Prison Officers (Shortage)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd November 1955.

Alert me about debates like this

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

10.32 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan , Cardiff South East

Some weeks ago the very energetic and able officials of the Prison Officers Association were in touch with me and drew my attention to the shortage of prison officers. I therefore venture to detain the House this evening in order to put some considerations to the Joint Under-Secretary and to ask for his views on one or two matters. I am very grateful to him for coming here, and I hope the result of it will be of benefit to the prison service.

The first effect of the approach of the prison officers was the sending to me of the Report of the Prison Commissioners for the year 1954, which was published during the Recess, so it is appropriate that some attention should be paid to it now that the House has reassembled. I have also been very impressed—having now studied it in detail, I regret to say for the first time—with the excellent work done by the Select Committee on Estimates on this matter, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) in the 1951–52 Session.

The prisons are today faced with a serious shortage of prison officers—a shortage which seems, on balance, to be getting worse. If it is not getting worse it can certainly be said that the reforms which the Joint Under-Secretary and the Prison Commissioners themselves hoped to introduce cannot be introduced because of the shortage of staff. This, of course, has a primary effect upon the prisoners themselves.

I should like to say at this stage how impressed I am by the Prison Commissioners' Report. I assumed it would be an added waste of statistics that I should find extremely dull indeed, but I have been very impressed by its content and by the lively imagination that has clearly gone into its compilation. Much of the work that has been done by the Prison Commissioners is reproduced in this Report, which I assume is quite accurate, and much of the work that is being done is of a standard that the general public cannot and obviously does not know about, and I hope the Joint Under-Secretary will do all he can to publicise much of the work of reform that is being carried out by the Prison Commissioners today under extremely difficult conditions. I am very glad that I have been brought into contact with it.

But that raises the first point that I wish to ask the Joint Under-Secretary about. If his aim and ambition, as was that of previous Governments, is to reform rather than to punish, and as it is clearly the policy of the Prison Commissioners to reform and not to punish, I ask the hon. Gentleman what energetic steps he is taking to give the Prison Commissioners sufficient staff to enable them to carry out their job. I do not think he will feel like claiming, even if I do not examine the statistics in detail, that the Prison Commissioners have anything like the staff necessary to do the job to which Parliament has set its hand.

I have here a welter of statistics, and I do not want to go into them in great detail, but the basic figures seem to me to be these. If we are to achieve in the prison service the reforms that are necessary to enable the work of reformation to go on, as distinct from the work of punishment, a thousand more officers are needed. As far as I can see, whatever other statistics may be produced, there was a net increase in the established staff to December last, in a period of twelve months, of twenty-one, and I am told that from January to September this year—nine months—there has been a net increase in the established staff of thirty-one. Towards the thousand that are needed, therefore, we have in terms of established staff about fifty-two in a period of nearly two years. The effect of that is shown in the work that is not being done.

I understand that the basis of the reformation—namely, that the prisoners should be put to work—is what in the prison service is called a three-shift system; the warders work on a three-shift rota. This was put into operation in Dartmoor and Parkhurst. But in paragraph 6 of their Report, the Prison Commissioners say: … unfortunately a sharp fall in recruiting made it impossible to extend the programme further. That is a matter for great regret. Indeed, I am told that the situation is worse than that. I understand that at Dartmoor today the prisoners are kept at work, and the work of reformation is going on, only because the warders themselves—a group of them, at any rate—are working or on duty from 6.30 in the morning until 9.30 at night. These are no conditions in which to employ warders, and I hope the Under-Secretary will look into that matter and, if my information is correct, will see what can be done. It would be a tragedy if the work of reformation at Dartmoor broke down because of this.

The other point that emerges from the same paragraph of the Report follows logically from the figures which I have given. The Prison Commissioners say: … we do not at present expect that any extension of the three-shift system will be possible in 1955. I do not suppose that they do, on the basis of the small number of additional staff that they are getting. The Under-Secretary, therefore, has a duty to tell us now what is his approach to this problem. What help will he give to the Prison Commissioners to enable them to overcome the staffing difficulties and to get ahead with this very desirable work of reform?

There is no doubt that the giving to prisoners of a sense of social purpose, as is revealed by some of the most illuminating passages in the Report, is one of the best investments we can make, and yet we do not seem to be doing it, at any rate with sufficient energy, at the present time. It is not unfair to say that to the Under-Secretary, because it is about three years since the present Home Secretary's predecessor came down to the House and told us he was ready to take any measures that were necessary to put this situation right.

The plain truth, I am afraid, is that we are going back in some ways to the old days of the turnkeys. Prisoners are being locked in their cells for long periods. There are sometimes two of them in a cell, and sometimes, I believe, even three in a cell, although I understand that that is not very common at the moment. That, at least, has been overcome. The prisoners are locked away in their cells for long hours, with all the opportunities for mischief that Satan finds for idle hands. I understand that the ideal working day in which these men are engaged upon normal civilian occupations of a useful character is about 7 hours. The average now is anything between 3½ to 5 hours. Indeed, that average is slightly less than it was pre-war.

I say, as a layman coming fresh to this subject, that in those circumstances, with men doubled up in the cells, idle and isolated for long hours, with an inadequate number of warders to look after them, I am not surprised at the incidence of escapes and disturbances to which the Prison Commissioners draw attention in their Report. There have been the incidents in Wandsworth, Cardiff, Manchester, Holloway, and Norwich. I am not seeking sensation in this debate. I am not going to recount the whole of the details, which should be well-known to the Under-Secretary, but I think that I should say this. The Under-Secretary is not being fair to the prison warders who are trying to do this job at present in these conditions.

One warder has said to me, It is true to say that we are living on the good will of the prisoners. An officer told me that the position was like living on top of a volcano; one day it will erupt with tremendous repercussions. That is a serious suggestion to be made, and it is clear that only more warders will solve the problem.

Sir Lionel Fox, when he was addressing the Annual General Meeting of the National Association of Prison Visitors, on 25th June, had something to say on this subject, replying to criticisms by the prison visitors about lack of training among the prisoners. He said: I do not deny that probably something more could be done in principle than has been done in the past, but it must be remembered that we have been hampered by under-staffing. It has been extremely difficult to do all the things we might have wished to do in some of the bigger prisons. We have only single shift staff instead of the three shift staff, so that you have only half a working day instead of a whole working one. I think a large part of this problem would he solved if we had full staff in our local prisons, and all prison officers worked the eight hours a day. The answer to the shortage of warders is simple. It lies in the miserably inadequate rates paid by the Prison Commissioners. Their rates of pay for doing this unpleasant duty is £7 17s. at the minimum rising to £9 16s. a week, and after twenty years if they have put in long, faithful and efficient service and have kept their buttons clean, they rise to £10 4s. a week. The average earnings in industry today are £10 17s. 5d. a week. The average earnings in manufacturing industries are £11 4s. 7d. a week. How can we expect to get sufficient warders when we offer them £7 17s. a week, when, if they go into manufacturing industries, they can get about £3 5s. a week more? The Government have a responsibility here which I do not think has been properly carried out.

Paragraph 38 in the Prison Commissioners' Report says that the staff put in a claim for an increase of 17s. 6d. a week. They were offered, instead, 7s. 6d. a week, and, after all the negotiations were completed, they could not get more than 7s. 6d. a week. They went to the arbitration tribunal and the tribunal awarded an increase of 15s. a week—double what the Government were prepared to offer.

The Under-Secretary cannot claim that he has a realistic appreciation of what are proper rates of pay if a staff side putting in a claim can get double what the Government offer by going to arbitration. His first and major job is to get proper, adequate rates of pay and conditions of service, and decent hours for these men, and then we shall be well on the way to recruiting the warders whom we need and concluding the work of reform which I find so excellently described in this pamphlet.

10.45 p.m.

Photo of Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth , Hendon South

I am sure that the House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) for raising this matter, and certainly I am, because it is one which will only be helped by being given publicity. I am grateful to him also for the way in which he has raised it.

In a way, it seems paradoxical to be talking of shortage of prison staff at a time when the service is more numerous than it has ever been before, and also at a time when the prison population is falling and, indeed, has fallen by about 3,000 from the peak figure of 24,000 which it reached in 1952. I quite agree with the hon. Member that the position is not satisfactory, and I agree with him further that it has recently shown some deterioration.

The House will, of course, be aware of the general background to this question. There has been an immense increase in the prison population. It doubled in 1952 by comparison with pre-war. There has been some increase in the number of prisons and Borstals. Notwithstanding that increase in accommodation there has been terrible overcrowding in prisons. Moreover, the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, required new methods of treatment and new types of establishment—quite rightly. That threw further pressure upon both accommodation and the staff.

Nevertheless, the Prison Service has built up a staff which is double that at the end of the war. The number of male officers of the basic grade on 1st January, 1947, was 1,750; on 1st October of this year the figure has reached 3,600. It has been possible to man the new establishments, to increase the staffs of all the establishments to some extent, and to restore the shift system, of which I shall say something more in a minute, in all except the local prisons, but we are still a long way short of what we should like to see. Reasonable progress was being made, but this progress has recently been brought to a halt, as the hon. Member indicated, by the shortfall in recruitment, and particularly this year.

I can tell the House the extent of the shortage. The authorised establishment of male officers in the basic grade is 3,922. There are in post at the present time 3,686; that is including temporary officers but excluding those in training. That is a deficiency of 236, or 6 per cent. That deficiency is spread fairly uniformly everywhere. In Cardiff, I can tell the hon. Member, there are only two night patrols short of establishment. Perhaps I should say that the establishment in the higher grades is about 650, and there is no deficiency in those higher grades except for casual vacancies which, of course, there must always be pending promotion. The position of 6 per cent. shortage is serious.

Photo of Mr James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan , Cardiff South East

The hon. Gentleman said he would return to the three-shift system. I should like to get the picture clear. Is it true to say that if it is desired to introduce the three-shift system the shortage would not be a little over 200 but over 1,200?

Photo of Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth , Hendon South

No, the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave was correct; that is to say, if there were to be a three-shift system in every prison the present deficiency would be about 1,000. The 1,000 includes the figure I have given. The deficiency I mentioned is the deficiency on the present establishment.

The present position is serious, but the future gives more cause for concern owing to the sharp fall in recruitment which has taken place. In 1953, 384 new officers were accepted as established after passing their training. In 1954, that number had fallen to 218. In the first nine months of this year the figure was only 166 out of 380 who joined for training. To make up for wastage and to maintain the reasonable rate of progress which we would like to see, we would like to have 360 this year. That is the order of deficiency at the present time.

This unfortunate trend is still continuing and it is true, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, that the total strength may soon begin to decline. There are thirty-two establishments on the single shift system. Those are all the local gaols. It has been a great disappointment to my right hon. and gallant Friend and to the Prison Commissioners that we have not been able to reduce that number this year. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that score. Perhaps I should add here that the women's side is no better.

Of course, the reasons for the setback in recruiting are not easy to ascertain and I will try to deal with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. First, pay and conditions. It is correct that pay starts at the figure of £7 17s. 6d. a week on appointment. In addition, there are free quarters and free uniform. That rate of pay rises to £10 4s. 0d. If the officer is promoted he can earn as chief officer £13 13s. a week. That is the maximum chief officer's rate. On top of that there is specialist pay which may be £1 a week or something of that order.

The hours are an 84-hour fortnight, and if overtime is worked it is either paid for or time off is given in lieu. This is, of course, a Government service. In that respect these figures are better than the ordinary wage packet because they carry a pension. In the case of the prison officers an officer is eligible for pension at the age of 55, and in reckoning service for pension every year after his twentieth counts as two years, which is a special feature of this service. Besides that, the officer is entitled to three weeks paid leave a year and nine days public holidays. I should add that equal pay has been agreed in principle and that it will be brought into operation with effect from 1st January this year.

I do not believe—and here I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman—that it is the financial conditions which are proving unattractive in this service. The fact is that it is the conditions in industrial employment which are drawing men from this service, just as they are drawing men from all other services. That is not a special feature of the prison service. On the other hand, I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have got to do what we can to correct the matter. We cannot just accept that position.

Pay has been raised. In fact, it was raised in 1950, in 1952, in 1953, and again in October, 1954. Further pay claims were tabled by the Prison Officers' Association in September last, and they are now under consideration by the Whitley Council. As the hon. Member indicated, if agreement is not reached, the matter can go, and will no doubt go, to arbitration. I do not think he would suggest that it would be appropriate either to discuss these matters in the House or to interfere with that proper method of arriving at an appropriate rate of remuneration.

Just under 2,000 new houses and flats have been provided for the service since the war. There are 1,500 pre-war quarters still in use. I agree that some of them are not good, but we are going ahead and between 225 and 250 new houses and flats are being provided every year. At present, eight out of ten of all officers are provided with married quarters; the remaining two-tenths, of course, include bachelors and those who have houses of their own, and so on.

I agree with the hon. Member, too, that it is important that we should do what we can to publicise the merits of this service. In fact, the Prison Commissioners have put advertisements in the national and provincial daily newspapers, in the weeklies and in service periodicals. We have had publicity on the B.B.C., and we get all the assistance that is possible through the employment exchanges.

The fundamental difficulty is to give people outside the prison service a fair picture of what conditions are like inside the service. The nature of the job makes it sound forbidding. It is not so. On the contrary, I believe that the service provides a very satisfying career for those who enter it. I was very glad that the hon. Member really implied that in what he said about the Report of the Prison Commissioners. It is a fascinating job, and the moment a person goes into it he appreciates that here is something which is, in fact, a great social service.

Prison discipline is not based on repression or brute force. It certainly has not been since the time of the Gladstone Report, towards the end of the last century. A succession of Home Secretaries and Prison Commissioners, splendidly supported by the staff, have based prison discipline on the principles of leadership and trust, and those principles call for fine qualities in those who are to exercise them.

There is much specialised work for those who enter the prison service, and that specialised work is increasing with the new types of prison which have been developed since the war. The specialised work, as I have already said, carries additional financial advantages.

From what I myself have seen in prisons, I can say that those who are engaged there, in particular those who are instructing, display the same pride in their work and the same pride in teaching those who are learning as one will find in instructors anywhere else.

The work of a prison officer is exacting, but it is not dull and it is not depressing. On the whole, those who enter the service tend to stay in their job. It is true that we have had resignations; in fact, there were 60 last year from all causes. But that represents, on the whole, a small proportion, I believe, compared with those in other similar services.

I hope that the hon. Member's action in raising this matter will give some publicity to the need for and the value of this work, and that it may result in reversing that unfortunate decline in recruiting which, I agree with him, has been deplorable.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.