National Chair

August 2014 | 11.08.2014

A political and policy failure


PJ McParlin, the POA National Chairman, says that the announcement that already overcrowded prisons in England and Wales will be further 'crowded' confirms that the criminal justice system is truly in crisis.

This has now been acknowledged by no less an authority that the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who spoke to the press of a “political and policy failure” and went on to say that “the demands on the system now completely outstrip the resources to meet them.”

Prison staff will not need to be convinced by the Prison Inspector or indeed by the concerns raised by a number of MPs in the debate on prison overcrowding in Parliament that followed. Nevertheless, the POA should welcome the input of politicians, penal pressure groups and inspectorates in reinforcing our message.


That message reminds everyone that overcrowding occurs when a prison establishment contains more prisoners than its certified normal accommodation. Certified normal accommodation is the good, decent standard of accommodation that the service aspires to provide to all prisoners.

In September 2013, 69 of the then 124 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded and as recently as 2012, 20,000 prisoners were sharing cells designed for one prisoner. Overcrowding within male local prisons is approaching twice the national rate. Our members within the private sector have held more prisoners in percentage terms than public prisons in each and every year for the past fifteen years.

Overcrowding has been allowed to become the norm but so too is the recognition that it is unacceptable. To date, politicians have failed to implement the recommendations from a number of expensively commissioned investigations into serious incidents that have taken place in our prisons.

Ending prison overcrowding

The first three recommendations of the Mubarek Inquiry pointed to the need to end prison overcrowding. Again, fifteen years before Mubarek, Lord Justice Woolf recommended that a new prison rule should be introduced: “The rule should provide that no establishment should hold prisoners in excess of its certified normal accommodation.”

He went on to say that: “Overcrowding debilitates the whole prison system” and again “as a nation we cannot allow overcrowding to be the position for the next 20 years. We must manage things better.”

Twenty years on and successive governments have failed to act on these recommendations. You will recall that during an exchange with the Public Accounts Committee in November, Michael Spurr, the Chief Executive Officer of NOMS, introduced the term ‘institutionalised overcrowding’ into the lexicon of the management of the Criminal Justice System. As of June 2014, NOMS, with the connivance of Ministers, have now added to the lexicon the lunacy of the ‘crowding’ of already overcrowded prison establishments.

NOMS, and by association the Government, now admit that their estimates of the size of the prison population have been proved to be a misjudgement of epic proportions. In our press release following this announcement; the POA reminded the public and politicians that, based on these erroneous predictions, prisons have closed and thousands of operational and non-operational staff have been allowed to leave the service under voluntary exit schemes.

Prison staff pick up the pieces

Once again it is prison staff who will now be expected to pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences of this fiasco in the management of the Criminal Justice System. Up and down the country my members are challenged and brought to account by managers if, on occasion, they make a mistake in counting the numbers of prisoners under their direct supervision.

When will managers within NOMS headquarters be brought to account for their failure to predict a rising prison population? Yes, of course predictions of the prison population are an inexact science but that is why NOMS needed to be cautious and resist the urge to introduce savage cuts in accommodation and staffing. These pronounced failures undermine their much-hyped commitment to safe, secure and decent prison establishments. It appears to me that NOMS have fallen into the age old trap of confusing the statement of a commitment with the commitment itself.

The POA by comparison remain true to our principles and together with the General Secretary and on behalf of the Executive I repeat here; the commitment made within our press release:

‘So that no one is in any doubt we hereby place on record that if NOMS and the Coalition Government will not protect prison staff and the prisoners in our care the POA will. What is it to be then, cuts or the essential protection of the public and all who work and live within the Criminal Justice System?’

Absconds within the open estate

The debate on overcrowding engendered debate in the media but far more of the rainforest was devoted to the furore over a series of high-profile absconds from the open estate.

The decision to ‘crowd’ prisons became a debate between academics and politicians whereas the open estate made headlines across the media. This interest from the media reinforced the importance of this sometimes overlooked but integral part of the prison estate. To be fair to the Secretary of State, he defended the role of the open estate, pointing out that absconds are at a record low level. He went on to insist that the categorisation and allocation processes would be revisited to prevent inappropriate transfers into the open estate. This will be easier said than done of course given the tick box mentality forced upon staff, due to the need to utilise all of the available spaces within the prison estate. Yes, prisoners should be held in the lowest possible security category but this must be consistent with the risk of harm to the public. Prisoners in the open estate should be trustworthy, and seen as a low risk following a rigorous risk assessment.

A resourced and effective open estate has an integral role to play in the essential protection of the public. As a number of branch officials have emphasised to me; if we do not test in the community how will we know if we have got it right?

The reserve list

An answer to the ‘crowding’ of prisons would of course be to reopen closed and mothballed accommodation. It will come as no surprise to readers of Gatelodge magazine that NOMS have failed to recruit and train sufficient staff’ despite the extent of the problem being known.

The latest initiative from the employer is to invite expressions of interest to return to work from those staff who have recently retired or resigned from the service. In the past two years, 3,900 staff left the service through VEDS, resignations, dismissals and death. Following considered recommendations from governors from within establishments, some 2,500 letters were sent to former staff.

Contracts will be offered on the basis of three to nine month contracts and with hours per week between 15 and 37. The reserve list will have access to Payment Plus but not ACH. The reservists will have to pass the fitness test, pass a C and R refresher and be reminded of security awareness. There will be basic checks on reservists but no up-to-date references will be required.

What are we to make of this? The POA do not seek to question the skills, experience and intentions of the reservists. After all, many of them will be much valued and former members of the POA. Again there can be no doubt that chronic staff shortages are undermining safety and security in our prisons.

However, this divisive initiative can never be a substitute for full time employees. The rate of pay will be £11.95 an hour, the maxima of the Fair and Sustainable pay rates. How will permanent staff feel when they realise that the returning staff will be earning more than they are at the start of their prison service careers?

Flexible working

As this article is prepared for publication, the Government has announced that all workers will be able to request flexible working. A right to request should not of course be seen as a right to have flexible working. In my experience in our operational environment, managers are adept at refusing requests for flexible working. I foresee returnees under the reservist initiative requesting and being given flexible working arrangements. This will be another divisive and morale-sapping slap in the face for existing staff. Once again, NOMS have failed in their management of the Criminal Justice System and their failure is compounded in that they have not had the common decency to consult with this Trade Union on such a contentious initiative. The POA are determined to challenge this initiative through legal channels and the failure to consult the recognised trade union.


I make no apology for producing an article that is highly critical of an employer and a Government with whom we have to develop a meaningful and working relationship. If politicians and the employer want the POA to remain engaged then by the next edition of Gatelodge; I would expect to be able to report that we have been listened to on a range of issues. Issues of safety, security and decency, yes, but there must also be recruitment of significant numbers of permanent staff alongside the much needed flexibility on the core day within establishments, the introduction of the Regime Management Guidance document, an easing of the detached duty commitment, confirmation of the pilot on smoke-free prisons, clarity on complex Acct cases and so on.

We also await the report on the survey of the membership by Professor Kinman and Doctor Roberts. This report will support our campaign on our pension age that 68 is too late in an operational service.

Without movement on these issues the membership alongside the National Executive will understandably question the merits of continued engagement with the employer.

PJ McParlin
National Chairman