Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 24th October 2011.
With permission, I wish to inform the House of the publication today of the final report of the prison review team, chaired by Dame Anne Owers. I welcome that report, which will form the cornerstone of a radical programme of reform in our prison system. Members will recall that I established the prison review team in July 2010 to conduct a review of the conditions of detention, management and oversight of all prisons in Northern Ireland. I want to extend my thanks to Dame Anne Owers and her colleagues Paul Leighton, Clodach McGrory, Fergus McNeill and Phil Wheatley for their painstaking work over the past 16 months and for the vast range of expertise that they have brought to the issue.
In February 2011, the review team published an interim report that set a very clear direction of travel for the Prison Service and identified the need for significant improvements in governance, leadership, working practices and culture. In short, it highlighted the need for end-to-end, fundamental reform of the Prison Service. The team’s final report includes 40 recommendations for fundamental reform. All of them will require careful consideration, and I will, of course, wish to discuss them further with the Justice Committee and with my colleagues in the Executive. In reaching those recommendations, the report expands on many of the themes and issues signalled by the earlier report and sets out a vision of a prison system that provides secure custody; supports and reflects human rights standards and ethical values; is based on the premise that prisoners within it can develop and change and provides the opportunities for them to do so; and shows that it is using and investing public money wisely. Reflecting that vision, it details the fundamental characteristics that our prisons should display. The vision set out and the characteristics described provide a model against which I want our prison system of the future and the reform programme we are setting in place to take us there to be judged. Along with the director general of the Prison Service, I am fully committed to the transformation of the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) into a service that reflects the model set out in the report.
The report not only looks forward but looks at where we are now. Any thorough and robust review of our prison system was inevitably going to make for uncomfortable reading, as many others have in recent years. This report is no exception. One of the most disturbing aspects of the report relates to the differentials that have been identified in the outcomes for various groups of prisoner, including, for example, trends of more Catholic prisoners on the basic regime or subject to multiple adjudications. The director general and I take those findings very seriously. We are clear that there are no grounds on which discrimination or preferential treatment because of religion, ethnicity or nationality will be tolerated. Although we will examine what further steps may be required to ensure that they are addressed, we have already agreed that a number of immediate steps will be taken.
It is evident that, although information on equality and diversity issues has been gathered, it has not been sufficient nor has it been used appropriately to safeguard equality of treatment and opportunity across all groups of prisoners. The director general has, therefore, issued clear instructions to the governing governors to ensure that equality and diversity information is properly examined and analysed and immediate corrective action taken where there is no clear rationale for apparent inequality of treatment. Steps are also being taken to ensure that, in future, the role of equality and diversity committees in each prison will be given proper priority and chaired at an appropriately senior level, with attendance from prisoners. The director general will report to me personally on how that issue is being addressed. Moreover, within the Department’s responsibilities, I have instructed officials to amend the departmental equality action plan, which was being made ready for publication, to include actions in relation to that issue. That will provide an additional level of monitoring and direct reporting to me as Minister.
The review team has expressed frustration that outcomes for prisoners remain largely unchanged since the publication of its interim report in February. The team identifies a number of reasons for that and highlights the lengthy processes of procurement and recruitment and the need for cross-departmental approvals, as well as the lengthy negotiations about an early retirement scheme. The team concludes that all of those protracted processes have reduced momentum and increased frustration. Summing up their own frustration, the members of the review team express their:
“fears that our review, like others, will result in a report, but no fundamental change.”
They argue, rightly, that that must not happen, and I agree. They say:
“Though the transformation we envisage will take time to complete, there is an urgent need to show that its foundations are securely in place. The next six months will be crucial.”
Again, I agree. With that in mind, rather than try to respond to a report of this importance in a single statement, I intend to make a number of statements and announcements during those next six months, setting out in greater detail the work that is already under way and how we intend to build on that work as we seek to implement the recommendations contained in the report.
We are reaching a point where, as a result of work that has been continuing behind the scenes over the last year, I am confident we will soon see a step change in the pace of the reform programme. While expressing the team’s disappointment at progress to date, the report also acknowledges that there is a sense of change and purpose at the top of the Prison Service. The review team says that there is no doubt that those responsible for the prison system recognise the size and shape of the problem and have been working hard to find solutions for it. That hard work to lay the foundations for fundamental change may not yet have been evidenced in visible improvements to prisoner outcomes, but I want to reassure Members that much has been achieved, laying the groundwork for structural change in this first year of the programme and for fundamental changes to culture and practice in due course.
As a result of that work, there are early signs of improvements to outcomes for prisoners and real and practical enhancements to the experience of offenders in custody. The development of the Donard day centre at Maghaberry, which I will formally open next month, is transforming how we manage, support and care for the most vulnerable prisoners. The governor has recently introduced a new system of free-flow movement for all category C prisoners in Maghaberry, with plans in place to extend those arrangements to category B prisoners. The introduction of that system starts to address the report’s cautions about over-reliance on physical security and the need to move towards more dynamic security arrangements across the prison system, with benefits including greater efficiency and enhanced personal responsibility for prisoners. Across all three establishments, the recent introduction of central detailing, as the report notes, has resulted in a more consistent regime and noticeably fewer lockdowns.
In the report, the review team has scoped out the sheer scale of the change that is needed. It is clear that lasting and effective reform on this scale will take time. We cannot expect fundamental change to happen overnight. The report refers to the strategic effectiveness and efficiency (SEE) programme and describes it as:
“to a large extent consistent with the perceptions and recommendations” made in the interim report. I have compared the scale of the SEE programme with that of the Patten reforms of policing. Indeed, we know from that experience that the process of delivering fundamental and lasting organisational change on such a scale takes years. The SEE programme is a four-year change programme, and the NIPS four-year corporate plan, published this month, sets out how change will be achieved across each year of that programme.
The work to date on year 1 structural change has included the development of a new business operating model for the Prison Service that will transform and modernise working practices; the development of new roles for NIPS front line staff; and reviews of non-core functions to examine possible opportunities to improve existing service delivery. The past eight months have seen the reinforcement of governance arrangements across the service, including the restructuring of Prison Service headquarters. Governors in charge now report directly to the director general on operational performance matters. As the review team has acknowledged, along with other initiatives such as central detailing, the new emphasis on accountability is delivering a demonstrably more predictable regime and is beginning to have a positive effect on prisoner outcomes.
The report makes some very interesting and thoughtful recommendations about the size and shape of the prison estate in the future. It recommends a quite radical reconfiguration of the Maghaberry site into three mini-prison areas and presses for a clear decision on the role and future of Magilligan prison. It also recommends the development of new halfway house and step-down accommodation for long-sentenced prisoners and those with mental health and substance use issues. Those recommendations will be considered in full in the estates strategy, about which I will make a further statement in the months ahead.
In relation to the size of the prison estate, the report makes a number of recommendations aimed at reducing the number of people being sent to prison, especially on remand, including tackling delay; identifying alternatives to custody for fine defaulters; and reinforcing the view that custody should only ever be a last resort. Those are, of course, matters for the wider justice system rather than our Prison Service, and, although more must be done, we should not understate the scale of change that is already happening across the justice system. The Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, enacted in May this year, makes provision for alternatives to prosecution, including penalty notices and conditional cautions. I have also brought forward considerable work to address fine default, which the report has also highlighted as a barrier to progress, reform and a reduction in offending. The pilot of a new community-based alternative to custody for fine default — the supervised activity order to which the report refers — will commence in the Craigavon area before the end of the year.
Our programme of work to tackle delay in the system includes streamlining and improving existing processes and procedures, as well as looking to the future and more fundamental structural and legislative reform. The review team has gone further in the report than previously by recommending the implementation of statutory time limits from arrest to disposal, staged over three years. I am already considering a related recommendation arising from the recently published review of youth justice, and it is significant that Dame Anne has added her voice to the debate. I am giving careful consideration to such an initiative and will return to it in due course.
The review team devotes a chapter of the report to the particular needs of women and young adults in our system. The team identifies successful programmes for women, such as the Inspire project, and recommends those as models on which to build. However, it also highlights the weaker aspects of our provision and makes innovative recommendations for a new custodial facility. It applies similar innovation to young adults and recommends the transformation of Hydebank Wood into a secure college. It also adds its voice to that of those who have strongly advised us to end the detention of under-18s at that establishment. All those recommendations deserve further detailed consideration, and, again, they will be the subject of further announcements by me in the coming months.
Of critical importance throughout the report is the recognition that our prison system does not exist and operate in a vacuum but is an essential part of society and only one of many agents that contribute to the creation of a safer society through the reduction of offending. That is immediately evident in the provision of healthcare in prisons, where responsibility for commissioning healthcare has transferred from NIPS to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The review team commissioned two independent reviews of the delivery of those services, and those are also being published today. The overall conclusion of the review team is that, although progress has been made, much more is required. The team makes detailed recommendations about the governance structure for the delivery of healthcare and for improvements to the relationship between healthcare and the wider criminal justice system. Obviously, the consideration of those conclusions and recommendations will fall to me and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
The report also emphasises that responsibility for driving forward change towards an effective prison system reaches across the entire justice system and beyond to become the responsibility of the entire Executive. The rehabilitation and successful reintegration of offenders into society cannot fall solely to NIPS. The report touches on issues of health, employability, learning and skills, and on the many other social and economic barriers to and springboards for changed behaviour and desistance from offending.
At an operational level, success will rely on the development by NIPS of effective partnership work with other agencies and communities. The Prison Service already enjoys positive working relationships with a number of other agencies and organisations, particularly the Probation Board for Northern Ireland. I am also aware of the director general’s determination that NIPS will develop a more outward-facing approach by working more effectively with existing partners and seeking out and developing new relationships.
For my part, I am determined to join up our response to offending at a strategic level among Departments. The report is explicit:
“Everyone who wants to live in a safer and more peaceful society has a stake in successfully reintegrating ex-prisoners; so everyone should play their part in making reintegration happen.”
Similarly, the point is made:
“There is virtually no department in the devolved administration that does not have an interest in, and a need to contribute to, the reduction of crime.”
I am committed to developing and delivering a reshaped Executive-wide approach to reducing offending. The review refers to such an approach as a “safer society strategy”.
Members will appreciate that the report is a far-reaching one that challenges all of us to embrace the urgent need for fundamental reform. I hope that all sides of the House will do so. As we do so, we must not lose sight of the fact that the Northern Ireland Prison Service is an operational service that provides custody, services and interventions to offenders 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The pressure on that service to deliver the programme of change that we demand, on top of its ongoing operational responsibilities, will be intense. Through the SEE programme, the strategy for moving forward has been put in place. I now look to colleagues in the Executive, the Justice Committee and the wider Assembly to lend their weight and support to making the strategy happen. NIPS needs to be empowered and supported in starting the journey towards change.
As I have said, I share the review team’s assessment that the next six-month period is crucial. Indeed, it is a watershed for the Prison Service. With colleagues’ support, I am confident that we will pass a number of critical milestones, including the announcement of an exit scheme aimed at right-sizing the service and refreshing the workforce; the appointment of a dedicated change programme team, the selection programme for which is nearing completion; a comprehensive new business operating model to transform totally how NIPS works, which will be in place and ready for launch by April 2012; radical changes to healthcare, with healthcare staff scheduled to transfer to the South Eastern Trust by April 2012; completion of reviews of the provision of non-core functions, such as learning and skills, catering and estate management; publication of a revised prison estate strategy that will set out how the prison estate will be developed, taking account of the recommendations in the review team’s report; and further changes across the wider justice system, including outcomes of the review of community sentences.
In closing, I repeat the challenge that has been set before us by the review team when it reminds us:
“this is a unique opportunity to create a public sector prison system that is a model of excellence”.
Dame Anne also said:
“incremental improvements are not enough, and there needs to be a determined cross-party approach to driving through the whole package of change.”
I seek the support of the Assembly for the work that will need to be done by the Prison Service, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other Departments and agencies to meet that challenge.
I thank the Minister for bringing the report and the statement to the House. Most people will agree that we should be trying to reduce offending, that we should do so efficiently and effectively and that we should try to reform and rehabilitate those prisoners who can be engaged in the system. In the coming months, the Committee will go through the report in more detail.
There will be areas that we can support and others that we will find difficult to support, particularly the recommendation that suggests the automatic release of prisoners who are held in remand for more than one year. The report recommends that they should get automatic bail. Minister, I ask you to rule that out as an option, because taking that proposal forward would only further erode public confidence in the justice system. Sixty people would be entitled to that, including some who face the serious charge of murder. We want to ensure that that does not happen, and I ask the Minister to deal with that issue.
How does the Minister intend to deal with prolific offenders who do not engage in the system and do not exhibit any potential for reformation? The public see that a deterrent value is needed through strong sentences and a robust regime in the prison so that they do not do it again. That aspect does not seem to be in the report.
Lastly, Minister, your previous report on the youth justice review was put out for a full public consultation. Given the low public confidence in the effectiveness of the justice and prison systems, would it not be wise to put this report out to public consultation to allow ordinary members of the public to have their say on how the prison system should be run in future?
I welcome the Chair’s opening remarks about the areas that he expected the Committee to support. Let me talk about what he described as automatic bail. Speeding up justice has been one of my key priorities for the past 18 months, and it is clear that a certain amount of progress has been made. I get regular reports of improved working relationships between the Police Service and the Public Prosectution Service (PPS), and active case management is being carried out by members of the judiciary. However, we have not yet seen the step change in dealing with the delay, whereby cases in Northern Ireland may take two years or more to come to court that, in GB, would perhaps take a few months. Therefore, we need to be cautious before we suggest that nothing of that sort should be considered. The recommendation from the team of a three-year phasing for the possible introduction of that would, in its terms, send out the message that something will have to be put in place to ensure that change happens; otherwise, it is too easy to say that change will not happen.
There are serious issues about dangerous offenders not being released from custody, but Mr Givan should not have any fear that, on the basis of the report, we are about to remove immediately some of the most dangerous prisoners from custody. However, it is an issue that, alongside other reports, will need to be taken into account. Similar issues were raised in the youth justice review. He talked about protecting society from prolific offenders. The sad reality is that society at the moment does not seem to be protected from prolific offenders merely by sending them to prison if they are prolific offenders once they return. We need to see what would work to make a difference to prolific offenders.
The Member should also take account of the fact that this is a very different review from the youth justice review with regard to consultation. The youth justice review sought responses from the public on different ways of looking at how we work to best meet the needs of young people in danger of running into difficulty and ensure that society is properly protected. The present review is much more an operational issue. In that context, it fits well with the work being done by Prison Service management under the SEE programme. Frankly, to suggest that we should have a period of extended consultation would, I believe, be damaging given the need to get these fundamental reforms under way, as has been highlighted by Dame Anne and her team.
Just before I call Raymond McCartney, I say to the whole House that, as Members rise to ask the Minister a question about his statement, I can understand that, given the nature of the statement, Members might be tempted to deliver further statements as they deliberate on their question. Quite a number of Members want to ask a question, but I warn Members to be more focused on the question that they want to ask the Minister.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas inniu agus le foireann na bpríosún as a gcuid oibre.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I also thank the prison review team led by Dame Anne Owers for its work and, indeed, the publication of the report this morning. I think we all know that this has been a comprehensive piece of work. If it can be distilled into a sentence or two, then it is about change — not only change but how that change can be realised. I say to the Minister that change will come about only if the process of change is monitored and examined on a consistent and constant basis.
The Minister said:
“we seek to implement the recommendations contained in the report.”
I hope that the Minister will agree with me that recommendations 22 and 23 around oversight and implementation are crucial. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that that process is put in place as soon as possible?
I thank Mr McCartney for his welcome, although he managed to catch me out ever so slightly by saving the specific reference until the end. Clearly, oversight of the change is fundamental. The specific issue, for example, of a ministerial group, which would include membership from Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI), will, perhaps, need to be discussed with Dr Maguire as to how he sees the appropriate role for CJINI within that. However, I accept the principle of what Mr McCartney is saying whilst I cannot give an absolute guarantee of the precise wording of recommendations 22 and 23.
Mr Speaker, I shall do my best, given the comprehensive nature of the report. The Minister repeatedly said in his statement that he thinks the responsibility rests with the Executive and other Members of the Assembly. I suspect that many members of the public will be shocked by some of the issues put forward here. That is not to say they are not right. However, will the Minister tell me what support he expects to get from his Executive colleagues and how he seeks to reassure the public that the recommendations in the report are for the benefit of us all?
The important thing is that people should not cherry-pick or read small sections of the report but look at the overall issue of the report. It is a measured package which identifies the need for fundamental reforms and sets out some of those proposals. In that sense, I hope that Members of the House and the Executive will read the report and take it on that basis before they comment on it, rather than, as perhaps has sometimes been known to happen in the Great Hall of this Building, rushing immediately in front of a microphone to give off about a small section of it. In that sense, we can ensure that we get public support because, I think, the public are well aware of the difficulties that the Prison Service faces and the need for some of those fundamental reforms.
He referred to Executive support and responsibility. When I go to Maghaberry next month to formally open the Donard day-care facility for vulnerable prisoners, I will do so in conjunction with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I will also look at the new learning and skills centre in conjunction with the Minister for Employment and Learning. At the very least, that is an indication of three Departments working together and of two Departments that have fundamental responsibilities for supporting the work of the Prison Service fully co-operating at ministerial level.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and I congratulate Dame Anne Owers and her team for producing a very good report that will bring about fundamental reform of the prison system. I also welcome the Minister’s very positive approach to the report and assure him that this side of the House will support his implementation of it.
I want to ask specifically about the so-called exit package for serving prison officers. Will the Minister reassure the House that that package will be linked specifically with a radical improvement in working practices in the Prison Service? Without that, the exit package will be worthless.
I thank Mr Maginness for his very positive words, and I have no doubt that Dame Anne and her team will appreciate the fact that some people have read the report and fully support it. The specific issue of the exit package is linked in the report to the refreshment of prison staffing, and it talks about the need for retraining for those who remain in post and for new prison staff who come into post. Mr Maginness correctly highlights the joined-up nature of that, although, in sheer chronology, the opportunity to develop the exit strategy at an early stage will be necessary in order to free up the resources that will then allow the ongoing work with new and existing members of staff.
I thank the Minister, welcome the report, and thank its authors and the Department. With an energetic Minister of Justice at the helm, I have no doubt that the contents of the report will be vigorously enacted as soon as possible.
Recently, the Minister has received a number of reports, including from Criminal Justice Inspection, the youth justice review team and, today, the prison review team, all of which recommend that the practice of detaining under-18s at Hydebank should end. Can the Minister outline what progress is being made on that recommendation and can he categorically clarify that there is no recommendation in the report for the automatic release of prisoners who have been held on remand for 12 months?
I will leave out my energy and enthusiasm; after the weekend, I am not sure how much there is. I can certainly clarify that although the report highlights the issue about moving towards addressing the question of a statutory time limit, it does not make any formal direction in that sense, and I have indicated that we are keeping that issue under review.
My colleague highlights a very serious issue that is raised frequently: the detention at Hydebank Wood of those who are not yet 18. My understanding when I checked the figures last week was that there were only eight under-18s in Hydebank Wood in the course of the past year. As a result of initiatives by the Youth Justice Agency, the staff of Woodlands and others, and the Prison Service, 12 under-18s who were committed by courts to Hydebank Wood have been referred back to the courts on the basis of the assessment that they would be better transferred to the juvenile justice centre at Woodlands. That is an indication that positive work is being done, although I have no doubt that the long-term issues of resolving how we deal with the most difficult young people if we are using only Woodlands will mean that there will be a bit of problem in the years to come. However, the fact that we have seen such a reduction in numbers is an indication of the good work being done by the Youth Justice Agency with the Prison Service.
Judging by the last question, it is just as well that brown-nosing is not a criminal offence or else Mr McCarthy might be looking for an early release. We all accept that there needs to be swifter actions around remand issues. For instance, the reforms of PIs and PEs need to be looked at, and we may even need to go further on that. Does the Minister accept that implementing the statutory time limits in recommendation 2 would mean automatic release? I am not clear on the response that he gave earlier. Will he take this opportunity to say that he will not accept that recommendation in its totality and that there will not be statutory time limits, or is he simply saying that those will be phased in over time?
As I said, that recommendation must be taken extremely seriously, bearing in mind that it also features in other reports. It is not something that will happen tomorrow nor is there any guarantee that it will not happen ever.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement and the report. I was glad to hear him particularly welcome the fact that a whole package of measures is needed rather than some incremental changes. Given the resistance to change in some quarters, will the Minister assure the House today that the independent monitoring of outcomes will be given priority when he is taking the report’s recommendations forward?
I give Ms McCann that assurance. It was a matter of considerable concern to see the differential outcome in statistics, and we do not know the full reason behind it. Dame Anne highlighted in a communication today that it is unclear why the statistics would suggest differential outcomes between Catholics and Protestants. She told me that the evidence does not provide conclusive proof of discrimination, but it certainly points to persistent differences, which will be taken as a priority by the director general of the Prison Service and by me to ensure that we get to the bottom of it.
I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement. He will no doubt be aware of the long-running campaign to ensure that Magilligan prison is reconstructed. Some colleagues and I met with him several months ago, and he is aware that a predecessor of his — direct rule Minister Paul Goggins — gave specific assurances, as did the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the Westminster House of Commons. Given that recommendations 4 and 6 suggest that it would be better to build a new prison near a centre of population — I assumed that we had one called Maghaberry, which is near Belfast — can he assure us that the Magilligan rebuild will begin as soon as possible, regardless of the interim and final reports, and that whatever has to be done to provide a new prison there, in whatever system is needed, will be done as a matter of urgency?
I am unable to give any assurance when the estates review is still under way. The report correctly highlights the fact that there are issues around Magilligan, which has some good accommodation and some poor. The report also highlights issues relating to geography. Those matters are being taken on board by the estates review, and I expect to report to the House when that review comes to fruition.
Does the Minister share my grave concern that 74% of prisoners at basic privilege level in Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre are Catholic, 66% of prisoners in Maghaberry prison at basic privilege level are Catholic and eight out of 10 prisoners in Magilligan prison at basic privilege level are Catholic?
Mr Speaker, I thought I made it clear, in response to Ms McCann’s question if nothing else, that I share those concerns. The problem is that we have not identified the reasons why, and more work needs to be done to ascertain the exact reasons behind that situation and how we will deal with it. If I did not make clear in my statement that this is being taken as a very significant priority by the director general and by me, I repeat it now.
I thank the Minister for his statement and very much welcome the many recommendations in the report. The Minister mentioned a new custodial facility for women at Hydebank, which is in my constituency, and I agree that a new facility is needed. Does he agree that the strategy for women prisoners must involve more than just buildings? We need to take the right approach to the care and rehabilitation of women prisoners.
Yes, I agree entirely with the words of the report, repeated by my colleague, that say that the strategy for women has to be about much more than buildings. Since I became Minister, I have spoken on a number of occasions in the Chamber about visiting the Inspire Women’s Project, which is run by the Probation Board with support from a number of NGOs and which liaises with the Prison Service. The project deals with those who are in danger of going to prison and those who are being rehabilitated after serving prison sentences. It is absolutely clear that, similar to others across the water, that project is having positive effects on the women that it deals with. It is also very clear that we need to address urgently how we find an appropriate facility — probably a relatively low-security custodial facility — for a very small number of people and alternative community provision for those women who do not require it. One of the tragedies of our system is that, at the moment, over 50% of women admitted to Hydebank Wood go there for a few days for things such as fine default. I cannot see how that can be maintained into the long term as a rational way either of meeting the needs of that group of people or of protecting society.
I thank the Minister for his statement in which he referred to Patten. He will be aware that pivotal to the downsizing of the Police Service was the important element that the staff associations were brought along fully in the negotiation of an exit package. Will he assure the House that the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) will be fully involved in any scheme or negotiations on either downsizing or an exit package?
I assure the House that not only will the POA be fully included but there have been ongoing regular discussions with POA representatives about the exit scheme and other aspects of ongoing work. The association will continue to be fully involved in those discussions.
Page 49 of the report states:
“This is a whole package, not a series of incremental changes.”
Given that, does the Minister agree that recommendations 22 to 28 should be implemented in full?
If Mr McCartney catches me out by throwing in two recommendations at the last minute, I am certainly not responding to eight, or however many it was. I made it clear that I accept the thrust of the report. That does not mean to say that the Prison Service can give an absolute guarantee of every individual issue. I will give one example. There is criticism that supervised activity orders are going ahead only as a pilot in one area and somewhat late. There are operational and organisational reasons why that is the case, but I accept fully the necessity to develop supervised activity orders as fast as can be. However, I cannot accept the precise wording of that recommendation. Mr Eastwood and others can be assured that the Department of Justice accepts the report as a principle for the way forward without necessarily accepting the precise timescales or wordings of every aspect of it.
The Minister began his statement by paying lip service to the need to give careful consideration to all the recommendations. He then immediately jumped in to damn the existing Prison Service, getting particularly exercised by the fact that there are more Catholics than Protestants facing adjudications in the prisons but ignoring the reality that, for whatever reason, there are more Catholic than Protestant prisoners. Is the Minister’s response not indicative of the fact that he has already made up his mind about all those matters and about a report that is somewhat divorced from reality by virtue of the sparse reference, and the total absence of reference in his statement, to the compelling reality that our prisons still contain a significant coterie of dangerous terrorist prisoners?
I find it difficult to see how anybody could describe my statement this morning as jumping in “to damn the existing Prison Service”. I have recognised the positive sides of what has been done by the Prison Service and what needs to be done to bring it up to date. I think that Mr Allister and others need to be sure that we do not manage the Prison Service, which currently has something in the region of 1,600 prisoners, on the basis of the needs for managing approximately 60.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement this morning and the review team for its comprehensive report. I am disappointed that we did not get the report until 9·30 am today. The review team expressed its frustration at the lack of change since the interim report back in February. Can the Minister assure the House that the final report will not end up causing similar frustration?
I am sorry that Mr Lynch is upset about receiving the report at 9·30 am today. I am aware of similar things in the past when a Minister’s statement appeared a bare hour before the Minister stood up, and a report did not appear until the statement in question was over. Consistent with the fact that the report was received in the Department of Justice on Wednesday, and after a lot of work was done by my officials over the weekend, I sought to ensure that we got it out as fast as possible this morning.
Mr Lynch talks about progress. I acknowledge that there is a degree of disappointment in the report as to what has happened. On the other hand, we have seen a number of significant things happen since the publication of the interim report. We have had the launch of the SEE programme, and work has been done on centralised detailing, which, as I said, has resulted in far fewer lockdowns than last summer, for example. Furthermore, the business case for the staff exit scheme is being discussed in great detail with the Department of Finace and Personnel (DFP); there has been ongoing work with the Prison Officers’ Association on agreeing new roles for front line staff, alongside new grading, and so on; and there is an ongoing review, which I outlined earlier, on the prisons estate strategy. Of course, the Prison Service also has significant involvement in the proposals for the integrated college at Desertcreat. Work is also being done on strengthening corporate governance within prison headquarters and with regard to the relationships between the three prisons and the director general. Therefore, although there has been less to show than, perhaps, we might have hoped, we should not suggest that that means that nothing has been happening since February.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I am sure that he will agree that whatever happens in the Northern Ireland Prison Service in the future, we must have a prison system that commands the confidence of the public and ensures public safety. I am concerned that the prison officers who are facing redundancies will get a fair deal. Can the Minister elaborate on his plans for what he has described as the exit scheme? Can he assure me that prison officers will be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve? Can he also assure me that they will be given a financial package in recognition of the job that they did for 30 years of the Troubles, when they and their families suffered greatly, and not the package that is under consideration, which, to them, serves only to add insult to injury?
With respect, I do not think that either Mr Anderson or the members of the Prison Officers’ Association know the detail of the package, which is being discussed by DOJ and DFP. While the discussion on that business case is going forward, I am not in a position to elaborate on it. I can assure him and others that we are seeking to treat prison officers with dignity, recognising the conditions in which many of the long-serving staff worked but also recognising the need for the fundamental reforms that the team has talked about.
I thank the Minister for his statement. With reference to:
“statutory time limits from arrest to disposal”, what issues is the Minister considering? When does he intend to come back to us? What does he mean by “in due course”?
It is becoming a little bit sad that although Members have every right to ask any question that they want on a statement on the fundamental reform of the Prison Service, they seem to be asking more about time limits than they are about prisons. We had something the same when we were discussing youth justice a while ago. I sometimes wonder whether, collectively, the Assembly can get its head around the big issues, or whether it is easier to concentrate on trifles. The answer to the question about time limits is that they are under consideration because of issues in the youth justice review and some ongoing work by the criminal justice delivery group. They will remain under review, and announcements will be made when they can be made.
The Minister’s earlier statement reads more like a criminals’ charter than anything else. The report has the whiff of Patten about it, and it strikes me that it has more to do with the comforts of prisoners than looking after victims. If the Minister is to take the report forward in its current form, does he accept that it is incumbent on him to ensure that the public have confidence in it? Does he also accept that victims, in particular, should not be undermined as a result of the changes that he proposes to make in the future?
I do not think that I read anything in the report about the comforts of prisoners. However, I did read a lot about the effective rehabilitation and reform of prisoners. We really need to get our heads around what works in making this society safer. To suggest that a detailed report, which was prepared by five people with significant expertise in the justice system, human rights and dealing with prisoners in practical ways, could somehow be dismissed as giving comfort to prisoners shows a rather sad lacking of the necessities in this society.