400 conductors are preventing 300,000 people from getting to work or getting home to see their loved ones. Sue Gaitskell had to quit her job as a sales manager. My constituent Lee Fenton was fired from his job working for a local council. Emma Green had to quit her job as a commercial lawyer. Many people are having to consider moving home. It is just not acceptable that the rights of these people are not being adequately protected.
I am afraid to say that there are signs that this kind of industrial action—hugely disruptive to the public, but based on a flimsy pretext—is spreading. Merseyrail and Great Northern are apparently next in the union’s sights, and two weeks ago London ground to a halt due to an RMT strike on the underground over changes that were in fact introduced some time ago.
I am pleased that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to his great credit condemned the RMT underground strike without reservation, but it is very disappointing that the Leader of the Opposition did not follow the Mayor’s example. Far from following the Mayor of London’s fine example, he said that, instead of siding with the public, he would in fact join the picket line. [Hon. Members: “Shame.”] Indeed.
The president of the RMT, a man called Sean Hoyle, did not even bother to disguise his motives. He was recently filmed speaking to a group of trade unionists, saying that the strikes had the objective of “bringing down the Government”; those are his words, not mine. Mr Hoyle is entitled to his political views, but he is not entitled to use the power he has as the president of a major trade union to inflict misery on hundreds of thousands of people simply in furtherance of his nakedly political objectives.
We now need further legislation to recognise the public’s right to get to work, to see loved ones or to receive medical treatment, as well as respecting the unions’ right to strike, which I fully accept. We in Parliament should not stand by and allow strike action to cause people to lose their own jobs.
This Bill goes further than previous legislation and proposes that strikes on critical national services, such as the railways, tubes, buses and NHS, should be “proportionate and reasonable” in the view of a High Court judge in order to be lawful. The judge would weigh up the complaint of the striking workers against the impact on the wider public in deciding what is “proportionate and reasonable”, and where strikes were allowed, the judge would specify a level of basic service that would be available during any strike. The law in Canada, Spain and Italy already works in a similar way, guaranteeing a basic level of service.
A poll published in yesterday’s Evening Standard found that 55% of Londoners support these proposals, and public support for them is growing daily. Many other Members support these proposals, too. In a similar vein, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who is in his place, is introducing his own ten-minute rule Bill on 4 February to stipulate that strikes based on the pretext of safety concerns cannot proceed unless the relevant regulator agrees that there is a safety issue.
I do not for one moment dispute the right to strike, but the public also have a right to get to work and not be forced out of their own jobs by union action. A fair balance is needed between the two, and I am afraid to say that current legislation does not provide it.
If there is a Division, in order to support this motion today Members do not need to agree with the precise details of the Bill. For example, Members may think that there are better methods of arbitrating between the rights of the unions and the rights of the public than through a High Court judge; some have suggested to me in the last few days that Parliament itself might be an alternative. But if the House supports this motion, we are sending a simple message that the public have rights as well as trade unions, and that it is Parliament’s duty to protect the public as well.
This Bill is about balance and fairness, and I commend it to the House.