A mass walkout by prison officers in protest at conditions in jails in England and Wales could lead to an increase in violence rather than help address the crisis, the justice secretary, David Gauke, has said.
His comments came as the walkout, which began at 7am on Friday, was called off by the Prison Officers Association after talks with the prisons minister Rory Stewart.
Gauke said: “I do believe we have to take steps to reduce the violence, I agree with those who say the level of violence is unacceptably high, and we’re determined to bring it down.
“I think action of this sort does nothing to help that process and locking prisoners up for 24 hours a day, which may be the consequence of what the POA are doing, only increases the risk of violence, it doesn’t help us address it.” The POA’s general secretary, Steve Gillan, said staff were told to go back to work by 1pm. “We have reached an agreement with Rory Stewart. They [the government] will discontinue the application for an injunction against the union [over the walkout],” he said.
The union, which has 20,000 members working in English and Welsh prisons, will hold further talks with the prison service next week. Gillan said: “I’m pleased with the outcome. Well, in actual fact, I’m saddened we had to do it in the first place. But now we hope for meaningful, constructive dialogue commencing on Monday.”
After the announcement that the walkout had been called off, Stewart said: “I am pleased that all parties have been able to bring a swift resolution to this action which, as I have made clear, was irresponsible and placed fellow staff and prisoners at risk. The priority now must be to continue our constructive dialogue with the safety of our hard-working prison officers at its absolute heart. Ultimately our aims are the same – to see safe, secure and decent establishments that provide a positive environment for staff and prisoners.”
Gillan said officers had the right to walk out under health and safety legislation. “The government and employer have a duty of care toward my members, and I’m fed up of hearing of my members receiving smashed eye sockets, broken arms, broken legs, broken jaws, being attacked, spat on, having excrement and urine thrown at them, and enough is enough now. We need ministers to start taking control of what’s going on.”
Images posted on social media on Friday had shown walkouts at prisons across the country, including Manchester, Holme House in Stockton-on-Tees, Durham, Wymott in Lancashire, Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey, the Isle of Man and Low Newton in County Durham.
On Thursday the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, took emergency action over dire conditions at HMP Bedford. It is the fourth prison to be subject to the urgent notification protocol, after Exeter, Nottingham and Birmingham, which was temporarily taken from its private operator, G4S, and returned to state control.
The POA said its members were facing “unprecedented levels of violence” in a crisis it blamed on government cuts. Gillan accused ministers of “paying lip service to the health and safety of my members” and breaking safety commitments to prison staff.
“We will now be demanding that the government provide safe prisons, meet our demands to improve personal protective equipment, [and] reduce levels of violence and overcrowding as set out by Lord Justice Woolf in his report into the riots of 1990,” he The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said he backed the walkout. “Conservative cuts to prison budgets and staffing levels have led to violence spiralling out of control in our prisons. Prison staff all too often pay the price, with assaults on officers doubling since Tory cuts started to bite.”
He called on the government to take urgent action to guarantee the safety of prison staff. “To stabilise our prisons, the government needs to launch an emergency plan with substantial new funds to end understaffing and overcrowding across the prison estate.”
Clarke invoked the urgent notification protocol for Bedford prison after inspectors found high levels of violence and inexperienced staff struggling to maintain control. He said standards had been declining unchecked for nine years.
The protocol requires the justice secretary to draw up an action plan for Bedford within 28 days to turn the prison around.
The reality is….Turning it around in 28 days is the easy part. It is keeping the peace in other prison estates is the problem and by officers walking out is definitely not the answer…