Is Liz Truss barking mad? POA leader gives his opinion …

steve-gillan-portraitStephen Gillan is a decent man. Rather than launch an immediate attack on new Justice Secretary Liz Truss, he’s giving her time to get her feet under the table.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s giving her an easy ride. He’s simply acknowledging that since her appointment in July, Truss has already promised to recruit an additional 2,500 prison officers, agreed to lower the pension age from 68 to 65 and offered a new pay deal to staff.

Is it enough to solve the current prisons crisis? No, says the POA’s general secretary, but it’s a step in the right direction. His members are currently voting on the proposed reforms, with the result expected next week.

“It’s fair to say Liz Truss has had a bumpy ride since she’s come in,” he says. “For much of that time she’s been picking up the pieces from her predecessors, Chris Grayling and Michael Gove who, I think, made a complete mess of the prison system.

“The budget cuts – 30% fewer staff – haven’t helped, but Liz Truss has tried to fight for more money and she’s succeeded. Whether it’s enough to satisfy our members remains to be seen, but she has got some additional monies back that were taken away from us in the first place, so she’s recognised, I think, her own government cut far too much.”

Compared to Grayling and Gove, I suppose anyone is going to look vaguely competent, but Gillan doesn’t let her get away scot free.

“I don’t think she’s dealt with the media very well,” he says. “I don’t think she’s dealt with answering questions in the House of Commons very well. For example, the other day, I think to say that barking patrol dogs are going to scare away the drones was laughable really, and shows that whoever’s briefing her isn’t briefing her very well.

“Whether she meant to say that or not remains to be seen but it gave everyone a good laugh and a chance to say that perhaps she was barking mad.”

Truss has a difficult brief. Prisons in the UK are in crisis. Overcrowded and dangerous, attacks on staff rose 43% to 5,954 in the year to June, with 697 of them recorded as serious.

Gillan says: “There is a lack of staff, a lack of funding. For new starters coming into the job, the starting salary is £19,000 per year. I’m afraid they’re not going be able to recruit and retain on that basis because people are coming into the job, looking around and saying ‘I’m not going to do that job for that sort of money’.

“Experienced staff, as well, are starting to leave because prisons are unsafe, and we need to get back to basics of doing the job properly and thoroughly to ensure our prisons aren’t awash with drugs, mobile phones. etc. When it’s easier to get drugs into prison than a bar of soap, you have to worry.

“Prison officers must be empowered again to do the job that society wants them to do and that’s keeping the public safe.”

That any concessions have been made is tribute to the strength of the POA, which last month organised a protest – not a strike – that saw 10,000 members walk out over health and safety concerns.

Gillan chooses his words carefully because prison officers are not allowed by law to strike.

“It’s an issue that’s been around since 1994,” he says. “We still believe it’s a fundamental human right to be able exercise that right to strike, however with all the legislation coming in now about thresholds and different things, which will probably make it even more difficult for trade unions to take lawful strike action, it might be we’re better off sitting outside that legislation and taking protest action as we have done in the past over health and safety issues.”

After the protest, well-known liberal commentator Piers Morgan accused the POA of being “irresponsible” and “reckless” by abandoning their posts.

“We weren’t reckless at all,” snorts Gillan. “We made sure there was cover in place because this wasn’t about taking action against prisoners; we were taking action partly on their behalf because some of the stuff that’s going on inside jails – prisoner assaults, taking drugs, mobile phones – prisoners themselves aren’t feeling safe.

“Our members aren’t feeling safe. When assaults have increased by 40% on last year and prisoner suicides and self-harm are up, we have no alternative other than protest action.”

* The POA ballot closes on December 20th. Our story here.

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