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Prison officers started a work to rule yesterday, prompting fears that the jail system will be thrown into chaos. Some 30,000 members of the Prison Officers' Association are taking action over the loss of union rights and the threat of compulsory redundancies.

They are refusing to clock in before official starting times - causing knock-on delays with mass arrivals at work - and declining to work additional voluntary hours. POA leaders say they are ready to step up the action if they do not get guarantees that there will be no sackings to meet a 13.3 per cent cut in budget over three years. Prison governors have been attempting to reduce staff numbers through voluntary redundancies but the union believes that there is a growing threat of compulsory job cuts.

Prison staff are banned from taking industrial action under the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, but the POA leadership argues that its work to rule will not break the law. They are, however, ready to step up their action and take on the government in the High Court to defend the interests of an increasingly angry membership. They argue that it is dangerous to reduce staff numbers at a time when the prison population is rising. POA officials are not expecting the action to bite fully until later in the week. The Prison Service is keeping a watching brief to check on the effect of the action and to ensure that officers work their contracted hours. Peter Victor