National Chair

February 2013 | 12.02.2013

Prison Closures

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As we begin the New Year, the POA prepares for what promises to be another difficult and challenging time in 2013.

The well-rehearsed policy of the Coalition Government of new for old continues with the announcement in January by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling of further prison closures. The prisons to be closed are Bullwood Hall, Canterbury, Gloucester, Kingston, Shepton Mallet, Shrewsbury and Camp Hill with a reduction in capacity at Chelmsford and Hull. In December the prison population stood at almost 86,000 with a useable operational capacity of 91,000. Over the past twelve months that is a drop of 2,300. However, the lottery of prison population predictions, was emphasised the day following the announcement , when the data revealed an increase 193 in a week.

As ever then, the statistical evidence that points to spare capacity does not provide an accurate picture of a prison estate in acute crisis. In October 2012, 81 prisons in England and Wales were categorised as ‘overcrowded’. The scourge of overcrowding has a significant and adverse effect on all aspects of the prison regime from rehabilitation to safety and decency. All the more surprising then that when questioned in Parliament, the Director General, Michael Spurr, felt able to agree that he has accepted that overcrowding has become institutionalised within the prison estate in England and Wales. Whilst we acknowledge this honest appraisal the POA remains surprised at the candour of the Director General. The POA cannot accept that management will not resolve the overcrowding crisis in our prisons. The POA, together with penal pressure groups, will continue to raise this disgraceful and contradictory position in every forum.

Closure policy is dangerous and irrational

You will recall that the sentencing proposals of Kenneth Clarke (which were designed to reduce the size of the prison population) were rejected by the Coalition Government. Alongside the unequivocal statements of the new Justice Minister, Christopher Grayling, that he sees no reason to reduce the prison population now or in the future, the closure policy is dangerous, irrational and absurd.

Add in the long-standing policy that prisoners should serve their sentences within their local community to maintain family ties and the nonsense of the policy of prison closures should be clear to all.

For the Government, the justification (or should that be the excuse) for prison closures remains the need to cut the cost of public expenditure. The ruthless nature of their approach to prison closures is evident when we recognise that the constituencies affected are represented by Coalition Members of Parliament. Again, the POA has now been informed that decision on closures does not take into account the economic and commercial impact on the local community. In addition, when centres of excellence in terms of rehabilitation are closed then there can be no doubt that it is about cuts to the public sector - pure and simple.

The POA notes the reference within the announcement that the G4S-run Oakwood has a cost per prisoner place of £13,200. Selective statistical evidence is nothing new and the POA will remind politicians that the cost per place at the private sector, Parc, in 2011–2012 was £50,000, £59,000 at Altcourse and an eye-watering £65,000 at Ashfield.

Gatelodge readers will be well aware that the commissioning of off ender services assesses the need and demand for off ender services. Understandably, off ender services have to be secured at the right quality and price. I have instructed POA researchers to examine the veracity of the Oakwood cost per prisoner place as I would not want a Minister of the Crown to have misled the House of Commons.

Prison Inspection reports and penal pressure groups consistently point to the on-going effectiveness of small scale prison establishments in rehabilitation outcomes. The Inspectorate is clear that prisons with fewer than 400 prisoners are more likely to perform better than large-scale prisons. To reinforce that view, HM Inspectorate of Prisons reported in January 2013 that HMP Bullwood Hall is “a safe and purposeful prison.”

The Inspectorate report went on to say that: “Outcomes in respect of safety were good. Prisoners were treated properly on reception, there was little evidence of violence, and the vulnerable were well cared for.”

Yes, there were some minor concerns but the report concluded that: “Overall this is a positive report. Bullwood Hall holds prisoners in a safe and generally respectful environment and occupies them purposefully.”

What more do Ministers and NOMS expect from staff working within workplaces denied investment and visible support over many years?

Prison establishments have to be appropriately resourced to ensure that they are safe, secure and decent and can provide appropriate resources to ensure that the promised rehabilitation revolution can become a reality. In our press release, the POA called upon the Coalition Government to listen to the experts, the practitioners - the men and women who work within custodial environments.

The POA does not accept that the policy of prison closures is either sensible or necessary and we will support branches in their campaigns to challenge these decisions. Recent editions of Gatelodge magazine have highlighted the campaigns to raise awareness in respect of HMP Magilligan and HMP Wellingborough. Of course success is never guaranteed and campaigns will need to be supported evidentially alongside much needed community support.

As the closure process unfolds please utilise your national representatives who will be available to off er advice and assistance.

Efficiency benchmarking

A designated team from the executive is engaging with the employer and a commitment has been given to a delegates’ conference where the membership will have the opportunity to make informed decisions. As I write this (in early January) to date, the POA is only in receipt of reports on the two early adopter sites in respect of staffing levels. Information is being gathered by NOMS on a further 57 sites which will need to be evaluated.

We all agree that the membership will need to decide if the introduction of efficiency benchmarking is a step too far. However, alongside decisions on efficiency benchmarking the membership must recognise that the alternative may be just as unpalatable. If the POA membership is to call for the Union to resist efficiency benchmarking and its alternative the return to wholesale privatisation, then there must be recognition that protest meetings at lunchtime will not change the policy of this Government. Leadership is not about courting popularity it is about doing what is right.

Please keep yourselves informed and updated by reading POA Circulars and inviting your national representatives to branch meetings. When the executive is in receipt of information we inform you. It has always been my view that an effective union stands or falls on its capacity to explain the positives and the negatives to the members.

Fair and Sustainable

Fair and Sustainable is not the panacea for the problems that the prison service will continue to experience as a result of under-investment and muddled, contradictory thinking by politicians. Nevertheless, Fair and Sustainable will be introduced from April 2013. NOMS insist that establishments will not be allowed to delay its introduction because they may want to anticipate potential changes from efficiency benchmarking. I will take this opportunity to remind you of the reasons behind the NEC’s endorsement of Fair and Sustainable:

Fair and Sustainable is the employer’s document. It became a collective agreement following a vote by the membership in England and Wales. The benefit of any collective agreement is to allow the POA to engage with the employer to negotiate changes to the document as problems or unforeseen difficulties arise. If the employer had imposed Fair and Sustainable as it had planned to, a document which contained no changes to terms and conditions, there would have been no such opportunity.

Fair and Sustainable provided benefits to the membership and I have listed a number of them below:

  • No compulsory redundancies as a result of the structural changes within Fair and Sustainable
  • Pay and incremental progression protection for existing staff
  • Promotion prospects for uniformed staff
  • Removal of the Officer 2 grade (which had been arbitrarily introduced by NOMS)
  • An acceptance by NOMS that the real and immediate threat of regional pay is unnecessary at this time
  • No restriction on submissions to the Pay Review Body.

Management has a clear responsibility to introduce the structures and to ensure that the job descriptions match their imposed JES. The POA remains sceptical but pragmatic and stands ready to support branches as and when problems and queries arise.

Public sector pay

In December 2012, the POA provided its oral evidence to the Pay Review Body. You will have seen the POA Circular that covered the issues that were raised during a cordial, but intense, two hour session. We have asked for a consolidated pay increase for all of the grades that the POA represents. 75 percent of our remit group are in closed grades but to exclude them from a pay rise would be unacceptable to the POA. We expect the Pay Review Body to recognise the working environment, the two year pay freeze, increased pension contributions and rising inflation rates.

Prison staff must be engaged but also motivated. This is not an ordinary job it is an extraordinary job. The POA calls upon the Pay Review Body to recognise the nature of the work that you do on behalf of society.

Conclusion

We are in the midst of a series of elections to national office. On your behalf, I take this opportunity to thank Tom Robson for his work over many years on behalf of the POA. I congratulate Ralph Valerio on his election to the post of National Vice Chairman and on becoming an officer of the Union. Ralph has had a meteoric rise within our Union and together with the electorate I have complete confidence that he has the ability and commitment to embrace change and work tirelessly to modernise the POA.

Finally, you may be aware that the minutes of NEC meetings are published and accessible to all members, employing bodies both public and private and indeed politicians and other trade unions. If you have read them you will be aware that at times there have been disagreements between your elected representatives. Unfortunately, in the history of our Trade Union, this is not a new development. I can assure the membership that if the Conduct Committee was to find that I had breached the rules or the policy of the POA I will accept that decision and act accordingly. I will not procrastinate. My uniform still fi ts as I was able to demonstrate at Holme House in December. I believe that the membership has a legitimate expectation that all of their elected officials would act accordingly if they too were to be found to have deliberately acted outside the Rules and Constitution.

The aspirations of individuals are unimportant - given the challenges we face. As National Chairman, I am not pessimistic for our future as a Trade Union but we cannot allow hazy memories of a mythical past to derail us from promoting and protecting the membership of the POA.

P.J McParlin
National Chairman