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600 staff at 49 prisons out on strike in Covid safety dispute

22 June 2021 | last updated: 23 June 2021

Around 600 staff at 49 prisons across England are set to strike tomorrow in a long running health and safety dispute with employer Novus.

The strike will be the fourth time the 600 staff members, represented by UCU, will have walked out in the past two months. The dispute is over the failure to address health and safety concerns raised by prison educators, a failure to meaningfully engage with UCU on the part of Novus, and repeated attempts by management to intimidate staff who had raised health and safety issues. Novus is the biggest prison education employer in the UK and is owned by parent company LTE Group.

At the height of the Covid second wave in January, UCU wrote to all English prison education employers requesting changes to education delivery to keep staff and learners safe. Every employer apart from Novus responded positively to the union's requests. Other prison education employers confirmed with UCU that they had put in place new safety measures in response to the second wave, including skeleton staffing, strict workplace bubble rotas, and limiting in-person teaching. They continue to work with UCU to ensure the continued health and safety of staff is a priority.

Unlike other employers, Novus refused to properly engage with UCU over these requests, continuously declining to meet employees who UCU members have elected as their health and safety representatives. Instead Novus launched an investigation into them. UCU has received reports from members that new and inexperienced Novus staff have been sent onto wings without any personal protection training; that staff have been asked to visit multiple residential units, negating attempts to create workplace bubbles; and that learners have come into class vaping.

Through mediation via ACAS, UCU has been able to meet with Novus multiple times to try to resolve the dispute. But Novus refused to drop investigations into UCU health and safety representatives. At an ACAS meeting last week (Friday 18 June), Novus 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. Novus also refused to share the terms of reference of the investigation or the names of its investigators. Nor were the UCU members being investigated ever spoken to as part of the investigation.

The Guardian has reported that Covid death rates are three times higher in prisons than the general population.

UCU said it has a mandate for further industrial action and Novus will face further disruption if it refuses to drop its spurious investigations or address serious 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.'

National Chair of the POA, which represents over 30k prison, correctional and secure psychiatric workers, Mark Fairhurst 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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