Union vows legal challenge after ministers change strike laws

Britain’s largest trade union Unison vows to mount legal challenge to new law allowing employers to use agency staff to keep nation running during mass walkouts

  • Ministers repealed ‘burdensome 1970s-style restrictions’ on use of agency staff
  • But UNISON hits out at ‘reckless and unlawful’ move and warns of judicial review 
  • Trade union vows to take Government to High Court to get measure overturned

Britain’s largest trade union today vowed to drag the Government to court after ministers lifted a ban on temporary staff being allowed to replace striking workers.

UNISON hit out at the ‘reckless and unlawful’ move and warned Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng it would seek a judicial review of a new law.

The Government this week hailed the repeal of ‘burdensome 1970s-style restrictions’ in the face of increasing threats from ‘militant’ unions.

It means businesses can now provide skilled agency workers to fill staffing gaps caused by strikes.

But, in their threat of a legal challenge, UNISON has accused the Government of seeking to ‘fan the flames’ of industrial disputes with the ‘cynical’ move.

Ministers had been under pressure to act amid fears of a ‘summer of discontent’ as union leaders demand huge pay rises during the cost-of-living crisis. 

Last month saw travel chaos across the country as unions staged Britain’s biggest rail strike in 30 years.

Teachers, nurses, doctors, postal workers and civil servants are all also contemplating industrial action in the coming weeks.

And further nationwide rail strikes by the RMT union are also due to begin from next week.

But there was some relief earlier today when British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow Airport ended their threat of strike action after accepting a pay offer. 

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea hit out at the ‘reckless and unlawful’ move as she threatened the Government with a legal challenge

The trade union warned Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng it would seek a judicial review of a new law

UNISON has vowed to take the Government to High Court in a bid to get the measure overturned

UNISON has written to Mr Kwarteng about its intention to seek a judicial review of the change to the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations 2003.

He now has 14 days to respond, otherwise the union has vowed to take the Government to High Court in a bid to get the measure overturned.

The union accused ministers of relying on a seven-year-old consultation and ‘flawed evidence’ to justify changing the law on agency workers, which they said was ‘unlawful’.

They also insisted the Government is in breach of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights​, which protects the right to strike, and international labour standards.

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: ‘The Government is prepared do anything to stop strikes, except encourage dialogue and sensible industrial relations. 

‘Sending agency staff into disputes to break strikes will only fan the flames and make it harder for employers and unions to reach agreement.

‘Ministers have been spooked by the sympathy people ​are showing for workers fighting for fair wages.

‘The Government’s cynical solution is to ride a coach and horses through employment law, risking the safety of staff and the public by parachuting in agency workers who won’t know the ropes.

‘Strikes are only ever a last resort, and often the only avenue left to employees in the face of hostile employers. 

‘Changing the law to make it harder for workers to win disputes is both reckless and unlawful. 

‘If ministers won’t back down, we’ll take the Government to court to prove it.’

Further nationwide rail strikes by the RMT union are due to begin from next week amid growing fears of a ‘summer of discontent’

When the law change on the use of agency workers came into force yesterday, Mr Kwarteng hailed it as ‘good news for our society and for our economy’.

 ‘In light of militant trade union action threatening to bring vital public services to a standstill, we have moved at speed to repeal these burdensome,1970s – style restrictions,’ he said.

‘From today, businesses exposed to disruption caused by strike action will be able to tap into skilled, temporary workers to provide the services that allow honest, hardworking people to get on with their lives.’

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was forced to admit the law change had come too late to avert new travel disruption from next week’s planned rail strikes.

‘For too long unions have been able to hold the country to ransom with the threat of industrial action,’ he said.

‘But this vital reform means any future strikes will cause less disruption and allow hardworking people to continue with their day-to-day lives.’

The Government has also changed the law to raise the maximum damages that courts can award against a union, when strike action has been found by the court to be unlawful.

For the biggest unions, the maximum award will rise from £250,000 to £1 million.

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