From education to employment

Educators and Unions React to Government’s Minimum Service Levels Consultation

strike sign

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is set to announce a crackdown on teacher strikes according to a report in The Sun.

Under new plans, teacher unions will be required by law to ensure a minimum level of staffing on strike days to keep schools open. Initially seeking voluntary agreements, the Education Secretary’s proposal comes after unions declined.

The Department for Education has concluded talks with unions on Minimum Service Levels (MSL), prompting the launch of a government consultation on this issue.

MPs and Lords raise “serious concerns” about the legality of Conservatives’ anti-strike laws, say The TUC

  • Joint Committee on Human Rights says the government has failed to allay concerns about the legislation
  • The letter comes as the government consults on minimum service level regulations in schools

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has written to the government to express “serious concerns” about its anti-strike legislation breaching international law.

The crossbench committee of MPs and Lords says that the government has failed to allay concerns about the legislation.

The committee also criticises an insufficient consultation process.

The letter says:

“In March 2023 the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a legislative scrutiny report on the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.

“We raised a number of serious concerns about the compatibility of that Bill with the UK’s obligations under international law, including in particular the right to free assembly and association guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). As you will be aware, the ECHR has been made a part of domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998.

“We do not consider that the consultation process that preceded these Regulations being laid was sufficient to meet these concerns.

“Neither have our concerns about the impact minimum service levels may have on the ability of workers to exercise their Article 11 rights effectively been allayed by the recently laid Regulations.”

The letter comes as the government consults on minimum service levels in schools.

Scathing report

The TUC has accused the government of ignoring the concerns of the committee and instead ploughing ahead with the draconian new laws.

The JCHR previously published a scathing report in March, in which it slammed the government’s Strikes Bill “for failing to meet human rights obligations”.

The crossbench committee said the reforms were “not justified and need to be reconsidered” – and added that the government failed to provide “sufficient evidence” for introducing the controversial new laws.

The report also warned that the new powers being given to ministers are not “proportionate”.

Widespread criticism

The legislation gives ministers sweeping powers to impose strike restrictions in any service within health, education, fire, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning.

NHS Providers recently warned that the legislation could worsen industrial relations, harm patient care and lead to more disruption.

The EHRC also warned that the legislation could see all striking workers in affected sectors lose their unfair dismissal protection, as whole strikes could be deemed illegal.

The House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee criticised the Act for giving blanket powers to UK ministers while providing virtually no detail.

The Act has also faced a barrage of criticism from civil liberties organisations, the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee,race and gender equalities groups, employment rights lawyers, and politicians around the world.

TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said:

“MPs, Lords and employer groups are queuing up to condemn this draconian legislation.

“But instead of listening to concerns, the Conservatives are ploughing ahead with these spiteful new laws.

“These anti-strike laws are a deliberate attempt to restrict the right to strike – a fundamental British liberty.

“Make no mistake – they are undemocratic, unworkable and likely illegal.

“And crucially they will poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them.

“That’s why unions will keep fighting this nasty legislation. We won’t stop until it is repealed.”

On ministers consulting on minimum service levels in schools, Paul added:

“The crisis in our public services is of the Conservatives’ own making.

“But instead of fixing our crumbling schools and sorting out the chronic retention and recruitment crisis across our public services, ministers are threatening teachers and school support staff with the sack for exercising their right to strike.

“It’s plain wrong. This is a desperate government looking to distract from its dire record.”

Sector Response

David Hughes, chief executive, Association of Colleges said:

“This is an important consultation with potentially far-reaching implications for colleges which we will study closely. It is critical that the unique and distinct position of colleges is fully recognised should any regulations be taken forward. Colleges work hard to build and maintain strong and long lasting relationships with their staff and unions and we will want that to continue. 

“Over the coming weeks we will engage with our members to consider the details of the consultation. “

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“It could not be clearer that the government entered into talks with the profession about minimum services levels in incredibly bad faith. Having set initial proposals that no union could agree to, they have collapsed negotiations by briefing the media first and without ever coming back to the table. They have shown they cannot be trusted.

“We now have proof that the government have never been serious about getting the buy-in of the profession – this has always been a hostile act and an attack on the basic democratic freedoms of school leaders and teachers that they are determined to force through.

“Teachers and school leaders are dedicated professionals who care deeply about the pupils in their care. It has been shown in recent disputes that school staff remain professional and make careful decisions around the timing of industrial action, so that the impact is focused primarily on the government and minimised for pupils. In reality, the profession already observes its own voluntary minimum service levels – as we have seen ambulance drivers, nurses and doctors do too.

“This is a purely ideological fight from the government, aimed at removing workers’ fundamental rights.”

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said:

“If school workers were paid properly, strikes would be rare.

“The government hasn’t invested in essential services or their workforces. Industrial action is often the only option if staff are to have any hope of keeping pay at decent levels, and sparing schools an endless recruitment nightmare. 

“No one strikes at a whim. It means losing a day’s pay and few can afford that. Strikes remain a last resort, with workers forced to jump through multiple hoops to exercise their legal right.

“Yet these measures could prevent some school staff from ever striking again. That’s not the behaviour of a democratic government. 

“This legislation is a desperate attempt to prop up a government that’s lost the plot. Ministers would rather pick fights with unions and appease their right-wing backbenchers than improve the country. 

“The best way to boost education and public services across the board is to get rid of this failed government.”

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“The attempt to impose further restrictions on our democratic freedoms is shameful. This Government wants to be tough on strikes, but not on the causes of strikes.

“We have an education system on its knees. A deep recruitment and retention crisis, rocketing workloads and falling pay. And thanks to underfunding we have the largest primary class sizes in Europe and secondary class sizes are the highest since records began more than forty years ago. This is clearly unsustainable, but the Government is indifferent to the enormous challenges facing schools and colleges. On the evidence of last week’s Autumn Statement, they have given up.

“The attempt at dialogue was never meaningful. It was disingenuous and cynical. The end of talks was briefed out to the press by Number 10 before the talks ended. Sunak always intended to implement this draconian legislation without consent or mandate.

“The Government cannot stand the fact that the NEU passed the highly restrictive thresholds for strike action not once but twice during the recent pay dispute. They now seek to make the legislation even more severe.

“The proposed MSLs are an affront to those who democratically and legally vote for strike action, forcing a large proportion to go into work on strike days. This is a fundamental attack on the democratic freedoms and rights of school staff. It also demonstrates the Government’s incredible lack of understanding of the provision that schools already ensure is in place for students on strike days.

“This is a policy not becoming of a modern, liberal democracy. We already have some of the most restrictive trade union legislation in Europe. In 2015 Conservative MP David Davis said parts of the Trade Union Bill were more fitting of Franco’s Spain.

“MSL legislation is being rushed through. The time period of just 9 weeks – including the Christmas break – for consultation on the draft regulations is completely inadequate given the number of workplaces and employers covered by these proposals.The legal measures which Keegan wants to impose are unworkable and show a startling ignorance of school settings.

“The proposals have already been questioned by the UN’s International Labour Organisation and make this government an outlier internationally. This will only make the resolution of disputes more difficult and cause further disruption in schools.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“Minimum service levels are a profoundly illiberal policy by a government that has lost the argument. Nobody wants to go on strike. It is action that is taken as a last resort when all else has failed. But passing a law which effectively removes the right to strike from groups of employees is obviously done in order to weaken unions and the voice of employees over their pay and conditions.

“We are concerned that this legislation will be used by the government to impose a miserly pay award next year which will further erode the real value of teacher pay and worsen a recruitment and retention crisis which is causing huge damage. Last week’s autumn statement favoured tax cuts over investment in public services and the result of this decision for the education sector is that it will make any meaningful pay award unaffordable for schools and colleges next year without further cuts to provision.”

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of NASUWT – the Teachers’ Union, says:

“NASUWT will not stand by whilst this Government continues its campaign of bullying teachers into silence.

“Unions are united in condemning the proposed introduction of politically motivated MSLs in education. The Government continues to ignore the fact that it is impossible to secure minimum service entitlements for pupils in an education system so neglected and underfunded, instead opting to aggressively quash criticism with this inflammatory policy. The Government is once again demonstrating its contempt for teachers, at a time when they should be listening to the concerns of the profession and facing up to the crisis in recruitment and retention they have created.

“Ministers have put forward no compelling justification for MSLs in schools and colleges. Rather than continue discussions on scope for reaching a voluntary agreement with unions, the Government has pulled the rug. We have always been willing to work with the Government, but Ministers in the DfE must come to the table willing to engage, and with the authority to reach agreement. It has become increasingly clear that the Education Secretary does not have that authority.

“Today’s announcement is a shameless and politically-motivated attack from an out-of-touch Government on a beleaguered and demoralised profession who day after day, continue to deliver for our children and young people, despite mounting costs to their own mental and physical health.”

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The Government’s latest attack on the rights of working people shows yet again their absolute disregard for the democratic rights of people in this country. The Prime Minister and the Westminster Government stand alone.  The First Ministers of Wales and Scotland have today joined Metro Mayors and Council leaders in England in pledging to do all they can to prevent minimum services levels being imposed.  We also welcome the Labour Party’s commitment to repeal the measures.

Strikes are often the direct result of Government’s abject failure to sufficiently support the education system. Minimum service levels will not address the crisis in schools which Gillian Keegan and her many predecessors has created. It is no solution to inadequate funding, pay, excessive workload, recruitment and retention, crumbling buildings or any number of other serious challenges. It is a bit rich of the Government to preach about minimum service levels in the week where the teacher recruitment and retention crisis they have created has been laid bare, with the Government again missing its own targets and figures showing we are only training half of the number of teachers that are needed.

The Government must be left in no doubt that their determination to impose restrictions on education workers’ fundamental rights to take strike action will be challenged. The NEU welcomes the TUC’s decision to fight this latest desperate act of a desperate Government led by an unelected Prime Minister. MSLs are a malicious act, they’re wrong-headed and will be entirely counter-productive. They must be defeated”.

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