National Chair: The Service is speeding towards a major staffing crisis and the government refuses to listen

HMPPS would have you all believe that they are successfully recruiting thousands of frontline prison officers and we will soon be up to the target staff in post figures for every establishment. In fact, if you believe the hype and propaganda, people are falling over themselves to fill vacancies and training sites are full to capacity, with new recruits eagerly waiting for a starting date. Nothing to see here, everything is just fine – we are all doing so well.

The gravity of the staffing crisis on the front line dispels the misinformation that our employer attempts to fool us with. Over the past few months, the dire state of our prisons has been laid bare, but only those who work within the organisation know about it.

We have seen mass resignations in numerous sites across the estate. There are more and more experienced staff resigning and cases of ill-health retirement continue to rise. The harsh truth is that staff are leaving for better-paid, less-dangerous and less-stressful jobs. Unless the government accept the facts that are staring them in the face, we will end up in a staffing crisis that will never be repaired. The government need to act – and they need to act now.

As we see the economy recover, it would not have escaped anybody’s attention that jobs are being advertised everywhere. Lorry drivers earning in excess of £37k per year starting salary, with a £1,500 bonus for taking up the job, unlimited overtime and nobody spitting in your face or throwing excrement over you. Warehouse operatives earning £15 per hour for a 35-hour week. Staff leaving to work as train guards on a basic salary of £29k per year. Some taking a level transfer to the Border Force and seeing a salary rise of £6-10k per year. Even when you compare other public-sector workforces, we cannot compete – with a police constable earning £41k per year after only seven years in the job and a firefighter earning £24k as a trainee rising to £32k when they become competent.

Compare this to a new recruit prison officer, who if they worked their basic 37-hour contract would pick up only £19,731 rising to £23,144, which includes an additional 17% for the unsocial hours’ element. This salary rises to £24,427 if they agree to a 39-hour week including the unsocial hours element. For OSG grades, it’s even worse. They start on £17,855 rising to £21,855 for a 39-week including unsocial hours, the issue being OSGs work more unsocial hours than any of us! On top of this, we now have an unrealistic retirement age of 68, which means an 18-year-old recruit would spend 50 years on the landings before they could retire. Is it any wonder staff are leaving in their droves?

Even local supermarkets offer comparable pay to prison officers. Aldi are offering £11.32 per hour, which compared to prison officer pay on a 39- hour week is a competitive salary. I do not encourage a race to the bottom and good on other workers enjoying decent salaries, but to expect a new entrant prison officer to work for £23k per year in the most hostile and violent workplace in Western Europe displays exactly why we desperately need a fit-for-purpose pay structure that includes a decent starting salary, contractual incremental pay and significant rises at each band.

Fair and Sustainable pay structures are a failure and we need to abandon them in favour of a new fit-for-purpose pay scheme that rewards long service, encourages new recruits and competes with modern industry and other public-sector workforces. The government know this but refuses to accept it. If the government refuses to listen, then the Service will crumble and we will not recover.

If recruitment has been so successful and attrition rates are not of concern, then why are we experiencing more and more staff on detached duty and more and more staff working excessive hours on overtime? We are slowly heading for meltdown and only a pay overhaul can plug the lava that heads our way.

Staff need to realise that they are only legally obliged to work to their contracted hours. After all the turmoil they have faced over the last 18 months, maybe individuals need to decide it’s time for a break from the excessive overtime they work. Christmas is the perfect opportunity to spend more time with loved ones. Propping up a crumbling Service on the cheap will only encourage the government to continue to exploit loyal staff while denying them a pay rise.

Maybe the only way individuals can show their anger and frustration is to meet their legal obligations. Nobody can be forced to work overtime, sign up to bonus schemes or perform voluntary tasks that they are not obliged to perform. If individuals adhered to their contracts of employment, the system would completely fail, the employer and government would realise how much they rely on staff goodwill and they would have to remedy the staffing and pay crisis the Service now faces. Individuals now have a stark choice: continue to be exploited on the cheap or make the employer and government realise they have had enough. While I fully accept that individuals may need to work overtime to make ends meet, the more they prop up the system, the less respect they get. No trade union or trade union member has ever won any fight without enduring hardship.

It is disappointing to hear about certain Governors dismissing staff on medical inefficiency because they are suffering from long Covid. In one case, the individual was actually back at work performing non-prisoner-facing tasks on the advice of OH and was still dismissed – so much for empathy! I often wonder how many senior managers will be dismissed in similar circumstances – or maybe they will be given a laptop and told to work from home until they can return fully recovered? One rule for them and… 

The General Secretary and I recently held an introductory meeting with the new Prisons Minister Victoria Atkins. She was very direct but very receptive to what we had to raise. Top of the agenda was pay and retirement age. Ignoring these issues will not make them go away. It remains to be seen if having yet another new Prisons Minister in place will make a difference, but it was a positive meeting and I am happy to do business with someone who is straight-talking. It’s a pity our new Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has not yet introduced himself. Maybe he thinks trade unions are not important enough to prioritise. I hope this is not the case; trade unions have a habit of ending political careers. I await an invite to meet him.

Safety issues continue to cause concern as regimes open up. Most notably are the cowardly assaults on prison officers by fashioning razor blades into weapons. We have consistently raised this issue and I think that, after four years of analysis, pilot schemes and data, our employer would be in a position to make a final decision. But no – yet more pilots. In fact, HMPPS has more pilots than Ryanair! It reminds me of the gun argument in America. If you could tighten up gun laws to prevent just one atrocity, would you not do so to protect your citizens? Compare that to HMPPS directors. They are reluctant to remove razors from our prisons despite a successful scheme in place at HMP Whitemoor, who only issue electric shavers.

Why would the people who run the Service not wish to prevent further attacks on their staff with razors by removing razors entirely? If we can prevent one life-changing injury to staff or one incident of self harm by removing razors, does that not make sense?

Maybe they should talk to our members who have been permanently scarred, both physically and mentally, by vicious, cowardly thugs. To not remove razors is just as cowardly. Leaders within HMPPS need to grow a set, remove razors and help prevent further life-changing injuries to their staff.

After reviewing the latest derisory and insulting pay award, it is extremely concerning that the independent pay review body were legally prevented from recommending anything other than the government’s proposed £250 pay increase. To stifle an independent panel in such a way clearly conflates their entire independence. When will a court agree that this practice and the continued denial of full implementation of past recommendations is surely illegal? Once again, the most experienced staff are denied a pay rise and awarding the rest 12 pence per hour extra is truly disgusting. When will this government realise that, unless they significantly increase pay and totally overhaul the structures, staff will simply vote with their feet and continue to leave? This union have already offered to negotiate a fit-for-purpose, rewarding pay structure. Fair and Sustainable simply needs to be scrapped.

As I reflect on yet another turbulent and stressful year for POA members in every workplace they inhabit, I would just like us all to remember those colleagues and loved ones we have lost. I would like to finish by saying how very proud I am to lead this union and represent a body of staff who continue to serve with honour, professionalism and dignity despite the pressures they face. I want to wish you and your families a peaceful, restful and happy Christmas and New Year, and a speedy recovery to all our colleagues who are absent from work. I will always be here to fight for you and support you.

Best wishes and solidarity to you all


Mark Fairhurst
National Chair 

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.