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This pandemic of COVID-19 is far from over as we have witnessed with further local lockdowns in our communities and indeed those on the brink of lockdown. Restrictions have now been placed on people returning from Spain with a 14- day quarantine and other destinations being assessed. That is why in the context of our prisons and secure hospitals it is vital that the relaxation of regimes must be done in a controlled manner that is properly risk assessed with safe systems of work. The safety of staff and those in our care is paramount. The last thing that we need is a spike in our workplaces, which could potentially place everyone in danger from the pandemic.
The POA NEC along with your employer have agreed that preservation of life and security are the main priorities. It is imperative that local POA branches are getting adequate facility time to ensure that meaningful consultation is taking place. The work is intense and I thank all POA Branch Officials for the time and energy they are putting in to ensure safe working practices. There will be times when the POA Nationally will be criticised by outside agencies because they believe we have stopped certain functions from taking place. I am afraid we will always act in the best interests of our members and those in our care and our record during this pandemic has clearly saved lives. Prisons are different from our communities and it was correct to have a strict lockdown from 23rd March 2020. To do anything else would have been reckless and foolhardy and to the credit of Prisoners and their families the vast majority have recognised the need for restrictions. Communication will be vital going forward with Prisoners and their families because if there is a need to restrict for example Education or Visits on a regional basis then that needs to be explained and explained in a manner that is easily understood. Outside agencies need to better understand the complexities of prison life and the dangers this pandemic could cause if it takes hold in our prisons and secure hospitals.
The work of the NEC continues on COVID-19, but we also need to be aware of other important issues which I highlight below;
In respect of our members in England and Wales the Pay Review Body recommendations were given to Government towards the end of June 2020. Government made a written statement to Parliament on Tuesday 21st July 2020 accepting all but one of the recommendations. I do not intend to rehearse all the issues as the National Chairman Mark Fairhurst in his update last week identified the issue that the National Executive Committee would have to consider and we will continue to keep our options open in respect of our next steps. In all the years that I have spent at National level I have never seen such a scathing letter from a Chairman of the Pay Review Body to the Secretary of State because Government have not accepted recommendation 3 of the Review Bodies recommendation, which was of course in relation to consolidated pay for Band 3 in Fair and Sustainable in the amber and red sites. It will be interesting to see the response to their letter from the Secretary of State Mr Buckland. In reflection we stopped giving evidence to the Pay Review Body for the correct reasons since 2016. It was a Durham motion and indeed a Hatfield motion at Conference that formed that policy. That was all in respect of the so called independence of the Review Body at that time. Since then the Pay Review Body has altered its personnel including a new Chairman. You may recall that I wrote an Open letter on a without prejudice basis to the Review Body during lockdown and received a response. Clearly, they have thought and taken on board the points that I made on behalf of the POA. I am not for one minute saying that 2.5 per cent consolidated for our members is a good pay rise and makes up for the last 10 years of pain and suffering with years of austerity implementing pay cuts on all POA members no matter what grade you are but this years recommendations were indeed a small step in the right direction.
Conference as you know was cancelled this year but Huntercombe branch had put a motion in requesting the POA NEC to return to giving evidence to the Pay Review Body. The National Executive Committee determined that we would support that motion, but it has been deferred to Conference 2021. Of course, we do not know if Conference would have supported or rejected that motion.
In the absence of Conference this year the National Executive Committee can make decisions when Conference isn’t sitting and on Wednesday 22nd July 2020 it was agreed for one year only as part of keeping all our options open we would give written and oral evidence to the Pay Review Body for the period now until 2021. This means that come next Annual Conference our ruling body can authorise our continuance or tell us to stop any future submissions. I want to make it perfectly clear our main objective is always to have full collective bargaining on pay with the right to strike as per conference policy, but we are also realists that position isn’t going to come any time soon. We need to keep our options open and our strategy was discussed at that meeting. I am hoping that we can engage the Prison Service in collective bargaining on pay and other related issues such as pensions in the coming weeks and months but we need to keep our options open and keep the pressure on Government to reward our members fairly. I am very conscious that the Chancellor has made statements about future public sector pay arrangements and we need to keep a watchful eye on any developments to restrict future pay arrangements. As early as tomorrow 28th July 2020 I have an informal meeting with the Chairman of the Pay Review Body. I will keep you updated in due course regarding our options going forward in respect of Pay as the NEC will need to make key decisions going forward.
ASSAULTS ON EMERGENCY WORKERS CONSULTATION
The Government are holding a short- timed consultation which commenced in July 2020 and will conclude on 7th August 2020. It is not a public consultation and only parties which the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State Robert Buckland QC MP has written to seeking evidence and feedback into the existing legislation will be considered. The POA as the only recognised Trade Union for HMPPS for Prison Officer Grades and OSGs will be responding and submitting evidence by the timeline that has been given. We will also be giving evidence in the same document for our members in the secure hospitals who come under the Emergency Workers legislation.
It is worthy of note that the initial legislation occurred because we had the support of all Political Parties at Westminster and credit must go to Holly Lynch MP (Labour) who was the main sponsor. The POA worked in a cross union and federation alliance with the Police Federation, FBU, GMB and Unison. The legislation and campaign was generally known as “Protect the Protectors”. The 2018 Act modifies the criminal offence of common assault or battery for instances where it is committed against emergency workers , such as Prison Officers, Police Officers, Fire Fighters and Health Care Workers, who are acting in the course of their functions, with a maximum penalty of 12 months imprisonment. The 2018 Act also provides that more serious assaults committed against emergency workers may be aggravated on sentence within the current statutory maxima for these offences.
Whilst we welcomed the initial legislation the POA have had to raise on numerous occasions when the authorities including the Police, CPS and indeed the courts have not taken the legislation seriously. In fact, I wrote to the Secretary of State on 14th July 2020 highlighting some cases at Durham, Whitemoor, Birmingham to name a few where I had permission from the individuals to use their names where the CPS or Police had decided not to prosecute. I am pleased to state I have had a response and indeed a very supportive responsive from Mr Buckland QC MP stating that is why he now wants to strengthen the Law in respect of assaults against our members. I welcome that commitment, however the Police and CPS along with the Courts need to enforce the legislation in full if our members are indeed to be protected. That is why we will play a full part in this consultation to ensure POA members are protected no matter where they work. I will keep you updated with regards to progress in this important issue.
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.