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DESPITE the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation which prevents my colleagues in England and Wales from taking lawful industrial action, the only barrier that exists in Scotland preventing Scottish prison officers from withdrawing their labour and bringing the prisons and court system to a grinding halt is the hope that common sense will prevail.
Without doubt all public-sector workers need and deserve a pay rise — a rise that not only helps deal with basic inflationary pressures but also a concerted approach by the Scottish government to public-sector pay that provides the necessary funding to address the earnings lost through the years of austerity.
Prison officers are no different. Indeed, the many years of austerity pay have only served to accelerate an erosion of not only pay and terms of conditions of service but of the recognition and regard afforded to them as to other disciplined uniform services.
There has been no greater example of this in recent times than the ludicrous position arising from the Hutton report on public-sector pension reform in 2011 that compels prison officers to work until the age of 68.
No-one — and certainly not my members — would deny that firefighters, police and the armed forces operate in very difficult circumstances and should rightly be able to look forward to retiring at a point in their life when they can look forward to a lengthy period free from the physical and mental stress placed upon them through their career.
The question from my members is why, then, when prison officers are faced daily with having to work in an increasingly hostile environment, are they not considered in the same manner?
The figures don’t lie — there are increasing levels of violence shown towards prison officers, often as a result of prisoners crazed with the effects of the latest psychoactive substance, a development in custodial drug habits that is also seeing an adverse effect on the health of prison officers who come into contact with the products.
A volatile mixture of the dangerous and the unknown, which has led to increasing levels of sickness absence among staff.
If this is not a tough enough environment already, throw into the mix the snowballing of prisoner numbers — projected to reach 8,500 by the summer — and you have a perfect storm.
There may be many reasons why the numbers look like they do — longer term sentences, much lower use of alternatives like tagging historical offences etc — but whatever the reasons, overcrowded prisons simply compound the difficulties faced by prison officers.
Staff are consumed by delivering the daily routine that little or no rehabilitation work or purposeful activity can be carried out, which in turn can lead to greater incidents of prisoner indiscipline — all of which adds to the pressure on staff whose morale is already at rock bottom.
We’re operating a “jail within a jail” was how Barlinnie in Glasgow was described to me by one of our members and when you have over 400 additional prisoners it’s easy to grasp the sentiment behind the exasperation.
It isn’t any wonder that our members have asked the union to call a special conference to demonstrate the strength of feeling that exists around the level of pay they command in comparison to other uniformed services.
As far as my members are concerned, they are the forgotten and are treated like the poor cousins of the uniformed services.
They have seen a consistent erosion of not only their pay and conditions but their status within society as a disciplined uniformed service.
Many may still believe they are a rank-and-file disciplined service, but the reality is they are victims of historical attempts to privatise prison services in Scotland and turn them into an Americanised correctional service — something that in fact has failed.
Although the Scottish government has reversed this trend and openly supports public-sector provision, our members continue to suffer from the legacy of attempts to drive through private-sector pay and terms and conditions.
The Scottish government can and must reconsider their policy on public-sector pay. It’s essential that it takes the opportunity to build upon the progress made when lifting the pay cap and delivers the funding necessary to begin the restoration of lost earnings to thousands of workers across Scotland.
What is being made clear by my members is that they have had enough, they want no more window-dressing rhetoric which tells them there is jam tomorrow.
The Prison Officers Association is coming to congress this year with a very clear message for the Scottish government — prison officers feel overworked, underpaid and undervalued and if the only way they can draw attention to their plight is to take action then they are clearly prepared to do this.
Andy Hogg is assistant general secretary of POA (Scotland).
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