Winners and losers at Maghaberry prison

5 Feb 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 5 Feb 2016

The Quakers' involvement in prisons in Northern Ireland goes back to 1971

The family visitor centre at Maghaberry prison, which, for so long was operated by the Quakers, is now being run by a private company.Here we provide a brief history of the work of both organisations without comment. 


The Quakers

The Religious Society of Friends, often known as the Quakers, emerged in the 17th Century. Inspired by the preaching of the dissident preacher George Fox they rejected the Church of England believing that people could have a direct experience of God without the intervention of ordained clergy.

There are many different sects within Quakerism, from conservatives to liberals, even humanists. However a central characteristic is Quakers belief that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

This led to fierce opposition to slavery, a tradition of pacificism and a long history of humanitarian intervention, including campaigning for prison reform. .

Quakers were the one religious group that emerged from the tragedy of the Irish Famine with credit. It was Friends who set up soup kitchens across the country at a time the authorities were doing next to nothing to address the problem before giving up in despair in 1849, stating: “the condition of our country has not improved despite of the great exertions made by charitable bodies and could not be improved until the land system of Ireland was improved which is a matter of legislation, not philanthropy.”

When the Troubles broke out in 1969 a groups of Friends in Belfast got together to see what they could do to help. Deeply opposed to violence, they wanted to help people of all communities who had been affected by the disturbances. Their meeting House on Frederick Street was run as a night shelter for a while for women and children who had been burned out of their homes in the Bombay Street area of Belfast. They provided holidays in Scotland and over the border for families, older people and children from both communities to provide respite from the violence and when internment was introduced in 1971 they wanted to help families affected.

There was no visitor centre at Long Kesh at the time, so they approached the prison authorities who built one in the car park and there they ran a café for visitors. They bought a mini bus to transport relatives to the jail and ultimately provided a day care facility for children.

Outside of the prison they helped relatives cope with the stresses and other issues that they faced.

This work was carried out with people of all faiths and none. As the project grew and they were able to take on staff, they recruited from all sections of the community. All along they stressed that they were not taking sides, had no party affiliations and were motivated solely by a desire to care and to help.

That was the genesis of Quaker work in prison and how ultimately they came to provide support services at Maghaberry the contract for which they have now lost.

The Religious Society of Friends is not an organisation that actively chases tendering opportunities for funding. Instead it works on the basis of identifying needs, looking at how it might help and then seeing if any funding might be available. It found itself competing for work because the prison authorities decided to put the work it was doing out to tender. It lost.

There are still volunteers in the prison who have pledged to continue to do everything they can to fulfil their mission of helping inmates and their families, including supporting the company that won the tender.Their slogan is "Service is love in action."


PeoplePlus came into being when the Staffline Group purchased A4e merged it with another company it owns called Avanta in 2015 and rebranded it.

The Staffline Group is an English-based company which according to its website is a “national organisation specialising in logistics, e-retail, manufacturing, driving, food processing and white collar recruitment.  We provide and manage workforces and use training and business improvement techniques to ensure increased levels of efficiency to give our clients a significant commercial advantage.”

At the time it bought A4e Staffline stated “The increased scale and scope of services and the Group’s proven track record of results will position the business strongly for the future and enable Staffline to maximise opportunities in the Employability, Skills and Justice sectors, creating significant shareholder value.”

PeoplePlus is now described as a “dedicated welfare to work and skills division” which “provides a ground-breaking and highly effective approach to reducing worklessness.”

However before the acquisition A4e enjoyed a rather different reputation.

It was founded in Sheffield to help former steelworkers re-train to find new work. The business expanded winning major welfare-to-work contracts from both Labour- and Conservative-led governments.

In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed its founder Emma Harrison as his “family champion” to help get long-term unemployed people back into work.

However questions were beginning to be asked about the firm’s performance and the company was beginning to attract adverse publicity from both print and broadcast media.

A4e was awarded a contract for the Pathways to Work scheme in 2008, with a target to get 30 per cent of participants into employment.

A Channel Four investigation in 2012 claimed that fewer than four out of 100 unemployed people who had gone through the firm secured jobs that lasted more than 13 weeks.

The company’s performance was taken up by the Public Accounts Committee at the House of Commons where members questioned why a company with an “abysmal record” was being awarded new contracts. Civil servants revealed it had not taken its past record into account in the tendering process.

In the same year the company was named as the preferred bidder for prison education contracts. At the time the PAC chair Margaret Hodge said: “I find it astounding that, at a time when one Government department is investigating a company for systemic failures, another department is awarding the same company new contracts. You couldn't make it up "

Last year an investigation into fraud allegations against staff members at A4e concluded with 10 convictions at Reading Crown Court. Six people were sent to prison and a further four received suspended sentences.

By the time the business was acquired it was mired in controversy.

The Yorkshire Post quoted analysts at Charles Stanley thus: “The reason for A4e selling is that given its legacy issues, management felt it would be difficult to grow the business and win new contracts, hence the company would benefit from new ownership.

“The risk for Staffline is execution. Its existing contracts all perform in the top half for all providers, whereas A4e contract’s all perform in the bottom half. The challenge to Staffline is to improve this performance.”

The Maghaberry contract therefore will be an important test of the newly acquired, merged and re-branded business.


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