Thursday, 29 January 2004

Questions (3)

Joe Costello

Question:

2 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the progress made by the Labour Relations Commission in addressing the industrial relations dispute between his Department and the Prison Officers' Association; the reason he has resorted to closing down four of the most efficient prisons in the State while negotiations continue; if the prison service will be required to pay mileage allowance to prison officers who are being transferred from the institutions to be closed and the estimated annual cost of this; if he is considering privatising any sections of the prison system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2582/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

It is timely that I have this opportunity to bring the House up to date on developments in relation to this matter.

The talks at the Labour Relations Commission have been protracted and difficult. Some progress was made initially but I regret to say that an impasse on one aspect of the talks has emerged leading to talks being adjourned yesterday until further notice to allow the sides to reflect on how to overcome the present difficulties. In the course of the talks and again following the impasse reached yesterday, the Labour Relations Commission advised against the sides taking public positions on aspects of the talks which might prejudice the prospects of a successful outcome to such further discussions which will inevitably arise in the future. This is a long standing industrial relations practice which has served practitioners well over the years. I am disappointed that the POA has not adopted this approach of maintaining confidentiality around the talks.

In the light of statements issued by the POA in the last 24 hours and in view of the contents of two bulletins issued by it to its members in the course of the recent negotiations which have come to my attention, I must now reluctantly take this opportunity to set the record straight on some of the misleading statements made about matters under negotiation at the LRC. I do so reluctantly and will confine my remarks to a minimum.

The POA contention that the Irish Prison Service deliberately collapsed the talks at the LRC is patently untrue. While the talks reached an impasse, management was prepared and is still prepared to explore options for overcoming the particular difficulty involved. Furthermore, management made itself available to continue talks on other issues on the agenda pending reflection by both sides on how to resolve the issue at impasse.

The impasse which has now emerged is not as the POA suggests related to management wanting staff to be available on stand-by to work additional hours without pay. In fact management has proposed an attendance system aimed at promoting 'smart' working which would involve staff contracting to work a fixed number of additional hours per year which would be paid for at a premium rate of 1.8 times the relevant hourly basic rate whether or not they are required to be worked.

As regards the closure of prisons, Deputy Costello will already be aware of the terms of the Government decision of 11 November 2003 and the budgetary context in which it was taken. That decision approved a series of measures to be taken in the event of failure to reach agreement with the Prison Officers' Association on a change agenda aimed at eliminating overtime payments and reducing other costs in the Irish Prison Service. These measures included the mothballing of the Curragh and Fort Mitchel Prisons and the transformation of the open centres at Loughan House and Shelton Abbey into post-release centres for the reintegration into society of prisoners on conditional temporary release. The reasons for the Government decision have been well aired in the House and indeed in the Seanad. I refer the Deputy to the Adjournment debates in this House on 12, 18 and 27 November 2003 and to an Adjournment debate in the Seanad on 19 November 2003. It was made clear that the Irish Prison Service could not continue to spend public money to feed an overtime culture which was virtually out of control while sustaining outdated and inefficient work practices. It was made clear that I had no desire to close or mothball prisons and that my preference was for a mutually advantageous agreement with the Prison Officers' Association which would ensure an efficient and cost effective prison service. I would still prefer an agreed way forward.

Deputy Costello's suggestion that four of the most efficient prisons in the State have been selected for closure does not reflect the full facts. For example, Fort Mitchel is one of the most expensive prisons in the State with an annual cost per prisoner in excess of €100,000. The Curragh Place of Detention, which has already been mothballed, was less expensive at €72,000 per prisoner per annum but it has been possible to move the inmates and staff to a modern facility at the Midlands Prison which also operates at a cost of approximately €72,000 per prisoner per annum. Furthermore, the facilities at the Curragh are in a very poor state of repair with major capital investment required to put it to rights. As regards the open centres, the position is that the cost of keeping an offender in Shelton Abbey is well above the average at €85,000 approximately while Loughan House operates at a relatively modest €63,000 per prisoner per annum approximately. It should be borne in mind, however, that staffing costs in these institutions are extremely high compared with the staffing costs that could be expected if they were transformed to be run as a post release centre by another agency.

In relation to the payment of mileage, prison officers transferring on a temporary basis are entitled to be paid mileage in accordance with the relevant Civil Service circular, i.e. where an officer proceeds on an official journey direct from home or returns home direct, the travelling allowance payable will be calculated by reference to the distance from home or headquarters to the temporary location, whichever is the lesser and will be paid at the reduced rate. As the amount payable is largely dependent on individual circumstances, it is not possible to provide an estimate of the annual cost at this time, pending receipt of individual claims from the officers concerned. It should be remembered, however, that any mileage payments which may be made will have to be reviewed should transferred staff be permanently assigned at the new location. Furthermore, any costs arising from mileage payments will be more than offset by savings in overtime.

As regards the question of privatising sections of the prison system, the position is that, in the event of failure to reach agreement with the Prison Officers' Association, steps will be taken to give effect to that element of the Government decision of 11 November 2003 which envisages the invitation of tenders from contractors for the provision of a prisoner escort service. A prior indicative notice has already been published in the EU Official Journal in that regard. Prisoner escorts currently account for over one quarter of the overtime worked in the Irish Prison Service — that is €15 million approximately — and there is a great deal of room for rationalisation and efficiencies. Furthermore, I will be bringing forward legislation shortly to provide the necessary statutory authority to facilitate this arrangement. If agreement is reached with the POA the privatisation of prisoner escorts will not proceed. Instead, the system will be rationalised from within through the establishment of a dedicated prison service escort corps. While I have no immediate plans to privatise any other sections of the prison service, I am aware that the Irish Prison Service already outsources a number of services, including certain specialist maintenance services. The whole area of maintenance is under review and consultants have been engaged to advise on how best to provide for such needs. I am currently awaiting the outcome of this review and management's recommendations arising.