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Mr. Straw: The action is not precipitate—far from it. The parties had the draft, which is exactly the same as the final version, of the Ed Sweeney report before Christmas. The POA has been left in no doubt about the Government’s intentions. Its members knew the position when it negotiated the agreement. They knew what my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South had said. They heard exactly what I said before the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs on 9 October, when I made it clear that reintroduction of section 127 was under active consideration. I have also discussed
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the matter with them and I am due to meet them next Monday. There is no reason for the new clause to sour relations.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On the August strike, was not one of the problems with the voluntary agreement the fact that the union expected the Government to honour their side of the bargain? When they clearly did not, by phasing in the pay review, it believed that the Government had broken the agreement and that is why it took strike action. Do the Government not bear some responsibility for what happened?

Mr. Straw: I understand that that is the POA’s case. I do not want to make points about the matter, but it has always been clear that pay review body reports would be accepted apart from in exceptional economic circumstances. However, the POA made the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for being so generous in giving way.

We are considering a serious issue. As a trade unionist, I am worried about the speed at which the Secretary of State is trying to push the new clause through. We have 58 minutes to debate the union rights of the prison workers of this country. Surely there must be another mechanism. Loads of Members from all parties wanted to discuss the matter. Is not 58 minutes an insult to prison officers?

Mr. Straw: I do not believe that it is an insult. Were we starting from scratch, the hon. Gentleman’s point might be justified, but the new clause is no surprise.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): First, I want to emphasise the point that breaching the agreement angered the POA. At no time was there an agreement about phasing awards from the board.

Secondly, with respect to the Secretary of State, he was serially unavailable to speak to the POA in the months after August— [Interruption.] That is what Colin Moses told me. If I am wrong, I withdraw the remark. However, we are taking precipitate action, which is unlikely to assist matters. We are all concerned about that.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Straw: I shall give way again, but I want to make one point before concluding. I happened to be on holiday in August. The day I got back—the day before the strike—I asked my then diary secretary to phone the POA because we needed a meeting with its representatives. They were telephoned and they will admit that they failed to get the message, but I have always made myself available to the POA.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Straw: My last substantive point before giving way is that the new clause provides for reserve powers, which can be introduced by order. If we do not have an
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agreement by 8 May, they would come into force in any event. However, subject to that, they would be introduced and turned off by order. [Interruption.] I have just been reminded that I had a telephone call with Colin Moses on 9 July and saw him informally before that, as well as holding a meeting at the end of August. There has never been an issue about his access to me. The POA accepts that.

I emphasise to my hon. Friends that the new clause provides for a reserve power. I said on Monday that I would prefer it if we never had to use it, and that remains my intention. We will work with Mr. Sweeney, the Trades Union Congress and other facilitators to do everything that we can to gain a new agreement. When people both inside and outside the House know the history, they will accept that what we have said has been entirely consistent and honourable. What we propose is the minimum required to protect the public and the welfare of prisoners.

Mr. Winnick: Everyone will recognise that my right hon. Friend would not ask for such powers lightly. Obviously, industrial action taken by prison officers could cause a great deal of difficulties and worse. But does he also recognise the concern that if such powers are agreed to, another Government might use that as an excuse and a justification for taking away the right of people in the emergency services—firefighters, ambulance workers and the rest—to take such action? That is the reason for my hesitation about being able to support him.

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but the wording is very specific. In relation to the fire and ambulance services, these days no Government would be justified in doing what he fears, because there are proper minimum cover arrangements, and in practice there are no strikes or serious industrial disputes in those areas. That is the truth of it. He and I were in opposition for 18 years against the Conservative Government, and if and when the Conservatives come to power they will do what they want to do, regardless of what we do.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The Secretary of State mentioned Ed Sweeney’s plan as being a road map. In the view of the prison officers and many Labour Members, however, the wording of the second part of new clause 36(3) is actually a road block. The reference to

would be a catch-all, whereby people would be guilty of a criminal offence for any simple thing, if such action is defined by the management. Will he remove that provision, alter it, or define clearly what it means?

Mr. Straw: That phraseology picks up the phrasing of paragraph 6 of the annexe to the current agreement.

Mr. Anderson: That is why it did not work.

Mr. Straw: It is not why it did not work, with great respect. In the hope of being helpful, while I cannot give an undertaking now as to the terms I am certainly ready to sit down and consider ways in which that provision can be tightened, with a view to bringing forward amendments in the other place.

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Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): The prison officers at Lancaster Farms were grateful to the Secretary of State for visiting them, talking to them and listening to their concerns, but morale is very low at both Lancaster Farms and Lancaster Castle. Staff are losing the right to strike and to industrial action, but what are they getting in return? The solution must be to recognise the difficult and dangerous job that they do, to give them our full support, and to give them adequate financial compensation.

Mr. Straw: I accept the concerns expressed, and I was pleased to meet prison officers, who are dedicated staff, as I have spelled out on many occasions—and I mean it. But they are not losing the right to strike—the POA voluntarily signed up to legally binding undertakings not to take industrial action; it accepted the case that I am now making. It did not have to sign up to it; it did sign up to it.

Geraldine Smith: But it is withdrawing from it.

Mr. Straw: It is withdrawing from it, but it knew precisely what the arrangement was if it withdrew from it—we would have no alternative but to reinstate the equivalent of section 127.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): For all the reasons that my right hon. Friend has given, I am sure that we all want a successful reintroduction of the voluntary agreement. As has been pointed out, however, the new clause relates to all industrial action, not simply that affecting the safety, welfare, security or health of prisoners. Given that other Governments could use that provision, will he guarantee that in the event of the reserve powers being taken, there would be a specific vote in the House before they were ever exercised?

Mr. Straw: I am ready to give this very clear undertaking. If the powers have to be brought in on Royal Assent, the issue of the affirmative procedure would not arise, because it would have been the subject of considerable debate backwards and forwards in any case. But if, as I hope that we can achieve, they start off as reserve powers, I am ready to ensure that amendments are made to this part of the Bill in the other place, whereby the reintroduction of those powers could take place only through the affirmative procedure. I am happy to consider the reverse situation, whereby they would be turned off, but I do not think that anyone would want that. Once they exist as reserve powers, or have been turned off, their reintroduction could only take place through the affirmative procedure.

I am grateful to the House for listening to me. I have taken a lot of interventions, which I hope has been helpful. I commend the new clause to the House.

2.15 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I shall try to take as little time as possible because I suspect that other hon. Members might wish to contribute to the debate.

The Secretary of State seemed to show little understanding of why the Prison Officers Association is so angry about his statement on Monday. It was
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taken by surprise by his statement, in the same way that he claims to have been taken by surprise by its wildcat action last year. Far from the Government being entirely consistent, as he claimed, part of that anger arises because the Government’s explanation of the history of the legislation and the action that they are now taking has not been straightforward.

On Monday, and again today, the Secretary of State denied that the Labour party had fought tooth and nail against the legislation that outlawed strike action. He took umbrage at the suggestion. We have already heard about the letter from Tony Blair when he was shadow Home Secretary, shortly before he became leader, to the Prison Officers Association. Mr. Blair made it clear in that letter that

What is the difference between fighting tooth and nail against such measures and strong opposition? As has been admitted, the Labour party originally opposed the legislation.

On Monday, the Secretary of State also said, and he has repeated, that no undertakings were given to repeal section 127. Again, Tony Blair’s letter is explicit. In 1994, he told the Prison Officers Association:

It was not just Tony Blair as shadow Home Secretary who was making those promises; Labour Opposition spokesmen were going around the country making such undertakings, giving the impression to members of the POA that section 127 was not only being resisted but would be repealed. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), when he was shadow Employment Secretary in 1994, won great applause, as the record shows, at what was no doubt a Labour party conference, when he talked about the Labour party’s decency agenda. He said:

Is it not absolutely clear that the unions were given the impression that section 127 would go? It does the Justice Secretary no good at all to seek to suggest otherwise now.

It is surprising that the Prison Officers Association should have been moved to issue a note yesterday saying:

Of course, the Opposition have known that for some time, but it comes to something when a union is forced to issue such a statement.

The fact is that whatever the subsequent justifications, the Labour party opposed the legislation originally, and promised to repeal it. It did not do so fully until three years ago, when it replaced it with a voluntary agreement, which the country was assured would deliver the same protection for prisons as had been delivered by the no-strike provisions. Now, three years later, the Secretary of State is forced into the humiliating position of having to come back and reintroduce provisionally that same legislation.

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Mr. Straw: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but does he accept that at the time of the repeal, a little less than three years ago, the clearest undertakings were given that if we faced the circumstances that we do today, we would reinstate section 217 or its equivalent?

Nick Herbert: The question I put to the Justice Secretary on Monday, which he did not answer, is why the Government repealed the legislation in the first place. Is it not clear that it was a mistake to do so? If it was not a mistake, why are the Government now coming before the House, after giving 48 hours’ notice, to reinstate legislation that they had previously removed? The Government have not yet satisfactorily explained why they took that action in the first place.

The scrutiny committee was clear that the protection afforded was not to the same standard as a no-strike agreement. The unions thought that they had a deal. The quid pro quo for having a no-strike agreement was that there would be a pay review and that any award would be honoured. Today, the Secretary of State justified the staging of the review—in part, the cause of this grievance—by saying that there were “exceptional economic circumstances”, which is why the award could not be honoured in full. Conservative Members have been constantly told that we are living through a golden economic age with successive years of economic growth. Now it appears, in the words of the Justice Secretary, that there are “exceptional economic circumstances”, which means that this award and that of the police cannot be paid. We are apparently living in such dire economic straits that the awards cannot be honoured. That breach of the deal that the Prison Officers Association believed it had has driven its anger about current arrangements. As I said on Monday, the POA is also concerned about the conditions in prisons over which the Government have presided.

Mr. Hogg: While I accept my hon. Friend’s analysis, does he agree that it simply reinforces the proposition that we should never allow a voluntary agreement and that there should always be a statutory prohibition on prison officers taking industrial action—simply because they cannot be relied on to keep to voluntary agreements?

Nick Herbert: Indeed, as my right hon. and learned Friend says, the statutory ban would have afforded greater protection for the public and the wildcat action could not have taken place. Presumably, the fact that the Government have come before the House to reinstate the ban demonstrates that they agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that it is indeed necessary to have statutory protection.

On Monday, the Justice Secretary said, and I agree with him, that

Anyone who has visited prisons will know of the great difficulties that prison governors have in dealing with inmates locked up for whole days with only a few staff
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on account of the wildcat action. Prisons must be places of safety; there is no place in them for such industrial action.

We are aware that locking up prisoners for long periods is rumoured to be about to happen this summer on account of the budgetary situation in the Prison Service. I would be happy if the right hon. Gentleman were to correct me, but I understand that there are proposals to have lockdowns in prisons for entire weekends, during which prisoners will be confined to their cells as there are insufficient staff to look after them. I thus find it surprising to hear the Justice Secretary talking about the unacceptability of locking prisoners up for long periods.

We will support the Government in the reintroduction of this power—

Mr. Winnick: No surprise at all.

Nick Herbert: Of course it is no surprise, as we introduced the power and it was clearly a mistake to rescind it in the first place. I would like to congratulate the Secretary of State on his conversion to Thatcherite trade union reforms and on his recognition of the protections they afford the country. When the Prime Minister invited Lady Thatcher to Downing street for tea just a few months ago, we could hardly have thought that it would yield such impressive results. I suggest that the Justice Secretary invite my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in for a cup of tea in order to advise him further on how to introduce more of such legislation.

The fact is that the proposed reserve power actually goes further than section 127. The new clause does not just make industrial action by prison officers unlawful, as it applies to

We have now reached a position of future uncertainty because of how the Government have reneged on the pay award. They have mishandled the situation in prisons and allowed them to become overcrowded, so damaging relations with the POA that it is necessary for them to assume this power again. Being forced into that situation is an indictment of the Government’s handling of this matter, so I am not surprised that the Secretary of State looked so sheepish about it both on Monday and today.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Any doubts about my view of the new clause have been reinforced by the reminder that this is Thatcherite legislation. In fact, some of what it does goes beyond Thatcherism.

We all recognise that operating a prison is exceptional and that it is not like running a factory. There have to be differences in how the trade unions can operate because we cannot allow prisons to be left unstaffed. Prisons have dangerous and violent people within them as well as people with all sorts of mental health problems. There are also many vulnerable people, particularly in some of the young offender institutions. We expect prison officers to keep those people secure, keep them safe and ensure that they are fed, receive appropriate medication and so on.

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