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MoJ criticised for attempted legal action against POA

Jail staff voice fury over inaction as violence spirals across prison estate

MINISTERS’ legal threats against prison officers protesting against dangerous conditions were slammed by Labour and the trade unions today.

The POA launched protests outside dozens of jails tis morning after Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke invoked the urgent notification protocol at HMP Bedford.

Mr Clarke told Justice Secretary David Gauke that prisoners are "effectively in control" of the facility, which has the highest rate of assaults on staff in Britain.

Speaking outside HMP Bedford, POA branch chairman Brian Cooper said: "Bedford Prison is unsafe every day. There's assaults on staff, staff are spat at, assaulted.

"This year so far we've had an officer who's had his head stamped on and needed emergency surgery for a bleed on the brain.

"We've had an officer have his arm broken with a pool cue when he was attacked by a prisoner.

"Another officer has a fractured eye socket with part of the bone detached and might lose the ability to move his eye properly, permanently.

"We've got the highest rate of assault of any prison in the country and the management are just not dealing with it."

POA called off the protests later in the day after "meaningful engagement" with Prisons Minister Rory Stewart.

POA national chair Mark Fairhurst said: "After constructive talks we have instructed our members to return to duty."

POA general secretary Steve Gillan added: "We must take things on face value following the meeting with the minister, but the devil will be in the detail."

At the High Court, the MoJ's barrister Jonathan Cohen QC said the ministry and the union had reached a "compromise position."

He added that the ministry could still bring "committal of sequestration proceedings" against the POA for breach of a previous court order, though that is believed to be unlikely.

Outside court, Mr Gillan said: "There will be ongoing negotiations commencing on Monday in an attempt to resolve the issues of violence in our jails.

"We are very pleased with the outcome. Of course we are disappointed [we had to take action], I don't think any trade union really want to take any form of action.

"The reality is it is a sad state of affairs when we have to advise our members [to leave the facility] on health and safety grounds in order to get a deal from government.

"But, nevertheless, we are pleased with the outcome and hopefully we can get a deal that ensures the protection of both prisoners and our members."

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon had earlier criticised the MoJ's decision to try and take the POA to court, adding that it had been "far too quick to do [so] in the past".

He blamed Tory cuts for "violence spiralling out of control in our prisons", and warned: "Prison staff all too often pay the price, with assaults on officers doubling since Tory cuts started to bite.

"Prison officers should not have to go to work fearing for their personal safety.

"Labour is on the side of our hard-working prison staff who have rightly had enough of the unnecessary danger and preventable assaults they are forced to endure every day."

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said his union stood "in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the POA who have taken this action.

"The government should listen very carefully to what the POA is saying, restore their basic trade union rights and take responsibility for the mess they have created through their reckless handling of our prison system."

Mr Stewart called the action “irresponsible” but said he was "pleased" the parties had reached a "swift resolution," adding: "The priority now must be to continue our constructive dialogue with the safety of our hard-working prison officers at its absolute heart."

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