The industrial action taken by members of the Prison Officers Association should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with the dire straits of industrial relations in the prison service. The trigger for today's dispute is the Government's decision to refuse to honour the Pay Review Body's pay award of 2.5% and instead to insist that the payment be staged resulting in prison officers receiving less than the rate of inflation and significantly less than other assessments of the real rise in the cost of living.
The depth of anger amongst POA members can be gauged by the 87% vote in favour of the industrial action in its recent ballot. It is completely understandable why are they angry.
In 1993 the the Tory Government took away the POA's right to strike. Despite commitments from Labour in opposition that this issue would be addressed, the New Labour Government refused to restore the right to take industrial action to the POA and instead established the Pay Review Body process to determine future pay awards. Any attempt by the POA to take industrial action remains outlawed under this Government and the President and General Secretary of the POA have regularly found themselves being threatened with legal action for what in other sectors of public service would be seen as normal trade union activities.
Hounded by further rounds of privatisation, under pressure from a dramatic increase in the prison population and with a £60 million savings exercise threatening less staff to cope, morale amongst prison officers is reported to be at rock bottom. Warnings are being made that the prison service is under the same pressure that resulted in the riots that saw prisons burning in 1990.
The Government has refused to meet with the POA to discuss its concerns and to resolve this dispute. As Secretary of the Justice Unions'Parliamentary Group I have emailed Jack Straw's (Secretary of State for the Ministry for Justice) office today to urge him to meet the POA to listen to their worries and seek a settlement to this dispute. The POA just want justice for its members.
The POA's dispute is just the tip of the iceberg of the discontent that there is amongst public sector workers at the way they have been treated on pay, pensions, and privatisation by a Government most of them voted into office.