6 Jun 2011

Cable: strikes could lead to Government clampdown

The Business Secretary Vince Cable tells unions that if public sector strike action threatens the economy, the Government will look at changing strike laws.

Business Secretary Vince Cable will tell unions that the Government may clamp down on strike action (Getty)

In a speech to the GMB union’s annual conference, Vince Cable told activists that he expects “significant parts of the public sector” to join a day of industrial action in protest at cuts in spending, jobs, pay and pensions later this month.

However, pressure on the Government to clamp down on this kind of action will “ratchet up” if strikes by public sector workers damage the economy, he added.

The case for changing strike laws is not compelling, the Business Secretary told the conference, but Dr Cable admitted “we are undoubtedly entering a difficult period” when strike action may be more tempting.

Strike action

Union leaders have warned that three quarters of a million teachers, lecturers, civil servants and other public sector workers could take co-ordinated strike action on June 30 in the biggest outbreak of industrial unrest for years.

Dr Cable told the 500 GMB delegates at the Brighton conference: “The usual suspects will call for general strikes and widespread disruption. This will excite the usual media comments about a summer or an autumn of discontent, and another group of the usual suspects will exploit the situation to call for the tightening of strike law.

We are undoubtedly entering a difficult period. Business Secretary Vince Cable

“We are undoubtedly entering a difficult period. Cool heads will be required all round. Despite occasional blips, I know that strike levels remain historically low, especially in the private sector. On that basis, and assuming this pattern continues, the case for changing strike law is not compelling.

“However, should the position change, and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up. That is something which both you, and certainly I, would wish to avoid.”

Aides said Dr Cable wanted to emphasise that the Government feels there is currently no case for changing strike laws, and that unions have acted responsibly.

TUC demonstration

The minister says he understands that feelings are running high in trade unions, as the huge TUC demonstration in March showed.

He told delegates: “Despite our differences, we have much in common. We share many policy aims. We face the same economic challenges. Let’s address them together. I believe this is what ordinary union members would want their unions to do.”

Dr Cable also said that modern shareholder capitalism in the UK has considerable strengths as a system, but also weaknesses. He also raised questions over recent takeovers.

“We are seeing too many company takeovers which reduce or destroy value and are driven by the fat fees earned by the lawyers and banks who facilitate them.

“I have made it clear, post Cadbury, that there have to be changes and I am pleased that the Takeover Panel has come up with modest but useful changes to reduce unnecessary takeovers.”