National Chair

Jun 2011 | 23.06.2011



Colleagues, as your new National Chairman I welcome this opportunity to introduce myself to you, the wider membership.

I was elected to the post of National Chairman in December 2010 and following an extended hand-over period I finally take up office. I am aware that my decision to stand against the former Chairman was not universally popular. As a democratic trade union we should welcome the opportunity to offer the membership a choice through the electoral process.

I have been asked why I thought it was necessary to stand in the election? Well when you want to avoid a car crash you put the brakes on and you give serious consideration to changing the direction of travel if it is safe to do so.

I had begun to fear we may not have had an effective and independent trade union in five years’ time if we were not prepared to make changes. As organised labour we must survive as a trade union but we must deliver as a trade union.

Motion 61 passed at Annual Conference calls for a comprehensive examination of our structures to ensure the very best representation for the membership in the years ahead. The employer has given twelve months’ notice to withdraw from the facility time agreements that it has with all trade unions in NOMS.

Commitment to the membership

We must recognise what works in our trade union but also what is not working. We must define what being elected to local or national office requires you to do and to be. The POA must ensure that there is a commitment to the membership at the heart of everything we do. We are a hardworking trade union at local and national level but at times we do not work effectively or efficiently. We have become a reactive trade union and I have concerns with our strategic planning.

We have to give ourselves the opportunity to negotiate effectively. We must agree on the job description of the NEC. Members in the field are increasingly bypassing local officials to seek answers and representation at national level. As local and national officials become indivisible we are chasing our tails.

Again at times we take decisions with imperfect information which can result in a haphazard approach in our submissions to professional bodies. If we are to be successful, we must become an evidenced based trade union to which we all need to contribute.

Following on from Conference, I will form a team to progress the restructuring agenda. The team will have input from the membership at establishment level. That input in my opinion is essential as any restructure has to feel fair. We must never forget that our branch structure is the basic building block of our trade union. The team will have structured terms of reference.

The significant event of 2011 has been the award of the 15 year contract to G4S to provide custodial services at HMP Birmingham. The details of the successful bid as we go to press remain unclear. Nevertheless, as you would expect of a responsible trade union we have held preliminary meetings and discussions with the successful bidder. We remain a trade union with a public sector ethos but we will work with the new employer to ensure that HMP Birmingham is a safe, secure and decent prison establishment. To date these discussions have been constructive.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the role of the Birmingham branch committee in these discussions with their new employer. They have been a credit to their branch and to this trade union.

Market testing

Our legitimate concerns regarding the transparency of the market testing process have been well documented. We are not alone in maintaining that the creation of an artificial and privately managed market in prisons is the ultimate betrayal of public sector workers and a clear abrogation of responsibility to prisoners and to the victims of crime. The containment and on occasion coercion of citizens is the responsibility of the State. The misery of the victims of crime cannot be a source of profit for others. Decisions made by politicians on the basis that cost will determine justice is morally repugnant to this trade union.

As the market testing process gathers pace and momentum, POA policy has determined that we will engage with and support the public sector bid process. Conference and the recent indicative ballot have reinforced the message that we must be “in it to win it”. Any interpretation of that message calls for full engagement in the process. To date, in my opinion, the POA, by accident or design has been sitting on the sidelines. The NEC now looks forward to working with Ian Mullholland as he takes up his role as lead of the public sector bid unit.

I am well aware that POA branches who have faced privatisation felt that they had not received sufficient support from their trade union. The NEC has a different view. Nevertheless, it cannot be good enough that these branches had such concerns. It will not happen under my Chairmanship.

It would appear from Freedom of Information requests that there is no formally agreed definition of the “front line” despite repeated assurances that it will be protected from budget cuts. We now must establish what the term means. A workable definition will bring significant benefits to our negotiations with the employer and the Coalition Government.

Prison is an exceptionally dangerous place. The cuts proposed in the Comprehensive Spending Review are cuts that will endanger the health and safety of all who work, live within and visit our prisons. As I prepare to attend my first official engagement, the Police Federation Conference, we must convince politicians and the public that the police patrol the streets and we patrol the prisons. Prisons are just as dangerous with little room for error, with inadequate PPE, with a tangible lack of respect from politicians and with little public awareness or recognition of the work we do.

As National Chairman my job will be to communicate that:

  • We put ourselves at risk to protect the public and the prisoners placed in our car
  • We are prevented by law from taking any form of industrial action with inadequate compensation for that restriction
  • We have the powers but not the privileges of a police constable.
  • Our secondary employment is subject to restrictions
  • Our pay has fallen behind that of the police, nurses, paramedics and fire-fighters.

Communication is of course a two way process. The NEC must give clear consistent messages on policy. These must be communicated to the membership. One branch not holding branch meetings is clearly unacceptable and a tragedy for that branch but 25 branches not engaging in elections, in ballots, in communication will undermine and ultimately destroy the POA. Please ensure that the basics of trade union engagement are adhered to.

Keep faith in what we will do

There are members who have lost faith in our trade union. Cynicism has crept in and like rust, it never sleeps. As National Chairman, together with the NEC and in partnership with branch officials, we must convince those members that their concerns are recognised. We must convince them that we have a strategy to promote and protect. No easy task, given the challenges we face. I accept that decisions taken under my tenure in office will not please everyone, but I ask you to keep faith in what we are trying to do – keep faith in what we will do. From now on it is about leadership and delivery. I will be judged on how well the POA do in terms of influencing the challenges we face.

I ask for your support for myself and for a talented and determined NEC. Together with the General Secretary and the full time officers of the Union, we aim to promote and protect the interests of the membership. We will not let you down.

PJ McParlin
National Chairman