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Prison Officers (Transfer Expenses)

Volume 23: debated on Monday 10 May 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Lang.]

11.53 pm

Some 15 to 17 ye ars ago, long before I joined the House, as a member of the now defunct Durham rural district council I approved the building of the new prison at Frankland just outside the city of Durham knowing all the difficulties that would involve. We knew that the new prison would create problems. Some people, for example, would not wish to live near the new prison.

I wish to raise a consequence that I never envisaged when I gave my assent to the Home Office request to build at Frankland the first new maximum security prison since the war. I raise it on behalf of Mr. Adams, who is symptomatic of a much wider and potentially more difficult problem.

Mr. Adams, who worked for seven or eight years at Wakefield prison, was offered and accepted training as a dog handler. Having received that training and become a dog handler, he was asked, under the normal procedures of the prison service, to accept a transfer to Durham prison.

I have not one but two prisons with high security prisoners in my constituency. I have the long-established Durham prison, with its record for high risk prisoners, and a new prison is being commissioned, which will have a proportion of high risk prisoners, although the majority will be low grade.

In June 1981 Mr. Adams was asked to transfer from Wakefield to Durham. It was not the normal rotation in the prison service from, say, Parkhurst to Strangeways to Wakefield. The situation was unique. For the first time, the demand on housing specific to prison officers was grossly altered by the creation of a new prison that demanded almost 1,000 prison officers. In its wisdom, the Home Office sought to supply a certain proportion of the housing. I shall not quibble about whether it was 400 or 600 houses. To man Frankland, a number of prison officers would require to buy houses within the limits of the city of Durham which were not in the rotation system.

When he was transferred from Wakefield to Durham, Mr. Adams was not in the position of a normal transferee. The Home Office had upset the housing market. Any estate agent in the city of Durham will tell the Minister that bringing Frankland into service has created a sellers' market for a certain type of house. Suddenly, a demand for houses is created. The Home Office provides about 400, but the new prison needs 1,000. Mr. Adams is the victim of that situation.

The situation in Wakefield is clear. Of 185 Home Office owned properties for prison officers, 70 are vacant. There are Parker Morris grade houses. That was the situation that faced Mr. Adams when he left Wakefield to go to Durham not at his own request but at the request of the prison service. He was leaving an area that had surplus houses of the type that prison officers dwelt in and was moving to the one city in the country where the activities of the prison service and the Home Office had created a massive demand and high prices for that type of house. Mr. Adams left an area where nobody wanted a prison officer's house and moved to an area where the commissioning of a new prison caused demand for such houses to be acute.

That was not the fault of Mr. Adams. He did not ask to be moved from Wakefield to Durham. He did not ask to be trained as a dog handler and to be moved from Wakefield to Durham. He had had eight years of excellent service for the Home Office in the prison service.

On 22 June 1981 Mr. Adams was transferred from Wakefield to Durham. At Wakefield he was given an assurance. I quote from letters sent to me by his wife, who is one of the most superb advocates of a husband's case that I have known in my 12 years in the House. She states:
"My husband was told, word for word, 'not to worry, the department pays for all expenses if the transfer is at public expense', which it was."
Following her letter of 5 January I took up the matter with the then Home Office Minister responsible for prisons. This is my first Adjournment debate in my 12 years as a Member of Parliament. The reply that I received was most insensitive. I wrote to the Minister on 28 January, but did not receive a reply until 1 March. It cannot be said that the letter was written in haste. The letter states:
"The assistance available to civil servants when they have to move their home on transfer includes help with the cost of obtaining a bridging loan."
The Minister made that clear unequivocal statement in his letter. He continued:
"An officer is, however, expected to follow the usual procedures of arranging the sale and purchase of properties to take place at the same time."
I have rarely read a more absurd piece of gobbledegook. Any Minister who on 1 March this year could have said that someone in the prison service could sell a house in Wakefield and buy a house in Durham on the same terms and at the same time must be so out of touch as to beggar understanding. It is not possible.

The Minister continued:
"Bridging loan interest is approved only when advance application is made and we can be satisfied that every effort has been made to avoid a substantial financial commitment. Mr. Adams was given general advice about transfer expenses before leaving Wakefield and detailed guidance about the procedure to follow was available to him on arrival at Durham".
The net effect of that advice was that, had he left his wife and family in Wakefield, the public purse would have been called upon to pay to his wife something of the order of £24 per night for 30 days and £12 per night thereafter for the next six months. Therefore, the gap between what the public purse would have been asked to pay had he not asked for the bridging loan but left his wife in Wakefield makes a mockery of this whole thing. Is the Home Office really seeking to separate families by creating a pressure point in the prison service? Although this individual may not be involved in the Frankland transfer, it is symptomatic of the pressure that the Home Office has put on such people. My constituent, Mr. Adams, accepted training but did not volunteer for it. He did not seek to be transferred from Wakefield to Durham. I have been informed that, having been transferred, he finds himself grossly out of pocket for doing what he believes to be his public duty.

I again quote from Lord Belstead's reply:
"I am sorry that he did not make a specific inquiry about interest on a bridging loan before he committed himself to buying his present house in advance of completing the sale of his house at Wakefield, but on the information available it does not appear that we would have approved an application. Mr. Adams applied for reimbursement of interest of £452·53 on a bridging loan in November 1981 after he had moved into his present house and, although the matter has been given fresh consideration, I am afraid that it cannot be approved."
If that is the basis on which the Government will reimburse those transferred to the new Frankland prison, they will set up the prison on the very worst terms.

12.10 am

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) for raising this matter and for giving me the opportunity to explain the reasons why certain expenses incurred by his constituent, Mr. Adams, a prison officer, whose case the hon. Gentleman has put very fully, in connection with his transfer from Wakefield to Durham, have not been allowed for reimbursement.

A prison officer is a civil servant, and the main conditions of employment are set out comprehensively in the Civil Service pay and conditions of service code. The code, which is available to all civil servants on request, explains in detail the assistance which is available when a civil servant is required to move his home to take up another post. Where the reimbursement of a particular item of expenditure is left to the discretion of employing Departments, additional advice is published in the form of a manual or handbook.

The hon. Member received a letter about Mr. Adams' complaint from my noble Friend the former Under-Secretary of State, Lord Belstead, and I would like, first, to say something about the reference in that letter to an amount of £452·53 claimed by Mr. Adams as interest on the bridging loan which he took out to finance the purchase of a property in Durham. This claim was lodged by Mr. Adams on 4 November 1981 and was followed by further claims on 12 and 23 November which included the first one. Only the first one, however, was forwarded by Durham prison to the prison department headquarters for advice, and the others were retained locally. The first claim gave no indication that it formed part of a larger claim, and I am sorry if my noble Friend's reply gave rise to concern because it did not quote the figures given in the later claims. The hon. Gentleman did not mention that, but it is right that I should put it in the record.

The same considerations do, however, apply whether the amount is small or large, as I will explain, but I can quite understand Mr. Adams' interest in ensuring that the extent to which he feels he is out of pocket is fully recognised.

I will turn now to the events which led to the claim by Mr. Adams for reimbursement of bridging loan interest. He joined the prison service as a prison officer at Wakefield prison in 1974, and at that time he already owned his own house. In normal circumstances, he would have been required to occupy an official married quarter at the end of his probationary period of service, but as there was a temporary shortage of official accommodation at Wakefield he applied for, and was given, permission to continue to live in private accommodation with the benefit of a housing allowance. In 1979, the conditions under which prison officers could obtain permission to live out of quarters were relaxed in the interests of encouraging home ownership, and Mr. Adams has been unusually fortunate in having had the benefit of permission from the start of his career in the prison service. I have explained this point to show that, compared with many of his more senior prison officer colleagues, Mr. Adams has managed to achieve an advantageous position in his ownership of private accommodation.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Durham was told, Mr. Adams applied to become a dog-handler. The hon. Gentleman said more than once that Mr. Adams did not ask to become a dog-handler, but I understand that he applied three times and was accepted only on the third occasion to become a dog-handler. That was in 1980. He was placed on a waiting list for training. He was aware when he applied that he would be expected to move to another prison. On 30 March 1981 he was notified that, subject to successful completion of a training course from 27 April 1981 to 19 June 1981, he would be transferred to Durham prison to serve as a dog-handler. Between 30 March and 17 April Mr. Adams sought advice from the administration department of Wakefield prison about the financial assistance available to civil servants when they have to move their home. Although he now claims that he made a specific inquiry about reimbursement of the cost of a bridging loan, the recollection of Mr. McIntyre, the officer who discussed transfer expenses with him, is that he sought and was given only general advice about allowances and expenses. Mr. McIntyre is an officer with 19 years' experience of advising staff about transfers, and he is quite clear that if a specific inquiry had been made about bridging loans he would have drawn Mr. Adams' attention to the conditions attached to reimbursement of interest. His practice is to have the code and the departmental instructions open on his desk, and to go through them with an officer in giving any advice. At that time Mr. Adams had not put his house on the market—he says that he did so later, on 1 May—and had not found a property at Durham, and there is no apparent reason why he, or Mr. McIntyre, should have singled out the particular matter of a bridging loan for special attention and explanation. I am unable to deal with this matter on the basis that Mr. Adams was given wrong or misleading information.

From 21 April to 24 April Mr. and Mrs. Adams paid a visit to Durham at the Department's expense to find a new home. At the same time, Mr. Adams applied for, and was granted, permission to continue to live in private accommodation when he was transferred to Durham. It seems that the visit was successful and that Mr. Adams immediately set in train arrangements to buy a property at 19 Northside, Shadforth, Durham, and to sell his Wakefield property so that the transactions would coincide. On 1 June, when it became apparent that he would complete his dog-handler course successfully, he was given a formal notice of transfer to Durham at public expense and was told in writing to consult the administration department of the prison about expenses and allowances before entering into any financial commitment.

Mr. Adams did not return to duty at Wakefield and took up his post at Durham on 22 June. He was seen by Mr. Summerbell of the administration department soon after his arrival, and apparently made no mention of any difficulty about synchronising the sale and purchase of properties. Mr. Adams was seen by Mr. Summerbell at weekly intervals in connection with claims for lodging allowance, and does not appear to have reported any problems or sought any advice about bridging loans. Mr. Summerbell is a higher executive officer with long experience and would have responded immediately with advice if he had been asked. he would certainly have made the point that at least three months had to elapse from the date of transfer before an application for approval of a bridging loan could be made. The first knowledge that the administration department had of the bridging loan was when Mr. Adams submitted his initial claim on 4 November.

The Civil Service code conditions attached to reimbursement of bridging, loan interest are, in general terms, that the extent of the finance obtained must not be excessive in the light of an officer's requirements, and it must be reasonable for him to obtain finance in his particular circumstances. He must have been unable, through no fault of his own, to arrange a satisfactory sale of his house at the old station so as to coincide with purchase at the new station, and it must be seen as unreasonable to expect him to delay further the purchase of a house at the new station on that account. It is clear that an officer contemplating taking out a bridging loan has to seek the prior approval of his Department if he wishes to be considered for reimbursement.

My Department has issued, in a notice to staff and in a departmental manual, guidance of its own to supplement the information given in the code, as follows:
"Assistance with bridging loan finance is provided at the Department's discretion to help an officer move his home to the new station without unreasonable delay, where through no fault of his own he has been unable to arrange the simultaneous sale of his property at the old station and purchase at the new. It is not intended that an officer should derive a personal advantage from the use of this facility, arid officers are required to take all reasonable steps to avoid unnecessary expense to public funds. Reimbursement of net interest charges on bridging loan finance is available only where it would be unreasonable to expect an officer to defer further the purchase and occupation of a home at the new station, but he is unable to do so as his capital is tied up in the house at the old station which remains unsold. Assistance will not be provided where an officer does not intend to move to the new station until the home at the former station has been sold. There should be some delay, following the date of transfer, to allow the home at the old station a reasonable chance to attract a buyer, before a bridging loan is considered. A three-month period is a reasonable minimum, although it must be recognised that more expensive properties may take longer to sell. This, and the questions whether the asking price is reasonable, and a genuine and sustained effort has been made to find a buyer, will be taken into account in assessing the acceptability of a request for assistance with loan costs. Officers must seek the Department's authority before a bridging loan is taken out as no responsibility can be accepted for charges which have been incurred without the Department's approval."
That must be seen as reasonable.
"Applications should be addressed to P8 Division, Expenses Section, accompanied by the Governor's comments on the points raised in Code paragraph 5527."
The onus is upon staff to make their own inquiries and each member of staff is given a personal copy of a staff handbook.

Mr. Adams put his property on the market on 1 May, and did not meet the conditions for approval of a bridging loan when, without having sold it, he completed the purchase of 19 Northside with borrowed money on 16 July. In all the circumstances, I cannot see that the interest should be paid from public funds. I hope that the hon. Member will not regard this as an exercise in petty economy. We have paid Mr. Adams just over £5,000 to help him with his move, which includes a tax-free grant of £1,200 and the legal expenses of purchase and sale. He has been able to buy a house of considerably higher value, and because he has chosen to do so he is receiving a special supplementary annual allowance which lasts for nine years. Until recently, when mortgage interest fell, the allowance was £691. This is, of course, in addition to a housing allowance as a prison officer of £16·70 per week which is both index-linked and tax-compensated.

I am sorry that Mr. Adams feels that he has nevertheless been hard done by, but, for the reasons I have given I cannot accept that he has valid grounds for complaint.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty one minutes past Twelve o'clock.