The ongoing “industrial dispute” between the Prison Officers Association (POA) and the Government has escalated and is back in the news. In the summer of 2016 the POA raised a number of concerns over safety, citing almost 5000 assaults on prison staff last year. Following this, they told their members to gather outside each prison and hold an hour-long branch meeting between 8am and 9am. Prison officers are subject to legislation which bans them from going on strike but it was estimated that between 5000 and 6000 of them took part in the unofficial walk-out. It was always highly likely that action like this would continue on the basis that the POA believes that its health and safety concerns have simply not been addressed by the Government. True to its word the POA has now announced that members will withdraw from voluntary duties, including manning "Tornado" teams which respond to outbreaks of disorder and an overtime ban will be phased in from April 2017. From a legal perspective this amounts to action short of an all out strike by way of a “Work to Rule” which is a form of industrial action in which employees perform their duties strictly to the letter of their contract (that is, refusing to take on any voluntary or additional duties outside the express terms of their contract of employment), the aim being to draw attention to their concerns.

The government has said such action will be "unlawful" and it would seek an injunction to stop it happening. If, for any reason, the Government fails to obtain an injunction the industrial action could still be deemed “unofficial”. This would mean that any prison officer undertaking the industrial action could be acting in breach of his/her contract of employment. An employer has the option to dismiss all employees taking part in the unofficial industrial action if they fail (after a reasonable warning) to resume all their duties when instructed to do so as it would be in breach of their contract of employment.

However, the current dispute with the Prison Officers Association (POA) demonstrates the difficulty of simply dismissing all employees involved in unofficial industrial action.

As yet, no prison officers have been dismissed for taking part in the unofficial industrial action and any such dismissals would simply be likely to further inflame the situation. Therefore, it looks likely that industrial relations in the prison sector will be in for a rocky ride, notwithstanding the implementation of the new Trade Union Act. Indeed, there is an argument that the more the government attempts to limit the options for lawful strike action, the more it incentivises trade unions to look at other options.