Northern Ireland

2011: Crunch time for David Ford on prisons

David Ford
Image caption The problems within NI prisons could prove critical for David Ford in 2011

David Ford has burnt much midnight oil during the eight months since his appointment as the first local justice minister for 40 years, reading up on the many issues for which he now bears responsibility.

But the reality is that the real work will start when he returns to his desk after the Christmas break. To date, he has talked a lot about the need for reform, but next year is about delivery.

Tackling the dissident republican threat is the most pressing security issue, but the operational responsibility for doing so rests with the chief constable and the security services.

Mr Ford is actively supporting Matt Baggott in lobbying for access to an additional £200m from the Treasury reserve if needed to combat that threat. But he cannot directly influence the nature of the response.

When it comes to prisons, the buck stops with him, and tackling the issue is likely to be his most challenging task in the year ahead.

The minister has made it clear that one of his priorities will be reform of the prison service - a service that has more staff than prisoners.

One of his first acts in office was to announce the appointment of a review team chaired by Dame Anne Owers.

The team is expected to produce an initial report early in the New Year, followed by much more comprehensive recommendations before the summer.

It is very likely that it will be yet another critical assessment. It will be just the latest in a series of such reports that have labelled the prison service as shambolic, over staffed but under performing.

"There is no doubt that this is crunch time for the prison service," said one well placed source.

"Having promised reform, David knows that he will be held responsible if he doesn't deliver."

Delivery will be far from easy as meaningful reform will mean reducing the power exercised by the Prison Officers' Association, described in a number of inspection reports as "an obstacle to change".

Image caption One of Mr Ford's priorities will be the reform of NI prisons

The most recent report, by Criminal Justice Inspection, characterised industrial relations between the union and management as "destructive". It said the POA held an effective veto on change, and pointed out that it prevailed in almost every dispute.

The response by POA chairman Finlay Spratt when he spoke to BBC Radio Foyle was robust and suggested that the union isn't preparing to roll over and sign up to recommended reforms.

Having labelled the CJI report as "sensationalist", he added: "I accept and I acknowledge that change has to be made in the prison service but it'll not be made by quangos, armchair generals who haven't a clue what they are talking about."

Mr Ford's response was to pledge that the necessary reforms will take place.

Similar pledges have been made repeatedly by direct rule ministers in recent years, but a report by the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) two months ago revealed that the prison service is still working on 27 different action plans established in response to previous reports, with more than 1,000 recommendations still outstanding.

"There is a local minister in charge now, so this time is different," was the minister's response to that observation.

"There is a financial imperative because of the budget situation to ensure that we grasp the opportunity to make the real changes that are necessary."

His task has been made much more difficult by the current economic climate and the budget cuts imposed on his department, with savings of £65m in the prison service budget allocation for the next four years.

Many critics have suggested that the best way to reform the prison service would be to have a Patten-style redundancy scheme for prison officers, similar to that introduced for the RUC.

But that would cost millions of pounds and the reality is that money simply isn't available, so there won't be a queue of volunteers offering to move on and make way for new blood.

Money is not the only issue. The politics of the Assembly could also cause him major problems as any reform package will require cross-community support.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have made it clear that they want radical reform, but the DUP and Ulster Unionists have traditionally been hugely sympathetic to the POA and are likely to oppose changes that the union deems unacceptable.

The minister has had to deal with the embarrassment of three prisoners being wrongly released in recent weeks, but the real battle lies ahead.

Barristers are also in his sights. Specifically, those who earn vast sums from legal aid as the public purse pays legal costs for those who cannot afford to pay themselves.

The system in Northern Ireland is the most generous in the world. Figures published recently revealed that the top 100 earners earned more than £60m during the past two years. Ten of them earned more a combined total of more than £17m.

Legal aid

Mr Ford has signalled that the amounts paid will be radically reduced.

His efforts will encounter much less resistance than his plans for reform of the prison service as they enjoy universal political support and the barristers themselves know there is no public support for their argument that very generous fees are essential to ensure the best possible legal representations.

Proposals to introduce means testing for legal aid payments are included in a new justice bill that the minister hopes will be ratified by the Assembly early in the New Year.

He doesn't have much time as the Assembly will be dissolved in March, and an election held the following month.

The bill also includes proposals to enable police officers to issue on-the-spot fines for a range of offences and a special fund to help victims of crime.

But, whatever else happens, the minister knows that he is likely to be judged on his ability to deliver on prisons.

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