New Clause 36 — Amendment of section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
Orders of the Day
Nick Herbert (Shadow Secretary for Justice, Justice; Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)
I shall try to take as little time as possible because I suspect that other hon. Members might wish to contribute to the debate.
The Secretary of State seemed to show little understanding of why the Prison Officers Association is so angry about his statement on Monday. It was taken by surprise by his statement, in the same way that he claims to have been taken by surprise by its wildcat action last year. Far from the Government being entirely consistent, as he claimed, part of that anger arises because the Government's explanation of the history of the legislation and the action that they are now taking has not been straightforward.
On Monday, and again today, the Secretary of State denied that the Labour party had fought tooth and nail against the legislation that outlawed strike action. He took umbrage at the suggestion. We have already heard about the letter from Tony Blair when he was shadow Home Secretary, shortly before he became leader, to the Prison Officers Association. Mr. Blair made it clear in that letter that
"we have strongly opposed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill on a number of Clauses which represented a wholly unwarranted attack on the working rights of prison officers".
What is the difference between fighting tooth and nail against such measures and strong opposition? As has been admitted, the Labour party originally opposed the legislation.
On Monday, the Secretary of State also said, and he has repeated, that no undertakings were given to repeal section 127. Again, Tony Blair's letter is explicit. In 1994, he told the Prison Officers Association:
"An incoming Labour Government will want to put this situation right".
It was not just Tony Blair as shadow Home Secretary who was making those promises; Labour Opposition spokesmen were going around the country making such undertakings, giving the impression to members of the POA that section 127 was not only being resisted but would be repealed. Mr. Prescott, when he was shadow Employment Secretary in 1994, won great applause, as the record shows, at what was no doubt a Labour party conference, when he talked about the Labour party's decency agenda. He said:
"we will revert and give Prison Officers the right as employees in an employment situation doing a decent and responsible job".
Is it not absolutely clear that the unions were given the impression that section 127 would go? It does the Justice Secretary no good at all to seek to suggest otherwise now.
It is surprising that the Prison Officers Association should have been moved to issue a note yesterday saying:
"It seems to us that despite repeated guarantees, the Labour Party in Government cannot be trusted to honour their promises".
Of course, the Opposition have known that for some time, but it comes to something when a union is forced to issue such a statement.
The fact is that whatever the subsequent justifications, the Labour party opposed the legislation originally, and promised to repeal it. It did not do so fully until three years ago, when it replaced it with a voluntary agreement, which the country was assured would deliver the same protection for prisons as had been delivered by the no-strike provisions. Now, three years later, the Secretary of State is forced into the humiliating position of having to come back and reintroduce provisionally that same legislation.