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Their crisis, our opportunity

The POA might have been hard-hit by anti-union legislation, but STEVE GILLAN is confident that, with a new strategy, it is well placed to defend and protect its members

THE theme of the POA conference for 2018 is “Their Crisis, Our Opportunity,” which is quite simply our statement of intent. 

Out of every crisis comes opportunity. Instead of dwelling on the negatives of the past, we need to be focused, refreshed and have clear strategies moving forward that protect our members and their families. 

It would be very easy to become distracted and lament everything that has happened to us. 

Last July 2017 was a turning point for us in having to rethink our strategies. 

Of course there is still bitterness that our trade union is shackled by Section 127 of the Criminal and Justice Public Order Act 1994 (since amended) and that we do not have the right to strike even with the restrictions of the Trade Union Act and everything that brings with it.

There are new thresholds for ballots and new powers for the certification officer that are so draconian it received heavy criticism from the outgoing certification officer David Cockburn as completely unnecessary.

July 2017 saw the High Court award a permanent injunction against the union and it would be very easy to be negative and throw in the towel and say that we are effectively neutered and can’t do anything to protect our members. 

But the opposite actually is the case. Some of the papers in relation to the hearing are in the public domain and in actual fact there were no backward steps taken in the High Court by those giving evidence on behalf of the POA. 

My statement was very clear and, when cross-examined by Mr Justice Jay as to whether I would repudiate any action by any branch, the answer was a clear no, I would not. 

Incidentally, since that hearing, Lindholme branch withdrew for a whole day to protect health and safety and it had the support of the national executive committee. 

The issue was resolved through negotiation with local and national officials in attendance. 

Of course the usual threatening letters were sent by an overzealous employer who likes hiding behind anti-trade union legislation. 

On behalf of the NEC I refused to repudiate the action. Similarly at Whitemoor branch on at least two occasions since the permanent injunction, withdrawals under health and safety grounds have taken place with no repudiation by the union. I commend those members and branches protecting their health and safety.

One day this draconian legislation will be removed and we will be on a level playing field with the employers who have an obsession with hiding behind the robes of a judge. 

Rather than fret about the legislation, under the leadership of our new chairman Mark Fairhurst, we are working cohesively in forming strategies that now threaten the employer with legal action at every turn when they get it wrong. 

Look at HMP Bedford where one of our members nearly died when viciously assaulted. The union issued a pre-action protocol letter with a view to taking the employer and government through the judicial review system due to their collective negligence in abandoning that prison and leaving it in a totally dangerous mess for both staff and prisoners. 

Having seen the reaction from the employer and the government on receiving our detailed legal letter, I am left in no doubt that our legal strategy is occupying the minds of senior managers. 

Without going into too much detail for obvious reasons, it has certainly led to them applying their minds and resources and they have responded with various pledges identifying in detail what they are going to do in order to make Bedford a safer place. 

Ironically, contained within their letter of response from government lawyers was a sentence that stated words to the effect that the courts should not be used to remedy these issues.

Forgive me for rejecting this because since 1994 they have run to the courts at every opportunity against this trade union. 

It would appear the shoe is now on the other foot and, due to a new approach, we are seeing gains and we have every right to remain positive moving forward.

It would be irresponsible to go into depth about our detailed legal strategies but suffice to say that, instead of being reactive and falling into traps and being on the receiving end of defending letters before action, we are now proactive in our approach and we use appropriate legislation against any employer or government that chooses to treat our members unfairly and unlawfully. 

We have seen wins in various proposed court actions since last July 2017 with this proactive approach. Indeed we have seen wins against the Crown Prosecution Service and indeed one or two chief constables who have backed down when our legal advisers have taken our instruction to protect our members when they have been assaulted and no action is being taken. 

With this intelligent approach by Fairhurst and with the executive committee sticking to a legal strategy, no longer will I as general secretary be left holding the baby with our legal officer Glyn Travis fighting a rearguard action and giving evidence in the High Court attempting to justify phraseology that was used in the past. 

We are now actually giving our legal team a real fighting chance of major wins and success which can only benefit our members in the future. 

There is a confidence about the executive that I haven’t witnessed for many years now that we have clear cohesive strategies which are effective. 

The POA, along with the Police Federation and other unions, are working hand in glove on new legislation which has cross-party support, with the legislation commonly known as “Protect the Protectors.”

The POA is working hard behind the scenes with politicians of all parties, with executive members meeting politicians regularly and influencing the argument in our favour. 

There is still much work to be done to recover from the damage of budget cuts over a sustained period which decimated staffing levels, leading to a more violent and dangerous workplace. 

It would appear from a recent letter from Secretary of State David Gauke that, after meetings with Prisons Minister Rory Stewart, they are starting to listen to our concerns and want further meetings with the union. 

Meetings are all well and good, but we will be demanding clear positive outcomes for our members on pay, health and safety, pensions and recruitment and retention.

Looking at our agenda and fringe meetings and guest speakers, I know the POA can have a positive outcome from our conference and go forward with confidence in making the lives of our members and their families better. 

Out of a crisis that government has created, the POA will take every opportunity we can to make gains for our members. 

It was the POA when we met with the prisons minister that coined the phrase “back to basics” with regard to prisons. It would appear the minister agrees with us and that dialogue continues to ensure it becomes a reality.

Steve Gillan is general secretary of the Prison Officers Association.

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