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As a campaigning trade union that exists to improve the working conditions of all its members, the POA works with politicians of all parties to maximise pressure on the Government. Whether it’s over health and safety, pay and retention or the illogical, impractical and, quite frankly, cruel retirement age of 68 facing many of our members, we have a growing number of allies in Parliament, Scottish Parliament and the national assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland respectively – and from the look of this Government’s agenda, we’re going to need each and every one of them.
PAY AND JUDICIAL REVIEW
MPs have fought hard against the Government’s decision in December 2020 to ignore the pay review body’s recommendation of a £3,000 pay rise for Band 3 F&S prison officers, raising the issue time and again directly with the now-former Secretary of State Robert Buckland, who has repeatedly dodged the question of who had made the final decision – him, the Chancellor or the Prime Minister. Legally, it’s the Secretary of State’s decision – and he claims the pay rise is “unaffordable” – but many MPs suspect that this was a political decision made in Downing Street to stop other publicsector workers insisting on a proper pay rise too.
At the time of writing we are still waiting for the courts to accept our Judicial Review of the decision – and, to add insult to injury, the Government has now delayed its response to the pay review body’s latest recommendations 2021/22, which Ministers received in July 2021, until after the summer recess. Expect fireworks in September 2021 when supportive MPs publicly challenge the inevitable insulting Government pay freeze for the majority of POA members who earn over £24,000.
68 IS TOO LATE
The new parliamentary year will also see a relaunch of the union’s “68 is too late” campaign, with numerous MPs and Peers already signed up to highlighting and amplifying the concerns and experiences of our members, and why we need to bring retirement age back down to 60 – not just for the safety and dignity of prison officer grades and OSGs but also for the protection of prisoners and the general stability of custodial environments. It’s a growing scandal that has the potential to “cut through” with the public, especially with the greater awareness that people have about the challenges of working in prisons since recent TV documentaries and the excellent BBC miniseries drama Time penned by the legendary Jimmy McGovern.
The legal position is clear – Section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 states: “Every prison officer while acting as such shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable.” Take the last two, protection and privileges. The state pension age has increased to 68, yet police officers – quite correctly, given the physical challenges they face at work – have the protection and privilege of full retirement at 60. So, why not prison officers, who have to deal with dangerous and violent criminals day in, day out? It is an outrage that the Government refuses even to negotiate in good faith with the POA over this issue, and we will be calling on all our allies inside and outside Parliament to help right this wrong as a matter of urgency.
The possibility of a new Prisons Act offers the opportunity to close this legal loophole once and for all, and address the other urgent issues facing our officers. In July 2021, the then-Secretary of State Mr Buckland insisted there was “no going back to pre-Covid regimes” and that a new Prisons White Paper (a Government policy document setting out proposals for new laws) later this year “will lay the groundwork for the future of our prison system”.
LACK OF CONSULTATION
This will obviously be of great interest to POA members, but unfortunately Mr Buckland neglected to consult with the union over what should be in any new prison legislation. While we wait for his successor Dominic Raab to get in touch, here are the key issues I believe need to be addressed:
68 is Too Late. This is obviously urgent and true, and any proposed Prisons Bill must bring prison officers’ pension age back down to 60, as mentioned above.
Safety First. The POA wants to see a legal requirement on HMPPS and private prison operators to minimise violence against staff in custodial environments, backed up by a regulator, with fines and other sanctions for public and private operators and automatic additional resources for “surge staffing” at prisons that fail violence reduction targets.
Fair Pay. Years of real-terms pay cuts have left prison officers feeling undervalued and unappreciated, seen retention levels and experience plummet and contributed to rock-bottom morale. The Government’s decision to ignore its own experts’ key pay recommendation shows just how unfit for purpose the current system is. At the very least, the Prison Service Pay Review Body’s advice must be legally binding, but to end the blatant exploitation currently plaguing the service we need to see a return to collective bargaining, and that means restoring the:
Right to Strike. As I have stated many times, it’s disgraceful that prison officers are prevented by law from taking any kind of industrial action, even a work to rule. Any new Prisons Bill must repeal this shameful legislation, specifically Section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
There will be readers who believe this to be an unrealistic wish list, especially with a Conservative Government not known for its commitment to workers’ rights. But all the experts agree that prisons are key to breaking the cycle of criminality and reoffending, which costs society over £18 billion a year, according to official estimates. We have logic, truth and indeed justice on our side, and with the right pressure in the right places, the Government can be forced to change its position and start treating prison officers and other staff, without whom the whole service would collapse, with the respect they deserve.
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.