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Sunday, March 06, 2011

Prison officers sue to stop private firm taking over four jails

Prison officers sue to stop private firm taking over four jails

G4S has an unfair advantage, says Prison Officers Association, warning that national strike may be imminent

By Eric Allison, Guardian, Sunday 6 March 2011 14.32 GMT

Birmingham prison - one of Europe's largest - is among the jails G4S wants to take over. Photograph: David Jones/PA

The Prison Officers Association (POA) is to launch a high court bid to prevent the UK's biggest private prisons contractor from taking over four prisons currently under review.

The association claims the company, G4S, has an unfair advantage in the bidding process because the former head of the National Offender Management Service (Noms) joined it months after leaving his post. A POA official has warned of a national strike over the privatisation issue and says the coalition government is training soldiers to run prisons in the event of industrial action.

Lawyers for the POA will attempt to exclude G4S from bidding to run the four jails. They will argue the appointment of Phil Wheatley, who stepped down as chief executive of Noms in June last year, as a consultant to G4S, prejudices the in-house bids made by state sector managers and staff. The POA say Wheatley's knowledge of the internal process of Noms will put other bidders at a disadvantage.

G4S operates in 110 countries and has nearly 600,000 employees worldwide.

The POA national chairman, Colin Moses, told the Guardian that Wheatley's appointment at G4S makes a mockery of a tendering process that is supposed be transparent.

He said: "We are seeking a judicial review of a process that clearly makes it impossible for the state sector to operate on a level playing field with this private company"

He added that senior civil servants should be excluded from working for those parts of the private sector that were in direct competition with departments they previously headed.

Wheatley is also part of a review team, set up to report on the conditions, management and oversight of the prisons in Northern Ireland, where none are currently privatised.

When he was head of Noms, Wheatley was critical of privately run jails, saying: "Private prison operators have brought little innovation to the management of custody and that the gains, such as they are, have come from using fewer staff, paying lower wages and providing less employment protection for staff."

The jails currently up for tender are Birmingham, Doncaster, Featherstone and Buckley Hall.

Another POA source told the Guardian that the privatisation of Birmingham, one of the biggest prisons in Europe, would lead to calls for a national strike. The Midlands jail, which houses 1,400 inmates, has one of the strongest union branches in the state sector.

The source said the coalition government is training soldiers to run prisons should the POA take strike action. A senior prison service official has also told the Guardian that Territorial Army troops are to be put on standby to run the prison system in the event of a national strike by prison staff.

G4S currently runs four prisons in England and Wales. A spokesman for the company said Wheatley joined it as an associate at the start of the year to provide its care and justice division with "strategic advice around the development of its global offering". He added: "In line with the recommendations of the advisory committee on business appointments, [Wheatley] ensured that his association with G4S was discussed with and approved by the committee."

The spokesman said Wheatley "has not been involved in any part of the tendering process for the current round of prison bids in the UK".

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Prison Service said there was no conflict of interest with Wheatley's position as part of the prison review team.

He said: "In accordance with standard practice, a form declaring current and future interests was completed by all members of the team.

"In Mr Wheatley's case, he registered to work with G4S giving a potential start date on 1 January, 2011.

"The review secretary evaluated this declared interest and established that the work would be international only and there was a number of agreed conditions for his potential employment for G4S.

"It was decided there was no conflict of interest. Such issues are constantly kept under review."

The prison service was unavailable for comment.

Comment: I would be very surprised if the POA succeeded with this High Court application. What the POA is claiming is unfair competition. However, tenders are put up and bids are invited and a decision is made on a case by case basis. What the POA is seeking to do is gain an unfair advantage by excluding a bidder from the process. The POA is also questioning the integrity of Phil Wheatley.

For as long as I recall people have left jobs in the government and civil service and taken up employment or consultancy work in the private sector. Phil Wheatley cannot be criticised for doing the same.

Personally, I think if the POA goes on strike then all those taking part should be summarily dismissed for engaging in an illegal activity. Then, it will provide an excellent opportunity to get rid of the "Old Guard" and replace them with a new intake from the job centres and thereby improve the penal system.

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