HC Deb 17 April 1986 vol 95 cc1009-12 3.30 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement following the result of the ballot by members of the Prison Officers Association in support of industrial action, and say what contingency plans he has for administering Her Majesty's prisons.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

The House will know that this morning the national executive committee of the Prison Officers Association announced that its members had voted for industrial action in the prison service, and that it would take such action unless the issues about which it is in dispute with the Prison Department have been resolved by 7 May.

I believe that the House will share my sense of sadness and concern at these developments: sadness because I do not believe industrial action is in any sense necessary; concern for what this means, not just for prison officers and those in their charge, but for the prison service itself.

Industrial action is unnecessary for two reasons. First, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has just said, this Government have made clear their commitment to prison officers not just in words but by devoting record levels of resources to the prison service. Secondly, industrial action is unnecessary because prison service management has repeatedly stated its willingness to continue to discuss with the Prison Officers Association the issues in dispute. I hope that even at this late hour the leaders of the association will respond positively to that offer.

The Government have a range of contingency measures available to them to cope with any industrial action and its effects. I think that it would be wrong for me to describe these in any detail today: much will depend on whether action is taken and what form that action takes. The Government are prepared and will respond vigorously as necessary. In doing so, we shall have the safety of the public and the security of prisons as our first concerns.

Let me make it clear that we do not seek confrontation. Our chief efforts over the coming days, as in the last few weeks, will continue to be directed to resolving the dispute in discussion with the Prison Officers Association, so that resort to industrial action is not necessary.

Mr. Alton

Speculative reports have appeared in the press during the past week or so to the effect that the Home Secretary is considering sending troops into the prisons. Does he agree that, instead of turning our prisons into industrial battlegrounds, it would be better to begin negotiations with the POA? The Home Secretary's noble Friend Lord Glenarthur said on the radio that he was prepared to talk to the POA, so why did he refuse its request on 8 and 9 April for negotiations? Does not that lead to the sort of confrontation that the Home Secretary has just said he wanted to avoid?

Mr. Hurd

The position is clear. As we have repeatedly said, and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in her letter yesterday to prison governors, we are ready to consult the POA about manning levels but are not prepared to concede management's right to manage the prison service. Consequently, we cannot concede to anyone else the right to determine, in negotiations, what manning levels should be. But we are willing and, indeed anxious to consult, and that is the normal procedure.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the basis of the dispute lies in the inflexible working practices and systems of working within the prison service? Does he further agree that the dispute takes place against a background of record levels of expenditure on the prison building programme, the provision of new prisons and resources, and on the number of prison officers employed?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, indeed. That is true both as regards prison building and as regards the number of staff being employed. The number of prison officers has increased by 18 per cent. over a period when the prison population has increased by 12 per cent. So we are improving the situation, despite the large rise in the number of people whom the courts sentence to prison.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the root cause of the problem is that prisons, such as Pentonville prison in my constituency, are grossly overcrowded and that prison officers are grossly stretched in the work that they have to do? What plans do the Government have to reduce the overall number of people in our prisons?

Mr. Hurd

I agree that we are trying to remedy decades of neglect. I personally think that it is one of the scandals of administration that previous Governments allowed the prisons steadily to fill and did nothing about a prison building programme. We are now putting that right. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to make further efforts to persuade the courts that there are tough and practical alternatives to custody when it comes to sentencing first or minor offenders.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

The whole House is sorry that there has been this breakdown in talks with the Prison Officers Association, but will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that these officers have a splendid record of service to the country and have maintained the security of our prisons very well indeed, holding people of the most violent character without objection? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind in the discussions that he may be having with the prison officers that they will not be taking action without bearing in mind their responsibilities to the nation and the security of their jobs?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend's tribute. In the prisons that I have visited since taking office as Home Secretary I have been deeply impressed by the professionalism of the prison service, so I entirely agree. For that reason, I am very anxious that we should bring this dispute to an early close through discussion.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Will the Home Secretary accept that prison officers who are at the sharp end of trying to deal with the vastly overcrowded prisons in the country have a perfect right to be consulted about staffing levels, and will he take this opportunity to deny the statement made by the chairman of the Prison Officers Association that resources are so limited and stretched that prisoners cannot receive even a change of underclothing?

Mr. Hurd

Resources are stretched, but they are less stretched than they were as we gradually make up the results of the decades of neglect of which I spoke.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to reassure all those who live around prisons that he will monitor the security of prisons and will take all steps necessary to maintain that security?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, indeed. That is why I mentioned that the security of prisons would be our first priority if it came to industrial action, which I hope it will not.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I am sure that the Home Secretary will agree that a major contributing factor to the situation is a combination of excessive numbers within prisons and the length of time for which prisoners are incarcerated. He knows from his report to clerks, registrars and judges that he has called for fewer and shorter sentences. However, his right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has called quite publicly for longer and harsher sentences. Will the Home Secretary please tell us who will win the day—he who has the authority, or he who has not?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Member is inventing a contradiction. My predecessor and I and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made it perfectly clear that for severe offences we favour severe sentences. What I was saying in my earlier reply was that, for lesser or minor offences, it is very important that the courts should have available to them tough and practical alternatives to custody so that people can do something useful for the community while serving their punishment instead of sitting in prison at great expense to the community.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

Will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary confirm, first, that prison officers are very anxious to maintain the present high level of overtime, and, secondly, that prison officers are extremely well paid? Taking into account overtime, the average officer earns only about £2,000 less than a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Hurd

I had better not get involved in that last point. However, I am worried about the level of overtime which, on average, makes up about 30 per cent. of prison officers' earnings and, on average, amounts to 16.5 hours per officer per week. I do not think that that is a sign of the proper use of resources.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is it not a fact that, under the Government's 1984 Act, the Prison Officers Association has used the Government's most favoured method of a ballot to secure an overwhelming 81 per cent. majority for industrial action? Is not this verdict to be expected when the prisons are bursting at the seams, with almost as many inmates now as the Home Office predicted for 1993? What is the Home Office doing to alleviate that? What will the effects of industrial action be on visitors, the courts, solicitors, prison governors, probation officers and inmates? Why is the Home Office exacerbating this tense situation by being so adamant in ruling out the one key word to which the Prison Officers Association attaches importance—negotiation? What kind of Government is it under whom we have a record crime wave, a unanimous vote of no confidence in it by the Police Federation, and now an overwhelming vote for industrial action by the prison officers?

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman is being captious. We inherited a situation in which the prisons had been neglected for decades. We are steadily putting that right by recruiting more prison staff than ever before and by building prisons. As I have now said twice, we must also try to make sure that for minor offences the courts have effective alternatives to custody.

If the right hon. Gentleman is telling us that it is Labour party policy that politicians should tell the courts, regardless of the evidence or the case, how many people should be sent to prison, that is incompatible with having an independent judiciary.