Rishi Sunak’s attempt to crack down on strikes in the NHS and other key sectors is an “extraordinary” waste of time, a former Conservative health secretary has told The Independent.
Stephen Dorrell, Tory health secretary between 1995 and 1997, said the Sunak government had made a series of “crucial” mistakes in handling of the NHS pay dispute which has seen a wave of damaging strikes.
Ministers have spark anger with new legislation aimed at enforcing minimum levels of cover during any industrial action in six key sectors – with union bosses vowing to take the government to court.
Unions have warned that 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.
Writing for The Independent, Mr Dorrell said it was “simply extraordinary to waste parliamentary time by introducing legislation which removes the right of NHS staff to withdraw their labour in a future dispute at a time when ministers and MPs should be focussing on resolving the current dispute”.
Mr Dorrell also said it should have been clear to Mr Sunak and his ministers that NHS staff would not recognise the pay recommendations made back in February 2022 as “fair” given soaring inflation.
The government should have “prioritized a settlement with NHS staff in order to maintain services during an unprecedented winter crisis”, said the former cabinet minister.
“It could easily have done so by asking the review body, in the exceptional circumstances of 2022 to make an interim recommendation for the current year – reflecting the practice of many employers across the private sector.”
The former Tory minister, who later defected the Liberal Democrats and stood unsuccessfully for the party in 2019, also criticised health secretary Steve Barclay’s handling of the pay dispute.
“The health secretary should never have refused to discuss pay – the very issue which lies at the heart of the dispute,” he wrote.
Among the other “crucial mistakes” made in recent months, Mr Dorrell said the government had underestimated “widespread” public support for striking NHS staff.
“It allowed itself to be challenged by staff across the traditional public sector; it should have recognised that NHS staff are seen differently by most people – particularly in view of the pressures and risks which they accepted during the pandemic.”
Business secretary Grant Shapps told the Commons on Monday that anti-strike legislation was a “common-sense” response to the wave of industrial unrest and would help make sure “life and limb” cover comes first during strikes in key sectors.
Mr Shapps did not deny workers could be sacked, but played down the prospect of key workers being fired for refusing to work in line with the new law.
Mr Barclay said the legislation was “about the behaviour much more of the unions than individual members”, and said he would continue to engage with union leaders to try to avoid further strikes planned for January.
But health unions announced on Tuesday that they will refuse to submit evidence to the NHS pay review body for the next wage round while the current pay dispute remains unresolved.
The 14 unions – representing more than one million ambulance staff, nurses and other NHS workers in England – have called on ministers to engage directly in pay talks.