Nick responds to the Justice Secretary's statement

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):

I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement.

Prisons are places of security, in which there can be no place for industrial action. That was why the previous Conservative Government legislated for the statutory prohibition of industrial action in prisons. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the Labour party fought tooth and nail against those laws in opposition? Indeed, when he was Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair said that they were a

"wholly unwarranted attack on the working rights of prison officers".

Is it not therefore extraordinary that, having dismantled the statutory ban, the Government should now be threatening to put it back in place?

We are now being asked to debate new clauses in 48 hours' time, when the Secretary of State has known about the problem for months. Will he assure us that there will be sufficient time on Wednesday to debate those and other important amendments that the Government have tabled since the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill?

The Secretary of State said that the status of prison officers was "similar to...other essential services, such as the police and the armed forces", where "the risk to the simply too great to allow them to take industrial action." In that case, what was the justification for repealing the statutory provision in the first place, when it placed prison officers on the same footing as the police and the armed forces? Has not the inadequacy of the Government's no-strike agreement been revealed by the fact that the Secretary of State has been forced to make his statement today?

In 2001, when he was Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman made it clear to the House that independent arbitration on pay would be provided "in recognition" of the repeal of the statutory ban and its replacement with a no-strike agreement. That was the deal that the Government made with the unions. Why, then, are Ministers surprised that the Prison Officers Association considers that deal to have been reneged upon, when the Government have reduced the value of a pay award made by the pay review body?

When the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), announced the repeal of the statutory ban on strikes, that announcement heralded an era of modernisation, reform and change. Have we not actually seen crisis, incompetence and wildcat strikes? Why did the Secretary of State claim to have been surprised by last August's wildcat action, given that it was clear to everyone else that relations with prison officers were deteriorating so fast? Does he accept that the Government's troubles with prison officers go beyond pay? Is it not a fact that conditions for prison staff have worsened significantly over the past 10 years? Prison officer numbers have risen at half the rate of the prison population, chronic overcrowding is putting immense strain on the service, assaults on prison staff have soared by 80 per cent., and now budgetary cuts mean the prospect of prisoners' being locked in their cells throughout weekends. Is it any wonder that prison officer morale is so low?

Coming into office, the Government promised

"partnership not conflict between employers and employees."

Now we have conflict with the police and conflict with prison officers, and no doubt there are further conflicts to come. Has not this emergency statement been forced by a crisis entirely of the Government's own making?

Ministers repealed no-strike legislation, and within three years they are having to reinstate it. Is that what they mean by a re-launch? They have mismanaged the public finances, mismanaged public pay and mismanaged prisons. Is it any wonder that this Government have acquired a reputation for serial incompetence?

Nick Herbert