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7 Jan 2008 : Column 42

Is it not therefore extraordinary that, having dismantled the statutory ban, the Government should now be threatening to put it back in place?

We are now being asked to debate new clauses in 48 hours’ time, when the Secretary of State has known about the problem for months. Will he assure us that there will be sufficient time on Wednesday to debate those and other important amendments that the Government have tabled since the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill?

The Secretary of State said that the status of prison officers was similar to other essential services, such as the police and the armed forces, where the risk to the public is simply too great to allow them to take industrial action. In that case, what was the justification for repealing the statutory provision in the first place, when it placed prison officers on the same footing as the police and the armed forces? Has not the inadequacy of the Government’s no-strike agreement been revealed by the fact that the Secretary of State has been forced to make his statement today?

In 2001, when he was Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman made it clear to the House that independent arbitration on pay would be provided “in recognition” of the repeal of the statutory ban and its replacement with a no-strike agreement. That was the deal that the Government made with the unions. Why, then, are Ministers surprised that the Prison Officers Association considers that deal to have been reneged upon, when the Government have reduced the value of a pay award made by the pay review body?

When the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), announced the repeal of the statutory ban on strikes, that announcement heralded an era of modernisation, reform and change. Have we not actually seen crisis, incompetence and wildcat strikes? Why did the Secretary of State claim to have been surprised by last August’s wildcat action, given that it was clear to everyone else that relations with prison officers were deteriorating so fast? Does he accept that the Government’s troubles with prison officers go beyond pay? Is it not a fact that conditions for prison staff have worsened significantly over the past 10 years? Prison officer numbers have risen at half the rate of the prison population, chronic overcrowding is putting immense strain on the service, assaults on prison staff have soared by 80 per cent., and now budgetary cuts mean the prospect of prisoners’ being locked in their cells throughout weekends. Is it any wonder that prison officer morale is so low?

Coming into office, the Government promised

Now we have conflict with the police and conflict with prison officers, and no doubt there are further conflicts to come. Has not this emergency statement been forced by a crisis entirely of the Government’s own making?

Ministers repealed no-strike legislation, and within three years they are having to reinstate it. Is that what they mean by a relaunch? They have mismanaged the public finances, mismanaged public pay and mismanaged prisons. Is it any wonder that this Government have acquired a reputation for serial incompetence?

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Mr. Straw: Let me begin by wishing the hon. Gentleman and the House a happy new year. [Hon. Members: “The same to you.”] I thank Opposition Members for reciprocating.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman—while parenthetically advising him to change the pitch of his voice a little when he is making statements—that I do not suggest that the operation of the Prison Service over the past 10 years has been perfect or anything like it. If, however, he wants to establish whether it has been better during the past 10 years than it was during the previous 18, I shall be happy to engage in a contest, and I look forward to his using one of the Opposition Supply days for precisely that purpose. The level of industrial disruption within the Prison Service involving, for example, the use of police cells—which involved 3,500 cells at one stage and continued, more often than not, throughout those 18 years—makes our record pale into insignificance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the timing of the statement. Last May, we were given notice that the Prison Officers Association intended to abandon the voluntary agreement that it signed in 2005. We decided, I think rightly, not to rush to reintroduce these powers, notwithstanding clear undertakings that they would be reintroduced if notice was given of intention to terminate the JIRPA. Instead, following an initiative from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—the Prisons Minister—we involved the TUC. Mr. Ed Sweeney has produced an important report, on which we are acting. I did not want to make my statement before we had received Mr. Sweeney’s report; I am conscious that it does not allow a great deal of time for debate, but I thought that this was the best possible moment.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s nonsense about an emergency statement, when I gave evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee in October, one of his hon. Friends asked whether I intended to reintroduce section 127. I said that it was under active consideration, and that remains the position.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): The hon. Gentleman must do his homework.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is always right about these matters. As she says, the hon. Gentleman needs to do his homework.

There are two things to be said about the position taken by the Opposition in 1994, about which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will doubtless ask a question. If the hon. Gentleman bothers to read the report of the debates that were held at the time, he will see that the allegation that we fought the proposals “tooth and nail” is hardly an accurate description of the criticism expressed from both the Liberal Democrat Benches and ours. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who led for the Opposition, made the point that if there were to be a restriction on prison officers’ right to strike, it had to be balanced by other measures. Moreover, in the three years when I was shadow Home Secretary, I never gave a single undertaking that we would repeal section 127; neither did I do so at any stage when I was Home Secretary, nor did my successors.

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My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside would have preferred, as would the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, that the change to section 127 be made by way of its suspension, rather than its repeal. That was not possible in the circumstances, but when the measure came before the other place—with the support of the Opposition, who were not making these nitpicking points at the time—clear undertakings were given that in the event of termination of the JIRPA, we would re-introduce the ban.

I have dealt with the point about chronic overcrowding. There is a degree of overcrowding, but it is nothing like that within the Prison Service in the 1980s and early 1990s. The ratio of prison staff to prisoners has remained stable at between 1:21 to 1:22. However, quite a lot of the duties previously undertaken by prison officers are now undertaken by operational support grades—for example, people working in gatehouses who do not have direct contact with prisoners. Before the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) next makes that point, the question for him is whether he is proposing that a future Conservative Government, whenever that might be, would reinstate those jobs to prison officers. If not, what on earth is the point he is making?

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and particularly for pointing out in his response to the Opposition that there is a long history of very poor industrial relations in the Prison Service. I hope we can move from the regulation and the statutory provision that he has proposed back to proper negotiation. Is he aware that from the point of view of the Prison Officers Association, there is a sense of imbalance in the relationship between it and the management of the Prison Service? Will he say a little about what the Sweeney report recommends in relation to that imbalance, if it is recognised?

Mr. Straw: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the terms in which he makes his point. A copy of the quite lengthy report is available, but essentially Mr. Sweeney is seeking to produce a more effective voluntary agreement with different forms of arbitration; for example, to reduce the arguments about whether an issue is suitable for arbitration, which has been one of the problems of the JIRPA, and to make the arbitration more acceptable. Along with work force modernisation, for which more money is available from April next year, these and other improvements should lead to a major change in the industrial relations climate within the service, which is my commitment. As I said, I would much prefer us to achieve a situation—I think that this is possible—where these statutory powers do not have to be used.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I genuinely thank the Lord Chancellor for giving me early sight of his statement; it is a good start to the new year.

Is not the only thing that could exacerbate the chaos that the Government have created in the Prison System a wholesale withdrawal of good will by prison officers? Strikes are never appropriate in prisons, but no-strike arrangements can work only when there is effective dialogue and trust—an important word—between the work force and management or Government.

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In the draft that the Lord Chancellor kindly sent me, there was an unfortunate typographical error. At one point, it said that the Government sought to “misapply” the statutory prohibition. Is not that exactly the problem of trust between many in the public service—particularly the uniformed branches of the public service—and the Government? They do not trust the Government not to misapply the arrangements in these areas and there is a strong feeling that they are increasingly taken advantage of as a result. Is that not exemplified in one of the problems with the Prison Officers Association—the staging of pay awards?

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the staging of a pay award is counter-inflationary when the same point is reached by the end of the year? It is rather a case of providing slippage within departmental budgets. Should not we have clear arbitration binding not only on the work force, but on the Government and the management ? Is the Lord Chancellor confident that any contingency plans involving the police will be substantive—if, indeed, the police are asked to intervene in circumstances almost identical to those of their own grievance with the Government?

Mr. Sweeney makes an important point in paragraph 4.7 of his report:

the Scottish Prison Service—

which has been the case

Why is there that difference between the circumstances in Scotland and those in England and Wales? Given the increasing permeability between the private and the public sectors, will the prohibition apply in similar terms to those working in the private sector within the prison system? Should we not recognise the very difficult job that prison officers undertake on our behalf and ensure that their efforts are properly recognised, along with those of other members of the uniformed services?

The Lord Chancellor did not answer the point made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) about the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The Bill now extends to two volumes and has more than 170 clauses and a second volume of schedules, and it addresses matters of huge importance to Back-Bench—and, indeed, Front-Bench—Members. The Lord Chancellor is now interpolating yet another section into the Bill. Does he really believe that this House is being properly dealt with in being provided with a single day to discuss the Bill’s remaining stages? Is it not inevitable that large parts of important proposed legislation will remain undebated by this House, and that the attentions of the other House will be required to put that right, as is so often the case?

Mr. Straw: I apologise to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for not answering his question; I meant to do so. I appreciate that there are pressures on time in the House. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has arranged for the business of the House on Wednesday to extend until 8.30 pm and I hope that that is sufficient.

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I spotted the typo, and it was changed. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was, of course, breaking a trust in mentioning it, as all such material is provided in confidence.

Mr. Heath: It was too good to miss.

Mr. Straw: It was.

The staging of any pay review reduces the total cost in the year concerned, and I simply say that the Government have not sought to stage any of these pay awards lightly. Indeed, we are well aware of the impact that that has had on relations, particularly with the police service and the Prison Service, but it was essential that we reduced inflation and interest rates. Prison officers and police officers, along with all other members of the public services, would have suffered disproportionately if we had not been able to take that effective action. That is why we had to do this.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the relationship between the pay review body and any joint agreement. The joint agreement does not directly deal with pay, and nor would it as it is a subject for the pay review body. We always hope to be able to accept in full the recommendations of the review body, but that is subject to overriding considerations of national economic interest.

The hon. Gentleman asks about contingency arrangements with the police. As we have to keep these matters confidential, let me just say that arrangements are in place and they will be used if necessary, but there is no way in which the police can do the job of prison officers and other staff.

As for Scotland, Mr. Sweeney said in the same paragraph as that quoted that

for England and Wales

but we stand ready to learn from Scotland—Mr. Sweeney makes that point.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP) indicated assent.

Mr. Straw: I am glad to see that one of the representatives from Scotland is nodding. I should add that it has always been ready to learn from England and Wales, and long may that continue. The private sector is already the subject of the 1994 Act, and that was not changed by its repeal under the order made in 2005. I of course accept and repeat that prison officers do a difficult job, and I praise them for it.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right to point out that prison officers do a very difficult job, and we should be grateful for what they do. Nevertheless, the whole House will accept that we cannot afford to have this essential service disrupted by industrial action such as the recent one-day action. My right hon. Friend said that these powers will be reserve powers only and that, subject to proper agreement, he is prepared to suspend them indefinitely. Will he give a commitment to the House that not only he but the whole Prison Service will commit to improving morale
7 Jan 2008 : Column 47
within the prison service? Underlying all these problems is the fact that morale is simply not satisfactory.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and yes, of course I give that undertaking; we want to see far better industrial relations and a high level of morale. The evidence on morale is to a degree contradictory—there is what the Prison Officers Association says, while local surveys provide a different picture. Also, at 2 per cent., the resignation rate from the prison service is the lowest of any service in the public sector. That speaks volumes and is more substantial than other evidence, but I accept what my hon. Friend says and we will do our very best.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Is this not the most humiliating U-turn by the Secretary of State, who personally campaigned shamelessly for the votes of prison officers in the 1997 election by promising to give them the right to strike? Is it not all of a piece with the conduct of the Secretary of State, who, when shadow Home Secretary, described private sector prisons as morally repugnant and then espoused them with enthusiasm when in office? Has the right hon. Gentleman no shame?

Mr. Straw: Let me just correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman. No undertakings were given to repeal section 127— [ Interruption. ] Well, they were not—in the 1997 manifesto; not a word. He, too, should do his homework rather better. Moreover, he will remember—because I have a feeling that he was shadow Home Secretary for a short period—that quite quickly after I became Home Secretary following his august period, the POA sought to test whether I was serious about not repealing section 127. It took industrial action, and I then had to seek an injunction in respect of that. I had made it clear over the three years that I was shadow Home Secretary that although I of course wanted different relations, I did not believe that we should repeal section 127 without the equivalent of a voluntary agreement.

I should point out to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that when Paul Boateng, as Prisons Minister, set out on my behalf the arrangements that we were bringing in for the pay review body and for what then became the JIRPA, we were very clear that we were going to seek not the repeal of section 127 but its suspension as a reserve power. It was only as a result of the technical problems associated with the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 that we had to go down the route of repeal and, therefore, of reintroducing legislation now.

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