Statute could outlaw strikes: Unions angry at 'naked assault on civil liberty', writes Barrie Clement

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The Independent Online
LEADERS of 6 million public-sector employees feared yesterday that they could soon be faced with one of the most Draconian anti-union laws since the Conservatives came to power.

The Government is preparing a clause to be inserted into the Employment Bill, now being considered by the House of Lords, which would make it unlawful for any trade unionist to take industrial action 'clearly designed to frustrate the carrying out of a specific statutory duty'.

The new clause would be aimed initially at making it unlawful for teachers to boycott national curriculum tests, but the implications extend far wider to include industrial action by railway workers, health employees, local authority staff and civil servants.

Union leaders argued yesterday that the proposal was a catch-all clause open to interpretation by a judiciary not known for its sympathies with the labour movement. They say that Margaret Thatcher wanted to make public-sector strikes unlawful, and this could be the means to do it.

The health care union Cohse warned that such a proposal was 'a naked assault on basic human rights and civil liberties'.

Alex Carlile, Liberal Democrat employment spokesman, described the plan as 'dangerous' and a 'banana republic proposal'.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, said it was a perfectly sensible piece of legislation aimed at preventing unions frustrating the will of Parliament. She said it would not render industrial action unlawful if its aim was to increase pay.

But union leaders believe that such a provision would be open to more than the usual degree of interpretation by the judiciary. They say judges could interpret virtually any legitimate industrial dispute in the public sector as an attempt to frustrate a statutory duty.

Plans for the new clause were contained in a letter from Mrs Shephard to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, which was leaked to the National Union of Teachers.

Alan Jinkinson, leader of Nalgo, the local authority union, said it betrayed the Government's intention to 'keep on coming back' with legislation to shackle unions, particularly in the public sector.

Whitehall sources said yesterday that the letter was specifically aimed at addressing a problem faced by Mr Patten. If that were the case, however, it would betray a certain degree of naivety by Mrs Shephard about its implications.