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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, in many ways this is part of the historical legacy. When one looks at what happened with the 1920 Act it is quite clear that jurisprudence and the way we have looked at it take into account the fact that that Act specifically preserved the right to strike. If we now seek to expunge that right, we do not in any way wish that to be misunderstood.
The noble Lord will know that when we went through the process of looking at the draft Bill, considering where, if at all, the 1920 Act should be amended and changed, we considered those sections which could safely and properly be retained and those sections which could safely and properly be expunged. Because of the importance of this issue, the Government came to the conclusion that it would be saferperhaps in the manner of a belt-and-braces approachto retain the provisions to put beyond doubt that these issues remain the same and unchanged by the new legislation.
One has only to go through our debates at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report to know why that clarity needs to be put in the Bill in this instance, as we move away from the 1920 construct into the new construct that we are seeking to develop and apply more generally. We need clarity of understanding and therefore we think that the paragraphs set out in Clause 23(3)(a) and (b) have utility.
I appreciate that this is a difficult area, but am I right in thinking that for an official strike to take place, a period of 21 days' notice has to be given anyway? The limit of any emergency legislation under the Bill is 21 days unless it is renewed. Therefore any strike taking place within that period would be illegal, in particular if it was an unofficial strike. Can the noble Baroness help me with that point?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that only lawful strikes are preserved in this Bill and that unlawful or secondary strikes are not included. We think that current appropriate legislation bites on this, which would mean that a strike should not be adversely affected by those rights.
This refers back to what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said had happened in the past. The noble Baroness was concerned that even where industrial action is not the cause of the emergency it may still hinder the responsea point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Eltonif a strike is already in progress when an emergency occurs. However, I am not aware of any examples where this has been the case.
Noble Lords will be aware of the long tradition of those taking industrial action co-operating to minimise any risk to the public. For example, during the 1970 dock strike, for which emergency powers were invoked, dock workers continued to unload perishable items, while during the 2002 firefighters' strike, firefighters continued to respond to incidents where lives were at risk.
During our debate on Report the noble Baroness referred to the fact that strikes did take place during World War II. I understand the point she was making, and it was of course correct. But I am aware of no evidence to suggest that they compromised the war effort in any way or put others at risk. It would be wrong to exaggerate their magnitude. At their peak in 1944, 3,714,000 days were lost to strike action. However, it is worth remembering that in 1974 the figure was 14,750,000 days, and in 1984 it was 27,135,000 days. It is also worth remembering that it was the preservation of fundamental rights and civil liberties for which the war was being fought. I for one am proud and reassured that we were able to maintain these rights wherever possible, even in our darkest hour. It was that refusal to restrict dissent and to uphold pluralism that set us apart from the totalitarian regimes of the day and helped to ensure that the United Kingdom remained a beacon of hope and freedom to those across the Continent whose rights and freedoms had been taken away. This Government have no intention of diminishing that light.
The Government believe that industrial disputes, so long as they remain within the law, are a matter for employees and their employers. The emphasis must be on their resolution, and the Government taking sides and interfering in a draconian manner would be likely only to inflame the situation.
As I made clear on Report, those who wilfully and maliciously go on strike where they know or have reasonable cause to believe that the probable consequence of doing so will be to endanger human life or cause serious bodily injury, or expose valuable property to destruction or serious damage, commit an offence under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. That places a real limit on the potential effects of industrial action. Any action that involves deliberate endangerment of human life or property, or causes illness or injury, is a matter of criminal law, be it in normal times or in the midst of emergencies. These laws apply to everyone, including those who take industrial action.
The law in these areas is robust and effective and the Government's position, as set out in the Bill, is that existing legislation which has been approved by Parliament should always be used where it will be effective. The Government accept that industrial action may have a disruptive effect on services. The Bill ensures that action can be taken to mitigate the worst effects of a particularly disruptive strike without resorting to prohibition. As I have already made clear, the legislation this replaces contains an identical provision. We do not believe that there is anything in the past which would cause us to suggest that we should change.
On the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, emergency measures can be invoked in order to mitigate the issues to which he referred. I have already described why we say that if a strike occurs in the midst of an emergency we shall be able to deal with it perfectly properly without denying people the liberty and opportunity to act in accordance with their rights, which are upheld and underscored by current human rights protection.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I shall be brief. I am deeply disappointed that, even at this stage, I have failed properly to explain our position and to persuade the Government that one of our real concerns is not that the strike may cause the emergency itself but that some unprecedented severe act may occur when certain trade unions are already out on strike. The Government are saying that it is all right to be on strike when there is a threat to our national security, but we on these Benches do not accept that.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that it was right for people to be allowed to go on strike except in the direst exceptional circumstances. We are talking about the direst exceptional circumstances. We are talking about an unprecedented act such as the 9/11 attack which, as we speak, could occur within minutes of now. Let us suppose that the Tube workers were currently out on strike. Are the Government saying that it would be perfectly all right for the chaos that could prevail across London to continue because those people have the right to strike? Are we saying that saving lives could happily be hindered because of the right to strike?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt, but I specifically saidI am sure that the noble Baroness heard methat industrial action which threatens life is illegal and as such it would be stopped. Let me remind the noble Baroness that I also said that most people behave incredibly responsibly; they do save lives and they do go back to work when our country is at risk.
Baroness Buscombe: So why, my Lords, do we need this exception on the face of the Bill? I do not want to detain the House a moment longer. Let us agree to disagree. I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
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