Straw's olive branch to prison staff

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The Independent Online
JACK STRAW, the Home Secretary, will today attempt to win over the support of prison officers by offering to revoke legislation which prevents them from taking industrial action.

In an address to the Prison Officers' Association conference, Mr Straw will offer a hand of conciliation to jail staff who are angry over pay levels and working conditions at a time when prisons are at record levels of overcrowding.

Mr Straw will offer to dispense with the hated sections 127 and 128 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was introduced by his predecessor, Michael Howard, who made a conscious decision to take on the prison union and brought in the measure to render it powerless to strike.

Mr Straw is insufficiently confident of the goodwill of jail staff to do away with protection against industrial action in prisons altogether. He would want to create a "back-stop" measure by introducing new primary legislation which would allow the Government to impose reserved legislative restraint on industrial action in prisons. Home Office sources said this would make it clear that "there was absolutely no place for disruptive action in the prison service".

Mr Straw is, however, prepared to set up an independent tribunal to resolve disputes over the pay and working conditions of prison officers.

At the conference today in Portsmouth, Mr Straw will say: "I want to see a constructive partnership in the prison service." He will describe the new measures as "a significant step towards partnership and away from confrontation. It would identify clear duties and responsibilities for all signatories and it could and should herald a new era in industrial relations within the prison service."

Although prison officers are unable to take direct industrial action there has been concern that staff in some jails have been operating an effective work-to-rule policy. By all arriving for work at the prison's gatehouse at the same time, they ensure a serious disruption while staff are cleared by jail security.

Conference delegates will discuss recruiting members from staff in private prisons. A merger with Scottish officers will also be debated as a way of strengthening the hand of the union.

According to a report issued yesterday, more than six out of ten prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded - with some holding nearly twice as many inmates as they were designed for.

Shrewsbury jail is in the worst position, with 335 inmates behind walls designed to hold just 182, said the Howard League for Penal Reform. The young offender section at New Hall women's prison in West Yorkshire was at 203 per cent capacity, holding 89 girls in space designed for 44, while the juvenile section at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution, west London, had 208 boys in accommodation built for just 100.