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Prison officers ordered back to work after 'unlawful' action

Published 15/11/2016

Union leaders have highlighted recent chaos in British jails
Union leaders have highlighted recent chaos in British jails

Prison officers have been ordered back to work after thousands joined a protest held amid claims jails are "in meltdown".

The Government took the unusual step of launching a High Court bid to block industrial action after guards gathered outside establishments around the country.

Granting an injunction, Mr Justice Kerr said it was a "very urgent" application with evidence of up to 80% of staff taking some sort of action in the majority of prisons.

"A number of incidents have occurred in prisons today and the situation is very concerning indeed," the judge added.

The Prison Officers Association (POA) directed members to protest on Tuesday after talks with the Government over health and safety concerns broke down.

Courts were hit by disruption as a result.

At the Old Bailey, the trial of Thomas Mair, who denies murdering MP Jo Cox, was brought to a halt due to the action, with the case adjourned until Wednesday morning.

Elsewhere, a planned appearance of prison governors at the Commons Justice Committee on Tuesday morning had to be postponed.

Prison officers are effectively banned from going on strike and the move was branded "unlawful" by Justice Secretary Liz Truss.

Answering an urgent question in the Commons, she said she met the POA on November 2 and talks with her team over safety measures continued over the next fortnight.

"These talks were due to continue this morning," Ms Truss told MPs. "Instead the POA failed to respond to our proposals and called this unlawful action without giving any notice."

Ms Truss said the union's position is "unnecessary and unlawful" and "will make the situation in our prisons more dangerous".

Up to 10,000 staff joined the protest after a string of high profile incidents at prisons, including an alleged murder, a riot and the escape of two inmates.

Two prisoners escaped from Pentonville prison in north London earlier this month - sparking a manhunt in which they were eventually recaptured.

Weeks earlier, inmate Jamal Mahmoud, 21, died after being stabbed at the jail on October 18 in an attack which left two others injured. And on November 6, up to 200 prisoners went on a rampage in HMP Bedford.

Announcing the move, the union said the "continued surge in violence and unprecedented levels of suicide and acts of self harm", coupled with the recent alleged murder and escapes "demonstrate that the service is in meltdown".

About 60 guards gathered in the car park within the gates of Pentonville. Dave Todd, POA representative for London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, said conditions in prisons were "volatile and dangerous".

"We need to act to protect ourselves," he said. "It has not come about quickly - it's a build-up over probably years actually.

"It's just unsafe. To me, prison officers taking this type of action speaks volumes for what's happening inside."

Derek Stanton, a committee member of the Manchester POA, said: "I have been in this job for 28 years, this is the most dangerous I have ever seen it."

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: "This Tory Government is failing to address a prisons violence crisis which is leaving staff and prisoners in a dangerous situation."

Tory former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the action was "quite irresponsible" - but warned the situation in prisons was "scandalous".

He told BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme: "Staff shortages play into it but you have also got to look at why we have got quite so many prisoners there.

"We incarcerate a bigger proportion of our population than anybody else in Europe and it hasn't had any noticeable affect on our crime levels compared to anybody else's."

Earlier this month Ms Truss unveiled her blueprint for prison reform - including a recruitment drive to add 2,500 new officers and "no fly zones" to stop drones dropping drugs and other contraband into jail grounds.

The Prison Governors' Association said it "recognises the extremely tough conditions many of our colleagues and staff are working in", adding: " The decline in safety and increase in violence is a serious concern and our association has gone to some lengths to highlight them.

"However, the PGA will not condone the withdrawal of labour and the significant additional risk this places all staff and prisoners under. The controlled unlocks in place today will have to be relaxed at some point in the future as prison routines are normalised."

In a notice issued on Tuesday night the POA's national executive paid tribute to "the courage shown by all of the members who stood up today to demand a safe working environment".

Following the court action the union said officers should work normally, and earlier instructions were now withdrawn.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "The Government welcomes the POA decision to stop its unlawful industrial action and the fact that prison officers are returning to work.

"We are committed to improving safety across the prison estate and are already taking action to deal with this."

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