UK’s battered economy loses more than 450,000 working days to strike action in a month

UK’s battered economy loses more than 450,000 working days to strike action in a month as Rishi Sunak accuses Labour of helping unions ‘grind Britain to a halt’ by opposing new law to limit industrial action

  • MPs voted in favour of the Government’s strike bill in the House of Commons
  • Law aims to impose minimum service levels for public sector workers in strikes
  • Unions criticised the plans, with Labour and opposition MPs trying to block it
  • But it passed by a majority of 60, meaning a second reading will take place 

Britain’s battered economy lost almost half a million working days to strike action in November – the worst monthly total for more than a decade, official figures revealed today.

As militant unions across a range of industries prepare for massive walkouts in February and beyond, the ONS said industrial action by rail and other workers cost 467,000 working days.

It came as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accused Labour of helping unions ‘grind Britain to a halt’ by opposing a new law to limit strike action. 

The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle in the Commons last night as MPs voted for the Government’s bill to set minimum service levels for frontline workers holding industrial action.

Labour voted against it and Rishi Sunak, in an email to party members late last night, said: ‘Union bosses want to grind Britain to a halt. And Labour want to let them.’

As militant unions across a range of industries prepare for massive walkouts in February and beyond, the ONS said industrial action by rail and other workers cost 467,000 working days.

As militant unions across a range of industries prepare for massive walkouts in February and beyond, the ONS said industrial action by rail and other workers cost 467,000 working days.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps, pictured here on January 10, introduced a second reading of the bill into the House of Commons tonight

Business Secretary Grant Shapps, pictured here on January 10, introduced a second reading of the bill into the House of Commons tonight

Members of the RMT union were among those protesting against the bill outside Downing Street tonight

Members of the RMT union were among those protesting against the bill outside Downing Street tonight

Ministers had introduced the bill in the wake of strikes by rail workers, nurses, ambulance staff and civil servants in recent weeks, that has seen the country grind to a halt.

The bill, which had been harshly criticised by unions, gives ministers the power to draw up minimum service laws, that could see workers fired if they refuse to work during a strike.

After a fiery debate in the House of Commons about the proposals, MPs voted to accept the first reading of the bill by a margin of 60, with 309 voting in favour compared to 249 against.

It means the proposals in the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill can move forward to a second reading as part of what is set to be a tricky roadmap into becoming law.

Unions, Labour and other opposition MPs, as well as peers in the House of Lords have all vowed to fight the plans put in place by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Labour has accused the Government of ‘threatening nurses with the sack’ with their plans, which have been introduced amid a bitter pay dispute between ministers and unions. 

Introducing the bill to parliament earlier in the night, Business Secretary Grant Shapps said the public had ‘had enough of the constant, most unwelcome, frankly, dangerous disruption to their lives’.

He added there are ‘millions of people who rely on essential transport to get to work or to family commitments who every day have the extra stress of worrying about making alternative arrangements, sometimes costly arrangements, because of these forever strikers’.

Mr Shapps went on: ‘There comes a time when we can’t let this continue and that is why we need minimum safety and service levels – to keep livelihoods and lives safe, and it’s frankly irresponsible, even surprising, for the opposition opposite to suggest otherwise.’

He presented the bill for its second reading in front of MPs this evening with a warning that it would be ‘irresponsible’ for opposition parties to oppose the Government’s efforts to ‘keep livelihoods and lives safe’ during strikes.

The Business Secretary warned that continuing to rely on voluntary arrangements between unions and NHS trusts during strikes by health workers was not sustainable.

‘We can’t continue to rely on voluntary arrangements to ensure the safety of people we represent,’ Mr Shapps told the Commons.

‘After all, strokes and heart attacks don’t respect the boundaries of, for example, trust borders, and I’m intrigued to know what the members opposite would actually say to their constituents, perhaps to grieving constituents who’ve lost loved ones because of some sort of postcode lottery.’

Recent strikes by rail workers, nurses and ambulance staff (pictured) sparked the Government to introduce the bill

Recent strikes by rail workers, nurses and ambulance staff (pictured) sparked the Government to introduce the bill

Angela Raynor, deputy leader of the Labour Party, hit out at the Government's plans and the 'tone' of his remarks

Angela Raynor, deputy leader of the Labour Party, hit out at the Government’s plans and the ‘tone’ of his remarks

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner hit out at the ‘tone’ of Mr Shapps’s remarks in the Commons this evening and demanded he ‘reflect’ on his comments.

Confirming her party would vote against the bill’s second reading, she told MPs: ‘I cannot recall a measure that is at once so irrational and so insulting. 

‘Not only is it a vindictive assault on the basic freedoms of British working people, but this legislation is as empty of detail as it is full of holes.

‘So, we will oppose the sacking of nurses’ bill and not just nurses, but also many of the key workers who we clapped and who kept our services going in the face of the pandemic.

‘We will vote against it tonight and the next Labour government will repeal it.’

The Liberal Democrats and SNP are also set to vote against the bill’s second reading tonight. 

Meanwhile, to coincide with this evening’s debate in the Commons, trade union leaders who spearheaded recent strikes staged a demonstration outside Downing Street against the ‘hostile’ legislation.

Members of the PCS union, which has recently held a Border Force strike, and the RMT union, which has staged regular strikes on the railways for months, both attended the Westminster rally.

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is part of Mr Sunak’s response to the ongoing ‘winter of discontent’.

Nurses, ambulance drivers, rail workers, and border officials – as well as many other workers – have all brought widespread disruption to Britain with walkouts in recent months.

Union members gather outside Downing Street tonight to voice their opposition to the Government's bill

Union members gather outside Downing Street tonight to voice their opposition to the Government’s bill 

The bill seeks to give the Government the power to set minimum service levels for NHS, fire, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security services.

It does not set out what minimum service levels should be, or what they should be based on, but gives ministers the power to impose minimums through secondary legislation.

The PCS union encouraged its members to join tonight’s demonstration outside Downing Street with flags, banners and placards. 

The union’s general secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘This bill puts power in the hands of the wrong people.

‘It gives all the power to ministers and employers instead of our members who are being denied their democratic right to strike.

‘It paves the way for workers who have voted for strike action being sacked if they refuse to turn up for work on a strike day.

‘We shall oppose this hostile legislation to protect our members’ rights.’

Protesters chanted ‘f*** the Tories’ and ‘the people united will never be divided’ and others banged drums as they gathered in Westminster.

Speaking at the protest, Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said she was ‘keeping warm’ by thinking about how National Education Union (NEU) teachers had earlier voted to strike.

‘It’s absolutely freezing but you know what’s keeping me warm? The NEU just smashed their ballot,’ she told the crowd.

‘Picket lines, democracy, we are the champions of them and we are not going to accept any extra conditions on our ability to do that.’

Clare Keenan, from the PCS, described the Bill as an ‘attack on my human rights and those of my fellow workers’.

She said: ‘You can’t make people go to work five days a week and having to use food banks and removing their ability to protest.

‘It’s just a hurdle that they’re putting in the way to stop workers from taking industrial action.’

Retired George Hallam, who attended to show solidarity with workers, likened the Bill to anti-strike action taken under Margaret Thatcher’s government.

He said: ‘I think the Government is chancing its arm because the last time it tried something like this was the 1970s… It’s worse than a sin, it’s a mistake, because they’re likely to get a bloody nose like they did back then.’

Mick Lynch urges Keir Starmer not to be ‘vanilla politician’ and to back workers

By Alan Jones and Nina Lloyd, PA 

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch speaks at a protest against the Government's strikes bill tonight

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch speaks at a protest against the Government’s strikes bill tonight

Union leader Mick Lynch urged Sir Keir Starmer not to be a ‘vanilla politician’ and to back workers’ rights as thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Downing Street to protest against the controversial strikes Bill. 

The general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said the shadow cabinet should be promising to resolve pay disputes and rip up anti-union legislation if they win the next election. 

He was joined Labour backbenchers Zara Sultana and Bell Ribeiro-Addy, SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn and former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as he made a speech to crowds braving subzero temperatures on Whitehall on Monday evening. 

Addressing demonstrators from a podium, Mr Lynch said: ‘There are some people missing tonight. You get this every time you hear me. 

‘We’ve got Jeremy (Corbyn), he’s with us, we’ve got SNP MPs, we’ve got Caroline Lucas from the Green Party. 

‘But there’s a big question – where’s the Labour front bench tonight?’ 

The union boss said the Labour leader should not try to be a ‘vanilla politician in a vanilla suit’, adding: ‘Come and stand with us … stand up for socialism, stand up for workers and let’s change this going forward.’

Mr Corbyn condemned ‘disgusting levels of inequality’ in Britain under the Tory Government, while Ms Ribeiro-Addy, having come straight from Parliament, said the Bill’s introduction in the Commons had been ‘absolutely disgraceful’. 

‘All we heard from the minister was lies, deceit and utter contempt for our public service workers,’ she told protesters. 

Commenting on the protest earlier, Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said: ‘The protest at Downing Street is the start of a mass movement of resistance to this pernicious attack on the rights of working people to defend their jobs, wages and conditions against attacks from their bosses or cutbacks from the Government.

‘The Prime Minister is seeking to steamroller extremely severe restrictions on the right to strike through Parliament today, without any meaningful scrutiny. 

‘Firefighters and other key workers, who kept our public services going during Covid, are at Downing Street, to tell Rishi Sunak that they will not accept this dictatorial assault on their democratic rights 

‘Instead of launching draconian attacks on the rights of working people, the Prime Minister must provide the resources to resolve this dispute by paying firefighters and other workers a decent wage, to alleviate in-work poverty.’

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