General Secretary

April 2010 | 01.04.2010

Reflections of an outgoing General Secretary: "Regrets - I have a few" 1977-2010


This is my final article for the Gatelodge Magazine I believe it is right to be able to indulge myself by placing before the membership some of my recollections (both good and bad) and some historical reflections on major parts of my time as a POA member.

Coming from the background I came from, with a family tradition of trade union activities, it was no surprise to those closest to me that I would want to be involved in uniting workers for mutual benefit. However, having served in the Coldstream Guards for twelve and half years no one could say that my previous life was in any way a bastion of trade union militancy or socialist principals, but it was an absolute existence of fairness, comradeship and self discipline.

Being elected on to the branch committee of the POA at Wakefield in 1978, was no where near as demanding as being elected to a branch committee today, things were very different. We had the right to strike, what anti trade union legislation existed was in its infancy and relationships with Governors were on the whole much better. The Chief Officer (and I didn’t get on with them very well) played a role of mediator between the Governor and his or her deputy and the uniformed staff. This made for a better working relationship than is often sited by those with a historical memory of convenience (Phil Wheatley take note).

It has often been said by those around the Wakefield Branch at that time that I always stated I wanted to be the General Secretary. Again, this is not strictly an historical fact but I did utter those words in the early 1980’s whilst having been shortlisted as an Assistant Secretary was unsuccessful in being selected. In 1980 through a cruel twist of fate when my predecessor Val Mitchell contracted cancer I was elected Branch Secretary. This was a very proud moment in my life and was probably, along with the encouragement of my Branch Chairman Colin Slater, the single most important incentive for me to seek national office. However things were never that easy. My politics were seen by many in the branch as bordering on left wing extremist but I knew I had made my mark when a particular volatile Principle Officer stated "you are nothing but a damn communist". His reason for stating this was my insistence, supported by the branch, that all Prison Officers regardless of rank should work alternate weekends.

In 1990, with the Strangeways and other riots still ringing in the POA’s collective ears, I was elected to the National Executive Committee. Again a very different National Executive Committee to that of today. I was allocated responsibility for the Central Committee for Special Hospitals a role which I welcomed and took very much to my heart. Within a very short space of time a long standing dispute on travel allowance escalated, as a further attack against the POA in Special Hospitals, into an all out strike. During this period the unity, tenacity and strength of our branches in special hospitals was demonstrated to huge effect. I have never experienced comradeship and support from any other part of the union greater than I did during those difficult times, all Branch Committees, their Chairman and Secretary were a credit to the POA and the trade’s union movement.

At the end of 1990 I was elected as the Unions Vice Chairman and during the next four years faced some very trying times. My resignation in 1994 was to me not a difficult decision to make nor was it one I regretted. I looked at the issues including the loss of our trade union rights, I balanced against that how the Union was dealing with them and determined it was not what I wished to do as an individual. No Certification Officer, no tribunals, no seeking of personal attacks against the Union, its Executive or its Officers. I put my uniform back on and went back to work. Whilst serving on the Branch Committee at this time I became the author of POA Conference Motion 111/1995 which sought to take action to regain our trade union rights through no POA member attending for work until their official starting time. This was the first shot back by the POA at regaining not only trade union rights but our members human rights as well. This action demonstrates clearly the democratic nature and ability of every POA member to make a difference to the unions policies.

Becoming Assistant Secretary in 1996 and particularly becoming Editor of the Gatelodge Magazine was to me my utopia. Working in North Regional Office in this role was without doubt the best time of my POA career. It was therefore a difficult decision when I decided to stand for General Secretary. Moving from the best time in my trade union life to potentially the worst. It was with great pride that I was elected as General Secretary of POA in 1999 taking up my post in the year 2000. A new millennium and as a new General Secretary I thought a new beginning. I very quickly realised that any changes to our Union would be difficult to start and could be made even more difficult to achieve. The internal difficulties that have existed throughout not only my time as General Secretary, but my predecessor and indeed those who went before him, appear to take place every two years. It is almost as if the POA can never be comfortable with itself or those who are serving the membership within. Some clearly believe they are bigger than the organisation itself. I hope that this will change in the future, but then again those hopes have been dashed on many occasions.

In conclusion it has been a great privilege to serve the POA for 32 years. I have worked with good people, some of them I have liked and some of them I haven’t. However, I would never use the columns of your magazine to attack anyone past or present for some kind of self fulfilling gratification, it is such a pity that others continue to do so.

I say a very fond farewell through my article to you the membership, to my brothers and sisters throughout the trade union movement, both in the UK, throughout Europe and the rest of the world. I would say farewell to the people that matter such a lot to me and that is the support staff of the POA, who over the years it has been my privilege to work alongside.

Finally, thank you to my wife and family who have also had to live through all the problems I have faced and have always been so loving, faithful and supportive to me.

Goodbye and keep up the fight.


Brian Caton

General Secretary

The future belongs to other people not to me. I wish my successor Steve Gillan all the best in his future efforts with this great Trade Union.