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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Officers jeer prisons minister
Prison interior
Prison officers are being offered a 6% pay rise
Prisons minister Beverley Hughes has clashed with prison officers angry about pay increases.

She received a stormy reception addressing a conference of the Prisoner Officers' Association (POA) in Portsmouth.

Staff are angry about ovecrowded prisons and a 6% pay rise being awarded over 15 months rather than in one go.

Responding to jeers among the 350 delegates, Ms Hughes suggested the association wanted to return to the "dark" days of trade unions.


We are workers not constables and deserve no less than other workers in Europe

POA general secretary Brian Caton

The minister said the pay increase was above average for the public sector and helped by an independent pay review set up by the government.

And she urged the POA to adhere to a voluntary agreement not to strike, after it emerged there are legal moves to engineer a walkout.

On Monday the POA had distributed a press release promising to heckle Ms Hughes.

But the minister called for "constructive engagement, not entrenchment" and "responsibility not rhetoric".

"The press release sent out yesterday was a misjudgment, it has made a laughing stock of the POA with the media, with the rest of the trade union movement and the public.

"It still portrays a trade union stuck in the dark and not serving the interests of its members."

But POA general secretary Brian Caton said: "We are workers not constables and deserve no less than other workers in Europe.

"If you want these people to work for you, you pay them for it."

Prisons minister Beverley Hughes
Beverley Hughes will stand firm

The POA's newly-elected left-wing leader, Andy Darken, has told of his determination to win back the right to strike.

Former Conservative home secretary Michael Howard made it illegal for the POA to take industrial action in 1994's Criminal Justice Act.

But Mr Darken, a self-confessed militant, hopes to overturn the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.

The ban on industrial action is due to be repealed and replaced by a voluntary no-strike agreement, which was struck between the government and the POA before Mr Darken was elected in January.

Barricades

Mr Darken was removed from his job as POA branch chairman at west London's Feltham young offenders institution last summer.

Prison Service chief Martin Narey accused him of obstructing change.

The number of inmates in prison in England and Wales has reached 71,000, just 500 short of the "bust-point" when they will be unable to receive any more offenders from the courts.

Earlier this month, the Home Office confirmed inmates had built barricades, wrecked cells and lit fires at three overcrowded prisons.

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