Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 2 and 4 together.
In doing so, I begin by paying tribute to the staff of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. As key workers, they have shown determination, courage and resilience during the pandemic. Like every other front-line organisation, the Prison Service has seen the impact of COVID-19 and the omicron variant on staff availability. In December 2021, 90 members of Prison Service staff tested positive, and, at one stage, 14·6% of operational staff were absent due to COVID-19. However, that position has significantly improved during January, and last week less than 5% of staff were absent for COVID-19-related reasons.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Prison Service has had thorough and comprehensive arrangements in place to monitor the impact of COVID-19 and to respond appropriately. Northern Ireland Prison Service headquarters and the governor of each prison establishment have been reviewing daily the availability of staff. Governors and their teams have been required to dynamically adjust the regime that can be delivered for people in our care, focusing on safe, decent and secure custody. That has resulted in the imposition of some restrictions on the prison population, particularly in the evenings and at weekends. Those have been kept to an absolute minimum.
The Prison Service has continued to focus on ensuring that healthy regimes can be offered on landings and that prisoners do not spend lengthy periods locked in their cells. The provision of virtual visits has also been a priority. Delivering those priorities means redeploying staff daily. I am grateful to staff for the flexibility that they have demonstrated in very challenging circumstances.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service's executive forum, where the NIPS senior management team, including governors, discusses COVID-19 contingency arrangements, met most recently on Friday 7 January to discuss the challenges presented by and the response to the omicron variant. Throughout the pandemic, the Prison Service has been guided in its approach by advice from the Public Health Agency and the decisions taken by the Executive for the community. The Northern Ireland Prison Service stands ready to begin relaxing the measures introduced in response to omicron as soon as it is safe to do so.
Since the beginning of December, nine individuals have, on committal to prison, tested positive for COVID-19. No prisoners in the general population have tested positive.
I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive answer. Has the Minister done a comparison of the impact of omicron and other forms of COVID on the Northern Ireland Prison Service with that on the PSNI? Bearing in mind that we will probably have to deal with future pandemics, have any lessons been identified for how we can support those key staff? Are there any other lessons that we can pass on to the probation service as well?
There have been pressures right across the justice system. Obviously, I am not responsible for policing and the deployment of staff, but I am aware that, at the beginning of December, the Chief Constable moved to having 12-hour shifts to ensure that any impact on policing would be minimal and that there would be full cover where required. We discussed all those issues at our regular meetings.
Similarly, probation has been affected, not just with staffing but with the logistics of being able to follow up with their clients for support. They have had to find new, innovative and creative ways of working. The flexibility of staff across the justice system in responding to it has been incredible. However, there are always lessons to be learned. The key lesson is that we need to make sure that we keep omicron and any variant of COVID out of our prisons as far as possible, because that will keep our prison officers and the prison population safe.
With the indulgence of the Speaker, on the subject of prisons, I pay tribute to Father Michael Bingham from Portadown who passed away at the weekend. His funeral is occurring around now. He was a pastor not only to the people of Drumcree parish in Portadown but to many prisoners and their families. He will be a huge loss to the wider community and to prisoners.
I thank the Minister for her answer. Minister, what measures have been put in place to mitigate the inability, during the COVID crisis, for face-to-face visits for prisoners? What support has been put in place for prisoners and their families?
We have dealt with a number of issues, including the ability to have virtual visits. Initially, prisoners were also given additional time and access to phones. With regard to our partner organisations, intensive work has been done by those who support families outside of prison to ensure that the families' needs are addressed. As you know, we reintroduced face-to-face visiting. The uptake was relatively low in comparison with virtual visits. We reintroduced it for a period but, unfortunately, had to suspend it just before Christmas. We hope to reintroduce face-to-face visiting again as soon as possible. We recognise that good quality connections with families is part of the rehabilitation process for prisoners. It is also crucial to families, and we do not want to suspend it for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
I thank the Minister for the information that she has provided to the Committee on the measures that have to be taken in the circumstances, and I commend the Prison Service for the way in which it has sought to deal with a challenging situation. Will the Minister assure the House that the budgetary pressure that is faced by the Prison Service will be addressed in a way that ensures that the service has all the resources that it requires for not only addressing this crisis but dealing with the Prison Service in general? We all have concerns about the budget as it stands, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland Prison Service.
Unfortunately, I cannot give an assurance that there will be no impact on the Prison Service or, indeed, on the PSNI from the current Budget settlement that is out for consultation. It would be foolhardy of me to do so, because, unless there is a significant step change in the draft Budget, that assurance will not be possible to secure. It is not about just a 2% cut, about which many people may well say, "Well, any Department should be able to absorb that"; it is about a 2% cut coming on top of a 9% cut since devolution and the additional responsibilities that have been placed on the Department over the past two years through the legislation that has gone through the Committee and by the demands on the justice system of more proactive engagement and work to prevent offending.
I have been clear in saying that the Budget as it stands will do direct harm to the justice system. It is therefore impossible for me to give the Member that reassurance, but I can reassure him that we will, of course, take seriously our legal duty to ensure that prisons are safe for those who work in them and those who reside in them as we look at the Budget. However, it is undoubtedly the case that ensuring that prisons are safe may lead to a reduction in the rehabilitative work in which, until now, our prison officers have been engaged. That would be a real shame.
Prisoners have access to books and magazines that have been sent in. There have been restrictions because of the need to ensure that any packages that are sent in to prisoners are properly appraised to ensure that they are not a source of transmission, but there has been no change to the overall policy on what books and materials prisoners are able to access within the prison system. There is an established route for people who wish to access books, be that through the library service in the prison or through the books, magazines and materials that are sent from home as part of care packages. That system has not changed, although there may have been some delays in delivery.
I thank the Member for his general interest in the issue. Because, in particular, of the challenging work environment past and present, I commissioned and published two reports in 2021 regarding support services for operational prison staff, including those who have left the service. It was recommended that the PRRT should provide a range of services to retired staff. That will be open to former prison staff irrespective of why they left the service. PRRT and NIPS have met relevant stakeholders in January to publicise the available services ahead of the launch on 1 February. We continue to work towards the additional measures in that report to deal with those who currently serve in the Prison Service.