Loyalty and discipline gives union power to block reform

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THE Prison Officers' Association responded to criticism of its members in Sir Louis Blom-Cooper's report yesterday in characteristic style.

Whenever provoked, the union rallies round in a united front, fighting back against what was dubbed last night as a 'media campaign waged by those with a vested interest in attacking the POA'.

The militaristic nature of much of the job, the uniform and recruitment from the armed services has produced a fierce loyalty against an external enemy. It has also given the union a fearsome discipline among its 24,000 members and promoted a reputation of obstructive conservatism mixed with militancy and power.

Successive Home Secretaries have been reported to be ready to 'take on' the POA but all have backed away from a confrontation with one of the few unions to increase its influence since the Government came to power in 1979.

Few doubt that the POA and its autonomous prison branches have the ability to frustrate reform. It has also been happy, as the report indicated, to step into any power vacuum left by weak management.

Industrial relations last year descended to a mess of petty disputes running concurrently in up to 50 of the 130 prisons in England and Wales. Most involve staffing levels and the endless bickering reinforces the feeling of aggressive isolation felt by many POA members.

The union has also been a victim of government attempts to spread responsibility for the chronic state of many of Britain's penal institutions.

'The Government has been successful in heaping a lot of the blame on the POA for their failure of their own policies,' said Adam Sampson, deputy director of the Penal Reform Trust.

He cites the example of overcrowding where POA members have been forced to call a halt to admissions in fear of potential riot or injury to staff on duty. They have then been attacked for being responsible for the large numbers of prisoners being held in police cells.

'Prisoners are in police stations because there are not enough spaces in prison,' Mr Sampson said.

If the Government has not yet launched a frontal assault on the POA, it certainly has laid plans to decrease its power.

The first attempt was the 'Fresh Start' programme to reform working time by reducing the 60 and 70-hour weeks worked by most prison officers. Reliance on overtime by the prison service gave the union an extremely useful and effective weapon as it could be withdrawn at a moment's notice with devastating effect.

Prison privatisation - the first private prison at the Wolds, Humberside, was opened last year - is another tactic.

Other services, like catering, cleaning and basic security, could be contracted out while 'civilians' are expected to be employed for certain routine and administrative tasks.

Local negotiations on prison staffing and conditions represent the final step in a catalogue of reforms that would reduce the influence of the POA.

The leadership of the POA is said to recognise the threats to its future by a succession of small measures rather than the 'big bang' battle although the Home Office has yet to become aware of a more flexible approach at the negotiating table.

But there are also times when the traditional response will rule the day. Reaction to the Ashworth Hospital inquiry resulted in an attack on weak and wasteful management, a call for higher staffing levels and a demand for 'natural justice' for members suffering from allegations of staff brutality.

Leading article, page 20

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