Prison officers threaten strike action over jail privatisation

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The Independent Online

Prison officers have put themselves on a collision course with the Government after threatening to stage unlawful strike action across the country over fears that the Government is planning to privatise a major jail.

Prison officers have put themselves on a collision course with the Government after threatening to stage unlawful strike action across the country over fears that the Government is planning to privatise a major jail.

Staff at Brixton prison in south London - the centre of the bitter dispute - were among the first to act, calling an "emergency union meeting" involving about 100 officers this morning.

The Prison Officers Association was organising the action even though warders are banned from taking industrial action.

The union said feelings were high following a decision by ministers to market test the running of Brixton.

The move, announced last month by Prisons Minister Paul Boateng, is likely to lead to the jail being privatised, increasing the risk of assaults among staff and cutting jobs and conditions, according to the POA.

Relations between the union and the Government have worsened since the market testing announcement.

The union's executive decided yesterday to call a walkout of its 35,000 members, which will be in breach of Section 127 of the Criminal Justice Act, brought in by the last Conservative government.

The union said it expected its members working in jails across the UK to answer the strike call from first shift today.

Asked how long the action would take, a POA spokesman said: "That is yet to be determined. It depends whether the dispute escalates.

"This will be the first action of this type since 1939 which shows the depth of feeling.

"Unfortunately we are going to have to run the risk of being criminalised by a Tory law being pursued by a Labour government which we find quite astonishing. We hope the service will want to talk to us very quickly about how to solve this problem."

Around 100 prison officers started their meeting at Brixton at 7.30am.

Phil Wade, from the POA, said: "This is an emergency branch meeting regarding the rumoured privatisation of Brixton.

"If it's a national thing, it might just show Paul Boateng and his cronies that for the first time in years, we mean business."

A skeleton staff, similar to that of a night duty, remained inside the prison, which holds around 700 inmates.

Mr Wade added: "Most of the prisoners support this. We have had some, in the past, who have come from private jails and their description is that they are like ghettos where they are bullied and beaten up because there is no staff to control it."

Branch secretary Ken Wilshaw said: "It's not a walkout. It's a meeting regarding privatisation market testing and about why the Government has done this.

"Hopefully it will be national and will demonstrate to the Government that everyone is of one mind."

At Barlinnie in Glasgow, Scotland's biggest prison, around 110 officers held a meeting outside the jail shortly after 6am.

A spokesman for the local branch of the POA Scotland said there was 98% support for their case among workers in the jail and added that the meeting had taken place on the instructions of the union's national executive committee.

The spokesman said staff had a number of concerns about the government plans including a possible fall in wages, and job losses.

"This is the first show of our real concern. Hopefully we won't need any more," he said, adding that the 8am shift at the jail would begin as normal

The POA executive will meet later today at its London head office to decide its next move in the rapidly escalating dispute.

The union said the industrial action was a "personal rebuke" against Mr Boateng and argued there was no reason to move towards privatising Brixton, which has around 300 prison officers guarding up to 1,000 prisoners.

Mark Healy, the POA's national chairman, said: "The damaging effects of market testing and privatisation are well documented. Private sector assault rates for prison officers are twice the figure for the public sector. Prisoners have an even greater probability of being assaulted in private establishments."

He added: "This union will no longer tolerate Boateng's bully-boy tactics which are designed to intimidate thousands of honest, loyal and hardworking public servants in what is rapidly becoming the forgotten public service."

A Prison Service spokeswoman said she could not comment on the POA's call for industrial action.

But she added: "We have been working with the POA closely and we are prepared to listen to their concerns."