National Chair

December 2012 | 17.12.2012

A Disgraceful Decision

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The decision to award contracts to the private sector for HMP Northumberland, Hatfield, Lindholme and Moorland is disgraceful.

Alongside the announcement of a change in direction within competition and outsourcing policy, in relation to core custodial work, the decision is clearly perverse. As the direction of Government policy is now to be ‘the new model’, as developed by the public sector in the current round of competition, there was no need to award any contract to the private sector.

We do, of course, welcome the retention within the public sector of HMP Coldingley, HMP Durham and HMP Onley. The POA offers a warm welcome to the staff from HMP Wolds following effectively the nationalisation of a private prison that had been managed by G4S since it opened in 1997.

Competition U–Turn?

In an article in the publication ‘Conservative Home’, the Director of Reform has referred to the announcement on prisons competition as ‘the biggest retreat on public service reform policy so far’. The article went on to say that the Ministry of Justice, in adopting the new approach, had made a ‘dramatic u–turn and set its face against competition between prisons’.

Again, on 9 November, The Times quoted the CBI’s reaction to this u-turn as ‘really disappointing’ and that the announcement raised ‘broader questions about the Government’s overall commitment to open up public services’. The Times went on to describe the announcement as designed to appease ‘disgruntled prison officers’.

As National Chairman, I will try to make sense of these developments. It is clear that the Ministry of Justice has been persuaded to revisit its competition policy in respect of prison competition. It appears that the pressing need to find savings within this Parliament has been the catalyst for this change in direction. It must be remembered that the cost of the current competition process from tendering, evaluation and modernisation and transition of prisons is approximately £11million. This is likely to be an underestimate and is certainly an unwelcome added cost to public finances in the current recession.

To complicate the issue it has been made clear that the public sector failed to win any of the contracts in the current round of competition. It would appear then, that the cabinet reshuffle in the summer has proved significant in bringing about a change in direction. On page 4 of the October 2012 issue of Gatelodge, I welcomed the removal of Kenneth Clarke from his post as Justice Minister. In my opinion, Kenneth Clarke proved that he had little (if any) understanding of prisons and the working environment experienced day in day out by staff . I have been told that Clarke was content for the private sector to be given the contracts for all of the prisons in this round of competition. Mr Clarke, with his private good/public bad obsession had not been prepared to consider any viable alternative to competition policy. At every meeting with Kenneth Clarke, the POA had taken the opportunity to call for the cost effective and workable alternative of Performance Testing. Unfortunately, given his obsession with the market he would not consider the tried and tested model which had been developed to provide efficiencies in the past.

On taking office, the new Justice Minister, Christopher Grayling, and the new Prisons Minister, Jeremy Wright, announced a review of the current competition process. In my view they had a concern that Mr Clarke’s legacy would result in a demoralised and chaotic prison service endangering the safety and security of staff, prisoners and the public.

On meeting Mr Wright, the POA sensed a willingness to listen to our views on competition policy and a recognition that the POA has worked in partnership with the employer on a range of issues.

As National Chairman, it is important to acknowledge that the Director General and his senior managers within NOMS have worked tirelessly to convince the new ministerial team that wholesale privatisation of a frontline and essential service was a risk. After all, if the public sector could not win one of the current competitions then they could not expect to win in the next round of competition. Mr Clarke had intended to compete 25 prisons in the next round of competition. NOMS had made it clear that they did not have the resources to bid for all 25.

To their great credit, the reaction of POA members from Birmingham to Northumberland to Hatfield, Lindholme and Moorland has been professional when given the news that their public service workplace is to be transferred to private profit. However, there can be no doubt that a wholesale privatisation of the prison estate would have been a step too far for the POA. Again, in my opinion, the new ministerial team were adroit enough to realise that a competition policy that gave the public sector little if any prospect of success would have severe consequences for industrial relations and undermine the excellent work that has been achieved in recent years.

When appearing in front of the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons on 7 November, 2012 to be questioned on the impact of the cuts to date, the Prison Inspector stated that there is a link between problems with safety and challenging poor behaviour with fewer staff . He went on to say “as the net takes a heavier load and the holes get bigger then things slip through the net.”

We must hope that we are at long last seeing recognition by politicians that there is a need to acknowledge the dangers of competition and outsourcing in a working environment which is high risk.

So what now?

As we go forward the ‘new model’ aims to save £450m pounds in savings over the next six years. The ministerial statement referred to the competition and outsourcing of ‘through the gate resettlement services and maintenance.’ In the coming weeks these terms will need to be defined.

Benchmarking, an integral part of this new approach, will need a careful and considered analysis by the POA. In the past, as many of you will be aware, establishments have been put under intense pressure to meet a benchmarking specification. The model of benchmarking that emerges from this revised approach can only be considered alongside suitable and sufficient risk assessments, safe systems of work and impact assessments. There has to be recognition that public sector prisons, given their different building type, given their different mix of prisoners and provision of services are different. A one size solution will not fit all. We have been clear on this point with the employer and politicians. The POA at national and local level will ensure that safe, secure and decent prisons are non– negotiable.

The new approach does now offer the prospect of partnership working between NOMS and the trade unions. The key to this new approach will have to be an acceptance that the application of an efficiency benchmark can only be achieved by working with the key stakeholders in the public sector. The new approach will bring an end to the commercial, in confidence restrictions that prevented the POA from engaging fully in the competition process. Going forward, there can be no secrets in this process if we are to be successful. The POA must ensure that politicians and the employer recognise that, while not being the only stakeholder, we remain the key stakeholder.

As National Chairman, I again reiterate that cooperation with stakeholders across the Criminal Justice System is a necessary and pragmatic approach to the problems we face. Strategic choices to protect our future.

The membership will have seen POA Circular 150, issued following the meeting with NOMS, to discuss the ramifications of the announcement. Further meetings have been scheduled with NOMS as we look to establish effective rules of engagement and transparency as we examine what the new direction means in practice.

Officer support grades

There is now no need to enact the ballot of the Officer Support Grades (OSG). Thankfully, in respect of the ballot, members of the executive followed legal and professional advice and resisted pressure to ballot the OSGs following Annual Conference. The arrangement between the Business Development Group and MITIE in this round of competition has proved to be a costly aberration. Here, cost is not necessarily measured in financial terms but in the uncertainty that it brought to a significant section of the workforce. On 9 November 2012, The Daily Telegraph quoted a source saying that “MITIE is not exactly amused at seeing the Government nick their ideas with no commercial benefit to them.” The Business Development Group has questions to answer on this aspect of their competition strategy. The well known saying “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” comes too readily to mind.

HMP Hatfield, Lindholme, Moorland and Northumberland

None of the above is any comfort to the prisons that have been given to the private sector. The NEC recognises that our members will be experiencing anger, trepidation and yes, fear, for their future within the private sector. The POA will provide all necessary advice and support through our legal teams on a range of issues that will be of concern to the membership. Visible and on-going support from the executive will be vital to reassure members at these prisons and provide help and assistance to local branch officials.

Pensions

The POA pension briefing was received well by Members of Parliament at the second reading of the Pension Bill. A number of MPs referred to our submission within the debate in Parliament. Thank you to Assistant Secretary, Joe Simpson and his team for the preparation of the briefing. In the midst of benchmarking considerations and the loss of prisons to private profit the POA continues to campaign on pensions and pay.

Alongside other trade unions, the POA is still awaiting the details for the promised review into the impact of the increased pension age on the role of operational prison staff. The principles and the objectives of this review have yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has now begun a consultation into MPs pay and reward arrangements. I noted with interest a report in The Telegraph that MPs may lose their ‘gold–plated‘ pensions but as compensation they may see an increase in pay! Given that any change to their pay and pension package is voted on and agreed by the MPs themselves I await developments with interest. At this seasonal time, I will not need to remind you that turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas.

Pay

The submission by NOMS to the Pay Review Body should come as no surprise to their employees. Please read the POA submission. Members of the executive are due to give oral evidence to the Pay Review Body on our submission in December. Following two years of a pay freeze and with inflation rates remaining volatile, the POA have a legitimate expectation of a consolidated increase for prison staff .

The murder of Prison Officer David Black

On behalf of the POA, Mark Freeman, the Deputy General Secretary and I attended the funeral of David Black on 7 November. David Black was not a member of the POA but I know that you would agree that there can be no distinctions between members and non–members when a colleague has been murdered in unimaginable circumstances.

Members of the executive have a scheduled meeting with the Director General of the Prison Service in Northern Ireland and will be reinforcing the message on safety and the need for all necessary security precautions to be provided for staff . There can be no place for reduced security arrangements based on cost within the highly charged and volatile prison estate across the water.

Whatever the problems we face, whatever the disagreements between us, the murder of David Black puts a terrible and lasting perspective on where we are as an executive, a Trade Union and a workforce within the Criminal Justice System.

P.J McParlin
National Chairman