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Northern Ireland Assembly: Private Members’ Business: Prison Review Team: Final Report (14 November 2011)

I beg to move amendment No 2:
 “and that the implementation process begins without delay and is completed within 12 months.”
 
The Member who has just spoken leaves me breathless and almost speechless with his ‘Porridge’ caricature of prison and contrast between deterrents and rehabilitation. He is the Chair of the Justice Committee, and he indicated that, in general terms, he was supportive of the report. At least that is what I took out of his speech. However, every sentence that he uttered was a criticism or an undermining of the thrust and substance of Anne Owers’s report, which is a culmination of many such previous reports — I think in excess of 20 — that deal with the urgent reform of the Prison Service since the ending of the Troubles and the ending, or supposed ending, of a security-type prison system.
 
It is so difficult to answer in detail the misguided notions that the Member has presented to the House. The Member inferred that, in some way, Anne Owers and her colleagues are do-gooders, academics or people who have no reference to the reality of prison life. That defies any sort of logic and any sort of factual position. Previously, Anne Owers was Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales. We all know Paul Leighton; he was a Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI. He is one of the most experienced officers in the Police Service. Clodach McGrory is a barrister, a parole commissioner and a former human rights commissioner. Fergus McNeill is professor of criminology and social work at the University of Glasgow; he is the only academic on the team. Phil Wheatley was director general of the National Offender Management Service for England and Wales. A huge amount of experience was brought to the task of trying to reform our out-of-date, ineffective and excessively expensive Prison Service. Of course, the Member did not mention the expense in relation to the Prison Service, but it is an expense that exceeds anything on these islands.
 
The fact is this: if we have a Prison Service, we want it to work and we want it to work well. We want to deter people from committing further offences and to ensure that further offences are not committed. We want to secure our society; we want to know that old people and vulnerable people are safe in their home and that young people in the street are not being accosted and attacked and being made the victims of crime. Yes, the way to do that is to deprive people of their liberty; they should be deprived of their liberty in circumstances where that is appropriate. However, it is also essential that people have an opportunity to be rehabilitated so that further offending will not take place. That is the essence of the report.
 
I and my colleagues — I am grateful to Mr McCartney and his colleagues for tabling the motion — have tabled an amendment that emphasises the need for a time-centred approach to the implementation of the report. It is absolutely essential that we have the discipline of targets and time limits to provide a proper context in which the report can be fully and quickly implemented.
 
The Anne Owers report emphasises the urgent need for implementation, and it suggests that there should not be further delays or procrastination in carrying out reforms. Unfortunately, the hallmark of the Prison Service has been repeated delays and procrastination in relation to the much-needed reform of the system, which has lead to a system in which prisoners are neglected and locked down for prolonged periods.
 
The Member mentioned Hydebank Wood. There, young offenders are kept watching TV and doing nothing for excessive periods, because they do not have proper access to the services that they require to re-educate and skill them to become worthy citizens in our community. That is the problem, and that is why they are watching TV. It is not for pleasure but because of a lack of useful exercise and activities. Hydebank Wood needs to be completely reformed, so that all the skills and education services are administered by external services. Bring them into Hydebank. Clearly, there has been little or no success in rehabilitating those youngsters in prison, and it is necessary for us to bring people in from outside. If the Prison Service cannot operate effectively, and it cannot deliver the services that are necessary, let others from outside come in and do so. We must have no more of this nonsense whereby people are locked down, so that they cannot commence classes or have a proper period of time in which to skill themselves.
 
I would say to the Minister that he needs to have a specific programme, and he has produced such a programme in response to the Anne Owers report. However, dates and time limits must also be set, and I know that, in his response, the Minister indicated certain time periods. However, those must be specific and precise, and we must also have the discipline of a timetable, because, otherwise, this will drift further.
 
Some Members want a further public consultation, yet this issue has been discussed for the past decade, and the people outside this Chamber realise that it has been discussed exhaustively. We now have another report, which is the proper culmination of previous reports and which brings the critical need for urgent reform to our attention. It is absolutely essential that we move quickly on this: time is of the essence, and we must seize this opportunity now.
 
In her report, Anne Owers talked specifically about dealing with the work practices in the Prison Service, which are antiquated and go back to the 1970s. She also talked about addressing the issue of overmanning in the Prison Service. We have one prison warder for every prisoner, which is absolutely absurd. Why should that be allowed to continue? It is necessary that the exit package is implemented quickly, and I know that the Minister, through the Prison Service, has negotiated with the trade unions to permit an exit package that will commence in March of next year.

That is good, and that is progress, but we have got to stick rigidly to that timetable and we have got to accelerate the process, so that we can see genuine reform. Those people who no longer wish to stay in the service should leave it as quickly as possible. My party and I support that, and we support the Minister in his attempt to bring about urgent reform. That is essential. We can no longer sit back and say: “Ah well, it’ll be all right on the night; it’ll sort itself out in a period of time”. These issues are too important to be delayed.

 

 
 

 

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