PRISON staff at HMP Risley and HMP Thorn Cross are set to walk out on strike today, Wednesday.

A claimed 600 workers at 49 jails across England, including Risley and Thorn Cross prisons, will hold industrial action in a long-running health and safety dispute with employer Novus.

Warrington Guardian: HMP Yoi Thorne cross

HMP Thorn Cross

It will be the fourth time in the past two months that University and College Union members will have staged strikes.

The UCU says that Novus, the UK’s biggest prison education employer, is ‘failing to meaningfully engage’ over concerns related to Covid.

Management have also allegedly made ‘repeated attempts to intimidate staff’ who raised issues – including new and inexperienced staff being sent onto wings without any personal protection training, workplace bubbles being breached and inmates vaping in classes.

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 added: “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.”

The UCU says that Novus will face ‘further disruption if it refuses to drop its spurious investigations or address serious safety concerns’.

Mark Fairhurst, national chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, 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.”

The Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the running of prisons in England, has been contacted for comment.

A spokesman for the LTE Group, which owns Novus, said: "With the full involvement of unions, LTE Group substantially tightened its risk management regime in the early months of 2020 to protect colleagues and learners across all areas - including those prison establishments in which Novus, our specialist prison education unit, provides services.

"In January 2021, UCU asked that LTE comply with 13 demands relating to health and safety measures with less than 24 hours’ notice and outside of the mandated risk management process.

"A few days later, a number of Novus employees who are also UCU members confidentially reported serious concerns regarding the behaviour of some UCU representatives citing fear of reprisal from the union as their reason for bringing their concerns directly to their employer instead of their union.

"LTE informed UCU of these allegations from their members – which extended to bullying and harassment - and formally requested that the union fully investigate and resolve matters.

"Such an investigation has never taken place.

"Instead, UCU has falsely alleged that LTE is actively bullying and intimidating UCU representatives who are seeking to raise health and safety concerns - despite several requests for the evidence in support of such serious claims, LTE has never received any - and is refusing to meet with nominated UCU health and safety representatives.

"The LTE continues to hold recurring meetings with Unison, to which UCU are invited to attend.

"It has chosen not to attend since January. 

"UCU have also inflated reports of their industrial action, stating the involvement of 600 members across 49 prisons.

"Novus has more than 1,700 employees, of which 134 - or less than 10 per cent - have chosen to strike on June 23, the highest participation being 179 employees in May."