§ 4.5 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)
Mr. Speaker, I will with permission make a statement on the dispute with the Prison Officers Association.
The House will recall that I set out the issues in the dispute in my reply to a private notice question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on 17 April. Since then I have twice met representatives of the national executive committee of the Prison Officers Association. Following my first meeting, I put to them, in writing on 22 April, a package of proposals for resolving the dispute. When I met them again yesterday, POA representatives accepted that my proposals provided a way forward. They undertook in return to consider my request that they call off industrial action in order to allow a resolution on this basis to proceed.
In the event, the POA declined yesterday to go beyond the offer of an undertaking that it would instruct its members not to take action while talks on the basis of my proposals were proceeding. In effect, that amounted to an offer to suspend, but not to call off, its industrial action. But its previous undertaking to suspend had proved ineffective, and damaging industrial action had taken place despite it. So its position yesterday represented no advance on the situation it had taken in talks last week and was not acceptable. The Government cannot conduct talks under the continuing threat of further industrial action in this vital public service.
The POA therefore broke off discussions and has announced that it is considering ways of extending its industrial action, which may include strike action. As I make this statement, it is still not clear what action the POA may take in practice.
I deeply regret this action by the national executive committee of the POA, which shows no regard for the longer-term interests of its members or, equally importantly, for the prisoners in its members' charge. The sort of industrial action that we have already seen at Gloucester prison—where prison officers yesterday took control of the prison and refused to accept the orders of their governor and where they are still refusing to return to normal working—is unacceptable. The Government will take all possible steps both to sustain the right of governors to manage their prisons and to protect prisoners and the public from the consequences of POA action. In this context, a circular will be issued tomorrow to the courts containing advice on the implications for them of the dispute. A copy will be placed in the Library of the House. I shall consider any further measures which may be necessary.
I take this opportunity to make a further appeal to prison officers to look at the package of proposals I have placed before them and to judge whether it is worth throwing that away by taking further industrial action. As I have publicly acknowledged many times, prison officers do a difficult and often dangerous job. They deserve to be well paid. But the heavy burden of overtime must be lightened and there must be increased efficiency.
Progress towards formal discussions about a range of new systems designed to meet all these objectives was being made when the NEC call for industrial action went out. The agenda for talks, set out in my letter of 22 April, 794 represents a positive way forward for prison officers and, indeed, the whole prison service. I very much hope that even now, prison officers will end their action to avoid lasting damage to the prison service and to their own interests.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
Two years ago the Government were insisting that industrial action was unacceptable without a ballot. Now they are insisting that industrial action is unacceptable with a ballot: a ballot with 78 per cent. voting and 81 per cent. in favour of industrial action, and a ballot held under the Government's own legislation.
Prison officers carry out a dirty and dangerous job in increasingly difficult conditions, caused by the collapse of the Government's law and order policy and the record crime wave under this Government, which has produced a huge increase in the prison population and unprecedented overcrowding, with as many inmates now as the Home Office forecast for 1993. Prisoners are often three in a cell. They may be locked in their cells for 23 hours and the workshops may be closed.
The Government are spending more money on building prisons but are seeking to save money on running them, with prison officers being left to carry the burden, especially with the extra duties that they now have in servicing the unprecedented number of prisoners on remand. The prison officers have made it clear that they fully agree that it is not their role to control manning levels, but why will the Home Secretary not agree to a proper and sensible role for them in deciding safe manning levels, particularly as the POA has offered to instruct its members to take no further action while talks are going on?
That would be the sensible way of solving these difficulties, and would be much more sensible than the ridiculous antics going on at Gloucester prison. Last night, the deputy governor arrived at the prison gate and announced that he was bringing fish and chips for the governor. Under cover of that fast food, four assistant governors rushed in to take over the prison. Will the Home Secretary repudiate such tactics, and admit that the Government have been planning for this very dispute for many months?
That is demonstrated by the 80-page document that I have with me, which was circulated months ago. It is headed:ConfidentialAssociation of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern IrelandIndustrial Action In The Prison ServicePolice Contingency PlanningNotes of guidance.Among other things, the document says:Confidentiality is most important in relation to contingency planning. Should it become known to the POA that such planning was taking place by police it may result in the escalation of an already delicate situation.It is a delicate situation, and the contingency planning has become known.
The Government long ago decided that, after other groups of workers whom they had chosen, the prison officers would be their next enemy. I warn the Home Secretary that with his intransigent bungling in this exceptionally delicate area he is recklessly playing with fire.
§ Mr. Hurd
I always hope for better from the right hon. Gentleman but I am always disappointed on occasions like this.
The neglect that the whole prison service suffers from is the neglect of previous Governments to do anything about prison building—[Interruption.] My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord President of the Council started the prison building programme after years of neglect by others. By now the right hon. Gentleman should know that we have recruited 18 per cent. more prison officers since 1979 while the number of prisoners has increased by 12 per cent. Consequently, it is completely false to say that we are not staffing to match the increased prison population. We have staffed over and above the increase in prison population.
The POA and I thought that last week we were very near agreement on the POA's role in being consulted over manning levels. I wrote the POA a letter which I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will study. The POA wrote back indicating that the contents were very near to what it had in mind. Industrial action then followed. The POA said that it would be willing to suspend industrial action, but it was not suspended. In those circumstances, I am sure that discussions can only fruitfully take place if the POA calls off industrial action.
I entirely disagree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about Gloucester. Yesterday, the situation there was serious, because POA members refused to run the prison in the way that the governor directed. Later, as a result of the governing grades' ingenuity, a number of governing grades were able to enter the prison. The situation is now under control. However, if they had followed the right hon. Gentleman's advice, the situation in Gloucester prison would be out of control.
Of course there are contingency plans. If we had reached this position and it had appeared to the House and the right hon. Gentleman that there were no contingency plans, he would have been the first to jump up and down in excited indignation, wanting to know why we had not foreseen this possibility. But as I said at the end of my statement, I believe that we were close to agreement last week. I also believe that we are close to an understanding now. However, I hope that the POA will understand that it is not possible for any of us to get on with the agenda that we are anxious to discuss while the threat and reality of industrial action hangs over us.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)
I concur with my right hon. Friend in his general line, and deplore the militant action that has taken place. But will he bear in mind that—as he will know from correspondence that he has had with me—prison officers in Gloucester have been under considerable pressure? That pressure is the result, among other things, of the presence of a special unit in the prison and of at least one prisoner who is suffering from AIDS. Those prison officers have a long history of fine service and non-militancy, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear that in mind when discussions resume. Will he give an undertaking to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the citizens of Gloucester if things get out of hand?
§ Mr. Hurd
Yes indeed. I do not believe that there is any threat to the security of Gloucester prison, thanks to the timely action that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) criticised. What my 796 right hon. Friend has said about the role of prison officers is true, not only in relation to Gloucester but elsewhere. However, in view of some of the things that have been said, I should make it clear that no one has been dismissed as a result of these activities. If the POA staff agree to work normally under management's instructions, they will be reinstated.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
As I have three prisons in my constituency and two of them are high security prisons, may I support the call for saner counsels to prevail? Is it not a fact that on Sunday, at least, prison officers at Leicester went back to work at the POA's request? Is the Secretary of State aware of the niggling things that have been introduced into the prison service, particularly in Albany, that payments due to prison officers have been withheld, niggling restrictions have been imposed, and the number of prison officers on night duty, in particular, has fallen to a dangerously low level? Surely it would be possible to renew negotiations with a postponement of industrial action, even though that action has been voted for by a very large majority of the POA. That would be better than calling for absolute abandonment, which is totally unrealistic.
§ Mr. Hurd
Yesterday I was holding discussions with representatives of the POA. In theory, action was suspended, but in fact action of particularly damaging and disruptive kind was under way at Gloucester, Swansea and Northallerton. One cannot allow such a situation to continue. With his knowledge of these affairs, the hon. Gentleman will understand that we have been recruiting prison officers at a substantially faster rate than the rise in the number of prisoners. However, we are not using them correctly.
There are all sorts of rigidities and inflexible practices which, if we could discuss them constructively with the POA, would be resolved. We could say goodbye to a good many of them, and that would increase the resources available for other purposes within the prison service. That is what I want to get on with, but I cannot do so in the sort of circumstances that obtained yesterday, when in theory action was suspended but in practice it was raging.
§ Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)
Will my right hon. Friend accept that, as a Leicester Member of Parliament, I did not agree with the industrial action taken by some of Leicester's prison officers? However, they are under some strain because of the secure wing. May I have my right hon. Friend's confirmation that there will be no surrender, that the courts will not be deterred from passing custodial sentences, and that everything possible will be done to ensure not only that there are custodial sentences but that there is a proper ballot by all prison officers before any further strike action is taken?
§ Mr. Hurd
My hon. Friend will know that there was a ballot that empowers the national executive to take industrial action but does not compel it to do so. I agree with my hon. Friend and hope the executive will decide in the interests of its members and of the prison service not to use that mandate. My hon. Friend will wish to look carefully at the circular to the courts. I hope he will agree that it does not run counter to the principles he talked about.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)
I accept that the problem of running the prisons has been with us 797 for a long time. It goes back to the Administration in which I was Home Secretary, but also goes back beyond that, to previous Home Secretaries. An approach in narrow party political terms, suggesting that it is all the fault of the Labour Government, will get the Home Secretary nowhere. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary can answer for himself and he does not have to respond. I realise that this is a difficult subject. What was this agreement of a mere few days ago from which all would have been well? Would it not help public discussion to see who was wrong and who was right if the Home Secretary told us what the agreement was?
§ Mr. Hurd
I responded temperately to the attack by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) who said it was all our fault. I had hoped that such an attack might not be made on this occasion but it was made. The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) will absolve me from too much intemperateness in my reply to his right hon. Friend.
My letter of 22 April has already been made fairly well known and is in the Library. That is the letter to the general secretary of the POA in which I set out the understanding upon which we were close to agreement on the role of the POA in being consulted and in discussing manning levels. I went on to discuss the pay claim, which should be about to be negotiated with the Treasury. Obviously, such negotiations cannot take place in present circumstances. I also discussed tax compensation on housing allowances and the whole matter of working practices, which I have already discussed. That is the agenda that I want to get on with and, given his experience, the right hon. Gentleman will understand the importance of that.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
There is a prison in my constituency and I have been meeting prison officers for the last 20 years. I have a high regard for the officers and for the service that they provide, both to the public and to the prisoners. However, I wholly condemn their approach in taking industrial action, just as I wholly condemn the attitude of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) who exacerbated the problem by what he said. Can we do something to assist this somewhat silent, forgotten and hidden service? The prison service is somewhat hidden when compared with the police. The officers do not have a parliamentary spokesman and sometimes think that they are somewhat forgotten. I hope that my right hon. Friend can assure them that taking industrial action is not the way to be remembered or noticed.
§ Mr. Hurd
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The prison service has suffered from under-discussion—if there is such a term. It would be a good thing if the House, the political parties and the public in general outside the specialist groups, took a greater interest in the state of the prisons and in what we are doing to remedy the conditions that we find.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
Is it not entirely understandable that officers at Pentonville prison in my constituency are anxious and angry about the conditions under which they have to perform their duties? That prison was built for 600 and is now housing 1,000 prisoners. Three workshops are being closed down and, because of under-staffing, wings are left for hours at a time 798 without being patrolled. Those are the problems. What action does the Home Secretary intend to take to tackle those basic issues that lie at the heart of this dispute?
§ Mr. Hurd
The hon. Gentleman describes the scandal of overcrowding. If he had carried out his research correctly he would know where to attribute the blame for that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the knotty part of the problem is the high level of overtime. It averages 16 hours a week per officer and makes up for 30 per cent. of average earnings. By any standard, that is too much. We want to discuss with the POA the proper balance between staffing hours and increased manpower and overtime. As the hon. Gentleman will see from the figures that I have given, an increase in manpower is coming through. Out of such discussions could come a new deal that would get rid of some of the present rigid and restrictive practices and add substantially to the prospects for the prison service as a whole.
§ Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)
I deplore the action taken by the Prison Officers Association but I should like to pay tribute to the prison officers in Exeter prison. It is a remand prison and conditions there have deteriorated over the years. There is severe overcrowding and a shortage of staff. Will my right hon. Friend look again at a subject that worries prison officers—the policy of enforced early retirement? That was imposed in recent years and is a source of great anxiety to prison staff.
§ Mr. Hurd
I shall certainly look at that, although my hon. Friend will know the reason for it. I agree with my hon. Friend that the rise in the remand population is disturbing. He will know about the efforts that we are making, for example through trials on time limits, to encourage the processes of law to work faster so that there are fewer people on remand.
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
I was recently given an answer to a question about Featherstone prison which was wholly misleading. It was about the overcrowding there and the pressure on officers. It is that kind of false information from management to Ministers that causes Ministers to get into the mess that they are in now. I shall be grateful for an early alteration to the answer that I was given.
It is better for Ministers and others who visit prisons such as Winson Green to do so in the early hours of the morning, at slopping out time, instead of at midday. If they did that they would see the real effects of overcrowding and understand why the prison officers have explained that they cannot any more do random searches of the cells. We have reached a ludicrous state of affairs and it is aggravated by people being sent to prison for less than seven days. It is inexplicable that this kind of thing can go on, because it puts unnecessary pressure on already overcrowded prisons.
§ Mr. Hurd
It is important for Ministers to visit prisons. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I try to do that and my noble Friend who deals with the prison service also visits the prisons. I reject the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the advice and information that we receive from a highly competent prison management. Of course, he is right about slopping out. That sort of thing is a scandal and has its roots in Victorian times. The arrangements made by the Victorians were perfectly acceptable by the standards of that day, but they are not acceptable now. It takes a long 799 time and a lot of money to put that right, but he will know that we are building 16 new prisons and proposing to refurbish 100 more. A large part of that work will deal with sanitation. We are getting on with the work and the prison officers are well aware of that.
§ Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)
Many people will be surprised to find that it is possible for prison officers lawfully to engage in industrial action or to go on strike. Can my right hon. Friend think of anything more vital to the internal security of the country than the prison service? Should we not consider instituting a no-strike agreement in any settlement of this dispute that may be obtained?
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
Any enforcement on prison officers of a no-strike agreement would be deeply resented and would remove from them one of the freedoms to which they are entitled. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that they have an extremely rough job that is greatly aggravated by wicked overcrowding? If he does recognise that, will he answer two questions? First, will he tell the House something about the circular that will go out to the courts tomorrow, and not leave it to the press to find out about it so that the House cannot question it? Does the circular include provisions for alternatives to imprisonment for people sent to prison for debt? Secondly, has he plans to deal with overcrowding in Leicester prison, which was built for 200 prisoners and is holding 400? It is staffed by people trying to do a good job in the most difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.
§ Mr. Hurd
I shall certainly write to the hon. and learned Gentleman about the plans for Leicester prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) talked specifically about a no-strike agreement, and, indeed, the hon. and learned Gentleman used the same phrase. It is not a question of imposing, but of considering an agreement. That is what my hon. Friend suggested, and that is what I said required consideration.
The circular letter will refer to the fact that if industrial action is taken—I hope it will not be taken—the business of the courts will inevitably be disrupted. The letter will seek the understanding of magistrates courts, and will suggest ways of reducing the burden on the police; for example magistrates courts may be able to adjourn some cases or to grant bail immediately in others. We shall draw attention to difficulties and ask the courts to bear them in mind, while making it plain that we are not seeking to interfere in judicial decisions. As I understand it, that follows closely what was done on a previous occasion. The full text of the letter will be put in the Library.
§ Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)
Is it not important that the POA and its membership recognise that however much sympathy they may have from the public now—the public recognises the difficulties of their job—it will soon be lost if there is a disaster caused by disruption, especially when the public knows that talks are available to them?
§ Mr. Hurd
My hon. Friend is right. The public has sympathy for the job which prison officers do. I should like to see more publicity for what they do and the problems that they face. That is entirely understandable. The public also knows that prison officers are not badly paid, in recognition of the difficulties of their job, and that we are willing and anxious to consult them about the future of the prison service.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
Recognising that the resumption of talks is essential if this grave position is not to deteriorate still further, will the Home Secretary say what his present conditions are for the resumption of talks? Is he waiting for the NEC of the POA to extend the effectiveness of its call for the suspension of industrial action, or is he looking to the NEC to take a different line?
§ Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)
Does not the Home Secretary's circular come to the nub of the problem? If, as the Home Secretary says, the circular will explain to the courts the problems of overcrowding in the event of a strike by prison officers, and will recommend a number of options to be exercised by the courts and the police in the event of a strike, why on earth cannot those same options be operated when there is no strike and no industrial action? Could they not go a long way towards preventing the position that the Home Secretary has brought the prison service to?
§ Mr. Hurd
Obviously they can. The hon. Gentleman is right. The granting of bail and the timing of cases are at the discretion of the courts. The hon. Gentleman will know that recently I have several times gone out of my way to urge the courts to consider tough and practical alternatives to custody for relatively minor offences. Indeed, I have to some extent stuck out my neck on that point. It is also right in these circumstances, where we may be under a serious threat of industrial action, that in striking the balance in each case, the courts should have regard to the position. That is the purpose of the circular.
§ Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)
May I draw two specific points to the Home Secretary's attention? The first relates to prison officers' pay. Is not the crux of the problem that the basic rates of pay are so bad that officers are forced to engage in what are sometimes considered to be excessive overtime duties, such as accompanying prisoners to court, because without overtime their wages are unreasonably low? Is not the answer to raise the basic pay so that officers are not forced to rely on overtime? One may disagree as to whether they are working excessive overtime, but that is the motive behind it.
Secondly, does not the Home Secretary's circular, undoubtedly couched in moderate and temperate language, interfere with the judicial process? The judiciary is well aware of its powers of sentencing other than a sentence of immediate imprisonment. Surely it is not for the Home Secretary but for the Lord Chancellor to guide the courts on sentencing policy?
§ Mr. Hurd
I would not dream of issuing even a modest circular of this sort without the approval of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. It specifically does not seek to interfere in judicial decisions. The hon. 801 Gentleman is entitled to his view about what decent rates of pay are, and there is obviously room for argument and negotiation on that. It is an irony that negotiations precisely on that point were about to begin between the POA and the Treasury, which has responsibility for such negotiations. Obviously, such negotiations cannot take place while industrial action is under way or threatened.