By Steve Gillan, General Secretary Prison Officers Association
Nobody can doubt that prison officers perform one of the toughest jobs around — even more so during this deadly pandemic.
But they are poorly paid for the challenging work they do, especially since the government introduced so-called “Fair and Sustainable” contracts in 2012, creating a two-tier structure with a starting salary now not much above £20,000.
And, disgracefully, officers are not allowed to take any kind of industrial action to address this injustice — in fact, even suggesting that they go on strike is a criminal offence.
As compensation for this denial of basic employment rights, the Prison Service Pay Review Body (PSPRB) was established in 2001 to advise the government what to pay prison officers.
After a successful complaint by our union, the POA, to the International Labour Organisation in 2004, the government committed only to depart from these recommendations under “exceptional circumstances.”
Fast forward to July last year, when the PSPRB made its recommendations for 2020-21, including an across-the-board 2.5 per cent uplift and a £3,000 pay rise for one particular section of workers — Band 3 officers on Fair and Sustainable conditions, the main recruitment grade making up the bulk of the workforce.
In its submission, the independent body explained that “Band 3 pay compared poorly against other occupations located in the same broad occupational group as prison officers” and that officers “were said to be leaving the service for a number of different sectors, such as supermarkets, the Police, Border Force, railway companies and other security and uniformed services” — with one prison visited by the PSPRB experiencing an annual turnover rate of almost 25 per cent.
Official figures show that over 2,000 front-line prison officers — around 10 percent of Band 3-5 grades — leave the service each year, with more leavers than joiners in five of the last six quarters for which data is available.
To tackle this crisis, the PSPRB recommended the £3,000 pay rise, which it believed would “improve retention rates” and “increase the effectiveness and productivity of prison officers.”
Taken together, all the recommendations would cost just under £50 million a year, according to the PSPRB. But it noted that this needed to be viewed alongside the cost of new Band 3 officers leaving the service within their first two years — estimated at over £30m.
Boosting pay “will encourage Band 3 prison officers to stay in the job for longer, delivering immediate savings for the service,” the PSPRB pointed out.
In response, the government accepted all the recommendations bar one — the key £3,000 pay rise for Band 3s, claiming it wanted to “open discussions with recognised trade unions on the implications of this recommendation and how any such uplift in pay might be best implemented in an affordable and mutually beneficial manner alongside workforce reforms that deliver the best value for money for taxpayers.”
The PSPRB was furious, with chair Tim Flesher telling ministers: “We do not make our recommendations in order that they may be ‘cherry-picked,’ with the government selecting the ones it likes and adjusting or rejecting those it does not. Nor do we expect our recommendations to be used as a basis of negotiation with our stakeholders.”
This decision “undermines the pay review body process,” he added, and was a “clear breach” of the government’s commitment only to depart from the recommendations under exceptional circumstances.
“PSPRB members feel strongly that we cannot continue on this basis,” Flesher continued.
“One member has already submitted their resignation and the remaining members are prepared to continue only if the basis on which we operate is confirmed to be in line with the undertaking recognised by successive governments.”
But these warnings were ignored and in December Minister Lucy Frazer announced she was rejecting the key recommendation because it was “unaffordable.”
Needless to say, no discussion had taken place with the unions — or at least certainly not with us.
The cost of this pay rise, according to the minister, would be between £35m and £45m a year — a drop in the ocean of the prisons budget — and much of this would come straight back to the Treasury in the form of taxes, not to mention the more than £30m wasted on staff churn. Quite simply, it’s a false economy.
In a bizarre attempt to justify this decision on the grounds of exceptional circumstances, Frazer added: “Changes in the labour market as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unpredictable changing state of the economy means that the assumptions made by the PSPRB upon which they based their recommendations have now changed.”
What Minister Frazer appears to be saying is that, because of the mass unemployment caused by this crisis, there’s really no need to pay our members a fair wage — because they have nowhere else to go.
No wonder so many officers feel like they’re being treated with contempt when the government openly uses the Covid crisis to deny them the few employment rights they have left.
As Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, told the Commons shortly after the decision: “The situation is unfair and unsustainable — and our prisons suffer as officers vote with their feet and leave the service, taking with them valuable skills, knowledge and experience at a time when we need it most.”
And his colleague Mary Kelly Foy, representing the neighbouring City of Durham constituency, added that this decision was “nothing less than a kick in the teeth for hard-working and loyal public servants.”
Unsurprisingly, this is also having a catastrophic effect on morale, especially when our members are going beyond the call of duty during this deadly pandemic to protect the public.
And the claim that this pay rise is unaffordable simply will not wash when the government is spending at least £4 billion on a new generation of private prisons.
Our union will not take this pay betrayal lying down. Although we are banned from taking industrial action, we have launched a judicial review to challenge this disgraceful decision — and we welcome all support and solidarity from the trade union movement and beyond in our fight for pay justice.
By ignoring their own experts and punishing our members instead of showering them with rewards, ministers have broken the trust and respect of a loyal and brave workforce who have kept this critical service running through the toughest of circumstances. We insist the government thinks again.
A POA Spokesman said: “Please ask your MP to sign the cross-party EDM 1274: Recommendations on prison officer pay, which calls on the government to accept the PSPRB recommendations in full.”