Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland Prison Service

PROGRESS REPORT TO THE NORTHERN IRELAND AFFAIRS COMMITTEE ON THEIR FOURTH REPORT: PRISON SERVICE IN NORTHERN IRELAND

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Committee's principal conclusions and recommendations focused on three broad areas: staff management issues; specific operational matters; and inspection and accountability arrangements. The Committee also commented on the importance of improving links with the Probation Service, suggesting that the Criminal Justice Review might offer a valuable opportunity.

STAFF MANAGEMENT ISSUES

  2.  In summary, the Committee was concerned about the Prison Service's strategic approach to personnel management and staff development. The morale of staff featured significantly amongst their concerns as did staff absence and commitment to training. The Committee questioned managers' ability to cope in a time of change and the timing of the Prison Service Review. Members called for a plan to redress imbalances in the composition and recruitment of the Service and, in the context of prisoner releases, commented on the absence at that time of a staff reduction management plan.

  3.  Staffing issues have formed a major part of the Service's current programme of work which addresses the Committee's recommendations. We see our commitment to and action taken towards achieving Investors' in People status as a major element of our personnel strategy. We have now registered for final assessment which will take place in the course of next month and our interim assessments have been encouraging. We also have underway a management development programme to enable managers at all levels to cope with the needs of a changing service. Our Corporate and Business Plan provides an over-arching framework within which these and other initiatives are delivered.

  4.  Our shared concerns to improve the problem of staff absenteeism led us to engage management consultants to evaluate the effectiveness of our policy approach. The consultants reported in April and concluded that, whilst our core absence management procedures were sound and complied with good practice, there were some areas of weakness. We have a project implementation team taking the recommendations forward and although absence levels continue to be a concern, and hamper the delivery of training, we are already seeing improvements. Almost 15,000 training and development days were delivered last year—4.7 per person against a target of five—compared to three days per person the previous year.

  5.  The Committee was concerned about the timing and scope of the Prison Service Review (PSR). The pace of the implementation programme has slowed and we have decided not to change grading or rank structures in the foreseeable future. The Staff Reduction Programme provides an opportunity to achieve the necessary cultural change in other ways. Changes to jobs will be preceded by fully-developed job descriptions and job evaluation. We have pressed ahead with other improvements. We have reduced headquarters involvement in day to day operational issues and devolved certain functions to line managers in the field. We must also recognise the relationship between our staff reduction programme and the PSR and as a result, both project teams work closely to ensure maximum benefit to both staff and the Service.

  6.  The Staff Reduction Programme has been detailed and circulated, and has been supplemented by regular newsletters and information sheets. The Project Team frequently visits all establishments and is already implementing the outcome of a communications review to ensure that staff receive the most accurate and up-to-date information.

  7.  The Service's ability to redress imbalances in the workforce is significantly constrained by the 40 per cent downsizing of staff numbers. We have had some opportunities through the recruitment of specialist services—catering and nursing staff—and this has shown some increase in application rates from Roman Catholics. However the reality is that the increase has only been in the order of 14 per cent rising to 18 per cent. We will encourage this by continuing to use lawful affirmative work of the Service but would see a more stable political and security climate as the major vehicle in opening up the Service to those who might not have been attracted to it in the past.

OPERATIONAL MATTERS

  8.  The Committee sought advice on the conditions under which remaining paramilitary prisoners would be held. More generally they expressed their support for the separation of remand from sentenced prisoners; commented on the undesirability of court escorting commitments adversely affecting regimes; and called for the establishment of a vulnerable prisoners' unit. They were concerned about young girls being held in Maghaberry.

  9.  From the commencement of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 on 28 July 1998 eligibility for allocation and transfer to HMP Maze has been restricted to those persons remanded in custody, or convicted of, scheduled offences committed before 10 April 1998. Persons convicted after that date are allocated to HM Prison Maghaberry which operates an integrated regime. Certain changes have been made in the arrangements surrounding the Maze regime, but in essence it remains, and will remain intact until the prison's anticipated closure in July 2000. It is unlikely that anything could be gained—and much could be lost—by attempting to alter the current regime.

  10.  The report by Sir David Ramsbotham, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCI), contained 143 recommendations and many helpful and pragmatic pointers for the way forward. However its publication came at a time when the position at Maze was significantly different than at the time of the inspection. The 102 recommendations which remain relevant given the plan to close the prison have been implemented. A working group is looking at the current infrastructure of Maze—alongside the entire prison estate—with a view to exploring what, if any, further efficiency savings might be achieved, particularly in terms of block closures as prisoner numbers reduce further.

  11.  Major steps have been taken to address the adverse impact of court escort duties on prison regimes. A centralised Prisoner Escort Group has been established to enable governors to deliver an improved regime and to achieve efficiency savings throughout the Service. The group, which has dedicated staff, vehicles and resources, and is independent of the establishments, became operational on 4 October. The initiative will achieve considerable savings per annum—£1 million in the remainder of this financial year through a reduction in payment by the Prison Service to the RUC. A full quantification of savings will be possible when the new systems have fully bedded in.

  12.  In addition, now that legislation is in place permitting the use of video hearings for a range of pre-trial hearings, remand hearings and bail applications for offenders at the Young Offenders Centre are regularly dealt with over video-links at the Royal Courts of Justice and Belfast Magistrates' Court. The benefits of this initiative also include savings in escort costs and staff time, and the reduction of inconvenience to defendants. The scheme will be extended to Maghaberry Prison early in the New Year, and will be fully evaluated in the spring, including assessment of the savings achieved to the public purse as a whole and the cost-benefit of extension to other court venues.

  13.  With regard to the establishment of a vulnerable prisoner unit, the Prison Service has to date pursued a policy of integration in prison establishments. This has the advantage of attempting to normalise relationships with others in preparation for release and preventing the formation of peer groups amongst particular groups of prisoners. Nevertheless, given the Committee's concerns, firm proposals now exist to set up such a unit in one of the two new houses in HMP Maghaberry when the accommodation comes on stream. In the interim, when vulnerable prisoners feel under threat or subject to bullying by others, procedures are in place which can remedy the situation quickly and effectively. An example of this is the anti-bullying unit in Maghaberry for prisoners guilty or suspected of bullying. The purpose of this unit, which offers a much stricter regime and isolates the bully, is to help the prisoner to address his behaviour.

  14.  The Committee was concerned about young girls being held in Maghaberry—a practice which has been generally accepted as being unsatisfactory. At the present time, there remains no secure accommodation for girls within the juvenile justice system. A review of the juvenile justice estate is currently being conducted by the Northern Ireland Office which will include consideration of the provision of secure accommodation for female juveniles. Until alternative arrangements can be effected the Prison Service will be required to accommodate the very small number of female juveniles—mostly 1 per cent per year, and never more than three in any one year since 1996—who, because of their unruly behaviour, cannot be detained in a non-secure juvenile justice environment. This is a problem common to GB prison establishments where, as in Northern Ireland, the needs of the young person are paramount. In such circumstances every effort is made to provide an environment suitable for a young person, and a juvenile would be permitted to associate with adult prisoners where the only alternative would be an impoverished regime.

ACCOUNTABILITY AND INSPECTION ARRANGEMENTS

  15.  The Committee suggested that the NI Prison Service should be a formal part of HMCI responsibilities; that there should be a Prisons Ombudsman for Northern Ireland; and that prison Boards of Visitors should no longer have adjudication responsibilities. The Prison Service is currently considering and examining ways of implementing the Committee's recommendations. Indeed, we have a Prison Governor on loan from HM Prison Service with expertise in these fields to help us with our policy deliberations.

  16.  But such changes will need to be considered against a wider backdrop. For example, prisoners in Northern Ireland are already well versed in the use of judicial review as a speedy recourse to settling legal disputes and may not respond to alternative structures. Equally, the removal of Boards of Visitors from adjudication responsibilities would exclude all external involvement in internal disciplinary matters. The Human Rights Act may have a bearing on this area and a review of the Act's implications for prison legislation is already underway.

  17.  Overall, these particular recommendations are being taken forward as part of a wider ranging review into the legislative base for the Northern Ireland Prison system. Existing prison rules will require to be amended to reflect any changes and such a review is already underway.

PRISON/PROBATION LINKS

  18.  The Committee also suggested consideration be given to improving links between Northern Ireland's Prison and Probation Services. Important working relationships already exist between probation and prison staff at both headquarters/managerial level and at an operational level in prison establishments. In developing our links further, we have recently extended our working relationships at a senior management level by scheduling regular meetings to discuss strategic issues impacting on both Services. We are already developing and taking forward areas of joint interest including the alignment of corporate strategies, development of common training agenda, and reviewing joint working arrangements. We are working together on a series of inter-agency projects: the co-ordination of prison programmes aimed at addressing prisoners' offending behaviour; improving arrangements for the assessment and management of sex offenders; and developing our approach to the management of life sentence prisoners.

  19.  The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's views were drawn to the attention of the Criminal Justice Review. It will report shortly. More generally the Prison Service will welcome the opportunity to promote effective partnerships with others in the criminal justice field and will respond to any additional opportunities to promote inter-agency working which the Review may present.

19 October 1999


 
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