Officers stop overtime from Monday as prison dispute escalates

The high-security Maghaberry prison near Lisburn
The high-security Maghaberry prison near Lisburn

Prison officers at all three jails in Northern Ireland will refuse to carry out overtime from Monday onward as a row over pay and conditions intensifies.

The officers’ trade union has claimed that staff shortages, the failure to negotiate an increase in officers’ risk allowance, and the lack of progress on a proposed 37-hour working week have resulted in a shortage of “goodwill”.

All establishments have contingency plans in place and these ensure that the impact upon prisoners is kept to a minimum

According to the Prison Officers Association (POA), many aspects of the prison routine would be disrupted if overtime working was suspended without proper contingency plans being in place.

POA chairman Finlay Spratt said it was hard to predict what would happen, but accepted it was “quite possible” that officers refusing to work overtime could lead to inmates missing out on visits, exercise sessions or education opportunities.

“It certainly will make it worse for the prisoners that we hold in our care if we just work to the terms and conditions of our employment. Unfortunately, and I mean that sincerely, it impacts on the people we hold in our custody,” he said.

Earlier this month, fires were deliberately started by inmates in two wings of the prison on the same weekend an electrical fault unexpectedly opened the doors of cells in the Quoile House.

One officer who contacted the News Letter said the small number of warders on duty retreated behind protective grills while around 100 inmates caused “pandemonium” for up to 40 minutes. The NI Prison Service confirmed the incident took place but claimed order was restored after 10 minutes.

On Friday, Mr Spratt said: “Our membership have decided, as from Monday they are not working additional hours. It is unlawful for prison officers to take any form of industrial action, and I cannot and would not encourage my members to take industrial action, but we are quite entitled to tell the members to follow the policy of their union...the policy of their union is ‘no additional hours’.

“There was a lot of hype about the reform of the Northern Ireland Prison Service since 2012. They [prison authorities] assured us that if we cooperated with the reform of the Prison Service – to reduce the running costs – we would be given a 37-hour week in 2014. It never happened, yet we reduced the running costs by changing our employment terms,” he added.

Mr Spratt said the staffing levels were “not as bad” as before, but claimed Maghaberry had a shortfall of 118 staff members from the recommended complement, while the Young Offenders Centre/Hydebank Wood was short of 49 staff.

“The pay review body recommended that we should review the risk allowance in 2016/2017 but they have never sat down with us to discuss that review. We asked for a one per cent pay increase for everybody because that is the government pay policy, so to me that’s not a big issue. We have also asked in that pay claim to be paid double time for working additional hours.”

The POA chairman said the overtime suspension was the result of “pure frustration”. Having visited staff at each of the prison establishments in recent days, he said there is strong support for working strictly to contract conditions.

“They are not having any more of it,” Mr Spratt said.

A spokesman for the NIPS said: “Discussions have been taking place in recent months between NIPS and DOJ (Department of Justice) senior managers and the trade unions on a 2016 pay award for prison grades. Those discussions were set in the context of current public sector pay policy i.e. that all elements of any awards, including contractual entitlements, should be restricted to a 1% increase in pay.”

He added: “The minister has met the POA and advised them that she is in discussions with her ministerial colleague, the finance minister, to see what is possible in the current difficult financial climate and in the context of the public sector pay policy.

“In that context it is disappointing that some staff intend to take action whilst discussions are ongoing. We will continue to engage with both trade unions, and communicate directly to staff as appropriate, to ensure any agreed pay award is implemented at the earliest opportunity.”

Commenting on the possible impact of the action on the operational effectiveness of the jails, the spokesman said: “All establishments have contingency plans in place and these ensure that the impact upon the operation of prisons and the impact upon prisoners is kept to a minimum.”