High Court sides with union in Home Office subs challenge

PCS calls for cross-government damages deal after multi-million-pound DWP settlement
Photo: R/DV/RS/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Jim Dunton

25 Mar 2022

The civil service’s biggest union has won a High Court challenge against the Home Office over the department’s decision to stop allowing staff to get their subscriptions deducted directly from their  salaries.

PCS’s victory follows a similar win against the Department for Work and Pensions four years ago, which resulted in a £3m damages settlement. Challenges against other civil service employers are pending.

PCS said its case against the Home Office would now proceed to a remedy hearing to determine the level of damages the department needed to pay, as had been the case with DWP.

The cases relate to departments’ decisions to end the so-called “check-off” system,  which allowed union members to have their subs paid via their employer’s payroll system.

The Home Office stopped the check-off system in December 2014. The majority of civil service employers did the same at around that time, prompting what PCS describes as the loss of a “significant number of members and a significant amount of income”.

According to the union, the move was a part of an attempt to bankrupt the organisation spearheaded by then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude,  now Lord Maude of Horsham.

This week's High Court judgment follows a hearing earlier in the month at which PCS argued that ending the check-off system was a breach of members' contractual rights.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the government’s actions had been a response to the leading role it had taken against the coalition government’s austerity programme.

“This was an attempt to destroy our union, a politically motivated attack designed to bankrupt us by cutting off our subscription income,” he said.

“We have beaten off the attack and we are now securing redress. PCS will continue to fight and campaign on behalf of our members, undeterred by government threats and intimidation.”  

The union is calling on the government to settle other pending check-off related cases out of court to reduce departments’ exposure to legal costs that will arise over and above damages.

Serwotka said: “Rather than waste taxpayers’ money in this manner, we are pressing the government to do the right thing and settle our claims out of court, thereby not incurring the legal costs.”  

PCS says members and activists responded “magnificently” to the impact of the end of check-off, and re-signed the “vast majority” of members to the union to pay their subscriptions by direct debit.

However its 2021 financial report detailed a huge drop-off in subscriptions over the previous decade. Membership fell by more than 100,000, from just under 300,000 in 2010 to 176,000 at the end of 2020. PCS blamed the slump on the ending of check-off.

The report said that as of February last year PCS had 183,000 members, up by around 2% on the previous year. It said the increase was “largely due to the positive impact of the HMRC pay deal”,  which offered an average 13% increase in pay over three years for the AA to G6 pay bands.

At the time, PCS said it had also served notice on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of its intention to seek damages over the end of check-off and planned to target all remaining departments.

A Home Office spokesperson said the department was “disappointed” by this week’s High Court judgment and was considering the findings carefully.

“When we changed our system in 2014, we supported trade union members within the Home Office with the process of switching their subscription method to direct debit, ensuring they could continue their trade union membership if they wished to do so,” the spokesperson added.

They declined to comment further as proceedings are ongoing.

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