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WHEN WILL GOVERNMENT ADMIT THEY ARE OVERSEEING A PRISON SERVICE IN CRISIS?
GENERAL SECRETARY, STEVE GILLAN, ASKS WHEN URGENT ACTION TO PROTECT PRISON OFFICERS AND PRISONERS IS HIT WITH LETTERS BEFORE ACTION FROM THE EMPLOYER ON BEHALF OF GOVERNMENT, WHAT HOPE IS THERE FOR A SAFE SERVICE?
The POA has been warning the Government and NOMS since 2010 that the prison service is in crisis. It would appear the collective response from the ivory towers is to bury their heads in the sand and pretend either it isn’t happening, or the announced Prison Reform is going to be the solution to everything that is occurring in our over-stretched prisons in England and Wales.
The disastrous policies of cut after cut have come home to roost. The Ministry of Justice has had £900 million worth of cuts since 2010. No one in their right mind can or should expect a ‘safe, decent and secure’ service (NOMS’ strap line – not mine) to be produced and maintained.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen signs that the system is broken with a variety of prisons including Wormwood Scrubs, Wetherby, Holme House, Bristol, Highdown, and The Mount having to enact legislation contained within the Health and Safety at Work Act to maintain their health and safety while at work.
Threatening the Union
I am sure that any other employer in the land would want to resolve these issues so that staff and prisoners’ safety was paramount – but not prison service management. The attitude on behalf of the Secretary of State was anything but, and letters before action were sent threatening the Union on three occasions with applications to the High Court for injunctive relief. Surely this antiquated piece of legislation − Section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (since amended) − should be confined to the dustbin.
Modern industrial relations cannot and should not be carried out in the courtroom but alas, it would appear that our employer and Government would prefer to bully and intimidate their employees into submission and back into a workplace that is a danger to the health and safety of those who live and work in that environment.
Surely, it would make more sense to work with the Union to make sure their slogan – ‘safe, decent and secure’ means exactly that, instead of hiding behind a punitive piece of legislation that isn’t going to rectify anything. In my view, this is bullying and harassment at its worst. Hiding behind oppressive legislation instead of dealing with the real issues is cowardly and a step back in time.
Of course, this legislation was brought in by a Tory Government, amended by a Labour Government and encouraged by an employer who may not know the art of negotiation but prefers to hide behind legislation to hide their shortcomings. That is why the POA must continue its campaign to get trade union rights restored as quickly as possible and mount another legal challenge through the International Labour Organisation and indeed, the European Court of Human Rights.
With the current restrictions in the Trade Union Bill that has received Royal Assent, the Government should voluntarily restore our basic, fundamental, human rights but something tells me they will not do that voluntarily − we will have to force the issue.
POA supports its members
In the meantime, the NEC will continue to support all our members under the Health and Safety at Work Act. Management should have no hiding place nor Government in their responsibility to protect workers in the workplace and we will not let them off the hook. All those establishments that had to take action under Health and Safety were fully supported by national officials and our legal team.
There was no repudiation from the Union on any issue and each issue was resolved in its own right. Every action taken by our members (and indeed some non-members) were in relation to safety nothing else. This was not an attempt by the POA to take unlawful industrial action, this was purely individuals taking action to protect themselves from the rising violence in our prisons and nationally. As long as I am General Secretary, we will ensure that where the employer abdicates their responsibility in safety, then the POA bring them back to reality and stand and protect our members.
Back to basics
I would rather have a climate of industrial relations that was not combative or confrontational but have a climate where collective bargaining was meaningful and where there was mutual respect. When the POA says our workplaces are dangerous we are not trying to sensationalise or distort what is happening in our jails up and down the country. We are a responsible trade union who want a successful service so that our members are respected for the job that they do on behalf of society, and properly remunerated for the true professionals that they indeed are. It is time for a change and for the Government and employer to start listening that the service is on its knees.
The statistics that the Ministry of Justice has produced are shameful, I am afraid pumping £10million in here, and £5 million in there is simply not enough. I accept £1.3 billion has been freed up for investment but that is capital investment − we need to get back to basics. The Lord Harris review, the Justice Select Committee reports are all ‘wake up’ calls but they need to be enacted upon before it is too late. Constantly saying prison reform will take care of all that is simply reckless and distorting what is happening now.
Remedial action on policy is required now, not five or 10 years down the line. Prison officers are literally putting their lives on the line and the situation cannot be ignored any longer. The warning signs are there for everyone to see. Ignore them at your peril.
PRISON REFORM / EARLY ADOPTER PRISONS
The Queen’s speech outlined a broad brush of prison reform with very little detail. What we do know now is that the early adopter prisons will be Highdown, Coldingley, Kirklevington Grange, Holme House and Wandsworth.
These prisons will be given autonomy on a range of issues with some exclusions. A Prison Reform Bill will be introduced in the coming months, which, once published as a white paper, will provide us with a better understanding of what the future may hold in respect of this new legislation.
Legal entities and freedoms based on academy schools and NHS Foundations have been alluded to, and of course this will be challenging for the POA and the legislative framework will have to be watched and challenged carefully on its passage through the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The POA will have to work with politicians of all parties; outlining our case very professionally and clearly to challenge where challenge is needed. This will be a difficult time for the Union but then again, over the years, we have become used to dealing with difficult challenges and I am sure we will come out the other side a lot stronger and a lot more knowledgeable.
These are early days for the so called ‘prison reform’ and we will keep an open mind. If some of the changes are positive then we will support them but if it is about attacking our terms and conditions and a Trojan horse for privatising and cheapening the role of prison officer grades and OSGS then we will resist and fight it all the way.
ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2016
Conference set out policies for the National Executive Committee to take forward on your behalf.
A strategy paper for the next four years was also set out with aims and objectives, in an attempt to ‘shape our future’ (which was the theme of Conference). Those policies will now be enacted and rolled out to ensure that all POA members are actively involved in their Union. Prior to Conference, the NEC enacted your Conference policy, asking members to refrain from working Payment Plus. I know that this was a big ask, as in real terms, the POA membership within NOMS suffered (as have our members in the NHS) from derisory pay awards and indeed pay freezes, and on some occasions, treated poorly by a pay review body that is supposedly there as a compensatory mechanism for not having the right to strike.
It is fair to say that over the years, they have let that particular remit group down hence why it is policy not to give written or oral evidence to them. Hopefully, they will be disbanded and we can get back to collective bargaining with the right to strike restored.
Pay Review Body
In the meantime, until that actually occurs, we would ask our members when members of the Pay Review Body come to your establishment that you do not engage with them. They have done you no favours in the past so the NEC would ask that you do not engage at all with them. By doing so, they will have difficulty in the future justifying their existence.
I would also like to thank the thousands of members who supported the Payment Plus restriction for one month. At the time of writing this article, we are in negotiation to get a decent level of overtime payment, which Conference asked us to do.
Rest assured, we have the option of increasing the Payment Plus restriction. I hope we don’t have to do that and we can come to a negotiated settlement with the employer, as the pay review body ignored the issue. We know the employer has to rely on your goodwill to keep the service operating, therefore, they should recognise that and increase the rate.
To those individual members who haven’t followed the Conference mandate (your mandate), if we do get an increase, I hope you will have the decency to give that increase to charity.
Thank you to those members who have done the right thing to help us assist you in achieving a better rate. You will be able to stand tall.
The POA NEC ensured there was a wide variety of fringe meetings at Conference. Most of these were very well attended. I am grateful to that level of commitment as most delegates were on their own annual leave but still attended the fringe meetings in the morning, lunchtime and evenings.
We had an international delegation from Australia with their logo and campaign ‘Respect the Risk’.
‘Justice for Orgreave’ and the ‘Shrewsbury 24’ along with the ‘blacklisted workers’ was well attended and in the true spirit of trade unionism, we know that these are all worthy causes for justice. Along with Hillsborough and their quest for justice, the POA stands shoulder to shoulder with all these campaigns.
We also send solidarity to the longstanding strike in Belgium with our sister trade unions on their fi ght for working conditions to be better.