Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland
PROGRESS REPORT TO THE NORTHERN IRELAND AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON THEIR FOURTH REPORT: PRISON SERVICE IN NORTHERN IRELAND
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.
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
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 year4.7 per person
against a target of fivecompared 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 servicescatering and nursing
staffand 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.
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 gainedand much could be lostby
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 Mazealongside the entire
prison estatewith 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 Maghaberrya 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 juvenilesmostly 1 per cent per year, and
never more than three in any one year since 1996who, 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.
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.
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
19 October 1999