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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Aubrey Allegretti Political correspondent

Minister backs curbing right to strike of more public sector workers in UK

Gillian Keegan
Gillian Keegan hinted that a law to ensure minimum service levels on the rail network during strikes could be changed so that other sectors are targeted too. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A cabinet minister has backed widening the list of workers banned from striking, suggesting it could include NHS staff and others in “critical infrastructure” jobs.

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, suggested more people might be put on the same footing as police officers and the military, given the “disproportionate” disruption and threat to public safety caused by such industrial action.

She hinted that a long-delayed law to ensure minimum service levels on the rail network during strikes could be changed so that other sectors are also targeted.

Ministers are drawing up plans to curb disruption to public services, after Rishi Sunak’s pledge for “tough” action in the face of a growing number of planned strikes over below-inflation pay rises.

Border Force guards became the latest to announce a series of strikes, following similar moves from nurses, railway workers, Royal Mail staff, airport baggage handlers and civil servants.

However, any new anti-strike legislation is unlikely to come into force before Christmas.

Asked if she backed banning more professions from going on strike, Keegan told LBC radio: “Well, yes. We do have some areas where strikes are not allowed as part of the contracts, so for example the military can’t go on strike and the police – there’s some people, as a matter of public safety, you can’t go on strike.

“I think what we’re looking at is: are there other areas that we should include in that? Health would be one to look at, and other areas of critical infrastructure.”

Keegan said she did not know whether teachers, some of whom are on a two-day strike in Scotland, could end up being included in the list.

While teachers are balloting for industrial action in England, Keegan said she was hopeful that a walkout was not inevitable.

She hinted a bill – promised as far back as 2019 – to ensure a minimum service on the rail network had been held up by the turbulence of two recent Tory leadership elections, but added it would most likely be “prioritised”.

Keegan said the government was looking at whether the bill should be broader.

“Clearly, it’s disproportionate the impact it can have on people, when certain parts of the workforce are on strike,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The bill was announced as far back as the 2019 Queen’s speech but only began its journey through parliament on 20 October 2022. It is now in limbo having been given no date for MPs to debate it.

Keegan said there had been “a little bit of disruption in our parliamentary time”, alluding to the fact that Liz Truss stood down as prime minister a few days after the bill’s introduction.

Union leaders have told ministers to stop “hiding behind” pay review bodies in winter strike talks.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, and Christina McAnea, the general secretary of healthcare union Unison, accused the government of refusing to negotiate in good faith.

In a letter to the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, they said: “Now is not the time for smoke and mirrors. Now is the time for genuine negotiations.”

Pay review bodies set wages for a wide range of public sector workers, and ministers have repeatedly said they cannot interfere with their recommendations.

However, the government sets their remit and O’Grady and McAnea said: “If ministers egenuinely want to resolve these disputes, they must address what’s causing them.”

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