Northern Ireland warders' strike vote inevitable, claims union
The poor treatment of Northern Ireland prison officers made their strike ballot inevitable, it has been claimed. Finlay Spratt, the chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, said the vote, which will be held on Monday, was the result of a failure to introduce a promised 37-hour working week.
The disagreement has its roots in 2012, when the union was promised a shorter working week in return for helping to reduce costs by £52m.
Four years, later those reforms are yet to be implemented, despite the Prison Service slashing its budget.
Mr Spratt said: "They won't implement it (the working week). If you can't negotiate, how can you come to a decision?
"Our members are losing money coming up to Christmas.
"Management doesn't care even though we saved them costs over four years."
Mr Spratt added that the cuts to the Prison Service had left it with a small number of officers to look after inmates.
In the past, four would be assigned to look after 50 prisoners, but today it is just two.
There were also claims that younger, less experienced officers were being hired to replace long-serving members of staff because they cost less.
New officers are paid £18,000 a year, while veteran staff are paid up to £38,000.
Mr Spratt said: "I have been concerned now for years, but it has fallen on deaf ears.
"I understand it's a difficult time, but management shouldn't make agreements and then turn around and refuse - that's dictatorship."
The Ulster Unionist Party's justice spokesman, Doug Beattie MLA, said that the planned ballot on industrial action showed the extent of the enormous crisis within the prison system, as well as the worryingly low morale among staff.
He added: "Terms and conditions that were first agreed in 2014 as part of the Staff Deployment Agreement have not been implemented. Inadequate staffing levels inside prisons are contributing to the already unacceptably high levels of stress which are being placed on officers.
"It is clear to me that many of them (prison officers) are extremely frustrated at the lack of support and understanding which they are receiving from the powers that be.
"A recent response from the Justice Minister when asked when the Prison Service 2016 pay award would be finalised left me with no confidence that the Prison Officers' Association and Prison Service Management Board requests are being taken seriously.
"It is not good enough to say that talks with the Finance Minister are continuing in respect to the 2016 pay award, 11 months after they first started and on the cusp of negotiations beginning for 2017."
Across the UK, there has been a 26% fall in the number of frontline prison officers over the past six-and-a-half years.
A NI Prison Service spokesman said: “Discussions have been taking place in recent months between NIPS and DOJ senior managers and the trade unions on a 2016 pay award for prison grades.
"The Minister has met the POA and advised them that she is in discussions with her Ministerial colleague, the Finance Minister."
Last Friday morning, prison officers at Northern Ireland's only high-security jail delayed starting work in the dispute over pay and conditions.
It is thought around 80 officers involved in industrial action held a meeting instead of beginning their shifts at Maghaberry at around 8am.
The BBC reported that staff involved returned to work just after 9am.
Legally, prison officers are not allowed to strike and could have faced legal and disciplinary action if they had refused to return to work. However, it is understood that the mood among many officers is such that they may now be prepared to contemplate strike action.