Prison officers face court ban on action: Union given noon deadline to call off protest

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT and prison officers were locked in confrontation last night after the Prison Service announced it was seeking a High Court injunction to prevent three days of industrial action planned for next week.

Derek Lewis, director-general of the Prison Service, said its lawyers would be seeking legal backing for the view that prison officers were not conventional workers but constables and therefore unable to take industrial action apart from working to contract.

The Prison Officers' Association - which has been given until noon today to back down - said last night it planned to go ahead with the protest: refusing to admit all prisoners brought to jails by the police or Group 4, the private prison escort service, between Monday and Wednesday of next week.

John Bartell, the association's chairman, said: 'This is a cynical attempt to use the courts . . . to neuter a trade union which is causing difficulty to the Government.'

Since 5 November, the association has been refusing unpaid overtime work in protest at overcrowding and privatisation. But it wants to escalate its campaign to increase pressure on the Prison Service.

Underlining the suggestion that the Prison Service and the Home Office have decided to confront the association, Mr Lewis said it would have been possible beforehand to pursue such a legal course against the union, which has frequently taken action of a similar type.

But he stressed the action planned was potentially the most disruptive ever contemplated. Between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners might have to be located in police cells at short notice placing a 'considerable strain' on the system.

He denied it was an attempt to remove unions from the Prison Service. 'There is much more common ground than areas of difference. What we cannot tolerate is a situation where they can threaten substantial disruption to the whole prison service and the maintenance of law and order.'

If the union does not retreat by today's deadline, the Prison Service and the Home Office will seek the injunction in the High Court, arguing that because prison officers have historically been considered constables they do not enjoy the same rights as other workers under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1992.

Mr Bartell said the association would call a delegate conference if the injunction was granted.