|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
If we are to achieve that as efficiently as possible, we need good industrial relations within prisons, as the Secretary of State has acknowledged. We need the Prison Officers Association and other unions in the prison system to feel that they can act as trade unions, which is part of having good industrial relations. Recent history, however, has been exactly the opposite, as prisons have had very poor industrial relations. That is one of the reasons why Ed Sweeneys report was undertaken and why both the Government and the POA signed up to it. That report, however, was published only on Monday this week. I realise that my right hon. Friend said that drafts have been seen, but the report was published only on Monday, as I say, and at exactly the same time that he made his statement announcing the amendments to this Bill.
The Sweeney report was set up in the context of poor industrial relations and the need to secure a new voluntary arrangement to replace JIRPAthe joint industrial relations procedural agreementfrom which the POA had given notice that it was withdrawing. We can argue about how good JIRPA was and how well it worked. The fact is, though, that it did not work; otherwise, there would not have been any withdrawal from it. The Sweeney report points to some of the issues that the POA raised about JIRPA and how far it allowed the union to raise relevant industrial relations issues as opposed to allowing management to rule them out. Irrespective of arguments about JIRPA, everyone accepts that we need a new and better agreement.
My right hon. Friend says that he does not want to use the powers in the new clauses, butbecause of the timing as much as anything elsethe POA now undoubtedly sees the new clauses as having been designed to hold a gun to their head in negotiations that have not begun. I know that that is not my right hon. Friends view, but having spoken to its representatives yesterday afternoon I can assure him that it is the POAs view, and I think that that will make it much more difficult for us to reach the sort of agreement that we want to reach.
A particular problem is the wording of the new clause, which is why I tabled amendment (a). As has already been pointed out, it does more than just reinstate section 127 of the 1994 Act. My right hon. Friend says that the wording of the definition of industrial relations in the new clause is the same as that in the JIRPA, but I consider that there is a distinct difference between putting that wording in a voluntary agreement and putting it in the law.
Mr. David Anderson: Is not the obvious difference the fact that while under the JIRPA people who took action that was slightly out of order would be guilty of a disciplinary offence, under the new clause they would be guilty of a criminal offence? Those to whom we look to lock up criminals would become criminals themselves.
Mr. Gerrard: That is quite possible. Another possibility is that the wording will become the subject of interpretation by courts. I do not think any of us can be certain what the consequences of that will be: what it might mean in terms of a new definition of industrial action and, once it has happened in this context, into what other contexts it might spill.
Mr. Straw: As I said to our hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), although I will not give an undertaking on the precise wording until we have reached an agreement, I am prepared to consider points that are raised, and I understand the point that has been raised so powerfully by both my hon. Friends.
Mr. Gerrard: That is helpful. I think that the wording should be examined and, hopefully, changed before it is put into law. Anyone who has read Sweeneys report will know that he had many good points to make about changes to the arbitration system allowing both sides to raise issues, and about binding arbitration. It is very important for the arbitration to be binding on both sides.
Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman says that we need to be sensitive about the rights of prison officers, and I understand that, but we also need to be sensitive about the rights of prisoners. Will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to what happened at Strangeways in the early 1990s, when a number of prisoners on rule 43 were effectively attacked in the prison? That is what happens when order in prisons breaks down. We must bear it in mind that prisoners are very vulnerable, and are at risk from other prisoners. We cannot tolerate circumstances in which order in prisons cannot be maintained.
Mr. Gerrard: We all appreciate that order in prisons must be maintained. The issue for me is the timing as much as anything. If we had reached a point at which negotiations were breaking down and it was clear that no voluntary agreement would be reached, I would understand the Governments saying that something must be done; but doing it at this moment and in this form will make it far more difficult to reach the sensible agreement that we want to be reached between the Department and the prison officers.
I do not think that new clause 37 helps. My hon. Friend says that the power will be introduced by order, but my reading of the new clause suggests that it would come into force on Royal Assent. The new clause concerns the ability to suspend the provisions, and my right hon. Friend has said that he will consider allowing that to be done by means of an affirmative resolution. Some of us would be rather happier if the implementation took place by means of an affirmative resolution in the first place, rather than on Royal Assent with the suspension being implemented by means of a negative resolution.
I think that we are in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot by passing a measure that will make it far more difficult to reach the voluntary agreement that we all need. I hope that my right hon. Friend will think again, because I cannot support the new clause in its present form.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who talked a great deal of common sense. He spoke of the danger of our shooting ourselves in the foot. I suspect that the foot is well and truly shot already by the actions that have been taken, and in particular by the circumstances that have led to what the Lord Chancellor has done today.
The problem is not, in fact, what is proposed. We would all prefer a voluntary agreement to a statutory agreement if it could be made to work, but wildcat action took place, and that cannot be ignored. As I said on Monday and am happy to repeat, I do not believe that strike action is ever proper in a prison environment, and that is the end of it. The other side of the coin is that avoiding industrial action, and ensuring that we have an environment in which it is inconceivable, requires proper negotiating machinery and proper, binding arbitration on issues of grievance, and it requires management and Government who listen to what the people in the service are saying. It is transparently obvious that that has not been the case for a good many years.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) spoke of a cosy little teatime chat between the Lord Chancellor and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). The two of them could reminisce for a long time about the various deficiencies of the prison system under their respective stewardships, although it might be a rather one-sided conversation. I seem to remember that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe was somewhat reticent when asked questions about the system, and famously found it difficult to give a response. The fact is, however, that we have had a significant problem with industrial relations in our prisons for a long timein England and Wales. I made that point on Monday. Ed Sweeneys report makes it absolutely clear that the same does not apply in Scotland. We must ask ourselves in all humility what the Liberal Democrat-Labour Administration in Scotland were able to do [Interruption.] It was a Liberal Democrat Minister of Justice, as the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) may recall. We must ask ourselves what that Administration were able to do that eluded Ministers in this House with the same responsibilities, because we have clearly reached a point at which there has been a breakdown in trust.
I said on Monday, and I say again now, that I believe that the staging of the pay award was a key component. If we do not treat the public services fairly by providing an independent assessment of pay, we must clearly expect a degree of resentment. All I have said to date is that I wish we were not starting from here. But we are starting from here, and I recognise the Lord Chancellors difficulty. He must deal with a prison system in which there is recent experience of strike action, and that is not acceptable. However, the timing is most unfortunate. The fact that we are legislating today when the Sweeney report was published only on Monday, containing very positive proposals for improving the situation, is extremely regrettable. My fear is that it will poison the well in terms of future negotiations, and we will not secure the successful outcome that we all want.
I am concerned to hear the Lord Chancellor tell his hon. Friends that he did not really mean what the new clauses and amendments say, and that he will rewrite them before the Bill goes to another place. That is yet another example of why it is wrong to legislate on Report on important matters of this kind, and expect us to rubber-stamp the legislation in the context of a
very abbreviated time scale when it should be subjected to proper reflection, consideration and scrutiny before moving to the other place. It seems, however, that we must wait until the Government have done their work in the other place and brought the Bill back to us with revised wording which we hope will deal with some of the issues of scope identified by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, and perhaps with the issue of the commencement on Royal Assentwhich may or may not be helpful, depending on the circumstances that apply when the Bill reaches its final stages in both Houses.
However, I have to say to the Lord Chancellor that, if there were an affirmative procedure, that would not be a problem in any case. In those circumstances, we would not need to make commencement automatic on Royal Assent. We could bring forward the affirmative procedure at that point in order to bring it into action if it is considered to be necessary to do so.
Although I am prepared to accept for the purposes of today that the Lord Chancellor has to bring forward these proposals, I think that it is intensely regrettable that they are here. It speaks of failure of management and failure of the negotiating machinery between the Government, the management of the Prison Service and the work force. It suggests that industrial relations are at an unacceptable level in a key public service. My message to the Government is: they really must do better.
Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): We are very short of time so I will make some quick points. This is an industrial relations issue. Of course, it is necessary for the Secretary of State for Justice to see it in the context of the security of the Prison Service. He rightly talks about the statutory position. My recollection is that the Prison Act 1952 makes the prison officer a constable, but the real position is that the Prison Officers Association is different from the trade unions for the police and the Army. The trade unions for the police and Army have always been subject to limitation on their actions and in relation to strikes. For most of its existence over 70 years, the POA has been a normal trade union with all the normal trade union rights.
In the early 1990s, there were a lot of industrial difficulties. There are still industrial difficulties in the prison system, but it was the courts that decided that prison officer trade unions were not to be allowed to operate as normal trade unions. It is an irony that the 1994 Act, introduced by the then Conservative Government, restored some of the rights that they had lost.
There was another event, as well as that legislation and the court case. That was the inquiry into the Strangeways disaster. It is important to put on the record a couple of the decisions made by the report produced by Lord Justice Woolf and Judge Stephen Tumim. They decided that there was no need to abolish the trade union status of the prison officers. They said:
We take the view that industrial action by prison officers should not be made unlawful at this stage.
Conditions in prisons have significantly contributed to the present hostile state of industrial relations, just as they have contributed to souring relations between staff and prisoners.
We are encouraged to take this view because we found from the Inquirys visits to establishments that those places with satisfactory conditions and constructive regimes appeared more likely than other, less well endowed prisons, to have satisfactory industrial relations.
Therefore, the message from that report is, If you sort out the prisons, you will sort out the industrial relations. I know it is not quite as easy as that, but I have a strong view, which is shared by most of my colleagues on the Labour Benches
It being two hours after commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question s necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|