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  1. ITV Report

Birmingham bin dispute: Union fails in attempt to take legal action against council

Unite the union asked a judge for a temporary High Court injunction to stop Birmingham City Council sending out domestic waste. Credit: ITV Central News

A trade union has failed in its bid to take legal action against the city council over a long-running bin dispute in Birmingham.

Unite the union asked a judge for a temporary High Court injunction to stop Birmingham City Council sending out domestic waste and recycling lorries without an employee of a certain grade on board.

Giving judgment on Thursday (14 February), Judge Jason Coppel QC dismissed the union's application for an interim injunction pending a full trial.

The judge said Unite was "likely to have the better of the arguments" at trial, but granting the injunction would "directly impact" on the council's ability to collect domestic waste and "would make matters worse, at least to some degree".

He added: "This additional harm to the council's ability to perform its statutory functions cannot be compensated in damages."

He found there would be "some delay in engaging external contractors" and the council would also need to seek "additional spending authority".

The judge concluded that granting the injunction would "at least to some degree, even if only temporarily, make a bad situation worse".

Members of Unite are due to strike for two days a week from February 19. Credit: ITV Central News

In a statement after the ruling, a council spokesman said:

As stated from the outset, we entirely refute the misleading claims made by Unite that formed the basis of this court hearing.

The leading hand role no longer exists. By agreement with Unite and with the backing of a court order in November 2017, it was replaced with the waste reduction collection officer role, which went operational in September 2018.Due to the industrial action instigated by Unite, we have had to introduce acontingency plan featuring the use of mop-up crews and contractors (their own staff, fuel and vehicles) in order to continue to provide a waste service to the residents, visitors and businesses of Birmingham. This falls outside the remit of the agreement reached to end the 2017 dispute. In simple terms, the claims made by Unite were without merit.We invite Unite the union to reconsider their position as a matter of urgency to end the dispute so we can finally get back to the work needed to provide the level of service that citizens expect and deserve."

– Birmingham City Council

At a hearing on Wednesday, lawyers for Unite told the court that the council was in "continuing, flagrant breach" of a 2017 agreement which ended industrial action over proposed redundancies.

The union's barrister Oliver Segal QC said the council was sending out "mop-up crews" without a "leading hand" - a position since replaced by "waste reduction and collection officers" - in breach of the agreement.

Mr Segal said "the job security of (Unite's) members, as well as their industrial strength, will be hugely damaged if the court effectively sanctions breaches" of the agreement, adding: "The stakes could not be higher."

He said the dispute arose because the council "made significant payments to members of another union, GMB, which it did not make to their colleagues who are members of Unite".

Unite members have been banning overtime and working to rule since the end of December after the union said workers who did not take part in strikes in 2017 had been given extra payments by the authority.

But the council argued that Unite was bringing the case "to further its industrial aims" and says the injunction could have cost it "millions of pounds".

The High Court hearing follows talks on Tuesday between Unite and the council aimed at averting the strikes. Credit: ITV Central News

Andrew Burns QC, for the council, accused Unite of "piling hardship, discomfort and risk on the residents of Birmingham" with the injunction, which he said was "intended to put pressure on the council to make it settle the dispute".

He added: "Effectively, the injunction would be putting the health and safety of Birmingham residents at risk."

He said the council is "missing about 40% of waste and recycling collections" as a result of the overtime ban and work to rule.

He also argued there was "no breach (of the agreement) by sending out mop-up crews", which would be "vital if even more waste builds up on the streets" during Unite's planned strikes.

He also said the council had "approved a budget of £350,000 per week to mitigate the effects of the strike".

An expedited four-day trial to determine the "meaning and the enforceability" of the agreement between Unite and the local authority is likely to be heard in May.

The High Court hearing follows talks on Tuesday between Unite and the council aimed at averting the strikes, which the union said "collapsed" within minutes of starting.

Members of Unite are due to strike for two days a week from February 19.