Trade unions and ministers are on course for a fresh clash after Grant Shapps set out new laws requiring minimum levels of service from ambulance staff, firefighters and railway workers during industrial action.
The proposals were condemned as unworkable and illegal by unions, who warned the legislation would “poison industrial relations” and lead to more walkouts.
Business Secretary Mr Shapps said the plans are in line with laws in other European countries and would “protect the lives and the livelihoods of the British people”.
Details of the minimum service levels which will need to be maintained during strikes have yet to be set out.
Mr Shapps said the Government will consult on what an “adequate level of coverage” would be in fire, ambulance and rail services.
He said: “The British people need to know that when they have a heart attack, a stroke or a serious injury, that an ambulance will turn up and that if they need hospital care they have access to it.”
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill will also cover education, border security and nuclear decommissioning sectors, but Mr Shapps said he hopes agreements can be reached with unions in those workplaces to avoid having to use the legislation’s powers.
Getting the legislation, which would apply in England, Scotland and Wales, through Parliament could be a battle, with it likely to face stiff opposition in the Commons and attempts to rewrite it in the Lords, meaning it may not have any impact during the current wave of industrial unrest.
The Business Secretary told MPs the ambulance strike involving tens of thousands of staff in England and Wales underlines the need for the legislation.
He said that while the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has agreed service coverage on a national level for its strikes, paramedics and ambulance drivers have not done so, meaning that “health officials were left guessing at the likely minimum coverage”, putting “lives at risk”.
With around 25,000 ambulance workers due to go on strike again on Wednesday, Mr Shapps told MPs there will be “patchy emergency care” as a result, adding: “This cannot continue.”
A spokesman for the GMB union, which represents some of the ambulance workers taking action, said it was an “extraordinary attack” by Mr Shapps.
“He surely knows that across NHS trusts, GMB members, who care for the public every single day, work closely with employers to provide appropriate cover on strike days and have left picket lines to help out on urgent calls,” the spokesman said.
“The public know who is to blame for the crisis in our NHS – this Government. And people will be disgusted that, in a matter of months, they have gone from clapping health workers to legislating to sack them.”
Ambulance responses are split into categories, with category 1 being the most life-threatening such as cardiac arrest, while category 2 covers conditions such as stroke, heart attack and sepsis.
No blanket agreement has been reached on responding to category 2 calls, with unions and trusts agreeing locally which category 2 calls will receive a response during the strike.
The West Midlands Ambulance Service said an agreement has been reached for all category 1 calls plus other life-threatening cases such as heart attacks, strokes, difficulty in breathing and maternity cases.
London Ambulance Service has a similar agreement, but the picture is less clear in some other trusts.
NHS England urged people to still call 999 if their condition is life-threatening but to turn to NHS 111, pharmacies and GPs for non-urgent needs.
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden, who is co-ordinating the Government’s response to the strikes, warned Cabinet colleagues that the planned ambulance strikes will be “challenging”.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said planned ambulance strikes on Wednesday were “not helpful” but insisted he was “working with” trade unions.
Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Paul Nowak warned that the minimum service legislation 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.”
Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack called for “a mass movement of resistance to this authoritarian attack”.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “This Bill is another dangerous gimmick from a Government that should be negotiating to resolve the current crisis they have caused.”
Frank Ward, interim general secretary at the TSSA transport union, said the plans are “wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal”, adding: “Our union totally opposes this move to bring in what amounts to further draconian anti-strike laws which are a clear attack on the rights of working people in our country.”
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT transport union, said: “The only reason this draconian legislation is being introduced is because they have lost the argument and want to punish workers for having the temerity to demand decent pay and working conditions.”
In her response to Mr Shapps, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “The public is being put at risk every day due to the Government’s NHS crisis and staffing shortages. He is right that it is his Government’s duty to protect the public’s access to essential services, but livelihoods and lives are already being lost.
“We all want minimum standards of safety, service and staffing. It is the ministers failing to provide it.”
The introduction of the legislation comes a day after transport, health and education unions held a series of crisis meetings with Westminster ministers over pay and conditions.
Mr Shapps said: “Granting inflation-busting pay deals outside the independent pay review settlement process is not the sensible way to proceed and it won’t provide a fair outcome.”
Meanwhile, primary schools around Scotland have closed after last-ditch talks failed to prevent strike action, with secondary school staff set to walk out on Wednesday.
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