Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs First Report



9. The Prison Service Review resulted in very substantial changes in the management structure of the Prison Service. Not surprisingly, its implementation became inextricably linked with progress on the Staff Reduction Programme. This resulted in some changes of approach from those envisaged at the time of our original Report.[17] There has nonetheless been a reduction of headquarters involvement in day-to-day operational issues and greater devolution of functions to line managers in the field, although the Prison Governors' Association (Northern Ireland) suggested that this should go further.[18]

10. The Staff Reduction Programme has succeeded in delivering the very substantial reduction in numbers required. The 40 per cent decrease in staff numbers, amounting to nearly 1200 staff, has been achieved entirely through voluntary means, at an estimated net overall cost of around £130 million.[19] We are grateful to the Prisons Minister for keeping us informed, at regular intervals, of progress. The Staff Reduction Programme has also been instrumental in achieving a number of other objectives. As the Director General put it:[20]

    "I should say that we deliberately decided to use the staff reduction programme as a vehicle to achieve a number of other things. It was a single important piece of work which had to be done, but we used this as a vehicle to get more training and development under way, to improve communication across the Service, to improve lines of accountability. It is an example of a single theme which enables you to make progress in quite a lot of areas."

He also told us[21] that the programme had enabled the Service to increase substantially the proportion of health care staff who are qualified nurses, to increase the relative proportion of prison auxiliaries and, for the first time for some years, to provide some opportunities for promotion within the Service.

11. Although the Prison Officers' Association (Northern Ireland) did not consider the severance package offered was sufficiently generous,[22] it co-operated with the Northern Ireland Office in view of support for the programme shown by its members. The Association did, however, express some concerns about prison auxiliaries who were invited to apply, but in the end were not permitted to take advantage of the Programme.[23] We congratulate the management and staff of the Prison Service, and the unions concerned, on the success of the Staff Reduction Programme and on the constructive way in which they handled the potentially difficult challenge of reducing staff levels following the release of paramilitary prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement.

12. The releases of staff under the Staff Reduction Programme provided considerably greater scope for promotions than had been possible in recent years.[24] Although these promotion opportunities were welcomed by the Prison Officers' Association (Northern Ireland), concern was expressed that, as a result of the Staff Reduction Programme, there would be very little natural wastage in the Service over the next few years and, as a result, the scope for promotion in the future would be diminished.

13. One of our original concerns was that the Prison Service was apparently incapable of producing internal candidates of sufficient calibre for its highest posts. We therefore asked the Prison Governors' Association (Northern Ireland) for its assessment of the significance of the quite substantial losses from the Governor grades under the Staff Reduction Programme. We note the Association's confidence that enough suitable governors remain in the Service. We would encourage the Prison Service to seek to ensure that through its training programme and suitable secondments where appropriate it develops the skills of its staff to the extent that it can produce good internal candidates for the highest posts in the Service. In a small Service such as that in Northern Ireland, it is, in our view, vital for overall morale that career staff can realistically aspire to the highest posts.

14. In our original Report, we expressed some concerns about the imbalance in composition of and recruitment to the Prison Service. We have therefore sought to evaluate progress in this area. Mr Halward reported small increases in both the percentages of women appointed and in the percentage of Catholics appointed.[25] However, he forecast only "a very modest shift" in the balance because many of the staff who were due to retire in the next few years have already left under the Staff Reduction Programme. On promotions, Mr Halward described the position as "not quite so encouraging" as the pools of candidates are themselves "quite seriously unbalanced". However, once again, the percentages of successful Catholics and of women candidates were slightly above the corresponding proportion of applicants. We welcome the admittedly modest progress that has been made in improving both the religious and gender balances of the Prison Service. We would nonetheless encourage the Service to continue to give a high priority to seeking to reduce these imbalances significantly further.

15. Our original report highlighted serious problems of low morale, high absenteeism, and poor attendance at training sessions. Although we recognise that a significant proportion of Prison Service staff on sick leave at any time are off work directly as a result of an incident there, such as assault by a prisoner or smoke inhalation from a fire started by a prisoner, we are pleased to note the very considerable progress that has been reported in each area. Mr Halward put the progress on absenteeism down to "good procedures consistently applied", but also set out a number of steps now taken to assist staff returning to work.[26] The Prison Officers' Association (Northern Ireland) has agreed to the introduction of a new management monitoring process for sickness, but disagrees with some of the practical details of its implementation.[27]

16. On training, there has been a dramatic improvement in uptake and corporate development and training targets are now being exceeded.[28] The Director-General attributed this to a range of factors, including improved relevance of training and a greater willingness on the part of management to release staff for training.[29] He reported that about 90% of those attending training were reporting that the training was meeting their needs. The Prison Officers' Association (Northern Ireland) agreed that a greater emphasis was now being placed on training, but was critical of the current extent of training of officers in control and restraint techniques. Mr Spratt commented:[30]

    "We are finding that more and more in the courts now if people are not properly trained in C&R then prison officers are being held responsible. The management have an obligation to ensure that we are properly trained. C&R is still lacking."

We welcome the greater attention which is clearly being given to both the quantity of training and its relevance to the needs of the staff. The extensive induction programme for staff transferring from HMP Maze to other establishments was a valuable innovation, given the uniqueness of the prison regime in which they had previously been working there. A modern Prison Service requires its staff to be trained in an increasingly wide range of skills, and a broadly based training programme is therefore essential. In developing the training programme, we have no doubt that the Prison Service will give due weight to ensuring that officers receive appropriate Control and Restraint training.

17  HC 866-i, Ev. p. 1. See also Ev. p. 1. Back

18  Q 128. Back

19  Q 6. Back

20  Q 7. Back

21  Q 3. Back

22  Q 67. See also Q 71. Back

23  Q 63. For the Prison Service's explanation of the reasons, see Q 7. Back

24  Ev. p. 1-2. Q 72. Back

25  Q 2 and Ev. p. 17. Back

26  Q 20 to 23. Back

27  Q 80 to 82. Back

28  Ev. p. 2. Back

29  Q 19. Back

30  Q 78. Back

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Prepared 28 February 2001