Dáil debates

Thursday, 23 June 2005

Adjournment Debate.

Irish Prison Service.

8:00 pm

Photo of John PerryJohn Perry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. I ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that Loughan House, Blacklion, County Cavan, be allowed to remain open. The closure of this facility would result in a loss of jobs in the region which would have direct impact on counties Sligo and Leitrim. The prison facility, which has been open since 1972, remains one of the most efficiently run prisons while providing a high quality service and standard of care and rehabilitation, which I witnessed on a visit to the Loughan House facility. Despite this, Loughan House is due for closure this autumn.

It has been well documented in recent years that the Prison Service faces a real crisis. Closing one of the success stories is not the answer. The prison inspector, Mr. Justice Kinlen, was highly complimentary of the management and quality care that Loughan House provides. It provides an open setting which is difficult to maintain, yet the prison officers do a fantastic job at enforcing discipline, rehabilitating inmates and keeping order.

The Government is trying to sell the idea of decentralisation. Closing Loughan House flies in the face of this. The Minister, Deputy McDowell, has been quoted as wanting to create more quality time for families of prison officers by allowing them to spend more time at home. However, if Loughan House closes, prison officers and their families will be decentralised from their home base throughout the country.

If there were arguments for the closure of the prison on the basis of malfunction, scandal, lack of care, budgetary extravagance or such like, there would be a logical reason for action. However, the Committee of Public Accounts recently heard that the Loughan House facility gave good value for money with regard to location and suitability for the rehabilitation of prisoners. There is no reason for the closure. The prison officers at Loughan House have endured working overtime without payment and facilitated cost-cutting by engaging in voluntary staff rescheduling, agreeing transfers to Castlerea Prison when it opened as well as accepting a total restructuring of the prison to ensure its efficiency would be paramount. The officers have also worked out an agreement with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform whereby they would work with a maximum of 50 inmates after the appropriate number of staff had transferred.

The closure would be a travesty and a scandal of the highest order in a Border region. We will not stand idly by and let it happen. I have experience of the facility and the dedication and commitment of its staff to the rehabilitation of inmates. It is basically an open prison. Given that the Minister intends to spend €130 million on a relocation in Dublin, the closure would be outrageous. In the past year and a half, a considerable amount of taxpayers' money has been invested in Loughan House.

It is extraordinary that the Minister has sounded the death knell for Loughan House and indicated it will close by autumn of this year. I appeal to him. This is a critical investment in a Border county and its closure would give all the wrong signals. At a time when decentralisation is being discussed, we have a committed staff who are prepared to work the roster and give value for money.

There was significant debate at the Committee of Public Accounts about prison overtime. The officers have agreed to facilitate this and work with the Minister to ensure there will be value for money. I hope he has positive news for all concerned, prisoners as well as staff. Prisoners also enjoy the facility which has rehabilitated many of them. Staff have given the commitment to work in this centre to ensure its viability. I hope the Minister can tell the House the proposed closure this autumn will not happen.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I make this reply to Deputy Perry on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell. I am grateful to the Deputy for raising the matter. The Deputy will be aware a programme of change for the Prison Service, which was the subject of intensive discussions with the Prison Officers Association over the past four years, came to a conclusion in April when prison staff rejected a comprehensive and generous package of proposals at ballot. The Deputy will also be aware that the future of Loughan House and the other open centre at Shelton Abbey is inextricably linked to this development.

The implications for Loughan House and Shelton Abbey of failure to reach agreement on essential change in the Prison Service have been well known since November 2003. At that time, the Government approved a range of alternative measures for achieving cost efficiencies in the service, including the transformation of the two Prison Service open centres at Loughan House and Shelton Abbey into half-way houses under the aegis of another organisation.

The simple fact is that the Minister engaged in a process with the Prison Officers Association on a partnership basis over a lengthy period with a view to effecting change across the service which would be beneficial to both management and staff while at the same time addressing the chronic overtime problem which has dogged the service across the lifetimes of several Governments. The Minister has been exceptionally patient throughout this process. Since he took office in 2002, he has allowed ample space and time for a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement to be reached between the Prison Service and the Prison Officers Association.

Following on the rejection of the earlier offer in October 2003, the Minister agreed to use the full range of industrial relations machinery available in the State, including the conciliation services of the Labour Relations Commission and the ultimate arbitration facilities of the Civil Service Arbitration Board. That process continued over a 16-month period. It involved long and difficult negotiations leading to a substantial arbitration award.

Despite reservations which the Minister held about the deal that emerged, which were shared by the Minister for Finance and the rest of his colleagues in Government, he nevertheless accepted that the overall package represented a workable way forward for the future. However, prison officers made their position very clear when they rejected the deal by a very significant margin, despite the fact that the full range of industrial relations machinery had been utilised to the full, including the ultimate step of arbitration, and despite the deal being wholeheartedly endorsed by the Prison Officers Association national executive.

By any standards, the deal on offer can only be viewed as very attractive. It included a pensionable operational allowance equivalent to 8% of basic pay and lump sum payments amounting to €13,750 per officer in return for the level of change envisaged. Under the deal, a basic grade prison officer would have potentially earned almost €70,000 per year at the top of the scale. The main benefit to the taxpayer would have been a significant reduction in the bill for additional hours working in the Prison Service, predictable future costs and a more efficient service for the future. At the same time, staff would have secured attractive, stable and predictable overall rates of remuneration.

The Minister never made a secret of the consequences of failure to reach an agreement and they will come as no surprise to prison staff. The Minister is left with no option but to proceed immediately with the agenda already approved by Government to ensure the Prison Service is run as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. That agenda is now in place and steps to implement it are already under way.

The Curragh and Fort Mitchel places of detention are now closed and will not reopen. All the staff from those institutions have been reassigned to other institutions. The two Prison Service open centres at Loughan House and Shelton Abbey will cease to function in due course and halfway houses under the management of another organisation will be put in place at both locations. A prior indicative notice has already been published in the EU Journal so the time needed to complete the tendering process can be minimised. Staff serving in these institutions will be redeployed permanently to other institutions.

Legislation to outsource the prisoner escort service, which has already been approved by Government, was published recently and will be enacted without delay. Arrangements to invite tenders for outsourcing of this service will proceed in parallel. This has already begun with the publication in the EU Journal of a prior indicative notice. It is expected, following this process, that a contract will be signed by the end of September. This will have a major impact on overtime expenditure in the Prison Service given that 30% of all overtime earnings is attributable to prisoner escorts.

Measures to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the service through the use of new technology such as CCTV, automated gates, cellular vans and video links will be rolled out as a matter of priority. Work in this regard is already well advanced. In the meantime, the Minister instructed the Prison Service to apply strict monthly overtime budgets in each institution which will be rigidly controlled. He has already met prison governors and given them specific instructions in that regard.

As regards the current state of play, the position, following on the rejection of the proposal for organisational change by prison staff, is that the Prison Officers Association sought a meeting with the Minister at which it indicated that the proposal might have been accepted had the banding arrangements for the working of additional hours been different. It was suggested that the bands could be re-jigged in a cost neutral fashion so more staff could opt out of additional hours and more staff could opt to work a higher number of hours. The Minister indicated it was open to the Prison Officers Association to make whatever submissions it might wish to make in that regard but it needed to be clearly understood he was not in the business of renegotiating the proposal for organisational change which has already been arbitrated upon by the Civil Service Arbitration Board. He made clear he was not prepared to compromise the integrity of the industrial relations machinery which has served the State so well and must continue to serve our public services into the future. The Prison Officers Association submitted proposals for the realignment of the additional hours bands. Having considered these proposals, the Minister was satisfied that they would fundamentally alter the deal that was on the table and would seriously compromise the integrity of the industrial relations machinery, in particular the arbitration process. In these circumstances, he had no option but to indicate to the Prison Officers Association that its proposals were totally unacceptable. In this context, the director general of the Irish prison service issued to it a letter to that effect last Friday, 17 June 2005. That is the position as it stands.

The Minister has gone as far as he can with this process. The end of the line has been reached in terms of discussions on the proposal and the Minister will not be led down the path of renegotiation. It is regrettable that the considered and painstakingly developed approach negotiated over such a long period may not now be realised. The Minister's preference has always been for an agreed way forward. He has no option now but to move ahead, with or without agreement, to implement whatever other measures are required to realise the necessary cost efficiencies with all due urgency.

The Minister points out that the director general of the prison service indicated to the Prison Officers Association in the letter that issued on 17 June that it might be useful for it to meet the Minister in order that he might clarify his intentions. To date the Prison Officers Association has not responded to this letter, although the Minister is expecting a response within the next few days.

Concerning Loughan House, were the Minister to implement his current stated position, the facility would continue to be used.