Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 104 - 119)




  104. Mr McAleer and Mr Newman, you are extremely welcome. We are particularly appreciative of your coming, because we do know that there have been changes in the structure of your organisation. We realise that those who have given evidence to us before are not in front of us today. We shall entirely understand that, and you should not hesitate to kick to touch if there comes a moment if you feel that would be the safest thing to do. The basis on which we normally do this is questions will come from individuals around the horseshoe, but we will try and make the order of questions logical. We may dart around in terms of who is going to ask questions, but it will not necessarily go round in the whole ring of the horseshoe. We will be entirely happy if at any stage, either while we are actually here today or later, in writing, you wanted to gloss any answer you have given us because you felt that perhaps you misunderstood it or there was something you wanted to add. We will, for our part, feel free to ask you supplementary questions in writing if, when we get the transcript, we can see there are things we ought to have asked which we failed to asked. Are you content with those ground rules?
  (Mr McAleer) Yes, I am happy with that.

  105. Is there anything you would like to say to us before we start beyond what you kindly put in your letter, which we have all seen?
  (Mr McAleer) Not really. I suppose we can say, by way of introduction, that the Governors' Association is much less than it was the last time you interviewed our predecessors. There are now 40 governors in the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the last time you interviewed our predecessors there were considerably more than that, possibly about 68. Other than that, nothing to add.

  106. You have, with remarkable skill, read my mind, because the first question that I was going to ask you was; how many governors are there left now that the staff reduction programme has been taken through? I was going to ask, again, what was the number of governor grade staff in the Northern Ireland Prison Service before and after the staff reduction programme respectively? I think you said you thought there were now 40 and you thought that there were 68 before, is that right?
  (Mr McAleer) Approximately.

  107. What is the current level of membership of your Association in the governor grades in the province?
  (Mr McAleer) If we take purely the governor grades and discount the Director General, who is also a member of the Governors' Association and the Director of Operations, who is a member of the Governors' Association, taking those two out of it there will be 25. If you want to count them, it will be 27.

  108. When we took evidence before, back in 1998, I think there were 62 relevant officers, of whom about 48 were in the Association, which is about three quarters, which is not a markedly different figure from today. Let us go beyond the actual numbers. What has been the impact on the Service of the loss of a significant number of experienced governors, which you have already implied in the exchanges we have had?
  (Mr McAleer) In our view, at this moment in time we have only recently lost the governors, in a matter of months. It is probably too early to say the exact impact, but obviously no organisation can lose a considerable number of experienced people without having a knock-on effect. There are no specific instances that I can say to you, because of the short-term where I can say this is a loss and because of the loss we have suffered this particular problem. What I will say is that a lot of the governors who have gone, although they were experienced, they were experienced in a different Service. The skills they required in those days and possibly the skills that are coming up now, some people might say in one way it is a big loss , but in another way, for the challenges of the future it might not be as big a loss. Time will tell.

  109. Let me put the question another way. Would you say that there were, after the reduction, enough governors who were either experienced or relevant to the task that you now face. I put in both experienced and relevant because you have indicated that some of the experience may not have been relevant.
  (Mr McAleer) Yes. Could you say that again?

  110. Do you believe after the quite substantial reduction that has occurred, that as the cohort of governors is now constituted so you have enough relevant—I am trying to avoid the word "experience" because of your observation that the past experience in the Northern Ireland Prison Service may not be relevant today—enough relevant officers to do the task that faces you?
  (Mr McAleer) Yes, I feel the governors that we have left now are up to the task for the future.

  111. And in sufficient numbers?
  (Mr McAleer) And in sufficient numbers, yes.

Mr Beggs

  112. Good afternoon, gentlemen. The staff reduction programme has proceeded remarkably smoothly. To what do you attribute this? Was your Association satisfied with the level of both financial compensation and other support offered to departing governors?
  (Mr McAleer) That is a couple of questions. I will deal with to what we attribute the fact that it went well. Well, I think we would attribute that to a lot of things, and mainly down to the people who were involved and the process, both from trade union sides and the management side. I think they handled it very well, and for once in the history of the Service everybody seemed to co-operate and communication was quite good. In our view as an Association it was handled as well as it could have been. The other one was about the amount of money. As an Association I can say that we will always be happy with getting more money, I am sure you understand that, but overall we had no complaints from any of our membership about the level of compensation. As I said, as an Association, had the Government been disposed to paying us more money, we would have liked that as well.

  113. Thank you. The cost of the staff reduction programme is to be met by Treasury funding and efficiency savings. Prison Service witnesses have told us that of the total cost of £153 million, £24.5 million was to come from efficiency savings. Is it, in your view, feasible for efficiency savings on this scale to be made and how do you think they will impact on the operation of the Service?
  (Mr McAleer) First of all, as an Association, we see our job to help the management to achieve targets which are set by the politicians, if you like, and we have no comment to make on that. If you are asking me what the cost would be of it, well, like everything else, if you want to make savings of costs, we would see our job as pointing out what the costs are and the management then determine whether that cost is worth paying. If you want to know whether the figure of £24.5 million is a realistic figure without dramatically effecting the running of the Service, which I think is what you are asking me, our view of that is that costs are there to be made and we think it is a realistic figure without greatly impacting on delivery. I will say, as an Association, we have given up a considerable amount of our membership along the way. I know the last time the Governors' Association appeared before you the membership was 68. Prior to that it was something like 100 governors in 1996. So over the past four years we have certainly contributed a big percentage of the costs and will continue to do so.

  114. Have you actually calculated how much of the efficiency saving will come from the reduction in the number of prison governors?
  (Mr McAleer) Well, as you are aware from the submission we gave you, we are a new committee, we have only been formed in the last two months. There is a lot of work that we have not done with sub-committees. I could not tell you, off the top of my head, what that would be, but it will be something we are looking at and we are co-operating with the Director General. We are doing a review of the Service at the minute. It is not finished yet, so there are other jobs that are in there to be talked about. We have not, as yet, spoken to the Director General about it, but it will be on the agenda.
  (Mr Newman) As an Association we do appreciate the biggest cost in the Service is that of staffing, as it is in any business, and we would be keen to support, indeed promote, efficiencies and savings where we can. We do understand that it is necessary to look in to it now ourselves and sharpen up the organisation as a whole.

  115. If you do get around to establishing and fortifying the level of reduction arising from the reductions in the number of governors, as the Chairman said, you can drop us a note to bring us up to date. Finally, referring to the Prison Service witnesses who told us that efficiency savings provided an opportunity to devolve more authority both to, and within, establishments, with a consequent increase in the number of managers at senior officer level. Is this change welcomed by your Association?
  (Mr McAleer) We have not, as an Association, thought specifically about the number of senior officers. I could say that some time ago, many years ago, there was a report—I think it was the May Report—some of the older politicians may remember it, identified a need for more Principal Officers. I am not sure, actually, if we have really professionally looked at our management levels in that respect to see whether we should put the balance at SOR or POR, and I am not sure that as an Association we have an opinion on that. I will say we have no great objection to it, but we were not really involved in the decision.

  Mr Beggs: Thank you, Chairman. Thank you.

Mr Hunter

  116. In 1998 your Association gave evidence to us and then expressed concern about various aspects of agency status. What now is your assessment of the success or otherwise of agency status?
  (Mr McAleer) As an Association we are happy with the situation of the agency status. We have no real complaints. Obviously there are other things that we would like to see, and I made reference to them in the letter that we sent, talking about the level of responsibilities and central control and things like that, which probably we would like to see more devolving. One of the big problems that has been in the Prison Service for a long time, and that was the dichotomy between the Department and the Prison Service, and we thought that when the agency status came along this was an opportunity which would eventually resolve that. We are still hopeful that will be the case. We have a long way to go yet. We still have two Services within one Service.

  117. Would it be going to far to say that agency had been a success?
  (Mr McAleer) It has been a success in a whole lot of ways. We are just finding out that there are other things still to be done.

  118. And, therefore, wish for its continuation?
  (Mr McAleer) Yes.

  119. Morale is hard to quantify and evaluate, but how would you say that morale in members of your Association had changed, if it has changed, in the two years since you were last giving evidence to us?
  (Mr McAleer) Like all organisations who undergo tremendous change—and our organisation has undergone tremendous change on a number of fronts; government initiatives, redundancies, and political situations—morale went down in the period, but that is to be expected and any organisation which goes through that will have a dip, but I would say that if were to look at it on a graph I think you will find after a morale dip when organisations are building it starts to go back up again. I would say that our assessment would be that we are at that point now, that we are starting to go on the up. I think we have bottomed out and we are starting to rise now. So morale is on the up part of the graph.

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