Absenteeism brings threat to jail staff drinking clubs

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ministers are threatening to close down staff drinking clubs in prisons as they try to tackle record levels of sick leave.

New disciplinary offences are to be announced by the Home Office minister Paul Boateng amid concern that alcohol is large factor in absenteeism. It follows a major review of drinking and drug use among prison staff.

Mr Boateng will punish the 72 drinking clubs if they are found to be serving alcohol to officers who are on duty or about to begin a shift. He indicated that support would be offered to those who were found to have alcohol problems.

The Prison Officers' Association warned Mr Boateng last night not to close down the social clubs, which played an important role in building "team spirit".

Mark Healy, chairman of the POA, said: "These clubs provide a safe haven for prison officers in some inner-city areas who would find it difficult to go in uniform into the local pub for a lunch-time drink." He said he saw nothing wrong with a lunch-time drink "in moderation".

Details of the alcohol crackdown emerged in a letter from the minister to the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury. Mr Boateng said: "The serving of alcohol to staff on duty and before coming on duty is an active concern. This will be addressed directly by the new policy through the introduction of new disciplinary offences. It is also intended to modify the rules relating to clubs to prevent alcohol being served to staff in these circumstances."

Mr Boateng said he expected officials to "submit the policy for my approval shortly". He said: "I understand it aims to strike a balance between taking a tough stance on alcohol in the workplace and offering support for staff with alcohol problems."

A Commons Public Accounts Committee report found in August that 90 per cent of jails in England and Wales were at risk of serious disruption by inmates because of levels of staff sick leave.

Staff took off an average of nearly three weeks through ill health in the last financial year, at a cost of £56m to the taxpayer. More than 40 per cent of prison governors said absenteeism affected their ability to maintain a "safe environment".

A 1997 report by the Prison Service's health advisory committee, abhorred lunch-time drinking by staff and called for all jails to become alcohol-free environments. "There can be no historical or other justification for bringing the influence of alcohol to the workplace in this particular context."

Lord Avebury said many prison officers had been drawn into an "alcohol culture" which made it "de rigeur to go out drinking with the boys". "Tightening up the rules is necessary but may only be the first step," he said. He said he did not believe drinking clubs should be allowed on prison premises.

The Prison Service is also considering the possibility of conducting drug tests on members of staff.