07 July 2017
Justice Secretary David Lidington has asked the High Court to impose a permanent ban on industrial action taken by prison officers this week, in a move the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has called “bully boy tactics”.
The government successfully secured a temporary injunction against the POA in February, when the union called on its members to take industrial action over the crisis hitting UK prisons.
Not only have pay and conditions been degraded for prison officers, but a lack of funding has led to an increasingly violent and poorly managed prison service, and a more dangerous working environment for guards and other personnel.
The government claims the POA broke the law by calling for industrial action because the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act makes it unlawful for “any inducement which leads prison officers to cease to provide services which they would otherwise have done”.
But John Hendy QC, for POA, explained to the high court that union members were only asked to withdraw from voluntary services, not contracted work.
“Prison officers are, as a matter of goodwill, free to decide to volunteer to undertake the tasks. Likewise, once having volunteered they are at liberty to decline to continue to volunteer. The POA denies that the circular constitutes unlawful industrial action,” he stated.
The new High Court case, which was heard on Tuesday (04 July 2017), seeks to extend the temporary injunction the government won earlier in the year – which only applies to the industrial action taken at the time – to cover all potential industrial action in the future.
The POA described this action as “an attempt to silence the POA membership from the crisis within our Prisons which has been created by this Government with failed policies and devastating cuts and the failed Directors of her Majesty’s Prison and Probation service overseeing the destruction of a service that hasn’t been witnessed in decades.”
Following budget cuts, operational grades have been cut by nearly 8,000 with a record prison population of over 85,500. Meanwhile, the running of the service has failed under five separate Justice Secretaries since 2010 all attempted to impose different strategies.
Moreover, each Minister has “placed the health and safety of staff and prisoners in danger on a daily basis”, the POA warned.
Steve Gillan, General Secretary of union, said the government’s application to the court comes as “no surprise”.
“It appears to me when the going gets tough in any negotiations or consultations, Senior Managers seek shelter behind the courts rather than having the intelligence to negotiate proper outcomes. The Criminal Justice Public Order Act 1994, Section 127 has been used on numerous occasions by Government’s and employer rather than dealing with the real issues.
“Our legal team headed by John Hendy QC will robustly defend this application but regardless of the outcome we will not be silenced from raising legitimate Health and Safety concerns and bringing them to the attention of the general public. We will not stand by in silence and let the cuts agenda place our members health and safety in danger,” he said.
The government’s legal team attempted to smear the union by claiming that it has a history of “inflammatory rhetoric”.