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This year has started dramatically with further announcements from the Prime Minister implementing further National lockdowns in England, with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland introducing restrictions of a similar nature but I recognise there may be differences in each of the four countries where the POA have membership. I will concentrate specifically on England and Wales prison service as under our Rules and Constitution we have devolved responsibility for the SNC in Scotland and the Northern Ireland Area Committee for Northern Ireland. It goes without saying that we update each other on a regular basis because of the differences in approach.
There is no doubt this will be the most challenging of periods in keeping POA members safe and indeed those in our care as the virus has mutated and the variant has now been recognised by respective Government’s as being more prevalent in society and more transmissible hence the further restrictions.
I also recognise there has been calls from many quarters for the restrictions to mirror the first National lockdown that came into effect on 23rd March 2020 and even although the variant is demonstrably more potent the Prime Minister has not done so as yet, but it may well be in the coming days and weeks if the NHS comes under too much strain that the restrictions become more rigid in society and indeed in our workplaces. HMPPS, and the Secretary of State, Robert Buckland QC MP on behalf of Government worked with the POA as the recognised Trade Union for Unified Grades in the public sector prisons in a responsible manner and partnership approach. Other employers in the NHS setting at Carstairs, Broadmoor, Ashworth and Rampton where our members are also worked with the POA in a partnership approach with other health unions as indeed was the approach in the private sector and immigration sector where we are recognised with Mitie, G4S, Sodexo and SERCO respectively.
In 2020 on many occasions the POA engaged in putting out joint statements to demonstrate we were all working together in a time of crisis and we worked on many solutions and the POA NEC worked tirelessly as did local committee’s to shape Exceptional Regime and Service Delivery and as and when issues arose that appeared to be rubbing points, they were discussed in a partnership way at local and national level to reach agreement on how best to achieve common goals for everyone. As stated in previous Circulars our approach is not unconditional, preservation of life is essential and in the secure setting of Prisons, Secure Hospitals and Immigration it is vital that this close collaborative approach continues into 2021.
The Government, Scientists and medical experts over the last week have recognised that restrictions are essential in the community and the workplace to get the variant under control during the winter months. There can be no room for complacency for anyone. The Government state that everyone must be responsible and I agree and that is why when regimes that are not safe are allowed to run unchecked which could place the health and safety of POA members and those in our care in grave danger from this pandemic we will robustly hold our employers and Government Officials to account.
The POA as previously stated throughout the whole of 2020 do not want to see prisoners locked up for long periods, we recognise it can be damaging for mental health, but it has proved necessary and the strategy was correct because we were successful in keeping the majority of people safe both staff and prisoners. We must continue on that pathway whilst the vaccine is rolled out in an effective and efficient manner so that at some stage in 2021 some sort of normality can come to fruition in the workplace and our communities. I do not want to report on any more deaths in the prison service like I had to in 2020. Those families affected from losing their loved ones it must still be very raw and painful and that is why in a partnership approach the POA must continue to rise to the challenge and engage employers and Government officials to maintain a safe environment and preserve life first and foremost. There can be no room for complacency or unnecessary risk taking. I also want to be making the case not just to HMPPS but to Government that Prison staff must be a priority along with other keyworkers in getting the vaccine after the most vulnerable in our society.
I am therefore pleased that the Director General Phil Copple has committed to a collaborative approach in working with the POA so we can continue working together to achieve agreements which hopefully will safeguard everyone in HMPPS. I recognise there will be areas of disagreement but by keeping dialogue open and producing evidence that is factual of failings in some sites then they will be rectified. I make no apology for praising the Director General in his dealings with the POA since becoming Director General. He has intervened when it has been demonstrated things are not operating as they should and short cuts were being taken and he eradicated them. He hasn’t always agreed with our position but always articulated his argument as to why he disagrees with our position. I respect him for the difficult task that he has in trying to ensure a balance and the POA will continue to work with him and his fellow Director’s to ensure the workplace can be as safe as possible and getting us through this crisis.
There clearly is a difference of opinion in how the YCS is operating whilst the Adult estate in HMPPS has regressed to stage 4 all over England and Wales the YCS Estate has remained at Stage 3 which means there is indoor gym, face to face education in classrooms and unsafe visits from outside agencies and domestic visits which do not fall into the category of exceptional circumstances. The POA NEC will be meeting and obtaining clear evidence that the YCS and Public Health England have got this extremely wrong and we will produce that evidence to the Secretary of State, HMPPS and the YCS because this is not going to make those sites safe for staff, visitors, outside agencies or indeed those young people in our care who are just as likely to be affected by the new strain of the virus as adults are. There needs to be a duty of care to both staff and indeed those young people and I look forward to progressing these discussions with HMPPS/ YCS in the coming days but because of the seriousness of the situation I have requested an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State as well so that when our findings from all YCS sites are collated we can produce factual evidence which will demonstrate the dangerous russian roulette that is being played with the pandemic in the YCS.
I will keep you updated as information becomes available on all the important topics as and when there are developments.
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.