AN independent watchdog has called for an end to uncertainty about the future of Northallerton remand centre and young offenders' institution.

Any decisions about the future and possible role of the establishment in East Road must be communicated swiftly and accurately by the prison service to all staff to ensure that morale and efficiency are not affected, according to the board of visitors.

The board said in its annual report for 2000 that Northallerton, where rebuilding of the wall is causing traffic disruption, was a well organised and managed prison which had inherent problems because of the 19th century buildings in which it was housed.

Over the previous five years it had suffered from financial restraints, but additional funding and an increase in staff were making a great difference and the regime was improving. Staff at all levels had shown a high degree of efficiency and commitment.

The board pointed out, however, that the centre was awaiting a consultants' report and added: "If, as is anticipated in some quarters, this report recommends a reduction in uniformed officers and is then accepted, the board believes this will return Northallerton to what we term 'the bad old days' with a regime of less time out of cell, less association and much less productive activity, a situation which caused the centre to receive much criticism and is taking hard work to change.

"The board is surprised that such surveys only consider uniformed officers and are not done in parallel with a similar examination of administrative staff levels. Any such reductions would also have a major impact on the morale of the whole establishment."

The report of the board continued: "The major factor affecting morale is the uncertain future of the establishment. What is most worrying is the number of mixed messages being received.

"Many staff, believing it will close within five years, are wondering why a vast amount of money is still being spent on capital projects.

"Why the adjustments to staffing levels when any money thus saved is minute in comparison? Uncertainty is not conducive to application and commitment."

Centre governor Mr Denis Appleton said the prison service had prepared a draft paper looking at the future of the centre but there were no definite closure proposals.

"The prison service is looking at the uses of old prisons in the middle of cities and towns, where there is no space left to expand, and whether it is economical to keep places like that open.

"But there is great pressure on prison space nationally and I think it would be very difficult to close Northallerton, which has 300 places."

Mr Appleton said the centre had to make efficiency savings of almost £500,000, which could be met in a variety of ways.

The consultants' report had recommended a reduction in staffing, although this did not necessarily mean a reduction in out of cell time or purposeful activity for inmates. There would be some fine tuning of existing shift patterns for staff