Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs First Special Report


Response of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 1997-98 on the Prison Service in Northern Ireland

The Committee's principal conclusions and recommendations have been carefully studied, and are broadly endorsed by the Government. Over half the conclusions and recommendations are focused on staff management issues. The Government recognises, and is determined to tackle with vigour, the root causes of these concerns. By adopting a more strategic approach, the Prison Service will work coherently and effectively towards the achievement of its aim, to protect the public by holding in secure and humane confinement persons who have been given into custody by the courts, and to reduce the risk of reoffending by encouraging those persons to take full advantage of the opportunities offered during their confinement.

The Government is determined that, in the new environment since the Belfast Agreement, issues of prison management will be tackled with renewed emphasis on ensuring the safety and quality of life of all concerned—prisoners, prison staff, and the increasing numbers of professionals who work within the prison environment. The Prison Service is developing strategies to achieve these aims, both in respect of vulnerable prisoners, and predatory prisoners who may seek to exert undue influence over fellow prisoners and over staff.

Similarly, the Committee's concerns about the necessity of holding juvenile females in the environs of an adult prison, at Maghaberry, will be addressed, in the majority of cases, once the facility for holding such individuals becomes available within the juvenile justice estate. There may still be isolated incidents where a more secure environment is required, and alternatives for such cases are being explored.

The need to ensure that the regime available for sentenced prisoners is not diluted by the diversion of staff to escort duties for remand prisoners is likewise being addressed, with a pilot scheme for video-links for remand appearances being tested at the Young Offenders Centre, and with a working group established to investigate the feasibility of ringfenced and reduced staff provision for escort functions.

The Committee's recommendations about a Prison Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, and the further formalisation of the position of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons will both be taken forward as part of a broader review of the legislation underpinning the Prison Service; the Committee's recommendation on the removal of the Board of Visitors' role in adjudications will be implemented, as soon as possible, by amendment to the Prison Rules.

I agree that links between the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Probation Service should be close, and whilst it is considered that relations at a working level are good, opportunities will be explored to enhance the close and coherent working of the Prison Service and the Probation Service, in order to ensure the best possible management, rehabilitation and support of prisoners through the prison system and into the community.

I place a very high priority on the need for the Prison Service to address its management and morale problems, and to move rapidly to a position where it takes justifiable pride in its achievements, as an integral part of the Criminal Justice System, serving the community and the interests of justice by rehabilitating offenders and reducing the incidence of reoffending. Success will be based on the individual efforts of members of the Prison Service, for whose abilities and commitment the Government has the greatest admiration. The Government is determined that those attributes should be properly harnessed, led and directed, and will do what is necessary to drive, facilitate and support the process of change.

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Prepared 5 March 1999