Thousands of troops will start preparing to cover a threatened prison staff strike on Monday in a move described as scandalous by one senior officer.
The first of up to 3,000 military personnel will begin training in procedures such as arrest and restraining techniques with the prospect of seven months on standby in case of industrial action.
With the military already stretched in Afghanistan and busy with other operations such as Libya, as well as facing 17,000 redundancies, the move has been greeted with fury by many in the military.
"It is shocking, pretty scandalous for it to come at this time," said one officer. "It has gone down like a lead balloon."
While the controversial idea has been mooted for some time, it was only on Thursday night that official approval was given and officers were told to have their soldiers ready by 1 April.
Army soldiers, some of whom have only recently returned from Afghanistan, as well as Royal Navy and RAF personnel, have been told that they will be kept on standby from April to December in case of industrial action. "That is seven months, it is effectively an operational deployment," said one source. "On Monday hundreds across the country will start training and thousands are going to be involved."
One army battalion has been told that it will be expected to cover industrial action in as many as eight prisons. Key officers will be kept on six-hour notice while soldiers will have to move within 12 or 18 hours, affecting plans for leave or home visits.
"This is going to mean huge restrictions on their movements and what they can do. They will be placed on standby from the moment they finish training," said one source.
In a move funded by the Ministry of Justice, they have been told that prisons will be placed on lock-down in the event of a strike but they will be expected to handle all other security including transporting prisoners to court. All military staff have been told to ensure their Hepatitis B vaccinations are updated.
There remains bitterness within the army that, at a time when it was committed to a war in Iraq, it was forced to cover a firefighters' strike in 2003. The dispute, which began in late 2002, saw thousands of soldiers drafted in to provide cover using ancient green goddess appliances.
"At least we have not got 50-year-old fire engines to go out in this time," joked one soldier.
Prison officers have threatened to strike in protest at public-sector pension reforms and plans to privatise Birmingham prison and Lancashire's Buckley Hall prison. Police were reportedly reluctant to stand in for prison officers, with fears that their presence could create tensions in jails.
The Prison Officers Association said recently that it would "desist and resist" any moves to send the military into prisons, citing potential health and safety issues the military would face as "a real danger".
The association's general secretary Glyn Travis said: "The prison population has escalated by almost 1,000 in a month and we believe this money would be better spent to put full staffing in. What we do not want is armed forces going in to establishments and endangering themselves... We believe there is legislation and prison rules that will prevent the army from going in other than to secure a perimeter as the police do when we have a major riot."
The Ministry of Defence refused to comment on the situation last night, passing all queries on to the Ministry of Justice, which said: "Our aim is to avoid any form of industrial action and we will continue to talk to all unions to do everything possible to achieve that.
"However, given the risks and complexities involved in running prisons, it is sensible and appropriate to review our contingency plans for dealing with widespread industrial action.
"There was a previous trilateral agreement with the police and the military for the provision of support to prisons and we are currently reviewing those arrangements and working with the MoD and police to ensure that our contingency arrangements are as strong as possible."Reuse content