National Chair

June 2012 | 16.06.2012

Strategic Choices To Secure Our Future


As we prepare for Annual Conference we have the opportunity to reflect on the successes and setbacks of the last year.

The theme for Annual Conference – ‘Strategic Choices to secure our future’ - was chosen with care to reflect a pragmatic and realistic strategic approach to the problems we must overcome as the POA, the Trade Union for custodial services.

The membership is aware of the changes that the Coalition Government appears determined to introduce into public sector pensions. What Government describes as its final offer is admittedly different from the original reference scheme with a new and improved accrual rate, the Fair Deal, and the protections for a section of the workplace.

Ultimate betrayal

All well and good, but there is no escaping the fact that we are all being forced to accept that the pension contract we agreed to on appointment is being ripped up. This is the ultimate betrayal of the workforce in which loyal, hardworking, conscientious public sector workers had been promised that their pension formed a part of their remuneration package as compensation for years of staged and often inadequate pay awards. Add in the increasing contributions in the midst of the on-going pay freeze, the change from a final salary scheme to career average, and the increase in retirement age and the anger is understandable. It is understandable to everyone except the architects of the changes, those career politicians who never ever wanted to be nurses, teachers, admin assistants, cleaners, and they certainly never wanted to work in a custodial setting.

The POA position is clear that we cannot and will not accept imposed changes that among other changes mean that in an operational environment staff will work until 68 years of age. It will never be good enough. It is not what we were promised, and in an operational environment it cannot be safe, secure and decent.

Recipe for disaster

In our workplace there are thousands of assaults each year on our members, year in, year out, physical and sexual assaults. There are thousands of assaults, prisoner on prisoner that our members have to intervene in and resolve. Control and Restraint (C&R), mandatory for the safety of everyone. The need for teams that are riot trained. Then there is the workplace, the operational environment, tense, volatile, dangerous and overcrowded. In recent weeks, police have conducted an operation to capture a fugitive wanted in connection with a serious crime.

What did we see? Armed police response units, body armour, pepper spray, media coverage. Then he’s captured, he’s put in prison awaiting trial.

What do we see then? No body armour, no pepper spray, no armed response, a prisoner placed with other violent and refractory prisoners in an overcrowded and volatile prison with minimum staffing, and they then want to add into the workplace an elderly workforce. This is a recipe for disaster.

The Prime Minister claims that he gets it with regard to the effect on the people of this country of the cuts. Well, he and his Coalition Government do not get it that the increase in retirement age will have devastating implications for staff , the prisoners in our care and the visitors to our prisons. It will put the main purpose of the prison service at risk, i.e. the protection of the public. We cannot allow it to happen and we will not allow it to happen.

We have invited every MP over the age of 60 and Francis Maude to a C&R demonstration, and invited them to participate and/or observe. The Chief Executive Officer, Michael Spurr, has agreed to facilitate that demonstration. To date one MP, Conservative Pauline Latham, has accepted our invitation. The NEC will ensure that the public is informed that politicians do not get it and do not want to know what we do on behalf of society.

Pension changes

The NEC has always had a strategy to defeat the pension changes. We asked you to be patient while we were at the negotiating table with Cabinet and Treasury officials. Yes, the lines of communication remain open but what is on the table to date is unacceptable. So on 10 May 2012 it was decided by the Executive to enact your mandate for action, to protect our pensions.

We chose the 10th to protest, to coincide with planned action by other trade unions. Let me remind you what the NEC instructed and what you then did on Thursday, 10 May 2012: “The NEC instructs our branches in England, Wales and Scotland to take protest action”, and you did that.

  • 80 percent of our members responded in England and Wales.
  • In Scotland every prison was affected and 90 percent of our members responded. That is successful action.

We then asked you through that action to raise awareness of the linkage of normal pension age to the state pension age. Your action did that. By mid-morning on Thursday our press and media register at Cronin House confirms that the NEC had responded to over 50 different media outlets, and media coverage continues to this day on the issue. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of branch officials in their dealings with the media on the day.

Responsible and professional

And what else did the Executive instruct you to do? Provide minimum cover, which you did. Whereas the increase in pensionable age is irresponsible, the POA once again acted in a responsible and professional manner. As ever, it is the members of this Union who protested but also protected the public on 10 May. No different from 30 November when our members took action in the secure hospitals and we locked down in prisons to protect the health and safety of staff , prisoners and visitors.

Francis Maude, the Minister, claims the action had no effect and was futile. Yet, by the amount of calls I received from his office, from NOMS, from area managers and so on, it certainly appears they were somewhat over-excitable on Thursday.

My message to them all is change the provisions of your pension imposition or get used to sustained action from this Union in partnership with other trade unions.

There are many and diverse strands to our strategy, with opportunities to keep the profile of the campaign live and relevant. Our strategy must, of course, follow the policy of the Union as determined by the membership, and at some stage we will need to ballot you on the changes and that promises to be a complicated process.

Sustained, on-going action

In Northern Ireland, in Scotland, in the secure hospitals in both England and Scotland, the final schemes on offer may well have subtle differences. 10 of May revealed to the Executive a confident Union prepared to take action on the right issues. But we have to recognise that pensions will not be changed with one day of action. We must be prepared for sustained, on-going action, and win it we must for those on the landings, those in the wards and the halls, and for those to come. Thank you for supporting the NEC call for action and putting this Union to the forefront of the pension battle.

Market Testing

It has always been clear to the NEC that in this aspect of Government policy there are lies, damned lies, statistics and competition policy. Nevertheless, at a previous Annual Conference it was determined that the POA would support the principle of public sector bids within competition policy. Within that determination the NEC have had to accept that NOMS is under no legal obligation to disclose details of their bids to the trade unions within the workplace.

On 10 April 2012, members of the Executive met with the Business Advisory Group to discuss the timetable for the bid process. At this meeting we were informed that OSG work would be transferred to MITIE as part of the current bid process. In addition, the OSG work at HMP Everthorpe, a prison not identified in this round of competition, would be added into the bid and transferred to MITIE. No other aspect of the bids, for example the proposed staffing levels, has been disclosed to the Executive.

I am not prepared at this time to enter into speculation and conjecture as to the reasons and/or motives for the decision of the Business Advisory Group to inform us of this key aspect of their bid. It has now emerged that other trade unions had been informed of the transfer of work to MITIE prior to our meeting on 10 April. It further appears that this aspect of the bid had been in the public domain since 29 March 2012.

We must remember that this aspect of the bid would have become public in June when preferred bidder status was announced. If there is any good news it does allow us to debate the issue at Annual Conference. Our policy is clear that we do not accept the need to contract out any public sector prison or part therein but our practical response will be determined by our emergency motions.

This is a worrying and disturbing development for OSGs and the POA. We want the public sector to win the bids but do we want to win at any cost? Effectively once the public sector bid had been signed off by the governors of the competed prisons the work of the OSG grade was privatised. We must remember that if the private sector wins the bids all of our OSG work alongside that of the unified grades will be transferred to the private sector.

Our membership density among OSGs is not as high as it could be. In the past some OSGs have voiced the opinion that the POA has failed to recognise their specific needs and aspirations. At this critical time, I call upon all OSGs to become members of the POA and enable us to protect your interests within the competition policy.

I have been told that some governors have been saying to their branch officials that the POA has failed to appreciate the strictures of and the need for confidentiality. I take this opportunity to confirm that no member of the current executive has been invited or agreed to sign up to a confidentiality agreement on the public sector bid process.

Facility time and restructuring

Following the conclusion of the pension debate, the Coalition Government intend to revisit the allocation of facility time within the public sector. Ministers will consult directly with the trade unions but we can expect some input from the employer. The POA is aware that the stated position of Ministers is that there can be no secondment of employees on a full time facility arrangement in the future.

I remain confident that local facility arrangements in line with the 1984 agreement can be protected. However, at national level if the current full time facility arrangements are to end it will result in a restructure of the Union. In addition this, Conference may well be the last in its current format. It has been my long held opinion that the POA will only face up to the reality of a restructure when the gun is pointed at its head. Well that gun is loaded and Ministers are caressing the trigger. Again in my opinion, the “do nothing” approach is not the answer. There are conference motions that address these issues. I look forward to the debate.

Fair and Sustainable

The benefits of Fair and Sustainable must by now be apparent to even the most ardent sceptic. The Organisational Restructure within headquarters at NOMS has resulted in the issue of a number of letters of compulsory redundancy with a departure date of January 2013. You will recall that within the Fair and Sustainable document, the POA negotiated a no redundancy agreement for uniformed grades. This has to be the most significant achievement of any trade union in the current recession.

A small number of governors, out of spite or ignorance of the mapping arrangements, continue to try to avoid adhering to the principles of Fair and Sustainable. This is not acceptable to the POA. (Please see POA Circular 39/2012 which has been acknowledged and approved by NOMS which outlines how to resolve any such issues.)

The NEC was criticised by some members for the seemingly undue haste to ballot on the document once Treasury approval had been given. Any delay in the ballot process would have endangered our strategy to resist calls for regional pay. Fair and Sustainable is a national agreement that has provided the necessary flexibility, area supplements and recruitment and retention payments. Following the overwhelming endorsement of the Fair and Sustainable document by the membership, the employer has now resisted calls for regional pay in its evidence to the Pay Review Body. Our message is clear - pay must reflect what you do not where you live. The NEC was justified in endorsing the document, calling the ballot within the timescales, and recommending acceptance. The NEC looks forward to a meeting with the Pay Review Body in May to discuss our evidence.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, a significant number of our colleagues have left the service taking advantage of exit packages as a significant workforce restructure takes place. There will be further departures. It remains to be seen whether the workforce restructure is successful. On this side of the water we have long and bitter experience of ill-conceived structural change. The NEC pays tribute to Finlay and his team for their continued good humour in the midst of what has been a busy year.

I have lived in Northern Ireland and retain many links to the community there. We must not forget that there remain difficult and at times seemingly intractable issues within the custodial estate. Our support to our colleagues is unconditional.


The General Secretary and I now meet with Phil Fairlie and Andy Hogg on a regular basis to discuss issues of mutual interest. In my opinion, the communication between us is all the better for structured and face-to-face meetings. Pensions have been a central theme of our discussions as you would expect. Hopefully I have been able to reassure them that revisiting the terms of our Union is not on my agenda. I will of course leave decisions and speculation on the historical Acts of Union to others.

Secure healthcare

At Annual Conference, the AGM for healthcare services takes place on Wednesday. This year we will have the opportunity to applaud them for the action they took on 30 November 2011 in defence of their pension rights. Our members within secure healthcare remain an integral part of the POA and I thank them for their commitment to the principles of their chosen Trade Union. It can be no coincidence that by the time of publication I expect Conference to have initiated annual award in recognition of the exceptional work of branch officials in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to be known as the “Steve Oxby Branch Representative of the Year”. A fitting tribute to Steve and indeed, our members within Secure Healthcare.

Trade union rights

Within the last year, our application to the European Court for the return of our trade union rights has been submitted. It has always been a source of frustration to me and others that it has taken so long. The application was submitted with attendant publicity at the TUC Conference in September. We were pleased that a number of general secretaries together with Brendan Barber and heir apparent, Francis O’Grady joined with us to mark the submission. There can be no guarantees within legal process but binding arbitration arrangements has to be a minimum requirement to enable the POA to move forward as a progressive and modernising Trade Union.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Brendan Barber who has announced his retirement. Brendan will step down in December having been in post for ten years. The POA is of course affiliated to the TUC and Brendan has advised and supported our Union on a variety of difficult and contentious issues. He has addressed our Conference in the past with humour and passion. In difficult and unprecedented times for the trade union movement Brendan has been a passionate supporter of the need for equality and social justice in the workplace. His successor will be announced following the TUC Conference in September.


At Annual Conference alongside an understandable focus on current issues the POA must not lose sight of long term aspirations. The POA is, in my opinion, on the verge of momentous change. Change has the potential to alter the way in which the membership relates to its Union. It has been easy and populist in the past, in response to attacks on the POA, to say that it is not fair and find yourself receiving sympathy and applause at the conference rostrum. We need a more strategic approach than that. We must expand and increase our membership base. A national recruitment officer from the GMB related to me that at a recruitment meeting in a private prison the question was asked: “Where is the POA?” The answer given was truthful, accurate and of its time – “they do not want you”. As National Chairman, I want the POA to represent working men and women throughout the criminal justice system. I want everyone to pull in the same direction, to invest in their Trade Union, to prove that we can represent workers in the private and public sectors.

As we deal with new and on-going problems the POA must learn to manoeuvre every situation to its advantage. I look forward to Conference.

PJ McParlin
National Chairman