Belfast Telegraph

Warders back prison reform deal

Justice Minister hails 'historic' agreement on new working practices

By Michael McHugh

Prison officers have voted two-to-one in favour of a new deal on working practices in Northern Ireland.

The introduction of new custody officers and simplification of senior management structures are part of a package of reforms governing relations in jails.

Justice Minister David Ford said agreement on the new working arrangements was reached in March between management and Prison Officers' Association (POA) union leaders.

“This historic outcome heralds a new era of industrial relations within our prisons and allows for the fundamental reform programme to modernise the Prison Service to continue apace,” he said. The association balloted its members and yesterday informed the Prison Service that by a majority of two-thirds, prison officers have endorsed the new package.

Agreement was reached after months of detailed and painstaking negotiations. Included in the arrangements are:

  • The replacement of the long-standing framework agreement with a new staff deployment agreement.
  • A new operating model for jails.
  • Introduction of new custody officer and offender supervisors roles.
  • The seven-tier management structure will be reduced to four.
  • A disputes and industrial relations procedural agreement is to be implemented, along with a code of ethics.

More than 150 staff left at the end of March under the service's exit scheme and the endorsement by the POA membership of the new working practices means that more will be able to go when it is operationally possible.

Almost 5,000 applicants were received for the new custody officer roles, and after the first part of the recruitment campaign 900 candidates are now going through the assessment centre with the first new recruits due on the landings before the end of the year.

Mr Ford said: “Reform of the Prison Service is unstoppable. While much has been achieved over recent months there is still much more to do.”

Background

Northern Ireland’s troubled Prison Service — described as “dysfunctional, demoralised and ineffective” in a report by Dame Anne Owers last year — is going through a major process of upheaval. High-profile resignations, a number of damning critical official reports, the embarrassing wrongful release of prisoners, a political row over emblems, republican protests, and inmate suicides have combined to frustrate reform.

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