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The government’s strike strategy is damaging for public services

The government’s hard-line approach to strikes will exacerbate serious recruitment and retention problems.

Rishi Sunak speaks with members of staff at Croydon hospital
Rishi Sunak speaks with members of NHS staff as he visits Croydon University Hospital.

Even if the government’s hard-line approach to strikes works in the short-term, Nick Davies says it will exacerbate the serious recruitment and retention problems that are a root cause of poor public service performance

The government is currently engaged in a very public battle of wills with a wide range of unions and the millions of people they represent. Whether through the months’ long refusal to reopen pay deals or the more recent Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, Rishi Sunak and his ministers have taken a self-consciously hard line on strikes. This approach is yet to yield much success, with strikes by NHS staff ongoing, and one of the main teaching unions announcing that their members would also be joining the picket lines. 

The outcome of negotiations will depend on the desire for a deal and the relative strength of both sides, with the government calculating that its new legislation (or the threat of it) will change the balance of power. The bill will give ministers powers to set legally-binding minimum service levels in health, fire, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security. By allowing employers to name which members of staff have to work to meet these service levels, the bill will reduce the impact of strikes, likely weakening the negotiating position of unions and the workers they represent, making it easier and cheaper for the government to end disputes.  

Whether or not this comes to pass in the short term – getting the bill through parliament may be difficult and it will take time, as will consulting on and implement the regulations setting minimum service levels – it is unlikely to help public services or the government much in the medium to long term.

The government can’t legislate its way out of the workforce crisis

It is tempting to reach for metaphors of conflict when discussing strikes. But seeing this as a zero sum game that one side must lose is part of the problem. If the government wishes to improve the performance of public services (a key issue for the public ahead of the next election 6 YouGove, The most important issues facing the country,
), it will need to work with unions to find common ground. Unfortunately, its approach has had the opposite effect 

By hiding behind the decisions of pay review bodies, despite setting their remit, the government has undermined their value as a dispute resolution mechanism and many unions are now refusing to participate. Similarly, the strikes bill would replace lower pressure negotiations over voluntary minimum services standards during strikes with high-profile government imposed decisions. But the government can’t legislate its way out of workforce problems. If staff don’t think they are paid enough and their ability to strike is limited, then they will withdraw their labour in other ways: namely, by resigning or choosing not to take these roles in the first place.

As Performance Tracker, published in partnership with CIPFA, has shown, workforce shortages are a major impediment to clearing backlogs and wider service improvements in the NHS, schools and beyond. The public cannot afford for these existing recruitment and retention problems to be exacerbated by the government’s approach to strikes.

Resolving strikes will largely come down to money

Until recently, the government has been resolute in its position that it will not discuss existing pay offers, only working conditions and productivity. That does now appear to be changing, with the health secretary reportedly conceding to unions that the government would have to increase its pay offer to resolve NHS strikes. 8 Campbell D, Crerar P and Walker P, Steve Barclay privately concedes he will have to increase pay offer to NHS staff, The Guardian, 12 January 2023,

At the risk of stating the obvious, it was always likely that a pay dispute would largely come down to questions of pay, and the government’s delay in coming to this realisation has probably extended the strikes by months. It is notable that the one strike action which has been resolved, that by criminal barristers, did so following an improved pay offer.

The more difficult question is where the money will come from. The Treasury and No.10 have said that increased pay offers will need to be paid out of existing budgets. While the autumn statement did provide more money for some services, budgets are still tight and making cuts to fund higher wages will almost certainly result in worse performance. It is unclear whether this is a sustainable position.

In the meantime, the government’s combative approach to pay negotiations has focussed even more political attention on the performance levels of public services. The danger for the government is that the public agrees about the importance of minimum services levels but concludes that the blame largely lies with the government itself given that many services are in a state of crisis even when workers aren’t striking.

Sunak government
Institute for Government

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Pay review bodies

Pay review bodies are independent panels that gather evidence and then provide government with advice each year on pay for many public sector workers.