Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



Mr Beggs

  80. Good afternoon, gentlemen. There has been welcome progress in the reduction of absenteeism, to what is this attributed?
  (Mr Spratt) It is really hard to put a finger on it. Certainly we have argued consistently for a number of years that the management of absenteeism should be done at the lowest level in the Service. The principal officer on the ground should be the person who should monitor the sick and the staff under his control. That was not happening. Recently what we call group managers have become more involved in the monitoring of the sick. They know the individuals better on the ground. We recently introduced a new management monitoring process, and I have to say, agreed by the Association, with one exception, and that was the trigger points. The management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service believe that if an officer reaches 10 days sick in any 12 months, 10 calendar days, he should get a warning about his sick. We do not accept that. We believe that 10 calendar days is not right. We would certainly agree with 10 working days. Certainly greater emphasis is now being placed on sickness. They have introduced a limited fitness post to bring people back to work and there is certainly a greater effort being put into that, Mr Beggs.

  81. Was the union consulted on the setting of specific absence reduction targets and are you satisfied with the plans that have been introduced to ensure that there is proper support for individual members of staff in future and with the arrangements to ease staff back into work through, as you just said, the limited fitness programmes?
  (Mr Spratt) We are certainly satisfied with the opportunity to ease people back into work. We are not entirely satisfied that the proper supports are there to support people who have been assaulted, and so on and so forth. In relation to the figures, yes, we agreed that 10 days was reasonable, but we said it should be 10 working days. Management ignored that and implemented the procedure using ten calendar days. The reason we said ten working days is the shift patterns that prison officers work in Northern Ireland. We work an average 38 hour week across a shift cycle, which could be anything up to 14 or 15 weeks. This week I could work 46 hours, next week I could work 44 hours and the next week I could work 38 hours. For working that I could have five rest days. If I happen to go sick the day before my five rest days and I am sick a day after, then I am credited with seven days sick, when in actual fact I worked the hours previous to it to have these five rest days off. The management would not see that. We accepted that there was a problem of sickness in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. We accepted that there is a monitoring procedure laid town in the Pay and Conditions Code that applies to all civil servants. We accepted that the Prison Service was not unique. We wanted to address the issue as much as management in relation to sickness, because that had a knock-on effect on the rest of our members, and we accepted that we would bring in a procedure that was applicable to the Prison Service. They wanted us to use part of the procedure we agreed but they wanted us to hold on to the old parts of the code. You cannot have your cake and eat it, you have one procedure. They went ahead and implemented the procedures using calendar days, which we do not agree with.

  82. The Service has performed commendably well against the targets set for it. The Annual Report reveals that the target for breaches of order and control for a number of years has not been met by a significant margin. To what do you attribute this? What steps are you taking that would help the Service to reduce the number of assaults by prisoners on each other and on prison officers?
  (Mr Spratt) That is a very hard thing to quantify and a very difficult question to answer. From my experience we have had lots of assaults in Maghaberry, and it was through a lot of fires and things that were going on. Only up until recently management of the Prison Service was not prepared to deal with these prisoners. We made a suggestion quite some time ago over the fires that were happening in Maghaberry, which led to assaults on staff, that prisoners should not be allowed to carry a lighter. In fact we said that if a prisoner required a light there should be a facility for them to get a light. Nobody would implement that. We are hoping that over a period of time we can get to grips with that. Certainly it was a major problem.

  83. Thank you. Again referring you to the letter you sent to Dr Power, in which you are critical of the calibre of training offered to inmates, that is paragraph 3.5 on page 19, how would you like to see this training changed? What steps has the Association taken to seek to bring about changes in this area? What response have you received from the Service and from prisoners' organisations?
  (Mr Spratt) We certainly received no response from other prisoner organisations. I do not think they like talking to the Prison Officers Association. As prison officers we are very conscious of the fact we are working with people. We are conscious of the fact—we have made this point pretty often—the training offered to prisoners within the penal system did not reflect what is happening outside. For example, who wants to know about knitting jumpers and knitting socks and stuff like that, all that type of training? I have always argued that the Prison Service should provide training that reflects the requirements outside and always try to place these people in jobs as they leave the Service. They have set up a few more IT courses. They are re-looking at the programme and I think they are trying to bring the programme more into line with what is required outside. A lot was outdated for a long time.

  84. Would you like to bring us up-to-date in the Committee with what is happening with regard to the Prison Service medal?
  (Mr Spratt) The Prison Officers Association and other interested bodies in Northern Ireland have for some time campaigned that prison officers should be given a medal in recognition of the contribution they have given to society in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years. Nobody paid much heed to it until Mr Blair came across to Stormont prior to the referendum and prison officers took the opportunity to raise it with him. He could see merit in awarding prison officers this medal. We then had negotiations with the Northern Ireland Office and we laid down what we believed the criteria would be, that it should be given to prison officers and to anybody in the Prison Service who lost their lives, whether that be a prison officer or a civil servant. Our view was it was for prison officers. When it was announced our staff were elated that they were going to get this medal. What has transpired is we have now discovered that all civil servants who worked in the Prison Service will get the medal. If you are a clerk who sat in the Northern Ireland Office for five years you are going to get a medal. The prison officers feel bad about that. They were the people at the coal face. The Secretary of State said that the medal was awarded to prison officers for their courage and dedication during the 30 years of trouble. They feel that the medal should be awarded to prison officers, and certainly recognise those civil servants, for example, Mr Leslie Jarvis, who was a civilian instructor at Magilligan, who lost his life in Londonderry outside Magee University. There should be some provision that people like that, who made the supreme sacrifice because of their connection with prisons, should be recognised. We believe that is where it should stop. The prison officers that I represent are angry, so much so that some of them are considering giving the medal back. We did make representations to the Northern Ireland Office. It appears everything we said has been totally ignored. I remember, Mr Beggs, not many years ago that civil servants would not go into a prison in Northern Ireland, they would not be seen going in a gate, that is fact. In relation to the medal, yes, we are delighted, prison officers are looking forward to getting it. It should be recognised in some way how it is going to presented, not like they did with the RUC medals, when they just put them in their pigeon hole, which means nothing. I have made representations to the Northern Ireland Office that some recognition by media presence or the Secretary of State should be there to present the medal. The people that I represent are telling me quite clearly that the medals should be for prison officers, but people are not listening, that is the impression I am getting.


  85. Before I turn to Mr Barnes, let me follow up on the question Mr Beggs just asked you. You said that you felt that what you had said, I was not clear whether it was an oral submission or in writing, had been ignored. If it was, in fact, face-to-face rather than in writing, there must have been some response at the time that you made the point?
  (Mr Spratt) Yes. It was certainly face-to-face, Mr Chairman, with a meeting at the Northern Ireland Office. People were wanting a medal for one year's service. We felt really to have a medal for one year's service would really demean a medal, because that is what happened to the RUC, we felt it should be five years, only to discover that when the submission was made by the Northern Ireland Office to the Ceremonial Office they recommend a year and a half. However, the Ceremonial Office turned down the year and a half and came down on the side of five years. The people that I made the case to totally ignored the representation that I made on behalf of our members.

  86. When you made the submission did they absorb it? I can recall circumstances where I might have been on the other side of the table where there would certainly have been a form of words I was going to communicate to you which would have had a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm about them. They would have been more than just simply accepting, as I say, absorbing what you were saying.
  (Mr Spratt) They took aboard the comments we had made and then they said they were consulting with other interested parties. The point was, before the recommendation went to the Ceremonial Office we were not aware of the recommendations that went from the Northern Ireland Office. I would have thought it would have been courteous to consult with us and say, "Look, we have now consulted everyone, this is what we propose to put to the Ceremonial Office", it did not happen that way.

Mr Barnes

  87. I would like to ask about the integration of the few remaining paramilitary prisoners into non-segregated regimes of prison, other than the Maze. What difficulty has that produced for your members?
  (Mr Spratt) At the moment it is not producing any difficulty because these people see there is a way out for them. At the moment they are keeping them separated in Maghaberry because there is a judicial review on-going in relation to those three prisoners, so they have them separate at the moment. If the prisoners lose the judicial review then I do not know what the response is going to be. It is certainly not posing any problems at this point in time.

  88. What do you see as being anticipated problems in Maghaberry? It has a wide range of prisoners, has it not?
  (Mr Spratt) I do not want to see Maghaberry becoming another Maze; that is my biggest fear. We have many dissident paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland and my biggest fear is if the push comes again for segregation in relation to paramilitary factions. If the management of the Prison Service or the Government, to that effect, are going to recognise these people then I think it is a retrograde step. We should proceed on the basis that prisoners are prisoners and we should learn a lesson from what happened at the Maze and let us not go down that road again. Prison officers paid with their lives for policies pursued by various Governments. As a representative I do not want to see it happen. Certainly I am conscious of the fact there possibly could be a push. If we send a clear message, it does not matter what push, we will not be going down the road of the Maze. I know there are people in the Northern Ireland Prison Service talking already about managing these people within segregated conditions. We tried that in the Maze and it just does not work.

  89. There are two questions, there is the segregation of paramilitary prisoners from each other and the segregation of paramilitary prisoners from other prisoners. Do you feel the same in response to both those issues?
  (Mr Spratt) I feel they are all prisoners. I believe they should all be housed according to their sentence. Lifers have a different regime to people who are doing different years. I do not think we should have any that are paramilitary prisoners if the Good Friday Agreement means anything. We should take the opportunity of the Good Friday agreement to get away from that and start treating all of the prisoners the same and house them all together.

  90. How strong is your attitude amongst your members?
  (Mr Spratt) That would be the view of my members.

  91. You are generally reflecting that. Last week one of the Prison Service witnesses said although there is no overt campaign in Maghaberry at present to seek the introduction of segregation of paramilitary prisoners it is something that is just under the surface all of the time. What you are indicating is that you do not feel that that is the case?
  (Mr Spratt) What I meant was we were coming under no great pressure within Maghaberry, but it is always there underneath. In fact it eased off quite a bit recently. The feedback that I am getting from our membership in Maghaberry is there is that element from these dissident organisations that are there. I also think the witness last week made reference that prison officers were not under so much pressure as we were. I would take issue with that, because in April this year we had an officer's home attacked in Lurgan, his car was petrol bombed and they attempted to put a petrol bomb through his window. In September in Bangor another prison officer's home was attacked. Prison officers in Northern Ireland are not enjoying the benefit of the ceasefire from paramilitary factions. It is still there.

  92. Is the pressure that exists, pressure from the paramilitary prisoners themselves, in order to create a similar regime to the one they are used to?
  (Mr Spratt) That would be my view, yes.

Mr Clarke

  93. Just following up on Mr Barnes's question in terms of this campaign that is always under the surface, as far as segregation is concerned, does the introduction of the Vulnerable Prison Unit play any part in, perhaps, the thinking of paramilitary organisations in terms of how segregation could be achieved?
  (Mr Spratt) There is no doubt that a paramilitary prisoner will use any system that he possibly can. I think the Vulnerable Prison Unit has not intended that we should house people of that type. It is more to do with prison officers, policemen and people of that nature. They will certainly try and use it, if there is a possibility of them doing it. The management should obviously be aware of the situation and be ready for that, because they will exploit any situation they possibly can.

  94. Moving on to matters at Maghaberry, you mentioned earlier on in your evidence that there were an extraordinarily high number of fires. Over three years I believe that 400 people have been injured within Maghaberry, mainly as a result of fires. I wonder if you could tell us if that figure is accurate? It was originally reported in the press and it would be interesting to know if there is an inaccuracy there, but also if you could go on to say whether or not there is a particular problem, obviously there is, regarding the incidence of fires, and, if so, to what do you attribute it?
  (Mr Spratt) I could not comment on whether the figure is accurate or not. I know there was a substantial amount of staff with smoke inhalation, I have never summarised how many. I would have thought at that time all of those fires were attributable—we still had the Maze on-going. We had people being sentenced and sent to Maghaberry who had affiliations with the paramilitary organisations outside and within the Maze and they were not sent to the Maze, they were kept in Maghaberry. The view was these fires, and all of the disruption, was being created to try and get them to be moved out to the Maze. That is where most of the problems were coming from. Now with the Maze closed, hopefully, we will not have that problem. It will be a segregation issue, if anything, in the future.

  95. Of those 400 injuries, I appreciate you cannot, as you said, say that figure is or is not correct, were the majority to prison officers or to prisoners?
  (Mr Spratt) The majority were to prison officers. Most of the fires were all smoke orientated, rather than flames. Prison officers were finding that prisoners were locked in their cells and they were attempting to get them out, so they were suffering from smoke inhalation, that is where most of those injuries came from.

  96. Finally, spreading the net a little bit wider, apart from the fires, are there any particular problems in the running of the various establishments you would wish to bring to the attention of the Committee?
  (Mr Spratt) I think there is a problem at the moment in relation to the staff reduction programme, I have to say. In fact, we had agreement with the management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service when they opened the package up to everybody that in actual fact we would have replacements in place before officers could leave. There were 23 officers that applied for the redundancy package. Unfortunately management did not live up to their obligations to ensure that those people were retained in the Service until the replacements were put in place and we have a lot of workshops closed in Maghaberry, in the YOC and Magilligan. I think prisoners are not being properly utilised. It is going to be quite some time, it is going to be at least another two months before we have these instructors in place.

Mr Pound

  97. I am very impressed, in fact, by the comments you make about retraining. I remember when I was in Dartmoor the most popular job was painting plastic garden gnomes, which appears to have no linkage with future careers—maybe it was the fumes from the paint or not, I do not know. The idea of having an IT suite is very much to your credit and demonstrates the very positive and forward looking way the Prison Officers Association is setting out to install in Northern Ireland, and I praise you for that. Mr Spratt I also praise you for your marvellous style in your letter to Dr Power, you do not take prisoners—that is probably the wrong expression—you do not mince your words. You state in the letter, "There is much which the Prison Service can do to offer better value for money to the taxpayer". In your 1998 memo you expressed yours and the Prison Officers Association's disappointment that the cost of a prisoner was not falling very significantly and it was difficult to achieve efficiency gains brought about from the efforts of your members. How could greater efficiencies be made?
  (Mr Spratt) I am glad you asked that question. I do not subscribe to the view that the cost of prisoners in Northern Ireland equates to Great Britain. You cannot take the Northern Ireland Prison Service and compare it to the English Prison Service or the Scottish Prison Service. We only have three establishments in Northern Ireland. We do not have the opportunity of spreading that across low costs, for example. We do not have open prisons, we do not have any of that. In actual fact, if you take Maghaberry Prison, and if you look at the review by Dr Power, he said when you compare the coal face figures with any establishment in England they equate roughly on par with them. This figure of £77,000 and then the English one is what I call creative accountancy. Any accountant will let figures tell you what you want them to tell you. I challenge that, let them compare like with like. Dr Power said the coal face figures, that is the officer's that work with prisoners, broadly equates to England and Wales. Where the other discrepancies are, in relation to periphery posts, gates and security, we in Northern Ireland have a different situation to the mainland. We need more external posts than England and Wales because of the security situation. I am not saying that we need them for the future, if things settle down, but at this point in time we need them. In that paragraph I also refer to the increase in Civil Service posts. If I can give you an example, as the Chairman of the Prison Officers' Association I get a bit upset at times because everybody seem to be attacking the prison officers. They always want to pull the costs down and pull the savings out of prison officers. In 1994 prison officers did all of the clerical functions in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. The management at that time approached us and said, "Look, we do not need prison officers to do clerical work, we can do it with civil servants for less money". That is a very strong argument. We as a Union had to recognise it was a strong argument. We accepted we will recruit civil servants to do the job that prison officers do. In 1994 the amount of officer clerks in the YOC, Magilligan, Maghaberry and the PSC—these are the four establishments we have left at this point in the time—was 54, the amount of civil servants doing those jobs today is 102. These are facts. These are not fiction. Everybody attributed the cost per prison to prison officers. All can say is, I do not believe it and I would challenge them. If they compare like with like I believe that the cost per prisoner placed in Northern Ireland will come out as favourable to what is happening in England, Wales and Scotland.

  98. That is now on the record, Mr Spratt, and that will be followed up. When you said everyone is attacking the prison officers, it is not for me to speak for this Committee, but I would like to say I have heard no such attacks from any Member of this Committee.
  (Mr Spratt) I did not mean this Committee.

  99. Most of us recognised that the sacrifice that many of your members made has been the ultimate sacrifice and the courage you showed more than merits the award of a medal. I speak for all of us when I say how much we respect the work your members have done. On the point about civilian prison auxiliaries working in there, in the rest of the United Kingdom there is a much higher percentage of civilians working within the prison estate. I accept your point about the different conditions, do you see an increase in that usage? Even from your previous figures they are not as cost-effective as may have been indicated.
  (Mr Spratt) From where we sit at this point in time I believe that we have turned over as many jobs as we possibly can at this point in time to auxiliaries. In fact we have 242 auxiliaries on the discipline side, we have something like 25 auxiliary cook officers and something like 30 auxiliary trade officers, that is what we brought in. As a representative of prison officers and auxiliaries I have also the pressure from the other side. If you are an auxiliary in the Northern Ireland Prison Service you will end up with a salary of £16,000. That auxiliary argues to me very strongly, and there is merit in what they say, they join the Prison Service, they are in a dead-end job, because they are not going anywhere, and there is no promotion for them, there is no way out. He is saying to me, "I am getting £16,000, this officer here is getting £28,000, and I am basically doing the same job. There is so much unrest amongst the prison auxiliaries in the Northern Ireland Prison Service that is going to drive to unsettlement. We have had a very stable, industrial relationship up to this point. It is getting to the stage where the auxiliaries in Northern Ireland are as far as they can go. I feel sorry for those auxiliaries, because they are all young men and women, well educated in a dead end job.

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