National Chairman

February 2015 | 10.02.2015

The Protocol on Violence in Prisons

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Ministry of Justice data has confirmed that in the 12 months to June 2014, there were 3,500 assaults on staff. Approximately 25 percent of these were referred to the police.

For the POA, this data reinforces what our members have insisted on for many years; that they are unappreciated but also unprotected in the workplace. As a result of sustained and intense pressure by the POA within Parliament, in the Criminal Justice System and in the media, in November 2014 the Ministry of Justice announced the introduction of a new protocol that will ensure that serious assaults on prison staff will be prosecuted in the courts, unless there are good reasons not to do so.

The new protocol will provide for co-operation between the prison service, the police and the CPS and should ensure that alongside serious assaults on staff, that crimes such as arson, hostage taking and absconds are prosecuted through the court system. In addition, the protocol should reinforce the presumption that sentences for crimes committed within prisons need to be punished by consecutive and not by concurrent sentences.

At the time the announcement was made, the Attorney General and former Prison Minister, Jeremy Wright stated: “This protocol will make clear that prosecution should usually follow when prisoners assault hard-working prison staff. Prison officers deserve the greatest clarity and the best protection we can give them.”

The Prison Minister, Andrew Selous, went on to say: “I am delighted that this new approach to investigating crime in prisons will ensure that those that attack staff are prosecuted and fully brought to justice. It will mean that more of the prisoners who assault staff will spend longer behind bars.”

In effect, this new joint protocol sets out the responsibilities of NOMS, the CPS and ACPO in dealing with criminal acts within prisons. Assaults on staff are now seen as a priority. The main points within the protocol are as follows:

  • Clear guidance is given to all parties on crimes that must be considered for prosecution;
  • There is a commitment to joint working at local and national level and the establishment of a national inter–agency forum to monitor the implementation of the protocol and issues arising from it;
  • The production of ‘Prison Community Impact Statements’ in many circumstances which can be used by the CPS at court to explain the seriousness of the crime and its impact on the unique prison environment, particularly where the crime threatens control and order in prison;
  • Greater awareness of the rights and roles of the victim in prosecutions and the greater use of victim personal statements to allow the victim to explain the impact the crime has had on them; and
  • Prosecutors are to ensure that courts are reminded of the sentencing guidelines specific to serving prisoners, which recommend a sentence consecutive to an existing offence particularly for violent crimes.

At long last, the protocol provides a route for appeal against decisions not to prosecute if issues cannot be resolved through local discussion.

Notwithstanding the need to ensure that there is sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution, POA members will recognise that this protocol is a significant step in bringing much needed consistency in addressing crime within prisons.

In addition, there is legislation within the new Serious Crime Bill, which will ensure that prisoners who are found in possession of knives and offensive weapons in prison will be subject to prosecution through a new criminal offence with a tariff of up to four years in prison.

Body-worn cameras

Pilots and trials have been taking place in a number of establishments and we should anticipate that the use of body-worn cameras will become mandatory. The POA acknowledges the premise that this technology may help to reduce the unacceptable level of assaults on prison staff. Of course, there will need to be consistent policies in place on their use, and codes of practice and suitable and sufficient audits of the resulting footage. However, following the anticipated successful feedback from the trials there can be no reason, other than cost of the equipment and the security of the footage, as to why cameras cannot be provided for all operational staff. As National Chairman, I foresee that POA members will then be seen as the essential and hard-pressed professionals that they are when the footage of incidents is available in courts of law. The POA will continue to remind the employer that there can be no price put on the safety of staff and the prisoners in our care.

In addition to the above, the NEC once again points to the benefits of the Regime Management Plan Guidance (RMPG) document. Safe, decent and secure operating levels are not the same as minimum staffing levels and do not replace them. The RMPG will provide the necessary guidance to management and branch officials to provide for the consistent delivery of safe and structured regimes that are supported by safe systems of work, risk assessments and contingency plans to ensure all POA members are safe and secure within their workplace.

The year ahead

In an election year, politicians appear to agree that the country continues to live beyond its means. The battleground between the politicians will again centre on the size of the state and their approach to the role of the private sector in providing services to the public. They all appear to want to address the size of the deficit but the detail on the way to do so appears somewhat thin. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has calculated that the Treasury will receive £62bn less in tax revenues over the four years from 2014 to 2018 than previously expected. IFS is predicting the need for ‘colossal cuts’ in spending on public services in non-protected areas if the Treasury is to reach its targets. Alongside the expected rhetoric and the differing interpretations of the evidence, all POA members will recognise that there will be an ongoing struggle to retain a public sector prison service.

Wrexham

Given the contractual timescales, we may expect an announcement in early 2015 on who will run the new prison in Wrexham. Again, we should all be aware by now of the unenviable track-record of NOMS in relation to the competitive bid process. However, to be fair to NOMS, the competitive bid process has always favoured the private sector. Nevertheless, NOMS appears confident that it can win the competition for HMP Wrexham and we should wish them well in their endeavours. Given that the Criminal Justice System will not be protected from further cuts following the 2015 election, it is essential that the public sector can provide a viable alternative to the private sector model. At its core, that public sector alternative must have the recognition that there can be no further reduction in the benchmark of operational staff.

As I will never tire of saying, the private sector can do many things well but not, in my opinion, in criminal justice. There can be no place for vested interests and free market capitalism in the Criminal Justice System. So in 2015, I want to see the final recognition that the private sector is not better or cheaper than the public sector. We can then look forward to a Criminal Justice System based on the fundamental rights of citizens with the accountability that only the public sector can provide.

Prison population 2015

In the French Parliament, action has been taken recently to ease over-crowding in their prisons. It allows judges to choose probation over prison for criminals sentenced to less than five years, for crimes ranging from theft to assault. The French Parliament has also done away with minimum prison sentences for repeat offenders and those convicted of violent crimes. Now I accept that the majority of the British public will be unwilling to consider such a radical approach and politicians will be unwilling to countenance such a suggestion in an election year, but going forward, something will have to give with regard to the prison population. The latest predictions for the prison population are that by 2020 it will have risen to a figure of 90,000 and possibly as high as 100,000. Given these predictions, and despite the policy of new for old, any further closures of prisons would clearly be an abrogation of responsibility in the essential protection of the public. In 2015, politicians and the public need to agree that prison works but ask themselves works to do what? Do they want us to warehouse prisoners or to rehabilitate them?

Negotiations 2015

In 2015, in accordance with Annual Conference strictures, the executive will continue with negotiations with the employer as we attempt to improve the pay, terms, conditions and protections for POA members. You will be aware that the workplace ballot of the membership that took place following the Special Delegates Conference in October rejected the MOU 2014 by a sizable majority. In that ballot, the membership was provided with the opportunity to vote on the protections and benefits contained within the document. In casting their vote the majority of those who did vote, decided that the trade-off, the addressing of a backlog of essential documentation through a business case for agency intervention, was a step too far. The ballot and the result represented the essential democratic process that must underpin the POA as an independent and affiliated trade union.

I ask the membership to remember that ‘without prejudice’ negotiations are inevitably complex, time-consuming and difficult. ‘Without prejudice’ negotiations with the employer can often force trade unions to make difficult choices. The POA will of course now have to live with the consequences of its decision as we can expect the employer to address the backlog.

Pensions

If you have not already done so, please take the time to read the end of day debate that took place in Parliament on 10 December 2014 on work-related stress and the well-being of prison officers. In 2015, the POA will continue to collate evidence to reinforce our case for an acceptable pension age for our members who work within prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

Perceptions and contributions

I would like to congratulate the seven candidates who put themselves forward for election to the NEC. These candidates had the courage of their convictions to seek to represent an increasingly diverse membership at national level. To want to represent the membership, despite the prevailing economic and political climate and the restrictions on facility time, is to their credit. Congratulations to Mark Fairhurst on his election and to Mike Rolfe on his re-election to the NEC. The electoral return was again disappointing and we must now look at how we can improve returns going forward into 2015 and beyond.

In closing and wishing you all a safe and productive 2015, POA members do continue to receive recognition for the complex and demanding work that they do on behalf of society. In a featured article in The Daily Telegraph, Jane Bidder, writer in residence at a high security prison said of prison staff: “The ones I met were unsung heroes and heroines, who really cared about their charges.”

In 2015, we must ensure that the heroes and heroines are not unsung but recognised by politicians, the media and the public.
 


PJ McParlin
National Chairman

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