The Government responds to ‘summer of discontent’
In response to what is likely to be the highest levels of industrial action for many years, the Government has passed two new pieces of legislation which it hopes will “mitigate the disproportionate impact strike action can have both on the UK economy and society.” Both measures took effect on July 21, writes David Mills, Partner at Mills & Reeve LLP .
Firstly, it has repealed the legislation which prohibits employment agencies sending ‘work-seekers’ to cover directly for workers engaged in official industrial action or to do the work of non-striking staff temporarily re-deployed by the employer in response.
These restrictions have been part of the industrial relations landscape for many years and their removal has been controversial.
When the Government consulted about these proposals in 2015 the majority of respondents (regardless of the organisations they were representing) came out against changing the law.
It seems that the current industrial relations climate has persuaded the Government to act. In response, the TUC has announced plans to challenge the change in the courts, arguing that they put the Government in breach of its obligations under the European Human Rights Convention.
It remains to be seen whether employment agencies or employers will wish to take advantage. When the proposals were first announced the Recruitment and Employment Confederations issued a joint statement calling for the Government to abandon its plans, saying that they were “not practical”.
Certainly, many employers will be wary of further inflaming industrial relations by taking advantage of the new freedoms, even if they are able to find agency workers who would be willing to cross picket lines.
The second change involves increasing the limits on the liability of trade unions if they are sued following unofficial industrial action. The limits depend on the size of the union and have not been increased for many years.
They have now been increased four-fold. That means that the biggest unions are now liable to pay compensation of up to £1 million if they endorse unofficial action. This is likely to be a largely symbolic change, since these claims are comparatively rare.
Neither of these changes on their own are likely to change the balance of power between employers and unions to a significant extent. However, if we are to believe the campaign rhetoric of Tory leadership contender Liz Truss, or the recent proposals floated by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in the Daily Telegraph, more significant changes could be on the way.
One particularly radical proposal would be to require a minimum of 50 per cent of the workforce to vote in favour of industrial action. Currently there is a 40 per cent threshold for important public services but no such requirement in other sectors of the economy.
Certainly there seems an increased readiness among senior Conservatives to ‘take on’ the unions, though views will differ on whether this is in the longer term interests of the UK economy.