Examination of witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 27 OCTOBER 1999
and MR ROBIN
20. I should like to start asking questions
about absences. What are the areas of weakness identified by the
consultants in your absence management procedures?
(Mr Halward) It is fair to say that generally speaking
we got a clean bill of health on the procedures themselves, though
there were one or two proposals. Our main task is to make sure
that those procedures are consistently and regularly applied across
the service, so we already have trigger points for tackling staff
about absence and so on. There is an occupational health service
which provides support. We are not always consistent in applying
21. In answer to the Chairman initially
you pointed out that sickness absences increased in 1998-99. What
were the reasons?
(Mr Halward) In my experience it is very difficult
to be precisely clear about the reasons for increasing sick absence.
There was an increase in the level of assaults by prisoners on
staff in one of our establishments during that period which is
partly the explanation. There has over the years been quite a
substantial increase in the proportion of sickness absence which
is stress related but of the stress related sickness absence only
a smallish proportion is directly attributable to work related
matters. Some of the rest may or may not be. It is not clear.
During the period 1998-99 there was the huge uncertainty for the
service which followed on from the Good Friday agreement, the
release of prisoners and the decision that it would be necessary
to reduce the size of the service by round about 1,100 people.
That is as far as we have been able to get in analysing the reasons
for that and we have managed to improve on last year's sickness
absence level by ten per cent so far this year which we think
is because of more consistent application of the sick absence
procedures and some of the stuff I was explaining earlier, the
Investors in People and communications.
22. If you could look to the future, we
note that a target of a 30 per cent reduction in absenteeism by
March 2001 is aimed for but what base line is that from?
(Mr Halward) That is from the base-line of 1998-99.
The final figure for sickness absence for 1998-99 was 23 days
per member of staff. Our target is to reduce that by 30 per cent.
We are currently on target to get down to 20 days for this year,
1999-2000. It is still very high.
23. Is it because of the initial response?
You talked about a ten per cent reduction rate. Do you think the
target you have will be reached? As you say, it is a quite difficult
target to reach; as from 1993-94 up to recently it was virtually
increasing year by year. There was one year in the middle where
there was a huge increase and then a bit of a fallback. It had
gone up time after time as far as its general trend was concerned.
(Mr Halward) No, at the time we set the target of
30 per cent, we did not know how we were going to be doing this
year. It was based on the fact that by comparison with other organisations
the figure is very high and we were fairly confident that by applying
our systems and procedures more effectively and by the IIP related
stuff, better training and development and so on, better involvement
of staff and, I must say, an assumption that the stresses and
strains associated with a major paramilitary terrorist population
would not be there. We felt that was a reasonable target. I am
afraid it was no more scientific than that.
24. Really a great deal of hope is placed
upon the normalisation of the situation in Northern Ireland. You
are facing much more common policing situations.
(Mr Halward) Yes, indeed. Yes, it is and the stress
related element will very much reduce.
25. May I turn to training? Although the
headline training has improved, is there any evidence that staff's
respect for training has done likewise?
(Mr Halward) This is one of the areas where I am not
sure we entirely agree with the Committee's findings because the
evaluation we are doing now on staff satisfaction with training
is producing very good results. It is showing 97 or 98 per cent
satisfaction with the training which is being provided. We wondered
whether the main problem previously was either wrong training
being provided, in other words staff were not getting the training
which they thought they needed, the training was for something
different, or maybe a reflection of the fact that staff felt they
were not getting the training they needed. What we have done now,
apart from the evaluation, is try to target training as specifically
as we can on staff concerns, clearly where we judge managerially
that that is right. At a nuts and bolts level fire prevention
training, control and restraint training and other health and
safety related training is quite high on the list.
26. Staff attitudes if things were wrong
would be a sign that something needed looking at. On the other
hand, if staff were relatively satisfied with training, that might
not itself mean that the training methods were satisfactory. It
might be that outside observation would indicate that improvements
were needed to make it relevant to their activities.
(Mr Halward) Yes, that is right. If I could give a
clear example where there is a link between training and performance,
around the turn of 1998-99 we had quite a serious problem with
fires in Maghaberry Prison. We took a number of measures to tackle
that: some physical changes, changes to the routine and the extent
to which prisoners had freedom to move around, but also a steady
programme of training both in fire procedures, fire drills, preventing
fires, using inundation points and doors and so on. As a result
of that we have recently had a very good run on fires.
27. May I move now to the composition of
the work force. You have obvious problems in terms of balancing
the community mix of the work force in circumstances of downsizing
and the Committee recognises those problems. We note that there
has been a slight increase in applications from Catholics in competitions
for nursing and catering staff. However, in those competitions
22 out of 242 Protestant applicants were successful, which is
a nine per cent success rate, as against only one out of 67 Catholic
applicants, which is 1.5 per cent. Are you satisfied that there
is no discrimination in the selection stage?
(Mr Halward) The figures which were in the annual
report for the Prison Service for 1998-99 were misleading and
next year there will be a footnote to explain it. It was a snapshot
at the point at which the report was written where we were part
way through certain competitions. The output figures for those
competitions you refer to had a slightly higher proportion of
Catholics appointed than applied. We have 18 per cent of Catholics
applied for those positions and 20 per cent were appointed.
28. Is it that the period in which it was
investigated was untypical or that the methods used in determining
the figures produced a wrong impression?
(Mr Halward) We were half way through
the process of each of those competitions. What one had was a
figure which reflected the fact that we had only recruited maybe
50 per cent of those which we were recruiting in that particular
exercise. So we were recruiting 16 nurses and at the point at
which we took the figures for the annual report we were only half
way through that single exercise. Really it is not helpful because
it depends a lot on the order in which you interview people and
things of that sort. You have to look at that recruitment exercise
as a whole. So the period was not the right period.
(Mr Masefield) In terms of cooks and kitchen porters,
we had to re-advertise and we chose to do that, so the actual
recruitment and selection process lasted several weeks if not
months. The collation of the figures for the annual report came
part way through that process.
29. We will have to wait for another annual
report in order to see whether any problems exist between the
intakes as far as different communities are concerned and whether
you think there are any problems in the procedures.
(Mr Halward) We have recently done some more work
on this as a result of a query from another source and we can
write to the Committee very easily and spell out chapter and verse
which explains in more detail than I have done today exactly why
it was the way it was and why we are satisfied with our recruitment
procedures but we are not satisfied with the level of application
that we are getting.
30. My initial question, if it has been
correct in the full implications, would have indicated that there
was some sort of bias in the system against Catholic applicants,
or something to be explained.
(Mr Halward) Yes; indeed.
31. Therefore was it that there was a poorer
quality of applicant coming forward and did some action need to
be taken in that area? You think you are not really in a position
to judge that.
(Mr Halward) What we think we do need to do is continue
to work hard at how we increase the number of Catholics applying
for positions in the Prison Service. It was 18 per cent of those
who applied for these jobs we are talking about were Catholics.
That was an improvement on the position in the past but is still
well below the proportion of Catholics in the population at large.
What we ought to be aiming for, initially at any rate, is the
same proportion of applicants for our jobs as the Catholic representation
in the population of Northern Ireland as a whole.
32. I want to raise some questions with
regard to operational matters. Is the Northern Ireland Prison
Service now committed to the complete closure of the Maze Prison
in July 2000? Is this a definite date? How is it to be achieved?
What is to happen to the buildings and land thereafter?
(Mr Halward) The assumption on which we are working
is that we will close Maze Prison around the end of July next
year. That assumption is based on the continuing operation of
the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act and the release of almost
all the remaining prisoners held in Maze. As things currently
stand, all but 12 or 13 prisoners in Maze are due to be released
on or before 28 July 2000. Our task is to decide precisely how
we are going to house and manage the remaining dozen or so after
that and it is our intention to do that other than at Maze Prison.
We have not yet come to a decision that Ministers will need to
take on what is to happen to the site of Maze Prison. We will
not, as things currently stand, be rushing to dispose of it in
the very short term. Every prison service needs some contingency
accommodation for an increase in the prison population or the
need to vacate a block somewhere. Until very recently we have
had such contingency accommodation in the Crumlin Road Prison
but we are now in the process of disposing of that site. We have
contingency accommodation currently at Maze. Only five of its
eight blocks are occupied. Before we dispose of the site we will
need to be clear that we have accommodation in the remainder of
the estate in Northern Ireland to manage reasonably predictable
fluctuations. Once we are clear about that then we will move on
the disposal of the site. That is the current planning assumption.
33. What is the proportion of prisoners
remaining in the Maze in respect of the total number in the prison
when the early release programme under the Belfast Agreement began
in September 1998?
(Mr Halward) May I almost answer that question? We
have released 299 prisoners under the Northern Ireland (Sentences)
Act and we currently have 158 in Maze Prison. The reason that
is only a partial answer to the question is that some of that
299, a relatively small number, 15 or 20 or so, are from prisons
other than the Maze. It is possible that there have been one or
two releases for ordinary purposes. Broadly speakingand
we can easily write to you with the precise figuresit is
in the order of 270 to 275 to 280 fewer than was the position
on 1 September last year before we started to release prisoners.
34. That is a significant reduction in prisoners.
(Mr Halward) Yes.
35. What corresponding reduction have you
made in the staff complement of that prison?
(Mr Halward) We currently have in the order of 900
staff associated with Maze Prison. At the start of the early release
programme, the number of staff associated with Maze was about
1,200, so we have reduced by 300 staff in that time. The reason
it has not been more than that is that although the prison population
has reduced quite dramatically we still have the various different
factions or interest groups in Maze Prison which have to be housed
separately. Of the eight blocks in Maze we still have five occupied
36. Taking account of those difficulties,
what pressure has your apparent inability to make significant
staff reductions placed on staffing levels at other establishments?
(Mr Halward) It has not had an impact on staffing
levels in other establishments. Each establishment in the Prison
Service has a thing called the target staffing level or complement
which is the number of staff it should have. We have managed to
remain at and sometimes over the target staffing level in each
establishment throughout the period since I took up post and prisoner
releases began, with the exception of Maze itself, where we have
run under the target staffing level because we are running that
down. What it has had an impact on is our capacity to release
more staff under the early retirement and severance scheme and
we have had to turn down applications for the first two phases
of that scheme from 140 staff who would like to have left but
who we were not able to free up to leave the service.
37. Could you amplify the statement that
it is "unlikely that anything could be gainedand much
could be lostby attempting to alter the current regime"?
(Mr Halward) Every prison system to a substantial
extent reflects the society in which it is placed. Whereas in
England, a system with which I am familiar, for example you would
not spread prisoners around between a number of different blocks,
if you had a small number of prisoners like we have at the Maze,
you would put them into a couple of blocks which would house those
prisoners. Part of the reality of Northern Ireland is the need
to keep the prisoners in Maze separated one faction from another.
The Prison Service has had battles over many years over these
issues with that particular group of prisoners. I am clearly not
an expert on all those battles because they occurred long before
I arrived. What we are saying is that at present we see little
to be gained by trying to force prisoners who are antagonistic
one group to another to share accommodation.
38. How close to the truth is the press
report that 1,000 staff are guarding about 160 prisoners?
(Mr Halward) It is not far off the truth really. We
have 900 staff associated with Maze Prison and 158 prisoners so
it is substantially an accurate report.
(Mr Masefield) There would not be all 900 there at
any given time and it has given us the opportunity to pay particular
attention to training staff at the Maze who frankly had lost out
in a number of years before that. You referred to the level of
training and inter-personal skills in particular; that is one
area. There are other areas where hours owed have been paid off
as a result of running the regime as it has been with those staffing
39. What you are saying is that a bald statement
in the press like that does not reflect the difficulties and the
need for additional staffing while there is segregation and separation
of prisoners within the prison.
(Mr Halward) Yes; indeed.
1 See Annex B, page 16. Back
See Annex B, page 16. Back
See Annex A, page 16. Back