With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on industrial relations in the Prison Service, and on my tabling amendments today to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The amendments are for debate on Report this Wednesday.
The aim of the amendments is to provide for a reserve statutory restriction on industrial action by prison officers. The powers in the amendments would be applied only in the absence of a suitable trade union dispute resolution and recognition agreement between the Prison Service and the relevant trade unions. As I will explain, tabling the amendments fulfils clear undertakings given to Parliament by Ministers over six years.
The Prison Service is an essential public service. Prison officers do a difficult and demanding job. They deal with some of the most dangerous and vulnerable people in our society. Their work is often unseen by the general public. I pay tribute to their endeavours and those of all other staff in the service.
Prison officers are in a uniformed and disciplined service. When on duty, they are officers of the law with the powers of a police constable. They have a clear duty to uphold the law, protect the public and safeguard the welfare of the prisoners in their care.
In those respects, their position as officers whose role is essential to the security of the state and the communities in it is similar to that in other essential services, such as the police and the armed forces. Parliament has made it clear and laid down in statute that the risk to the public in each of those services is simply too great to allow them to take industrial action.
At the same time, it has been well recognised that, without that form of influence, staff need other legitimate means of pursuing grievances and concerns with their employer. In 2000, I established a pay review body for prison governors, prison officers and related grades. Subsequently, in 2001, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the then Home Secretary, introduced proposals for a comprehensive voluntary agreement with the Prison Officers Association. In 2005, this agreement was replaced by a joint industrial relations procedural agreement, or JIRPA, which provides mechanisms for resolving disputes between the POA and the Prison Service, including binding arbitration.
Under the JIRPA, the POA voluntarily agreed to legally enforceable constraints on its ability to take industrial action. It was explicitly on that basis that the Government sought parliamentary approval to disapply the statutory prohibition on industrial action in section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 for public sector workers in England, Wales and Scotland. The disapplication was made by an order under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. In making that order, with the Opposition’s broad support, my noble Friend Lord Bassam, on behalf of the Government, said in terms that in the event of notice of termination of the JIRPA the Government would have
“no hesitation in bringing forward legislation to ensure that that protection”—
in the disapplied statute—
“is there.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 March 2005; Vol. 670, c. 222.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), the then Prisons Minister, spelt this out to Parliament in a written answer the following year in which he said:
“If the POA gives notice to terminate the agreement with no alternative arrangements being in place, the Secretary of State would ask Parliament to reintroduce statutory constraints such as existed prior to disapplication of section 127.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2006; Vol. 449, c. 1897W.]
Regrettably, in May last year the POA gave 12 months’ notice, expiring on 8 May this year, of its intention to withdraw from this agreement in respect of England and Wales. An equivalent agreement remains in force in Scotland.
Experience underlines why there must be sufficient protection against industrial action. Most recently, on 29 August 2007, despite being bound by the terms of the voluntary agreement banning industrial action, the POA initiated a 24-hour strike, giving the service just one hour’s notice. As the JIRPA was still in force, that strike action was constrained by an interim injunction, but nevertheless it had a substantial impact on the operation of the public sector Prison Service. That included the cancellation of court appearances, transfers of prisoners and the extended use of police cells. The action led to serious disturbances at Her Majesty’s young offender institution Lancaster Farms, resulting in significant damage to cells that cost £220,000 to repair.
The public’s safety has to be my primary consideration, but it cannot be acceptable for prisoners to be locked in their cells for an indeterminate period, with great uncertainty about when they will next get a meal, exercise or medication, and with serious risks to their welfare. It has always been, and continues to be, my hope that the Prison Service and POA can agree a new trade union dispute resolution and recognition agreement that would be binding on both parties.
Early last summer, the Government asked the Trades Union Congress to initiate talks between the Prison Service and the POA, aimed at improving industrial relations and at reaching a new agreement. The talks were conducted under the auspices of Mr. Ed Sweeney, a then senior member of the TUC General Council and now chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Mr. Sweeney’s report on the talks has now been sent to both parties and a copy has been placed in the Library. I am extremely grateful to him for his work. His recommendations offer a sound basis for further discussion and a framework for future agreement. I very much hope that the POA will continue to engage with that.
However, Mr. Sweeney also recognises that, given the current industrial relations climate, in which public safety cannot be guaranteed in the event of industrial action, the Government will need to consider what mechanisms must be put in place should an agreement not be achieved. I very much hope that between now and May a new and acceptable voluntary agreement can be made. I would much prefer the reserve powers in the amendment never to have to be used, but in proposing them I am fulfilling clear and explicit undertakings given to this House and the other place. I emphasise that the amendments reflect the wording of the current joint industrial relations procedural agreement, which defines industrial action as
“any action likely to affect the normal working of a prison”.
This provides no greater constraint than the one to which the Prison Officers Association voluntarily signed up in 2005.
The House will also wish to know that legislation of this nature is in accordance with European Union and international law. Similar measures can be found in the constitutions and laws of many other European countries, including France, Germany and Italy. I have placed a copy of a report in the Library that summarises the position in European and other OECD countries.
I repeat, however, that I am mindful of the need to establish a sound platform on which to secure constructive industrial relations between the Prison Service and the Prison Officers Association. That is why the amendments provide a reserve power, to be activated or suspended by order of the Secretary of State. Should a suitable trade union dispute resolution and recognition agreement be reached—one that includes protections against industrial action—the statutory prohibition would be suspended. That is in line with Mr. Sweeney’s recommendation to make any reinstatement of section 127 of the 1994 Act what he calls a passive change, rather than an active way of conducting employee relations in the Prison Service.
Mr. Sweeney also recommends that an independent review take place two years after any agreement is signed between the Prison Service and the Prison Officers Association. This review would re-examine the balance of arguments for and against allowing forms of industrial action by prison officers. If a suitable trade union recognition agreement is agreed and sustained, I will commit to this further review after a period of stability.
This year provides an important opportunity for us all to build a new and positive industrial relations climate for the Prison Service. We are committed to engaging constructively with all Prison Service trade unions on a programme of work force modernisation, and we are ready to pay for it. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already made available significant additional funds from April 2009 to support the programme, which could be underpinned by a multi-year pay deal. I very much hope that the Prison Service and the Prison Service trade unions will engage to make the best use of those funds, in order to provide a brighter future for all staff, develop new and more flexible working practices, and create more stable industrial relations within the Prison Service. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement.
Prisons are places of security, in which there can be no place for industrial action. That was why the previous Conservative Government legislated for the statutory prohibition of industrial action in prisons. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the Labour party fought tooth and nail against those laws in opposition? Indeed, when he was Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair said that they were a
“wholly unwarranted attack on the working rights of prison officers”.
Is it not therefore extraordinary that, having dismantled the statutory ban, the Government should now be threatening to put it back in place?
We are now being asked to debate new clauses in 48 hours’ time, when the Secretary of State has known about the problem for months. Will he assure us that there will be sufficient time on Wednesday to debate those and other important amendments that the Government have tabled since the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill?
The Secretary of State said that the status of prison officers was similar to other essential services, such as the police and the armed forces, where the risk to the public is simply too great to allow them to take industrial action. In that case, what was the justification for repealing the statutory provision in the first place, when it placed prison officers on the same footing as the police and the armed forces? Has not the inadequacy of the Government’s no-strike agreement been revealed by the fact that the Secretary of State has been forced to make his statement today?
In 2001, when he was Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman made it clear to the House that independent arbitration on pay would be provided “in recognition” of the repeal of the statutory ban and its replacement with a no-strike agreement. That was the deal that the Government made with the unions. Why, then, are Ministers surprised that the Prison Officers Association considers that deal to have been reneged upon, when the Government have reduced the value of a pay award made by the pay review body?
When the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), announced the repeal of the statutory ban on strikes, that announcement heralded an era of modernisation, reform and change. Have we not actually seen crisis, incompetence and wildcat strikes? Why did the Secretary of State claim to have been surprised by last August’s wildcat action, given that it was clear to everyone else that relations with prison officers were deteriorating so fast? Does he accept that the Government’s troubles with prison officers go beyond pay? Is it not a fact that conditions for prison staff have worsened significantly over the past 10 years? Prison officer numbers have risen at half the rate of the prison population, chronic overcrowding is putting immense strain on the service, assaults on prison staff have soared by 80 per cent., and now budgetary cuts mean the prospect of prisoners’ being locked in their cells throughout weekends. Is it any wonder that prison officer morale is so low?
Coming into office, the Government promised
“partnership not conflict between employers and employees.”
Now we have conflict with the police and conflict with prison officers, and no doubt there are further conflicts to come. Has not this emergency statement been forced by a crisis entirely of the Government’s own making?
Ministers repealed no-strike legislation, and within three years they are having to reinstate it. Is that what they mean by a relaunch? They have mismanaged the public finances, mismanaged public pay and mismanaged prisons. Is it any wonder that this Government have acquired a reputation for serial incompetence?
Let me begin by wishing the hon. Gentleman and the House a happy new year. [Hon. Members: “The same to you.”] I thank Opposition Members for reciprocating.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman—while parenthetically advising him to change the pitch of his voice a little when he is making statements—that I do not suggest that the operation of the Prison Service over the past 10 years has been perfect or anything like it. If, however, he wants to establish whether it has been better during the past 10 years than it was during the previous 18, I shall be happy to engage in a contest, and I look forward to his using one of the Opposition Supply days for precisely that purpose. The level of industrial disruption within the Prison Service involving, for example, the use of police cells—which involved 3,500 cells at one stage and continued, more often than not, throughout those 18 years—makes our record pale into insignificance.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the timing of the statement. Last May, we were given notice that the Prison Officers Association intended to abandon the voluntary agreement that it signed in 2005. We decided, I think rightly, not to rush to reintroduce these powers, notwithstanding clear undertakings that they would be reintroduced if notice was given of intention to terminate the JIRPA. Instead, following an initiative from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—the Prisons Minister—we involved the TUC. Mr. Ed Sweeney has produced an important report, on which we are acting. I did not want to make my statement before we had received Mr. Sweeney’s report; I am conscious that it does not allow a great deal of time for debate, but I thought that this was the best possible moment.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s nonsense about an emergency statement, when I gave evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee in October, one of his hon. Friends asked whether I intended to reintroduce section 127. I said that it was under active consideration, and that remains the position.
The hon. Gentleman must do his homework.
My hon. Friend is always right about these matters. As she says, the hon. Gentleman needs to do his homework.
There are two things to be said about the position taken by the Opposition in 1994, about which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will doubtless ask a question. If the hon. Gentleman bothers to read the report of the debates that were held at the time, he will see that the allegation that we fought the proposals “tooth and nail” is hardly an accurate description of the criticism expressed from both the Liberal Democrat Benches and ours. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who led for the Opposition, made the point that if there were to be a restriction on prison officers’ right to strike, it had to be balanced by other measures. Moreover, in the three years when I was shadow Home Secretary, I never gave a single undertaking that we would repeal section 127; neither did I do so at any stage when I was Home Secretary, nor did my successors.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside would have preferred, as would the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, that the change to section 127 be made by way of its suspension, rather than its repeal. That was not possible in the circumstances, but when the measure came before the other place—with the support of the Opposition, who were not making these nitpicking points at the time—clear undertakings were given that in the event of termination of the JIRPA, we would re-introduce the ban.
I have dealt with the point about chronic overcrowding. There is a degree of overcrowding, but it is nothing like that within the Prison Service in the 1980s and early 1990s. The ratio of prison staff to prisoners has remained stable at between 1:21 to 1:22. However, quite a lot of the duties previously undertaken by prison officers are now undertaken by operational support grades—for example, people working in gatehouses who do not have direct contact with prisoners. Before the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) next makes that point, the question for him is whether he is proposing that a future Conservative Government, whenever that might be, would reinstate those jobs to prison officers. If not, what on earth is the point he is making?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and particularly for pointing out in his response to the Opposition that there is a long history of very poor industrial relations in the Prison Service. I hope we can move from the regulation and the statutory provision that he has proposed back to proper negotiation. Is he aware that from the point of view of the Prison Officers Association, there is a sense of imbalance in the relationship between it and the management of the Prison Service? Will he say a little about what the Sweeney report recommends in relation to that imbalance, if it is recognised?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the terms in which he makes his point. A copy of the quite lengthy report is available, but essentially Mr. Sweeney is seeking to produce a more effective voluntary agreement with different forms of arbitration; for example, to reduce the arguments about whether an issue is suitable for arbitration, which has been one of the problems of the JIRPA, and to make the arbitration more acceptable. Along with work force modernisation, for which more money is available from April next year, these and other improvements should lead to a major change in the industrial relations climate within the service, which is my commitment. As I said, I would much prefer us to achieve a situation—I think that this is possible—where these statutory powers do not have to be used.
I genuinely thank the Lord Chancellor for giving me early sight of his statement; it is a good start to the new year.
Is not the only thing that could exacerbate the chaos that the Government have created in the Prison System a wholesale withdrawal of good will by prison officers? Strikes are never appropriate in prisons, but no-strike arrangements can work only when there is effective dialogue and trust—an important word—between the work force and management or Government.
In the draft that the Lord Chancellor kindly sent me, there was an unfortunate typographical error. At one point, it said that the Government sought to “misapply” the statutory prohibition. Is not that exactly the problem of trust between many in the public service—particularly the uniformed branches of the public service—and the Government? They do not trust the Government not to misapply the arrangements in these areas and there is a strong feeling that they are increasingly taken advantage of as a result. Is that not exemplified in one of the problems with the Prison Officers Association—the staging of pay awards?
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the staging of a pay award is counter-inflationary when the same point is reached by the end of the year? It is rather a case of providing slippage within departmental budgets. Should not we have clear arbitration binding not only on the work force, but on the Government and the management ? Is the Lord Chancellor confident that any contingency plans involving the police will be substantive—if, indeed, the police are asked to intervene in circumstances almost identical to those of their own grievance with the Government?
Mr. Sweeney makes an important point in paragraph 4.7 of his report:
“In my opinion industrial relations between the SPS”—
the Scottish Prison Service—
“and the Scottish members of the POA are far more positive than those between HM Prison Service and the POA in England and Wales. This reflects the commitment of both sides to building a positive working relationship”,
which has been the case
“over the last six years.”
Why is there that difference between the circumstances in Scotland and those in England and Wales? Given the increasing permeability between the private and the public sectors, will the prohibition apply in similar terms to those working in the private sector within the prison system? Should we not recognise the very difficult job that prison officers undertake on our behalf and ensure that their efforts are properly recognised, along with those of other members of the uniformed services?
The Lord Chancellor did not answer the point made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) about the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The Bill now extends to two volumes and has more than 170 clauses and a second volume of schedules, and it addresses matters of huge importance to Back-Bench—and, indeed, Front-Bench—Members. The Lord Chancellor is now interpolating yet another section into the Bill. Does he really believe that this House is being properly dealt with in being provided with a single day to discuss the Bill’s remaining stages? Is it not inevitable that large parts of important proposed legislation will remain undebated by this House, and that the attentions of the other House will be required to put that right, as is so often the case?
I apologise to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for not answering his question; I meant to do so. I appreciate that there are pressures on time in the House. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has arranged for the business of the House on Wednesday to extend until 8.30 pm and I hope that that is sufficient.
I spotted the typo, and it was changed. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was, of course, breaking a trust in mentioning it, as all such material is provided in confidence.
The staging of any pay review reduces the total cost in the year concerned, and I simply say that the Government have not sought to stage any of these pay awards lightly. Indeed, we are well aware of the impact that that has had on relations, particularly with the police service and the Prison Service, but it was essential that we reduced inflation and interest rates. Prison officers and police officers, along with all other members of the public services, would have suffered disproportionately if we had not been able to take that effective action. That is why we had to do this.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the relationship between the pay review body and any joint agreement. The joint agreement does not directly deal with pay, and nor would it as it is a subject for the pay review body. We always hope to be able to accept in full the recommendations of the review body, but that is subject to overriding considerations of national economic interest.
The hon. Gentleman asks about contingency arrangements with the police. As we have to keep these matters confidential, let me just say that arrangements are in place and they will be used if necessary, but there is no way in which the police can do the job of prison officers and other staff.
As for Scotland, Mr. Sweeney said in the same paragraph as that quoted that
“it needs to be borne in mind that HM Prison Service”
for England and Wales
“are operating a larger and arguably more complex Service than the SPS”,
but we stand ready to learn from Scotland—Mr. Sweeney makes that point.
I am glad to see that one of the representatives from Scotland is nodding. I should add that it has always been ready to learn from England and Wales, and long may that continue. The private sector is already the subject of the 1994 Act, and that was not changed by its repeal under the order made in 2005. I of course accept and repeat that prison officers do a difficult job, and I praise them for it.
My right hon. Friend is right to point out that prison officers do a very difficult job, and we should be grateful for what they do. Nevertheless, the whole House will accept that we cannot afford to have this essential service disrupted by industrial action such as the recent one-day action. My right hon. Friend said that these powers will be reserve powers only and that, subject to proper agreement, he is prepared to suspend them indefinitely. Will he give a commitment to the House that not only he but the whole Prison Service will commit to improving morale within the prison service? Underlying all these problems is the fact that morale is simply not satisfactory.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and yes, of course I give that undertaking; we want to see far better industrial relations and a high level of morale. The evidence on morale is to a degree contradictory—there is what the Prison Officers Association says, while local surveys provide a different picture. Also, at 2 per cent., the resignation rate from the prison service is the lowest of any service in the public sector. That speaks volumes and is more substantial than other evidence, but I accept what my hon. Friend says and we will do our very best.
Is this not the most humiliating U-turn by the Secretary of State, who personally campaigned shamelessly for the votes of prison officers in the 1997 election by promising to give them the right to strike? Is it not all of a piece with the conduct of the Secretary of State, who, when shadow Home Secretary, described private sector prisons as morally repugnant and then espoused them with enthusiasm when in office? Has the right hon. Gentleman no shame?
Let me just correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman. No undertakings were given to repeal section 127—[Interruption.] Well, they were not—in the 1997 manifesto; not a word. He, too, should do his homework rather better. Moreover, he will remember—because I have a feeling that he was shadow Home Secretary for a short period—that quite quickly after I became Home Secretary following his august period, the POA sought to test whether I was serious about not repealing section 127. It took industrial action, and I then had to seek an injunction in respect of that. I had made it clear over the three years that I was shadow Home Secretary that although I of course wanted different relations, I did not believe that we should repeal section 127 without the equivalent of a voluntary agreement.
I should point out to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that when Paul Boateng, as Prisons Minister, set out on my behalf the arrangements that we were bringing in for the pay review body and for what then became the JIRPA, we were very clear that we were going to seek not the repeal of section 127 but its suspension as a reserve power. It was only as a result of the technical problems associated with the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 that we had to go down the route of repeal and, therefore, of reintroducing legislation now.
My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor must look longingly north of the border to see why, as he said in his reply to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), industrial relations there are so much better than they are south of the border. The answer is the existence of a simple two-word phrase: a partnership agreement. Is it not possible to encourage the prison boards in England and Wales to move away from their often bovine, Victorian mill-owner approach to industrial relations? It will require, as the Prison Officers Association says, a complete sea change in the actions and attitudes of the people on those prison boards. What can the Lord Chancellor do to bring that about any time soon?
If I may say to my hon. Friend, I do not recognise that description of good, positive Prison Service management. However, we need a new future for both sides, and that is what is on offer and what I want to see. Not just that is on offer—money is available for work force modernisation. Although I fully understand that my statement today will not be comfortable for the Prison Officers Association, I hope that it will recognise that there is a chance here to take forward work force modernisation. Additional money will be available from April, and Mr. Sweeney made important and positive recommendations, on which we want to act.
While I accept the action that the Lord Chancellor hinted was going to become necessary when he appeared before my Select Committee, did he note the view in Mr. Sweeney’s report that relations at local level were generally reasonable or good and that it was at national level that relations between the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Service were at a particularly low ebb? Have there not been failings on both sides over the years that have brought this about? Is it possible to change them, given the background of the pressures of overcrowding and the mishandling of the police arbitration settlement, which has created a lack of confidence that the Government will stick to their side of the bargain when no-strike provisions are in force?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that relations at local level are on the whole good—he makes the point that I made earlier. The issue of relations at national level needs to be addressed. I hope that the House will acknowledge that my statement did not seek to start allocating blame; I want a different industrial relations climate for the future. I have long believed that that must be underpinned by a voluntary agreement, which excludes industrial action—I think that that is now the view of the whole House—or, if that cannot happen, by a reserve power making that statutory.
Given the acknowledged very poor state of industrial relations at national level, does my right hon. Friend have concerns that announcing the reinstatement of section 127 before any negotiations have taken place on the Sweeney report’s recommendations will make it a lot more difficult to reach a speedy and sensible agreement with the POA on those recommendations? We need an agreement that gives recognition to the POA as an independent trade union and replaces the JIRPA with an accepted and agreed process for resolving disputes, and, like the Scottish model, allows the union, rather than just the management, to initiate changes through that agreement.
My right hon. Friend the Prisons Minister and I have met the POA on six or seven occasions since we took office in June last year. Of course I would like to be in a different position, but there has never been any dubiety about this matter. Mr. Sweeney’s report states:
“I do not believe at this point in time it will be possible to meet this policy position of the POA. Employment relations in the Prison Service actually militate against meeting this policy consideration”
—which is for an end to any either voluntary or statutory ban—
“as does the absence of any form of minimum cover arrangements”.
In that light, I thought that this was the appropriate time to bring forward these proposals for legislation on the reserve power. It would have been false of me to have sought to negotiate a voluntary agreement with the POA without making it clear that if a voluntary agreement could not be achieved, we would have to introduce legislation on a reserve basis.
One would hope that the Lord Chancellor of England would always have an instinctive sense of what is fair. Governments of all persuasions have taken away the right to strike from various public sector workers, but in consideration of that, they have set up either independent pay review bodies or independent arbitration bodies. Surely what is fair about that is that the Government should then honour what those pay review bodies recommend. I am sure that the Lord Chancellor will recognise that it is not fair for payments then to be staged, because that does not honour the pay review body’s agreements. Governments can take that approach but, as someone whose constituency, like that of many hon. Members, contains a prison, I must tell him that it leads to a sense of frustration, betrayal and mistrust, it is bad human relations and bad labour relations, and it is also inherently unfair.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s basic point that where a work force is prevented, by one means or another, from taking industrial action, the Government have a double responsibility to ensure that any disputes, including those in respect of pay, are dealt with extra fairly. In normal circumstances we would accept the recommendations of the Prison Service pay review board, but these were not normal circumstances for reasons that I have already explained and they involved difficult judgments. I know that they were not popular with prison officers, and I understand why. However, if we had gone down the alternative route across the public sector as a whole, it would have been that much more difficult to have convinced the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England that we were getting a grip on public sector pay-led inflation. The result would have been that interest rates would not now be on a downward path, and everybody would suffer.
Is the Minister really happy with the idea that a Labour Government should be effectively taking away the right to strike from a group of public sector workers? While he says in his statement that it is in accordance with EU and international law, is he really satisfied that it fulfils the obligations that we have under International Labour Organisation treaties on the right of workers to join and act in independent trade unions?
I am not in any doubt as to the latter point. My hon. Friend will be able to read the detailed report that I have issued today about practice elsewhere in Europe and other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with an analysis of our obligations, and he will then see why I am so confident about saying that. Almost all jurisdictions have prohibitions on the police and armed forces taking industrial action and many, across Europe and other OECD countries, have similar restrictions, which are entirely lawful internationally, in respect of prison officers, for the same reason. Of course I understand the argument that my hon. Friend makes, but it must be balanced against the impact on public safety and the welfare of prisoners if industrial action is taken in that particular case. I have asked the Prison Officers Association time and again what it would do were it in my position and faced with industrial action by prison officers that meant that prisoners could not be fed, would not know when they would next be able to exercise and, in the case of many prisoners who unfortunately have mental health problems, would not know when they would next receive medication. Those are the considerations that have to be balanced, and that is why we have now reluctantly reached a consensus across the Chamber that such industrial action must be restricted by one means or another. At the same time, we have to put in place better and alternative arrangements.
Canterbury prison is in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the key reasons behind the huge rise in attacks on prison staff and the inevitable effect that that has on morale is the progressive undermining of the disciplinary climate by human rights legislation? What message does he have for those warders who were unable, in a well reported case last week, to deliver a prisoner to court because he was deemed to have a right to continue to occupy his cell because somebody else might otherwise take it?
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I am writing to all right hon. and hon. Members with prisons in their constituencies setting out in more detail what I have said today. In the well publicised case that he mentions, I asked for immediate information because I would have found it no more acceptable—if the reports were true—than did the hon. Gentleman. I am happy to write to him with more detail, but I have been told that it simply was not the case that the prisoner stayed back because he was claiming human rights to his own cell—there is no such recognised right in domestic or international law—but because his legal advisers had told him that his visit to court was not necessary. The Prison Service is clear that if a prisoner is due in court and has no good reason for refusing to go—such as legal advice—he will, if necessary, be forcibly removed from prison to appear in court. That remains the case.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the problems is the apparent inconsistency of approach? Some of us believe fundamentally in the right to strike, and we also ask public sector workers in very responsible positions to show restraint. We need consistency, and we need to recognise the hurt felt by the POA. There is no substitute for good negotiation.
Of course I recognise the conflict of principles, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) in this case the principle of safety of the public and the welfare of prisoners has to take precedence. Meanwhile, there can be no substitute for good relations and it is that to which I have committed myself, as has my right hon. Friend the Prisons Minister, the director general and all his staff. We want a different way of resolving disputes in the Prison Service.
However much the Lord Chancellor tries to patronise my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), or shamelessly reinvent history, he cannot escape the fact that today’s decision is a humiliation and a consequence of the Government’s management of the whole Prison Service. There are two prisons in my constituency, one of which—HMP Downview—was a leading centre for treating addiction in male offenders. Under the Lord Chancellor’s time as Home Secretary, the Government managed, at only two weeks’ notice, to turn it into a women’s prison with the complete destruction and loss of the valuable programmes in the prison. Changes at HMP Highdown mean that the prison has to accept 360 new places in three months, with a vast increase of detached duty officers going to the prison to make the changes work. That is a consequence of the Government’s inability to cope with wholly predicted increases in prisoner numbers, male and female. The decision today is a reflection of the Government’s mishandling of the Prison Service and the consequent anger of the Prison Officers Association.
I simply disagree. We have been far more effective at managing prison numbers than the Administration the hon. Gentleman supported for 18 years ever were. That is measured by the fact that we have not had to use police cells anything like as often or as extensively as happened repeatedly under the previous Administration. Nor have I ever had to come to the House as Douglas Hurd did to announce the release of 3,500 prisoners just like that, so I want no lectures at all—
And continuing—on executive release.
On consistency, it was made absolutely clear to prison officers, by me back in 2000 and again in 2005 by Prison Ministers, that if they gave intention to terminate the voluntary agreement, with a voluntary ban on industrial action, section 127 would be reintroduced. The difference is that I am reintroducing it as a reserve power, and I very much hope that we can achieve another voluntary agreement before the beginning of May.
May I shine a wee bit of light on industrial relations in Scotland? As my right hon. Friend knows, when I was head of health for Unison in 1997 industrial relations were poor, so we set up a model—called partnership working—that was legislated for and had the same legal standing as clinical governance and financial governance. To the credit of the last Scottish Government and the current minority Scottish Administration, they both signed a memorandum of understanding, which has had a big impact on industrial relations. We will happily give my right hon. Friend the expertise of the Scottish health service and the Scottish TUC if desired.
On 29 August, I visited HMP Wellingborough where I met 30 striking prison officers. Those hard-working, decent men and women did not want to be on strike, but they felt that the Government had broken their agreement. I am sure members at the prison would be happy to accept a no-strike agreement if the Government agreed to binding arbitration, not arbitration that can be changed, as the Lord Chancellor said, in the national interest.
May I make it clear that of course I understand the anger of the prison officers, although I do not think that it justified their industrial action on the 29th? Presumably that is the hon. Gentleman’s view, too. We broke no undertakings or agreements, because it has been made clear by successive Governments that we will always be minded to accept the recommendations of pay review bodies, except where there are overriding economic considerations in the national interest. An important detail is that the joint industrial relations procedural agreement, or JIRPA, does not deal directly with pay, which is, and will continue to be, dealt with under the pay review arrangements.
The Lord Chancellor spoke of the POA walking away from the JIRPA. The reality is that the POA could not make the JIRPA work because the management—a management that is prepared to discipline people for wearing a trade union badge—were interested in going to court at the drop of a hat. Will he tell us what exactly will be done to improve the quality of management? If there is no such improvement, the new agreement will not work either.
Of course opinions differ, as they often do in respect of industrial relations. In the case of the Prison Service, the employees and employers have different perceptions; I do not want to comment on that. In my view, the report from Mr. Ed Sweeney provides a positive way forward. My hon. Friend will know from his trade union experience that there have been plenty of occasions on which although relations have not been all that good, they have got better as a result of good will on both sides and new agreements. That is what I hope will happen in the four months before 8 May.