National Chair

Aug 2011 | 15.08.2011

Supporting POA members

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As we go to press, the MOJ has identified a further list of prisons to be market tested and closed.


Our opposition to the concept of market testing and the reasons therein have been well documented. We dispute the need for market testing and continue to press with Ministers the viable alternative of Performance Improvement Testing. The POA has a policy determined by Annual Conference to engage fully with NOMS to ensure that we retain public sector prisons. To that end, the NEC will do everything they can to assist the Business Development Group (now known as the Bids Unit) to put together successful and competitive bids.

Within any bid we must ensure safe, secure and decent prisons and the NEC are encouraged by the commitment to that effect given to us by the Business Development Group. If a bid results in a change to staffing arrangements and the allocation of profiled work we will need to be convinced that safety has not been compromised.

Selection criteria for market testing

The selection criteria for market testing has now evolved from supposedly failing prisons to those with the potential for innovation, alongside the call for efficiency and cost reduction. What is clear is that every prison (with the possible exception of the high security estate) is under consideration for market testing. SUPPORTING POA MEMBERS As we go to press, the MOJ has identified a further list of prisons to be market tested and closed.

I take this opportunity to congratulate HMP Manchester and the Hewell cluster on the extension of the service level agreements. The extensions avoid the need for further competition at this time and demonstrate that the public sector is an effective provider of custodial services. However, I do note that the decision to close a part of the Hewell cluster, HMP Brockhill, does send a mixed message.

Ensuring best representation for members

As National Chairman I determine the work and responsibilities of the National Executive Committee (NEC). In order to ensure that the staff at the identified establishments are given visible and accessible support and allow the Executive to continue to fulfil their other extensive responsibilities, the NEC will not represent members in Codes of Discipline, grievances and capability hearings. The NEC will continue to be available to represent branch officials and members at appeal hearings. In exceptional circumstances requests for representation at Executive level can be made via the local branch through your area representative to the Vice Chairmen. The final decision will be mine and I will take a pragmatic approach. These arrangements will remain in place until the recommendations of the restructuring team, led by Tom Robson, are received. You will recall that Conference Motion 61 called for a comprehensive examination of our structures to ensure the best representation for the membership and to make recommendations if necessary on changes.

The Executive have commitments to a variety of meetings and on-going negotiations designed to protect the terms and conditions of the membership. The suspension of representation at Codes of Discipline will free up diary dates to enable the Executive to plan more visits to branches and attend area meetings. Visits by the Executive and attendance at area meetings are, in my opinion, mutually beneficial.

Prison closures

We continue to question the need for prison closures. Overcrowding continues throughout the estate and undermines the policy promise made by the Coalition Government of a rehabilitation revolution. Prison closures were identified by the Treasury in respect of the budget settlement within the Comprehensive Spending Review. You will recall that the Justice Secretary has had to revise his sentencing guidelines following public and parliamentary opposition. There is now a budget deficit within the MOJ, which Ken Clarke will seek to overcome by further closures, alongside market testing.

I have experienced a prison closure and recognise the uncertainty and disruption to family life and career aspirations. Our aim is to avoid compulsory redundancies.

Union policies

Despite access to POA circulars, press releases, parliamentary questions, the Conference verbatim report, the annual report, report backs, branch meetings, area meetings, NEC visits, the POA internet site and Gatelodge magazine, members continue to state that they are unaware of the policies of the Union. Within this edition of Gatelodge, you will find an overview of our current policies on a range of issues facing the membership.

Perhaps of more interest to the membership is an update on POA strategy to deal with the issues we face. To that end, the NEC alongside the usual personnel and operational issues are currently in negotiations and consultations on the following:

• JES and the need to ensure pay protection
• Redundancies – the challenge of avoiding compulsory redundancies
• Facility time and the need to adhere to Treasury guidelines of 0.2 percent maximum expenditure on trade unions
• Restoring confidence in the code of conduct
• Compensatory measures for constraints on industrial action.

I accept that the membership want to know what if any progress is being made on these issues. Please be patient with the Executive. We are engaging with the employer under strict rules of confidentiality, Chatham House rules. That is, what is said in the room stays in the room. As a professional Trade Union we will observe the rules of engagement. If and when the NEC has an offer on the table, that will be the time to bring it to the membership for their consideration and not before. Please allow your elected representative to complete the work you put them into office to do. I anticipate that we will have a clearer idea of our progress by September.

Confidentiality

I am not the first to make the following request. Please do not ask the NEC to enter into correspondence on sensitive topics on insecure and monitored IT sites. For example, I would not expect to see such correspondence being conducted on the HMPS site – this is common sense.

Again, please do not bypass your local branch committee – except in exceptional circumstances – if you do without a valid reason your enquiry will be returned to you.

Please help us to help you and ensure that your branch committee is aware of developments within the workplace. The branch committee will in turn inform national officials. There have been examples in the past when we have been unaware of assaults and concerted indiscipline within the workplace. This is unacceptable and undermines our stated aim of being an evidenced based Trade Union.

Pensions are covered elsewhere in this edition but I was pleased to be able to attend the Durham branch on 30 June and show my support during their protest meeting, an excellent turnout, well organised by the local branch who had arranged media coverage. The hypocrisy of the Coalition Government continues unabated. Apparently the strike by PCS and others were not representative, even though the majority of union members voted in favour of industrial action, as they represented a minority of the total membership. Such anomalies are a direct result of the restrictions of the anti trade union laws. In contrast, our workplace ballot will hopefully produce a higher turnout and clear direction for the Executive.

Role of the Prison Officer

Finally, I make no apology for again reminding the membership of Section 47 of the Justice Committee of the House of Commons report into the Role of the Prison Officer.

“Every day prison officers are expected to balance the competing demands of rehabilitation, security and the decency agenda, in a system under pressure over which they have no control and which contains not only some of the most difficult and dangerous people in society, but also some of the saddest and most vulnerable. Preventing violent confrontations from arising, as well as defusing those that are inevitable, is an integral part of an officer’s role, requiring teamwork and judgement …”

“Skilled prison work is regarded (by prison officers) as “common sense”. It is not. It is learned, knowledgeable work. It depends on experience and fine judgements made almost without thinking about the demeanour, tone, language and feeling of prisoners. Outstanding prison officer work is difficult to measure because it often results in the absence of trouble. Prison officers often operate at their best when they underuse the formal power at their disposal without abdicating their authority. The balancing act (avoiding both laxity and rigid over enforcement) requires the development of exceptionally good informal working strategies”.

So there we have it, a workable definition of an increasingly thin front line.

P.J. McParlin