'Duty' of jail staff to defy orders: Ruling sparks strategy on admissions

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The Independent Online
PRISON officers were yesterday urged to take the High Court at its word and act like 'constables' even if that meant defying jail governors.

Leaders of the 27,000-member Prison Officers' Association were yesterday trying to turn a temporary injunction preventing industrial action to their advantage.

David Evans, general secretary of the association, said that where members thought the admission of more prisoners to a crowded jail would lead to a breach of the peace, they had a 'duty', as officials with the power of police, to refuse to take them.

By refusing to take inmates, the POA would be taking the same action that was banned by the injunction. The association's strategy, revealed to a national delegates' meeting at TUC Congress House yesterday, is an ingenious response to a legal challenge.

The Home Office won a temporary halt on industrial action to protest over privatisation, on the basis that POA members commanded the 'power and privileges' of constables. Yesterday the association enunciated those powers, called on prison officers to exercise them and said disciplinary procedures could no longer be used against POA members.

Apart from refusing to admit prisoners, the POA said the powers included the right to stop and search and to arrest. The association also pointed out that an assault on a constable is a more serious offence than an ordinary attack. It would be dealt with by magistrates and convictions were more likely. In a letter to the association, Derek Lewis, director-general of the Prison Service, said that while the High Court had decided they had the powers and privileges of constables, they were 'not constables as such'. He said the duties of prison officers arose from the Prison Act and Prison Rules, in particular rule 77, which stated that they should assist and support the governors and obey their lawful instructions.

Mr Evans argues that the Home Office had always recognised that his members held the powers of constable for the sole purpose of escorts and escapes.

The Certification Officer has launched an inquiry into whether the association can be registered as a union under the law. Since the hearing, Michael Howard, Home Secretary, had shown signs of seeking to placate the POA. The association is waiting for a full hearing at the High Court, but has prepared submissions to the European Court and the UN-backed International Labour Organisation.

John Bartell, POA chairman, told delegates that the Home Secretary had used the courts to distract attention from the crisis facing the prison service.

A management spokesman said last night that the union had indicated its willingness to take part in talks on the future of industrial relations in the Prison Service and it was hoped the discussions would take place within 10 days.