On behalf of the National Officers and the National Executive Council I would like to extend a warm welcome to you all to our Annual Delegate Conference 2013. A special welcome to those of you who may be attending our Annual Conference, for the first time, as a representative of the POA. I would also like to welcome the Minister and his officials from the Department of Justice and thank them for taking the time to be here with us today. We are also joined by a number of distinguished guests from Europe, from England, from Scotland and Northern Ireland – all are most welcome. Other invited guests including the media, you are very welcome. A Céad Míle Fáilte to all of you.
Minister and Colleagues, I will now deal with the most pressing and urgent issue concerning our members and their families all around the country. You will be well aware Minister that in 2010 we in the POA, along with the rest of the Public Service unions, agreed a deal with the Government, known as Croke Park Agreement. This agreement is due to expire in mid-2014, just over 12 months from now. Despite reaching an agreement in a very difficult climate, and then achieving the support of our members for this agreement we now find ourselves in uncertain waters and this is of immense concern for our members and their families. This agreement was reached in the context which is now commonly referred to as Croke Park 2.
I believe, and I am not alone, that the approach by Government to the financial crisis is miss-directed; with an over emphasis on austerity and not enough on real sustainable solutions. In recent times I have heard Minister after Minister say that we want a fair and equitable way of dealing with the financial crisis. Well Minister you and your Government are not being fair – only last week we read of a banker in a bank, which is essentially owned by the Government, earning over €800,000 per annum.. We have met our targets with 21 million saved from the payroll, we have taken several hits, and we are a group of workers where it is widely accepted that we have actually produced the required savings. Our commitment to the resolution of this crisis cannot be questioned. It is unthinkable that you Minister and the government would fail to honour an agreement reached in good faith with the Prison Officers Association.
Despite all of this the Taoiseach has gone on record saying that Government will legislate and reduce our pay further if the Public Service Unions did not accept proposals to achieve 1billion euro saving. Talk about a threat, this is simply not fair, nor is it progressive or sustainable. We must ask why the Government can’t legislate to reduce the incredible pay and pensions of the Bankers and investors who created this mess in the first place. Why doesn’t the government legislate against the enormous pay and pensions of the bankers and investors for example? No you won’t legislate because it is much easier to line up public servants and again ask them to clean up the mess, irrespective of personal hardships. To emphasize the point, the Commission on taxation set up by Government has shown that 8billion euro in revenue is lost every year to the exchequer by way of tax breaks to the rich emerged over the past five years. If you don’t go looking for this money you won’t find it.
Five years of austerity has had a massive impact on Prison Officers and their families. Many are hurting and are under great financial pressure. A certain percentage of our members already have difficulty making ends meet and this will increase if there are further cuts. Increasing numbers will have trouble with mortgages, they will be spending less in their communities – so instead of making a good and sound contribution, as they always have done; they will now become part of the economic problem. As our Minister you have a real responsibility here to address this issue on our behalf. This organization and its members are open to change by way of negotiation. This is demonstrated by the fact that we sought and successfully took the opportunity to negotiate the retention of our premium payments and allowances during the recent talk’s process. But let’s not be deceived by our capacity to negotiate Minister. Prison Officers are rightly angry and the only reason the Membership voted for acceptance of the recent pay proposals applicable to us, is that it minimised the impact of Government’s plans for cutbacks in our members pay and conditions.
Following the rejection of the Labour Relations Commission proposals; the position has now changed for everyone. The Government can of course legislate; however, this will lead to further disquiet and anger. Minister I may tell you we don’t need the kind of TV pictures showing mass protests, we saw emerging from Greece to also emerge from Dublin – it’s not the kind of image we need to have flashed all around the world at this time. Perhaps Minister the rejection of the Labour Relations Commission Proposals by workers has also given you and your colleagues in Government some time to reflect on more constructive and progressive options in achieving the €1Bill savings. The Prison Officers Association will engage in finding a solution, but let’s be crystal clear, we will not support any measures which are more stringent that the package of proposals that was already reluctantly accepted by our members. That is our position which is non- negotiable. It is with this in mind that the National executive Council has forwarded an emergency motion to Conference which I hope is supported. This motion states that should the Government decide to unilaterally impose pay cuts by way of legislation on Prison Officers that the NEC convene immediately with a view to conducting a National ballot of the membership for the taking of Industrial Action, up to and including Strike Action in order to oppose government actions in reducing our pay. Subject to Conference approval I want to stress that the POA will do what needs to be done if attempts are made to introduce further pay cuts to our members.
Protecting Prison Officers
The theme of our 2013 Conference is about protecting Prison Officers. That is our function and I make no apologies for that. We have the resolve and the commitment, to protect our members whether it is on pay, Health and Safety, false accusations, or intimidation by any person, organisation or agency. It is with this in mind that I would urge a strong word of caution to you Minister; you can only extract so much by way of efficiencies before you destroy the very fabric of the service which you aspire. Some would say that the type of Society which prevails is reflected in the type of Prison Service which it provides. You as Minister simply cannot have it both ways, you cannot have a developed rehabilitate service without investment and recruitment. Ultimately how the service operates is down to you and your Department, however apart from the ever pressing need to provide a sound rehabilitative service, the POA will never condone or allow staff cuts, which undermine the service to place our member’s health and safety at risk. From our perspective the safety of Staff is not negotiable and in light of the circumstances we find ourselves in where 4million has already been withdrawn for the A1 budget our priority, our focus, will be to protect our member’s wellbeing. In this regard we will Endeavour to ensure that disruptive prisoners are dealt with effectively, along with the implementation of sound operational Diminishing Task Lines for each Institution.
Injury on Duty
Our job as a Prison Officer is not like a normal civil service occupation and often places us in confrontational situations where unfortunately on many occasions our colleagues sustain injuries, some of which are serious. It is with great frustration that here we are again in 2013 requesting the Irish Prison Service to introduce a clear and precise set of procedures to either establish or confirm that Officers have sustained injuries while carrying out their duties. If there is CCTV evidence or other reports, supporting the claim of the Officer, this should be processed immediately. Officers should not be at a loss financially, or have their record of attendance under scrutiny for doing their job in protecting others. The current procedures are too cumbersome or is it that maybe the Irish Prison Service are not to bothered to either acknowledge or compensate Staff when such incidents occur.
Accusations against Staff
Since November 2012, on foot of recommendations made by the Inspector of Prisons, the Irish Prison Service introduced new complaints procedures for prisoners, which range from an accusation of assault down to a complaint that the complainant didn’t receive his/her shop order. It is ludicrous however to suggest that where an item or issue cannot be addressed immediately for the Offender that a complaint could issue, with a report on the investigation to be provided to the Inspector of Prisons, within four weeks. Common sense surely must apply, there has to be a balance in these situations. Specialized investigators have been recruited at 150 euro a day to investigate Category A complaints, which predominately are about accusations of assault or mistreatment. While I fully acknowledge complaints of assault or abuse must be investigated, they must be investigated fairly and in accordance with due process for all parties.
Accusations of a serious nature have a profound effect on the Officer concerned, so much so that the National Executive had to issue guidelines to representatives and Staff on how best to cooperate with such investigations for the purpose of protecting member’s interests. At present 30 serious investigations have been undertaken. Fifty percent of those investigated have found no case to answer; one has proven to be vexatious in nature, with the others are still under due process. One does not have to be too creative or intuitive to realise that making a complaint against a good and dedicated staff member is perhaps the most effective way of reducing their capacity to carry out their duties effectively. The reality is that the more effective you are at implementing Prison Rules, the more likely you are to be charged with some offence of some kind.
Where an accusation of assault or abuse has been proven to be frivolous or vexatious in nature; members must be aware of their right to request Prison Managers to fully utilize prison rules on mis-conduct. I would also ask you Minister to examine the possibility of a legislative amendment, which would ensure that the full rigors of the law can be applied when vexatious and frivolous complaints are proven to have been made against prison officers. On the positive side of things it was uplifting to read the recent report from the Visiting Committee Report on St Patrick’s where they indicated that there were many improvements in St Patrick’s in recent times. This report compliments the Staff for their attitude and work performance, which appears to contradict previous reports. The Dignity at Work Charter which was launched recently is all very fine and welcome but when you have these particular issues along with a code of discipline which is not fit for purpose there is little point in asking Staff how they feel or how can they contribute more effectively in their working environment. Minister I would ask that you to instruct your Officials to address these issues as a matter of urgency.
With reduced funding it is essential that there is a reduction of numbers in custody. We fully agree with the Report of the Oireachtas Sub Committee on Penal Reform that recommends the adoption of a decarceration strategy with the intention of reducing the prison Population by one third over the next ten years. This can be done by:
• Commuting of Prison Sentences
• Increasing Remission
• Making greater use of Open Prisons
All these measures along with a proper policy to deal with the growing number of protection prisoners in the system must be implemented as a matter of urgency. The present arrangements for the protection of prisoners on D1 landing in Mountjoy Prison, and the B division in St Patrick’s must as a matter of urgency be addressed. Not to do so only places serious risks for all concerned. The latest figures show that there are now approx. 4,275 prisoners in custody compared to a daily average of 3,321 – in 2007 – an increase of just under a 1000, 29%, over 6 years. Something has to give. It is just not possible to continue to provide a rehabilitative service for such numbers with contracting resources and reduced level of funding. Real action has to be taken to reduce the numbers in custody or additional funding must be made available to increase staffing levels.
Before I conclude I do wish to say how pleased I am that Chief Officer Brian Stack is being remembered at a Memorial Service in Portlaoise tomorrow, which subject to conference approval I will be in attendance. We are very pleased Minister that you have proceeded with this commemoration – and we are also very pleased that as part of the service, you will plant a tree in recognition of the outstanding work, done at a very challenging time politically, by our colleagues who worked in Portlaoise prison on behalf of the State for over three decades. Brian Stack was essentially murdered by armed criminals who purported to be something else and our thoughts then and now are with his wife and children who had to shoulder such a terrible loss back in 1984.
Some people rightly are skeptical and fearful about the future. You Minister and your colleagues in Government have the responsibility of shaping that future. But you must be more creative and courageous than going for the easy option of continually reducing Public Sector workers pay. Delegates, we are a fully fledged trade union and as such will oppose any actions by government to further reduce the pay of Prison Officers. We will engage constructively in any talk’s process which emerges in the future on the basis that proposals already put to or members are not diminished in anyway and Minister this is our bottom line. I want you colleagues to take confidence from the fact we as a group of workers have been under attack since 2003 in relation to our pay and conditions. At that particular time we were, on our own, we were under immense pressure as an organisation, however, today we are still here, still intact, with no privatisation or out-sourcing of any kind. In the past when it was absolutely necessary, we have independently taken Strike Action to address issues affecting Prison Officers. If we have to do so again we will.
Delegates, I say to you today, if we continue to be united, with your assistance and commitment; we will protect our members against false accusations of any kind, we will protect the Health and Safety of our Members and most of all we will protect our Pay and Allowances.
Let’s get to work.