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I am now entering my third term of office which will last until May 2025 which will make me the third longest serving General Secretary in the history of the POA with only Harley Cronin and David Evans serving longer. I have been very proud of the POA as it is a fantastic trade union with the majority of our members also fantastic people who do an unbelievable job on behalf of society.
I have always done my best to champion the POA and its hard-working membership no matter where our members work. I have shared many platforms as a guest speaker when some had an agenda which wished to categorise the POA “as officers of the state” and not real trade union people. I have defended our Union and the members in it with vigour because the vast majority of our members are hard-working, decent professionals who want to do a good job on behalf of society and I will always defend the majority of our members on that basis.
I was therefore dismayed to read CEO Jo Farrar’s statement on racism and indeed the statement by Director General Phil Copple. Both made reference to a union social media page and other social media sites. The POA over the years have made great strides forward on equality and racism as have many Trade Unions. I will never ever sit on the side-lines and be neutral on these issues as to do so would mean that the tiny minority who choose to make racist comments and offensive comments against BAME members win and I am afraid that is not going to happen as long as I am the General Secretary of this great Trade Union. I will continue to work with HMPPS and other employers whom the POA have recognition rights with. I will also work with the TUC, and other agencies such as Stand up to Racism, Show Racism the Red Card, Hope Not Hate and Politicians of all parties to eradicate this poison not just in the Prison Service but in society as a whole. The POA have clear policies in our rules and constitution. The POA is a Union for all irrespective of colour, race or creed and all members need to feel they belong and are safe.
I make no apology for my article being titled Black Lives Matter because the strength of feeling around the world after the death of George Floyd in America was clearly a campaign for change.
The Director General Phil Copple quoted a black member of staff in relation to social media posts, but in particular the POA official Facebook page “The posts have really upset me and made me question a lot of things. Growing up I experienced racial abuse both physical and verbal, so I for one know what that feels like. What I was not expecting was to read comments from staff who clearly hold views that are not in keeping with our HMPPS values or in some cases do not want to be educated with what is going on here in the UK and around the world.” In my view that is a shocking statement in 2020 and tells me that although the POA and indeed HMPPS have come a long way since the Stephen Lawrence and the MacPherson inquiry much more needs to be done. That is why I will not walk on by and ignore the issues not just facing society but indeed the POA that I care about. I have already approached HMPPS as I want mandatory training brought back and the POA to be at the heart of that training locally and nationally.
I cannot understand why a tiny minority of individuals, not just in the POA but in society in general, would think that the campaign BLACK LIVES MATTER is somehow saying that other lives don’t. Of course, all lives matter but the campaign for BLACK LIVES MATTER is rightly focussing on the deaths and inequality that has existed for black and minority ethnic people. Why on earth would anyone object to black people being treated equally and for them not to be discriminated against.
When I joined the Prison Service 30 years ago a tiny minority of prison staff at my establishment wore National Front badges behind their ties and seemed proud of it. It was wrong then and is now. I spoke out against it then and I will continue to speak out against racism now. I am proud of the fact that the POA were one of the first Trade Unions to expel a racist from membership, yet the individual still kept their job in the 1990s. The TUC quote that case in employment law scenarios.
Of course, other unions have also had their problems with a minority of individuals who hold racist views, but they have not turned the other cheek crossing the road and ignoring it. No self-respecting trade union or trade unionist would choose to remain neutral or ignore what was staring them in the face. I have spoken to a number of individuals who are appalled at the remarks on Facebook that are hurtful to our BAME members and the issues will be dealt with by the POA. We will educate and look at our own internal systems to make sure that the POA continues to be a union that welcomes everyone and if there are a tiny minority who do not conform to our rules and constitution regarding racism then there can be no hiding place for them in our union.
I would much rather have been addressing COVID-19 pandemic in this article but sometimes things need to be addressed that are uncomfortable for some. The vast majority of POA members as stated are decent professional people that will also be outraged at the few who for whatever reason make disgusting comments on social media.
COVID-19 is a pandemic that in many respects took the whole world by surprise and no one was prepared or indeed saw it coming. There will in the future, I am sure, be an inquest as to any shortcomings in the UK but the POA NEC since March 2020 have been working with HMPPS, other employers such as NHS, G4S, Sodexo and Serco along with other affiliated unions to the TUC to form best practise. It is also refreshing to have such a collaborative approach with HMPPS and the Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland QC. By having a joint approach which does not mean we agree all the time on how issues are dealt with but means that progress has been made on saving lives from this horrible virus. The medium-term recovery plan will be challenging but if we jointly keep to the same ethos of mutual respect for each other’s positions I am sure we can eventually come out the other end more knowledgeable and stronger for it. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is going to be around the world including our own workplaces for a significant period of time. Different ways of working will be inevitable and adapting to the virus to ensure safety of our POA members and those in our care will be paramount. The work by our POA members is not always recognised by those in authority but we will keep campaigning to ensure your voice is heard.
Thank you to the majority of our members during this difficult unprecedented period.
Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.