asked the Minister for Justice if he is aware of the serious disquiet being experienced among staff in a number of prisons under his jurisdiction and the likelihood of even greater industrial unrest; and, if so, the action he proposes to take to ensure that the prison system will not be disrupted and that the reforms which he has promised to undertake will not be impeded by such difficulties.
Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Prison System Reform.
I am satisfied that the negotiation machinery available to staff in the prison service is adequate to deal with any reasonable grievance the staff may have from time to time. The staff associations have in the past shown a willingness to use the accepted negotiation machinery and I have no reason to doubt that they will continue to use it.
A long-standing problem in the prison service has been the uncertainty about the preparedness of staff to work overtime in sufficient numbers to maintain staffing levels, especially during prisoners' evening recreation period after 5 p.m. This matter was dealt with at length in reply to a question on 21 May 1980. Discussions are taking place with the Prison Officers' Association about the problem.
Is the Minister aware that in recent years, indeed in recent months, there have been a number of incidents which have resulted in prisoners being deprived of the privileges to which they are normally entitled and that this situation arises from the industrial unrest among sensible, level-headed and rational prison officers who are apparently frustrated by the existing machinery for dealing with their complaints? In these circumstances would the Minister be prepared to review his belief that the existing negotiating procedures are satisfactory?
The Deputy appears not to have a clear picture of the situation. I would assure him and the House that the association in question and the Department of Justice are making progress on this matter that is satisfactory to both sides. I do not accept what the Deputy has said, that there were a number of incidents when prisoners were denied privileges. That is not so. I agree there is a problem. Rostering duties have been difficult to sort out and I am sure the Deputy will be glad to hear that we have had a number of meetings under existing machinery, which is working well, which is seen to be working well and which has been accepted by both sides. I am glad to say that significant progress is being made.
The Minister seemed to take issue with my suggestion that incidents had occurred. Will the Minister investigate this matter? Does he accept that in the last four months prisoners were locked up without recreational facilities, apparently because staff were not available or if they were available they were unable to proceed with their duties in the normal way due to industrial unrest? I am putting it to the Minister that that occurred on at least two occasions.
The Deputy is making long statements.
As the Deputy knows, the problem of staffing prisons is an exceptionally difficult one. There have been difficult times in the prison service and there have been difficult situations in recent times. I do not think anybody would want a situation in which prisoners would not have their evening recreation, particularly in summer, from 5 o'clock onwards. It would lead to an immediate heightening of tension.
That is what I said.
If there was the type of locking up suggested by the Deputy it would lead to very serious problems, because if tension heightens, as it would, we would be running the risk of having our prisons unmanageable in a matter of 24 hours. I recognise that as does anybody who knows anything about the prison system. Part of the problem was the hold-up in recruitment of staff. The target for this year is 400 of which 350 will be the net gain because there will be a wastage of 50. This will bring our staff up to 1,500, which is a big improvement. With the improvement in staff and with present discussions going on with the association about a new rostering structure. I am satisfied everything possible is being done to keep our prisons manageable.
Does the Minister recognise the difficulty in the rostering system in which prison officers still do voluntary overtime, and would the Minister explain why four prison officers were transferred to Cork this week——
This is an entirely separate question.
I do not know what the Deputy is talking about.
Can the Minister assure us that these four men are not being sent against their will?
I do not know anything about what the Deputy is alleging and I cannot give him such an assurance. The Deputy is long enough in the House to know that this is an entirely separate question.
The question relates to conditions in the prisons. The Minister has acknowledged that there has been difficulty in recruiting staff. If four people are being transferred against their will because they would not do voluntary overtime——
The Deputy must not know anything about how prisons are run.
Has the Minister signed the order for their transfer?