General Secretary

June 2011 | 14.06.2011

Time To Stop Being Afraid

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The POA National Conference 2011 took place at Southport  between Tuesday 10th and Friday 13th May, where delegates gathered to discuss policy on behalf of the wider membership


It was loud and clear, even before Conference began, that there was fear amongst some in the POA membership and whilst that is understandable, considering all that this Coalition Government is doing not just against POA members but the whole of the public sector, it is clear we need to remove the fear factor from our membership. Collectively we need to overcome the barrier, as the only way forward to maintain our terms and conditions is to campaign together and work together to achieve those aims.

Before going into detail about how we can deal with those issues, it would be wrong not to mention the changes commencing at the top of this Union. Colin Moses’ term of office as the leader of this Union, has come to an end after nearly nine years. During that time, I have served with Colin as Vice Chairman, Finance Officer and General Secretary. He is a good man who cared passionately about the POA and quite rightly takes his place as an Honorary Life member. Quite rightly, Colin was given a rousing send off by Conference this year.

A new era has begun with Pete McParlin taking over as National Chairman and leader of this Trades Union. As General Secretary, I look forward to working with him. Pete has been around the POA for a long time and he  will be a successful National Chairman. He will direct us through troubled waters, along with the National Executive Committee, although I wish to make clear he will need time, just like I did as the new General Secretary. Honeymoon periods don’t last long but I will re-iterate that no single individual can achieve on their own. The POA is a team and I am afraid if your team does not turn up, or gives up, then everyone is to blame, not one individual. Blame culture has been rife in the POA for as long as I can remember. As a member first joining the job nearly 21 years ago at my first branch meeting, I recall members blaming the then NEC for everything that was happening around them. It would appear to me nothing much has changed.

Having said that, no one is beyond constructive criticism, whether it is the NEC, branch representatives or indeed the rank and file membership.

I now want to touch on some issues that have surfaced at Conference and prior to Conference.

The National Executive needs to lead more effectively

The National Executive Committee leads the POA and will continue to lead the POA but cannot do it alone. Each and every single POA member who pays their subscription must play their part. If every member follows Conference Policy, that will give local officials confidence and in turn gives the Executive confidence and a position of strength.

Remember, the POA is not your National Chairman, General Secretary or indeed any individual on the NEC; it is each and every one of you.

Every member has a part to play and this needs to be re-iterated as often as it takes to ensure it happens. It is not helpful when the Executive attempts to persuade the membership that working to their contractual obligations would be beneficial only to find that some members travel from one establishment to another to work payment plus. How is that helping your local and national officials to help you?

When the Executive is persuading the membership to do something, there is a reason behind it. Please remember, for us to help you, you need to help yourselves.

Communication in the union is poor - we must improve

In any trade union, not just the POA, communication could be better but let us not use it as an excuse for not doing the appropriate things. It is all too easy to blame other issues for our own shortcomings. I am not sure using the intranet is a good source of communication, letting the employer know that we are dissatisfied with each other. Regular branch meeting are an essential way of improving communications. Email has its place but should never be a replacement for face to face meetings with the membership.

The POA at national level is attempting to use our website as a good source of information, however I recognise it is still not as good as we would like it. We are a small to medium size Union and we do not have an army of employees who work on the website full time. As General Secretary, I would love nothing more than to have those  resources but I am realistic to realise that will never materialise because of costs to the membership. That will not stop us trying to communicate better but communication is a two-way street. When we put requests out for information, the returns can be extremely poor and sometimes they can be very good. In an ideal world they would be good all the time. The National Executive Committee must be careful in what it puts out in circulars and cannot always spell out to the individual member our strategies because of the  legislation appertaining to Section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. If there is evidence that we are inducing the membership then quite simply NOMS will apply for an injunction.

No confidence in Kenneth Clarke

Conference unanimously supported this motion because of the complete contempt he has for public sector prison staff and of course his constant references to when he was Home Secretary, nearly two decades ago. Clearly, Mr Clarke is out of touch, not just with the POA, but with the general public and indeed within his own party. I will be writing to him to set up a meeting to deliver that message and also to try and restore our confidence in him. If that cannot be achieved then I am afraid we will campaign for his removal.

I noticed during Conference that Question Time from the BBC was being screened from Wormwood Scrubs. I understand at the time of writing this article that Jack Straw and Kenneth Clarke will be on the panel and that prisoners will be permitted to ask questions. The BBC should have invited the POA to take part so that both Straw and Clarke do not have it all their own way, but I suspect both would have run a mile if they thought the POA would have been on the panel. Once we became aware of the programme, we asked to be invited but the answer of course was NO.

General Secretary addresses from other trade unions

I was delighted that my fellow General Secretaries could attend Conference and give messages of support. Mark Serwotka (PCS), Dave Prentis (Unison), Matt Wrack (FBU), Sally Hunt (UCU), Billy Hayes (CWU) and Jeremy Dear (NUJ) addressed Conference and gave similar messages. I was told by some delegates the message they were giving was repetitive but clear.

This was intended and that is the message that needs to be given in report backs to branches. The POA is not alone in this fight and our members need to know this, but our members need to play their part. The trade union movement needs to stand firm together and actions, if possible, need to be co-ordinated with each other.

Branch committees during their report backs from Conference need to give detailed reports on  the fights ahead and the action that we are taking legally, and so forth, to combat the onslaught.

Pensions

Public sector pensions are under attack, not just with the calculation from RPI/CPI, which could severely undermine everyone’s pension, but also from the Hutton Report on retirement and increases to how much we pay. This is one area where the trade union movement needs to stand fi rm and I implore POA members to do whatever is asked of them collectively to safeguard their pension provision. Surely, this is one area that every single member can be united on, not just in the POA but the trade union movement in respect of public service pensions.

Health and safety

Each and every POA member has a responsibility, under Health and Safety legislation, not to endanger anyone else and to adhere to risk assessments and safe systems of work. It is an employer’s responsibility to adhere to the legislation and to make sure there are adequate risk assessments and safe systems of work present in the workplace. If an individual has reasonable belief that this is not the case, then they can take steps, including the right not to be endangered in the workplace, by leaving the situation until it is made safe. Of course, this Union wants every member to be safe in their work but at the same time we must be reasonable and each member needs to understand the legislation. In the coming weeks and months the POA will be making sure that each member is clear on what they are and are not allowed to do.

One thing I have made absolutely clear in respect of the privatisation of Birmingham is that G4S will not put profit before our members’ safety and if that means come October, when the contract starts, there are issues with health and safety, they will have my full support if they as individuals, abide by the health and safety legislation to protect themselves. If that means removing themselves  to a place of safety whilst the threat exists then I, and this Executive, will fully support them, and that indeed goes for Buckley Hall and any other establishment.

Budget cuts and the ridiculous market testing process must never place our members in danger. Politicians can abdicate their responsibility to save money but they will not do it to place our members in danger.

Restructuring our POA

Since taking over as General Secretary a year ago, I have seen an unprecedented attack, not just on the POA but all unions and workers. Public and private sector workers are being blamed for the mess of politicians, the bankers, speculators and spivs. The challenges that we face are immense.

Some people have suggested that I have taken over a poisoned chalice. I disagree, we need to rise to that challenge and that is one of the reasons I stood for General Secretary. Let us remind ourselves of the challenges we face from this Government, pension changes to the amount we pay, retirement age, along with the change to calculations:

  • Pay freeze for two years for those earning over £21,000
  • The abolishment of the Civil Service Appeal Board
  • The imposition of changes to redundancy payments in the Civil Service Compensation Scheme
  • Prison closures
  • Attack on local and national facility time
  • The escalation of market testing
  • Changes on the horizon for Employment Tribunals so that the employer can sack you more easily
  • The Sentencing Rehabilitation Green paper, which is back door privatisation, and
  • The Fair Deal Consultation on pensions.

This list is not exhaustive and it is for this reason that a team led by Tom Robson, Vice Chairman, with members from the field, will look to see if we need to do our work in a different way or not. It is my view that we will need to alter, and quickly, in order to promote and protect the membership.

Assaults on staff

The argument rages on about whether staff assaults are going up, down or have levelled off .It matters not to me because one assault is one too many.

John Hoey (branch official at Lancaster Farms) was attacked by a prisoner and severely assaulted. Sadly, John has been medically retired. I single John out because I know him well, but this is happening all over the country. It is about time that the Crown Prosecution Service started taking this issue more seriously and started to work with our respective employers, like they do in the NHS and other occupations, to safeguard and send a clear message that assaults will end up being prosecuted.

Conclusion

Conference has now concluded but the hard work is just starting. I started this article on the issue of fear. Of course, there is fear and trepidation, but together we need to look after each other. This Executive will lead from the front as we always have. That does not mean that we are going to be reckless or indeed take the Union down a path that we cannot recover from.

We will work with employers in an attempt to secure no compulsory redundancies to get fair reward without detriment and to put employee relations on a fair and equal footing. Difficult decisions will have to be made and the membership will be at the heart of those decisions. I always try to look forward and not back. Together, but only together, we will come through this.

We need to be strong together, we need to campaign together, we need to learn from each other but more importantly we need to stop blaming each other and turn the attention of this union on the Coalition Government. I believe they are vulnerable and can be persuaded away from the path of destructing our public services and the trade union movement have a clear role to play in that campaign.

Steve Gillan
General Secretary