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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor must look longingly north of the border to see why, as he said in his reply to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), industrial relations there are so much better than they are south of the border. The answer is the existence of a simple two-word phrase: a partnership agreement. Is it not possible to encourage the prison boards in England and Wales to move away from their often bovine, Victorian mill-owner approach to industrial relations? It will require, as the Prison Officers Association says, a complete sea change in the
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actions and attitudes of the people on those prison boards. What can the Lord Chancellor do to bring that about any time soon?

Mr. Straw: If I may say to my hon. Friend, I do not recognise that description of good, positive Prison Service management. However, we need a new future for both sides, and that is what is on offer and what I want to see. Not just that is on offer—money is available for work force modernisation. Although I fully understand that my statement today will not be comfortable for the Prison Officers Association, I hope that it will recognise that there is a chance here to take forward work force modernisation. Additional money will be available from April, and Mr. Sweeney made important and positive recommendations, on which we want to act.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): While I accept the action that the Lord Chancellor hinted was going to become necessary when he appeared before my Select Committee, did he note the view in Mr. Sweeney’s report that relations at local level were generally reasonable or good and that it was at national level that relations between the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Service were at a particularly low ebb? Have there not been failings on both sides over the years that have brought this about? Is it possible to change them, given the background of the pressures of overcrowding and the mishandling of the police arbitration settlement, which has created a lack of confidence that the Government will stick to their side of the bargain when no-strike provisions are in force?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that relations at local level are on the whole good—he makes the point that I made earlier. The issue of relations at national level needs to be addressed. I hope that the House will acknowledge that my statement did not seek to start allocating blame; I want a different industrial relations climate for the future. I have long believed that that must be underpinned by a voluntary agreement, which excludes industrial action—I think that that is now the view of the whole House—or, if that cannot happen, by a reserve power making that statutory.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Given the acknowledged very poor state of industrial relations at national level, does my right hon. Friend have concerns that announcing the reinstatement of section 127 before any negotiations have taken place on the Sweeney report’s recommendations will make it a lot more difficult to reach a speedy and sensible agreement with the POA on those recommendations? We need an agreement that gives recognition to the POA as an independent trade union and replaces the JIRPA with an accepted and agreed process for resolving disputes, and, like the Scottish model, allows the union, rather than just the management, to initiate changes through that agreement.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Prisons Minister and I have met the POA on six or seven occasions since we took office in June last year. Of course I would like to be in a different position, but there has never been any dubiety about this matter. Mr. Sweeney’s report states:

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—which is for an end to any either voluntary or statutory ban—

In that light, I thought that this was the appropriate time to bring forward these proposals for legislation on the reserve power. It would have been false of me to have sought to negotiate a voluntary agreement with the POA without making it clear that if a voluntary agreement could not be achieved, we would have to introduce legislation on a reserve basis.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): One would hope that the Lord Chancellor of England would always have an instinctive sense of what is fair. Governments of all persuasions have taken away the right to strike from various public sector workers, but in consideration of that, they have set up either independent pay review bodies or independent arbitration bodies. Surely what is fair about that is that the Government should then honour what those pay review bodies recommend. I am sure that the Lord Chancellor will recognise that it is not fair for payments then to be staged, because that does not honour the pay review body’s agreements. Governments can take that approach but, as someone whose constituency, like that of many hon. Members, contains a prison, I must tell him that it leads to a sense of frustration, betrayal and mistrust, it is bad human relations and bad labour relations, and it is also inherently unfair.

Mr. Straw: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s basic point that where a work force is prevented, by one means or another, from taking industrial action, the Government have a double responsibility to ensure that any disputes, including those in respect of pay, are dealt with extra fairly. In normal circumstances we would accept the recommendations of the Prison Service pay review board, but these were not normal circumstances for reasons that I have already explained and they involved difficult judgments. I know that they were not popular with prison officers, and I understand why. However, if we had gone down the alternative route across the public sector as a whole, it would have been that much more difficult to have convinced the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England that we were getting a grip on public sector pay-led inflation. The result would have been that interest rates would not now be on a downward path, and everybody would suffer.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Is the Minister really happy with the idea that a Labour Government should be effectively taking away the right to strike from a group of public sector workers? While he says in his statement that it is in accordance with EU and international law, is he really satisfied that it fulfils the obligations that we have under International Labour Organisation treaties on the right of workers to join and act in independent trade unions?

Mr. Straw: I am not in any doubt as to the latter point. My hon. Friend will be able to read the detailed report that I have issued today about practice elsewhere in Europe and other Organisation for Economic
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Co-operation and Development countries, with an analysis of our obligations, and he will then see why I am so confident about saying that. Almost all jurisdictions have prohibitions on the police and armed forces taking industrial action and many, across Europe and other OECD countries, have similar restrictions, which are entirely lawful internationally, in respect of prison officers, for the same reason. Of course I understand the argument that my hon. Friend makes, but it must be balanced against the impact on public safety and the welfare of prisoners if industrial action is taken in that particular case. I have asked the Prison Officers Association time and again what it would do were it in my position and faced with industrial action by prison officers that meant that prisoners could not be fed, would not know when they would next be able to exercise and, in the case of many prisoners who unfortunately have mental health problems, would not know when they would next receive medication. Those are the considerations that have to be balanced, and that is why we have now reluctantly reached a consensus across the Chamber that such industrial action must be restricted by one means or another. At the same time, we have to put in place better and alternative arrangements.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Canterbury prison is in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the key reasons behind the huge rise in attacks on prison staff and the inevitable effect that that has on morale is the progressive undermining of the disciplinary climate by human rights legislation? What message does he have for those warders who were unable, in a well reported case last week, to deliver a prisoner to court because he was deemed to have a right to continue to occupy his cell because somebody else might otherwise take it?

Mr. Straw: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I am writing to all right hon. and hon. Members with prisons in their constituencies setting out in more detail what I have said today. In the well publicised case that he mentions, I asked for immediate information because I would have found it no more acceptable—if the reports were true—than did the hon. Gentleman. I am happy to write to him with more detail, but I have been told that it simply was not the case that the prisoner stayed back because he was claiming human rights to his own cell—there is no such recognised right in domestic or international law—but because his legal advisers had told him that his visit to court was not necessary. The Prison Service is clear that if a prisoner is due in court and has no good reason for refusing to go—such as legal advice—he will, if necessary, be forcibly removed from prison to appear in court. That remains the case.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the problems is the apparent inconsistency of approach? Some of us believe fundamentally in the right to strike, and we also ask public sector workers in very responsible positions to show restraint. We need consistency, and we need to recognise the hurt felt by the POA. There is no substitute for good negotiation.

Mr. Straw: Of course I recognise the conflict of principles, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) in this case the
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principle of safety of the public and the welfare of prisoners has to take precedence. Meanwhile, there can be no substitute for good relations and it is that to which I have committed myself, as has my right hon. Friend the Prisons Minister, the director general and all his staff. We want a different way of resolving disputes in the Prison Service.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): However much the Lord Chancellor tries to patronise my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), or shamelessly reinvent history, he cannot escape the fact that today’s decision is a humiliation and a consequence of the Government’s management of the whole Prison Service. There are two prisons in my constituency, one of which—HMP Downview—was a leading centre for treating addiction in male offenders. Under the Lord Chancellor’s time as Home Secretary, the Government managed, at only two weeks’ notice, to turn it into a women’s prison with the complete destruction and loss of the valuable programmes in the prison. Changes at HMP Highdown mean that the prison has to accept 360 new places in three months, with a vast increase of detached duty officers going to the prison to make the changes work. That is a consequence of the Government’s inability to cope with wholly predicted increases in prisoner numbers, male and female. The decision today is a reflection of the Government’s mishandling of the Prison Service and the consequent anger of the Prison Officers Association.

Mr. Straw: I simply disagree. We have been far more effective at managing prison numbers than the Administration the hon. Gentleman supported for 18 years ever were. That is measured by the fact that we have not had to use police cells anything like as often or as extensively as happened repeatedly under the previous Administration. Nor have I ever had to come to the House as Douglas Hurd did to announce the release of 3,500 prisoners just like that, so I want no lectures at all—

Nick Herbert: You’ve released 25,000.

Mr. Straw: And continuing—on executive release.

On consistency, it was made absolutely clear to prison officers, by me back in 2000 and again in 2005 by Prison Ministers, that if they gave intention to terminate the voluntary agreement, with a voluntary ban on industrial action, section 127 would be reintroduced. The difference is that I am reintroducing it as a reserve power, and I very much hope that we can achieve another voluntary agreement before the beginning of May.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May I shine a wee bit of light on industrial relations in Scotland? As my right hon. Friend knows, when I was head of health for Unison in 1997 industrial relations were poor, so we set up a model—called partnership working—that was
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legislated for and had the same legal standing as clinical governance and financial governance. To the credit of the last Scottish Government and the current minority Scottish Administration, they both signed a memorandum of understanding, which has had a big impact on industrial relations. We will happily give my right hon. Friend the expertise of the Scottish health service and the Scottish TUC if desired.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I am very ready to learn from experience elsewhere, not least that of a good Labour Administration in Scotland.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On 29 August, I visited HMP Wellingborough where I met 30 striking prison officers. Those hard-working, decent men and women did not want to be on strike, but they felt that the Government had broken their agreement. I am sure members at the prison would be happy to accept a no-strike agreement if the Government agreed to binding arbitration, not arbitration that can be changed, as the Lord Chancellor said, in the national interest.

Mr. Straw: May I make it clear that of course I understand the anger of the prison officers, although I do not think that it justified their industrial action on the 29th? Presumably that is the hon. Gentleman’s view, too. We broke no undertakings or agreements, because it has been made clear by successive Governments that we will always be minded to accept the recommendations of pay review bodies, except where there are overriding economic considerations in the national interest. An important detail is that the joint industrial relations procedural agreement, or JIRPA, does not deal directly with pay, which is, and will continue to be, dealt with under the pay review arrangements.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The Lord Chancellor spoke of the POA walking away from the JIRPA. The reality is that the POA could not make the JIRPA work because the management—a management that is prepared to discipline people for wearing a trade union badge—were interested in going to court at the drop of a hat. Will he tell us what exactly will be done to improve the quality of management? If there is no such improvement, the new agreement will not work either.

Mr. Straw: Of course opinions differ, as they often do in respect of industrial relations. In the case of the Prison Service, the employees and employers have different perceptions; I do not want to comment on that. In my view, the report from Mr. Ed Sweeney provides a positive way forward. My hon. Friend will know from his trade union experience that there have been plenty of occasions on which although relations have not been all that good, they have got better as a result of good will on both sides and new agreements. That is what I hope will happen in the four months before 8 May.

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Point of Order

5.21 pm

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you would use your good offices to invite my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to come to the House and make a statement about newspaper articles over the weekend, which said that Prince Andrew has—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am reluctant to stop the hon. Gentleman before he has even got going, but I understand that his point of order relates to a matter of security. He should know that it is not the practice to discuss the security of individuals on the Floor of the House, for obvious reasons. The Chair has no responsibility for security matters, except in relation to the House.

Mr. Devine: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: No, I have dealt with that point of order.

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Orders of the Day

Pensions Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

5.21 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is the duty of every Government to keep the contract between the state and the individual under constant review to ensure that the balance between rights and responsibilities is properly maintained. At the end of last year I set out how that contract will be renewed through welfare reform, as we move from a regime of passive benefits to one of active benefits. The Bill will enact the remainder of the landmark pensions reform package set out in May 2006 in the White Paper, “Security in retirement: towards a new pension system”, the first part of which became legislation in the Pensions Act 2007.

The Government have achieved a lot since 1997. We are spending £11 billion more on pensioners each year than would be spent if the policies of the last Conservative Government had been followed. This year we have spent £75 billion on provision for pensioners—around 13 per cent. of all public spending. Pension credit, winter fuel payments, free TV licences and above-inflation increases to the basic state pension have brought more than 1 million senior citizens out of relative poverty. Rolling out free bus travel right across Britain has also extended opportunities for pensioners. However, the challenges posed by our ageing society mean that we have to look ahead not a year at a time, but decades at a time.

Our changing demographic profile opens up increasing opportunities for baby boomers—those of us born between 1945 and 1965—in the “active ageing” category. Looking around the Chamber, I see that we are well represented. However, those changes also present immense challenges, not least in preparing for the future. The reality, and perhaps the irony, is that as our society gets older, pensions increasingly become a young person’s issue. In the next 50 years the number of people over pension age will increase by more than half, meaning that there will be only two people working for every one person in retirement, compared with four working people today, and 10 working people 100 years ago.

The cost implications of that increasing longevity for our children and grandchildren are arrestingly stark. Many more people expect to be active longer in retirement and need the resources to fund that. Unless we act now, and act decisively for the long term, we will bequeath a nightmare for future pensioners plunged into poverty, and for future taxpayers grappling with the consequences. We have already addressed some of the issues identified by Lord Turner’s commission. We have legislated for a simpler, fairer and more generous state pension system. In addition, about 75 per cent. of women retiring in 2010 will receive a full basic state pension, and by 2025, over 95 per cent. of men and women will retire with a full basic state pension.

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