29 Jan Step Forward for Safety
MPs across the aisle are helping prison staff blow the whistle on ‘rogue governors’, reports Charley Allan
Coronavirus has made every workplace in the world more dangerous – and with UK prison officers already enduring the most hostile working environment in Western Europe, major operational changes have been needed to protect their health and safety during this pandemic.
The Ministry of Justice was quick to realise this crisis could easily turn into a catastrophe and listened to the POA leadership about how to protect their members and prisoners in their care. But despite tough new restrictions on regimes, reports soon began to surface about management rule-breaking.
Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington & Sunderland West, confronted Justice Secretary Robert Buckland in Parliament about the issue in April, revealing: “While most prisons are taking every precaution to prevent the spread of Covid-19, union sources report that some rogue governors are attempting to return to business-as-usual practices, such as unlocking large numbers of prisoners and restarting training courses.”
Hodgson asked if Buckland would “condemn that reckless behaviour and agree that all governors should be following official guidance, without exception?” The Lord Chancellor agreed she was “right to point out the danger of over-enthusiasm going ahead of the guidance” and added: “My advice – my instruction – to everybody involved in this is to stick to the guidelines.”
Poor prison management was raised directly with Buckland again later that next month at the Justice Select Committee, with Labour’s Paula Barker (Liverpool Wavertree) asking about “a number of rogue governors across the estate who have taken appalling risks during this crisis, which have led to unnecessary increases in cases of Covid-19.”
Buckland passed on the question to fellow witness HMPPS CEO Jo Farrar, who claimed to be “very surprised to hear that you feel there are a number of rogue governors” because “we have strict governance around the process,” adding that, “if you have specific examples, of course I am very happy to follow them up, but I think we have had quite a success in prisons because of the way we have operated.”
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Next it was former shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon’s turn to interrogate the Lord Chancellor, and he raised the multi-union Safe Inside recovery strategy for relaxing prison restrictions. The Leeds East MP explained that the POA and other prison unions “have asked if the Government can introduce a ‘know your rights’ campaign and, something I think is very crucial, a whistleblowing hotline, which would be alongside a commitment to intervene to prevent contractors or rogue governors enforcing unsafe working practices.”
Burgon asked if Buckland would “make that commitment to workers and introduce the measures the unions are calling for, including very specifically the whistleblowing hotline”, to which the Lord Chancellor replied that he “would need to know the fullest details about the proposals” but was “always interested in and engaged in issues that will allow frontline workers to bring their concerns to the fore without fear or favour.
“Without having looked at the detail, which I will do, as an undertaking to you, I can say this. I absolutely share and endorse the aims of any campaign that leads to a culture of openness. It is only through openness that we improve the system.”
He added: “It disturbs me if there are examples and evidence of a failure of that approach, because I think that is a failure of leadership. I will consider very carefully what you have said, but you can rest assured that the aim of openness and the aim of freedom of complaint, to coin a phrase, are things that I very much share with the unions you have mentioned.”
But Burgon persisted, raising urgent concerns: “No one disputes the fact that the vast majority of governors are doing a great job in very difficult circumstances, but recently there was a meeting of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group (JUPG), and at that group the national chair of the Prison Officers Association, Mark Fairhurst, referring to a particular prison, said, and these were his words: ‘The governor there thinks he can play God with people’s lives.’
“He gave a troubling case study of appalling risks being taken; for example, sessions were still being held in the chapel after lockdown – choir sessions, craft sessions, bingo – allowing prisoners to congregate in large groups. There are unrepresentative instances of rogue governors, and I think that a hotline would ensure that workers in those prisons could raise these very concerning issues quickly without it escalating in a way that ends up bringing the whole operation in the prison to a standstill unnecessarily.”
Select Committee chair Robert Neil underlined this request by asking: “Are you happy to have a look at that, Lord Chancellor?” Buckland agreed.
Using POA research, Barker wrote to Farrar highlighting leadership problems at a number of prisons. JUPG co-chairs Liz Saville Roberts and Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede followed up on Barker’s letter, citing the union’s evidence and supporting the call for a whistleblowing hotline. Burgon also tabled Early Day Motion #667 on the issue, which was co-sponsored by Saville Roberts, Barker and other JUPG members.
The hotline was raised again in Parliament both by Labour’s Alex Norris (Nottingham North) and Conservative Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne & Sheppey) in July, with Norris telling MPs: “Ministry guidance is clear that a positive whistleblowing culture can save lives, jobs, money and more, yet unions consider the current procedures to be unfit for purpose and are calling for urgent changes, starting with a single dedicated hotline for reporting concerns.” He asked: “Will the Secretary of State listen to his staff and take action to protect them?”
Buckland replied: “HMPPS is reviewing and updating the policy. We very much hope it will be published later this year, following close liaison with the trade unions.”
His colleague Gordon Henderson pressed the point, asking: “Following on from that answer, does my right hon. Friend accept that there are grave concerns among prison staff about the inadequacies of the current whistleblowing system? Will he undertake an urgent review to satisfy himself that it is fit for purpose? If it is not, will he set up a new whistleblower hotline which staff can use with the confidence that it is truly confidential?”
Buckland replied: “I want to get it right – I want whistleblowing to be a safe and meaningful exercise for all staff, and I am happy to undertake that review, which will be completed later in the year.”
This represents a welcome shift – just a week earlier, Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer had responded to written Parliamentary Questions (PQs) from Richard Burgon by stating that the MoJ “do not have any current plans to initiate a specific whistleblowing hotline or campaign.”
AIM FOR AUTUMN
After his Commons questions, Henderson tabled PQs about the scope and timeframe of the new HMPPS review, to which Minister Frazer answered: “The existing Ministry of Justice whistleblowing policy is currently being reviewed by the MoJ HR Policy team. The changes being looked at are primarily extra resources and language changes to further encourage individuals to raise any concerns. We are aiming to conclude this and launch the new policy in the Autumn.”
When Parliament returned from Summer Recess, Henderson asked what progress had been made with the review, with Minister Frazer replying on 14 October that “drafts of the updated policy and supporting guidance documents are currently with trade unions, as part of a wider consultation exercise” – which was certainly news to the POA!
Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum await the outcome of this review with interest, while preparing to fight for a fully functional and confidential whistleblowing hotline available to all directly and non-directly employed staff – vital to keeping both violence and the virus under control as prisons move out of lockdown.