HR keeps an eye on prison reform

As director of personnel at the Prison Service, Gareth Hadley must have one of the toughest jobs in HR.

Claims that prisons are ‘evil and violent places’, and are institutionally racist, and tackling the poor public perception of prison officers, are just some of the issues Hadley has to deal with on a daily basis.

And he admitted that the challenge of dealing with 75,000 of the most dysfunctional people in society – or the service’s ‘clients’ as Hadley calls them – is most certainly a unique one.

“Three-quarters of the prison population don’t get to basic skills level 1 – their reading, writing and counting ability is insufficient for them to survive in 98% of jobs,” he said. “About 85% have either got a mental illness or drug misuse problem, or both. The challenge for the 47,000 of us who protect the public and help to reduce re-offending is working with that sort of client group.”

Hadley, who joined the Prison Service six years ago after a spell in the rail industry, had a clear objective when he started: To turn a traditional Civil Service HR department into one that befits a service industry.

“We had to move away from being an HR function in the Civil Service mould – simply policing aspects of the business – into one where we are adding value and helping people to deliver,” he told Personnel Today.

To this end, Hadley and his team have introduced a new people strategy programme with the aim of consolidating the work of the past five years and moving to the next stage.

“The last HR strategy was all about getting the processes and systems right to help transform us,” he explained. “Where we are now is about having a people strategy that focuses exclusively on what we do as a business, and the human impact upon our product – looking after prisoners and reducing re-offending rates.”

Senior management has committed to having a qualified HR professional in every prison, working locally to deliver the strategy and influencing the way the prison develops.

Diversity is one of the pillars of this new strategy, an area where Hadley admitted the service still has significant work to do.

Claims by the service’s former director-general that jails were ‘evil and violent places’ have been followed by recent allegations of prison officer racism at the ongoing inquiry into the death of Asian teenager Zahid Mubarek.

Hadley is unable to talk about the specific allegations and their implications until the inquiry finishes, but admitted there are problems.
“We would still accept the badge of [being] institutionally racist, because a lot of our systems and procedures were developed in the context of not actually contemplating the race dimension,” he said.

The Prison Service currently has 5.8% of its staff drawn from minority ethnic groups, with recent recruitment success in the London area. Hadley said the aim now is to replicate that success in other parts of the country.

Part of the problem Hadley has to tackle is changing public perceptions of the service. These perceptions are unsurprising considering the wrong sort of headlines it has been generating.

“Prisons are actually quite domestic settings,” Hadley said. “The majority of the public have a view of prisons that is conditioned by TV programmes like Porridge or Prisoner Cell Block H, which don’t have much resemblance to reality.

“Actually what our people do is very complicated inter-personal tasks day in, day out, and the strength of the service is derived from the ability of its staff to use these skills,” he added.

Unsavoury press stories can also throw up internal morale issues, a fact Hadley is acutely aware of.

“This is a problem for correctional services worldwide. Staff generally do feel unloved and unwanted by the rest of society,” he said. “They do a very difficult job with people that society basically doesn’t want to know.”

Hadley said the best indicator of morale can be found in the service’s annual staff attitude survey. Results from the 2003 survey show that nearly two-thirds of staff are ‘proud to work for the Prison Service’ – up from the previous year.

The results from the 2004 survey, due this month, promise to be even better, according to Hadley. “What we need to do is rejoice in our success. In terms of performance, last year was our best ever,” he said.

Hadley hits back at critics over out-of-date absence figures

Gareth Hadley has hit back at a recent government report which criticised “unacceptably high” sickness absence rates in the Prison Service.

He said the report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) quoted figures from 2002-03, rather than the latest available for the year 2003-04.

The PAC said staff took an average of 14.7 days sick a year, but Hadley revealed this is now down to 12.7 days, with a further fall predicted this year.

“The substance of the report reveals that we have achieved a 14% reduction in the following year and we weren’t given credit for that,” Hadley said.

Hadley cited the high-security Belmarsh prison in south-east London as an example. For the year 2002-03 it was running at an average of 20 days sickness. For the year to January 2005 it is down to less than 13 days – a 35% fall.

A separate report from spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, also said the service had made savings equivalent to more than 47m during 2003-04.

Hadley hinted that the PAC’s criticism of the service stemmed from the fact that its chairman was Edward Leigh, a Conservative MP.
“It’s election year and the chairman of the committee is always from an opposition party,” said Hadley.

However, Hadley did concede that the sickness absence problem is something the service has to pay close management attention to in the future. But he insisted that the service is recognised within government as putting in place effective policies and procedures and making them work.

These measures include improved line manager toolkits, improving the contribution of occupational health and having HR management support locally.

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