Home Office ministers are to seek a last minute high court injunction to block a 24-hour strike by UK Border Agency staff and civil servants hitting Heathrow airport on the eve of the Olympics.
The Home Office will on Wednesday ask the high court to ban the strike, which is due to take place on Thursday, on the grounds there was a “procedural error” in the ballot conducted by the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS).
“We want the PCS leadership to call off this irresponsible strike and we continue to ask members not to walk out at a time when the eyes of the world are on the UK,” said a Home Office spokesman.
The move follows a letter to the union by the home secretary, Theresa May, describing the planned walkout as “opportunist and wholly unjustified”.
The union said its preference was for ministers to sit down and talk to them but added: “It is our intention to robustly defend any legal challenge … there are serious issues at the heart of this dispute.”
The union’s actions
The union has called for a programme of industrial action across the Home Office and its agencies running into the autumn, in a dispute over redundancies, 8,500 job cuts and a two-year pay freeze.
The 24-hour industrial action could disrupt immigration and customs services at Heathrow but is likely to have a limited impact on passport control at the airports, as the Immigration Services Union, which represents some UK Border Force staff, is not taking part. Speaking before the Home Office announcement, the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said the government had plans in place to ensure any strike would not cause mass disruption. “The vast majority of immigration officers would not want to be associated with a strike on their busiest day,” he said.
Transport chiefs, meanwhile, reiterated their confidence that the road and rail system would also cope during the Olympics as the controversial Games lanes on London’s roads become active on Wednesday, and despite a series of failures affecting services to the Olympic Park and Heathrow. The problems included a small number of trains to Stratford disrupted by hot weather. Lanes in 30 miles of roads around the capital set aside for Olympic traffic – dubbed “Zil lanes” – open at 6am on Wednesday. Taxi drivers have led protests against the changes, which they claim will cause traffic chaos, while Transport for London are urging drivers to steer clear of the capital. Tailbacks of up to 80 minutes have been reported on three big roads this week since lanes were closed for preparatory work.
Breakdowns on the tube have sparked further fears. At a high-profile test event on Monday night, the Central line linking Stratford to the centre of London was out of service for two hours after a power cut, while the London Overground service was also disrupted. However, the transport secretary, Justine Greening, and the Transport for London commissioner, Peter Hendy, said it proved the resilience of the system. Greening said ensuring 60,000 spectators at a rehearsal of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony got away meant it had been “a successful dress rehearsal”. Hendy said the problems proved there was enough “redundancy” in the system to cope.
He added that he recognised the disruption the Olympic route network would cause to local residents, and promised the Games lanes within them would only operate when required for Olympic traffic. TfL had put in place hundreds of “ugly” variable-message signs to make clear when the lanes were needed, he said. At peak times 1,300 vehicles an hour will use the lanes, with non-Olympic motorists fined £130 if they stray into them. However, Hendy said a campaign of warning transport users – including 22m emails to TfL users – was bearing fruit, and traffic was down in the capital after motorists were asked to stay away. “We are very grateful that people have listened.”
More transport problems affected the Olympic Park on Tuesday, when Greater Anglia announced some trains would run slowly or be cancelled due to hot weather – meaning a number of national rail services could not stop at Stratford. A Network Rail spokesman said the heat affected cables, dating back to the 1950s, which are being replaced. Meanwhile tube services to the official Olympic airport, Heathrow, were halted for over an hour on Tuesday afternoon due to a signal failure, and more problems were reported on the Overground. The RMT union called for an inquiry into how cuts to staff and maintenance budgets had affected train and tube services, and warned that similar transport problems during the Games risked turning London into international laughing stock.
The RMT is in talks to avert industrial action on South West trains, where staff have voted for an overtime ban during the Olympics. Tube and DLR cleaning staff will also strike this weekend, and London Underground staff will work to rule. Hendy said he believed the action would have little effect.