Hundreds of prison staff prepare for fourth day of strike action in long-running Covid dispute

Around 600 staff at 49 prisons, including HMP Hindley, will go on strike tomorrow in a long-running health and safety dispute.

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 11:23 am

It will be the fourth time the workers, who are employed by Novus and represented by the University and College Union (UCU), have walked out in the past two months.

The dispute is over health and safety concerns raised by prison educators, claims Novus have failed to engage with UCU and and allegations that management have attempted to intimidate staff who raised concerns.

In January, during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, UCU wrote to all English prison education employers requesting changes to education delivery to keep staff and learners safe.

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HMP Hindley

They say every employer apart from Novus - the biggest prison education employer in the UK - responded positively to the union’s requests, confirming they had put new safety measures in place such as skeleton staffing, strict workplace bubble rotas and limiting in-person teaching.

UCU says Novus declined to meet health and safety representatives and instead launched an investigation into them.

The union claims it has received reports from members that new and inexperienced Novus staff have been sent onto wings without personal protection training; workers have been asked to visit multiple residential units, negating attempts to create workplace bubbles; and that learners have come into class vaping.

UCU and Novus have met several times to try to resolve the dispute, through mediation via ACAS, but UCU say Novus refused to drop investigations into health and safety representatives.

At an ACAS meeting on Friday, Novus reportedly said the investigation had finished, but refused to share its findings with UCU or assure the union that no action would be taken against staff fighting for a safe teaching and learning environment.

The UCU said Novus also refused to share the terms of reference of the investigation or the names of its investigators, and the UCU members being investigated were not spoken to.

UCU said it has a mandate for further industrial action and Novus will face further disruption if it refuses to drop its investigations or address safety concerns raised by staff.

Novus employee and safety representative Brian Hamilton said: "Continuous industrial action on this scale by prison educators is unprecedented and reflects the anger staff feel about the lack of care Novus has for our safety.

"At the height of the second wave, we asked to meet with management to discuss how we could adapt teaching to keep both educators and learners safe from Covid. Yet managers have refused to deal with our concerns in good faith and responded by using spurious investigations to intimidate us. Six months on, colleagues continue to report serious Covid health and safety issues like the breakdown of workplace bubbles, a lack of personal protection training and learners vaping in class. We will not let Novus continue to treat us in this way.

"This is now the fourth day of strike action and we are absolutely prepared to take further industrial action to protect our colleagues and learners."

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "For Novus to end this dispute, all it needs to do is take staff safety concerns seriously and withdraw the unfair and spurious investigations it has launched against our health and safety representatives. Our members are hugely passionate about educating those inside prisons, but both the learner and the educator must be kept safe. Every other employer has been able to engage with the safety requests of staff, it’s time Novus did too."

Mark Fairhurst, national chairman of the POA, which represents more than 30,000 prison, correctional and secure psychiatric workers, said: "Prison officers stand with Novus employees fighting for their health and safety. Novus should be ashamed that staff have been forced into a position where they have to go on strike to protect themselves. It now needs to resolve the dispute rather than causing further disruption for learners and prison officers."

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