A year unlike any other: pressure in the prison, correctional and secure psychiatric system

Phil Fairlie says the time for debts to be paid to public service workers has now arrived.

Following a year of living life that has been completely dominated by a global pandemic and one which has had an immeasurable impact on every one of us in a way we could never have envisaged, we now face the prospect of coming to terms with the fact that we are nowhere close to being able to contemplate returning to normal for some time to come yet. In fact, it is more likely we need to come to terms with the fact that ‘back to normal’ is not going to be one we remember and accept that a ‘new normal’ is to be a permanent feature of life going forward.

For unions that means recognising this early and start planning for what the ‘new normal’ means for those workers we represent. Our first priority is to make sure they are safe in their workplaces, and that all steps needed to protect them are being taken. Not after the facts as a ‘lesson learned’ response, but as a proactive, preventative step, so that we are not looking back with regrets.

For those of us working in the prisons in Scotland, there was genuine fear of the impact a pandemic would have within our prisons. It is a perfect environment for rapid spread, and potential fatalities on a large scale. As of today, that has not happened. We have lost people and, for those families, life will never be the same again. The control of the spread, and the management of the regimes inside our prisons has been a Herculean effort by all involved, and the staff are due enormous credit for putting themselves in the front line every day, keeping themselves and those held in our prisons, as safe as can be in the circumstances.

That effort and commitment has been reflected right across so many sectors by workers who have gone above and beyond day in, day out. We have rightly stood on the streets and applauded for some of them, but not them all. And that is wrong. We talk in terms of key workers or front-line workers and it is right that we applaud and praise them. But it is equally right that we do the same for every single worker who has played their part, risked themselves and their families to keep things moving, keep things ticking over, so the rest of us can get on with doing our part, and living our lives.

Prison officers get very frustrated whenever we hear government ministers or media refer to uniform, or front-line services, and never include prison staff when handing out praise or acknowledgement. Being behind the walls and out of public consciousness does not just apply to those serving sentences – which is why I have every sympathy with those workers throughout this pandemic who have been there every day making their contribution and risking themselves to do so, yet not get so much as a passing mention in some quarters. They deserve the recognition and respect as much as those who regularly hit the headlines.

For those of us who are public sector workers, the Scottish Budget matters a great deal in terms of direction of travel for public services, and for pay. The most recent announcement then has been a major disappointment to unions, at least in terms of pay. The Scottish Government rightly criticised the Westminster Government for its announced pay freeze when it cited the cost of COVID as the reason. Funny how it is always those you rely on most in times of difficulty that end up rewarded the least.

However, after setting expectations of a radically different approach by the Scottish Government, its own approach to public sector pay was, to say the least, a kick in the teeth for those impacted by the announcement. A 1% cap was hardly radical, and certainly not reasonable given the efforts this year, by those tasked with keeping the wheels moving. In fact, it was only just enough to allow it to claim it wase different to the Westminster Government.
Prison officers are protected from that gut punch this year, given we are in the third year of a three-year pay deal that betters that outcome by some distance. But I have every sympathy with my colleagues who now have the job of managing their memberships who, having put their lives on the line this year, are being asked again to suck up the consequences of government priorities now lying elsewhere.

It is perfectly clear from unions’ reactions that this is not an issue that is over, not by some distance. Anyone in government who thinks what has happened here is fair are in for a rude awakening. Workers have just paid more than a decade of the price of full-blown austerity at the hands of various governments who simply never see them as the solution to the economic crisis. We are always simply part of the problem.

Given the year in which workers have carried the risks, sacrifices, endless dedication and commitment to keep others alive and an economy from crumbling, anyone who thinks that those efforts can be so easily forgotten or dismissed need to be disabused of that very quickly. It is for unions then to organise, to agitate, fight and win. In this year of all years, the various governments and employers owe their workers a huge debt and we, as their unions, owe them the commitment to see that this debt is paid.

Phil Fairlie is the Assistant General Secretary for the POA in Scotland