Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

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The management of sickness absence in the prison service (HC 680-i)

Public Accounts Committee 14 Jun 2004

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Evidence given by Mr Martin Narey, Chief Executive, Mr Gareth Hadley, HR Director, National Offender Management Service; Mr Phil Wheatley, Director General, and Mr Robin Wilkinson, Head of Personnel Management Group, HM Prison Service.

Q86 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When I read the report, I did think progress had been made, not enough, but I did think that progress had been made. I certainly did interpret page 16, figure ten, in a different way than my comrade interpreted it. I think this clearly shows that big progress has been made. Too many of the staff were taking the Mickey out of the service and I think this clearly shows that that has now stopped or is beginning to stop and, if they are taking the Mickey, they can expect to suffer the consequences. The thing that did strike me also about the report was the wide variation between certain prisons and certain regions. Therefore, this leads me to believe that there are many reasons why there is high absenteeism throughout the service in different areas and different prisons. For example, the type of prison it is or cultural reasons at the prison, why it has such a bad record. The more I read the report, the more I realised it was because of bad management. That was the problem more than anything else. Some of the prisons are managed very badly indeed by very bad managers. What would you say to that?

Mr Narey: Generally, that is not the case. We have some managers who may not be as good as we would like, but the overall level of management in the Prison Service has increased considerably. I am sure, for example, that you would not suggest that the governor of Durham is not a fine manager.

Q87 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I would say he is an excellent manager.

Mr Narey: He is an excellent manager, but he has a sickness rate of 15 days a year. Some managers have been better at gripping this than others. There are obviously inconstancies and we have had to do an awful lot of learning as we begin to grip this. It is very difficult but I think we have done it well.

Q88 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You have brought in a system called attendance score mechanism which is a national system but do you not really think that absenteeism and swinging the lead is the responsibility of the local manager, to ensure that it does not happen in his particular prison, and therefore local solutions are better than national solutions?

Mr Narey: I do not believe that necessarily. We tried to have a great deal of local discussion. We had a great deal of local discussion when the Committee last discussed this. I discovered the so-called Bradford formula, as it was first called, on a visit to Europe with other Prison Service directors general. I was impressed at the fact that it removes a huge amount of discretion. It is simply mandatory on managers to take action. Managers cannot because the person who has not come in might be a friend. It might be someone you know who is a colleague. It simply takes away the excuse not to take action and that has been the foundation for the improvement.

Q89 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When I was a manager, you knew who the malingerers were and who the genuine people were. By having a national scheme, it does not take into consideration personal knowledge. You could have a situation where somebody who is genuinely not a malingerer is penalised by the scheme, whereas somebody who is can get away with it.

Mr Narey: That is certainly the case. I am afraid the only way we have been able to drive down sickness levels from the unacceptable level is to be very rigorous. That means that some individuals, very dedicated to their job, who have found it difficult to return to work, have to leave the service. It is one reason why, contrary to Mr Trickett's views, I think they should be compensated when they lose their employment.

Q90 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I have a lot of prison officers working in my constituency. I do not know how many but there must be 2,000.

Mr Narey: Certainly more than about 1,500.

Q91 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): They all have wives and children and they all go to the ballot box. It is a wonderful profession. However, I certainly would not want to do it myself. I go round the prisons in Durham and it is one of the worst experiences that I have. I can understand the stress and the problems that they have.

Mr Narey: Because of that, you would know without my explaining why the sickness rate at Durham was considerably higher than the sickness rate at Lower Newton.

Q92 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Just before I come on to that point, Richard brought up on page 15 about the long term cases of 55 sick. He took it from a different angle than I would. I think that the mickey was being taken here because how come that it can be reduced from 55 to 12 in a year by new management? What does that say? It says that the original management was crap, was it not? They were useless. They were allowing a liberty to be taken, were they not, and yet new management comes in and they can reduce the sickness in a year down to acceptable levels. In other words, they were bad managers, the ones who were there to begin with.

Mr Narey: The previous manager, if we are talking about Holloway, was certainly not as effective as the current incumbent, but I would not condemn him absolutely. There were many other features of the work which he brought to Holloway, including considerable humanity, which were very important. Certainly I agree that he was a much less effective manager in reducing sickness absence.

Q93 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If we turn to paragraph 3.2 on page 17, here again there is a variation on illness between the prisons, and again Richard mentioned two extremes. At the bottom of the page, notes 17 and 18, it says, "Blantyre House, Kirklevington Grange, Stocken, Usk/Presoed and Wayland". What types of prisons are they?

Mr Wheatley: There are two resettlement prisons. Kirklevington is a resettlement prison.

Q94 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So they are open prisons?

Mr Wheatley: They are open prisons with people working out during the day, a very small number of prisoners staying in during the day. The prison is highly selective. Usk/Prescoed in Wales has a small closed sex offender establishment with a relatively stable group of sex offenders and an open prison which is run by the same governor, which again does some resettlement work in the area and is a high quality open prison.

Q95 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You do not need to explain Brixton because I have been there. It was probably one of the worst experiences of my life, going into there.

Mr Wheatley: Wayland and Stocken are both category C prisons, fairly civilised. They are relatively easier than the other group.

Q96 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I assume that, obviously. The ones in 18 are probably appalling. I went into Brixton. It was the most horrendous experience of my life and for someone to have to work there and go there every day to earn a crust, they probably deserve twice the wage that they are getting. What I am saying is that they are easy prisons to work at where it might be a pleasure to go to work, and then there are Brixton and Holloway etc. which clearly are not.

Mr Narey: That is correct.

Q97 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is why I am coming back to the original argument. How can you have a national scheme which takes into account a prison like the ones mentioned in note 17 and those in note 18? How can you have a national scheme which covers that?

Mr Narey: For one very good reason, Mr Steinberg. We have to treat staff consistently. We cannot say that at one prison you can have seven days' sickness absence and then you will start on the process of warnings, possibly leading to dismissal, and in another you can have rather longer. We need to treat staff fairly equitably. The fact is that the nature of the establishments in the second list is such that significant sickness absence does not arise, in part because the job is easier. That is not to excuse malingerers; of course we have some malingerers in a workforce of 47,000, but it is easier to see their presence in a very large impersonal establishment which is under a lot of day to day pressure.

Q98 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am making the point that to work at Brixton and to work at Durham, for example, would put a huge stress on the individual, whereas to go to work at Kirklevington does not put a great deal of stress on at all. How can you compare the two jobs? They are virtually two different jobs. The last time I was in Durham they asked me if I wanted to go and meet Mr Bronson, is it? They said, "We would like to put an overall on you because he does not like people in suits". If you have to put up with that every day of your life --- by the way, I declined. I did not want to meet him. It is two different jobs, is it not?

Mr Narey: It is essentially the same job but dealing with different circumstances. It is still a custodian job. I do not deny at all that Kirklevington which, as you know, is in Yarm, not many miles south of Durham, is an extremely pleasant place to work.

Q99 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Exactly; that is the whole point I am making.

Mr Narey: The fact is that wherever anybody works we have to apply common rules in terms of the amount of sickness absences we will tolerate.

Q100 Mr Williams: As you know, Mr Trickett and I tend to be attracted by the same statistics and, like him, I did not get far beyond paragraph 1 before I found something quite interesting, which is the NAO estimate of costs of £80 million. It then goes on to say at the end of that sentence that this excludes indirect costs such as having to bring in additional staff to fill staff shortages. What do those additional staff cost you? Will they be paid at full union rates?

Mr Wheatley: Frankly, we bring in very few additional staff to cover shortages because basically the governors in a no-overtime service have committed their money to buying a certain number of staff. If a member of staff goes sick that does not generate any additional money because they are still being paid sickness pay, so you have no recyclable money to spend on additional staff. Therefore, the scope for buying additional staff time for the majority of our staff, certainly of our prison officers, is very limited. There is scope with a small number of grades, not the grades we have been concentrating on but mainly what we would call Treasury grades, and the more junior ones at that, to replace some time with overtime. If we do replace it with overtime then we pay multiple rates of overtime, so it is more expensive. In practice, for instance, my headquarters staff take an average of 7.3 days' sickness per year. They are not mainly in the bracket where one would expect to find many malingerers. There will be some but a very small number.

Q101 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): But if you are not then bringing them in, one can understand why morale does suffer if you are losing the equivalent of 3,000 man years. That is an incredible loss and it seems you are almost willing the consequence of low morale and therefore further sickness because you will not contemplate what seems the obvious thing to do, which is where possible, particularly with longer term absence, to ensure that they are replaced so that at least you are minimising the morale factor and the stress factor.

Mr Wheatley: We have to hold money back in a separate pot for doing that. The risk, if we compensate for time off lost through sickness by any form of overtime on multiple rates, is that we build in an incentive to go sick for some staff but other staff will gain as a result. When we did have overtime in the Prison Service, which I remember, one of the major problems was people working almost an unofficial sickness roster in order to generate overtime for other prison officers, and I would be very reluctant to pay additional money to cover staff sickness. I would much rather put the pressure on people to come to work and try and manage sickness down as we do at the moment.

Mr Narey: When we had overtime, Mr Williams, prison officers worked an average of 56 hours a week, costs were out of control and prisons were deeply unsatisfactory places.


Q123 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What I was trying to do in my original questions was to show that by reading this report it seemed that bad management was the prime factor in allowing absenteeism and the type of prison that prison officers were absent from, and there were other examples of bad management in paragraphs 2.2 or 3.21 where the governors seemed to be blaming everybody but themselves. I take the view that it is no good whining on and saying it is somebody else's fault. At the end of the day the buck stops here and it is the governor's responsibility. I find that they are perhaps some of the most aloof civil servants to deal with, you can never speak to a governor, they are never there or there is always somebody else who is going to come back to you, so I am not surprised that they do not like to be told what to do and do not even read the memoranda that come out. I think bad management has a lot to do with it. If you have a bad governor who is doing that the system will not work. Also, in terms of the prison, I have mentioned that there are three prisons in my constituency, Frankland, a dispersal prison, high security; Low Newton, women, and Durham, local and high security for women. The people who work in those prisons are my constituents who are local people in the main. This is for my own personal interest. What is the absenteeism in those three prisons?

Mr Narey: This is for the financial year just finished. Durham was 14.6 days, Frankland 11.6 days and Low Newton 10.4 days.

Q124 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is so predictable, is it not?

Mr Narey: Yes, it is.

Q125 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Which just proves my point, that to work at Low Newton, a women's prison, and they are not there particularly for serious crimes, -----

Mr Narey: It is one of the easier women's prisons.

Q126 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is shop lifting and the occasional murder. It is not a difficult prison to work at, I would have thought. Frankland, although it is a high security prison it is brand new, there has been a huge investment in the place recently, and prisoners who are there know they are going to be there or in the system for 20 years. I would not have thought it was a difficult prison to manage. Durham is totally different. It is a local prison with all the local hoodlums, a high security women's prison with the most dangerous women in the country housed there. I mentioned Mr Bronson being there. It must be horrendous to go in to Durham to work. It is so predictable. Therefore, I still cannot understand how you can argue that a national system can solve that problem of absenteeism because although I would not say it must be a pleasure to go into Low Newton, comparing going into Low Newton and Durham I know which one I would rather do.

Mr Narey: Actually, most staff at Durham, which I visited very recently, are extremely positive. The women's wing has posed particular problems and, as you know, we are taking women out of there, an ambition which Mr Wheatley and I have held for many years. My guess is that the sickness rate at Durham, as we remove women from those very unsatisfactory surroundings where there is a very high suicide rate, will decrease. I would not want you to think that morale at Durham was very low. If anything I think it is quite a good place to work.

Q127 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am just quoting the figures, nearly 15 days' absence in Durham, whereas it is just over ten days in Low Newton. It is no surprise at all.

Mr Narey: Indeed; I agree.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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