Prison officers ordered back to work after strike chaos

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Prison officers last night bowed to a High Court injunction ordering them back to work, after a wildcat national strike over pay brought chaos to jails throughout England and Wales. Prisons were run by skeleton staffs for much of the day after the Prison Officers' Association called an unprecedented 24-hour walkout from 7am, in defiance of a legally binding no-strike agreement. Following negotiations, the POA called off the strike when it was offered fresh talks by the Government. But the extraordinary chain of events left its mark on the increasingly beleaguered prison system.

Every state-run jail was hit by the stoppage until the strongly worded injunction, served at lunchtime, warned the POA that its officials could be imprisoned or its assets seized if leaders did not order their members back to work. The strike was backed at 131 prisons, leading to chaotic scenes of inmates locked in cells, senior managers distributing meals, court cases cancelled and visitors forced to stay away.

Last night, ministers were hoping that staff would follow the lead of warders at Long Lartin, Canterbury and Bristol prisons, who agreed to return to work after reading the terms of the injunction. Justice ministry officials said they were unlikely to take the union back to court for contempt amid signs that the strike was coming to an end. But other jails remained on strike into the evening as the union's executive pondered its next move. New prisoners had to be accommodated in police cells as the strike continued.

The action took ministers by surprise, although the dispute has been brewing for months. It was called in protest at the Government's decision to pay a 2.5 per cent pay increase in two stages. Union leaders said this cut the rise to 1.9 per cent.

Jack Straw, the Secretary of State for Justice, said the strike was "deeply regrettable and wholly unjustifiable". He said: "We have been actively trying to engage with the POA through talks and regular meetings and yet this action came without warning. Ministers have met the POA on a regular basis and were due to meet next month. Indeed, at my request yesterday, my office asked for a meeting with senior officers of the POA." The union could face a heavy fine over the first walkout in its 68-year history, which broke the binding no-strike agreement made between the POA and the Government in 2005. The union announced in May it was pulling out of the deal – but called the strike months before the agreement's 12-month notice period expired. Brian Caton, general-secretary of the POA, said: "This Government has failed to deliver promise after promise to our union and today it is reaping all it has sown. POA members are dealing with the people society can no longer cope with. They are working in ever more dangerous and violent environments, with assaults on staff increasing to and average of eight per day. Yet the Government continues to demand more and more savings."

Jails remain close to capacity with 80,802 inmates, despite an early release scheme announced this summer. Edward Garnier, the Shadow Justice Secretary, condemned the Government's handling of the crisis, saying ministers had "taken their eye off the ball".