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Prison Officers' Dispute

Volume 414: debated on Monday 27 October 1980

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4.6 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the current dispute in prisons in England and Wales.

"I should like to emphasise that this is not a dispute about pay. It arises from a claim by the Prison Officers' Association for two allowances for meal breaks. The May Committee was set up by the right honourable Member for Leeds South to consider, amongst other things, the whole question of allowances for meal breaks. Its recommendations on pay and allowances were immediately accepted and implemented by the Government. This was, by any standards, fair and generous treatment for the prison service. A number of claims, including this present one, were examined but not supported by the May Committee. Having found the money to pay for what May did recommend, the Government cannot now accept and finance further and consequential claims built on the foundation of what was recommended and accepted.

"The Prison Officers' Association have asked for arbitration. As the Prison Officers' Association themselves recognise, the matter lies outside the terms of the Civil Service Arbitration Agreement. Nor could the Government agree to put to arbitration an issue which was considered by the May Committee last year.

"As I said in my statement to the House on 31st October last year, this country has been fortunate in the men and women it has secured to run its prison system. Their duty is to protect the public, to serve the courts and to care for the inmates in their charge. This duty is arduous, difficult and sometimes dangerous. I therefore regret all the more the action which the Prison Officers' Association have chosen to take in pursuit of their claim. This has included a refusal not only to allow contractors to work in prisons, but also to undertake certain other duties which are necessary to maintain conditions for prisoners, and to provide the facilities to which they are entitled.

"Even more seriously, prison officers at many establishments have refused to receive prisoners remanded or sentenced by the courts. This action amounts to a deliberate and unacceptable disruption of the criminal justice system. As a result, this morning about 3,500 prisoners who would otherwise be in prisons are now being held in police cells, many of which are unsuitable for this purpose. The police have coped magnificently with the additional demands which have been made on them, but the number of people in their custody is approaching the limit of the available accommodation. The police are also being diverted from their primary tasks. The inevitable result of this is to place the public at risk.

"The Government must do all they can to fulfil their responsibility to protect the public and ensure the functioning of the criminal justice system. The House will be aware that, following consultation with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, I arranged for a circular to be issued to magistrates' courts last Tuesday seeking their understanding of the problems we face.

"We need to do more than that, however. Measures will be taken to provide additional accommodation with the help of the Army. I am now arranging for the new high security prison which is nearing completion at Frankland near Durham to be brought immediately into use to provide emergency accommodation to relieve the pressure on police cells. It will have a governor, assistant governors and administrative and specialist staff from the prison service and a police presence to assist with security; but otherwise it will be manned by servicemen. We may also need to use military camps.

"For these and other purposes I shall need to ask the House to agree to immediate emergency measures to relieve the criminal justice system of some of the burdens placed on it by the prison officers' actions. I intend to present a Bill tomorrow. For the convenience of honourable Members I shall be arranging for typescript copies of the draft Bill to be made available later this evening.

"The measures I seek will include provisions to cover the approval of places other than prisons for the detention of prisoners. I shall seek provisions to cover the position of those who care for prisoners in these circumstances. Other provisions will be designed to provide relief for the police in the very difficult circumstances they face. In particular, I shall propose that the requirement that remand prisoners be produced regularly before the courts shall temporarily be suspended. I do not, however, propose to alter the normal requirement for the courts periodically to review remands in custody. I shall seek powers to order the temporary release on my authority, if it is absolutely necessary to do so, of selected prisoners who have been remanded in custody or committed in custody for trial or sentence. This is a power I would use, with every feasible safeguard, only to ensure that custodial places were available, in police cells and elsewhere, for dangerous offenders. I shall also need power, for the time being, to order the early release of sentenced prisoners nearing the end of their sentences. I shall ask for a power to restrict magistrates' courts, if necessary, in committing people to prison for such matters as non-payment of fines or rates.

"All these provisions will be temporary and will be allowed to lapse when the present dispute is resolved. In addition, the measures will include a permanent provision putting it beyond doubt that it is lawful for the police temporarily to hold people committed to prison custody, when it is for any reason not practicable to secure their admission to prison.

"I am satisfied that these powers, regrettable as they are, are necessary in the situation which has been caused by the prison officers' industrial action, which goes well beyond the limits of what is acceptable. But there is an alternative. I cannot look back; I want to make it very clear that I am determined to look forward. That is why discussions are far advanced between the Home Office and the Prison Officers' Association on a new duty system which would eliminate the anomalies which gave rise to this dispute. The early introduction of such a system would far better serve the interests of prison officers than the dangerous course on which they are now embarked.

"This industrial action by prison officers is all the more regrettable because it comes at a time when, following the May Committee, so much constructive work is going on to improve the prison service for the future.

"In view of all this, I invited the Prison Officers' Association, when I met them last week, to reconsider their action. I still hope that they will not persist in it while these negotiations continue. Of course, I remain ready to see the Prison Officers' Association at any time".

That, my Lords, is the Statement.

4.16 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating the Statement. It is a sombre statement and a very serious one indeed. I would say, first, that it is absolutely right for the Government to give priority to safety and to preserving and protecting the criminal justice system and, indeed, to give priority to the care for inmates. But it is of vital importance, first of all, to regard public safety as of paramount importance.

May I also ask the Minister to find some means of conveying thanks to the police for the way in which they are coping with their extra tasks in this very difficult situation? The Statement itself reflects the deteriorating situation in our prisons: people are not being allowed in on remand and police cells, as the Minister has indicated this afternoon, are being filled up.

So far as this particular dispute is concerned, as I think has been clearly indicated in the Statement, it is one which began concerning continuous duty credits—a matter which was fully and thoroughly considered by the May Committee of Inquiry, a most authoritative body, widely representative, and presided over by a most distinguished judge. There have been indicated in the Statement observations with which I can only fully agree as to the thoroughness with which this particular matter was considered, by the May Committee among others.

So far as the future is concerned, your Lordships will have noted the discussions which have been referred to in the Statement about a new system of allowances to replace the continuous duty credits system and other allowances. What I would ask the Minister to consider is this: why should those details not now be published? It would, I suggest, be of great public interest and, indeed, it would be appropriate to do so.

So far as the powers envisaged are concerned, and in particular the role of the Army, I would ask the Minister to accept, if not now then in the very near future indeed, that we would need to know precisely how they are going to be used, though clearly within the obvious limits of the need for security. What is their role going to be? And are any special instructions, particularly about training, to be issued to the Army, bearing in mind that they are hardly experienced, most of them, in dealing with a role of this particular kind?

Finally, I would ask the Minister to accept that I should certainly join in calling upon the Prison Officers' Association, who have over the years undertaken arduous tasks in the public interest and have, most of the time, received precious little thanks for the difficult duties that they perform—duties which I am sure we should not be very happy to have to deal with—to consider again very seriously indeed, in the public interest, their actions, and the course of those actions, and to decide where it is that their duty lies and where it is that the public interest itself lies.

My Lords, everyone in your Lordships' House must deplore the prospects of a confrontation between the Government and the Prison Officers' Association, a body of men and women who not only carry out a difficult, important and dangerous task but very often have to carry it out in wholly intolerable working conditions. Therefore I think it is for all of us to see whether it is not possible to suggest some way out of the present difficulties.

As I understand it, the prison officers' claims were examined by the May Committee. There were in fact 16 claims in all which related to meal breaks, continuous duty credits in one form or another, and it appears from the report that the May Committee came down against nine of those. In relation to three they found in favour of the Prison Officers' Association and the Government have implemented the findings on those three, but, as I understand it—and I may be wrong about this—the present dispute arises largely out of a disputed interpretation of one of the three in which the May Committee found in favour of the Prison Officers' Association.

There were a further four findings on which the May Committee clearly sympathised very strongly with the case put forward by the Prison Officers' Association and suggested that equity was on their side. I would respectfully agree that where the May Committee has considered these claims in such detail it would now be quite wrong to refer them to some other arbitrator. But there is (is there not?) something to be said for the suggestion that the May Committee might be asked to reconvene to clear up the matter of the interpretation of the one finding which at the moment is in issue and to make specific recommendations about the four claims where they clearly sympathised strongly with the case made by the Prison Officers' Association.

I suspect that if that course were taken it could be taken without any loss of face by the Government in the present situation and it would be sufficient to enable the Prison Officers' Association to abandon their present action while the negotiations for new terms of service were brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

I should like to make two other brief observations. First, the Statement refers to the circular sent round to magistrates by the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, which has met with some criticism. May I venture to say that such criticism appears to me to be entirely ill-conceived and that the Government would be failing in their duty if they did not bring to the attention of the judiciary at all levels the purely practical difficulties which face everybody at the present time.

Secondly, there is a series of courses proposed towards the end of the Statement which might lead to some diminution of the prison population. In many ways this is the crux of the problem, because the conditions in which prison officers have to work are bound to encourage intransigence in claims of this sort rather than sensible, moderate, levelheaded negotiations. May I urgently ask that the Government should look again at the proposal which many of us have made on many occasions that the remission rate should be fixed at a half rather than at a third? This would immediately lead to a substantial reduction in the number of people in our prisons and would therefore make their working conditions far more tolerable for the Prison Officers' Association. The noble Lord will no doubt be aware of the recent research into these issues, which suggests that if that course were taken it could be done without any danger being created for the public.

My Lords, perhaps I may just reply to the two Front Bench spokesmen. The noble Lord, Lord Boston asked me if I would draw to the attention of my right honourable friend the desirability of thanking the police for the work that they are doing. My right honourable friend did indeed see the Association of Chief Police Officers in this regard last week and the Superintendents' Association and the Federation representatives this morning. I am grateful to the noble Lord, though, for what he said in that regard.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord for his confirmation from his Front Bench that meal break payments were thoroughly investigated by the Committee which his right honourable friend the former Home Secretary set up in difficult circumstances in 1978. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boston, that the report of the May Committee is the final word on meal break payments, and of course the Government accepted immediately all the recommendations for improvements in pay and allowances which were made by the May Committee.

The noble Lord asked me whether details of the new duty system should not now be published. The discussions have been going on at official level between the Prison Officers' Association and the Home Office and, as I understand it, until now there has been agreement that the details should be published as soon as both sides feel that they are ready. My understanding is that that will be very soon.

The noble Lord asked me a specific question about the use of the Army, saying to your Lordships that of course soldiers are not trained for working with prisoners. So far as any of the plans for the use of Frankland Prison are concerned, at the moment the prison service will provide governors, assistant governors, administrative and specialist staff. I think that at the moment I should leave it at that, and no doubt I shall be reporting again to your Lordships about how that particular project is going to work out in practice.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, asked me in essence about reconvening the May Committee in order to look at this aspect of Claim 16, and I hope the noble Lord will not think that I am being deliberately unhelpful if I say that I feel that I have answered that question in one of my replies to the noble Lord, Lord Boston. The claim which the dispute is about was put in as a claim to the May Committee. The May Committee considered it and did not recommend that meal break payments should be made for this particular aspect of what is known as Claim 16. As I have already reminded your Lordships, as soon as the May Committee reported, my right honourable friend accepted absolutely and in full the recommendations for the improvements in conditions and pay which the May Committee made.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he said about the circular which was sent out by the Home Office last week, and I should like to meet the point which the noble Lord made to me. Of course at the Home Office we shall be only too ready to look at the noble Lord's recommendations about remission, but I know that my right honourable friend always beats in mind the dangers of the executive action which he is now being forced, most regretfully, to take so far as the judiciary are concerned.

I shall end my first answer by repeating what my right honourable friend has said in another place. We believe that this can be solved by the new duty system and by looking forwards and not backwards, and we think that this is the way in which a resolution can be reached.

My Lords, the Minister has made a serious statement about a very serious position. Is it not the case that the tension in the prisons today is much deeper than this conflict with the Prison Officers' Association? Is not the tension also among the prisoners themselves and have they not suffered most from this conflict in being confined to their cells for 23 hours out of 24 in the prisons and by the intolerable conditions which there have been in many of the police cells? Therefore, in looking at this problem, will the Minister look at it rather more comprehensively than concentrating on this immediate conflict?

If I may ask the Minister first about this conflict, as the spokesman from the Liberal Benches said, have not the Prison Officers' Association doubted the interpretation of the May Report? I have listened to what the Minister has said about it, but surely, if the sensible men and women who are in charge of the Prison Officers' Association come to that conclusion, it would be reasonable for the Government to seek the view of the May Committee upon that problem.

May I also ask the Minister whether the Bill that is to be introduced tomorrow will give authority for troops to be used in prisons other than the new prison which is now to be opened? If so, would he consider that very carefully indeed? Has he seen the governor's report, which actually used these words: that with the use of troops there would be "the probability of both staff and prisoners being killed"? I hope that is an exaggeration, but it does indicate the situation.

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord will forgive me, but I think questions and answers after a Statement should not go too far into the subject matter. I hope noble Lords will keep their questjons as brief as possible. A very good example was set by the noble Lord, Lord Boston.

My Lords, I take heed of what the noble Lord the Leader of the House has said. I put my last question very briefly indeed. In view of the necessity for shorter sentences—I welcome what the Minister has said—would he not, very generously indeed, seek to end the long sentences, in view of the fact that the Home Office inquiry has said that short sentences do not increase crime in the country?

My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord has said about prison conditions which have built up over the years. It is for this reason that we now have a realistic prison building programme, and this is another reason why it is most regrettable that this dispute is occurring at the present time. With regard to the noble Lord's point about the May Committee's reconvening, I have nothing to add to what I have already said. The noble Lord asked me one specific question about using places in other prisons. This was not exactly the form of words I used in the Statement. I suggest that the noble Lord, and I think all of us, would do well to wait for a short time until copies of the draft are available, and then I know it will be possible for this point to be debated in your Lordships' House

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we on this side of the House certainly give priority to the protection of the public and to ensuring the function of criminal justice in this very grave crisis in prison administration? The proposals mentioned in the Statement for the new powers to be given to the Home Secretary are unprecedented, and noble Lords will not be surprised if I indicate that we shall, of course, examine them in detail when the Bill is presented to the House on Wednesday. But may I make one general comment? Would this not be a good moment to examine the whole question of the fact that in this country there are more people per head of the population in prison than in any country in western Europe? Is there not now an urgent need to examine how many of the people in prison need to be there and to consider once again proposals of the kind the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, has mentioned about remission of sentences?

Of course, we must ensure that violent prisoners who have committed offences of violence must be kept in gaol and must be seriously punished. But now would be an excellent moment to examine the intolerable situation that has grown in the prisons. We may perhaps have been a little remiss in the last Administration, and so far in this one, in not looking at some of the deeper issues that underlie the present crisis in prison affairs.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has said that the proposals for powers to be taken in emergency legislation would be unprecedented. I do not differ from the noble and learned Lord's use of wording. But the proposal is that those powers shall be temporary and they are being taken for the public safety, and that intention is also being written into the draft legislation. The noble and learned Lord has made the point that now would be the moment to look also with the greatest seriousness at reduction of the prison population. I should like to put on record that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has, since he came to office, consistently sought ways of increasing the alternatives to imprisonment available to the courts and has not lost any opportunity to show his support for the use of shorter sentences for non-violent offenders.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that all who have been involved in the prison administration in the past and have admired the prison service will greatly regret the nature of this dispute and the fact that such a narrow dispute should have such wide implications. Is he also aware that the Government will have as they have had in this House today, the full support, of people throughout this country when they find themselves forced, because there is no alternative, to seek the approval of Parliament for such wide powers as are now proposed? Can my noble friend say how soon he hopes to get the Bill on to the statute book?

My Lords, my noble friend, with his experience of these matters at the Home Office in previous years, has referred to a narrow dispute with wide implications. I have to say, with regret, that I regard the action which has been taken by the prison officers as going indeed far beyond the limits of what is permissible in the cause of an industrial dispute, let alone an industrial dispute on this particular subject, and wholly disproportionate to what is in issue. My noble friend asks when the Government would hope to get these proposals, if Parliament agrees, on to the statute book. I think this is the moment when my noble friend the Leader of the House would like to make a Business Statement.