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No confidence vote at country's biggest prison educator amid claims of unlawful recordings and fake Twitter accounts

26 January 2021 | last updated: 16 February 2021

Staff at England and Wales's largest prison education provider, Novus, delivered a damning vote of no confidence in chief executive John Thornhill on Friday (22 January). Mr Thornhill is the CEO of Novus's parent company, the LTE Group.

Around 97% of staff attending a UCU Novus branch meeting agreed it should write to the board of LTE Group expressing its lack of confidence in Mr Thornhill, and demanding the company respect the privacy of staff and their right to be involved in lawful union activities free from intimidation. Membership of UCU's Novus branch has increased by more than 40% since the first national lockdown.

The vote was called because Novus has failed to engage with UCU over Covid health and safety concerns. The three other main prison education providers in England and Wales have all met with UCU to discuss how staff can safely provide education in prisons during lockdown. Due to Novus' failure to engage, UCU has also begun consulting members over industrial action to protect staff health and safety.

Concerns over intimidation and privacy have been raised after Mr Thornhill emailed all staff on 11 January about a UCU national meeting for prison educators from all four main providers, held on 7 January, and attended by over 250 UCU members. Mr Thornhill referred to a recording of the 7 January meeting covertly made by an attendee, and included a number of unsubstantiated complaints which he claims to have received about UCU representatives' behaviour during the meeting. The meeting was private and therefore the recording of it was unlawful.

This month a 'UCU Prison Education' account appeared on Twitter [edit: since deleted]. The account uses UCU branding and claims to represent members, but has not been set up by any UCU staff member or branch. The account has five followers, four of which are noteworthy. Of those, two accounts were created just this month. Janice O'Neill, whose Twitter biography says they are an 'educator' and 'union activist', and Rich Edwards who is described as a 'passionate trade unionist'. Rich shares his profile picture with a stock image from Zurich Insurance, and Janice shares hers with an article about dating an internet hoax. UCU is not able to find any prison education member with either of their names.

In total, these three accounts have tweeted seven times. Five of these tweets have attacked UCU. All three accounts reference a video of the unlawfully recorded meeting and make similar claims to Mr Thornhill. A fourth follower is Novus, and the final noteworthy follower is an account that has previously retweeted positive tweets about LTE, and who, according to UCU's investigations, shares the same name as LTE's head of communications.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'This overwhelming vote of no confidence in LTE Group chief executive Mr Thornhill is a damning indictment of his health and safety failings during the Covid pandemic. Staff health may be being put at risk because of his refusal to meet with UCU's chosen representatives to discuss how to deliver prison education safely. Mr Thornhill now needs to consider his position, and LTE's board must urgently address staff concerns.

'We will not tolerate the intimidation of our members by any employer, especially one that seeks to interfere with our members' right to express their views in a private union meeting.

'UCU's Novus branch has seen a huge increase in its membership during the pandemic, we believe this is because UCU has helped staff organise to protect themselves. The views expressed by the "UCU Prison Education" Twitter account are discredited by Novus branch's surge in membership and do not speak for those members who expressed their lack of confidence in Mr Thornhill. It is not an official UCU account and we will be asking Twitter to take it down.

'Novus and LTE now need to engage with us and help us keep their staff safe. Taking industrial action is always a last resort, but Mr Thornhill's behaviour may be putting staff at risk and we are now consulting members over a ballot.'

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