UK move to allow agency workers to cover strikes overturned by court

By Sam Tobin

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government’s decision to allow companies to hire agency staff to cover for striking workers was overturned on Thursday by London’s High Court, who upheld a legal challenge by 13 trade unions that it was unlawful.

The change to regulations last year, during an ongoing wave of disputes over pay and conditions, made it easier for businesses to use temporary staff during industrial action.

But the 13 unions, which represent around three million workers, argued Britain is breaching union rights with the regulations, which they say could worsen industrial disputes and endanger public safety.

Judge Thomas Linden upheld the unions’ legal challenge in a written ruling on Thursday, and quashed the regulations.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business & Trade said it was disappointed with the ruling and that the government was considering its next steps carefully.

“The ability to strike is important, but we maintain there needs to be a reasonable balance between this and the rights of businesses and the public,” the spokesperson added.

Paul Nowak, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, called on the government not to appeal against the ruling.

“Ministers should spare themselves further embarrassment,” he said in a statement. “These cynical strike-breaking agency worker laws must be scrapped once and for all.”

Last year, then-business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the changes would remove “burdensome, 1970s-style restrictions” preventing employment agencies from supplying workers to replace those on strike, which was previously a criminal offence.

But the unions argued the government unlawfully made the changes without consulting them, instead relying on a 2015 consultation – which pre-dated Brexit, the COVID pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

Linden said in his ruling that there was virtually no consultation before the decision and Kwarteng “did not even consider the information available as to the responses to the 2015 consultation”.

The trade unions welcomed the ruling, with Unite describing it as “a total vindication for unions and workers”.

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “No one ever wants to go on strike. But when that difficult decision has been taken, employers should be throwing everything but the kitchen sink at ending a dispute, not inflaming tensions by undermining staff.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak offered teachers, doctors and other workers pay rises of 6% and above, seeking to end months of crippling public sector strikes, but warned it would cost billions that might mean cuts elsewhere.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin, editing by Kylie MacLellan and Mark Heinrich)