When urgent action to protect prison officers and prisoners is hit with injunctions, what hope is there for a safe service? asks STEVE GILLAN
THE POA has been warning the government and employers since 2010 that the prison service is in crisis. It would appear the collective answer from the ivory towers is to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening while they deliver the £900 million worth of cuts hitting a once-proud service.
Let me give you an example of how bad it has actually become in our penal system. At HMP Wormwood Scrubs last Friday, many individual prison officers withdrew to a place of safety to highlight the dangers that POA members — and indeed those prisoners in our care — are facing after a series of violent incidents in the jail.
Any other employer would, I am sure, want to resolve the issues — but not the prison service management. The attitude on behalf of the Secretary of State was to immediately deny it was a health and safety issue, labelling it industrial action and an alleged breach of Section 127 of the Criminal and Justice Public Order Act 1994 (since amended) which restricts prison officers from inducing each other to take industrial action.
Of course, this legislation was brought in by a Tory government to restrict POA members from raising legitimate trade disputes and taking any form of action. In my view this is a cowardly restriction, and for management to constantly seek injunctions against us to hide their own shortcomings is unforgivable.
I received a letter requiring the POA to repudiate the action at Wormwood Scrubs and tell our members to return to work normally. I wasn’t even asked what the problems were. Obviously I was not prepared to repudiate, because there was no industrial action. It was a matter of health and safety, and I responded as such.
We are in a sad state of affairs when government and employers run industrial relations through the courts. But they will always see that as the easiest solution because, as in the past, the Royal Courts of Justice have granted them injunctions threatening us with seizure of assets, fines and imprisonment.
The POA has put up with this for more than 21 years, and it is about time that Section 127 was lifted and basic fundamental human rights were restored. The POA has a legitimate right to expect that the Health and Safety at Work Act is enacted by employers every day when our members go to work.
As we have done in the past, we at the POA were prepared to argue our case on the production of any application for injunctive relief and this was no different. I asked our solicitor to arrange for a barrister to attend the Royal Courts of Justice.
Interestingly, at approximately 7pm on the day (our members having been outside Wormwood Scrubs since early morning) it appeared that the employer and the government were ready to resolve the issue without seeking an injunction. Meaningful negotiations on the outstanding issues of health and safety would be discussed between the local branch and management and there would be no recriminations against any individual when they returned to work.
If that had been agreed at an early stage in the day, the wellbeing of staff and prisoners may have been secured sooner.
I urge Justice Secretary Michael Gove to engage with this union in a constructive manner. Instead of running round the country concentrating on the European vote he should be concentrating on the crisis within our prisons, because it isn’t going to go away.
Academy schools are a failure and for Gove to state he wants prisons to be run on the same model is a recipe for disaster. The POA will wait until we see the white paper on the forthcoming Prisons Bill before passing further comment, but if it is a Trojan horse for further privatisation, damaging collective agreements or interfering with terms and conditions then we will campaign and fight the legislation all the way through the Parliamentary process.
Friday’s problems at Wormwood Scrubs were followed on Sunday by dreadful assaults on two members of staff. Both were taken to hospital by ambulance after sustaining serious injuries in an unprovoked attack. Yet this could occur in any prison in the country because of the budget cuts since 2010.
At Wormwood Scrubs in 2010 there were 67 assaults on staff. In 2015 there were 123 assaults on staff — nearly double. In 2010 there were 401 full-time equivalent prison officer grades, yet in March 2016 there are only 320 prison officer grades.
The prison population has stayed roughly the same, yet prison officer numbers have substantially decreased and assaults have doubled. This replicates the national picture — a decrease of 31 per cent in staff numbers, but a prisoner population that has remained the same or increased since 2010, with assaults on staff doubling in the same period.
The statistics are tragic. Homicides in prisons are at a record level in our prisons, self-harm has increased, self-inflicted deaths have increased, violence has increased, incidents at all levels have increased.
Prisons are awash with new psychoactive substances, mobile phones, weapons and other illicit items. That is a sad indictment on this government’s record, and on senior managers within the prison estate for allowing ministers to walk all over them.
We’ve seen £900 million in cuts and as a result prison officers are being used as punch bags. Yet there is still a defiant professionalism that keeps the public safe, with little government or employer recognition.
I don’t actually believe we have hit rock bottom yet, but I urge Mr Gove, for the sake of those we look after and for the sake of our members, to engage properly with our union before a prison officer is killed.
• Steve Gillan is general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA).