Not the climate for a dinosaur: The Prison Officers' Association, which flourished in the Eighties while other unions were defeated, now faces the prospect of jail privatisation. Isabel Hilton considers its future

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In any history of trade unions during the Thatcher years, one anomaly stands out: while the print unions and miners were defeated in titanic confrontations and saw their industries transformed, one powerful union not only survived but actually grew in strength. It was not that the Prison Officers' Association was loved by government, or by anyone else much. But it presented peculiar difficulties even to a government contemplating a head-on assault.

Some regard the POA as the last dinosaur, a relic of an age that has all but ended. Last week, with the announcement that the Government was to put the management of Strangeways prison out to tender, came the clearest signal to date that, like the dinosaur, the POA was about to experience a climate change it might not survive.

The shock of that announcement still resonates in the union's headquarters in north London. The union had no prior notice; the announcement was made on a day when it was taking a public relations battering for its handling of the Ashworth special hospital inquiry. Now the union must decide whether it will encourage the Prison Department to tender for the Strangeways contract - impossible to contemplate without its support - or whether this is the ground on which it must fight. Neither route promises a comfortable journey: if privatisation is supposed to encourage efficiency savings through job losses, as the union believes, then co-operation will not save staffing levels or national agreements. But the POA is wary of a confrontation that some officials believe the Government would welcome as a distraction from its other troubles. The POA knows that it would be hard pressed to win public support. Who is to blame for its unpopularity is a matter for debate.

Ten years ago, there would have been little argument. The union was universally regarded as an inward-looking body that could not rise above the macho culture of its members: an overweening and unco- operative institution, corrupted by Spanish customs and as suspicious of fellow trade unions as it was contemptuous of management. Its industrial power and reactionary outlook made it both an impediment to prison reform and a convenient scapegoat for the failure of successive governments to tackle a deepening prison crisis.

The only defence of the POA was that the failings of prison management had created the monster: the union had been allowed to set staffing levels, decide where prisoners should be located, organise shift patterns and determine overtime, enforcing its writ with ready recourse to industrial action. The lack of interest it took in its disastrous image reflected a sense that it held real power and did not need to generate wider sympathy.

But prison reform groups and fellow trade unions now describe an institution which has undergone a change, at least at the top, that once would have seemed impossible. In the last few years, the POA national executive has sought to move out of its isolation. It has embraced progressive positions on race relations and gender issues, and at last accepted that decent conditions for prisoners bring decent working conditions for prison officers. It used to regard other unions as rivals for jobs within prisons, but now seems willing to co-operate: it meets regularly with other unions, holds discussions with such bodies as the Prison Reform Trust and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and produces thoughtful policy documents for government inquiries. It also co-operated with the government's Fresh Start initiative in the late Eighties and there have been no pay disputes in the prison system, officials point out, for nearly 12 years. Even the union's truculent national chairman, John Bartell, has toned down his language. It has been, as one former insider put it, 'a charm offensive'.

How deep the change of heart goes is, like most things about the POA, subject to interpretation. Sceptics point out that the enlightened noises at the top tend to become inaudible towards the bottom of the pyramid - that, for instance, while the executive refines policies on racial and sexual harassment, both are still rife in prisons. And when, as happened last week over the Ashworth inquiry report, serious questions are raised about the behaviour of some POA members, the union responds with a defensiveness that hardly suggests a commitment to root out abuse. Has the POA really changed, or is the charm offensive merely a tactical response to a threat to its power?

Some outsiders believe that the desire for change is real, but that the POA executive has little room for manoeuvre. It is, structurally, an extremely decentralised union: there are 128 prisons and 128 branches, each isolated from other branches and other unions. The national executive, it is argued, has very limited power to enforce its writ over a powerful local branch chairman. The union could, therefore, be described as a progressive head trying to bring a reactionary body into line. A group of men who wear uniforms, operate in a neo-military tradition, and work in oppressive institutions, are not natural reformers.

But that description does not satisfy other critics. 'The elected officers of the POA,' says one former official, 'of whom the most important is John Bartell, made their careers and still draw their support from the bigger prisons, the Victorian fortresses where the membership tends to be more extreme. They depend on the loyalty of people who don't want change. The executive has failed to exert any moral authority over its branches - they tread a very thin line, trying to pacify the reformers on one hand and the Sieg Heil] tendency on the other.'

It is also widely perceived that real reform in the union is hampered by bitter internal disputes. 'They close ranks under pressure,' observes one outsider, 'but left to themselves, they fight like ferrets in a sack. It's a weakness which means that when they are under attack, as they were over Ashworth, they unite and say 'No'.'

If there is common ground between defenders and critics of the POA, it is that prison management has helped to create the beast. That common perception, however, leads to some radically different conclusions. For Sir John Wheeler MP, a former assistant prison governor, the only way to force a recovery of control is to move to accountable management contracts. 'You cannot blame the POA for filling the vacuum where management is bad, but the POA is corrupt in the sense that it manages the operation of prisons for the benefit of its own members, not for the taxpayer or the greater good of the prison system. There have been 27 substantial reviews of management in under 30 years - nearly one a year. We don't need another review, we need action.'

Sir John rejects the idea that breaking the power of the POA is the main purpose of accountable management contracts. The important thing, he argues, is value for the taxpayer's pound. But nor does he deny that the Government regards the POA as the last of the old-fashioned unions to be tackled. And if the demise of the POA is a side-effect of privatisation, he would not grieve. 'The loyalty of men who wear the Queen's uniform,' he says, 'should be to the Queen, not to a trade union affiliated to the TUC.'

David Evans, the POA general secretary, also rejects the proposition that the union is the main target. The Government, he points out, is market-testing throughout the civil service, not just in the prison system. Next Monday, the POA's national executive meets to consider how to confront the crisis. 'None of the options,' remarks Mr Evans, in a blinding understatement, 'is convenient or easy.

'In 10 years' time there will still be prisons, there will still be the POA and the government will still be negotiating with us.' By then, he hopes, government will have realised that privatisation is a 'cul- de-sac' and will be in retreat.

An outsider puts it more starkly: 'There are dozens of ways of diluting POA power, short of full privatisation: contracting out a whole series of jobs within prisons, for instance. Privatisation is the final weapon, and on that one, the POA are damned if they co-operate and damned if they don't'

(Photograph omitted)