Leading Article: Prison union out of step with the times

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THE PRISON Officers' Association seems to have learnt little from the defeats of other trade union titans. In working to rule and threatening strike action over jail privatisation, the association has played into the hands of ministers who would welcome confrontation. The miners and print unions should remind the prison officers that all-out attack on the inevitable usually ends in humiliation. These last-ditch efforts tend to transform evolutionary change into industrial revolution.

The Government is clearly in a mood to take on the POA, which retained much of its influence during the Eighties when its fellow unions were emasculated. The Government's success yesterday in winning an injunction to prevent industrial action next week is a mark of Home Office determination not to let the POA have its way. The union's leadership would be wise to rethink its campaign against privatisation.

A prison officers' strike might indeed be welcomed as a distraction from the Government's self-

inflicted problems. Ministers could then blame the union for jail disturbances which may arise as the prison population increases. The POA leadership should let the Government suffer the political disasters of its penal policy rather than become a scapegoat for that failure.

It is easy to understand, though hard to sympathise with, the association's thinking. The union feels deeply threatened by the future: it will have great difficulty gaining a foothold in new private prisons and fears its own demise. Officials may regret that prison officers no longer have their old powers to dictate staffing levels and regimes.

However, an end to such corrupting power can only be good for prisons, which have been dominated for too long by what has become Britain's most Luddite public sector union. In the past, the POA has advocated reactionary policies which have stood in the way of liberal reform. Its members who work in top-security special hospitals have been an obstacle to making such institutions more humane. Only belatedly has the association begun to recognise that good conditions for prisoners are also beneficial to their jailers.

Prison officers are unlikely to suffer much from a loosening of their union's grip on jails. With Michael Howard in charge, prison work is going to be an expanding business over the next few years. Staff will be much in demand and can expect to be well rewarded. They would be foolish to allow their union to drag them into industrial strife simply to preserve its outdated and damaging domination of the prison service.