Prison officers permanently banned from striking after Government wins High Court bid

'It's only a matter of time before a member of staff gets killed,' warns deputy general-secretary of Prison Officers' Association following court ruling

May Bulman
Wednesday 19 July 2017 11:12 BST
The POA warned warned that without the ability to take action, prison officers will be at risk of serious harm while carrying out their jobs
The POA warned warned that without the ability to take action, prison officers will be at risk of serious harm while carrying out their jobs (PA)

The Government has won its High Court bid to obtain a permanent ban on industrial action by prison officers, in a move unionists have warned will leave “only a matter of time” before a member of staff gets killed.

The Ministry of Justice’s application follows a move in February by the Prison Officers Association (POA) to call on its members to take action short of a strike over a lack of safety in a prison run by Her Majesty’s Prison service.

This led to a judge granting an interim injunction requiring the POA to withdraw instructions to members to refuse to undertake certain voluntary tasks, in tune with the Government’s demands.

Following the permanent ban on industrial action on Wednesday, the POA accused the Government of failing to confront a situation in which lives are at risk, warning that, without the ability to take action, prison officers will be at risk of serious harm while carrying out their jobs.

The ruling in London followed a hearing earlier this month when Daniel Stilitz QC told Mr Justice Jay that the case was brought “to ensure that POA does not seek to breach the law again”.

“Any inducement which leads prison officers to cease to provide services which they otherwise would have done is unlawful,” said counsel.

“The Secretary of State is concerned that, unless the position is determined definitively by the court, there will be renewed calls for unlawful industrial action in the future."

It comes just a day after the UK prison watchdog reported a “staggering rise” in violence in prisons across England and Wales over the past year, with not one youth jail in England and Wales now deemed safe.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, warned that easy access to drugs and soaring numbers of inmates locked up for well over the recommended period have also contributed to a “vicious cycle” in which emphasis on rehabilitation has declined.

In response to the ruling, Andy Darken, deputy general secretary of the POA, told The Independent: “It’s our opinion that we shouldn’t be doing industrial relations through the court.

“In this case, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service should have sat down with us to discuss the real issues around the violence in our prisons and the health and safety of staff. But they decided to seek relief through the courts to run their industrial relations. We’ve got some issue with that.”

Mr Darken, who worked as a prison officer 25 years ago, said the ruling now left staff unable to act if they feel unsafe, warning that the situation could likely lead to a member of staff being killed.

“We heard just yesterday from the prison inspector Peter Clarke about the lack of safety in our young offender institutions. It appears that our members now can’t do anything about it,” he said.

“If someone is not safe, and staff now can’t walk out of that area and keep themselves safe, what do they do now? Following this ruling, it is only a matter of time before a member of staff gets severely injured or killed.”

He denied that the action they had taken earlier in the year amounted to a strike, and claimed the union was being “handcuffed” by the Ministry of Justice because of a lack of funds to resolve a severe staffing and funding shortage.

“It’s not striking. It was taking action to protect our members and themselves. We’re saying we couldn’t go in there because it’s not safe, and that the employer should be ensuring that they are keeping us safe,” he said.

“The violence in our prisons is going up and up month on month, year on year, and we do know that it has gone up in the last quarter, even though they haven’t yet been published.

“The budget cuts and staffing cut has reduced the amount of security searching going on. The regular searching of cells have reduced and reduced. All the security procedures you had in place have been watered down to the effect that there’s hardly any. And that’s been the big problem.

“To reverse violence and improve health and safety in prisons it will take money they haven’t got, so they’ve decided to handcuff the union, by getting an injunction that might stop our members protecting their health and safety.”

Commenting on the ruling, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), said the decision would "do nothing to fix the crisis in our prisons", adding: "Ministers should be listening to prison officers’ concerns about staffing and safety, rather than pursuing legal action against them.

“The ban on industrial action has demoralised staff providing a vital service. It needs to be overturned.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We fully share the POA objectives to make prisons safe and decent places where frontline staff are recognised and rewarded for the challenging work they do. Unlawful industrial action is not the way to achieve that aim.

“We are committed to building on the essential reforms that are already underway to make prisons places of safety and reform.

“We are investing £100m a year to recruit an extra 2,500 frontline prison officers. The most recent figures show the number of prison officers in post has increased by 515 compared with the previous quarter, meaning we are on track to delivering this important commitment.”

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