In a decision destined to become a cause celebre in the labour movement, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said he would introduce legislation during this parliamentary session outlawing strike calls by prison union leaders.
His announcement in the Commons came hours before the Government won a High Court injunction against officers at Preston jail who refused to accept new inmates.
Ministers had already secured a temporary halt on such disruption from the High Court, which concluded that prison officers have the powers of 'constables' and, therefore, should not be allowed to take industrial action.
The 27,000-strong Prison Officers' Association was forced to call off a three-day 'lock-out' of new prisoners in protest at overcrowding and privatisation, but hoped to reinstate its right to strike in a full hearing early next year.
The Certification Officer, a legal official apparently acting independently of ministers, has launched an investigation into the status of the association. If it were true that members had the same powers as police officers, then the POA could not retain its status as an independent trade union and enjoy legal and financial privileges that went with it, the Certification Officer has said.
In a parliamentary answer yesterday, however, Mr Howard pledged to introduce fresh laws which would stop prison union leaders calling strikes, but allow officers' associations union status. He said he hoped the legislation, which would also apply to the Prison Governors' Association, would help to develop 'constructive' industrial relations.
'I intend to introduce legislation this session which, while maintaining the position that it is unlawful for the POA to call industrial action, also extends normal trade union status to organisations representing staff who currently have the powers of a constable,' he said.
A TUC spokesman said the POA's right to take action had not been questioned before, nor its status as a union. 'The Government is resorting to precipitate legislation. The right to take industrial action is a fundamental right.'
Scottish prison officers reacted with fury to the Government's move to ban their union from taking industrial action as well as the POA. The Scottish Prison Officers Association (SPOA) accused ministers of taking no heed of the Scottish situation.
Derek Turner, its deputy general secretary, said: 'We have seen our members dragged over rooftops in chains round their necks as hostages. We have fought for staffing levels and security of staff and now the Government is saying we can no longer take any action to further these disputes.'