POA: Rather than talk, prison bosses are sheltering behind courts
THE government went to the High Court yesterday in attempt to obtain a permanent ban on prison officers taking industrial action.
The application by Justice Secretary David Lidington follows court action in February when it claimed the Prison Officers Association (POA) was acting illegally by calling on its members to take action short of a strike.
An interim injunction was granted requiring the union to withdraw a circular that instructed members to refuse to undertake certain voluntary roles.
POA general secretary Steve Gillan said the case would be “robustly” defended.
He said: “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.”
He said: “Regardless of the outcome, we will not be silenced from raising legitimate health-and-safety concerns and bringing them to the attention of the public.”
The row erupted following a string of high-profile incidents in prisons across the country last year.
Two hundred prisoners at Bedford went on the rampage in November in protest at lockdowns and poor conditions. In the same month 10,000 prison staff across the country walked out in protest over safety concerns. The POA warned of a crisis in prisons and chronic staff shortages. The Tories have axed 6,000 prison officers’ jobs since 2010.
Daniel Stilitz QC, for the ministry, told Mr Justice Lay that proceedings were brought “to ensure that POA does not seek to breach the law again.”
He explained that under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 prison officers were banned from taking industrial action.
Mr Stilitz said: “Any inducement which leads prison officers to cease to provide services which they otherwise would have done is unlawful.”
He said that unless the court determines the position on industrial action definitively, “there will be renewed calls for unlawful industrial action in the future.”
John Hendy QC, for the POA, argued that the activities in the circular were voluntary in nature and prison staff were not contractually obliged to undertake them.
“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.”
Mr Hendy told the court that there was no evidence that the POA had asked any of its 35,000 members to disobey any lawful instruction.