THE First Minister has condemned the anti-trade union rhetoric of UK ministers as they announced strike-busting plans to bring in agency workers if there is industrial action.

Nicola Sturgeon has told the UK Government to have “respect” for workers by resolving the train dispute that is “crippling” Scotland and the rest of the UK.

In Scotland just five ScotRail services remain and cross border journeys have been slashed following a nationwide walkout amid bitter UK-wide pay disputes between rail union members and Network Rail - which owns the UK's rail tracks, stations and signals. It is over plans to axe hundreds of critical maintenance jobs, pay and working conditions.

The only services remaining are in the central belt of Scotland and the last train was to depart before 6.30pm.

Under current trade union laws, employment firms are restricted from supplying temps to cover for strikers.

Ministers say that can have a "disproportionate impact".

The new legislation would repeal what are described as "burdensome" legal restrictions.

Agency staff could then be supplied at short notice.

"Repealing these 1970s-era restrictions will give businesses freedom to access fully skilled staff at speed, all while allowing people to get on with their lives uninterrupted to help keep the economy ticking," Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said.

Network Rail welcomed the move but Labour and the unions described it as a "recipe for disaster".

During First Minister’s Questions on Thursday when asked whether she believes the UK Government’s reported proposals to replace strikers with agency staff is “inflaming” the issue, Ms Sturgeon said it is workers who are paying the price.

HeraldScotland:

Ms Sturgeon said she understands the dangers of the dispute “escalating” if a resolution is not reached between rail employers and unions.

She added: “[Workers] are paying the price for Tory anti-trade union rhetoric, in fact, anti-trade unionism which I completely deprecate.

“We should respect workers across the economy. We should respect public sector workers and we should seek to negotiate fair resolution to disputes, particularly at a time of inflation – inflation being exacerbated in the UK by the folly of Brexit.

“The rail strike that is crippling the UK right now is not the result of a pay dispute with ScotRail. It is a dispute with Network Rail and with English train operating companies, therefore it is entirely a reserved matter."

Earlier the transport minister said the emergency timetable which had been cutting nationalised ScotRail service by up to half may remain in place for weeks despite a 'breakthrough' in a separate ScotRail train drivers dispute.

The timetable, which ScotRail services by up by a third on weekdays due to staff shortages, remains in place across the Scottish network in a separate ScotRail dispute over pay with the train drivers union Aslef. The pay offer is due to be put to drivers.

Both disputes are due to lead to Scots services being cut by half on the days following official strike days with ScotRail explaining that signal boxes - critical to ensure that the railway can operate safely - will be re-opening at different times throughout the day.

Ms Sturgeon added: “And the other thing I remember from a few weeks ago in this chamber when there was a potential for a ScotRail dispute, Tory MSPs getting up and demanding intervention from this Government to resolve it.

“So let me repeat the call today for the UK Government to start doing their job to get round the table to bring a resolution to this and to drop the anti-trade unionism and have some respect for workers across the economy.”

The third of three scheduled strikes is due to take place in Saturday.

ScotRail has warned the disruption could continue until next week.

Earlier, Scottish transport minister Jenny Gilruth told MSPs that two meetings with the UK Government over the strikes this week had been cancelled.

“There were planned meetings that were scheduled to take place between the devolved administrations and the UK Government on Monday – those were cancelled at short notice,” she said.

“I was meant to meet with Wendy Morton, the rail minister, on Wednesday – that meeting was also cancelled at short notice.

“So I have to say, despite repeated representations between myself and (UK Transport Secretary) Grant Shapps, there has been limited consultation between the UK Government and this Government.

“That is deeply regrettable because at this moment in time, Network Rail remains reserved.”