Prison Officer Pension Age - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 18 March 2024.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 3:07, 18 March 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the cost to public funds of bringing prison officer pension age into line with that of firefighters, the police and armed services.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the Government currently have no plans to change the pensionable age of prison officers, which is set under the Civil Service-wide pension scheme. Any estimate of the cost of doing so would require complex actuarial calculations to determine the higher contributions that would need to be met by the employer and by current and future members.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend the Minister for that reply. Is it correct that Treasury Ministers are responsible for setting the pension age and not MoJ Ministers? Is it also correct that for a newly recruited prison officer, the pension age is 68 years old? Is this policy not really one of “lock until you drop”?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, on the first question, the Treasury has overall responsibility for setting pension arrangements for the Civil Service; that is not an MoJ responsibility, and my noble friend correctly makes that point. As for “lock until you drop”, can we please distinguish between the age at which you get a full pension and the age at which you can retire, which is something quite different? A prison officer does not have to work to the age of 68 to qualify for any pension; he can retire earlier on a smaller pension and then, unlike most situations in the armed services, he can return to work—in a less front-line role, typically. He will continue to work and earn a pension, as well as the other pension he has already accrued. It is not at all clear that prison officers under the present scheme are worse off than they would be if they were in the armed services, especially given the higher contributions the latter have to make.

Photo of Lord Woodley Lord Woodley Labour

My Lords, prison officers are, unfortunately, banned from taking industrial action and the Government are, in my opinion, exploiting this unjustifiable restriction. Lifting the pension age to 68 is a classic example of this, and looking after violent, overcrowded and understaffed prisons is not a job for older workers. Does the Minister agree that this policy, which is “lock until you drop”, is reckless, dangerous and plain wrong?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The Government are unable to agree with the somewhat colourful language used by the noble Lord. The Government have the highest regard for our prison officers, who stand on the front line in prisons and are some of our finest public servants.

However, it is as well to remember that the pension contributions paid by prison officers are much lower than those paid by other uniformed services—between 4% and 6% for prison officers, as against 12% to 15% for other services. These days, if you are a young person in your 20s or early 30s entering the prison service, you are not necessarily thinking about what you are going to get when you are 68. You may be more than satisfied with a lower pension contribution now.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

My Lords, undoubtedly, people want prisons, but they should not forget about the people who have to run them. It is a very dangerous profession. There was a settlement in 2016 which, unfortunately, because it was wrapped up in other settlements, was rejected by the prison officers. Last year, it was indicated that the Secretary of State would hold talks about talks with the Prison Officers’ Association, but there does not seem to have been much movement towards negotiations since then. Does the Minister agree that this section of the benefit—mainly pensions, including, if necessary, increased contributions—should be revived in the interests of these most hard-working servants of the state?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that it was a great pity that the arrangements negotiated in 2016 were rejected by the Prison Officers’ Association in 2017. Since then, Ministers have done their best to reopen the matter. As my noble friend Lord Attlee said in opening, it is a matter ultimately for the Treasury. The Treasury is currently besieged by many calls on its resources, including in the pensions sphere, with very large sums of public money being taken up by the McCloud Remedy, which I can explain to noble Lords in more detail—if your Lordships would remain awake. The overall position is that, of course, this matter should continue to be pursued.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in this House, 68 may seem only early to mid-career, but the general public will be worried at the thought of prison officers of that age carrying on in a very difficult and dangerous job. As part of a broader programme of prison reform, should the Government and the service not be thinking of allowing an earlier retirement age and using the experience gained in other parts of the prison and probation service in the proper through-treatment of prisoners?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I take the point the noble Lord is making. When I had the honour to join this House, I was told that life begins at 70, which has a certain amount of truth in it these days. What the noble Lord suggests is very close to what is currently happening. A typical position is for an older officer to step back from front-line duties, be re-employed by the Prison Service and continue to earn a pensionable salary, as well as having his earlier pension. I am not completely convinced that that is not a perfectly sensible solution to the problem.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the noble and learned Lord not agree that our job is not like the job of prison officer? We do not face the same danger as they do on a daily basis. He described prison officers as the finest public servants, and of course, we agree, but does he not think that the Government’s policy is short-sighted? One of the criticisms that the Prison Officers’ Association continually expresses to us is the lack of retention of experienced prison officers. Retention is the key to maintaining prison officer morale. Will the Government look at this policy again?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the Government will certainly continue to look at this policy. As the noble Lord says, the job of a prison officer is absolutely not like our job. On retention and short-sightedness, the Government currently have no evidence that the pension arrangements as such are affecting initial recruitment or are a factor in retention. There are many factors that affect retention, but pensions do not seem to be very significant in that package. The fact that lower contributions are paid is very attractive to a young man, who does not necessarily worry about what will happen when he is 68.

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Labour

My Lords, this situation goes back to the report of my noble friend Lord Hutton back in the early years of the last decade, in which he specifically mentioned that police officers should have a lower retirement age. The issue the noble and learned Lord needs to address is that, surely, the comparable profession for prison officers is police officers. The differential in respect of police officers, who fully merit their early retirement, applies equally to prison officers. Mentioning pension arrangements for the Armed Forces in the same breath illustrates the hole that the Minister is digging for himself.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, my understanding is that the 2011 Hutton report to which the noble Lord refers made a distinction between certain uniformed services—the Armed Forces themselves, the fire service and the police—and everybody else. Part of the problem we are discussing has occurred because the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, put prison officers in the latter category, so they were brought into the general Civil Service pension scheme that came in in 2015, which, in fact, is quite a good scheme. For the reasons I have already given, the Government do not accept that prison officers are as badly off as is sometimes claimed. On the other hand, the Government are perfectly prepared to continue to consider and reflect on the points that have been made.