By Sachin Ravikumar
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain will introduce legislation to ensure key public services maintain minimum safety levels during industrial action, as the government seeks to limit disruption from strikes now involving tens of thousands of workers.
The government said on Thursday it would bring the bill to parliament in the coming weeks and would consult on the minimum safety levels to be set for fire, ambulance and rail services.
"While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels... will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption," business minister Grant Shapps said.
The bill could still take months to become law and Shapps told Sky News shortly after the announcement that the timing would be "a matter for parliament itself".
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who took office less than three months ago, has been under pressure to do more to resolve a wave of industrial action by workers demanding better pay across crucial sectors from healthcare to transport.
The government said it would invite trade unions to have "honest, constructive conversations" on public sector pay settlements for 2023-24.
Pay rises have failed to keep up with double-digit inflation, which is now around 40-year highs, prompting strikes by nurses, ambulance staff, rail workers and others. Some London bus drivers went on strike on Thursday, while rail staff across the country have held walkouts most days this week.
The government has called on unions to cancel strikes while it holds talks and has argued that inflation-matching pay rises will only fuel further price increases and cause interest rates and mortgage payments to go up further.
The opposition Labour Party, which has a strong lead in opinion polls over Sunak's governing Conservatives, has said it would repeal the law if it comes to power. A national election is expected next year.
"These proposals are unworkable and unserious from a dead-end government," Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said. "It's insulting to key workers that Rishi Sunak thinks that threatening teachers and nurses with the sack will end strikes."
GMB, one of Britain's largest trade unions, called the legislation an attack on the fundamental right to take strike action.
"We are always ready to discuss our members' pay but the government is refusing to talk about problems as they exist now. Instead they want to kick the can down the road," GMB General Secretary Gary Smith said.
(Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar, Additional reporting by Muvija M and Farouq SuleimanEditing by Kylie MacLellan and Gareth Jones)