Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. One of the other things which is particularly impressive about your report is the reduction in absenteeism which was a considerable problem and we identified that the last time we took evidence. Can you give us any idea as to how you achieved this, bearing in mind that every manager in the United Kingdom will have their ears pricked to hear how you have achieved this extraordinary result?
  (Mr Halward) There is no real magic to it, it is just simple good procedures consistently applied. A lot of the problem with sickness management is that people take their eye off it really. Everybody knows they should do things like back-to-work interviews, they should be in touch with their staff when they are on sick leave, they should look to get people back to work in ways which ease them back into the workplace rather than bring them slap bang up against the most difficult aspect of their work. The way in which we tackle that is to revise our policy a bit. It turned out that the policy was more or less all right when it was benchmarked against best practice elsewhere but we established a steering group, a project team, which had representatives both of headquarters and establishments to drive this. We worked through line management, making each manager responsible for his own staff but not cutting them loose to do it on their own, giving them the support and guidance which they need. One or two specifics which have been very helpful are the introduction of a sort of light duties or back-to-work scheme. We had previously taken the view that until somebody was fit for all duties they could not come back to work. We have relaxed that slightly in the interests of getting people back to work. We have 34 people over the last year back to work into limited fitness posts, in other words jobs where they are not doing the full range of duties. Only 15 of those 34 are still on that scheme: some of the others have got back to work fully, some have left under the staff reduction programme and so on. That has enabled us to reduce substantially the number of people who have left the Service on medical retirement. In 1997, 59 members of the Service retired on medical grounds, it was still 45 in 1999, this year 17 so far and probably two more by the end of the year. People who would otherwise have left the Service we have managed to get back into work. We have tidied up our support through occupational health with our psychology support.

  21. What about absenteeism reduction targets? Have you agreed targets across the Service?
  (Mr Halward) Yes, we have; yes.

  22. What are they?
  (Mr Halward) Our target initially is to reduce our absenteeism through sickness by 30 per cent between the end of the 1998-99 planning year and March 2001. So it is a 30 per cent target over two years. We achieved 17 per cent in the first year which leaves another 13 per cent to achieve. We are confident that we will achieve that. A disappointing number of those leaving under the staff reduction programme were ill towards the end of their time in the Service but we have taken another huge step forward in the last month or so. Sickness absence at Maghaberry, for example, was at one stage running as high as 14 per cent at its worst, 11 per cent fairly consistently. It is down to 5.5 per cent.

  23. Are we talking about long-term sickness rather than Mondays and Fridays or is an occasional one-day absenteeism a problem too?
  (Mr Halward) Much less so. The biggest problem is people who are on sick leave for quite some time. One of our big changes is to try to get on to those people very quickly. When they reach a point round about the two-week mark where there is a danger of people getting used to being on sick leave they have much more contact at home and discussion about how they will come back to work. I should say that we have quite a large proportion of staff as far as I am concerned who are sick directly as a result of something which has happened at work. Across the Service as a whole 20 per cent of those on sick leave at any one time are as a result of either assaults by prisoners, or some other prisoner activity, a fire which produces smoke inhalation, for example. Sometimes a fire or an assault can lead to stress related issues. Twenty per cent of staff are absent for those reasons.

Mr Thompson

  24. I should like to tease out a few things about performance against targets. The Service has performed commendably well against the targets set for it. However, the annual report reveals that the target for breaches of order and control was not met. To what do you attribute this and what are you doing to seek to reduce the number of assaults? How do your targets and achievements in this area compare with those elsewhere in the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Halward) It is very difficult to answer that last question because each of the Services defines things in slightly different ways. We have changed the target for this current year on what I would call the good order target. We do not have the same target this year. This year we have switched to that which is particularly important to us, which is assaults on staff and assaults on prisoners. One of the reasons we did that is that the breaches of good order target had a hugely wide definition because it was about incidents. So you would score one if you had a wing destroyed in a riot: you would also score one if a particularly difficult prisoner did a certain amount of damage. We agreed with Ministers that it really was not much use as a guide to what was going on in the Service. The main area of difficulty in the year covered in the annual report was unconvicted prisoners, both adults and youngsters, and there were one or two individual prisoners who were responsible for huge numbers of those incidents. In a small service, one person who commits incident after incident causes a disproportionate effect on the figures. When we have one woman prisoner for example who has assaulted staff on 22 separate occasions; that sort of thing really skews your figures.

  25. Do you consider that the new targets are much more representative?
  (Mr Halward) Yes. Our problem at the moment is not so much the damage to property, which was a problem when the target up to and including 1999-2000 was set. It was set at a time when we were getting wings burned down and riots and so on. Our real concern now is the personal safety aspect for staff and prisoners. We have two separate targets for that and we want to ratchet that down year on year until we get it down to zero. That is probably unrealistic.

  26. What are the "operational constraints" which prevent meeting the targeted level of sentence planning at Maghaberry and Magilligan prisons? Maybe you could define a bit more clearly what "sentence planning" actually means.
  (Mr Mogg) Sentence planning is the business of sitting down with a prisoner and looking at his offending behaviour and deciding what you can offer to do with him in prison to change that offending behaviour. It is fair to say that the culture in Northern Ireland, by virtue of the paramilitary terrorist influence, was that really there was nothing wrong with them, they were fighting for a cause, that was why they had committed their crimes, the ethos was that really sentence planning was not part of the business of the Service. It is only this last year really that we have been able to get to grips with this. Certainly at Maghaberry we are building in what we are calling a progressive regime where prisoners will be given extra privileges above those which they automatically get when they come into prison, but in order to achieve those privileges they have to behave themselves, they have to go to work, they have to cooperate with sentence planning and so on and so forth. That is new for Northern Ireland. The fact is that that is not the way the prisons operated there in the past. Therefore you are trying to change the culture of both the staff and the prisoners, because neither of these things were the way things were done, the whole way the approach to imprisonment in Northern Ireland was different from England, Wales and Scotland. Work was one of the issues of the hunger strikes and so on and it became voluntary almost, time was filled with extensive visits, much higher ratio of visits than there would be on the mainland. Sentence planning as a concept is relatively new and it is a case of pushing it forward.

  27. Now that many of the prisoners who were there for political reasons are now out the situation should improve.
  (Mr Mogg) Yes, it should improve. We would not recognise now that any prisoner is in any way excluded from this process irrespective of who they are.

  28. How far short of the three per cent target did the Service fall in 1999-2000 in its percentage increase in average constructive activity hours and what were the "operational priorities" which prevented this, particularly at Maghaberry? Could you have done better had you retained more staff?
  (Mr Halward) I am afraid I cannot remember precisely how far we fell short of that target. I think we got about two per cent and it was supposed to be three per cent. I suppose the answer is that if we had retained more staff it would have helped us. However, a problem we have had to contend with quite understandably is that staff who have decided they want to leave the Service and see their future as outside the Service, want to get on with those futures as quickly as possible and therefore we have given quite a high priority to allowing staff to leave the Service. That has not worsened the staffing position in any establishment. One could have transferred staff who became surplus at Maze into other establishments to help with that target but we judged that for last year that improvement was not as high a priority as getting through the transition of the Service.

  29. Could you expect some improvement in that then during the coming year and the years ahead?
  (Mr Halward) Absolutely; yes. We have quite a challenging target in that area this year which is slightly different and is about utilisation of available places, the number of our places which we take up. For next year and beyond, as a result of the quinquennial review of the Prison Service, we shall have an even tougher target on both the length of the constructive day for prisoners and also on things like offending behaviour programmes.
  (Mr Mogg) The only other point which is worth making on this is that the last time we were here we talked about the introduction of the court escort group as a separate entity from Maghaberry. The effect of that is that it has taken away from Maghaberry the continual drain of staff to take prisoners out to court. That is now being ring fenced as a separate unit which deals with that. The effect of that is that there has not been the same disruption of the normal regime at Maghaberry and as a consequence of that obviously the constructive activity hours have improved and will continue to improve.

  30. You will agree this is a very important area.
  (Mr Mogg) Absolutely. The whole emphasis is on sentence planning, constructive activity and certainly since I have been at Maghaberry one of the main shifts has been away from pointless association with each other to activities which are constructive and are designed to meet the needs of prisoners in terms of changing their offending behaviour. The whole thrust of the prison has changed and I think it is very important.

Dr Palmer

  31. The Service is meeting the target on the cost per prisoner place, but I understand that the cost per prisoner place is still about three times as high as it is in England, Wales and Scotland. As the prisoner population normalises by comparison with the other countries would you expect the costs to drop in the same way or are there other reasons why it is so much higher?
  (Mr Halward) It will certainly drop, but I am not prepared at this stage to say by how much I think it will drop. We are committed to reducing the differential in cost between Northern Ireland and England and Wales by 17 per cent over the three years starting in April 2001. Some of the factors in the increased costs are historically the nature of the prison population. It is fair to say that although that prison population is a more normal prison population perhaps than has been the case in the past it is still nowhere near a normal population and there are still a lot of people in prison in Northern Ireland. Also, we have a different proportion of unconvicted and convicted prisoners in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Unconvicted prisoners tend to take more resources. They are entitled to more visits for example and a range of other things. With our young offender population we have actually more unsentenced, unconvicted prisoners than we have sentenced prisoners. I cannot give you a precise figure for England and Wales but it would be very small. Most of our expenditure of course goes on staff costs; something like 85 per cent of our expenditure. Our staff get paid significantly more than staff in the rest of the UK in recognition of the pressures of the job in the past. However, we are talking about something like 25 per cent more across the whole range from auxiliary upwards, all the operational grades, which is quite an add-on. There are also diseconomies of scale. We have to allow for every group of prisoners in custody, despite the fact that they are tiny numbers. The most graphic example is the female population where we only have 20 but that is broken down into adults, youngsters, sentenced, unsentenced. Because some mothers are entitled to have babies in prison with them we even have to provide three tiny mother and baby units to allow for the different categories. All those things add on to the costs and our overheads, our headquarters costs, although we are taking some steps to reduce those, will also add to the cost. We are certainly going to be on a downward path over the next few years but it is going to be very hard work to reduce costs while continuing to motivate staff. It is not feasible for example not to give people pay rises for ten years while rates adjust themselves and contingencies are more difficult in a small service. In a large service with 40,000 staff you can assume that you can draw staff from 135 establishments, as you can in England and Wales. We only have three establishments now so we have to be careful about that. Indeed one of the advantages of the courts group to which Mr Mogg referred earlier is that it gives us a group of staff on whom we could draw in an emergency. So those are some of the factors.

  32. That is very helpful. It does strike me that even with a 17 per cent reduction over three years the proportion will still be about two and a half times the rest of the UK. It would encourage our confidence that the issue was being addressed as far as possible if it were possible to get a review of the reasons for the extra costs, the ones which you have just identified, and the impact they had and the extent to which they could be addressed. All of us who have worked in any kind of a downsizing environment know that there are many reasons why costs are as they are. It is quite possible to have the multiplicity of those act as a disincentive to attack any individual one; whenever you look at one people say it is all because of the other reasons. I do not know whether in addition to the specific savings programme you have, whether you would feel able to do some kind of analysis of this over the next year or so.
  (Mr Halward) Yes; indeed.[3] We are committed to 17 per cent but precisely how we achieve that has yet to be decided. We have identified a number of approaches, benchmarking some of the services in certain areas, reviews of how we have run certain functions, a whole range of ways in which we intend to address that so we can make sure that is sufficiently broad to tackle the longer term issue.

  33. When do you expect a decision to be reached on the future of the Maze? Do you have any kind of feel for that? I realise it is not within your powers.
  (Mr Halward) No. For the timebeing we need the Maze. It is mothballed, it is available for use as necessary. The reason for that is the contingency point, you could spread prisoners around 135 other prisons in England and Wales but we have to accept the possibility we might get a fire or something which takes accommodation out of use, so we need part at least of it for those purposes. We had Belfast prison, the Crumlin Road site, available to us until quite recently but steps are now being taken to dispose of that. We have just embarked on an estate review which is looking at what our physical needs in the Service would be in the medium to long-term and that will include what we do by way of contingency accommodation. For example we might move out of some of our unsatisfactory residential accommodation, cellblocks in other units, Maghaberry or Magilligan, keep those available for contingency accommodation and have some better designed buildings to use.

  34. So the Maze will be around in mothballed state for some time yet.
  (Mr Halward) Yes. Certainly I do not envisage a decision in weeks and probably not in months.

  35. Has the introduction of the video link system between courts and prisons had any effect on the number or the length of remands in custody?
  (Mr Halward) We have not seen any evidence of that. The benefits it has had are on the number of people going out to courts which is an expensive business in itself, taking people to and from courts. It also puts a lot of pressure on those bits of the prison which have to discharge prisoners in the morning and bring them back in the evening and it has given prisoners a less disturbed time in custody. We were pleasantly surprised at how both adult and youngsters responded to the video link. The received wisdom is that people like to go out to court for the day. When the video link was introduced we discovered that most were quite happy to have their court appearances—only bail and routine remand hearings can be dealt with in this way—by video link and then get back to the business of workshops, education visits or whatever. In theory it also ought to impact on things like money spent on legal aid because lawyers can have consultations with their clients over the video link rather than visiting the prison, but it is quite difficult to capture some of those costs because they are not within our direct control.

  36. What, if any, difficulties have arisen over the integration of the few remaining paramilitary prisoners into the non-segregated regimes of prisons other than the Maze? Did you make any concessions, given their unusual status? Were there any problems about that if you did?
  (Mr Halward) I shall ask Mr Mogg to comment on the general policy because Maghaberry is where most people who might have that label attached to them are actually held. Everybody in Northern Ireland at the moment is held in normal conditions with the exception of three prisoners. There was a judicial review of our decision to remove the remaining prisoners out of the Maze into integrated conditions in the Service. We won the first round of the judicial review but there was an appeal against that. So that we could get the Maze closed pending appeal we have three prisoners held in a separate unit at Maghaberry. The unit does not have any of the features commonly associated with the Maze regime and much criticised. In other words, there is no 24-hour unlock and there are no "no-go" areas for staff or any of that sort of thing. We are optimistic that we shall be able to bring that unique position to an end very quickly. All other prisoners are in integrated conditions. Mr Mogg is responsible for managing it at Maghaberry.
  (Mr Mogg) The ex-Maze prisoners who have gone into normal location at Maghaberry have not caused us any problems to date. Because of the situation in Northern Ireland, particularly the Loyalist feud and some other ongoing difficulties between different groups there are some prisoners whom I have to segregate for their own safety. I have individuals who are under threat of death from other groups and obviously one has to be quite careful about how that is handled. The only segregation we have at Maghaberry is the segregation of people because they are at risk from others. To date there has been no sustained campaign from any particular group trying to get back the Maze conditions or to be separated from others. Obviously there are groups which will gravitate to others they went to school with or lived as neighbours and it is something which one has to try to manage to make sure that does not escalate into something greater than that. Probably the thing which determines it more than anything else is the attitude of the community, whether there is any pressure on individuals in the prison to push for segregation because of pressure on their families outside. There is no real evidence that is around so far.

Mr Robinson

  37. While the Maze was in operation it had been alleged that the drugs empire of certain individuals had reached the extent that one of them, according to newspaper reports, was profiting to the tune of about £1,500 a week from drugs sold within the prison. Do you regard those reports as accurate or absurd?
  (Mr Halward) The difficulty with answering any question about drugs in prison is that I cannot say, and I do not think anybody in my position could say, that there are no drugs in prison. That was manifestly absurd. We know there are some drugs in prison and it is almost impossible to prevent drugs being smuggled into prison unless you adopt an approach to visits between prisoners and their families which is generally regarded as inhumane these days, in other words, no physical contact at all. I shall say a bit in a minute about what we are doing short of that to stop drugs getting in. We know there are some drugs in prison. What we do not know is whether what we find—and we have finds from time to time—is one per cent, ten per cent, 50 per cent of 100 per cent of what is in prison. I tend to regard the more extreme tales as exaggeration but I cannot actually disprove it.

  38. In paragraph 16 of your memorandum you refer to an independent assessment having been carried out. Who carried out that independent assessment and what was the conclusion of it?
  (Mr Halward) The independent assessment was carried out by a chap called Murray who is an adviser on drugs matters to the Scottish Prison Inspector whom we invited to come to Northern Ireland in the middle of 1999 to spend some time in each of our establishments and give us his assessment of the extent of the drugs problem, for want of a better way of describing it, in each establishment. I do not think he looked at Maze because we were in the process of closing Maze and there were certain unique features about Maze which were not relevant to the future. In summary what he concluded was that there was an element of a drugs culture in each of the prisons in Northern Ireland, as he would have expected had he been to any prison anywhere in the UK. He gave us some specific bits of advice about how we might go about tackling that in each establishment, bits of advice to do with procedures and review teams and working with the community and things of that sort. In the light of his audit of each establishment the establishments have been revising their drugs policies and practice to introduce appropriate measures. An example of what we have done is at Magilligan where we have a new visits system which has much more effective searching of prisoners and visitors than was the case in the past, together with the positive identification of all visitors. There is also a drugs dog. It includes things like a second line of defence where if either prisoners or their visitors go to the toilet during a visiting period they have to be completely searched again because drugs are often concealed in body cavities and therefore visits to the toilet are necessary and the drugs could be handed over afterwards. It is a whole series of measures of that sort. They are being trialled at Magilligan. Our intention is to introduce them into both the Young Offenders' Centre and Maghaberry. We are confident that will reduce significantly the amount of drugs getting into prison.

  39. Did I understand you to say that Mr Murray had concluded that the level of illegal drug abuse was something similar to what one might have expected in other prisons in the UK?
  (Mr Halward) No, on the whole it is rather below what you would find in the rest of the UK, which reflects the fact that in Northern Ireland as a whole the level of drug abuse is lower than that in the rest of the UK. What he found was an element of drugs and what he was broadly saying to us was that we have a bit of a problem now and there is a window of opportunity in which to tackle this and prevent it becoming a big problem. Our intention is to tackle it before it becomes a big problem. We are doing a review of prisons legislation and one of the things we are considering there is mandatory drug testing. We already have some units where we have voluntary drug testing in the Service, where prisoners volunteer to be drug tested and in return for that they get slightly better conditions in some respects than would otherwise be the case.
  (Mr Bain) Another element of this is educating prisoners about the dangers of drugs. We have done that for years but we have realised that perhaps, particularly to the young offenders, the message is much better put across by drug workers from the community of roughly the same age as the young offenders than by our dedicated staff. We have obtained grants to do that both at the Young Offenders' Centre and at Magilligan; work is in hand at Maghaberry along the same lines. The initial assessment of that is that the message has got across at least to some of the people it is targeting.

3   See Ev p 16. Back

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