Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Mr Barnes

  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 those matters.

  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[1].

  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[2].

  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.

Mr Beggs

  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 speaking—and we can easily write to you with the precise figures—it 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[3].

  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 by prisoners.

  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 gained—and much could be lost—by 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 levels.

  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

2   See Annex B, page 16. Back

3   See Annex A, page 16. Back

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