In a successful attempt to stop next week's industrial action over prison privatisation, ministers had won a temporary ruling that officers shared the same status as police - and therefore had no right to strike.
But in recognition of the fact that the ruling destroyed the POA as a union, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, sought to diffuse the situation by saying he wanted it to continue negotiating pay and conditions. He also offered staff access to industrial tribunals for the first time in the union's 54-year history.
The POA said yesterday that Mr Howard was seeking to 'disentangle himself from a complicated mess of his own making'.
Terry McLaren, of the union's national executive committee, said: 'Mr Howard cannot have it both ways. How can he offer us rights to an industrial tribunal, which would recognise us as workers, while at the same time argue that we share the same status as police?'