The University and College Union (UCU) has lodged a complaint against the largest prison education provider in England over safety fears.
Education staff from Novus, the company responsible for education provision at over 50 prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales, overwhelmingly voted to escalate their health and safety concerns at a UCU meeting this week.
The decision comes days after UCU wrote to all prison educators to set out how they expect staff to be treated and education to be delivered in light of the new national lockdown and updated government guidance on coronavirus.
They asked providers among, to halt face-to-face teaching, ensure that skeleton staffing rules are observed, to ensure face masks are mandatory and that education staff do not attend where a high standard of cleaning is not maintained.
'Risking staff safety'
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said Novus chief executive, John Thornill, was “willing to risk their [staff] safety to deliver on government contracts”.
She said: “Prison educators have done all they can to continue to support offenders throughout the Covid pandemic, all they are asking in return is for their employer to listen to safety concerns and reduce the risk of staff and learners catching Covid. It is incredible that instead of engaging with us, Novus chief executive John Thornhill has said that risk assessments put in place prior to the latest Covid wave, the discovery of the new Covid variant, and the most recent national lockdown are sufficient to protect his staff.
“There is huge concern from staff that Mr Thornhill is willing to risk their safety to deliver on government contracts. Staff and learners are being put at risk due to Novus’ refusal to engage with us over how prison education can be delivered safely. Unless Novus comes to the table and engages with our demands, we will be forced to declare a dispute to protect staff and will then consult members over taking industrial action. Mr Thornhill should be concentrating on addressing staff concerns, rather than making baseless accusations on Twitter.
The notice served to Novus gives them 10 working days to meet with UCU to avoid entering into a dispute. If Novus continues to ignore staff concerns, the union says it will be forced to declare a dispute and will then consult with members over taking industrial action.
Novus has been contacted for comment.