Strike action could be on the cards at prisons across England and Wales as a ballot opens tomorrow (Friday) for University and College Union (UCU) members at the country’s largest prison education provider, Novus. The ballot is over Covid health and safety concerns and will close on Friday 9 April.
If UCU members back strike action, educators at 49 prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales will walk out.
The row centres on Novus’s failure to meaningfully engage with UCU over Covid health and safety concerns and on-site provision. Novus has refused to drop complaints and investigations against staff who have raised safety concerns. As these staff are UCU’s health and safety representatives, UCU believes it is impossible for the employer to meaningfully engage in health and safety discussions until this intimidation stops.
The union accused Novus of putting contract delivery ahead of staff safety during a pandemic, and said it is extremely worried about reports from members of increased levels of violence in the youth estate. The ballot comes after 97% of staff attending a UCU branch meeting voted no confidence in the chief executive of Novus’s parent company, John Thornhill, over health and safety issues.
UCU members will also vote on whether to take action short of a strike. This includes refusing to go on the wings for any purpose other than moving through the prison to access the education department, and non-attendance on site where members believe that inadequate safety measures are in place.
UCU has asked Novus to use the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) to try to resolve the issue but did not receive a response.
This week it was reported that Covid death rates are three times higher in prisons than the general population.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:
‘Prison educators should not be forced into a position where they have to withdraw their labour to protect themselves. Covid death rates on the prison estate are incredibly worrying, as are the increased levels of violence our members are reporting across the youth estate. Novus staff are just asking for improved safety measures to protect them from danger during a pandemic. It is incredible that Novus is ignoring offers to go to ACAS to resolve these issues and is risking industrial action across prisons in England and Wales instead of taking our concerns seriously.
‘Staff have done all they can to continue to support offenders throughout the pandemic, all they are asking in return is for their employer to listen to safety concerns. Yet Novus seems intent on risking their safety to deliver on government contracts. Novus must withdraw its complaints and investigations of our health and safety representatives so we can have meaningful discussions free from intimidation. Otherwise, we will move forward with a ballot for industrial action.’