General Secretary

December 2013 | 19.12.2013

Privatisation of Prisons and Public Services

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Can it really be morally sound for any government to contract-out its responsibility for the delivery of punishment?


The POA at the Bournemouth TUC called for a full independent public inquiry into not just the privatisation of prisons, but into the whole idea of privatisation of our public services. This was fully supported by all affiliated unions. Many will see this as the General Secretary having a swipe at the main private companies that dominate the contracts such as G4S, SERCO and SODEXO, but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

I have absolutely no agenda against these private companies whatsoever and in many cases they do a decent job in difficult circumstances. Many of their employees within the criminal justice system are indeed POA members who work exceptionally hard on behalf of their employees. The rationale behind the POA motion was not a swipe at private sector companies but a swipe at government policy over the last 30 years or so without any public debate whatsoever.

Contracting out costs more

For example, most unions have provided within their particular sector arguments about cost-effectiveness and that contracting out does not actually save anything - but indeed costs more. You only have to look at the Private Finance Initiative which was endorsed first by the Tories and then Labour.

Everyone knows it was costly and a complete disaster with the public footing the bill for generations whilst the money men made their profits. Politicians of all parties should hang their heads in shame. England and Wales now has the most privatised criminal justice system in Europe. No other government in Europe has implemented a policy where the private sector finances, designs, builds and fully operates prisons. PFI contracts were heavily weighted in favour of the private sector in order to create a secure, long-term market and guaranteed revenue streams for corporations and banks. Yet PFI is recognised as the most expensive form of public procurement and taxpayers face long term debts of billions of pounds as a result.

The POA has long argued that the PFI model is more expensive than public finance; taxpayers face the debt burden while the PFI guarantees massive fees, profits and dividends for prison operators, banks and their legal, financial and other advisors and consultants. As a result, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been diverted from essential public service provision that could benefit society as a whole. Often those that benefit most are registered in offshore tax havens.

This Coalition Government committed itself to increased transparency. Yet, the workings of the PFI remain opaque and there appear to be no plans either to remove the shroud of commercial confidentiality or make changes to company law, both of which prevent full disclosure of financial dealings. The only way to have transparency is to have a full public independent inquiry into the great sell-off in relation to the criminal justice system and our public services. No valid case has ever been made by a Tory, Labour or indeed this Coalition Government for private prisons or for the use of the private finance initiative or public private partnerships for prisons. However, the argument about whether private companies can run prisons any better than the public sector takes attention away from the moral and philosophical concerns about whether it is right for any government to contract-out its responsibility for the administration and delivery of punishment.

I reiterate; my argument is not with the private sector companies many have excellent managers and directors who we deal with very effectively on behalf of our membership. Our argument is with the government of the day having the policy of competition in the first place and I am afraid the buck stops firmly at their door.

Competition

Whilst I am on the subject of competition it always makes we smile when I hear that word in relation to banks and the six main energy companies. In my view there isn’t any competition because as soon as one puts its prices up by 10 percent the rest follow. Where is the competition and choice in that? It is a national disgrace and the profits generated by these companies are disgraceful. That is why it was correct of Ed Miliband to clearly state he was going to interfere with these companies. He should have been braver and gone the whole hog and told them that if Labour wins the election then they will be nationalised.

POA members are struggling

I am forever told that we are all in this together. It simply isn’t true. POA members and their families are struggling with higher fuel payments, higher pension contributions, pay freezes, changes to working conditions in the name of budget cuts. I have never known morale in the service to be so low especially in the branches that I have visited over the past year.

POA members have never been afraid of change but the rapid rate of change in the name of cuts is unfair on hard working dedicated professionals. I am concerned about the amount of experienced staff leaving through redundancy. I am concerned about the attacks on the living standards of our members in the NHS. I write this at a time when our members in the Special Hospitals are having their lead allowances attacked in a consultation exercise. The lead allowance has been around since 1949 and in our view it’s contractual. The POA will work with members in the Specials to avoid this attack on their terms and conditions.

At the time of writing this article, our members in Moorland, Hatfield and Lindholme are also left in limbo through no fault of their own. SERCO, the preferred bidder, is under investigation by the serious fraud office. Everything has been put on hold and our members are rightly frustrated. I wrote to Chris Grayling offering a solution to this issue and my letter remains unanswered which is an insult to our members in Yorkshire. Our members in Northumberland are going through the TUPE consultation in respect of their transfer to Sodexo. Terry Fullerton, NEC member, is dealing with that issue and we will continue to challenge anything which is seen to impact on terms and conditions.

Scottish Conference

I attended the Scottish Conference on 30 and 31 October 2013 and was impressed with the professionalism of how business was conducted. The Scottish National Committee dealt with the agenda as did delegates in a good way with many useful debates in formulating policy for the next year which will assist the membership in protecting their terms and conditions.

It was refreshing to hear a Justice Minister in Scotland, Mr Kenny MacAskill, stating that that the Westminster Government had got it wrong in relation to prison officer pensions. He committed against privatisation and indeed, since the Scottish National Party came to power they have built HMP Low Moss, HMP Grampian and have made a commitment that a further prison in the Greenock area will also be publically built and publically run.

It was also refreshing to hear him explaining his reasoning behind those two important issues and one in which I fully endorse. The Scottish membership will have a tough decision to make on the issue of independence but it is only those individuals and their families that can make that tough call. It certainly makes it interesting when the SNP are publically backing prison officer pensions and the issues that are dear to them.

2014 will be tough

Nobody knows what the future holds but the past three years have been the most challenging for POA members that I can remember in my 25 years as a POA member. 2014 will just be as challenging and the NEC and members will have to make tough
decisions in order to protect and promote the membership. I am sure we will make the correct decisions and our campaigning must go on to achieve justice for our members where ever their work place is. I am sure by sticking together and campaigning together we will come through the other end together and united and stronger for the experience.

I wish everyone from the NEC, membership, our loyal staff in our offices a happy Christmas and a healthy and prosperous 2014.

Steve Gillan
POA General Secretary