Prison education: Staff vote of 'no confidence' in CEO

Union members at the UK's biggest prison education provider have raised concerns about  unlawful recordings of private union meetings and fake Twitter accounts
26th January 2021, 11:38am
Kate Parker


Prison education: Staff vote of 'no confidence' in CEO
Prison Education: Staff Vote 'no Confidence' In Novus

Education staff at the country's largest prison education provider have delivered a no confidence vote in John Thornhill, the chief executive of Novus. 

The vote - passed at 97 per cent - comes weeks after the University and College Union lodged a complaint against the largest prison education provider in England over safety fears. The UCU say that Novus has failed to engage with them over the concerns.  

Members raised concerns about unlawful recordings of private union meetings and fake Twitter accounts which have attacked the UCU. 

Novus is owned by the LTE Group, of which Mr Thornhill is chief executive. 

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'Putting staff at risk'

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that staff health may be at risk because of Mr Thornill's refusal to meet with UCU. 

She 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."

Around 97 per cent 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 demanded that the company respect the privacy of staff and their right to be involved in lawful union activities free from intimidation.  

The UCU says that members are being consulted over industrial action to protect staff health and safety.   

A spokesperson from LTE said: "In April 2020 LTE implemented an enhanced Risk Management regime in response to the Covid pandemic.  Compliance with the processes and procedures within this regime is mandatory for all Group businesses.  The new system was introduced in full consultation with the two unions recognised by the Group - UCU and Unison - with fortnightly meetings to discuss any essential changes to Risk Assessments and Safe Systems of Work a standard feature of the new system.

"On 6 January 2021 LTE Group was issued a list of 13 demands from UCU to which they requested written agreement within 24 hours. These demands had not been tested through the LTE Group Risk Management regime, nor approved by HMPPS who have ultimate authority over Health & Safety in prison establishments. 

"On 7 January LTE Group responded to UCU to confirm that the Group's approved Risk Management regime would continue to be the vehicle for the assessment of any changes to Health & Safety procedures. LTE Group's refusal to (a) rush through untested changes, (b) operate outside of the Group's mandated Risk Management framework, (c) do this without approval by HMPPS, has been misrepresented by UCU as LTE Group refusing to 'meaningfully engage' on employee Health & Safety matters.  LTE Group wholly rejects this allegation and is disappointed by the union's response, particularly given the extent of weekly engagement with unions across the past year.

"On 7 January the Group began to receive complaints from colleagues in our Novus division concerning the behaviour of some UCU representatives in the Prison Education branch. A number of these were reported directly to our CEO from colleagues who said they were afraid to speak out formally, and there have been similar complaints spanning 3 prison establishments raised through our standard HR channels.  A large proportion of our colleague team are also not union members, and some have expressed concern about union representatives putting forward views that they do not necessarily support.

On 19 January and due to the extremely serious nature of some allegations made about UCU representatives, we wrote to Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, with a request that such issues are fully investigated and properly resolved.  To date we have not received a response.

"Instead of investigating the allegations against their representatives in relation to intimidation and harassment, UCU has since implied that (a) union members have been subject to intimidation by LTE Group, and (b) union members' safety may be at risk due to LTE's refusal to meet with 'UCU's chosen representatives.'  LTE Group has at no point refused to meet with UCU to discuss health and safety matters and can evidence many meetings over an extended period of several months dedicated specifically to the subject of health & safety. LTE Group has only refused to discuss such matters with those UCU representatives who have been named in employee allegations of misconduct until such times that a full investigation has been formally carried out by UCU. UCU has also implied that LTE is seeking to 'interfere with (our) members' right to express their views in a private union meeting.' LTE refutes this allegation, having had no role in the UCU data breach which resulted in a recording of a video of a recent union meeting.

"LTE Group's Board is apprised of these issues with UCU. The Group maintains its commitment to engage openly with lead officials unaffected by the allegations to find a way forward. 

:The Group also continues to proactively manage its health and safety matters via its Risk Management framework, an approach that has helped to effectively control and limit levels of on-site Covid transmission.  The UCU's General Secretary has not explained why she considers there to have been 'health and safety failings during the Covid pandemic' - should UCU provide the Group with information in support of their position, our normal procedures will be triggered immediately to provide a detailed response." 

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