News Britain

Friday 9 December 2016

Jo Cox murder trial halted as prison officers stop work amid 'meltdown' claims

Published 15/11/2016 | 13:26

Jurors heard that MP Jo Cox was shot three times and suffered 15 stab wounds in a ‘cowardly’ attack that killed her on June 16. Her alleged attacker, Thomas Mair, has pleaded not guilty to her murder. Photo: West Yorkshire Police/PA Wire
Jurors heard that MP Jo Cox was shot three times and suffered 15 stab wounds in a ‘cowardly’ attack that killed her on June 16. Her alleged attacker, Thomas Mair, has pleaded not guilty to her murder. Photo: West Yorkshire Police/PA Wire

The trial of the man accused of murdering MP Jo Cox has been halted after thousands of prison officers stopped work amid claims jails were "in meltdown".

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Courts were hit by disruption after the Prison Officers Association directed members to take protest action after talks with the Government over health and safety concerns broke down.

At the Old Bailey the trial of Thomas Mair, who denies Mrs Cox's murder, was brought to a halt due to the action, with the case adjourned until Wednesday morning.

Elsewhere, the appearance of a number of prison governors at the Commons Justice Committee on Tuesday morning had to be postponed.

Jail guards are technically banned from going on strike and the move was branded "unlawful" by the Ministry of Justice, which is expected to take the matter to the courts later.

The demonstration comes after a string of high profile incidents at prisons, including an alleged murder, a riot and the escape of two inmates.

Steve Gillan, the POA's general secretary, said as many as 10,000 staff will take part. They will provide emergency cover for fires and medical incidents in order to protect prisoners' well-being, he said.

Mr Gillan admitted the day of action will be "interpreted as a strike".

Announcing the move, the union said the " continued surge in violence and unprecedented levels of suicide and acts of self harm", coupled with the recent alleged murder and escapes "demonstrate that the service is in meltdown".

Two prisoners escaped from Pentonville prison in north London earlier this month - sparking a manhunt in which they were eventually recaptured.

Weeks earlier, inmate Jamal Mahmoud, 21, died after being stabbed at the jail on October 18 in an attack which left two others injured.

And on November 6, up to 200 prisoners went on a rampage in HMP Bedford.

The development comes only days after Justice Secretary Liz Truss unveiled her blueprint for prison reform including a recruitment drive to add 2,500 new officers to the frontline and "no fly zones" to stop drones dropping drugs and contraband into jails.

An MoJ spokesman said: "There is no justification for this action.

"We have been engaged in constructive talks with the POA over the last two weeks and have provided a comprehensive response to a range of health and safety concerns.

"We have well-established contingencies in place to manage prisons and keep the public safe, but we are clear that this constitutes unlawful industrial action, and we will seek remedy in the courts."

About 60 guards gathered in the car park within the gates of Pentonville.

Dave Todd, POA representative for London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, said conditions in prisons were "volatile and dangerous".

"We need to act to protect ourselves," he said. "It has not come about quickly - it's a build-up over probably years actually.

"It's just unsafe. To me, prison officers taking this type of action speaks volumes for what's happening inside."

Mr Todd, who said he served with the Army in Northern Ireland in the early 90s, said he found prisons "really daunting" when he first started working in them.

"I served in Northern Ireland and I felt more vulnerable walking the landings in prisons than I did on the streets of Northern Ireland," he said.

Around 100 prison officers stood outside HMP Manchester.

Derek Stanton, a committee member of the Manchester POA, said: " I have been in this job for 28 years, this is the most dangerous I have ever seen it."

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: "This Tory Government is failing to address a prisons violence crisis which is leaving staff and prisoners in a dangerous situation.

"The Justice Secretary needs to reassure the public and staff immediately that prisons are safe places to work."

Justice Secretary Liz Truss condemned the action.

Answering an urgent question in the Commons, she said she met the POA on November 2 and talks with her team over safety measures continued over the next fortnight.

"These talks were due to continue this morning," Ms Truss told MPs. "Instead the POA failed to respond to our proposals and called this unlawful action without giving any notice."

Ms Truss said the union's position is "unnecessary and unlawful" and "will make the situation in our prisons more dangerous".

She added: "We are taking the necessary legal steps to end this unlawful industrial action."

Ms Truss said the Government is "absolutely committed" to giving prison officers and governors the support they need to do their job and keep them safe.

Ms Truss briefed Cabinet on the protest action at its regular weekly meeting at Downing Street.

The Justice Secretary told colleagues the action was "unlawful and unjustified" and explained that the Government was seeking an injunction to resolve the situation, said the Prime Minister's official spokeswoman.

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