National Chair

April 2016 | 02.04.2016





On joining the prison service in 1982, my terms and conditions were negotiated and determined through the mechanisms of collective bargaining. The Institute of Employment Rights have calculated that by the late 1970s, 82 percent of British workers had their terms and conditions set by collective bargaining. Today, less than 28 percent of British workers have their terms and conditions set by collective bargaining arrangements. The dismantling of these arrangements has been an unmitigated disaster for the trade union movement.

In prisons, the arbitrary removal of trade union rights and the right to strike in the 1990s fractured the already strained relationship between the employer and the POA. A national strike had been called by the then executive for 5th November, 1993. You will recall that the Government argued that as prison officers had the powers of a constable they were not workers. The judge agreed with the argument and an injunction was granted. As officers were not workers, the protections of section 219 of TULCRA did not apply, and as a consequence, industrial action was unlawful. The loss of trade union status was restored by sections 126 to 128 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Acts of 1994. All well and good, but section 127 ended the right for prison officers to take industrial action. Then we come to section 128 and the establishment of a Pay Review Body to determine pay and allowances, which eventually came into operation in 2001.

Decline in staff morale

NOMS, as one would expect, took full advantage. This imbalance in the employee and employer relationship, alongside the continued failure of politicians and the employer to listen to our concerns has undermined industrial relations for a generation and contributed to a significant decline in staff morale.

By necessity in recent years, we have seen the development of a more considered and inclusive approach by elected representatives at local and national level in dealings with the employer. Engagement with the employer on a number of contentious issues has on occasion, been unpopular with sections of the membership. Others have seen engagement as symptomatic of the decline of trade union influence in the workforce both generally and in relation to the POA. At times, it appeared that collective bargaining had given way to negotiations and then to consultation and then to something akin to a discussion forum.

I have never known any POA National Executive Committee to accept a subservient role in employer and employee relations; they have always pressed for robust but constructive engagement underpinned at all times by direction from the membership. The POA/NOMS 2015 Agreement pointed to a return to something suggestive of collective bargaining between employer and employee. It should always be recognised that the legislation that prevents members from exercising their right to withdraw his or her labour when an impasse in negotiations occurs, prevents any pretence to true collective bargaining arrangements. Nevertheless, the submission of the joint business case on pension age hopefully points to a belated recognition by the employer of the benefits of true engagement through collective bargaining arrangements. Following the much publicised intervention of the Prime Minister into the debate on prisons, there is at long last an indication that ministers have accepted that they need to engage with this trade union if their reform agenda is to succeed. There can be no doubt that we take pride in the professional work that we do on behalf of society but the crisis in morale has to be addressed.

There is some way to go to re-establish a collective bargaining model acceptable to the membership that encompasses terms and conditions and pay, and also by necessity, a workable dispute resolution mechanism, but the important initial steps have been taken.


The Independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has published comparisons on how the overall spending by government departments is set to change from 2010/11 to 2019/20. Generally, day-to-day spending is down 12 percent with health, international development and perhaps unsurprisingly, the cabinet office forecast to increase their spending. Spending on Justice is down by 45 percent with only local government and transport seeing a bigger reduction. You would need to go back to the 1920s to find a comparable attack on spending in the public sector. The Government has made a political decision to meet its fiscal targets through spending cuts − as opposed to addressing tax rates and tax avoidance. Bad debts have in effect, been nationalised and the economic crisis has been transferred from the private banking sector to the public sector. Workers have taken the hit for the failings of capitalism. Given these continuing and seemingly never-ending cuts to the departmental budget and the impact in the workplace, workers need to ensure that they are members of a trade union.

We often see sections of the media putting forward the view that trade unions are no longer relevant in the modern workplace. As you would expect, as the leader of a trade union, I reject this view and take the opportunity to list some of the benefits of POA membership:

• POA members have access to a welfare fund; • They have access to the firefighter’s charity; • A credit union; • The legal scheme; • Death benefit and skilled representation at grievances; • Medical inefficiency hearings and • Disciplinary investigations and appeal hearings.

Again, there have been significant and important wins in a number of legal cases brought or defended by the POA. The recent and significant victory in the case listed as Cox v The Ministry of Justice is one such example.

Branch officials and national executive members have worked tirelessly over many years to build a Union in which equality is central to everything that we do, and where no member is more important than any other. We must never forget that unscrupulous employers will always seek to divide the experienced staff from the new recruits, and set the young against the old. Of course, this is nothing new but the cynical exploitation of workers is designed to keep us all in our place. It is down to every one of us to increase the understanding of what the POA can and does achieve within the workplace. The POA has long understood that campaigns can increase its visibility and relevance and can lead to increased membership participation. The rally and the march through London that took place on 19th March 2014 from Trafalgar Square to the Methodist Hall was a great success focusing as it did on pensions, pay, assaults and budget cuts. Such events help build effective unions and increase our visibility and relevance. I would urge every member to become more involved with their Union. You have an opportunity to formulate and direct the policy of your Union. Membership of the POA provides you with a voice and I would encourage you to use it.


Throughout the years, the POA has enjoyed mixed reviews from politicians, the media and penal pressure groups. At times, we seem to be reviled and feared in equal measure. As recently as 8th February 206, Danny Kruger, the Chairman of the criminal justice charity, Only Connect, writing in The Telegraph said: ‘Prisons suffer from a combination of people problems. Deep cuts to staff – down a third since 2010 while the number of inmates has remained constant − has put huge pressure on an overcrowded system. Add to this a prison workers’ union that sees the peace, quiet and remuneration of its members as synonymous with the purpose of the prison, and you have a workforce that obstructs every attempt to fl ex the system in favour of rehabilitation.’

So, alongside a valid observation on the impact of budget cuts on staffing numbers there is the inevitable attack on the role of the POA within the workplace. Mr Kruger has a vested interest in prisons but perhaps he and his ilk need to press the point that when justice is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold, then the system will inevitably reach breaking point. My members work for an employer who constantly seeks to change their working terms and conditions, pay and retirement age. A failure to rehabilitate prisoners would also now appear to be our fault. POA members have seen impetuous and illinformed politicians come and go and will continue to oppose illadvised policy. The POA has been successful to date in resisting imposed redundancy and any suggestion of split shifts and zero hour contracts. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to be complacent. The POA has moved on from the slogan attributed to a certain football club, that ‘everyone hates us but we don’t care’ but the POA will never apologise for protecting and promoting the interests of its membership.

It was this Trade Union that brought the motion to the TUC Congress for the consideration of the practicalities of a general strike to resist the austerity agenda. We are determined to engage with the employer and with politicians, but will never forget that there is always the option of collective action.


The POA has not been alone in discovering that any restructure can be a difficult and protracted process. There will be a further conference paper on the progress of restructuring on the agenda for the 2016 Annual Conference. I would like to put on record my appreciation of the contribution of the field-based team that has helped the executive in the restructure that has taken place so far.

The aim of any restructure process is to improve the representation provided to the membership. Any restructure must adhere to the objects and purposes of the Union for it to have any prospect of success. The make-up of the membership, and the levels of member participation and density need to be considered and evaluated. Yes, a restructure can result in financial savings but only if there are visible improvements in the level of support provided for members. There is a balance to be struck in considering the external context in which the Union has to operate, alongside ensuring the internal structures are fit for purpose.

So going forward, I would urge the POA to recognise that in any restructure there is a need to put internal squabbles aside, to recognise that you cannot shy away from difficult decisions and be prepared to address the inevitable issues that will be raised in any restructure. As ever, it is important to recognise that when a question is challenging we do not change the question but look to answer it.


It has been an honour to have served as your elected National Chairman. There is no other role in the prison service quite like it. It has provided me with opportunity to meet and support members across the UK and to represent the POA in a variety of forums in Parliament, the TUC, at party political conferences and at penal pressure groups.

As a National Chairman, you have to be prepared to make difficult and pragmatic decisions which will inevitably make you unpopular. Then again, I have never understood the criticism from some quarters when I have attended branches in uniform and when I took the fitness test in order to be better informed.

I do recognise that Fair and Sustainable and benchmarking have been unpopular. Fair and Sustainable ensured that employees, in NOMS at the time, were able to remain on their existing terms and conditions. The terms of the offer did not give rise to a challenge in employment law. In my opinion, the executive at the time did an excellent job during the negotiations on Fair and Sustainable. The final offer achieved a number of conference policies, protected existing terms and conditions and prevented compulsory redundancies. In a workplace ballot, the membership accepted the offer.

As directed by the membership the POA succeeded in persuading the coalition Government to retain core custodial work within the public sector. In 2017, HMP Berwyn in Wrexham will open in the public sector. Given the new for old policy and the number of prison closures that have taken place since 2010, this has to be a positive development.

Benchmarking itself has been a difficult and unrelenting process. Then again, without benchmarking, the Secretary of State for Justice would have re-tendered the contract for HMP Hatfield, HMP Lindholme and HMP Moorland. I need not remind you that the public sector had been unable to compete with the private sector within the strictures of competition policy. In 2014, the POA was able to persuade the then Justice Secretary to stop the planned competition of 25 prisons. This would have been the tipping point in the public versus private debate and was a significant success for the Trade Union.

Benchmarking failed as a concept when politicians and NOMS were unable to provide the promised new ways of working and reductions in the prison population. In addition, the unprecedented levels of violence in our prisons have been driven by the type of offender now in custody and the widespread use of NPS.

A protocol for the management of prisoners suspected of using and/or being engaged in the supply of new psychoactive substances is a necessity. The POA has consistently raised this issue with NOMS.

The legal challenges contained within the POA 28-day notices issued to the employer are designed to make a significant difference in workplace safety. The executive will consider all options in order to address the issue of safety in the workplace. Now, with a new Justice Secretary in post and yet another agenda for prison reform, there is a real opportunity to increase benchmark levels and improve safety in the workplace.

The message from the membership of the POA to politicians and the employer is as it has always been; that our health and safety is not for sale, not today, not tomorrow, and not ever.


All members of the executive and branch officials expect and welcome constructive criticism. We all understand that members and former members can be understandably frustrated at times with the direction of their Trade Union. Abuse aimed at me has always gone right over my head. Perhaps that is not too surprising, given that during 25 years spent on the landings I have been threatened by professional criminals, but when that abuse is directed at friends and family it is unacceptable. To quote a respected former General Secretary, “there will always be disagreements between members on the direction of travel in our Trade Union but do try to be good to each other.”


The constituent parts of the POA are integral to its overall success. The contribution of the special hospitals, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, to the success and influence of the POA is recognised by the National Chairman.

Our members in the private sector have remained loyal to their chosen Trade Union when it might have been easier to walk away. I reiterate my appreciation on behalf of the POA for the committee at HMP Birmingham who held the line in an incredibly difficult situation. Brian Clarke and Aidy Watts and the committee thank you.

Again, I will always remember the positive reception in difficult circumstances that myself and members of the executive received at a series of branch meetings at HMP Northumberland in the aftermath of the bid process. There are many hard-pressed branch officials in the private sector in prisons, in immigration centres, in medical unit settings and yes, in transport depots that maintain the influence of the POA. Thank you on behalf of your Trade Union.

During my chairmanship I was invited to lay the wreath on behalf of the POA at the Northern Ireland Memorial Service at Millisle for the 31 colleagues murdered for working in the prison service. In recent weeks, we have now seen the murder of Adrian Ismay, a former branch official and union learning lead in Northern Ireland. It has been clear for some considerable time that the peace process would not apply to prison officers and related grades in Northern Ireland. I will say once again that our support for these brave and on occasion unrecognised public sector workers is unconditional. I place on record my thanks to Finlay Spratt, June Robinson and the Area Committee for their advice and support during my chairmanship.

Thank you to those that have worked, and continue to work, to make POA Learning such a success and the recognition it has brought this Union within the wider trade union movement. Again, I take this opportunity to thank members of the diversity team whose contribution, often unrecognised, has contributed so much to break down inherent suspicion of the POA within the wider trade union movement.

Many have contributed to the success of the Valley Parade Memorial Tournament but perhaps none more so than John Boddington. The POA values its long association with the tournament, which has built a relationship with the people of Bradford and Lincoln that is a positive to emerge from an unimaginable tragedy. As National Chairman, I am indebted to the City of Bradford Sport and Leisure Service who host the event for their continued commitment.

There are far too many branch officials and members that I owe so much to over 34 years as a member of the POA to mention in the limited space available to me in this article. So I will restrict myself to branch committees that I have been elected to or where I had been a member of that branch.

In no particular order: Dave Chapman, Derek Lake, Tim Hogg, Mark Hutchinson, Mick Hilliam, Steve Spratling, Mark Healey, Colin Moses, Terry Fullerton, Alan Wardle, Duncan Scales, Ken Wilshaw, Benny Goodman, Gill Fox, Rick Ward, Stewart McLaughlin, Jed Hooley, Jim Shaw, the Commissar, Gina Selmes, Drew Ward, Mick Grover, Vince Lardner and Steve Martin. I have to say that some of the names on that list could get you into a lot of trouble! A mention here too for Don Wood who, as my area representative in the South West and Wales, was an almost impossible act to follow.


It has been a roller coaster journey at times for me during my nine years on the national executive, and I recognise that not everyone has agreed with the decisions and the direction of travel. To lead is to choose and if you follow conference policy and the rules and constitution then you cannot go too far wrong.

Call me old fashioned, but I will never understand why any trade unionist would take his or her union through the certification officer process when conference had made its decision. In doing so, it perpetuates the anti-trade union legislation. As fellow trade unionists, we should be trying to avoid recourse to tribunals. There are the politics of anger and the politics of answers. At times, we are all adept at getting angry but we should be looking to reach workable

My thanks go to the executive members who have supported my chairmanship over the past five years, and my acknowledgement of the contribution to the POA of those who have not felt able to do so. For those with a working knowledge of the bible, I would refer you to Luke 4:24 as a timely reminder of the difficulties that all National Chairmen have to contend with.

Going forward, you will be less interested in where we have been than in where we are going. There is a talented and committed executive in place. With your support, the executive, led by Mike Rolfe, will succeed in taking the POA forward. They will continue to canvass the views and opinions of the members in a difficult and unrelenting political and economic climate. The Assistant Secretaries employed by the POA work to great effect secretary to the National Chairman, has overseen my diary with commendable patience. Thank you Paula.

National chairmen need to work closely with their general secretary. I have been fortunate to have had the support and counsel of Steve Gillan. In Steve Gillan, the POA have a General Secretary who has worked in different areas of the Union over many years. We have had our disagreements behind closed doors but have been in agreement when it has mattered.

Lees Lloyd Whitley had an important role in representing our legal interests over many years but the relationship with Thompsons Solicitors has taken the POA to a new level in the service provided to the membership. Thank you to all at Thompsons and indeed, Levy and McRae in Scotland. In addition, Wilkins Kennedy, chartered solutions. Executive meetings are places where ambition and frustration, success and failure are ever-present. Cliques can and do form. In recognising this reality, the National Chairman has to be his own man, be prepared for the scrutiny and the reaction when you make pragmatic and often unpopular decisions. on your behalf. In addition, we have now employed a legal officer, a significant step forward for the POA. They are supported by the administration of the Union, overseen by Angela Sinclair. This work often goes unnoticed but is essential in supporting members, executive members and assistant secretaries. Paula Larwill, accountants and business advisers have been integral in assisting the finance office in maintaining a viable Trade Union.

Good luck for the future and finally, if I do have any apologies to make, I will make them later...much later.

PJ McParlin