National Chair

February 2016 | 02.02.2016




The Conference had been called by the Wormwood Scrubs branch and they had been supported in their call by a majority of the membership in England and Wales in accordance with the rules and constitution of the POA. The Conference had asked the membership to debate the impact of competition benchmarking on staff safety and violence in the workplace. The debate was then to be followed by a motion calling for a ballot of the membership for industrial action up to and including strike action if staffing levels were not to be increased by negotiation and agreement, in order to reduce violence and to ensure safe decent and secure working environments.

The wording of motions can, of course, create problems if the meaning is unclear or if the motion is open to interpretation. Nevertheless, the executive will always progress motions as directed by the membership. There can be no doubt as to the sentiments behind the motions on the agenda at the Special Delegates’ Conference and by association, the continued concerns of the membership with regard to benchmarking and violence in the workplace.

In writing this article in advance of the Special Delegates’ Conference, I am at a disadvantage in not having heard the debate and being unaware of the determination of motion two on the agenda. Nevertheless, I remain confident that the delegates at the Conference, will have sought direction from the membership at branch level and will have debated motion one and determined motion two in the best interests of the membership.

As you will know, benchmarking is a cost saving measure, intended to deliver more for less and to make the public sector prison service competitive with private sector custodial providers. We do not like it, and we oppose competition, but Conference policy to date has insisted that the POA remains engaged in the benchmarking process.

The debate at the Special Delegates’ Conference will have reinforced what is known with regard to benchmarking in respect of the process of mobilisation, transition and transformation. Delegates will have been reminded that benchmarking is a process that is challengeable at local and national level. For a prison to be able to complete the process and be placed in steady state the staff in post figure has to match the total staff numbers that are funded. There has to be sufficient work, and activity places available for prisoners. Compliance with the 2013 MOU Agreement is mandatory.

In May 2014, a Gatelodge Extra publication was produced by the executive to remind the membership that benchmarking cannot replace the legal obligations of the employer and the employee in respect of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. A benchmark of a prison must be underpinned by appropriate risk assessments, safe systems of work and contingency plans. The categorisation of the prisoners held within the establishment, together with the physical limitations and lay-out of the prison will be used to establish the staff to prisoner ratio. The Gatelodge Extra emphasised: ‘If you have three staff available to operate a regime it does not mean that you have to or that you should unlock 90 prisoners on the basis of your staff to prisoner ratio.’

Whatever the decisions made at the Special Delegates’ Conference, the safety of staff will always be non-negotiable.


In July, 2015 the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman pointed to 19 deaths in a little over two years in which NPS had, or was suspected of, being used by the prisoner. In December 2015, the Chief Inspector of Prisons published a report on patterns of substance misuse and confirmed that NPS is now the most serious threat to the safety and security of prisons.

A late and welcome addition to the Psychoactive Substances Bill in October 2015 has now made it illegal to possess NPS when in custody. These restrictions, alongside the risk of up to two years imprisonment, will apply to prisoners, those working in and visiting prisons, and includes juvenile detention centres and immigration facilities. It will not be an offence to be in possession of these drugs outside prison but the Bill will ban the production, distribution, sale and supply of the drugs.

The POA welcomes these developments but questions why it has taken so long for our concerns to be recognised by politicians, and the immediate employer. The employer and politicians have overseen a catalogue of failure with their recruitment and retention policies, with their policy of prison closures to exacerbate chronic overcrowding. To add insult to injury, the co-ordinated response to the dangers of NPS has been lamentable to date and it is our members who have had to cope with the consequences of their failure. The POA continues to bring to the attention of the employer examples of best practice in mitigating the impact of NPS in our prisons in the essential protection of staff and the prisoners in our care. Given the impact and effect of NPS in our prisons and custodial settings, the POA cannot allow politicians to pay lip service to the problem. With the National Tactical Response Group deployed into prisons in response to overall incidents 339 times in the year up until 9th December, this is not a time for gesture politics.


Congratulations to Michael Rolfe on his election as National Chairman of the POA. Michael Rolfe will prove to be an excellent National Chairman and will bring new ideas, stability and integrity to the role. There is a handover period of some six months and, aside from my personal view on the necessity of this extended period, Michael will now accompany me to all of my meetings with senior officials in NOMS and with Ministers.

Terry Fullerton, a member of the executive, was unsuccessful in the election for National Chairman and will continue in his role as an experienced and valued member of the executive. The election itself was conducted in an appropriate and professional manner in the best traditions of the democratic process as you, the membership, would expect.


As you will be aware, the POA had issued the employer with a 28-day notice that required NOMS to address a number of issues and unlawful practices which impact on health and safety in prisons in England and Wales. At the end of the 28-day period, the response from the employer did not address our concerns. Consequently, the POA has now issued legal proceedings against the Ministry of Justice. Alongside the legal actions the executive has provided the membership with advice that should be followed to protect their health and safety. Please take the time to read the circulars and follow the advice contained within them.


As we await the report and recommendations of the discredited Pay Review Body, I will take this opportunity to remind the membership of what was contained in their summary of visits to prisons in England and Wales:

  • Staffing remained an issue in most establishments visited.
  • Locality pay was a significant issue.
  • Many staff reported that they did not trust NOMS with their terms and conditions.
  • There was disappointment for many of the Band 3 closed grades with the zero pay award for 2015 - 2016. Others felt insulted by the nil pay recommendation and award.
  • The increase in employee contributions for pensions has meant that take-home pay had reduced.
  • Most staff had been positive about the retention awards that had been agreed between NOMS and the Union for closed grades.
  • A significant number of staff said that they were relying on Payment Plus to supplement salary.
  • Operational managers raised the issues of RHA being inadequate and had concerns with staff reporting arrangements.
  • Many staff referred to the increased levels of violence in prisons, the reduction in staffing levels and the connection to sickness absence.
  • The pay increase for MPs was often raised.

Well Dr Knight, as you sit in the office facilitated by the Office of Manpower and Economics to consider the evidence from your visits to public sector prisons, please recognise that there has been a reduction in the workforce of over a third. Far too much is now expected of the workers that remain to cope with the rising tide of drug-induced violence and its insidious effect on what remains of morale and motivation of prison staff. Given the overwhelming evidence, you should be able to draw the appropriate conclusions. If not, allow me to assist you. Recommend a consolidated pay award for all operational grades who work in the public sector prison service for 2016-2017.


In November, I attended the memorial service for Officer Derek Lambert. Derek Lambert was murdered whilst on duty at Portland prison in 1965 and I would ask you to read the article in Gatelodge (on page 22 of this issue) which will provide a poignant reminder of that terrible day. Thank you to the Governor, branch committee and staff at HMP Portland for ensuring that Derek Lambert will never be forgotten.


PJ McParlin
National Chairman