British service personnel are on standby to step in for prison and probation officers amid fears of an illegal strike by trade unions over the privatisation of prisons, the Daily Telegraph can disclose.
by Hannah Furness and Matthew Holehouse
10:30PM GMT 02 Nov 2012
Hundreds of Army, Navy and RAF personnel were yesterday being trained to take over duties from prison officers if they stage a walk-out, the Ministry of Defence confirmed.
Servicemen and women are learning how to carrying out “non-prisoner-facing” duties, including security work such as patrolling perimeter fences and monitoring CCTV, in case a strike goes ahead.
The running of seven British prisons, of which six are currently state-run, is up for competitive tender. Decisions are expected within the next few weeks.
Bidders include private security firms G4S, Sodexo and Serco as well as Her Majesty’s Prison Service. It is feared job losses could result in strikes.
The Ministry of Defence tonight confirmed military personnel are undergoing training, saying it was part of long-standing contingency plans to assist the Ministry of Justice in the event of unlawful strike action.
The Daily Telegraph has seen a tasking order sent to RAF officers from Headquarters Air Command that reveals the National Offender Management Scheme (NOMS) has already given the Ministry of Defence notice that assistance is required.
Once deployed, servicemen and women will be given six hours notice to reach prisons in the event of a strike.
It reads: “NOMS has given the MoD official notice in order to force generate and train personnel to undertake non-prisoner-facing duties in support of NOMS in the event of industrial action in prisons in England and Wales.
“From the day of activation, personnel will be held at six hours notice to arrive at identified prisons.
“All personnel will be able to maintain this state of readiness from their parent unit.”
The memorandum instructed contingents of officers and ranks from 12 RAF bases in Britain yesterday to attend a training session at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “The Armed Forces routinely train for a range of contingencies, but such training does not mean that personnel will necessarily deploy.
“The MOD has a long-standing contingency arrangement with the Ministry of Justice to provide assistance in the event of unlawful strike action by prison officers.”
Last night, a spokesman for the Prison Officers’ Association said the implication a strike could be imminent was “news to him”, insisting there was “no planned action at all”.
However prison officers are banned by law from taking industrial action and do not traditionally announce the move in advance, instead launching ‘wildcat’ strikes.
In May this year, prison officers at an estimated 80 per cent of jailed in England, Scotland and Wales took part in a surprise walkout in protest against public sector reforms.
The walkout, organised by the Prison Officers Association, led to inmates being locked in their cells for the morning, with exercise cancelled and only a skeleton staff left to feed prisoners and give them medication.
Criminal trials were halted as prisoners could not be transported to the courts, with guards leaving their posts to protest outside the prison gates.
On that occasion they returned to their roles within a few hours.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said last night: “We aim to avoid any form of industrial action and will continue to maintain close relations and discussions with unions to do everything possible to achieve that.
“The role of the police and military personnel would be limited to providing a support role to those prison staff still working and focusing on non-prisoner contact roles such as perimeter fence security. All forces personnel would have received basic prison familiarisation but they will not be trained as replacement prison officers.
“If an unlawful strike is called, the aim will be to provide a basic regime in prisons whilst legal action is considered against the union, and staff are encouraged to return to work.”
This summer some 18,200 members of the Armed Forces assisted with guarding the Olympic Games, with 4,700 called on at the last minute after security provider G4S admitted it was short of staff.