It was a pleasure to be invited address the first POA Conference in three years on Thursday 19 May.
The political landscape has changed dramatically since the last POA conference, but members still face the same challenges of poor pay, harsh terms and dangerous conditions.
For months on end, prison staff faced critical staffing shortages as well a risk to personal health.
Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, the warm words and gestures of gratitude to keyworkers have not materialised into real-world thanks in the form of pay rises or genuine improvement to terms and conditions.
To advance union campaigns over the past three years, the POA have continued to co-sponsor the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, a coalition of the POA and its sister unions Napo, PCS, UCU and the Police Federation of England & Wales.
Over 100 cross-party Parliamentarians are currently members of the JUPG. These MPs and Peers make up the bulk of the POA’s parliamentary support and have made numerous interventions on behalf of the union – including asking written and oral questions, Early Day Motions, debates, select committee sessions, legislation and letters to ministers.
I brought forward a Ten Minute Rule Bill in the last session.
Formally, the Prisons (Violence) Bill sought to ‘establish a duty on Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and private prison operators to minimise violence in prisons, and for connected purposes.’
Informally, the ‘Safe Inside Law’ sought to bring forward legislation to minimise violence in prisons.
Sadly – despite receiving cross-party support – the Bill fell when Parliament was prorogued in late April. There was no mention of prison legislation in the Queen’s Speech either.
However, I am determined that this Bill will not be lost. I intend to secure another slot and bring it before the House again, as legislation is desperately needed.
Violence in prisons has a devastating impact on society.
The sky-high level of violence plaguing our prisons makes rehabilitation inside practically impossible, meaning offenders often leave prison more damaged and dangerous than when they arrive.
And that leads to more reoffending – costing tens of billions of pounds a year and causing misery for millions of victims and their loved ones who have to live with the consequences of more crime.
The Prisons Strategy White Paper was a golden opportunity for urgently needed change.
My Bill aligned with the white paper’s stated aim to reduce prison violence, and uses the paper’s framework of Key Performance Indicators – KPIs, or management targets in old money – to achieve this.
KPIs are already used in private prisons to reward or penalise operators, but the Government’s new strategy extends these targets – and adds new ones – to public-sector prisons too.
It’s obvious that these new KPIs need to include safety – safety both for prisoners and for staff – but curiously this commitment is entirely missing from the white paper.
Essentially, my Bill sought to correct this omission. It would enshrine a statutory duty on prison management, public and private, to minimise violence – and if KPIs are the method ministers want to use, that’s the method we’ll use too.
Currently, the only prison safety targets involve “serious assaults”, which must for example involve hospital treatment. This needs to be extended to all kind of violence if ministers are serious about a “zero-tolerance” approach to bad behaviour.
Penalties could include fines for both public and private operators, with the money raised going towards making injury compensation schemes fit for purpose – by widening the scope for claims, removing the unfair barriers throughout the process, and lifting awards to reflect the bravery and commitment showed by prison officers and other workers.
Even ministers accept that staff cuts of more than 25% in the name of austerity triggered this crisis – just witness their recent rush to recruit more prison officers. But resignation rates have gone through the roof, with more officers now leaving each week than joining.
An answer to a recent written question revealed that almost 87,000 years of prison officer experience has been lost since 2010.
The white paper calls for an extra 5,000 prison officers to run the new generation of private prisons. But how will they do this, in light of their last failed recruitment drive?
The second part of my Bill sought to enshrine into law a range of initiatives designed to protect prisoners and staff from violence – and to encourage staff, especially prison officers, to stay in the job.
I firmly believe that experience of prison officers on the ground should inform policy and legislation.
As such, the my Bill was largely informed by the Safe Inside Charter. This set of reasonable and straightforward principles for safe systems of work is endorsed by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance – a coalition of nine national prison unions, namely the Prison Officers Association, the University and College Union, who represent prison educators, the Royal College of Nursing, the BMA, probation union NAPO, PCS, Unison, the GMB and Unite.
These unions have long called for the Ministry of Justice to adopt the Charter and mandate other prison employers to do the same.
There are other vital steps we must take to hold on to staff.
Make the Government accept all the Pay Review Body recommendations – including the £3,000 pay rise for entry-level prison officers – and make future advice legally binding on ministers.
Cancel all plans for new private prisons until we get to grips with why they are up to 50% more violent than public prisons.
Bring prison-officer pension age back down to 60 – because 68 is simply too late.
Above all, my aim with this Bill was to focus minds on the terrible conditions facing prisoners and staff, and to start a national conversation about how to solve this crisis.
It’s time to put warm words into action.