General News, Articles and Information from The POA North of the Border:


Kenny Mackaskill, Justice Secretary for Scotland steps down

I’m grateful to the Gatelodge editor for allowing me to record my thanks to the POA in particular and also the officers and staff of the prison service in general.

Of course, my experience lies mostly with POA Scotland and the Scottish Prison Service but the job transcends boundaries and my comments are a reflection of staff both sides of the border. The agencies may be different but the work is the same in the main, and the men and women who serve in them are uniformly outstanding both north and south.

I can safely say that the prison service is the least understood and the most underrated service within the justice sphere. As I have often said, there are many areas and occupations within the justice system that cause people to cross the street to thank you, and they carry kudos and cache. But, sadly, not the prison service, despite its importance. Members are more likely to be met with a sharp intake of breath than a thanks and shaking of hands. That is due to an ignorance and misunderstanding of the nature and breadth of the job. Opinion is formed more by Hollywood movies than the reality on the ground. Given the secure nature of the workplace – a matter in which the service excels − that’s perhaps understandable but still tragic in many ways.

Despite 20 years as a defence agent prior to entering politics I must confess that ignorance applied to me as well. I suppose I only saw it from interview rooms in cells and the odd interaction after election as an MSP. But as I came to see as Justice Secretary, it’s a different world beyond the interview rooms and the nature of the job light years from the classic movie portrayal. It’s a complex job that requires skills in security that training is provided for, but the job also requires talent in psychology and psychiatry that sadly are not taught. Officers manage to do both aspects outstandingly well which is testament to their individual efforts and the collective ethos that applies in the prison estate.

Humbled by the humanity of staff

I was grateful for the service given and was always humbled by the efforts and humanity of staff. The fact that I remained in office for so long and indeed the first minority Scottish government that I served in survived so long was down to POA Scotland and their members in no small part. In those early years, we faced a prison overcrowding crisis. Had officers refused to work with numbers beyond capacity then it’s likely that both I and the government would have fallen. There was nowhere else for them to go and an early release scheme which had been prepared for would have required to be invoked doubtless precipitating a political crisis. When overcrowding is mentioned the concern is invariably about prisoners’ welfare or security implications and rarely about the welfare of those who work in the establishments. Men and women in the SPS worked on in difficult conditions and beyond what they were required to tolerate. For that I am truly thankful.

But what was most humbling were the efforts that I saw made on a daily basis just doing the job of prison officer. It is a varied as well as an undervalued job. As readers know, it requires staff to deal with difficult and dangerous people, and at the same time and in the same institution, with the sad and dysfunctional. The prison environment is built for security yet expected to accommodate everything from medical areas to work places; and recreational spaces to educational facilities. The same facilities are required to deal with individuals who have complex needs and vary hugely in educational or physical ability.

Changes and actions in wider society are also reflected in prisoner profiles and accordingly, become an issue for the prison estate. Immigration, and the rightful prosecution of historic sexual abuse perpetrators, result in a multi-ethnic as well as an ageing prison population. They bring challenges within the prison that often have to be dealt with by the service in a confined space rather than a purpose-built facility. That the service manages so well and more often than not at a very high standard, is testimony again to the attitude and flexibility of staff.

Seared in my memory and which epitomises those challenges was an awards ceremony a few years ago. Some of the first recipients were staff who, when facing an attempt at organised violence by rival crime groups, had to don riot gear to protect colleagues and other inmates. The next recipient was a member of staff who had learned American Sign Language to be able to communicate with a deaf and dumb inmate who was, perhaps understandably, a very difficult prisoner. That breadth of work and the display of humanity epitomises the job officers do and the efforts that they and their colleagues go to within it.

Public service

I am proud not just of the service given but that it remains a public service. I well remember meeting the late Clive Fairweather, a former Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons Scotland and also a former SAS commander. He made the point that as a soldier he could only take a life with the authority of the Crown and that you should only take an individual’s liberty with the authority of the state. Wise words. Prisons should be for public protection not private profit. Sadly, that was not the situation that I inherited in office in Scotland or that continues to this day south of the border.

I was able to roll back the proposal for the new HMP Low Moss being in the private sector. That was not without its challenges as the then SPS regime were thirled to it and then senior justice officials equally supportive. Thankfully, with the support of POA Scotland and many others, we prevailed. Had we not, then the situation would have become calamitous. Almost a third of the prison estate would have been in the private estate.

It is likely that revenue costs would have become so significant that capital funding would have been unavailable for new builds. The future would have been private not public. The costs would have been borne by the public and the price paid by the prison service.

Regrettably, the contract for HMP Addiewell had been signed off by the outgoing Lab/Lib Dem coalition in Scotland and was irrevocable without triggering huge penalty clauses. As it is, the service and the public will be paying a penalty in terms of a prison that could have been built for £140m costing £940m over its lifetime.

The idea that private prisons are cheaper was a fad at best and a fraud at worst. It is not supported by the evidence. As the American folk singer, Woody Guthrie sang, “there’s some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen”. The construction costs are the same whether private or public, and the number of staff required likewise; the saving comes in the terms and conditions of those who work in them. Calling staff ‘correctional officers’ or some such other title rather than prison officers cannot mask the stripping of terms and conditions of service. It’s been halted in Scotland but sadly, appears to continue apace south of the border driven by political dogma, not penal policy.


Despicably, the terms and conditions of those who serve even in the public service have been attacked. The changes to the pensions of prison officers are both scandalous and ridiculous. If I am fortunate enough to outlive my father and reach the age of 67 I don’t know what I will be doing. However, I most certainly won’t be working on a landing in HMP Barlinnie or any other institution. Some jobs are restricted by age and capacity. The prison service is one such occupation. The pension scheme was reserved to Westminster and beyond the powers of the Scottish government though its vehement opposition to the changes was made clear. However, the principle of uniformed status for the prison service has been accepted and accorded in Scotland. Long overdue recognition I believe, that it is different from most jobs and akin to blue light services. But, change not just acknowledgement is required and the campaign by the POA must continue and be supported.


However, I am aware that pay not pensions is the immediate priority for staff. That’s understandable as public pay policy has not kept pace with the cost of living. Staff who were not high earners at the best of times are now feeling the pinch as austerity bites. The frustration and anger is understandable though public pay policy I believe is essential. Certainly, in Scotland pay restraint was greatly appreciated by the Scottish government. It allowed for a no compulsory redundancy policy as otherwise, someone’s pay rise was going to mean someone else’s P45. Equally, the budget cuts from Westminster are such that more for one deserving department simply means less for an equally deserving other department.

I am conscious, though, that such logic does not pay the bills for the individual officer or their family. It’s a point that’s been well made by POA Scotland. The solution, north of the border anyway, may lie in the accreditation (and rightly so) of uniformed status. It is a distinct occupation and the terms and conditions of those who serve in it need to reflect that. It does seem to me that the Scottish government should be able to adhere to public pay policy and at the same time recognise the distinct nature of the job. There must be flexibility to allow SPS to address terms and conditions of employment and indeed to match that recognition already provided in similar or related jobs.

A privilege

So it’s been a privilege to work with the prison service and those who serve in it. It’s been humbling to realise the complexity and breadth of the work carried out by staff. It’s been a pleasure to meet officers and POA representatives both north and south of the border. I salute you all and I can say from experience in office that the country is a better and safer place for the service you give.

Phil Fairlie, POA Scotland Chairman has responded to Mr MacAskill’s letter on behalf of the SNC.

Dear Mr MacAskill,

The POA in Scotland would like to give credit to Mr MacAskill for his time in office and to thank him for his unstinting support over the last seven and a half years.

We are extremely disappointed to see Mr MacAskill go, although after such a long time in office we can understand his decision. The pressures of his post are enormous at times, and opponents unforgiving. In my view, he has earned the right to step back and take his place on the backbenches, having made a significant contribution to the justice portfolio in Scotland.

His support for our members in relation to recognising us as a uniform service, supporting our campaign on the retirement age for prison officers, and his commitment to keeping our prisons in the hands of the public sector, are just some of the reasons our Union has a lot to thank him for. I have been a national official for around 17 years, and I have never personally known any elected politician let alone minister, who has been more accessible and supportive than Mr MacAskill has been. The capital investment in the prison estate since his time in office is unprecedented, improving conditions inside our prisons for all, including the working environment of our members.

In all our dealings with him, he has shown a greater understanding of the issues facing our staff and more importantly, a genuine interest in seeking to resolve them with us. Notwithstanding the continued frustration over the public sector pay policy that holds down the salaries of prison staff, our membership will be sad to see him go but I feel sure he goes with our sincere thanks and very best wishes for the future.

Phil Fairlie
POA Scotland Chairman