Members will be aware that the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) are currently facing massive cuts to their budgets as Westminster imposes its austerity measures across public sector services. There are a number of issues that have arisen from this.
The Prison service is undertaking a reorganisation in terms of the number of staff provided by PBNI and how much they are willing to pay for them. This has the potential to have a huge impact on our members both in the prisons and in the community as essentially the prison service want more for less. This will lead to redeployment of staff from the prison, increased workloads for those that remain. In the field teams there are already staff shortages and the introduction of the supervision of Conditional Early Release prisoners, work not previously done by PBNI, will increase workloads further.
Head office visit
Given the issues facing the branch and the industrial action already taken by NIPSA, our sister union, over cuts, National Officials Tania Bassett and Ranjit Singh, along with National Co-Chair Yvonne Pattison, visited the branch on 15-16 June to attend an extraordinary meeting called by the Branch Executive to explore what options the branch wanted to pursue to resists the cuts and the consequent impact on service delivery.
The trip began with a meeting with the Branch Executive to look at the key issues facing members and to discuss the results of an informal survey carried out amongst members in respect of what action to take to resist the cuts, which included an option to ballot members for industrial action if necessary. It was followed by a very well attended branch meeting where members had the opportunity to ask questions on various issues. It is clear that the Branch, under the direction of the Branch Chair Fiona Vaughan and Vice Chair Jen White, is working tirelessly to ensure that members concerns are being heard by PBNI, despite, on some occasions, a lack of consultation.
Key Issues for NI Branch
The PBNI is not fully in control of the external pressures being exerted upon them with regards to cuts but it is also clear that they may not be fully utilising the union to gain staff support and opinion on some of the big decisions it is going to face. They appear to be rushing through a process, that is to the benefit of the prison service, without giving full consideration to the consequences to staff, workloads and safe delivery; an all too familiar story for those who have experienced Transforming Rehabilitation. Some of the consequences of the reorganisation are the deployment of prison staff back into the community and the impact of much increased workloads for those that remain, particularly in the high security prison; a blurring of role boundaries; lack of full analysis of workloads and figures; and the implementation of the 2008 Act which will now see PBNI staff supervise the Conditional Early Release prisoners for the first time,
Need for meaningful consultation
These are but some of the things the Branch had hoped to engage in meaningful consultation. Napo officers and officials will work closely with the Branch to ensure that these changes are not rushed through and leave staff vulnerable as a result.
Inextricably linked to this are the wider budget cuts. There is also the issue of a number of staff being employed on a Fixed Term Contract basis which are all due to end on 31August 2015. PBNI are currently unable to give an indication to these staff as to whether or not their contract will end or be extended. Napo will be urging PBNI to give some indication at the earliest opportunity to alleviate staff uncertainty.
It was clear at the Branch meeting that members were keen to develop political lobbying as a strategy as an alternative to industrial action, at this stage. Tania Bassett has developed a campaign strategy that will focus on political lobbying both at Westminster and Stormont. This will begin with a meeting with Mark Durken MP from the SDLP and National Officers and Officials will be attending a reception at the House of Commons hosted by Sinn Fein where Napo will highlight the key issues facing PBNI and our members. It is hoped we can then move to a cross party meeting at Stormont to gain support for the service and critically securing greater levels of funding in the future. Ranjit Singh link Official for Northern Ireland will be coordinating a series of visits to Northern Ireland in the coming months alongside Tania who will be providing training and guidance in lobbying. Formal meetings will be arranged with PBNI management as required in order to raise issues of concern.