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Thursday, 5 Feb 2004

2002 Annual Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts.

Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform — Chapter 4.2.
Mr. Timothy Dalton (Secretary General, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform) called and examined.

We are discussing the 2002 annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and appropriation accounts of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, chapter 4.2 — the management of sick leave in prisons.

Members and witnesses attention is drawn to the fact that since 2 August 1998, section 10 of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act 1997 grants certain rights to persons who are identified in the course of the committee's proceedings. These include the right to give evidence, the right to produce or send documents to the committee, the right to appear before the committee either in person or through a representative, the right to make a written and oral submission, the right to request the committee to direct the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents and the right to cross-examine witnesses.

For the most part, these rights may be exercised only with the consent of the committee. Persons being invited before the committee are made aware of these rights and any person identified in the course of proceedings who is not present may have to be made aware of these rights and provided with a transcript of the relevant part of the committee's proceedings that the committee considers appropriate in the interest of justice. Notwithstanding this provision in legislation, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Members are also reminded of the provisions under Standing Order No. 156 that the committee shall also refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government or the merits of the objectives of such policies.

I welcome Mr. Dalton, Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and invite him to introduce his officials.

Mr. Tim Dalton

I am accompanied by Mr. Noel Waters, whose responsibilities include finance in the Department. He is the director of the reception and integration agency but also doubles up on finance and IT. I am also accompanied by Mr. Seán Aylward, who is the director general of the Irish Prison Service.

Will the witnesses from the Department of Finance identify themselves?

Ms Patsy Purtill

I am Patsy Purtill from the organisational management and training division and my colleague, Mr. Cormac Carey, is from the public expenditure division of the Department of Finance.

Chapter 4.2 of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General reads:

The Management of Sick Leave in Prisons


In my Report on the Appropriation Accounts for 2001 I drew attention to the high level of overtime payments in the Irish Prison Service (€55.4m in 2001). The Prison Service estimates that the cost of replacing officers on sick leave amounts to about 15% of total overtime payments per annum.

The sick leave rules governing Prison Officers are similar to those applying in the civil service generally. As with most occupations, there is an entitlement to a limited amount of uncertified sick leave. Civil service sick leave rules set this at a maximum of seven days in any twelve-month period. Sick leave in excess of this requires the officer to submit a medical certificate to the prison authorities on an ongoing basis while on such leave and on returning to work. Full pay is allowed to a prison officer (as it is to civil servants) up to a maximum of six months in any one-year period and half-pay thereafter, subject to a maximum of twelve months sick leave in any period of four years or less. On reaching this limit, the staff member may be taken off payroll and awarded unpaid sick leave17.

The Accounting Officer in responding to this report stressed that despite the levels of sick leave and the associated costs, the Prison Service cannot unilaterally introduce measures that are inconsistent with the terms of the Circulars applicable to all civil servants. He also noted that Prison Officers, notwithstanding the high level of absenteeism in the service, maintain they are being treated more harshly than other civil servants. In addition to raising this issue through the normal industrial relations mechanisms, the Prison Officers Association (POA) had sponsored a High Court challenge to management's right to withdraw the privilege of paid sick leave in a particular case. The Department successfully defended this claim and subsequently intensified its efforts to improve the situation as set out later in this report.

The prison authorities roster operational staff to provide continuous 24-hour cover at all prison locations. Any gaps in the provision of operational cover which arise from officers on sick leave must be covered by calling in officers who are not scheduled to work during the period in question. This results in additional payments at overtime rates to the officers deployed to cover the gaps.

In a report to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in February 2001, the Prison Service Staffing and Operations Review Team (SORT) identified, inter alia, the management of sick leave as of considerable importance because of the substantial cost of replacing officers on sick leave. The team recommended that Prison Governors should have authority to support individual members of staff and, where warranted, to impose appropriate sanctions. It also recommended that managers should have the skills necessary to make a determination as to any likely root cause of absenteeism and that details should be recorded and placed on file.

The Accounting Officer in commenting generally on the SORT recommendations noted that some were vague and could not be implemented without legislative changes. For example, Prison Governors do not have the power to dismiss civil servants. He also said that many of the recommendations are presently the subject of intensive negotiations with the POA, and that while it would be inappropriate for him to preempt the outcome of such negotiations by responding in depth to some of the issues raised in this report, he was nonetheless hopeful that many of the principles underlying the SORT recommendations would be implemented in the near future.

Audit Objectives and Scope

The principal objective of my examination was to set out the extent and cost of sick leave in prisons and to determine the authorities' responses to the issue.

Prison Service records relating to the management and control of sick leave were examined. Audit visits were made to the Prison Service Headquarters in order to gain an understanding of the systems and procedures in place to manage sick leave. The National Audit Office in Great Britain (NAO) and the Audit Office of New South Wales (Australia) have produced recent reports on managing sick leave absences in prisons in their respective jurisdictions, and these were reviewed in the course of the examination.

Audit Findings

The staff complement of the Prison Service, working from sixteen prison establishments, at the end of each of the years 2002, 2001 and 2000 was 3,318, 3,235 and 3,200 respectively. These figures exclude those working in administration, management, a dedicated stores unit and a staff Training Centre.

The Incidence of Sick Leave

According to the database maintained by the Prison Service, the total sick leave taken over three years 2000-2002 was 178,679 days. Absences of not more than five days duration accounted for 30% of these, absences of between five and fifty days made up 34% and the balance 36% comprised absences of fifty days or longer.

Sick Leave over Time

Table 4.2 sets out the available statistics for 1997 to 2002. It should be noted that, in the same period, prison officer numbers increased from 2,495 at the end of 1997 to 3,318 at the end of 2002.

Table 4.2 Sick Leave taken in the Period 1997-2002


Total Days

Days per Staff Member

































Comparisons With Other Employments

In order to put prison officer sick leave in context, my examination included a request for annualised statistical information in respect of the entire Civil Service. The latest full year statistics available was for the period 1 July 1996 to 30 June 1997. From the data collated, 213,429 days were taken in that year by 22,869 civil servants, giving an average 9.3 days per person. An analysis of certified and uncertified leave was not available. The civil service statistic of 9.3 days is computed on the basis of total numbers serving. The comparable figures for prison officers were 17.8, 18.9 and 18.0 for each of the three years 2000, 2001 and 2002. The closeness of these averages to the averages per prison officer shown in Table 4.2 reflects the very high number of prison officers who avail of sick leave. The available statistics for Primary Teachers show that persons in this occupation take approximately nine days per teacher employed, or fourteen days per teacher who takes sick leave.

In the case of Secondary Teachers (including Community and Comprehensive), the equivalent number of sick days per teacher employed stands at an average of just over eight days. Due to the way in which the Department of Education and Science maintains records for this category of teachers, it is not practicable to determine the average days taken only by teachers on sick leave.

In its report, the NAO reported that, taking into account the level of underrecording of sickness absence, the average number of working days lost to sickness absences by prison officers in the UK Prison Service was between 14.6 and 16.7 days per officer in 1997-8. It also found that prison officers took more days than police officers nationally.

In the same report, the NAO showed manual workers generally in Britain to take just under ten days sick leave per annum. The UK average for all workers was just over eight days per annum. Non-manual staff lost about seven days per year due to sickness. It is important to bear in mind, when making comparisons between prison officer sick leave statistics, and those for other employments that much prison officer employment is based on rosters, which include twelve hour shift work. In broad terms, such comparisons should be reasonably valid. However, the Prison Service states that shift work gives entitlement to three or four off duty days over alternate weeks. In the civil service, and other comparable employments, off duty days may be generally considered to be Saturday and Sunday. The Accounting Officer is of the view that cross comparisons with other public service employments is inadvisable in view of the rostered nature of much prison employment.

Sick Leave by Prison

Certain prisons show a markedly higher incidence of sick leave taken per prison officer employed than others, as displayed in Table 4.3.

Table 4.3 Analysis of Average Days Sick Leave 2000-2001 by Prison






Average Days per Officer


Average Days per Officer


Average Days per Officer

Arbour Hill



































Fort Mitchell














Loughan House





















Port Laoise







Saint Patrick's














Shelton Abbey







Training Unit





















Table 4.3 allows comparisons of prisons on the basis of total days lost or average days taken in sick leave. However, since sick absences are measured from first day of absence to date of return to work, in the case of a member of prison staff working on a rostered basis, a two week absence on sick leave would include seven days on which the officer was not due to attend, and seven days on which the officer was rostered to attend. In such a case replacement on overtime only arises when the officer on sick leave was due to attend.

It is clear from the analysis that Cork Prison's average number of days taken per officer is consistently about double the overall average of prisons. Limerick Prison's average is one and a half times the overall average. While not significantly above, Portlaoise Prison remains consistently over the average with 23 or 24 days per officer.

Some prisons showed quite low levels of sick leave, compared to the average for the service as a whole. Excluding the Midlands Prison, which is a new institution, Arbour Hill stands out as being significantly below the average. This raises the question as to whether there are specific institutional or management factors at work in this prison which contribute to the relatively low rate of sick leave. If so there may be useful lessons to be learned by the Prisons Service from studying any such factors with a view to bringing about a climate in other prisons conducive to lower levels of sick leave.

Further analysis of the available statistics shows that, in a number of prisons, a large number of days are taken by a relatively small number of officers. For example, Cork Prison had the highest number of individual officers (sixteen) with a continuous period of sick absence in excess of one hundred and eighty three days. Limerick Prison had thirteen such officers. Seventy-five officers, throughout the Prison Service, who had been continuously absent on sick leave for hundred and eighty three or more days accounted for 27,600 of the total days (179,000) lost in the three-year period.

Table 4.4 gives an analysis of the data, which shows that a relatively small number of officers in Cork and Limerick, but also in some other prisons, who commenced sick leave in the period examined, contributed disproportionately to the total recorded for those prisons, when viewed over the three years.

Table 4.4 Prison Officer Sick Leave in excess of 183 days during 2000-2002


No. of Officers taking over 183 days in the period

Total Sick Leave Involved

Total Sick Leave by Prison

As a % of Prison Total












Loughan House















Training Unit










Fort Mitchell










St. Patricks















Arbour Hill





Shelton Abbey














In commenting on these findings, the Accounting Officer noted that a small number of officers in Cork, Limerick and Portlaoise prisons have made a disproportionate contribution to the total sick leave recorded for the institutions concerned for the period in question. There are specific reasons why a small number of officers in each of the three institutions might be absent on sick leave for a prolonged period of time.

In Limerick, he stated that officers' homes were attacked and their families intimidated by criminal elements leading to some officers being absent from duty for prolonged periods because of the stress and trauma associated with such attacks. There was also an incident in Limerick Prison which gave rise to very substantial levels of sick leave during the period covered by this Report. This subsequently resulted in some officers retiring on ill-health grounds.

As regards Portlaoise the Accounting Officer stated that a high security prison presents particular problems and risks for the officers employed there. Furthermore, the age profile of prison officers in this prison (and Cork) is considered to be a factor in the level of sick leave in both institutions.

The Accounting Officer pointed to encouraging signs that the Prison Service's efforts to control sick leave more effectively may be paying off. In the first five months of 2003, there has been a 20% reduction in total sick leave in Limerick, Cork and Portlaoise prisons when compared with the same period in 2002.

In relation to the relatively low levels of sick leave pertaining to Arbour Hill Prison, the Accounting Officer said that the main reason for the lower levels of sick leave in this prison is the type of prisoner housed there. There are approximately one hundred and forty prisoners in Arbour Hill, one hundred sex offenders and the remainder "ordinary" criminals who have been convicted of crimes other than sex offences. Sex offenders are generally less problematic and easier to manage. The majority of prisoners in Arbour Hill are older and more mature, serving longer sentences and, therefore, there is a more relaxed regime operating there. The incidence of assaults by prisoners on staff is extremely low. There were no injury-on-duty related absences recorded for Arbour Hill in 2001 and 2002. This contrasts with Cork and Portlaoise prisons combined, which had seventy-five injury-on-duty absences in the same two-year period. The Accounting Officer accepts that specific institutional factors may contribute to lower rates of sick leave but he is not convinced that it is possible to replicate such factors throughout all sixteen institutions.

When considering institutional factors acting on levels of sick leave, the SORT team had noted that the system employed to record sick leave was deficient in that, in the case of any one institution, it did not exclude sick leave of staff which had accrued in another institution, from which the staff member had been transferred. The SORT team considered that this made it difficult to accurately determine the record of individual institutions, which is of particular relevance in examining environmental or cultural factors leading to the taking of sick leave. The team recommended that this system be reviewed. However, the Prison Service states that the SORT Examinations were carried out between 1998 and 2000 and practices in this area may have changed since then.

As part of their general review of sick leave, the Prison Service has noted certain demographic patterns emerging. For example, older prison officers show much higher levels of sick leave than their younger counterparts. The Prison Service states that newer recruits who are on probation do not avail of as much sick leave as older officers. In addition it believes that older officers appear to make themselves more available for longer overtime and unsociable working assignments.

Medical Factors Giving Rise to Sick Leave

The nature of illnesses giving rise to sick leave is recorded in most cases in the Prison Service sick leave database. However, the examination found that in a considerable number of cases the stated cause was not entered. The Accounting Officer suggests that this may be due to an officer availing of uncertified sick leave simply stating that he was "sick" on the day in question. Local prison management have confirmed this. There was also some variability in the way illnesses could be described and entered. Staff entering the details frequently used different descriptions to describe the same basic complaints.

The Prison Service could not supply a definitive breakdown of the causes of sick leave over the three-year period. Audit analysis, allowing for some uncertainty in the way in which descriptions of illnesses could be entered, showed that the most common causes of sick leave were injuries and respiratory problems. A significant number (78%) of the days lost to sick leave could be readily identified and classified under general headings as shown in Table 4.5. These do not purport to be formal medical descriptions. They are merely used as a convenient method of grouping and illustrating the records on the Prison Service database.

Table 4.5 The Causes of Sick Leave 2000-2002

Sickness Cause




Respiratory Problems


Musculo-skeletal Disorders




Heart and blood Disorders


Other (Dental, Headaches, Fatigue, Pregnancy, Surgical Operations, Hospital Visits etc.)


No Cause Stated


Research into Underlying Factors Giving Rise to Sick Leave in Prison Staff

When reviewing the experience of other jurisdictions in relation to management of sick leave, it was noted that in New South Wales Australia, the authorities had modified rostered activities, duties and shifts which were historically prone to higher levels of sick leave.

To date the Prison Service has not carried out research in this area. However the Accounting Officer informed me that the Prison Service is at present drawing up terms of reference for research to be undertaken in this area. Such research is expected to identify whether certain rostered activities, duties and shifts are prone to higher levels of sick leave and why there is recourse to a greater level of absenteeism on certain days of the week and during certain months of the year. The proposed survey/research will also be expected to examine other issues giving rise to sick leave including.

·The effect of shift work and routine overtime working

·The nature of the working environment

·Injuries sustained on duty.

The Cost of Sick Leave

The prison authorities do not make provision in the roster system to cover periods of absence of staff on sick leave. Where sick leave arises, staff members, who are not on duty, are recalled to the prison to cover for the absence. Overtime is payable in these circumstances.

Prison management have maintained statistics since 2001 that show the impact of sick leave on overtime costs. In 2002 the cost was over €8.6m. This was just under 15% of the overtime bill and slightly over 4% of payroll costs. Table 4.6 shows, by prison, the cost of overtime attributable to sick absences for the years 2000-2002. Overtime costs by prison for 2000 are not available, and a three year comparison is not possible. The table also shows that overtime costs arising from sick leave have been consistent over a number of years.

Table 4.6 The Cost of Sick Leave in Overtime 2000-2002




As % of Overtime


As % of Overtime

Arbour Hill






























Fort Mitchell












Loughan House























St. Patrick’s












Shelton Abbey






Training Unit












Total €




Operational Response to Sick Leave

The Prison Service is entitled to compel all serving grades to perform overtime. However, many prison staff see the opportunity to work overtime as highly desirable. There is a high volunteer rate and infrequent use of compulsion.

The officer in charge of the Detail Office of each prison is responsible for finding replacement staff to cover for those on sick leave. To this end, he currently maintains two lists of officers. One shows those volunteering to replace staff on sick leave, and the other shows those who will be compelled to replace such staff if the need arises.

Overtime is allocated on the basis of availability by reference to the volunteer/compel lists. Under this system, an officer who is not available, for whatever reason (including sick leave), to work the required period of overtime is placed at the end of the priority list. This should preclude an officer returning from sick leave being immediately allocated duties involving overtime, as his or her name would be at the bottom of the list. This in turn would seem to discourage officers taking excessive sick leave. However, the SORT report noted that in a number of institutions there was an agreed policy of distributing overtime equally among staff over a specific period of time. This policy included staff who had been absent on sick leave during the period. This approach offered little incentive to have a good attendance record. The Prison Service has indicated that practices vary from institution to institution. Officers returning from sick leave may immediately be offered overtime if other staff are unable or unwilling to perform it. The overall effect of this practice on the rate of sick leave is unknown.

The Accounting Officer in commenting on this stated that volunteer/compel lists will become obselete on the introduction of the proposed annualised hours attendance system. This approach will ensure that deficiencies in the present system are removed.

Control and Management of Sick Leave

General Policy Approach to Control and Management

The last general agreement between the Prison Service (the Department of Justice at the time in question) and the Prison Service staff was made in 1976. This agreement brought the Prison Service rules in regard to casual sick leave into line with the general Civil Service.

The Prison Service drafted an Attendance Policy in November 2001. The purpose of this detailed document is threefold

·To set out a clear and consistent policy in relation to the management of attendance

·To devolve managing that policy to local prison level and

·To ensure that immediate supervisors have a clear and defined role in the management of staff who report to them.

As part of the draft Attendance Policy, the Prison Service proposed that there would be regular contact with staff on sick absence. The contact was to be by telephone, followed by prearranged visits periodically thereafter. The benefits of such a policy were stated to include

·The employee updating the supervisor on his/her medical condition

·The supervisor updating the employee on work events

·Completion of outstanding paperwork

·Identification of the employee's needs in the structured return to work programme.

The Prison Service also proposed return-to-work interviews. These would be conducted with every member of staff on return to work after a period of sickness absence, including a one-day uncertified absence. The officer's immediate supervisor would conduct the interview.

The POA rejected both initiatives and no progress has been made in finalising the draft Attendance Policy. Until all parties agree such a policy, Prison Service management has stated that it is bound by the general sick leave regulations. It cannot introduce any schemes that would not be standard or acceptable practice in the wider civil service.

In the UK, the NAO found that the Prison Service encouraged prison establishments to keep in touch with absent staff to help demonstrate commitment to their welfare and interest in their recovery and return to work. However, the NAO also found that most prisons were inconsistent in the frequency and type of contact made. Furthermore, as few establishments required notes to be taken of such contacts, estimates of the number of contacts made could not easily be validated.

In relation to return-to-work interviews, the NAO found that the Prison Service in the UK planned to introduce them following all absences. Interviews were to be documented for all absences of six days or more.

Performance Management

Targets for the reduction of sick leave are not included in the Strategic or Business Plans for the Prison Service. This contrasts with the situation pertaining in the United Kingdom where NAO reported that the Prison Service there had introduced reductions in average levels of sickness absence as a key performance indicator from 1999. The indicator was to be reflected in targets set for each prison. Prior to this it was left to individual prisons to set such targets. The majority did not do so.

In commenting on this, the Accounting Officer expressed the view that imposing sick leave targets on prisons was unrealistic, as such targets could not possibly take account of events such as injuries on duty and pregnancy related absences. Nevertheless, the Department expects that the SORT exercise will reduce sick leave by up to 50%.

Monitoring and Control Procedures

Sick leave is recorded in all prisons on a computer system available to the Pay Offices of prisons. The system is used to provide monthly reports, through the prison Governor to Prison Service Headquarters. The names of the staff members and the breakdown between certified and uncertified leave are also reported.

Prison Service Headquarters primarily review these monthly reports to stop or reduce pay and annual leave entitlements where sick leave exceeds that permitted under the regulations.

The Accounting Officer informed me that the system is also used to produce printouts of officers who have had more than 60 days sick leave in the previous four years (30 days sick leave for officers who have been recruited since 1998/1999). This figure does not indicate an acceptable level of sick leave. It is simply an administrative filter to focus on the more serious cases. The reports have been used as discussion documents between the Prison Service Human Resource Directorate and the prison Governors on how to tackle those officers whose records indicate absenteeism, which is defined as an excessive amount of sick days coupled with an excessive number of absences. One such meeting with each Governor has taken place between November 2002 and July 2003. There is a choice of sanctions to be imposed, viz:

·Issue a warning of varying severity

·Withdraw privilege of uncertified sick leave for a specified period- usually a year

·Withdraw privilege of paid sick leave, both certified and uncertified, for a specified period- usually a year

·Referral to the Chief Medical Officer

·Recommend retirement on the grounds of ill health

·Recommend dismissal (in the case of a probationer the Minister has power to dismiss. In the case of an established officer only the Government can dismiss).

The system also produces five, six and seven day uncertified sick leave warning reports intended for staff members involved and their local management. However, the computer system does not record the number of warnings produced or issued thus limiting its usefulness for producing management information. Similarly, details of the duties and rosters worked by prison officers are not correlated with their sick leave records. In the circumstances, it is not possible to determine whether sick absences are significantly linked to particular areas or activities of prison work. Neither is it possible to readily determine the responses of individual managers to patterns of casual sick leave in their area without an extensive review of personal files. It was noted in the course of my examination that in one prison a second computerised information system was used to enable prison management to monitor the use of manpower resources and prisoner movements. This database also facilitates detailed monitoring and review of individual, workgroup and prison-wide sick leave. Service wide use of such a database could lead to the identification of problems giving rise to excessive sick leave. The Prison Service has stated that this system has no prison-wide standing and that its usefulness or otherwise has not been established. However, the Accounting Officer has informed me that the Prison Service is presently conducting a major review of its IT systems.

Prison-wide Programmes to Manage Sick Leave

The Prison Service operates two principal programmes to manage sick leave. The first of these, the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is the civil service wide support programme designed to assist employees with personal difficulties. The programme provides information and aims to facilitate the voluntary resolution of attendance problems. In the Prison Service, it has been in operation since 1992.

The EAP has 2 full-time Employee Assistance Officers (Welfare Officers) who are supported by 32 parttime Staff Support Officers (SSOs) who perform these tasks in addition to their normal Prison Service duties. The Prison Service conducted a competition earlier this year from which additional Staff Support Officers were recruited.

The Prison Service also operates an Intervention Programme, which comes into effect when all other attempts to manage a prison officer's poor attendance record fails, and the officer faces dismissal proceedings. The Programme is not intended to operate in cases of serious illness, rather for casual sick days taken and less serious certified illnesses. Participation is voluntary but follows a rigorous and clearly defined series of steps. These document the seriousness of the situation and seek to gain the employee's commitment to remedying the problem within an agreed timeframe. The officer's POA representative is associated with the intervention from the outset.

Under the Programme, eight meetings are to be convened between the Governors, the prison officer facing dismissal proceedings and the POA, with the intention of obtaining a resolution to the benefit of the Prison Service and the employee by the end of the eighth meeting. It is understood from the Prison Service that the Programme generally runs the full course of eight meetings.

Disciplinary Procedures

The Prison Service Operating Review Group noted in 1997 "since 1992 a vigorous policy has been pursued with a view to reducing absences." This policy included sanctions on officers who incurred excessive sick leave. The Prison Service could place those officers with more than 60 days in the previous four-year period and 10 days in the current year on sick leave without pay. This sanction was subject to an analysis of the person's record to discount such factors as accidents on duty, operations and non-recurring illnesses. The Group observed, however, that while initially large gains were made as a result of this approach, in 1995 and 1996 this progress has since been reversed. This is evident from the available statistics as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2































Prison Service records show that, in the period 1998 to 2001, two hundred and ninety four officers were put on sick leave without pay. Eighty-one of these officers serve in Portlaoise prison, fifty-three in Limerick prison with forty-one each in Wheatfield and Mountjoy. The Accounting Officer has stated that in the period 2001/2002 many measures designed to combat persistent absenteeism had to be placed on hold pending the outcome of the High Court proceedings referred to earlier. Following the judgment in this case, staff from the Prison Service headquarters have met the Governors of all sixteen institutions to discuss the issue of absenteeism. These meetings have resulted in 48 prison officers having the privilege of sick leave with pay withdrawn for a period of 12 months. In all cases this sanction has been imposed because of excessive absenteeism that is defined as a high number of sick days combined with a high number of absences. In addition, forty officers had the privilege of uncertified sick leave withdrawn. Furthermore, dismissal procedures are in train in relation to a number of established officers who have a persistently high level of sick absence and in relation to a number of probationers who have poor attendance records.

Retirement on Medical Grounds

Where staff are found to have a consistently poor sick leave record they may be recommended for retirement on health grounds. This is in line with practice pertaining to other civil servants. Neither group may be dismissed from service on medical grounds alone.

The Prison Service sometimes refers its difficult sick leave cases to the Chief Medical Officer (CMO). There is no automatic referral system and each referral is done on a case-by-case basis. Both Prison Governors and Prison Service Headquarters may refer particular cases to the CMO as a preliminary procedure in the process of retirement on health grounds. Only the CMO may recommend that an employee is retired on ill-health grounds.

In reply to this Report, the Accounting Officer stated that, as part of the monitoring and control procedures, files continue to be referred to the CMO for consideration of ill-health retirement of officers who have been absent for prolonged periods. In some of the cases referred, the CMO has advised that the officer concerned is making slow progress but no date for resumption to work can be given. Such cases make a very significant contribution to the total number of sick days in any twelve-month period. Monitoring and control procedures can only have a negligible impact on it.

Mr. John Purcell

The management of sick leave in organisations has come to be seen as an integral part of a successful human resources policy. As well as having the obvious aim of reducing the incidence of sickness absences, proactive management will typically identify the root causes of levels of sickness absences, devise and implement counter-measures and keep their effectiveness under review. Good practice can involve such measures as the application of equitable and humane attendance policies, staff welfare and counselling services and financial and other incentives for good attendance.

While in most organisations, sickness absences may result in reductions in overall productivity or delays in providing services, the impact in prisons is different because of the nature of the work and the need to provide around the clock cover. Given that the incidence of sick leave in prisons is not factored into the rostering arrangements, staff absences have to be met by way of overtime. The Irish Prison Service has estimated that approximately 15% of all overtime is attributable to the cost of replacing officers on sick leave. Taking the 2002 figure for prison overtime, which was €59.4 million, this would give an additional annual cost of almost €9 million arising directly from sickness absences.

The principal objective of my examination was to get behind these headline figures by analysing the available data to get a better insight into the extent and cost of sick leave and to determine the authorities' responses to the issue. We also reviewed sick leave levels in other employments and reported levels in prison services in other jurisdictions. The examination found that the level of sickness absence in the Irish Prison Service has hovered around an annual average of approximately 18 days per officer in recent years. It has remained stubbornly at that level despite initiatives taken by the Department to address the issue.

Table 4.3 in the chapter breaks down the sick leave figures by prison for the three years from 2000 to 2002. Members will note that three prisons have been consistently in excess of the average during that period, namely, Cork, Limerick and Portlaoise — although the Accounting Officer reported to me some improvement in the early part of 2003. The Cork figures suggest a particular problem, with an average high of 40 days in 2001. Part of the problem is the disproportionate effect a small number of officers with long periods of sick leave has on the total in those prisons. The Accounting Officer points to why this might be so — security issues which create difficulties for staff in Portlaoise, the older age profile of prison officers in Cork and Portlaoise and greater stress levels on staff in Limerick arising from intimidation from criminal elements.

While acknowledging the particular factors that can influence the level of sick leave in different institutions, I felt more research needed to be done into the general causes of high sick leave among staff in penal institutions. I was glad to see that the Accounting Officer agreed with this view and that, at the date of my report, the Irish Prison Service was drawing up terms of reference for research to be done in this area.

The management of sick leave among prison staff has been examined on a number of occasions on behalf of the Department over the years as part of overall reviews of the operations of prisons. A report on the most recent such review was submitted to the Minister in February 2001. Some of the review group's recommendations could not be implemented without legislative change and other measures to combat persistent absenteeism had to be put on hold pending the outcome of a High Court challenge sponsored by the Prison Officers Association on management's right to withdraw the privilege of paid sick leave in a particular case.

The role of the POA is vital in securing improvements because the Irish Prison Service would find it difficult, to say the least, to introduce any schemes that would not be standard or acceptable practice in the wider Civil Service. For example, a draft attendance policy drawn up in November 2001 has not been agreed by the POA and, therefore, has not been implemented. Therein lies the rub.

While I understand that preliminary figures show some improvement in 2003, it is likely that the achievement of more substantial reductions in the cost of overtime due to sick leave will be dependent on the successful outcome of the current discussions between the Department and the POA.

Mr. Dalton

I am sorry I did not have my opening statement for the committee earlier; I just did not get it finished until this morning. The Comptroller and Auditor General has made a comprehensive report and I want to make a few brief preliminary comments.

First, discussion about the problem of sick leave and absenteeism in the Prison Service inevitably involves discussion also on the subject of prison overtime working. The reason for this is that sick leave accounts for about 15% of prison overtime, as the Comptroller and Auditor General stated, at a cost of approximately €9 million per annum. The committee will be aware that the question of prison overtime and the possibility of its replacement by a different system, called an annualised hours system, is currently the subject of negotiations between the Irish Prison Service and the POA. These negotiations, which are being facilitated by the Labour Relations Commission, are at a delicate stage and I am requesting that this be borne in mind in the context of today's discussion.

The second point is that it is important to draw a distinction between sick leave and absenteeism. Sick leave, as I understand it, refers to the situation where somebody is granted either paid or unpaid leave because he or she is unfit for work, due to illness. Absenteeism, on the other hand, refers to the situation where somebody is on paid or unpaid leave, who claims to be ill — or perhaps believes that he or she is ill — but who is not, in reality, unfit for work. The distinction is important because 22 people who were genuinely ill on long-term sick leave last year accounted for 10% of all prison officer overtime. As the Comptroller and Auditor General stated, we need to conduct more research into the whole question of sick leave in prisons to find out how much is genuine sick leave and how much is down to absenteeism.

The research will also need to look at the reasons for some very curious realities about the sick leave problem in prisons, a point also mentioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General — for example, the significant variation in the incidence of sick leave between one institution and another. As matters stand, we do not really know whether this has to do with management shortcomings, physical conditions in particular institutions, age profile of officers or the presence, in particular institutions, of higher numbers of dangerous offenders. The research to which I refer will be of considerable benefit in terms of addressing the problem of sick leave as we go forward.

The third point is that while sick leave in prisons is undoubtedly high by comparison to other public sector employments, such as the Civil Service, this, I understand, accords with the general experience in other jurisdictions. I do not suggest that this constitutes some sort of excuse for a high level of sick leave in prisons. I simply want to make the point that there are realities about working in prisons which render it difficult to make valid comparisons to other public sector employments such as the general Civil Service. I am not referring simply to day to day pressure in the workplace because we can all testify to the fact that pressures arise in many other public sector employments apart from the Prison Service. I am referring to factors such as the impact of working unsocial hours, which is not the norm in the general Civil Service. I understand that 24 hour shift workers generally tend to call in sick more often than those working from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday to Friday.

It is probably true also that the system for counting the level of sick absence tends to exaggerate the true level of absence in the Prison Service by comparison to the general Civil Service and we can explain that later if the committee wishes. These, Chairman, are matters which will need to be examined more closely in the course of the independent research project envisaged by the Prison Service.

In terms of the Department's approach to the problem over the years and the Prison Service's approach now, there are two broad strategies. This first is what might broadly be termed the caring approach and the second is the disciplinary approach. What I mean by the caring approach is that a genuine effort is made to find out what exactly is causing the problem and whether any help can be offered in the case of individuals with high levels of sick absence, especially in cases where a high level of absence is combined with a frequent incidence of absence. The Prison Service has put greater effort into this area over the past few years than was the case heretofore and this is a positive development.

The second approach, which has been followed for many years, is the disciplinary approach, that is, where officers are routinely deprived of various sick leave privileges such as uncertified sick leave, paid leave, etc, leading, in many cases, to dismissal from the service. The Prison Service has made considerable efforts in this regard also in recent years and while the disciplinary strategy was stopped in its tracks for the past few years — this explains the fact that the figures have been stubbornly static, as the Comptroller and Auditor General stated — due to litigation, it had begun to show results prior to that and is beginning to do so again now that this litigation is out of the way. One example is that the very high levels of sick absence in Cork, Limerick and Portlaoise have all fallen by 20% recently.

My final point is that proposals now under discussion at the LRC, that is, for a move to an annualised hours system, will have a positive impact also on the incidence of sick leave — this is the experience in other jurisdictions — if only because it would introduce a greater degree of regularity and uniformity into the working hours of prison officers. As I have already said, we need to be cautious here about getting into too much detail on this particular aspect because of the current state of negotiations with the POA at the LRC. I hope the committee will understand why we are being a little cautious in that regard.

Thank you, Mr. Dalton. May we publish that report?

Mr. Dalton


I want to make one observation. Despite a prison officers to prisoners ratio of 1:1, prisoners spend more time in their cells than in the UK. In addition, there is a need for 2 million hours of overtime. Is that not a clear indication of bad management? This has accelerated considerably since 1998, despite the High Court case. That case was lost which begs the following question: why did the Department not go back to the pre-1998 position?

Mr. Dalton

There are two issues. First, the Department was stopped from following a very rigid disciplinary approach at that time because the POA challenged the fact that prison officers were effectively being treated much more harshly than elsewhere in the public service when it came to sick absences. The justification for that, in the view of the Department and of the Irish Prison Service, was that the problem was very acute there by comparison to other parts of the public service. We have gone back to that strategy and in the past year 14 people have been retired having been referred to the CMO, four people have been dismissed and there are seven more cases where dismissal will be an issue. Once the litigation was out of the way, therefore, the Irish Prison Service went straight back to the disciplinary approach.

I want to emphasise a point I made earlier, that the disciplinary approach on its own will not work. In the past we probably did not pay sufficient attention to the reasons people were on sick leave. People went on sick leave and came back after three or four days. Nobody asked what was wrong — was it drink related or psychological problems? More attention is being paid to that now.

I was not aware that the out of cell time was better in the UK than here, but ours is fairly good by international comparisons. I think it is about eight or nine hours per day. Mr. Aylward may have information about out of cell time in the UK and may be able to clarify this point.

The number of overtime hours being worked, which is around 2 million per annum, is the very issue being discussed at present. The idea is to try to manage with about half that number of hours, in other words, around 1 million hours, and that is what the annualised hours system is all about.

Mr. Seán Aylward

Out of cell time varies widely in the UK. Although the official targeted out of cell time in the UK is superior to ours, in a great many prisons, due to staff shortages, structural difficulties and security difficulties, they do about the same, or less, than we do. The picture is not one in which the prisons in the UK — Scotland, England and Wales — are universally ahead of us and those in Northern Ireland have their own problems also.

To change the prison day, however, involves changing the prison roster so that we do not incur even more overtime. We are heavily involved in a negotiation phase with the prison officers following seven years of dialogue, research and real work on this area. There will be benefits to prisoners flowing from a successful outcome to those negotiations, but I cannot prejudice them by saying too much.

If I may, I would like to touch on the constructive use of the prisoner's day and ending the barren quality of the part of the day when a prisoner is confined to his or her cell. I am now happy to report to the committee that over the past three years we have put televisions in every prisoner's cell in the country — even in Mountjoy Prison, which is in a very decrepit state. This work was completed recently.

Prisoners now have access to news, educational and general entertainment programmes that keep them in touch with life outside. That is positive and beneficial and alleviates some of the psychologically damaging aspects of confinement, aspects from which the public also derives no benefit. We are making the prisoner's time within and outside the cell more constructive.

Equally, while we may be slightly shorter in hours than some English prisons, we provide much better access to education and work and training facilities than practically any other prison system in the world. We have good teaching staff throughout the State thanks to the vocational education committees and the Department of Education and Science and there is a pupil-teacher ratio that would be the envy of any school system. More than half of our prisoners have constructive activities every day. In only one or two of the older places is the range of activities restricted. We are making steady progress but we are somewhat caught on the structure of the prison day as a result of historical factors which we are addressing.

I accept the situation is serious — we have been working on it for five or six years. The discussions we are having should be prefaced by an acknowledgement of the role of prison officers and the Irish Prison Service. They play a vital role in the enforcement of law and order in the State and I am concerned that the tone of discussions has not always reflected that point.

I am particularly concerned that there is such a high incidence of sickness and injury. Is there the same duty of care in the Prison Service as there is in all other areas of the public service?

Mr. Dalton

Yes. Prison officers are governed by the same regulations as the rest of the public service — they are civil servants. One of the complaints made by the Prison Officers Association is that in comparison to other civil servants, they are treated harshly. The right to sick absences or pay during sick leave are rarely withdrawn in other situations unless they are very severe. In the Prison Service at present, however, some 140 people do not have the right to take paid sick leave. They have the same rights technically but they are applied rigidly in the Prison Service because that was one of the methods we had to adopt to correct the sick leave situation.

The level of attention paid to the caring side, finding out what is wrong with someone, was lower in the past than it should have been. People went out, came back after two weeks and often no one asked them what was wrong with them. That is not a good system. We must deal with the problem in two ways. There must be a disciplinary approach until things improve but also a more inquiring approach about what is wrong with the indiviudal or institution. There is something very unusual when the average sickness in a prison such as Cork is around 40 days. Why is it 40 days there while it is much lower in Mountjoy, which is no bed of roses? We have no explanation for that and that is why we are carrying out this research.

I raised this issue because I was wondering if there is a different code of practice. Under the duty of care requirement, we must provide a safe place of work and I would have expected an in depth investigation into why so many people are injured. By coincidence, I asked a parliamentary question of the Minister for Health and Children about the number of attacks in the health service and I received an answer on Tuesday. The response was totally different from the tenor of replies I have received over the years about the Prison Service. In the reply, it is pointed out that each employer in the health service owes a duty of care to all its employees to provide a safe working environment minimising the risk of assault. There is further mention of a special scheme for staff who are absent from work as a result of serious physical assault by a patient-client in the course of their duty. This scheme provides for full pay, inclusive of premium earnings, for a defined period. There is also a strong commitment to staff rehabilitation to facilitate the staff members to return to work as soon as possible. A committee in the North Eastern Health Board on workplace violence is to conduct a study and develop a plan for the management of aggression and violence in the health care arena.

This is positive, but has the same approach been taken in the Prison Service? I have read of confrontation and trouble. When it comes to occupational health and safety, we have walked away from our duty and blamed the recipient of the injury rather than the person who inflicted it. I was, however, encouraged by the positive response in the health service.

Mr. Aylward

When the subject of illness arises in the Prison Service, the staff representatives tend to emphasise injuries on duty but those are a minute proportion of the absences in the service. Like the health service, we do not penalise workers who are injured on duty and, on occasion, we include premium payments in sickness pay. If someone sustains an injury while on duty, he will not be left at a financial loss.

Sadly, however, we are not immune from the claim culture either. Officers who sustain a very minor injury on duty can sometimes be advised or encouraged by friends or associates to prolong their absences because there is a belief that the longer a person is off duty, the more money he will get in compensation.

I do not want this to come across as an unsympathetic approach. We take the safety of our staff seriously. We have the highest proportion of staff to prisoners in the world and numbers make a difference in safety terms. The measures we are proposing for automation and the increased use of technology will make the prisons even safer. Instead of standing at gates, prison officers will be working more closely with prisoners. The closer a person works to prisoners, the lower the risk from them because dialogue is a good thing.

On the whole, the atmosphere in prisons here is quite good. The majority of prisoners are trying to get through their day and get whatever is going in the prison and there is very rarely the sort of tension that is heard about, which can be hyped. I am not saying there are not dangerous people in the prison system but those who are truly dangerous are kept isolated and watched carefully and the number of staff minding them is concomitantly higher.

Every prison service in the world depends on the good will of the vast bulk of the prisoners and we have that in Ireland. It flows from the character of the people and the culture that exists, even with people who may be difficult on the outside. They generally comply with prison life and operate reasonably within the rules. We have health and safety officers in every prison and a health and safety section in our headquarters. We try to follow and implement the health and safety Acts to make the prisons safer places.

We are in the law enforcement business and we have never made a secret of that. When we advertise for recruitment to the Prison Service, we do not pretend this is clerical employment or that it is an easy number. It is not because it involves law enforcement, the sharp end, but we do what we can to make the workplace as safe as possible. We cannot pretend for a moment, however, that it is a conventional lifestyle or a conventional place. It is not. I assure the committee that we are doing our best and the measures that we are bringing forward in conjunction with our prison officers will make it a more congenial and safer place.

I note Mr. Aylward said he hoped he would not be seen as castigating the POA because we are dealing with an inherited situation. I am not suggesting that Mr. Aylward is castigating prison officers but while he gave us a fair outline of why the Prison Service and the prisons are good, he gave them little credit. In my experience of visiting prisons, prison officers have a crucial role in their normal running. The work of a prison officer is probably the worst in the State. I have said this before and will say so again.

What steps is Mr. Aylward's group or previously the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform taking to prevent accidents at work? Prison officers are handcuffed to someone for eight or nine hours a day. Last Monday someone was headbutted in a court in Dublin according to a person who happened to be standing nearby. Is there any other means of restraint? I do not want to see prisoners in long chains as they are in the US, but is there an alternative to handcuffing a prison officer for eight or nine hours to a dangerous person who may have committed terrible crimes?

Mr. Dalton

Prison officers do a very tough job on behalf of society. As Mr. Aylward said, when one joins the Prison Service, one is not joining a religious order. It is a job which, by definition, is rough and there are times when it is very tough. The prison officers' contribution to law and order in society must be acknowledged. We are focusing here on a marginal situation where, for whatever reason, some people seem to have a very high incidence of sick leave. Some of that is genuine and that is why I mentioned that 22 people accounted for 10% of all sick leave last year who were genuinely ill with cancer and other serious illnesses. The problem is the perception that in some cases we are dealing with absenteeism. That is the area in which we need to conduct further research, but we also need to protect prison officers. There are proposals for a new type of transport arrangement which will form part of the new deal if we achieve it. It probably will have to be introduced regardless of the deal. We are mindful of the need to introduce new transport arrangements and whatever other arrangements we can to minimise the risks to people. We have no interest from a humanitarian point of view, or otherwise, in exposing people to risk because, as Mr. Aylward said, claims cost a great deal of money too. We have a vested interest as managers in minimising risks to prison officers.

I asked whether any alternative has been found to the handcuffing of prisoners and officers. I appreciate the multiple van but 24% of the sick leave was due to injuries. If I ran a Department where I was responsible for staff welfare and I produced that kind of figure, I would be carpeted. People would want to know what I was doing to prevent it by way of training or other practices.

This is the first time we have heard about the caring approach rather than the disciplinary approach. I do not want to see anyone living off the State and prison officers would not want someone giving them a bad name, but 88 in total are being reprimanded, 48 are losing the privilege of sick leave with pay and another 40 have had the privilege of uncertified sick leave withdrawn. Apart from those 88, many doing their jobs are being blackened. What is being done to prevent legitimate injuries in terms of conditions and so on? I have no difficulty with the plan to build new prisons, but have steps been taken over the years to prevent the incidence of injuries?

Mr. Dalton

The injuries are not all work related. The figure is rather confusing. Some of these are football injuries and so on.

Mr. Aylward

The injury figure is not solely workplace injury. It includes car crashes, sporting accidents and workplace injuries. The figure is not one in four; it is being misread.

Part of the problem may be that the Prison Service could not supply a definitive breakdown of sick leave over the three year period. Unfortunately, if the service does not keep proper records, it cannot expect the Comptroller and Auditor General to tell us exactly how the entry was made. That is a weakness. The 2001 report recommended much more careful monitoring of the situation. What has happened about the recommendation that details should be recorded and placed on file and that the service would train its managers in this regard? Has that happened since 2001?

Mr. Aylward

We have put in a great deal more effort since 2001 but we were delayed to some extent by a High Court action which stalled many of the actions we wanted to take.

It might have prevented disciplinary action and taking people's money but surely it would not have prevented recording the cause of sick leave and injuries. Would the High Court case have interfered with that?

Mr. Aylward

I am not saying that the recording is being impeded. Our record keeping has improved greatly and the dialogue with the staff who are out persistently has also improved. Our difficulty is not with people who are injured in the workplace but with levels of absenteeism in persistent taking of uncertified single days. That is our real concern. No staff member who has sustained a workplace injury is subjected to any sanction for that injury. Before a sanction is applied to any staff member, the situation is checked out with his or her local governor and the staff member is given a period within which he or she can appeal the proposed sanction and set out and furnish doctor's certificates or anything else that backs up the case. Our management is not punitive in dealing with people who sustain injuries.

The Deputy suggested that in some way I was disparaging about the staff contribution. I said that our people operate at the sharp end of law enforcement. They deal with people who have criminal convictions and we make no secret of this when we advertise positions in the Prison Service. I also said it is not a casual or clerical employment.

I do not wish to give anyone ammunition in their further dealings with Mr. Aylward in negotiations but would he accept that it is probably the most dangerous job in the State, although the Garda in certain instances have a difficult job too?

Mr. Aylward

I accept that it is a very difficult job, probably one of the most difficult in the public service, and we are very well served by most prison officers who give a dedicated service. I also echo the Deputy's comment that the low level of violence in the system is attributable to good will and good practice on both sides of the bars and the cordial non-regimental approach which differentiates the Irish Prison Service from others. I have spent some time in other prison systems and have detected a greater sense of distance between the prison officer and the prisoner in those systems than in ours.

Is it fair to measure or benchmark this against the rest of the public service? Apart from anything else it seems very unfair to benchmark the 12 hour shifts with other sectors of the public service. The Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out that difficulties would be encountered. It is totally unrelated. One might compare it to the Garda and one or two other sectors, but to compare it across the board with public service is unfair.

Mr. Dalton

It is high risk employment, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is shift work and is different from traditional Civil Service work. The comparison is not entirely valid. With the best will in the world, we still may not get to Civil Service levels. That is not the ultimate benchmark but we can make improvements. The disciplinary measures that are in place — we wish they were not — produced significant results. The figure for absenteeism had fallen to an average of 15 days because of these firm disciplinary measures. It later rocketed up to 19 days but that was due to the High Court action.

Most prison officers are not involved in this. It is not a punitive system and we have no interest in penalising people because they are sick or injured at work. As Mr. Aylward stated, we are interested in addressing the fact that there is a large number of prison officers who, for whatever reason, have a high level and high frequency of absences. In other employment, if an employee does not turn up on Monday mornings, the manager asks what is wrong with Mondays. Many of us could offer explanations for it.

The cost of this is €8.31 million, which is a substantial figure. Can we have a comparison of cost per prisoner to other European prison systems?

Mr. Aylward

It is best to benchmark one prison service against another. In 2002, the average number of days lost per staff member in the Irish Prison Service was 20.28, which was reduced to 19.4 in 2003. In England and Wales, the average number of working days lost by prison officers in 2002 was 14.7. The comparable figure in Scotland was 12.8 days.

As for costs per prisoner in custody, I can give figures across the board or comparisons to other prison systems. The cost is approximately half in England and Wales. However, that system derives benefits from the size of some of the penal institutions in the UK. Many of the prisons in England and Wales have over 1,000 prisoners and there are efficiencies from such numbers. The system there has a much more renewed prisons estate and benefits from increased technology.

I am still confused about England and Wales. The basic cost is £47,000 and I do not know if that includes overtime. In Ireland, basic pay is €43,000.

Mr. Aylward

I can give precise figures if the Deputy wishes, including all costs.

Can these be circulated to the committee, rather than holding up the meeting? I note there has been a 20% drop in the last 12 months in the outcome.

What is the alternative to handcuffing prisoners to prison officers, which is degrading to everyone involved?

Mr Aylward

Four years ago, the Irish Prison Service bought a cellular van for use at Dublin's main prison. The prisoners who would be transported in that van would not have to be handcuffed during the journey. However, the prison staff could not be persuaded to drive or use that van. In fairness to the staff, they wanted this to be part of the overall negotiations.

The introduction of such vans will emerge soon in an agreed climate. This will relieve prison officers of having to sit side by side, shackled to prisoners when travelling to and from court. While they are waiting to go into the courtroom, prisoners are not shackled to the prison officers as they are in holding cells. The conditions of those cells could be better and the Prison Service and the Courts Service are working together on that issue. The vista of officers being chained to prisoners will be ended for all time when we conclude an agreement with the prison officers. It will make it safer and more efficient. Prisoners headbutting or breaking the wrists of prison officers have been solved by what we call the "long chain". This measure was introduced a number of years ago and has greatly reduced the level of such incidents.

The presentation states that dismissal procedures are in train for a number of established officers and probationers. Is that being contested or will the union accept it?

Mr. Aylward

Four officers resigned in 2003 at the point of dismissal. They accepted that they had a case against them that they could not overturn. They had plenty of advice from the union and colleagues. They were fully supported, and rightly so, by their staff representatives who were facilitated. The fact remains that four people resigned. I remind the committee that to remove a prison officer is unique as it has to be decided by the Government. That is a tortuous procedure to follow, but it offers many safeguards to officers.

Procedures are in train for seven officers who have a persistent level of sick absence which cannot be attributed to workplace injuries or natural explanation. There were 14 retirements on genuine ill-health grounds during 2003 and a further two have taken place in 2004. There are a number of staff who are suffering from long-term illnesses, such as cancer, who are on the books but not in the psychological state where they can voluntarily resign. They contribute significantly to our numbers — 22 people and 10% of the sick leave. They are on pension rates of pay but, statistically, they make the picture look worse than it is.

In the 2001 review of the Irish Prison Service, it was recommended that the root causes of absenteeism should be recorded and placed on file. Was it looking at what caused the illness or if they were they bona fide illnesses? Was the Prison Service eliminating the difficulties faced by officers or was it chasing them?

Mr. Aylward

We recognised that the background to absences related to illness is multi-factoral. There are issues for management, in the structure of the working day and in people's lifestyles. We wanted to proceed on an agreed basis because we wanted the research to have full co-operation from all the staff. We are not in the blame game in wishing to advance this research. We want this to produce results and information in a non-judgmental way which will help us all to move forward on the issue.

When a prison officer suddenly fails to turn up for work, he is placing his colleagues at risk because it may too late to fill the gap in the roster. It also makes the prison a less safe place to be. We are satisfied that with co-operation and a research project which has the support of the staff, we will get at the root cause of some of these absences. It will also help us to tackle the issue of stress that could be reduced through dialogue. We are the last to claim that we know all the answers to this issue. Absenteeism is a problem that is endemic in other prison services. Independent research that the staff are prepared to co-operate with will have benefits for all of us.

I will resist raising the case for the educational centre at Fort Mitchell on Spike Island because we are discussing sick leave.

Am I correct in understanding that, to some extent, the business of excessive, extraordinary overtime is a historical factor in the sense that it is longer serving members of the service who tend to absorb most of the overtime and that perhaps more recent recruits are not offering to take up overtime at the same rate? Do the figures for absenteeism and for absences for health reasons relate to the group which is the greatest user of overtime?

Mr. Dalton

I do not have that information. There is a view, on which I do not have specific evidence, that the two things are connected. I do not want to assert it as a fact, but one of the phenomena in prisons is, as others have mentioned, that if someone is out on sick leave from the Prison Service, someone else is called in on overtime. The effect is that there is no massive incentive to be well, if one is that way inclined, because it is theoretically possible to arrange things in such a way that one does not lose out at all. It could be one person's turn to be sick one week while someone else gets overtime, while it is his or her turn to be sick next week while the other person gets the overtime. That is one of the problems of the system. I am not saying this happens, but the word on the block is that this could happen. It obviously could happen if one has an overtime system where one has to bring people back in the manner described.

We hope that one of the results of a system of annualised hours will be that any such incentive that might be there would be eliminated because if one does not work the annualised hours, someone else has to carry them. Instead of having a situation where it could benefit people to take sick leave, the opposite will be the case. I do not want to assert that these things are happening, but as the Deputy said, there is a connection between the way in which the overtime and sick leave systems work, which we hope will be corrected.

Which comes first? The absenteeism helps boost the overtime hours worked, but if overtime itself was tackled and was more reasonable, could that reduce absenteeism?

Mr. Dalton

It could, and that is the experience elsewhere. That is why we are trying to move to the annualised hours system because it would effectively eliminate overtime as an option in the Prison Service and the job would be done in fewer hours. The experience elsewhere with such a system is that sick leave levels fall, which suggests that while a certain amount of sick leave among prison staff is genuinely illness-related, has to do with the nature of the job and other elements, some of it is not genuinely related to illness. It is that latter element we are more interested in and we are trying to tackle. All the measures of which Mr. Aylward has spoken in terms of discipline and so on are targeted at that margin of illness which is questionable. We hope that by addressing the overtime system — currently under discussion with the POA — the impact on sick leave levels will be significant.

Is it reasonable for Deputy Dennehy to say there is not too much point in comparing this to the rest of the public service, that the Prison Service is a completely different job? What do we know about the international experience in Britain or Australia, for example, comparing prison service to prison service? I understand there is a great deal of overtime in prison services in every part of the world.

Mr. Dalton

That is correct. I have not been as close to the statistics in recent years as Mr. Aylward, but I know the figures are high internationally. The international experience is that when one moves to this other type of system, the figures reduce. While we can try, with the best will in the world, I am not sure we will ever get to a situation of exact comparison between the Prison Service and the Civil Service. though that is the ambition. Perhaps the Civil Service figures should also reduce, but that is not my responsibility. One will always tend to see a difference because the work is different.

One of the areas where the comparison to the Civil Service and the public service would not be exactly analogous is seen in table 4.5 of the presentation, where pregnancy is listed as a cause of sick leave. I refer the witness to pages 58 and 59 of the presentation, specifically the graph on page 59. The Prison Service operating review group noted in 1997 that since 1992 "a vigorous policy has been pursued with a view to reducing absences" and so on. It then states that "the group observed, however, that while initially large gains were made as a result of this approach in 1995 and 1996, this progress has since been reversed". Why is that the case?

Mr. Dalton

I do not know, but I think it was because the Prison Service expanded and many more people came into it. Mr. Aylward may be able to explain that better.

Mr. Aylward

Initially, when one does a crackdown in any employment and one begins stopping people's money, there is a shock effect as people respond. In our service, people discovered that even if money was stopped for the sick days taken over a 12 month period, either for the casual sick days or all sick days, they found they could recoup the money from their overtime. The service was expanding, as was the level of committals from the courts, and work was so plentiful that overtime could be readily accessed to compensate for the money lost.

Is that the case? Has the prison population increased in the years since 1996?

Mr. Aylward

Yes. It has gone up by more than 47% since 1996.

What is the total prison population?

Mr. Aylward

The number of committals has remained relatively static in recent years, but our use of what we used to call shedding, that is, temporary release, has been greatly reduced. Instead of having about 500 or more people out of a population of 2,200 on temporary release every day, we now have about 300 or 350 out of a population of 3,200 to 3,400. We have halved the number of people on temporary release.

What is the thinking behind that? I thought temporary release was regarded as a good idea.

Mr. Aylward

It is an excellent idea when it is part of a structured programme for a prisoner re-entering society, taking up an employment or training opportunity, or going out on a supervised programme. However, half of the temporary releases ordered in the mid-1990s period were absolutely unstructured, with prisoners simply sent away because the prisons were full. That was happening wholesale in the early 1990s. I was part of it. I was there in 1993-97 period and it was horrific.

Mr. Dalton

It was called the revolving door. It had become a scandal in law and order terms because the Garda and everyone else knew that the door was revolving so fast that it hit one on the way in. It had become that bad. There was public demand for this to be corrected, so that people sentenced to prison actually went there for a while. It is now corrected and the percentage has fallen from 19% on TR — temporary release — to about 8% or 9%, which is the correction that was necessary in law and order terms.

The graph on page 59 is very striking. In 1994 the sick day figure was just above 3,000, and rose to an excessive 6,000 in 2002. That is a fairly dramatic increase.

Mr. Aylward

It does not take account of the increase in the number of prison officers, which went up vastly over the period. The graph is slightly misleading.

I would have thought that in a normal business, the reason for recruiting more people would be to have fewer people absent.

Mr. Aylward

I would not wish to cross swords with the committee on the statistical argument. It could go either way, but we are comparing two different services, one half the size of the other, later one. That makes a difference.

The number of prison officers, as Mr. Aylward said, rose by over 30% between 1997 and 2002. Is that correct? It rose from 2,495 to 3,318. That is on page 50.

Mr. Aylward

The numbers are up by a third over the period from 1997 to 2002. The graph shows a longer period, from 1992 to 2002. Over that period, the increase is greater.

What was the strategic consideration behind that fairly rapid increase in numbers? Was it the rising prison population that Mr. Aylward mentioned, or was the Prison Service trying to address other issues too?

Mr. Aylward

We built 1,200 new prison spaces and opened four new facilities.

What is the time scenario for resolution of the discussions to which the Deputy referred and the matters currently before the Labour Relations Commission? I do not wish to invite anyone into territory where he does not wish to go.

Mr. Dalton

It is difficult to say. The current position is that the parties on both sides are reflecting. We expect the LRC to be involved again fairly soon — as quickly as possible, as far as we are concerned. I cannot put a time limit on it, but I would be surprised if we were not in serious business once again next week. I cannot say that this means we will emerge with a result, but that is the expectation.

Is conciliation the approach to resolve this, or will arbitration ultimately apply?

Mr. Dalton

There is an aspect to which arbitration will apply. We hope that most issues will be resolved in discussions between the POA and the Prison Service, facilitated by the LRC. I understand there may be arbitration on an issue, but that is perhaps getting into detail that may not be in the public domain. The Prison Service has an undertaking of confidentiality with the LRC, which is normal enough in industrial relations situations, and we do not want to breach that on our side.

If there was a prison officer with suspected chronic absenteeism, what would be the most severe disciplinary measure?

Mr. Dalton


Has that happened?

Mr. Dalton

Yes, there were four cases last year.

What about the question of early retirement? What is the facility for people who have done a difficult job all their lives and might have been fit for it when they were young but are finding the going very rough as they get older? What is open to them regarding early retirement?

Mr. Aylward

We can refer the person to the Chief Medical Officer for the Civil Service for consideration of ill-health retirement. It must be voluntary and, as I explained, some people are gravely ill but not in a psychological state where they can accept the offer and retire. However, some people whose cases we refer are able to convince the Chief Medical Officer that their ill-health retirement is mandated and appropriate because of things that have happened to them in life or even in the job. We had 14 such retirements in 2003 and two have already taken place in the first month of 2004.

What is the normal retirement age?

Mr. Aylward

In our current arrangement — this is one way in which we reflect the tough nature of the job — people who have 30 years' service can go at 50 years of age.

Is the Prison Service exempt from the new measures announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy?

Mr. Aylward

We are not exempt, but a variation has been made which reflects the improved health profile of the general population: it has been raised to 55. That is a material change. Officers can also continue to serve to the age of 65 under the new arrangements, whereas hitherto they had to go at 60.

Is the new situation accepted by the representative organisations?

Mr. Aylward

It has been opposed to it, but it applies to the Garda Síochána too. I believe that it will go ahead. It reflects a change in people's health profile generally across the population, as well as other fiscal and financial issues which must be faced. We recognise the unique nature of prison officers' employment by those terms. I hasten to add, in case I have created any confusion through my response, that the change only applies to new people coming in as of this year. All current staff working for us can go at the age of 50, provided they have 30 years' service. They tend to be in their early 50s if they avail of that option. Quite a few do so, and that is absolutely understandable given the nature of the job.

Mr. Aylward was explaining the increased numbers working in the Prison Service with regard to increased numbers of places. How many are being taken out of the system as a result of recent decisions?

Mr. Aylward

Very few, because we had several wings on prisons for which we had no staff. A new wing is opening in Limerick Prison, which will give us 100 spaces from next Monday. That will exactly balance out the temporary closure of Spike Island. The closure of the Curragh is another example. We moved 96 prisoners to an unused wing in the new Midland Prison and we were also able to open another block there, so we made a net gain of 65 spaces from that transfer of staff and prisoners.

Is the closure of Shanganagh Castle irrevocable? Is it history?

Mr. Aylward

It is irrevocable, since it was closed on foot of a Government decision. It was a dormitory-type facility, which young prisoners did not like. It was a listed building and it would have taken millions to put it right. In any event it was not a facility to which the prisoners liked to go. Most of the lands associated with it are being transferred to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and will be used for social housing and financially accessible housing for people at the lower end of the income scale. The public good has been well served by our disposal of the facility, which was grossly under-utilised and from which we had a very high rate of abscondment.

Does the average of 19 days relate to the work year rather than the calendar year? There is a five day working week, less annual leave, which I presume is 28 days a year.

Mr. Aylward

Prison officers have 146 days a year off, not counting annual leave, which can be 29 or 30 days.

The figure 146 from 365 is approximately 220.

Mr. Aylward

Averages can be very misleading here because a very high proportion of our officers take almost no sick leave. One must take into account that we have some people who are, tragically, suffering from cancer and could not possibly work in the prison. Averages are a bit dangerous in this area.

Mr. Dalton

I think there is some confusion regarding a point I made earlier about how the current system of counting tends to exaggerate the incidence of absence through sickness in prisons. A lot depends on what is meant by "relevant" sick absence. Relevant sick absence is being away from work when one is supposed to be at work. In the case of a civil servant who is out for, say, two weeks, sick leave is counted from the first day he or she is out sick to the day he or she comes back. Over a two-week period a civil servant is supposed to be at work for ten days, whereas a prison officer is supposed to be at work for seven or eight days. Thus, the amount of actual work time lost is less in the case of a prison officer.

The method of counting tends to exaggerate the gravity of fault in the case of prison officers. That is one of the things that would need to be looked at in the context research. This relates back to Deputy Rabbitte's question about the validity of comparisons. It is not just that it is a different type of work. The counting system must be taken into account also. In fairness to prison officers, I think that would bring down the incidence of fault on their part.

I was not making any value judgment, just seeking confirmation of the types of figures we are talking about. It is also fair to say that despite the increase in staffing numbers in the Prison Service, the average number of sick leave days has also increased. Mr. Dalton commented on the graph in figure two on page 59 of the report, and the increases between 1994 and 2002 are not consistent with the increases in the number of staff. Whatever the contributing factors are, there is also an increase in the number of sick days per member of staff.

Mr. Aylward

We took a huge hit with that court case. It froze all the sanctions we could deploy against people who were taking a lot of casual sick leave. That did stall us for a period. I also must acknowledge that we have an ageing workforce, if I may use that term, people at the latter end of their careers, and things do tend to act against people health-wise in their latter years.

In fairness to prison officers, it is one thing to turn up to work in an office situation if one is feeling a little bit off colour, but it is another thing to turn up in a prison setting in those circumstances. Qualitatively, it is a different challenge to turn up for work if one is feeling below par. However, I know prison officers who have never missed a day in their whole career. They exist too, and they show great dedication.

The other thing that strikes me is the variation between prisons in the number of average sick days and the numbers of individuals with large numbers of sick leave absences. This would seem to indicate that the congeniality of the working environment, or possibly the cohort of prisoners at a particular prison, could be factors. I know the Secretary General has talked about research being done in this area, but are those particular factors being examined?

Mr. Dalton

They would have to be because, as I said, one must ask why, for example, Cork or Limerick prisons are so different to Mountjoy. As a tough place to work, Mountjoy springs to mind for all sorts of reasons, including physical conditions and the type of prisoners. It contains a considerable mix of people, some of whom are serious offenders. A lot of factors would tend to point against Mountjoy. There could be cultural or management reasons for the high incidence of sick leave in some prisons, but we are looking at why this is happening in some places more that others.

The good news, in so far as there is any good news in all of this, is that the figures have dropped very significantly in Cork, Limerick and Portlaoise. The reasons the figures are high in Portlaoise are clearer than in most places. The most challenging prisoners in the system are in Portlaoise, including paramilitaries, the number of whom has gone up again to 71 in recent years because of the Real IRA and other dissidents. They tend to be more challenging prisoners, and those involved in organised crime, also serious offenders, are also housed in Portlaoise. It is not terribly surprising that the figures for absenteeism would tend to be higher there.

Mr. Aylward

When looking at some of the smaller prisons one must take into account that a very small number of people who are out with a genuinely serious illness can contribute hugely to the figures. Table 4.4 shows interesting statistics about the number of officers taking over 183 days in the period, and we had a high proportion of those in Cork. The 41 listed were not all of that character, but a number of them did have long-term, debilitating illnesses. It is interesting that only 21 out of what was a much bigger pool of officers in Mountjoy had taken over 183 days over the period.

Conditions are difficult in both Cork and Mountjoy prisons. If anything, Cork is the more overcrowded, but happily, the level of difficulty between prisoners and staff there is very low. It is a very well run prison. There have been factors at work there which we are grappling with, though I do not claim that we know all the answers.

Having cause to visit Cork Prison on a fairly regular basis I concur with much of that. I would hate to think that its problems would be down to the cultural or geographical reasons being cited. It is obviously prison specific because I would contrast the Cork Prison figures with those for Fort Mitchel on Spike Island, in the same geographical area. In 2001 and 2002, and over the three-year period surveyed, the Fort Mitchel figures were below the average for the Prison Service, and it begs the question as to why the temporary closure has happened if it is meant to be about resolving the problems of annual sick leave and overtime in the Prison Service in general. Spike Island has less sick leave and probably less overtime.

Mr. Aylward

There are other costs associated with the operation of Spike Island, including the fact that it is an island and that every person and every consumable item has to be brought across to it by ferry. It is a more expensive operation than it might seem at first flush, although, in all fairness to the staff there, it has been a very well run facility with a very highly motivated staff. However, decisions have to be made by Government that take all factors into account, and I really cannot say anything beyond that.

I wish to stress one final point. Will the effect of the temporary closure, and we do not know how temporary it is, not be to increase statistics in regard to sick leave and overtime because Spike Island was below the average?

Mr. Dalton

We hope that the officers transferred from Fort Mitchel will bring their good health with them, so I do not think that will increase the incidence of sick leave.

The closure will possibly inspire ill health.

Mr. Dalton

It might.

This issue has been fairly well explored and I find it hard to get enthusiastic about it. Prison overtime, sick leave and the interrelationship between absenteeism, sick leave and overtime comes up for debate every year. It is a hardy annual, either in this committee or in the discussion of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform Estimate. I wish the witnesses luck in the negotiations.

The move to annualised hours has certainly worked since becoming a feature of personnel management throughout the country recently enough. It has worked in very big companies in the private sector. As well as giving such companies a better fix on their costs and bringing in their end of year costs in accordance with their estimate, it has also reduced absenteeism in very large companies that I know of. I wish the witnesses every success with that. Without commenting on the negotiations, is the decision to close Spike Island part of the negotiation process for the annualised hours or is it a standalone policy decision which will be implemented regardless of what happens in the Labour Relations Commission?

Mr. Aylward

We have been elected by Government to live within an overtime budget for this year which is half the outturn on overtime in 2003. To achieve the savings that have been demanded by Government in the absence of an agreement which would achieve these savings, we have had to take some force majeure decisions, which were authorised by the Government, including the closure of Spike Island. In the event of the successful conclusion of an agreement with the prison officers on an annualised hours system, we will be able to restore to operation Spike Island and the other places we have been forced to close.

The Deputy referred briefly to other employers which have been very successful. One of them was Alcan in the Limerick area. We encouraged prison officer leaders to visit it, which they did, and we have noted the success of Alcan and other large industrial employers in bringing their costs into balance, as well as the incomes and lifestyles of their employees. Our view is that this works. We did look at other prison systems that offered things like time off in lieu, but we found that this system ultimately crashed because one ended up with people banking so much overtime compensation that they had to be bought off. We are pretty convinced that this is a win-win system for our staff, ourselves and the taxpayer. It will make sense for everybody, and we hope that we can get it agreed between us before too long.

The one I would be most familiar with is Aughinish Alumina — it is no longer called Alcan — which is now owned by a number of Swiss private venture capitalists, with the Canadians out of the picture. It has been extraordinarily successful. It has reduced absenteeism, produced far better relationships and is a very successful plant. If that model could be implemented it would be very successful. I get back to some more basic questions to Mr. Dalton. Could he outline very briefly the leave of absence or sick leave conditions that apply in prisons?

Mr. Dalton

They are broadly the same as in the Civil Service. Prison officers are civil servants. Generally in the Civil Service the number of days leave to which one is entitled varies with grade. The number of casual or uncertified sick days one is allowed is seven, which is broadly in line with the Civil Service also.

Seven in a year or seven continually?

Mr. Dalton

Seven in the year. Mr. Aylward is probably more familiar with those details.

Mr. Aylward

To supplement the point made by the Secretary General, prison officers in this jurisdiction, pretty uniquely, are treated the same as civil servants who work here or in other Government Departments, and they have the exact same range of entitlements. Treatment of sick leave is identical. If a civil servant is suddenly unwell, he or she can take what is called a casual sick day. If they go beyond seven sick days in any one year, payments are stopped. If one approaches that figure of seven year after year, one also comes under the scrutiny of one's management. In our case, if prison officers exceed the seven days or keep approaching or hitting that seven-day figure every year we also apply sanctions in regard to those days.

How many continuous days can be taken without a doctor's certificate?

Mr. Aylward

No more than one. If one goes to a second day a doctor's certificate is required.

For somebody with a serious illness it would be 12 months with full pay and six months with half pay?

Mr. Aylward

The exact same as Civil Service conditions. I think it is full pay for the first six months and then the pension rate of pay after that.

Has that changed? It used to be 12 months——

Mr. Aylward

Pardon me, I think it is six months. Sorry, the Deputy is right, it is after six months that people go onto the lower rate. There is no difference between the two, and we are not seeking to change those things. After all, it is a difficult job.

The Prison Service does apply a series of sanctions that would not be applied in any other Government Department or to any other set of civil servants.

Mr. Aylward

That is true but we must make the point that in the Civil Service sick leave has implications for efficiency, but in the Prison Service absences by staff have immediate and significant cash implications. They also have implications for the safe operation of the prison. As the implications run to millions of euro annually, it is something we just cannot ignore. Our policy has been subjected to the most searching judicial scrutiny, and the courts found in favour of our approach.

It is not simply one of sanctions. There is also an employee assistance programme and a lot of counselling assistance to people who are maybe experiencing illnesses due to lifestyle and other factors. We do try to help people in that situation. There is perhaps more intensive activity in that respect than one might find in most areas of the Civil Service.

In its comparative research, has the Prison Service established that in areas of work where absenteeism leads to a colleague having to take up the workload without reward, there is much less absenteeism than in situations where colleagues are rewarded for taking up the burden?

Mr. Aylward

My primary knowledge on this is personal and anecdotal but I have been a public servant for 30 years and have found in various places I have worked that if somebody was persistently absent — for example, not showing up on a Monday because of a sick head — a certain amount of peer group pressure comes on because other people are carrying the load. They are making nothing from it and this person is creating work and trouble for them. Without any pressure from management, colleagues start to exert a certain pressure.

In the Prison Service the effect is diametrically opposite when somebody is out sick. It actually accrues to the benefit of the people who are recalled or held back to replace them. I am not saying that people make a direct connection, but subconsciously it is a very different scenario. When we are in an annualised hours system the pot of money will not change but the amount of work put in depends on the level of work that has to be fulfilled. If somebody is, for casual, social reasons invoking their right to sick absence, their colleagues might take a different view because they will not make money out of having to replace them. It will be a burden that will maybe stop other people going home.

Based on our dialogue with other industrial-type employers, our view is that, without any particular pressure being exerted from the management, the staff themselves in a collegiate way try to jolly along people to perform and turn in so that everyone wins. I do not want to disclose anything from our talks but I do not think that is contested by the other side. I think we are jointly of the view that there should be a pretty significant decline in casual sick leave if we can secure agreement on this new way forward. That has not been done yet but the psychology of it is pretty clear.

How strong are Mr. Aylward's suspicions that cartels are in operation whereby Jack calls in sick and Bill takes up the overtime, with the roles then reversed the following week?

Mr. Aylward

Prisons are too large as employers for their to be a structured cartel, but one could say that there is a subconscious cartel in operation in the sense that people know that a certain number of colleagues are not going to show up on certain days of the week. It is not that there is a pact between individuals but it tends to operate to the benefit of both parties. A person gets a day off and others get income from it. Then their turn comes around.

One of the factors that contributes to casual sick leave is the practice where people work their rest days. If one is working flat out without having weekends or any days off, sheer exhaustion, family pressures or whatever kick in after a while. Then one tends to take the sick day. If one is going to get paid for that sick day one is a winner. If one has the money docked, one will recoup it with the overtime that will accrue the next time somebody is out sick. It does not promote best behaviour or best practice. It is the opposite. In a sense we are rewarding the worst practice, so we are trying to turn that around and enlist the support of our staff collectively to work the system well in everyone's favour.

Mr. Noonan

Is there any difference between absenteeism among women and men prison officers?

Mr. Aylward

I should tread fairly carefully here.

There is no significant difference in any age group. Our younger female and male officers are very good attenders, particularly when they are in their probationary period, when it does not have to go to Government to say goodbye to someone who has been absent for a lot of the time. They are under the same control and subject to the same sanction which is that it is easy to terminate a probationary period. There is little difference of significance between the genders.

On the tables supplied by the witness showing absenteeism in the different institutions, Mountjoy Prison is not broken down into the respective women's and men's prisons. Has the witness this information in his own documentation?

Mr. Alyward

I do not have the data myself but they are treated as one prison for staff purposes and staff move between both places. I will make an inquiry back at the office to see if we can give some data on that.

I wish to return to the point made by Mr. Dalton about how sick leave is reckoned. If someone is out for the period of the roster when he or she should have been working in the prison, are the days off considered to be sick days also?

Mr. Alyward

Yes, but it would not apply to every day. If they took a day at the end of their roster period, what would be counted would be time until they resumed. If they were in the middle of a seven day stretch, and took one day in the middle, it would count as one day. There is a distortion effect which needs to be properly mathematically researched. The distortion effect could be as high as a third.

Would the normal week be five, six or seven days on?

Mr. Alyward

They could be on for seven days.

How long would they be off for?

Mr. Alyward

They could be off for four days.

It is on the basis of seven on, four off?

Mr. Alyward

Yes. If they took off the seventh day, it would count as five.

If they take a casual day on day seven, that goes in as five days off on sick leave.

Mr. Alyward


What if they have a doctor's certificate and were out for seven days and then resume duty on day 12?

Mr. Alyward

It would be counted as seven days.

Would it be counted as 11 days?

Mr. Alyward

It could be. If their sick leave started on the first day of their cycle, it could count as twelve days. The Deputy is correct.

That is a major distortion.

Mr. Alyward

It is. It distorts it by about a third.

It distorts them to the point where it takes the credibility out of the figures especially when one looks at the cases of people who have long periods of sick leave.

Mr. Alyward

We have been very careful to point this distortion out, because it is significant.

Would that apply across the public service? Part of the comparative study compares the sick leave rates of primary and secondary teachers. If a teacher is out sick for a week, is that five days?

Mr. Alyward

No, it is seven days. There is some distortion in both sets of figures, but the distortion is quite significant in our case. My guestimate is that the distortion between the two sets of statistics is as high as a third. This is the reason we do not emphasise the Civil Service comparison too much.

Mr. Dalton

This is the point I made earlier with Mr. Alyward. It is part of the research because it can have an unfair effect. When someone is out sick, apart from social and other considerations, the effective absence is the number of times he or she is away from his or her desk, when he or she should be there.

In the case of a civil servant who is out for a fortnight, the number of days that he or she was supposed to be at a desk was ten days. It counts as 14 days. In the case of a prison officer, he, too is out for 14 days, but the number of days he should have been at work is probably seven or eight days. The extent of the cost that is being incurred by sick leave is exaggerated in the case of a prison officer. We need more sophisticated counting systems to make true comparisons.

We want to be careful and to be fair to prison officers. There is much anecdotal material, and a lot of suspicion that one can do carousel operations and many say that is the case. The way the two systems work means that one can be traded off against the other.

Not only because we are in the middle of negotiations, but in fairness to prison officers, we wish to emphasise that it is not easy to prove such matters. In a system where one does not lose long term, financially, by virtue of the fact that one is sick — actually one can gain — then the temptation must exist. That is a suspicion. We do not have any proof of that.

I would like some clarification.

Mr. Purcell

The matter of how to calculate the number of sick days is not unique to the Prison Service. It is found anywhere where one has these type of rostering arrangements. It would be in the health service as well. Two days ago, I got a copy of a report carried out by my counterpart in the National Audit Office of Wales, which looked at the management of sickness absence by national health service trusts in Wales. The first recommendation is to agree and implement a common definition for the calculation of sickness and absence statistics. It is the same kind of problem. It is unfair to make real comparisons and I try not to make them in the report because it is a distortion.

There is one last area I wish to raise. Without asking a question, could the witness talk me through the connection between absenteeism and claims to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal? Obviously, there is a connection, on the advice of solicitors.

Mr. Alyward

There is a belief that some of our staff who have sustained a minor injury, perhaps a cut or a concussion, are being advised to stay out as long as possible as this will inflate the value of any award. I do not say it is a correct belief, but it has taken hold.

There was a time in the Prison Service when staff were very macho and they would almost wash off the blood and return straight to work. Now, people tend to gather round and suggest that someone go out sick and that they will get compensation. When people feel that there could be money in something, it is human nature to stay out. It is not that difficult to get a doctor's certificate after one has sustained a workplace injury. We feel this plays on the minds of some people who sustain relatively minor injuries. This is not to say that people do not get a terrible shock if they get an injury in the workplace and they may need some days to recover.

I wish to supplement the question on whether people are manipulating the sick leave system. I looked at the top ten earners in our system. These top ten hardly took a sick day between them. They were very devoted to duty. When one goes lower down the earnings levels, to the more medium figure earners, the cycle of casual absences and catching up on any loss kicks in.

The IT systems within the Prison Service would seem to be non-existent. Is that a fair comment?

Mr. Alyward

Actually, no. I can report that we have made a very good investment in information technology, including a computerised system for time and attendance which has been deployed in all of our institutions. We have a pretty good record system and we are beginning to derive the benefits of it.

It was actually rolled during 2003. The HRMS system was rolled out last October. I seek no credit for this, but it is fair to say that when I came into this job in 1999, it was quill pen and huge ledgers stuff. Everything was written down and there was hardly any IT. Decisions had been made before my arrival to invest seriously in IT in the prisons and we now have one of the best prison service IT systems in western Europe. We are only beginning to draw down the benefits from this. The first material that went live was prisoner records and prisoner medical records but now we have a financial system. We are getting there. I think our data capture will be much better. We have spent a total of €31 million in the past five years on the computer system. Five years ago our IT infrastructure was at zero and it has been vastly improved.

Comparing prison officers with other civil servants is almost a complete waste of time because it is so different with shift work and so on. I think prison officers have to be compared with other prison officers. Mr. Aylward commented on looking at absenteeism and sick leave among prison staff in England, Wales and Scotland and comparing them with the Irish figures, which were significantly different, approximately one third higher. The average in the UK was 14 days compared with an Irish average of 19 days. However, that all depends on counting the same things in the same way.

My first question is addressed to Mr. Purcell in order that I understand the point fully. Let us take the first prison on the list, Arbour Hill, where the average number of days lost per officer is 12. Am I to understand — this is only to clarify the matter — that does not necessarily mean that during those 12 days that prison officer should have been at his place of work. Is that correct?

Mr. Purcell

The Deputy is absolutely right. It is calculated on the basis outlined by the Accounting Officer and Mr. Aylward.

It would seem to me that calculating it in that manner does the prison officers a gross injustice. I am glad there is now a computerised system, because I think it would be much more relevant to determine the number of days a prison officer is missing from his or her post. That would be a much more useful figure as one could then compare like with like. The raw data that is being used is grossly misleading. This is a comment on the system as it is set up and not on Mr. Purcell's role. Computerisation is the only way to see it.

Having said that, Mr. Aylward has identified that absenteeism and sick leave have been a problem dating from the early 1990s and has put in place a programme to deal with it. The chart illustrates the rise in days lost from 30,000 approximately to 60,000 approximately in 2002, however, Mr. Aylward explained that a great deal is due to the increase in prison officer numbers. The problem has been identified and addressed, but there was a glitch in the middle. It strikes me that the problem has been there for a very long time. I was astounded that Mr. Dalton stated in his report that he believed we need to conduct more research on the whole question of sick leave in prisons to find out how much is genuine sick leave and how much is down to absenteeism. The research will need also to look for the reasons for some of the very curious realities about the sick leave problem. All the prisons were looked at. I would have thought that the research should have been complete, as it dates back over ten to 14 years. A problem was spoken about in 1992, yet in 2004 they are still talking about needing to do the research. It would be reasonable to ask why the research has not been done, conclusions drawn and policies implemented, based on the research, to address the problem.

Mr. Dalton

The same question occurred to me. I think it is a fair question. Probably as time has gone by we have begun to understand the need to look for reasons. I think the honest truth is that we assumed for a long time that it was simply laziness. We assumed that the overtime system and the sick leave system were working together in such a way that it was really a matter of cracking the whip. We did not start to ask ourselves these questions until more recent times. Probably one of the reasons for this is that, for many years, the prison service was run by the then Department of Justice and the administration of the prison service was run by a fraction of the number who are running it now. The administration of the prisons and the Courts Service in the Department of Justice for many years was in the hands of 30 to 40 and maybe sometimes 50 people. Now there are hundreds involved. One of the reasons the Department of Justice — in spite of the assumption that it was a matter of holding on to power — did not favour the establishment of agencies over the years was that it would lead to increased administration and it was resisted for that reason. That probably was a mistake, current thinking is that it pays off to spend money on enhancing administration.

The Department did not have sufficient people to focus on issues such as this over the years. This was a problem for one individual and the simple assumption was that "the officers are swinging the lead" and let us deal with the problem in a certain way. It was not a sophisticated method, but it had some impact. Many years ago Professor Basil Chubb studied the problem and came up with new rosters and the situation suddenly improved. For some reason that I cannot explain the rosters designed then and subsequently never included annual leave. I find that difficult to understand looking back on it now.

The Prison Service with its new administration is being much better managed than was possible in the past and that is why these questions are being asked. The same is true incidentally of the Courts Service, where the number dealing with courts issues was also quite small. When issues arose in the courts there was chaos because we were depending on too few people to solve problems that needed more management staff.

When we meet next year, Mr. Aylward, will it be possible to present the data in a different format? Will the computer system be able to calculate the average number of days missed from work rather that what is now called absenteeism or sick leave?

Mr. Aylward

I would certainly hope so, but I think I would qualify that by saying that we can communicate with the Chairman and the committee to give the Deputy some information on that. I think it is legitimate for the committee to ask us to do that and it is a cause of frustration to us that the comparisons are somewhat distorted. We will try to do it and we are now better placed with the new computer systems that are kicking in. I will certainly work towards that and I will issue a letter through the Accounting Officer, giving more detail and fleshing it out. I will do that as quickly as I can.

I have one final question, it is slightly at a tangent, but it resulted from your response on a matter. You spoke about the revolving door syndrome in the mid-1990s and how it has been largely addressed, and that the number of people on day release and so forth has been significantly reduced. On the other side of that coin, I would be curious to know how many committal warrants are out there that have not been served.

Mr. Dalton

I do not have a figure, Chairman, but I will get one.

If one is letting prisoners out one side, it would be interesting to look at the committals to see the trends. It is important to have that figure when putting forward an argument so one is comparing like with like over any given period. I would appreciate if that could be sent to the Chairman also.

Mr. Dalton

We will do that.

First, I praise the prison officers for doing a very difficult job. They are dealing with the roughest end of society. We in the rest of society are satisfied only when that element is behind locked gates and high walls. To an extent, the life of a prison officer is akin to being a prisoner in that when one goes in, the door is closed behind one. That is psychologically different from the experience of most people.

While bad publicity is now a regular feature in regard to prison officers and there are perhaps reasons that people want to give them such publicity, it is not fair to prison officers. There was publicity regarding this issue in advance of today's meeting. When we get into the detail of this, it becomes evident that the number of days of sick leave per prison officer, compared to the wider Civil Service, is not fairly presented. As Mr. Aylward pointed out in his opening remarks, the system of counting days of sick leave tends to exaggerate the true level of absence in the Prison Service by comparison to the general Civil Service.

We have touched on this matter in some detail but I wish to discuss it in another way. Long before this meeting, prison officers had already been given a bad name because of the publicity they have received. We are trying to recover some ground on their behalf. I have seen the top ten prison officers' wages printed year after year. Every time an issue arises, that appears in the paper. Could the delegation tell me the wages of the ten lowest paid prison officers, which I have never seen published? If that information is not to hand, I ask the delegation to send it to the committee in writing and I will publicise it. I have only ever seen the top ten wage payouts coming from the official side of the system.

Any employer which goes down that road is not being fair to its employees. The employer is the body which asked the officers to work the overtime and which wrote the cheques. An officer cannot be blamed for showing up when overtime was approved. However, I would like to know the earnings of the ten lowest paid prison officers.

Mr. Aylward

As many as 530 prison officers earned less than €5,000 in 2002, the latest year for which I have data. Some prison officers work a five day week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m, in clerical or stores employment or in trade posts.

Does that figure refer to overtime?

Mr. Aylward

They earned less than €5,000 in overtime.

I am asking about total payment.

Mr. Aylward

They would also be among our lowest aggregate earners.

Mr. Aylward mentioned that many prison officers work no overtime while some work every hour God sends. What are the lowest earnings of those who work no overtime?

Mr. Aylward

I do not have the absolute lowest figure.

Mr. Aylward can quote the highest with ease. I want to be fair to the staff.

Mr. Aylward

I do not want to be unfair to them. A rough figure would be that approximately one third of the staff earn approximately two thirds of the overtime. The vast majority of staff do not aspire to the level of earnings of the top earners and our deal is not aimed at the top earners who could not, in any circumstances, be persuaded to buy into what we are offering. We are trying to turn the page for everybody and to have a system whereby the pot of overtime and the liability to work it is greatly reduced and balanced. For a great many of our staff, even regarding our current offer, this will be will be an even-Stephens situation.

In fairness to everybody, this question is asked in the Dáil and the Minister answers it if it is put to him. It is a matter of public record which is asked and answered every year.

The Deputy asked the question.

No, I did not ask the question before today but a parliamentary question regarding the lowest paid officers in the Prison Service can be expected next week. I give advance notice of that and we will see if it is printed. I am not talking about the overtime issue or the current discussions; I am aware of such issues but do not want to discuss them at this time. However, I want the issue of the lowest paid put on record because we only hear about the other half.

I was interested in Mr. Dalton's point that the way the figures are calculated tends to exaggerate the situation. In regard to the chart showing the average number of sick days, the Comptroller and Auditor General's report at page 51 stated that it is important to bear in mind when making comparisons between prison officers' sick leave statistics and those for other employment that much prison officers' employment is based on rosters which include 12 hour shift work and that, in broad terms, such comparisons should be reasonably valid. The Comptroller and Auditor General may wish to respond to me on this but while his report states that such comparisons are reasonably valid, he said earlier that it is unfair to make real comparisons. I am also struck by the statement in the report that the Accounting Officer is of the view that cross-comparisons with other public service employment is inadvisable in view of the rostered nature of much prison employment. That end of the debate has not been teased out to everyone's satisfaction, to the disservice of the Prison Service and its staff.

It is clear there is an inbuilt exaggeration of the figures. When the Comptroller and Auditor General came to the Prison Service with the draft report, did the Prison Service put to him a more realistic, accurate number of days of sick leave as opposed to this general comparison? The Prison Service did not do itself any good by not stating its case more strongly. It referred to it and I take Mr. Aylward's point, but I would have preferred to see the Prison Service's figures in this report. Were such figures submitted or was it left to the Comptroller and Auditor General to conclude on the matter? I accept that the Prison Service noted his disagreement.

Mr. Dalton

The Comptroller and Auditor General has faithfully recorded the information he received and there is no question about that. While we are aware of the problem and it is valuable that today's exchanges have brought it out more clearly, we do not have the figures because the counting systems are not in place. It is one of the benefits which we hope will emerge from the research in which we are about to engage. The Deputy has made the point that perhaps we should have engaged in it long before now but the information will emerge from what we plan to do now.

The Comptroller and Auditor General is working with the same instruments which are being used across the Civil Service, and by us, but which are not up to the task any longer due to factors such as rostering arrangements and so on. We need a new set of counting instruments to deal with the issue. We will then get a clearer picture and that will be to the benefit of the Prison Service. The Prison Service and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform have no interest in a situation where any group of people involved in the discharge of law and order functions are maligned for the wrong reasons. Having said that, I suspect there is probably a little fat in this regard, but it is overstated.

I know that. Mr. Dalton states that the system of counting tends to exaggerate the true level of absence in the Prison Service and I want to make sure that is acknowledged.

I take the point that the available figures are the only ones we have to work from and I hope better quality information is available in the future. However, I would have thought it useful to know the percentage of sick days compared to the total number of days worked in the system. There are 3,318 prison officers who work an average of 190 days per year, giving a figure of approximately 630,000 man days per year. The number of sick days, at approximately 60,000, is almost 10% of that figure.

It appears from what has been said and adduced today that there are approximately 190 days per staff members. With a staff of 3,300, that equates to over 600,000 staff days per annum and 60,000 have come in on the sick leave chart which is almost 10%. I am intrigued by the last sentence on page 54 and the first on page 55 regarding the impact of sick leave and overtime which states that the €8.6 million was 15% of the overtime bill or 4% of payroll costs. I thought 4% was not too high. I thought we were dealing with a much bigger issue before I started to read it in detail. I am trying to get behind the figures.

It appears that about 10% of the days in the system were lost due to sick leave, but Mr. Aylward said the cost of replacing that, due to overtime, was only 4%. It is clear to me that on the days when staff reported sick that there were not enough people to cover all the sick leave. There is no reference to this in the report. If 10% of the days had to be covered by overtime and at premium rates, at time and a half, that should have cost 15% of the payroll bill, whereas it cost only 4% of the payroll bill. It is clear the Prison Service did not have to pay out for full replacement of all the staff who reported in sick. It gives me the idea that there are many unworked hours in the system, in other words, the number of staff was down and the Prison Service had to do without the full staff complement on particular days. Am I reading this correctly?

Mr. Aylward


I am just teasing out this issue. If 10% was gone, the cost should have been 15% whereas it is only a fraction of that. I can only conclude that the Prison Service did not get the cover from the other officers because it should have cost 15%.

Mr. Aylward

That is absolutely true. There are costs in a prison environment other than money costs. If insufficient staff turn in on a morning and there are unpredicted absences, this often leads to a curtailment of facilities for prisoners on the day. We may close workshops, restrict the school hours, close the gym, etc. Ultimately, prisoners suffer for that kind of unpredictable absence. Equally staff can be put at risk if insufficient numbers of staff turn up because it becomes a thinner blue line. It is true that our recall system does not give us 100% cover and the 10% level of absence in not reflected in a 50% level of cost, but there is more than cash costs at work here. Clearly, for an organisation that is a security service of the State, we require, for safe working, the maximum possible turnout of people every day and we are working towards this end. No study we commission will ever prove this absolutely. If the absolute amount of hours that staff in our service have to work is cut by about 1 million hours, this will reduce pressure on everybody and contribute to the general health and well being of people in the service. I do not think there is anybody who has worked in large industrial employments who would disagree with that point.

On the basis of the requirement to work over 600 man days work in the system, assuming it is an eight hour shift, that would amount to about 5 million to run the service. I do not see these figures but I am trying to tease out and extrapolate from the bits of information I have. The Comptroller and Auditor General may wish to comment if I am reading something wrong and, perhaps, steer me in the right direction. The figures to which I refer are not written here but I am trying to tease them out. Perhaps my figure of 5 million is incorrect. If Mr. Aylward does not have the answer today perhaps he would supply it to us. What is the number of unworked days or hours in the system?

There is an impression that because of the excess publicity concerning the ten overtime earners in the country that every prison officer is almost knocking down the front gates of prisons to get in and work overtime. It is clear since we have started to tease it out that there many prison officers who do not volunteer and that more overtime could be worked under the existing roster than is actually happening. Perhaps Mr. Aylward would provide whatever information he has on unworked days and unworked hours in the system that are not taken up by overtime. What is the number of prisoners in the system? The number was about 3,300 at the end of 2002. Did he say in passing that the approximate number was 2,200 in 1997?

Mr. Aylward

The approximate number was 2,200 which has now risen to 3,200 on a daily basis. There are about 11,000 committals per annum.

Is that number from 1997?

Mr. Aylward

Yes. I do not have the 1997 figures with me. The ballpark figures would be between 2,200 and 2,500 depending on the time of year. It has risen by approximately 1,000 and the numbers are continuing to creep upwards.

Mr. Aylward used the phrase earlier that the chart on page 59 was misleading. The figures are accurate. In support of what Mr. Aylward said, the figures do not reflect the increase in the number of prisoners in the system——

Mr. Aylward

Or prison staff.

——and the level of activity carried out in the system. That is not reflected in the report. If one was to read the report, unless it states otherwise, one would be inclined to think there was an equal number of prisoners and that we are comparing like with like. The number of sick days in 2002 versus the number in 1997 is not comparing like with like in terms of the scale of activity in the Prison Service. Given that there has been a 47% increase in prison staff and, perhaps, prisoners in that period, I would have expected a 47% increase in everything else that goes with running the Prison Service. We would like if that was not the case. Some of that increase is in line with the increased activity in the Prison Service. Given that Mr. Aylward felt the chart was a little misleading, would he care to elaborate?

Mr. Aylward

I do not want to dwell on it too heavily. We are not talking about the same cohort of people between 1992 and 2002. Over that ten year period, almost 1,000 prison officers were recruited. Admittedly, they were younger people whom one would expect to be generally healthy but the bar at the start of that chart for 1992 does not refer to the same group of people to which the bar at 2002 refers. I am sure there is no intention to mislead. A significantly increased group of people generated the bar at 2002 than generated the bar at 1992. The jump does not reflect the level of incidence of sickness.

Is that based on an equivalent number of staff?

Mr. Aylward


Perhaps it could be teased out.

Mr. Purcell

The figure is qualified by the footnote which states exactly what is being said, that over the years there has been a general——

Where is it?

Mr. Purcell

At the bottom of page 58.

I thank Mr. Purcell.

Mr. Purcell

In trying to present information, where does one stop? There were other tables that could have been included. One does not always succeed in the best possible way in what one is trying to do. I am dependent to a certain degree on the co-operation of Accounting Officers in trying to present the factual position, without being too judgmental. It ensures we can have this kind of meeting where we can tease this out. It is not always adequate that something is dealt with in a footnote rather than in the main text. The footnote qualifies the information presented. It states one should not look at the 1992 figure and compare it to the 2002 figure. There is a tendency to do so, however, if someone opens that page.

When I said that in broad terms the comparisons can be valid, I meant that the way sick leave is being and has been recorded in the Civil Service, and generally across the public service, is dictated by how it relates to the sick leave regulations. If a civil servant is out of work on a Friday and he or she is also out on the Monday, that is four days.

And the teachers, if they go on sick leave the last day of the school year.

Mr. Purcell

They may well be. That health warning, so to speak, is there and it is useful to note it. I use phrases like "it is important to bear in mind", "however" and so on. I imagine rostering arrangements in the prisons could be broadly compared to the Garda rostering arrangements.

And those for nurses.

Mr. Purcell

And nurses, where they work seven days on, seven days off or if they are on night duty. There are similarities across the public service, but comparisons must come with a strict health warning.

We had this discussion in a different context. We heard what Mr. Aylward had to say about the improvements in IT and so on, particularly in the past few years. We were talking about quill pens and the unavailability of information leading to an inability to put in the right kind of tables, but at least the report is a start in trying to generate this kind of debate and the type of comments made here today. That is part of the usefulness of the report. The records are far from perfect because the information on which they are based is not perfect, and sometimes the writers are not perfect either.

We are talking about the management of sick leave. I am surprised that in the past few hours nobody has told us whether there is an occupational medical unit in the Prison Service. There is a brief reference to the chief medical officer. Is that a dedicated officer in the Prison Service or is it a Civil Service post? I am aware of many medical staff in the Prison Service for the welfare of prisoners. Can Mr. Aylward tell me about the number of medical staff in the prison system for the welfare of staff? Is there an occupational medical unit because if we are talking about sick leave, that is the type of issue we should be talking about also?

Mr. Aylward

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the prison community was treated as a single community and the prison doctor often lived in and looked after everybody — prisoners and prison officers and their families. With the passage of time and the decline in attractiveness of such appointments, doctors became part-time and we bought out, as it were, the right of prison officers to go to the prison doctor. Through their medical aid society we subsidise a VHI-type system for prison officers. It is part of their package and it is there to promote their good health, which is important in such an organisation.

Can Mr. Aylward explain the medical aid society?

Mr. Aylward

There is a medical aid society for prison officers. There is a similar society for the Garda Síochána. There is a subsidy from the Prison Service to that society to encourage——

Is it like an in-house VHI or BUPA service?

Mr. Aylward

Precisely. It is done partly because we took away their right to attend the prison doctor and partly to promote their good health. That is a point worth making lest the impression be given that we are indifferent to promoting the good health of prison officers. We give that subsidy every year. We are treated, for occupational health purposes, as part of the wider Civil Service and as far as we are concerned, the Chief Medical Officer of the Civil Service has sovereignty over that issue. We have had a concern in the past about this and, in fairness, the Department of Finance sanctioned extra staff for the Chief Medical Officer's operation to take account of prison officers and the number of referrals we were making. One doctor in the CMO's office specialises in dealing with prison officer related issues. It is a busy office, however, and it generally deals with the wider Civil Service.

I would not exclude any review or study we might have, perhaps exploring the suggestion made by the Deputy. The possibility of having such a unit could be looked at again. It could be argued that an employment of our kind is particularly specialised and that some benefits might be derived from having an in-house occupational health service. We have a chief medical officer, a manager of nursing services and a pharmacist but I assure the Deputy they are at full stretch looking after prisoner welfare and prisoner health care related issues, which are complex and difficult, with very high numbers of prisoners with serious issues around drug abuse and the illnesses that flow from it. I could not possibly ask them to take on an occupational health role.

There is also the potential of a conflict of interest in having the same physician dealing with a prisoner or prisoner issues and an officer in cases where there might be some conflict between the two. The Department of Finance recognised our dilemma and it has increased the number of people working in the CMO's office. To answer the Deputy's question, we do not have a dedicated occupational health unit as such.

I am surprised by that answer because I had hoped there would be an occupational health unit, which I believe is necessary. Whether that is due to lack of resources in the service's budget or from the Department of Finance, I believe the service would benefit by having such a facility and I hope a strong case is being made for it. If a prison officer has a problem, to whom does he go? When Mr. Aylward has a query about a person who is consistently on sick leave, is he telling me there is no occupational health unit to which that person can be referred? What happens in such cases?

Mr. Aylward

Their case is referred to the CMO and the CMO demands a doctor to doctor report from the person's own GP or whatever physician or surgeon is dealing with that person.

The only report Mr. Aylward might get is the officer's own GP's report.

Mr. Aylward

I would not personally get the report.

It would go to the CMO.

Mr. Aylward

It would go doctor to doctor, to the CMO.

In other words, the Prison Service, as an employer, does not have its own way of checking that case. I am pleased that aspect has been highlighted because I suggest there should be such a facility for the welfare and health of the prison officers and for good management purposes also.

On Deputy Fleming's point, is there no automatic referral to the CMO?

Mr. Aylward

That is correct. That is the position. This is an issue that has come up previously among ourselves but there is a view that there should be one Chief Medical Officer and one Chief Medical Office for the public service. In fairness, the Department of Finance authorised some expansion of that office recently, partly to take account of our concerns, but we do not have a dedicated office. I am sure it is something that could be examined in the context of the research we propose but I do not want to say any more about it.

Are people who are on sick leave for a long period rostered for duty?

Mr. Aylward

If they are out on a long-term certificate they are not, on a practical day to day basis, rostered for duty but people who do not turn up on a Monday would be rostered for duty. The staff would be assigned according to their known availability but they leave a hole in the ranks because there are so many posts authorised by the Department of Finance for each prison and the prison has to carry the absence of someone who might be out long term. That is why, from a manager's point of view, we would be much happier if the situation of some of these people was recognised and they were allowed to retire in an honourable way. That is not something we can do in many cases because the person is not in a psychological state whereby the Chief Medical Officer believes consent would be given to an ill-health retirement. This is a human situation and we are stuck with it.

In fairness to the prison officers, if overtime is an issue in terms of cost savings by the employer, it is very much compulsory as part of the contract of employment. It would indicate a short-term response which has accelerated into a long-term problem. Would Mr. Aylward agree with that?

Mr. Aylward

That is an exceedingly fair description. Overtime was a management expedient and I have always acknowledged that point. Nonetheless, it has been the case historically that staff have tended to cling to posts and activities that generated overtime. Therefore, we have put a good deal of effort into reshaping our service, checking where the work was necessary and what aspects could be automated or done away with.

Having regard to the debate on the closing of open prisons such as Shelton Abbey and Loughlan House, which is in my area, does Mr. Aylward believe it is unfair to take prisoners from open prisons and put them into a different environment? It might be difficult for him to comment on that, but is it not unfair to prisoners to move them from an open prison system to a closed one?

Mr. Aylward

Both centres will be maintained in operation. This is part of the Government decision. Both will remain in business but will not be run by the Irish Prison Service if we fail to secure agreement with our staff. They will be operated as half-way houses or hostels and will take in the same clientele, operate the same regime and give the same return to the public in terms of control, but it will not be done under our auspices.

I will be succinct because of the time factor. I had the dubious distinction of being an involuntary guest of the prison system recently for four weeks. It does not make me an expert on it, but one makes certain observations. As workers in general, I found prison officers extremely decent and helpful to me and, from what I could see, to the other prisoners, as were the prisoners.

I am not sure it is a good use of resources of the Committee of Public Accounts to devote a full session to considering an amount of money which is 15% of one seventh of the overtime in the Prison Service in any one year. We heard not so long ago that a chat between the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture and Food and a brandy or two with some of their friends in Punchestown cost the taxpayer twice that amount. I am not saying that this amount of money should be taken lightly but an appreciable amount of money will be incurred by genuine sick leave in any case.

There has been a demonisation of prison officers by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in particular, using the issue of overtime as a stick with which to beat them. It is highly unfair because — I think Mr. Aylward acknowledged this — that system was put in place by the State over decades and the prisons could not function without it being in place. That is the reality.

It is always fashionable for certain elements of the media to pick out three or four high earners from professions such as the Prison Service, or the post office, where work can involve many unsocial hours and a few members of staff undertaking a great deal of work, which must be counterproductive for them and also for those they serve because of the exhaustion they will inevitably suffer from that amount of overtime. It is highly unjust to use that issue as a brush to tar an entire workforce as being extremely greedy people.

The representatives' proposal of annualised overtime is appalling because the reality of it is that prison officers could never have a day off, apart from block leave, where they would not be subject to being called into work. Many prison officers are family men and women and many have young families. They could be called into work on their day off under such a system. Mr. Aylward's point that this could in a way police the issue of sick leave is quite dangerous. If that had a certain effect, can the representatives not envisage it going further in the sense that staff, who are genuinely ill and for various reasons not fit to be at work, would feel blackmailed under the system proposed to come into work even though they genuinely would not be required to do so as a result of a medical or psychological or other condition?

I do not anticipate that the witnesses will comment on the merits of the policy.

Mr. Dalton

I was going to begin by making that point. Some of the comments made by the Deputy are understandably political and I am sure he will understand why we are not at liberty to comment on them.

Certainly, that is understandable.

Mr. Dalton

Neither could I possibly comment on what is appropriate business for the Committee of Public Accounts to spend its time on; that is a matter for it.

The Deputy is right when he said, and I said it at the beginning, that a fair share of sick leave is genuine. There is no question about that and we are not talking about that aspect. The point of concern is whether all sick leave is genuine and the belief is that some of it probably is not.

As to whether the new system would render prison officers liable to be called in, in an unpredictable way, and have the effect of worsening their conditions of service, that issue is the subject of discussion at the LRC. We are clear that is not the position. I am aware that message is out there, but we certainly did not put it there because it is not our position. We are convinced that an annualised hours system would be to the benefit of prison officers. I would prefer to leave that issue to the negotiations, if the committee does not mind, as it is probably the best place to deal with it. I probably have dealt with the points raised and I sure the Deputy will understand that I cannot comment on some of them.

I am not asking Mr. Dalton to comment on policy, but it is fair to ask him what kind of Prison Service the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform wants because I have suspicions. There are countries west of here where the style is to put substantial numbers of prisoners in stockades, have a few guards with machine guns in towers and when the prisoners go out, they are in chain gangs. That system requires very few staff relative to the number of prisoners compared to this country, but it is not a system any of us would countenance since we are not in favour of the death penalty and we believe people can be rehabilitated and returned as productive members of society.

Is there a commitment to a continual development of the Prison Service as a genuine public service or is there is a thinking that privatisation might be a way forward, which makes me suspicious that this is a threat the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform puts over prison officers? I am not asking Mr. Dalton to go into the political points, but the key question is valid.

Mr. Dalton

I certainly would not want to be doing the job I am doing any longer if I thought we were producing a situation in which the development of prisons resulted in the deprivation of human rights. Our tendency over the years has been to try to go the other way. We are not interested in stockades or any of that sort of thing on humanitarian grounds and also for another practical reason because it does not work. In circumstances where that type of prison regime applies, the numbers in prison keep going up — the Deputy was right about that. There is no evidence such a regime has a positive impact on reducing the level of crime; the figures tend to go the other way. There is a balance in all of this and fundamental to such balance is that people are treated as humans and as best we can treat them.

Much of the modernisation of prisons relates not to tightening up regimes but to trying to make life more acceptable inside. Indeed, the announcement of the demolition and replacement of Mountjoy Prison is part of that. Mountjoy Prison is unsustainable and irreparable and the reason we want to replace it is not just because of cost, but to be able to say to everybody, including the committee on torture and inhumane and degrading treatment, that we are moving forward and that such development is in the interests of prisoners as well. Nobody would want to be part of a system that minimised the human rights of people who are in custody.

So there is no discussion of privatisation within the Department?

Mr. Dalton

There are no plans to privatise prisons. It has been tried as an option elsewhere. There is legislative provision for privatising some of the support services for prisons, such as escort services. I cannot say whether that will happen. Mr. Aylward might know what the plans are in that regard.

Mr. Aylward

I draw a distinction between the core custodial activity of working with prisoners and outsourcing. We already outsource items such as canteen facilities in prisons, some cleaning activities and other non-core activities. The Government has approved legislation which would permit the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Prison Service to outsource custodial facilities while prisoners are in transit between the prison and the courts or on hospital visits. However, this is non-core activity; it is driving the van. It will not affect the welfare of prisoners in a negative way.

When I was locked in my room for my first night in Mountjoy Prison, I had the unpleasant experience of being lectured on the RTE news by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about being environmentally irresponsible about waste management. I was amazed to discover that everything used within the Prison Service, including paper, glass and cans, was shunted into a skip and sent to landfill. Contrary to the Minister's remarks, I am an avid supporter of separating and recycling waste. Will Government policy on waste be implemented in the Prison Service?

Mr. Aylward

Yes. We have an active waste management policy, including recycling vegetable matter and so forth. However, much depends on the location of the prison. In the Mountjoy Prison complex it is difficult to have a good system for separation of waste. In some of the bigger modern prisons, we are separating paper and aluminium cans and we are composting vegetable waste matter. The Deputy will be aware that the Mountjoy complex is nearly all concrete and there is little elbow room to carry out separation of waste. The service has a waste management policy and we are trying our best to move towards acceptable standards. However, I do not deny the truth of what the Deputy said. In the Mountjoy complex, paper and plastics are being disposed of in landfill. We are trying to move away from that. I am certain the new Mountjoy Prison will be a model of its kind in terms of separation of waste and will have an environmentally appropriate waste management system.

I am glad others are coming on board and balancing this important debate. We are not wasting our time because it is important that we discuss the public services. It might have appeared that I was over-defending prison officers earlier but that is not true. I have been a trade unionist all my life and I have much experience of working long hours in bad working conditions so I empathise with the people involved. I will always question their conditions of employment.

I worked on Haulbowline, the island next to Spike Island, for many years. Mr. Aylward made a passing reference to the extra cost of ferrying supplies to the island and I wish to offer a brief rebuttal of his argument. The island gave added security. It accommodated 120 young people, six of whom were aged only 16 years and 14 of whom were aged 17 years, who were predominantly from the surrounding areas. Almost all these young people dropped out of school and over 80% of these young offenders voluntarily got involved in the education centre at Fort Mitchell. I had the experience of having to get the materials I needed ferried to Haulbowline many times so ferrying supplies is a small issue.

Mr. Aylward only made a passing reference to the island but I believe it is an ideal location. I will not attempt to pre-empt any discussions the service might have with the POA or others but more serious recognition should be given to the education centre operating on Spike Island. In the early days I was involved in trying to get something like that going when there was nothing on the island. Most of the 120 prisoners are young people, some of them 16 and 17 year olds who either did not go to school or left school early.

Whatever extra money has to be paid to ferry supplies from Cobh, it is a small cost in the overall context of what we are trying to do, which is to prevent re-offending. I stayed away from this subject earlier because it was not part of the sick leave debate but I am anxious that these points are put on the record.

Mr. Aylward

The staff and teaching staff in Fort Mitchell have done an excellent job. It is a cause of regret that in our current circumstances we are forced to close it. I hope the closure will be temporary. Fort Mitchell and Spike Island offer considerable potential and I am not unmindful of the security aspects of the location being an island. We had hoped at one time to put a bridge across and greatly develop the facility and I do not exclude it as a development for the future. The cost of the ferry is considerable; it is approaching €1 million per year. That is serious money. At the same time, we hope this closure is temporary. I will not cavil at any of the other points made by the Deputy. They are true.

With regard to the role of the governors of each prison and their critical role in the delegation of responsibility, I have been to Loughan House and met the governor there. The staff run an efficient open prison and there is a sense of empowerment to do the job efficiently. How much autonomy is given to governors in the management of each prison?

Mr. Aylward

In Scotland, which has one of the lowest sick leave rates in Europe for prison officers, the governor has direct control over the management of sick leave. Any change in the sick leave arrangements which would empower the governor to exert control of sick leave directly, such as by interviewing people who are returning from sick leave and asking them why they have been absent again on a Monday, cannot be conferred by us on governors.

It has not yet been conferred.

Mr. Aylward

Not yet, but it is an issue we have broached on a number of occasions. We have been moving to involve the governor group, as experts and the people most experienced in the operational management of prisons, more in our activities as a management component of the Department over the past five years. I now work side by side with governors. I am not betraying any confidence in pointing out that at the LRC there are four governors on the management side of the table. In the past they would not have been in the room. I join the Chairm an in paying tribute to the governor and his predecessors in Loughan House. They have built up a great deal of trust in the community. Governors contribute a great deal and we are increasing their role and authority. That is part of our plan for the future.

One would assume that in delegating responsibility in each prison one would, from a business viewpoint, embrace the latest technology. The system in place was a 19th century system and it is hard to introduce best practice in an archaic system. Is that part of the problem?

Mr. Aylward

I agree with that. At present we are applying a 50% cut in overtime. Each governor is working off spreadsheets supplied by our headquarters. They are making the operational decisions locally. In the past, when a governor tried to do this, he could have his decision appealed to the officials, the Minister or other Members of the Dáil and interventions occurred.

Mr. Aylward

It is true that decisions of governors and officials were reversed but this is not happening now. Governors make decisions regarding the deployment of staff and assignments to posts. That is a new departure, which is happening at a time of adversity. It is not a pleasant matter to have such responsibility delegated to one, but our governors are doing that right now, so a substantial delegation and derogation of authority to governors is taking place.

There is an issue about deferring sentence management to governors. It is true that in common with every modern prison system, the management of sentences on behalf of the State is centralised. This is done for purposes of equity and also because of access to privileged information, including Garda advice. Sentence management will always have to be a collegiate effort between the local governor and headquarters to ensure a consistency of approach and that all available information on an individual prisoner is gathered together. We have had a step change in the last month in the level of authority conferred on our governors. Clearly, our plans for the future will embrace much more management responsibility, which will be exercised locally, and less of what one might call undermining or second-guessing of the governors on the spot. They represent a great resource of management expertise in our service and we recognise that now more than ever before in the history of the Prison Service.

I am delighted that Mr. Aylward raised that point because I feel that delegated responsibility and autonomous power given to governors will streamline efficiencies in future. Governors will be Accounting Officers within their own prisons and, as efficient management, will be able to stand up to public scrutiny before this committee. The delegation of such responsibilities means they will be able to account for how they manage the prisons.

Mr. Aylward

I have brought governor colleagues to other committees of the House, including the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. I regard them as equals within the system and I confer with them carefully. We have built up this relationship and there is more scope for it. Our new financial management systems mean that we are now able to allocate budgets to governors. Therefore, instead of everything having to be referred to headquarters, they operate on a budget and draw down from approved suppliers. Improved technological links between all prisons and central headquarters have enabled us to delegate more financial aspects also. With more power comes more responsibility and accountability. I am sure that on future occasions, if so requested, Chairman, you will have people attending before the committee who are exercising delegated management responsibility in my service.

That is very good news, Mr. Aylward.

Mr. Purcell

I would like to make a couple of observations. One matter that has not emerged sufficiently from this morning's discussion is the impact of rostering arrangements on the incidence of overtime. You mentioned it briefly, Chairman, in referring to factoring in long-term sick leave. The Accounting Officer mentioned annual leave not being factored into rosters and how, of its very nature, that will create an overtime demand. When I was briefing myself for this meeting yesterday, I asked my staff to go back to check if that really was the case because I could not believe it. I obviously wanted to be sure of my facts. There will always be unpredictability, but if there are known absences which are not factored into rostering arrangements, it creates a demand for overtime.

Perhaps I was being a little unfair to the Accounting Officer in the report when I referred to the absence of research in this particular area and the need for it. It is a valid point but we are all Johnny-come-latelys to this matter. At one time there was an establishment branch in the Civil Service, which developed into a personnel section, and now we have human resource divisions. As I said in my opening remarks, there is much greater awareness of how the management of sick leave is an integral part of a successful human resources policy. In addition, there is now a greater awareness of the concept of carrying out research on absenteeism in the Prison Service and, in fact, one could say it also applies across the board. The Prison Service is not unique in this respect. That may put a bit of balance on it, Chairman.

I accept the point made by Mr. Aylward who came in at a certain time, although there has now been a change. Mr. Dalton also made the point that it was part of a larger problem, including guerrilla warfare. All the debates we have had, however, have been in the context of expenditure on overtime. As regards the point raised by Deputy Fleming, I have never seen sympathetic concern being expressed about the difficulties faced by those who are injured or about related matters.

As was stated, staff would ring the governor if they were not going to be in for work on Christmas Day. Where I worked, people would be concerned if I had not appeared with a list of staff to work at weekends. I never really felt that concern was being expressed for the prison officers' welfare, although it may have been happening internally. A change has occurred, however, and I welcome some of the comments that have been made here today.

There is an onus on the State to fulfil its duty of care concerning working conditions and health matters. While we are here to discuss the financial aspect, we seem to have concentrated purely on the financial outturn — what it was costing us — but never what it cost the individual who was injured or who broke down psychologically. I welcome today's debate, despite what Deputy Joe Higgins said, because we are moving forward. Without imposing in any way on the discussions that are going on with the Prison Officers Association, changes are happening, as Mr. Aylward rightly said. I would prefer if they were not as confrontational but I am not there to tell Mr. Aylward how to do his job, any more than he would attempt to tell me how to do mine.

I thank everybody. Is it agreed to dispose of Chapter 4.2? Agreed.

Is the agenda for next week, which includes the annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the Department of Transport, Vote 32 — shortcomings in financial control, agreed? Agreed.

The witnesses withdrew.

The committee adjourned at 2.50 p.m. until11 a.m. on Thursday, 12 February 2004.