HC Deb 13 November 1980 vol 992 cc593-7
1. Mr Kilroy-Silk

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he last met the Prison Officers' Association.

2. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he last met representatives of the Prison Officers' Association to discuss the present situation in prisons.

8. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement about the prison officers' dispute.

10. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the latest position in regard to the prison officers' dispute; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

I last met the Prison Officers' Association on 23 October. Following that meeting, the director-general of the prison service has had a series of discussions with the Prison Officers' Association, most recently on Tuesday this week. Work between the two sides continues and a further meeting will take place next Tuesday.

Substantial progress has been made towards devising a new duty system. The House will not expect me to explain in detail today the point which the current negotiations have reached. But I hope that the Prison Officers' Association will grasp the opportunity presented by the new system to end the dispute and enable us to resume progress towards a better future for the prison service.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

When will the Home Secretary decide whether the prison officers constitute a disciplined force that should be subject to authority and orders or whether they are an industrial work force that should have a proper system of industrial relations? If the latter, will he now accept the need for arbitration or at least negotiate an honourable settlement and introduce, as the May committee suggested over a year ago, a proper disputes procedure whereby disputes of this nature can be resolved within the prison system and where there is the availability of conciliation and arbitration? If it is the former, when will he assert control?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am seeking to follow up all the proposals in the May report. That has been my position from the start. If I were to take up some of the hon. Gentleman's points, I would be tempted into the present area of negotiations. That would not help either side in the negotiations. I am seeking to make progress.

Mr. Dubs

Is the Home Secretary aware that, as a consequence of the dispute, the total prison population, including those held in police stations and other temporary forms of custody, has declined? Will he draw lessons from that regarding his long-term aim of getting down the prison population?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman is right. The number of prisoners today, including those in police cells and in the Army-camp type prisons, if that is the correct phrase, is 41,200. One can only add that sometimes good comes out of evil. I hope that progress will continue towards shorter sentences for non-violent offenders.

Mr. Canavan

Is the Home Secretary aware of reports today in The Guardian and other newspapers of prisoners held in dirty, overcrowded and inhumane conditions because of the prison officers' dispute? Will he ensure that these complaints are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall certainly see that these complaints are properly investigated. I must make clear to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that a necessary consequence of the industrial action taken by the Prison Officers' Association is that people have to be held in police cells. These are thoroughly unsatisfactory places for prisoners to be held. That is one of the problems facing us.

Mr. Flannery

Does not the Home Secretary realise that this is the tip of the iceberg? It is inevitable that at some time, given the horrific conditions in many prisons—even worse than in the Victorian era, when many of the prisons were built—the pressures in Hull prison and Wormwood Scrubs will erupt elsewhere. The tension among prisoners is also bound to exist among prison officers. This is the great problem. Will the right hon. Gentleman take action on the whole question of prisons?

Mr. Whitelaw

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will assist me by not seeking to exaggerate any of the difficulties that come up. I am seeking, calmly, through negotiation with the prison officers, to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman and the House want. I have some hopes of success. We have a chance now, if we seek it and are prepared to follow it, to get a new system in our prisons which will be much more satisfactory than in the past and to build on the recommendations of the May committee that the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) rightly set up. If we miss that opportunity, the House and the country will deeply regret it.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

According to the Home Secretary and from what I hear, negotiations are taking place. They are best left to the negotiating table. The other day we gave the Home Secretary the most extraordinary powers. Is he having to use them all?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his first remarks. My answer to his second question is "No". The only power that I have used is to provide that those on remand should be seen in absentia and not brought to the courts. I dislike the power but it is inevitable since people on remand in prison cells and Army camps are all over the country and come long distances. I said that I would use the other powers only if I had to. I have not had to use them.

Mr. Mates

Does my right hon. Friend recall that at the beginning of the dispute the spokesman for the Prison Officers' Association said that the argument was with the prison service and the Government and that its members did not wish their actions to be felt by prisoners and people on remand? Is that the way that it has turned out?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am afraid that such a possibility never existed. It was inevitable that the type of industrial action taken would harm the prisoners—and so it has. Many prison officers are worried about that development, and so am I. That is why I am so keen that the present negotiations should continue to a successful conclusion. I believe that that is the desire of the vast majority of prison officers, for the reason given by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Tilley

Does the Home Secretary realise that the only way to resolve the dispute and to restore morale and good will in the service is to give the Prison Officers' Association the right, which any other trade union has, to proper arbitration of a dispute by arbiters agreed by both sides?

Mr. Whitelaw

As I said to the hon. hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), if I were to reply to that question I should enter into the area of negotiations, and that can do only harm.

Mr. Soley

Is the Home Secretary aware of the appalling consequences, particularly to teenagers, of sharing accommodation in police cells? I am pleased to hear that progress is being made on the new shift system. If progress is being made, why does he not say to the POA that the system will be introduced within a certain period of time, or accept the recommendations of the May report on arbitration? Does he agree that in that way the dispute could be stopped today?

Mr. Whitelaw

I must not enter into the negotiations. I have made the Government's position clear. We are seeking to move forward from May in exactly the way that May proposed. We are doing this by accepting May's recommendations on pay and allowances, by accepting May's idea for a new duty system and improved industrial relations. That is the purpose of the present negotiations. That is why I hope that we shall succeed in carrying them through.