Update 23rd December 2019 – Five Questions
The trade union that represents prison officers has been fined £210,000 for two “deliberate breaches” of an anti-strike injunction – a fine one prisons expert has described as a ‘vital and necessary warning’ .
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) took legal action to enforce a High Court order made in 2017 which prevents the POA from “inducing, authorising or supporting any form of industrial action by any prison officer”.
The POA admitted inducing national strike action by prison officers in September 2018 and supporting industrial action at HMP Liverpool in February in breach of the injunction.
But the union argued that the injunction represented a “disproportionate interference” with the right to freedom of association and should not have been made, meaning they should not be found in breach of the order.
Giving judgment on Thursday, Lady Justice Simler and Mr Justice Cavanagh rejected the POA’s argument, finding that the union “was and remains bound by the terms of the injunction and … has breached those terms”.
They added: “The exceptional nature of the prison environment means that the risks and potential consequences of the withholding of services by prison officers are grave.”
The judges said prison officers provided “a truly essential service”, and that any limits on their right to strike were justified.
The court said prison officers were “more akin to police officers and members of the armed forces”, both of which face “similar, if not greater, restrictions on freedom of association”.
The POA argued that the admitted breaches should result in “a last warning” – as if this was some form of prison adjudication where the prisoner pleads for a bender.
But the court imposed a £95,000 fine over the strike in 2018, and £115,000 over the stoppage at HMP Liverpool.
The judges said the POA “appears to us to have behaved as if it is above the law, and literally to have shown contempt for solemn court orders with penal notices”.
They added: “We accept that there is no evidence of actual harm caused as a result of either incident, and that both were relatively short-lived. However, the potential risks and consequences were grave.”
The court noted that the Secretary of State had not sought a finding of contempt against any individual, but added: “Had he done so these deliberate contempts are likely to have warranted a custodial penalty.”
In a brief statement after the ruling, the POA said it was considering an appeal against the decision.
The union said: “This is a disappointing result and our struggle for justice will continue.”
The court heard that the breach in September 2018 was prompted by an urgent notification letter sent by HM Chief Inspectorate of Prisons to the MoJ over the potential for a “complete breakdown” in order and discipline at HMP Bedford.
The union’s general secretary Steve Gillan then called for “all POA members in England and Wales prisons to take protest action outside their workplace”, in a press release on the union website.
The High Court found that this was “a clear inducement to members of the POA to strike” in breach of the injunction.
The second breach in February followed the dismissal of a prison officer at HMP Liverpool, the judgment said.
Time for Honesty
It is no secret that I have long been critical of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), a trade union whose heart is in the right place but whose brain is locked in a decades old, out of date, approach to modern industrial relations.
An approach where instead of sitting around a table and talking like adults on behalf of their members, they are instead constantly banging the table, issuing threats and demands by holding out the prospect of unrest in our prisons with talk of illegal protests and walkouts by staff, taking prisoners hostage to their demands, as a ridiculous way of seeking to force industrial concessions.
That approach has never worked in the more than thirty years since the so-called Fresh Start agreement of October 1987 sought to usher in a new way of working. It was an agreement the POA were frankly bonkers to sign, never read or at least totally misunderstood the small print, and which resulted in prison officers being duped into a Time off in Lieu (TOIL) scandal where they were owed tens of thousands of hours of TOIL for the extra work they had honestly put in – but TOIL for which they were unable to claim back because the agreement stipulated TOIL could only be taken when the Governor decided he had sufficient staff on duty to man the prison and allow it.
The shortage of staff that caused the TOIL to be earned in the first place became precisely the reason why it could not then later be taken – the POA should have seen that TOIL juggernaut heading down the tracks towards them a mile off, but they missed it completely.
The POA response to this was understandably one of anger, they had been duped into Fresh Start by a far more intelligent team of negotiators at the then Prison Department who frankly ran rings around them.
Fresh Start itself as an agreement was wholly defective – it didn’t even include a Break Clause so they could return to it and renegotiate it later and so instead they responded more out of embarrassment than common sense with a series of pointless and damaging industrial practices – by holding prison governors in industrial headlocks, where prison managers were unable to introduce much-needed reforms without POA agreement; where the tail didn’t so much wag the dog as seek to strangle it and which ultimately saw the dog neutered when prison privatisation was ushered in just five years later and the POA in the private sector lost its voice and impact completely.
These are facts – not conjecture – and the POA does not like to be reminded of its history as I have discovered
Many prison officers have misinterpreted my criticism of the POA as either a hatred of prison officers generally, or an intense dislike of the Union itself in particular, and both are equally and categorically wrong.
Two things make this clear – one is well known and the second being one that many in the higher echelons of the POA would perhaps prefer be kept secret but for reasons I will go into shortly need now to be disclosed.
Firstly, I believe in Trade Unions and workers rights, it’s in my blood – I was born and bred in Manchester, where Trade Unions were created, where the Suffragette struggle began and where world class manufacturing like Rolls Royce along with the steel and cotton mills and the industrial revolution itself were all born – and like my father before me I am a member of the Labour Party and, yes, a trade union member too.
Secondly, I am proud to say that I have many friends, good friends, long time friends, who are serving prison officers right across the country, for whom we have mutual respect, we disagree from time to time of course we do, what friends don’t? But what is less well known and which the POA will not perhaps thank me for reminding them of is that two of the people who attended my private retirement party four years ago in Manchester were the current POA General Secretary and the former POA National Chairman.
I mention this now because my recent criticism of the POA, a fact proved right and laid bare today by the judgement you can read for yourself at the foot of this page, has recently seen me become the victim of a vile, hate campaign by some POA members – one of whom, an elected POA Branch Official at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in online screenshots I have, has even suggested I am a convicted sex offender, a sex tourist in effect, just because I choose to live with my partner and our two children in Thailand.
For the record I have never been accused, arrested, interviewed, questioned, charged, tried or convicted of any sexual offences – ever. I am not a tourist in Thailand I have Thai residency here and a Thai ID card – something biometrically checked and which no-one can obtain with convictions for drugs or sexual offences anywhere in the world.
But that hasn’t stopped the vile defamatory attacks by POA members because I dare to criticise their Union’s approach to industrial relations – an approach this fine shows I was right about and which they need to take as a vital and necessary warning.
The truth is a simple one – I support the POA in principle but no-one in their right mind can support them in practice; just look at the facts – what have their negotiation skills achieved?
Prison officers must retire now at 68, a ridiculous retirement age for prison officers on any view – but what have the POA achieved in their four-year long campaign to have it reduced to 60?
Nothing: in fact worse than that, on 13th May 2019 the POA created a public online Petition to have the Prison Officer retirement age reduced to 60 – online petitions run for six months, so this one was due to run until 13th November 2019 but it was closed one week short of that deadline on 6th November 2019 when, due to the General Election all online Petitions closed.
In that one-week-short-of-six-months deadline, with their 28,000 prison officer members, along with all their families, friends, the petition achieved just 7,121 signatures – not even reaching the 10,000 signatures required for a Government response – and not even that gives the full sad story as an analysis of the petition’s JSON data shows that 637 of those signatures came from Members of Parliament most of whom would have had serving prison officers in their constituencies and been politically alert and keen for their votes.
Assaults on prison officers are at record levels, defensive PAVA spray was supposed to be rolled out nationally a year ago, what have the POA achieved in their year-long campaign to have it introduced?
Rigibars, which are like rigid police handcuffs (unbelievably prison officers do not even have any handcuffs at all unless on escort), these have been promised for two years – what have the POA achieved on that?
You’ve guessed it – nothing.
Protests – prison officers have been required by the POA to stand sheepishly outside prison gates in illegal protests – what have those protests achieved?
Nothing – well that isn’t quite true, they achieved two things; firstly every prison officer who took part in those protests lost pay for doing so, and now the Union has been fined £210,000 of their Members subs to pay for their foolhardiness.
POA Members have had enough – they may not say so publicly on social media lest they are targetted in the same vile way that I have been – but on closed whatsapp groups up and down the country they are making their frustration clear – and it’s not a secret either any longer.
Out of 27,860 Ballot Papers distributed in the November 2019 election for POA General Secretary, the turnout was just 8.1% of the membership, the General Secretary received just 1,253 votes or 4% of the membership – 96% of the membership were so indifferent they couldn’t even be bothered to return their ballot forms.
What kind of a mandate is that?
And it’s the same too for the POA National Chairman – he too was elected in 2017 with just 4% of the entire POA Membership.
Predictably the POA in response to the fine of £210,000 said it would continue with its ‘struggle’ and was considering an appeal.
Grow up – the court has already made clear (see the judgement below) that POA Officials only escaped custodial sentences because the Ministry of Justice never sought committal – but had they done so the judge was clear it was a distinct possibility they could have been jailed.
Court Judgment para 142: “Sir James Eadie made clear at the outset that the Secretary of State does not seek the imposition of a penalty against any individual. Had he done so these deliberate contempts are likely to have warranted a custodial penalty. A fine is sought as an alternative, but it must reflect the same level of seriousness.”
What greater warning do you need?
This is not a class war struggle, the POA are supposed to be representing modern day intelligent prison officers, not revisiting the Jarrow March.
These are the painful facts – and now is a time for honesty.
If we want to make our prisons safe, decent, secure, respectful and humane, then there is a need now for a new Prison Officers Union, one that has the full support of its members, that isn’t trapped in pointless, destructive 1980’s industrial practices, that achieves for its members, that improves their conditions, provides the means to defend themselves against assault, one that increases their pay, rather than sees it docked, and one where their subs are used to fund the advancement of the union and not pay the fines of the courts or the legal bills of lawyers on both sides of this seemingly endless dispute.
It’s time for honesty – it’s time for change.