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Anti-strike legislation passes first test but wave of industrial action rolls on

Teachers “mean business” in their fight for better pay, the Government has been warned as controversial anti-strike legislation cleared its first hurdle in Parliament.

The Education Secretary is due to meet the National Education Union (NEU) on Wednesday in a bid to avert seven days of walkouts in February and March.

Nine out of 10 teacher members of the NEU – the largest education union in the UK – voted for strike action in a result announced on Monday, and the union passed the 50% ballot turnout required by law.

The outcome in England was described as “the biggest ballot result of any union in recent times” by one of the union’s joint general secretaries, while the other said it will give teachers “strength in the negotiations” later this week.

The union has declared seven days of walkouts in February and March but said any individual school will only be affected by four of the days.

The teaching strikes are the latest to be announced in a wave of industrial action which has seen stoppages across various sectors in recent months from the railways to the health service.

Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in England are due to walk out again on Wednesday and Thursday, and have announced two more strikes in England and Wales on February 6 and 7, with more NHS trusts taking part than during two days of strikes in December.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps told MPs the public “has had enough of the constant, most unwelcome, frankly dangerous, disruption to their lives” as the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was considered in the House of Commons on Monday evening.

In Parliament, MPs voted 309 to 249, majority 60, to give the Bill a second reading.

Outside, braving sub-zero temperatures, crowds gathered in Whitehall to demonstrate against the Bill, with union leader Mick Lynch urging Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer not to be a “vanilla politician” and to back workers’ rights.

The Bill would require minimum levels of service from ambulance staff, firefighters and railway workers during industrial action, although unions and opposition MPs have condemned the proposals as unworkable.

Details of the minimum service levels which will need to be maintained during strikes have yet to be set out, and the Government says it will consult on this.

Mr Shapps told MPs: “We want constructive dialogue with the unions and the public has had enough of the constant, most unwelcome, frankly dangerous, disruption to their lives.

“There comes a time when we can’t let this continue and that is why we need minimum safety and service levels – to keep livelihoods and lives safe, and it’s frankly irresponsible, even surprising, for the opposition opposite to suggest otherwise.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner criticised the Bill as “one of the most indefensible and foolish pieces of legislation to come before this House in modern times”.

She added: “It threatens teachers and nurses with the sack during a recruitment and retention crisis.

“It mounts an outright assault on the fundamental freedom of working people while doing nothing … to actually resolve the crisis at hand.”

Angela Rayner
Angela Rayner (Peter Byrne/PA)

But Tory former home secretary Priti Patel said ministers should widen the the list of sectors which should be legally required to have minimum service levels during strikes.

She said: “I want to basically ask the Government as well to ensure that they always look to keep legislation and measures open and under review so that we can continue to uphold standards to protect the public when it comes to them going about their daily lives.”

The first day of teaching strikes will be on February 1 and more than 23,000 schools in England and Wales are expected to be affected, the NEU said.

School leaders in Wales are also set to take industrial action over pay, but heads in England will not stage strikes after a National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) ballot turnout failed to meet the legal threshold.

The Department for Education (DfE) has offered a 5% pay rise to most teachers for the current school year, but the NEU is demanding a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise.

Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint NEU general secretaries, said in a statement: “It is disappointing that the Government prefers to talk about yet more draconian anti-strike legislation, rather than work with us to address the causes of strike action.”

Industrial strike
Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Dr Bousted indicated there will be no minimum service levels in place during the teachers’ strike, telling BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “I’d like those minimum service levels to exist every day, so that every day in all our schools we have enough teachers in the right subject areas so that all children can get the education they deserve.”

During an online briefing announcing the ballot results to members, Dr Bousted said: “They (the Government) know that we mean business. They know that you are prepared to take action to protect your jobs, to protect your pay and costs, and to protect your ability to remain in the profession.”

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan called the strike vote “deeply disappointing” and said it “will have a damaging impact on pupils’ education and wellbeing”.

The Department for Education has issued updated guidance to say agency staff and volunteers could be used to cover classes on strike days, with schools expected to remain open where possible, although remote learning is also an option and the most vulnerable pupils are to be given priority.

The NAHT has said it is considering re-running its industrial action ballot in England due to concern that the democratic process has been compromised amid postal disruption.

Another education union, the NASUWT, has said it will continue its campaign on pay and expects to announce plans “shortly” for further balloting of members, after a vote last week failed to reach the 50% turnout threshold.