Ministers are to unveil controversial new legislation designed to curb the effectiveness of strike action as industrial disputes continue to paralyze services across the UK.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has previously said that the bill will enforce a “basic” level of service from different sectors if workers choose to strike.
Shapps said there was currently a “lottery” if workers chose to strike, alleging that nurses were willing to guarantee a national level of service during strikes but ambulance unions were not. “There was a sort of regional postcode lottery. That’s the thing we want to avoid,” he told Sky News.
The legislation is likely to face a difficult passage in the House of Lords and a legal challenge by unions once it is passed – meaning minimum service levels are unlikely to be able to be enforced for many months.
The government’s own impact assessment has suggested that the legislation could lead to “an increased frequency of strikes … and more adverse effects in the long-term”.
Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that he did not see that as a risk and said the government hoped it would never have to use the new power, citing the disparity between nurses and ambulance workers and saying he hoped agreements could be made without the need for enforcement.
“This would, I hope, bring everyone to the table to provide those same minimum safety levels,” he said.
“I do think the minimum safety levels make a huge amount of sense. I hope that rather than actually using the legislation, we’ll be able to just get this safety and security in place for people. It can’t be right that the British people are exposed to that variance and service depending on where they happen to live.”
The Trades Union Congress general secretary, Paul Nowak, said the change in the law would risk further strikes.
“This legislation would mean that, when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply. That’s undemocratic, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal,” he said. “Let’s be clear: if passed, this bill will prolong disputes and poison industrial relations – leading to more frequent strikes.”
The introduction of the bill to parliament on Tuesday comes after crisis talks on Monday between ministers and unions failed to resolve ongoing disputes with nurses, teachers and rail workers.
However, ministers have laid the ground for a U-turn on pay for NHS staff by agreeing to discuss backdating pay offers from April and one-off cost-of-living payments that were previously ruled out.
Relations are likely to be soured, however, by the introduction of the legislation on the day after the talks. Defending the proposed legislation, Shapps said the government wanted to end “forever strikes”.
He told Times Radio: “Everyone knows we want to bring these strikes, which in some cases, railways for example, seem to have turned into sort of forever strikes. We want to bring this to a close and the government is bending over backwards to do that.”
He added: “Other countries like Germany and France and elsewhere do have minimum safety levels in place and we want to make sure that we’re doing the same thing to protect the British people.
“All we’d be doing here is bringing ourselves into line with what is already practiced in many other countries.”
Labor has warned that the bill could allow employers to sue trade unions and sack workers. The party has said it will oppose the bill and repeal it once in government.
Shapps has played down criticism that minimum service levels legislation could lead to NHS staff being sacked. He said: “This sort of talk that somebody will be sacked is no more true than it would be under any employment contract and that’s always the case when people have to stick to the law.”
Unions warned it could see key workers facing the sack if they exercise their right to strike, and that if it becomes law it could “poison industrial relations” and lead to more walkouts.
The health secretary, Steve Barclay, is reportedly considering backdating next year’s NHS staff pay increase, as well as making a one-off cost-of-living payment.
In a meeting with health unions, Barclay is said to have suggested that improvements in efficiency and productivity within the health service could “unlock additional funding” to lead to an increased offer for the 2023-24 pay settlement in the spring.
Those comments were criticized by Unite, one of the unions that attended the talks, saying that asking for employees to work harder for more money was insulting. But Shapps said that was not what was meant.
“There are many, many new things that have come in that could make the practice of healthcare, the running of railways and other things much more efficient,” he told Sky News.
“I think what the health secretary was saying is that let’s try and take advantage of those things, and that’s our route to being able to pay people for greater productivity.”
Sara Gorton, the head of health at the Unison trade union, said the discussion represented a “tone change” from the UK government after months of ministers refusing to budget beyond what had been recommended by the independent pay review bodies.
Unions said there was no “tangible offer” made, however, with Gorton calling for “cold hard cash” to be offered so members can be consulted on stopping strikes.
While there were positive noises about the talks in some quarters, other unions were incensed by the lack of perceived progress and it was clear that the discussions were not enough to prevent the likelihood of further strikes in the health sector.
Physiotherapists also said they would be announcing industrial action dates later this week despite the talks, while the GMB union said ambulance strikes would go ahead as planned on Wednesday.
The Fire Brigades Union general secretary, Matt Wrack, said: “This is an attack on all workers – including key workers, who kept our public services going during the pandemic. It’s an attack on Britain’s Covid heroes and on all workers. We need a mass movement of resistance to this authoritarian attack.”