Judge bars action by prison officers: High Court blocks plan for three days of disruption in jails

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THE Government last night won an unprecedented High Court ban on industrial action by the country's 23,000 prison officers.

Mr Justice May ruled that as prison officers have the powers and privileges of police constables, they are not entitled to take industrial action - effectively preventing three days of major disruption which were planned for next week. Although the injunction is temporary, pending a full hearing of the dispute, the judge said it seemed remarkable that the Prison Officers' Association had been treated as a trade union for so long.

Never in the service's long history of troubled industrial relations has the Home Secretary resorted to this approach to industrial action. The POA said it would appeal.

John Bartell, POA chairman, said: 'Today's decision is only part of a long legal process. In the long run the court will vindicate the fact that we are a trade union'.

In a reference to the ban on trade unions at the Government's top-security communications centre at Cheltenham, he said the public would not allow 'this shabby recourse to the courts to create another GCHQ situation'.

But Derek Lewis, director-general of the Prison Service, denied suggestions that the court move was a back-door attempt to break the POA. The case was brought 'with the greatest reluctance' after consideration of the seriousness of the POA's proposed action, he said.

Certainly the planned action to refuse to admit all prisoners brought to jails by the police or by private escort service next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, would have caused havoc for both the service and the police as up to 2,000 would have had to be held in police cells - costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Mr Justice May said the Home Office was accusing David Evans, the POA's general secretary, of unlawfully inducing or procuring a breach of the prison officers' contracts of employment.

David Pannick QC, for the Home Office, had argued that the proposed industrial action was not immune from legal proceedings as it did not amount to a trade dispute 'between workers and their employers'. Prison officers were not entitled to immunity under the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act because they enjoyed the powers and privileges of police constables, who were barred from taking industrial action. In effect the claim was that the POA was not a union for legal purposes.

The judge said that while the POA felt strongly that its views were being ignored and nothing was being done to avert difficulties and troubles - including riots - in the country's 130 prisons, the balance fell in favour of the temporary injunction because of the 'considerable administrative upheaval' to the service and the justice system.

He ordered Mr Evans to inform POA members 'forthwith' that the call to take industrial action was being revoked with immediate effect until trial or further court order.