Election of union militant alarms prison chiefs

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The Independent Online

Britain's 30,000 prison officers are on a collision course with jail chiefs after electing a militant leader who is already taking legal action against the Government.

The new national chairman of the Prison Officers' Association (POA), Andy Darken, was forcibly removed from his post atthe beleaguered Feltham young offenders' institute in west London last year after the Prison Service accused him of undermining reforms.

Mr Darken, who now represents almost all of the uniformed jail staff in Britain, told The Independent yesterday he had a personal dislike of both the head of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, and the prisons minister, Beverley Hughes.

Last night, Sir David Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons and outspoken critic of conditions at Feltham, was "appalled" by Mr Darken's election. He said: "The militancy at Feltham was utterly disgraceful. Darken ... made life impossible for the governor."

The development has caused alarm at Prison Service headquarters. Mr Narey issued a statement yesterday saying: "Mr Darken was obstructing the necessary improvement of Feltham ... I moved him against his will.

"I did not allow him to stand in the way of a better Feltham and he will certainly not stand in the way of a better Prison Service."

Mr Darken is taking the Government to industrial tribunal, claiming his removal from Feltham to Prison Service headquarters was a breach of trade union laws.

This week, he met Ms Hughes and Mr Narey at the Home Office. Mr Darken said: "There was an air of tension. It's fair to say I don't like the man and I don't like the woman."

He described Mr Narey's record on providing resources for prisons and supporting officers as "reprehensible". And he claimed he had been elected to give the prisons chief a message from his 30,000 members that "we do not have confidence in his leadership".

He also accused ministers of reneging on previous Labour claims that privatising prisons was "morally repugnant".

Mr Darken, 46, a former dockyard engineer and merchant seaman, was elected after what he described as an 18-month period of "internal strife" at the union, culminating in the resignation last month of its long-standing chairman Mark Healy.

According to Mr Darken, Mr Healy became unpopular with POA members because he was "seen as a friend" of Mr Narey.

Members' disenchantment with the POA was clear from a return of only 5,654 votes out of 30,007 distributed ballot papers. Mr Darken, with 1,846 votes, defeated the more moderate officials Tony Freel (1,565) and Colin Moses (1,549).