Conservative health ministers showed 'political weakness' in failing to tackle the Prison Officers Association head-on over its role in the special hospitals, claim two former top managers.

Former Broadmoor Hospital chief executive Alan Franey and retired Special Hospitals Service Authority chief executive Charles Kaye argue in a book out today that the 'bully-boy tactics' of the POA have no place in the hospitals.

But they say moves to derecognise the union at Broadmoor were vetoed 'at the highest level' because of political fears about the effect it would have on public opinion in the run-up to the general election.

In a co-authored chapter on industrial relations, they say the POA is 'effective and from its members' perspective it represents them well', but that it remains 'diametrically opposed' to seeing the special hospitals as part of the NHS.

The book goes on: 'This can be seen from the vigorous campaign that they ran... in 1997 which led to the then secretary of state, Stephen Dorrell, setting up a review of services at Broadmoor Hospital.

The authors say this was 'quite unnecessary and showed political weakness'.

The authors reveal that when Broadmoor became a statutory authority in its own right, 'the question of whether the POA should be recognised was discussed at the highest level'.

They add: 'The advice received was that from a political point of view the timing was not right given that a general election was looming in the months ahead. Perhaps another example of political weakness.'

The authors recall that in October 1988, when Mr Franey arrived at Broadmoor, industrial relations problems were so bad that 'consideration was given to the possibility of seeking ministers' support to bring the army into the hospital'.

Though this did not happen, staff who did not conform to the POA consensus suffered 'damage to their personal property' and 'verbal aggression in supermarkets by families of staff', says Mr Franey.

Managing High Security Psychiatric Care, by Charles Kaye and Alan Franey, is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. pounds19.95.