Dear Home Secretary and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary,
We are a group of more than 800 healthcare workers, including nurses, doctors, paramedics, and other staff. We are writing to express our concerns in connection with the threats to collective organising posed by the Public Order Bill and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill that are currently going through parliament.
Over the past few years, healthcare workers have sought to make our voices heard by taking to the streets, whether to call on the Government to stop financing fossil fuels or to advocate for better conditions for nurses and paramedics. The right to protest and strike have never been more important today, as we face overlapping cost of living and climate crises and the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
We believe that the Public Order Bill and the Strikes Bill will make it harder for us to take action to protect ourselves, our patients, and our NHS – and in doing so, endanger public health. For the threats they pose to our ability to organise for change, we strongly urge you to reconsider these pieces of legislation.
Public Order Bill
The Public Order Bill introduces Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs), a new civil order that can be imposed on people who have participated in two protest-related activities in the past five years, even if they have never been convicted of a crime. Those who are subject to an order could be banned from protesting and subjected to severe restrictions on their liberties, including being subject to 24/7 GPS tagging. Breach of any of the conditions of an order is a criminal offence which could result in a prison sentence.
Serious Disruption Prevention Orders pose a staggering threat to our ability to collectively organise for better conditions and for urgent change. The broad wording of these measures could effectively catch anyone who has ever participated in industrial action, or even encouraged someone else to do so, given that the point of such action is to use disruption as a tool of forcing those in power to the negotiating table. More broadly, they could devastate our protest movements, isolating individuals and subjecting wider communities to intrusive surveillance.
In addition to SDPOs, the Public Order Bill introduces new protest-specific stop and search powers. Under the Bill, the police will be given new powers to stop and search people in protest contexts. The Government has admitted that the purpose of introducing new stop and search powers is to prevent protests from happening in the first place. We are concerned that this will have a disproportionate, chilling effect on marginalised communities seeking to make their voices heard given the well- evidenced racial disproportionality in the use of existing stop and search powers. In the year ending March 2022, Black people were six times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people.
Being stopped and searched is a traumatic event that can cause long-term harm to people’s physical and mental health, especially given that the police are empowered to use force in stop and searches. Not only will expanding stop and search entrench structural racism, we are concerned that this will make it harder for our own colleagues from racialised, marginalised, and minoritised backgrounds to exercise their fundamental rights.
Finally, the Bill criminalises a wide range of protest-related activities, such as locking on. We are concerned that the astonishing breadth of these offences means that more and more people will be plunged into the criminal justice system for taking action to demand change. In particular, we are concerned about the ways this may further deter healthcare workers from exercising their fundamental rights, concerned as they may be with the impacts on their career prospects if they are arrested for protesting.
Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill
We are extremely concerned about the new Strikes Bill, which will further restrict the right to strike. If passed, the Bill will mean that health, education, transport, and other key workers could be forced to work, and sacked if they do not comply.
Healthcare workers’ conditions are those of wider society. When we defend our right to fair pay, we are also protecting the health and safety of our patients, the future of recruitment and retention in our workforce, and our families’ and loved ones’ ability to live dignified lives – in other words, the future of our NHS. We urge you to reconsider this draconian and unworkable assault on our rights – should it proceed, we will fight this legislation tooth and nail alongside the wider trade union movement.
The right to protest and to strike are an essential way for workers to make our voices heard, and a vital part of a healthy and functioning democracy. Clamping down will not silence our voices, but push people towards more urgent routes. For these reasons, we strongly urge you to reconsider the Public Order Bill and the Minimum Service Level Bill.
Open letter from members of Medact and Liberty