HC Deb 30 January 1989 vol 146 cc21-6 3.31 pm
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the dispute at Wandsworth Prison.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

At 7.30 am yesterday about 100 uniformed staff at Her Majesty's prison Wandsworth went on strike. Fourteen uniformed staff worked normally. At about 9.30 am, under contingency plans, 60 staff in managerial grades from around the prison service were deployed in Wandsworth to maintain order and prison routines. There were inevitable delays and arrangements could not be made for prisoners to take exercise, but meals were served and visits took place normally.

This morning, at 7 o'clock, 197 police officers went into Wandsworth to assist the governor and to work alongside prison staff. During the normal working week many more staff are needed than for the Sunday routine. Although 34 uniformed prison staff are working normally today, peace and order could not have been maintained in the prison without the use of police officers.

Naturally these events led to heightened tension in the prison and there have been one or two incidents, but loyal prison staff and the police have managed to keep the prison running as near normally as possible.

Since last November prison officers at Wandsworth have been refusing to take a full number of prisoners. As a result, about 50 prisoners have had to be kept unnecessarily in police cells. Talks at national, regional and local levels have taken place over many months in an effort to resolve the dispute. The new working systems introduced yesterday are intended to make more effective use of staff resources and contain no unusual or threatening features. The action of the POA branch at Wandsworth in going on strike is completely unjustified. I call on the officers to go back to work under the governor's authority forthwith.

Mr. Hattersley

Will the Under-Secretary of State confirm that the action taken this morning by the new governor at Wandsworth prison has imperilled industrial relations throughout the prison service? Does he realise that his statement shows no recognition of the fact that the Prison Officers Association has now suspended the ballot on the fresh start agreement, acceptance of which it had previously recommended? How does he justify an action in a single prison that jeopardises the era of peace within the entire prison service which the Home Secretary claimed to be absolutely necessary for the service's success?

Secondly, will the Under-Secretary of State confirm, putting aside the bogus figures that he has already offered the House, that Wandsworth has an official complement of 1,259 prisoners, but that yesterday 1,505 prisoners were held there? Is not the insistence on 50 additional prisoners on top of the normal complement wholly unreasonable in terms of good management of the service?

Thirdly, what is the Minister's comment on the attitude of the Police Federation, which described the use of 197 of its members as a wholly disastrous decision by the Government, since its members are neither equipped nor prepared to act as prison officers?

Finally, does the Under-Secretary recall that, in December, the Home Secretary boasted that prisoners were no longer being held in police cells in London? That fact held good for a single day—the day on which he made the boast. Does that not provide the most vivid illustration of the causes of the crisis in the prison service? As is so often the case, the Home Secretary is more interested in the illusion of action than in genuine reform.

Mr. Hogg

As is usually the case, the remarks of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) have not added to his reputation.

The facts are as follows. In October last year, there was an agreement between the prison officers at Wandsworth and the Home Office whereby the Home Office agreed to a manpower review in return for the prison officers agreeing to admit 1,555 prisoners. The Home Office delivered its part of the bargain and the manpower team went in.

On 11 November 1988, the prison officers went back on their part of the deal and imposed the limit of 1,505 prisoners in the prison. The manpower review was delivered on 22 November, with the date of the implementation of the new shift being 15 January 1989. Thereafter, there were considerable negotiations We put back the implementation date by two weeks to allow for further discussions.

On 26 January 1989, there was a further meeting at a senior level where we offered to put back the implementation of the new shift by a further two weeks in return for the prison officers agreeing to admit 1,555 prisoners—as they had agreed to do in October. That proposal was not attractive to the prison officers and they therefore declined.

It is no good the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook grumbling about the number of people in police cells and then grumbling when we take action to reduce the pressure on police cells. That does him no credit.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem in Wandsworth and elsewhere in the prison system has continued for some time, notwithstanding the fact that prison officers are extremely well paid and have excellent conditions of service? Will my hon. Friend continue with the policy of negotiation to find a solution? Nevertheless, does he agree that it will eventually be necessary to de-unionise a service of the Crown?

Mr. Hogg

We certainly intend to stand behind the governor in his attempts to ensure that Wandsworth prison operates as efficiently and effectively as possible. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I suspect that most prison officers in other prisons will be extremely unhappy about what is happening in Wandsworth, because they are doing exactly what we are asking the prison officers at Wandsworth to do—neither more nor less.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Is the Under-Secretary aware that, although the crisis has arisen in part because of the Government's policy on prisons and the overcrowding there, the prison officers' action seems highly irresponsible and that it is quite unacceptable for prison officers to stand at the gates of a prison jeering at the police as they seek to maintain order in a prison where order is close to breaking down? Does he also agree that the pressure on the Prison Officers Association to take action from a handful of extremists in Wandsworth is also unacceptable? I hope that the Government will not accept the argument of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) that if the fresh start initiative is in peril it is entirely because of the Government.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. It is wrong that a disciplined, uniformed service of the Crown should behave in such a way. Prison officers throughout the country will be ashamed of what is happening in Wandsworth. I and, I suspect, other prison officers throughout the country call on the prison officers at Wandsworth to stop the dispute and to go back to work.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Will my hon. Friend congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) on completely changing his policy once again? Will he confirm that the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the last Labour Government who brought in the troops to stop the firemen's strike, which makes his complaints about strike breaking sick and hypocritical?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes his point extremely clearly. There is the further criticism that I have already made—it is no good the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook criticising us for the numbers held in police cells and complaining again when we take action to reduce the numbers. That ambivalent attitude is unworthy of him.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Given the situation that has arisen—I understand the problems that arise in prisons—what is the best thing to do now to bring the two sides together and end the dispute other than telling people to give in?

Mr. Hogg

I am glad to be able to tell the House that tomorrow afternoon, at the request of members of the national executive council of the Prison Officers Association, there will be a meeting between them and senior management at the Home Office. However, the Home Office is standing firmly behind the governor in his determination to manage the prison effectively and efficiently. I call upon the officers at Wandsworth to stop the action, which is highly damaging to the prison and to their reputations.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the action taken by the governor at Wandsworth has been taken only after protracted negotiations with the warders at Wandsworth? Will he also confirm that, at one stage, the implementation of the rota system was postponed for two weeks so that agreement could be reached between the prison officers and the governor of the prison?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is wholly right. The implementation date was originally fixed for 15 January but was postponed to allow for further discussion. At the end of last week, we made a further offer that, if the officers accepted 1,555 prisoners, which is what they agreed to in October, we would put back the implementation for a further two weeks. I am afraid that the prison officers felt unable to accept that generous suggestion.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

The hon. Gentleman must know—if he does not, he should not be in his job—that this situation is not applicable just to Wandsworth and that overcrowding has been a problem in the prison service for many years for both prison officers and inmates. Is it not clear that we should look at the problem rather than call people names and suggest that they are stupid or silly because they have taken action?

The hon. Gentleman has helped the position somewhat by saying that the Home Office is prepared to meet the national executive of the Prison Officers Asociation, but why did he not say that from the beginning? The answer is to talk to the Prison Officers Association, not call people names. There are real problems in the service.

Mr. Hogg

It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not do his homework before getting to his feet. Yes, we do have a problem with overcrowding, which is precisely why we are creating 25,000 new places by the mid-1990s, as contrasted with 1979. That is a remarkable achievement. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the dispute at Wandsworth is common to the rest of the prison service is nonsense because what is happening at Wandsworth is peculiar to Wandsworth. The officers at Wandsworth are being asked to do no more than that which is being done by most of their colleagues in other prisons.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

No one doubts the skill and professionalism of the vast majority of prison warders, nor does anyone misunderstand the frustration of the police officers upon whose shoulders has fallen the task of looking after prisoners in police cells when they should never be there. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is time to talk and to listen, it is also time to be tough when it comes to coping with the tiny minority of warders who have held the rest of the prison service to ransom, which is inexcusable at a time when the Government are having some success in cutting crime rates?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is wholly right to imply that it is the business of a Government to back a governor who is doing his job properly and efficiently. We are in the business of doing that, and we propose to do just that.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

It is sad that the mentality behind this problem is such that one hon. Member used the old-fashioned word "warders". In his eagerness to condemn my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), the Minister will not admit that anything is wrong, he did not mention that there would be a meeting. There is a crisis in all our prisons, not just in Wandsworth. I am a member of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts. For nine years, that Committee has been releasing reports on prison education. Prison education has been cut to the bone and nothing is ever done about it, even though prisoners are asking for education facilities. The Conservative mentality does not want to solve the problem because it costs money to do so. The Government will not admit that prisons are overcrowded and that the crisis is endemic.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is reinforcing the point that I have made about him in the past—he does not know what he is talking about. The plain fact is that the prisons are not in crisis and things are much better than they were. I have already made the point that, by the mid-1990s, we will have created about 25,000 new places, which will substantially reduce overcrowding. We have introduced fresh start, which has enormously enhanced the position of prison officers. I am glad to say that we are working most effectively on enhancing regimes. Conditions in prison are substantially improving.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Will my hon. Friend stand firm on the matter? To people such as myself who have made professional visits to gaols over the past 25 years, it is quite obvious that many officers are as bloody-minded as the people whom they guard and that their rigid working practices have made prisons more miserable than they need to be. Many inmates are kept in their cells 23 hours a day. They are kept behind closed doors because of the closed minds of those who guard them.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend has robustly put his point. In October last year, prison officers at Wandsworth agreed to admit 1,555 prisoners. I wish that they would now do what they promised to do three or four months ago.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

When Government representatives meet prison officers' trade union representatives over beer and sandwiches, whenever they meet, reverting to the question put by the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), will the Minister tell them that there is no question of de-unionising those who work in the prisons and that there will be no GCHQ? If he does not do so, the situation will be even further inflamed.

Will the hon. Gentleman express the view that there is nothing wrong with people in a trade union fighting for better wages and conditions, especially when the number of people they have to look after has increased so rapidly during the past 10 years? A trade union is set up to protect that right. As a lawyer, the hon. Gentleman should know that, especially just now.

Mr. Hogg

I rather fancy that the meeting tomorrow afternoon will be primarily spent in going over the agreement that was made in October last year. I fancy also that the officials who meet the POA representatives will say, "Look, in October of last year, and in return for a manpower review which you have now had, you agreed to admit 1,555 prisoners. The time has come to deliver your part of the agreement."

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is it not true that important work and education programmes for prisoners have been disrupted by the dispute? In the discussions that my hon. Friend is about to have, will every effort be made to ensure that the promised work and education programmes for prisoners are delivered by prison officers and all others who are responsible?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend's remarks are important, but it is even more important to get prison officers to deliver the agreement that they made last October.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Is not the real crisis in our prisons the one that the Minister consistently refuses to address, which is that we imprison more people and for longer periods than any other country in western Europe? Is that not the root cause of the problem with the Prison Officers Association and others? If the Minister would address that matter, he could forget panics about prison building and endless industrial debates, and deal with the need for a lower prison population. It would be better for everyone if he were to do that.

Mr. Hogg

We are most certainly tackling the problem of overcrowding, in part by the building programme which I have outlined and in part by encouraging courts to seek non-custodial options. In these matters the hon. Gentleman would do well, as would his right hon. and hon. Friends, to assert that it would be right for prison officers to respect the instructions of the governor because prisons cannot be run unless governors' instructions are complied with.