Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland Prison Service



  1.  In October 1999 the progress report to the Committee focused on the four broad areas covered in the Committee's report of November 1998: staff management issues; specific operational matters; inspection and accountability arrangements; and links with the Probation Service. For ease of comparison this paper covers the same subjects giving further key developments and in addition provides a progress report on implementing the recommendations of the Quinquennial Review, including formulating the new Framework Document.

  2.  The past year has again been one of considerable change and upheaval for the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) with the continuing release of prisoners under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the consequent reduction in staff numbers. Since April 1998 and up to 30 September 2000, 1,036 staff have left the Service through the Staff Reduction Programme and a further 104 have left through natural wastage. This overall reduction of 1,140 equates to a 40 per cent decrease in staff numbers and has been achieved entirely through voluntary means. The Service will reduce by a further 52 staff, largely specialists, who are due to leave by 31 March 2001.

  3.  Against this background the Service met or exceeded five of its eight key targets in the 1999-2000 year. Other significant achievements during the year were the attainment of Investors in People recognition in five out of the six sites; the addition of HMP Maghaberry to the video link with the Royal Courts of Justice and Belfast Magistrates' Court; and the introduction of new visits arrangements at HMP Magilligan which enhance both security and services to visitors. The Service's operating expenditure has reduced from £134.8 million in 1997-98 to a forecast spend of £96.9 million for the year 2000-01, a reduction of 28 per cent. (These figures exclude the costs of the Staff Reduction Programme.) This equates to a Cost Per Prisoner Place forecast of £77,464 in 2000-01, well within the target for the year of £76,000 to £81,000. For 2000-01 we are well on course to meet eight of the nine key targets in the Corporate and Business Plan. Currently we are falling narrowly short of the target "to ensure that an average of at least 50 per cent of the eligible prisoner population is working to a sentence plan".

  4.  The main task of senior management in NIPS is the development and implementation of strategy for the effective delivery of the Service. To this end, and prompted by a reduction in the number of Directors at Headquarters, we have abolished the Senior Policy Group which brought together more than one management level and a range of interests. In its place we have established a new NIPS Management Board. The core membership of the Board comprises the Director General and the three Directors. It is planned to add non-executive Directors as proposed by the Criminal Justice Review and Quinquennial Review.


  5.  Staffing issues have formed a major part of the Service's current programme of work.

  6.  The Staff Reduction Programme provided an opportunity to introduce new management structures in each establishment with fewer layers of management, wider responsibilities and a greater emphasis on accountability, as recommended by the Prison Service Review. At the same time we have improved efficiency through the recruitment of auxiliaries and further civilianisation of prison officer posts. Over the past year 26 recruitment, promotion and selection competitions have been held involving a total of 1,940 candidates. Another nine promotion/selection competitions are planned before 31 March 2001.

  7.  The Prison Service reinforced its commitment to achieving recognition as an Investor in People organisation by successfully undertaking an external assessment in December 1999 at five of its six sites (Maghaberry prison will undergo formal assessment in March next year). The Service intends building on the good practice and standards already achieved in preparing for re-accreditation in 2001.

  8.  The corporate development and training target of five days average per person was exceeded in 1999-2000 by 30 per cent with staff receiving an average of 6.5 development and training days. This represents an increase of almost 40 per cent in the figures achieved in 1998-99. In the first half of 2000-01 training year 3.8 days per person have been delivered and it is anticipated that the corporate target will be exceeded for a second time. The development and training priorities for the past year centred on the Staff Reduction Programme, which provided outplacement training for staff leaving the Service, as well as 15 days' training for over 550 Maze staff to enable them to work safely and effectively in more normal regimes at other establishments. Induction and development training has also been provided for 178 newly promoted managers and for 134 new recruits to the Service. A Senior Management Development Programme is being developed for Governor Grade IV and General Service Deputy Principal grade levels and above. The purpose of the programme is to assist senior managers to develop skills and competencies to meet the challenges of their jobs both currently and in the future. In September 2000 we launched "Future Positive", a two-day workshop aimed at helping all staff remaining in the Service to identify with its vision and values and to recognise their contribution in achieving the future goals of the organisation.

  9.  Since the last evidence session rapid progress has been made on the introduction of improved measures to support staff who are unable to attend work due to sickness absence. Rigorous monitoring has been introduced to ensure consistent and fair application of the absence management procedures across the Service and local occupational health groups have been building on the support services available to staff at local level. Reduced trigger points to allow for management intervention at a much earlier stage in the absence were introduced on 1 September, and the Limited Fitness Trial has been rolled out to all establishments. Specific absence reduction targets have been introduced throughout the Service with supporting improvement plans.

  10.  The 30 per cent reduction in absenteeism by March 2001 is a two-year target, which compares favourably with the Cabinet Office target to reduce absenteeism within the Public Service by 30 per cent by the year 2003. A reduction in operational days lost of 17.2 per cent was achieved in the 1999-2000 year, which, in financial terms, represents a notional saving of around £2 million in salaries alone. The Service remains on course to achieve its 30 per cent reduction target by 31 March 2001. Two additional measurable benefits of the improvements are that ill health retirements have been noticeably reduced and attendance at training has increased substantially.

  11.  We were delighted that it was agreed in principle in July of this year by the Ceremonial Office that there should be a new medal to recognise the special pressures on the Northern Ireland Prison Service over the last 30 years.


  12.  All the remaining Good Friday Agreement prisoners due for release from Maze on 28 July left the prison at that date. Special arrangements were then put in place to transfer those prisoners remaining in Maze to HMP Maghaberry and HMP Magilligan. Although these prisoner transfers were delayed pending the outcome of judicial review proceedings, the Maze finally closed at the end of September. For a period it is mothballed to provide the contingency accommodation and small service needs. No decision has yet been taken on its long-term future.

  13.  The centralised Prisoner Escort Group, which became operational in October 1999, is functioning very effectively. The Group has had an extremely positive impact on the capacity of the Service to meet the operational demands associated with the movement of prisoners to courts. By eliminating entirely the need to call on prisons operational staff, it has ensured a greater consistency in the maintenance and delivery of functions and activities underpinning the establishments' regimes. In the first year of operation it has also generated financial savings in excess of £1 million through a reduction in payment by the Prison Service to the RUC.

  14.  Phase Two of the Video Link project adding Maghaberry prison to the existing link with Belfast Magistrates' Court and the Royal Courts of Justice was introduced in May of this year. Like the existing link with the Young Offenders Centre to the same courts this facility allows both remand and bail applications to be conducted using video conferencing technology. It also facilitates consultations between the prisoner and his/her legal representative. Some benefits of the system are that there has been a reduction of approximately 15 per cent in the number of inmates passing through the establishments' receptions, it provides a higher degree of security and as there is no delay in prisoners arriving at court, efficiency within the court domain has improved. A recent independent evaluation by an independent consultant revealed that the video link system was preferred by most inmates and by the judiciary and legal profession. Current plans are to extend the link to Ballymena and Lisburn Magistrates' Courts.

  15.  The development of new visiting arrangements at Magilligan prison was of major significance. A booked visits system now provides a more efficient service with visitors being able to pre-book visits through a variety of methods, including the Internet—this is a first for a UK prison. Security arrangements are much improved, including measures to prevent drugs being smuggled in by a visitor. Maghaberry is currently looking at introducing a similar visits system by the end of this financial year.

  16.  Last year an independent assessment of the level of illegal drugs usage was carried out in Magilligan, Maghaberry and YOC. In response we have appointed a Governor as Drugs Coordinator who is responsible for facilitating effective service-wide measures to combat the availability and use of drugs in establishments. Revised local drugs strategies are being put in place in each establishment. Visits have recently taken place between members of the Irish Prisons Service and NIPS to exchange ideas and strategies against drugs in prisons.

  17.  One of the concerns of the Committee was the absence of a Vulnerable Prisoner Unit. We have now a Vulnerable Prisoner Unit within HMP Maghaberry and this has been in operation for about six months. On average 30 prisoners are housed in the Unit which offers a safer environment and a more settled regime.

  18.  Under the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, the Northern Ireland Prison Service provides custodial facilities for disruptive juvenile offenders. Male juveniles are housed at YOC whilst females are housed in Mourne House at Maghaberry. Both the Committee and NIPS have concerns about the latter arrangements, given the need to provide an appropriate regime for children, in the context of sharing facilities with adult female prisoners. Although the numbers are small (there are no female juveniles at present in prison custody), the potential risk for such female juveniles mixing with older females with a varied offence profile is significant. We have expressed our concerns in our response to the Criminal Justice Review.

Accountability and Inspection Arrangements

  19.  Boards of Visitors have now been removed from the prisons adjudication function. Arrangements are now in place for matters which would have previously fallen to Boards of Visitors to be referred to the RUC for investigation.

  20.  Ministers agreed with the Committee that dependence on the Courts is an inappropriate way for many prisoner grievances to be resolved and we committed ourselves to ensuring that efficient and effective arrangements are in place to deal with prison complaints. Since the last evidence session, we have completed a review of our overall approach to prisoner grievance procedures. It is now our intention to create the position of Prisons Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in the course of our review and revision of prisons legislation.

  21.  Important changes over the past few years have suggested that the time may now be right for a review of prisons' legislation. The changing nature of our prison population; changes in the number and size of our prison establishments; and the impact of wider legislative change such as the Human Rights Act, all have potential implications for the framework within which Northern Ireland's prisons operate.

  22.  The legislative base itself has remained largely untouched for some time—the Prison Act (Northern Ireland) itself has been in force since 1953 but has been extensively amended on a number of occasions. Prison Rules underwent a review in 1995, but require a fresh look given developments since and we have already indicated to the Committee the commencement of our work to review the Rules. Legislative and operational developments in other jurisdictions will also be worth considering in the local context.

  23.  We see reviews of the Act and Rules as major steps forward for the Prison Service. They will provide an opportunity to deliver commitments given to the Committee on the Prisons Ombudsman; the opportunity to introduce new procedures to Northern Ireland prisons—mandatory testing for drugs might be one example; and to take forward any appropriate decisions arising from the Criminal Justice Review.

  24.  NIPS has approval in principle from the Home Office and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons for the formalisation of the Inspectorate role in Northern Ireland. At present Sir David Ramsbotham provides the services of his office on an informal basis. However, the role of the Inspectorate in England and Wales is currently being reviewed with a new joint Prisons/Probation Inspectorate being a distinct possibility. The review is to report early next year. In Northern Ireland, the Criminal Justice Review has recommended that a Criminal Justice Inspectorate be established. It is expected that the Secretary of State will announce his intentions in relation to the review by the end of the month.

Prison and Probation Service Links

  25.  NIPS is fully committed to developing closer working relationships with the Probation Service. Close working relationships at many levels already exist and are being actively promoted by both probation and prisons staff. Service Level Agreements at establishment level provide clear mechanisms for the delivery of appropriate services on the ground. A new NIPS Programmes Board, including probation and other interests, is working to ensure continuity and consistency and to develop a common accreditation policy for programmes aimed at tackling offending behaviour.

  26.  The Chief Probation Officer and the Director General now meet every six months to develop a more co-ordinated approach on policies and priorities which are common to both services. A joint senior management conference is being planned in early 2001. In addition a senior member of the Probation Service will be invited to attend NIPS Management Board meetings when appropriate items are being discussed. We are also supportive of the Criminal Justice Review's proposal for an overarching Probation, Prisons and Juvenile Justice Advisory Board chaired by a Minister and believe this is the most appropriate forum for the highest level consideration of correctional policy.


  27.  In May of this year the Minister endorsed the recommendation made in Stage One of the Quinquennial Review that NIPS should remain an Executive Agency. The Stage Two review report was published in July and acknowledged that our new Statement of Purpose, Vision and Values (see Annex A below) are properly reflective of wider Government policies. The review also concluded that the existing corporate planning, monitoring and reporting arrangements constitute an effective business planning framework. Revised Key Performance Indicators against six strategic priorities were recommended in the report and we will be incorporating these in both the Framework Document and the Corporate and Business Plan for 2001-04. A seminar involving senior managers across the Service together with representatives from each of the three trade unions is to be held on 26 October to consider how we can achieve the Quinquennial Review recommendations on Key Performance Indicators and Targets. Such seminars have been held about every six months since their introduction following the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's consideration of NIPS in 1998. The Framework Document is in preparation and should be published in December.

16 October 2000

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