Prison Officers (Industrial Action)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

2. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to prison officers balloting on industrial action. (S5T-01646)

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government values highly the dedication, commitment and professionalism of Scotland’s hard-working prison officers and other staff. It is to the credit of our front-line prison officers that, despite pressures, our prisons are generally stable and secure environments.

The recognised trade unions have submitted to the Scottish Prison Service their pay proposal for 2019-20, and it is being considered ahead of formal pay negotiations. That process will continue and we would not wish to prejudge its outcome.

As David Strang, former Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for Scotland, said in the introduction to the 2017-18 annual report:

“We should never take for granted the good order that is maintained in Scotland’s prisons and that they are in general stable and secure environments.”

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I thank the minister for that answer. She mentioned good order. The Prison Officers Association Scotland says that officers face rising levels of violence. I have compiled figures from every

Scottish Prison Service annual report since the Scottish National Party came to power in 2007, and they show that the number of assaults in prisons has never been higher. It has risen by 50 per cent on the SNP’s watch. Does the minister think that that is acceptable? Will she apologise to the prison officers for that appalling statistic?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

No, it is not acceptable. The SPS has introduced a national strategic risk and threat group to oversee the response to violence against staff; in addition, local and national violence dashboards have been developed to support early identification of emerging trends so that the SPS can commission the deployment of a range of tactical options, including things such as national search operations, in order to support prisons in the recovery of weapons and contraband that can lead to or be used in violence.

The SPS continues to seek to develop intelligence and evidence around things such as substance misuse in our prisons, and to understand how they can lead to incidents of violence. A working group has been established to develop operational guidance for all staff in order to support the management of individuals who appear to be under the influence of any substance, and to mitigate the risk of violence.

As the chairman of the Prison Officers Association Scotland noted last week, we have not seen the same levels of violence in Scottish prisons that have been experienced in prisons in England and Wales. However, we are not complacent about that, and we support the on-going work of the SPS in tackling the violence in our prisons.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

The minister says that she is not complacent, but the SNP has entirely ignored ideas from the Conservative benches that might stem the violence, such as supplying officers with body-worn cameras. Prisons have been under the SNP’s control for 12 years, and the fact that the ballot is going ahead at all is a mark of failure. If a strike goes ahead, it will be entirely the fault of the SNP.

Parliament must be given an opportunity to hear full details of the matter, the failures of the SNP that have led to this point and what the minister proposes to do about both the potential strike and the violence against officers. Will the minister commit today to give a full statement to Parliament?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

The first thing to be absolutely clear about is that the

Prison Officers Association Scotland has put in a request for a negotiation around pay, and it has been quite clear that this is not to do with conditions and other factors: it is to do with pay. That is the first thing in the question for me to correct.

We recognise the sometimes difficult and dangerous circumstances that prison officers work in and we are very grateful to them for the service that they give in their jobs. We also recognise the importance of providing a safe and secure environment for those who are in custody, as well as for the men and women who work in our prisons.

The SPS response to increasing levels of violence within our prisons is continually under review and it is taken very seriously. I reassure the Parliament on that point. The SPS continues to respond to the increasing prison population effectively and it has in place robust contingency measures to ensure that the safety and security of staff and those who are in its care are maintained.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Three other members would like to ask a question. I call Neil Findlay.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Pay, overcrowding and violence are indeed issues that are affecting prison staff. Recently, I have spoken to a number of prison officers who have also raised concerns about the impact of new psychoactive substances within prisons. What is the Government doing to protect prison officers who are being impacted by those substances? There is a very bad outcome from that. That is a real, live, big issue among prison staff and is wrapped up in all the concerns that they have about workload, what they do on a day-to-day basis and their health and safety.

The Presiding Officer:

That was slightly tangential to the main question, so can the answer be brief, minister?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

Neil Findlay mentioned striking. I gently point out to him that prison officers in Scotland have the right to strike, unlike their counterparts in England and Wales. An anti-union ban was imposed in 1994 by Michael Howard as Home Secretary and never repealed in 13 years of the last Labour Government. The SNP Government recognised the right of prison officers to be treated as fairly and equitably as workers in other unions in Scotland.

On drug problems, the SPS is working collaboratively with the Scottish Government and other partners to respond to the challenges that drugs, specifically new psychoactive substances, pose to Scottish prisons. The issue of substance misuse in our prisons is taken very seriously and a range of security measures is in place to prevent the introduction of contraband into our prisons.

The Presiding Officer:

Mr Findlay can either make a point of order or ask a subsequent question.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

That is fine. I did not mention striking in my question. I know that the minister comes with a prepared answer from the civil service, which she has just read out verbatim. That answer had nothing to do with the question that I asked. Prison officers are struggling daily to address the issue. One of the main aspects related to that is prison mail, because the substances are getting into prison through mail being dipped in them. What is the minister doing to protect prison officers from those substances?

The Presiding Officer:

Mr Findlay has had two opportunities to make the point. It is an important point, but it is tangential to the main question, which was about the strike ballot that is taking place. The minister has given a response. If the member is unhappy with the response, there are many ways in which he can follow it up—for example by submitting written questions, or using other opportunities in the chamber.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

In 2017-18, prison inspectors in England and Wales documented some of the most disturbing jail conditions that they had ever seen; they described conditions that have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century. The situation in the rest of the United Kingdom is in stark contrast to that in Scotland. Of course, as the minister said, that is no reason for complacency. How is the Scottish Government taking forward action to reduce the prison population, including extending the presumption against short sentences?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

Justice officials have established a prison resilience leadership group of senior officials from a range of justice agencies to ensure cross-agency understanding of the challenges of a rising prison population and to seek co-ordinated approaches in response. We continue to strengthen the provision of alternatives to custody, both to tackle the high remand population and to ensure that community sentences can support rehabilitation and reduce reoffending to help keep crime down and our communities safe. An order to extend the current presumption against short sentences from sentences of three months to sentences of 12 months will be scrutinised in Parliament before the summer recess and, subject to parliamentary approval, the extended presumption will come into force over the summer period.

The Presiding Officer:

I cannot help feeling that Ms Mackay has followed the same track as Mr Findlay in asking questions and for answers that are tangential. I hope that Mr McArthur will get us back on track with the subject in hand.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Given the prison officers’ concerns around overcrowding, and notwithstanding what the minister has just said, the prison population now stands at more than 8,000. Two thirds of prisons are at or beyond capacity. Prisoners are sleeping on mattresses on the floor and are doubled up in single cells. If the maximum capacity is not the real maximum, how many more people does the minister think can be accommodated before overcrowding becomes an emergency?

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

The member is quite right. The problem is a serious one, and the Scottish Government is taking it equally seriously.

The Scottish Prison Service continues to respond effectively to the increasing prison population to ensure that the security and the safety of Scotland’s prisons are maintained. In response to the increasing prison population, the SPS has developed detailed contingency plans. We have already agreed a range of actions that the SPS will take to help it to manage the population within the operational flexibility in its estate. Officials continue to work with the SPS to consider further options to manage the current prison population, alongside measures to reduce the churn of people who enter prison on remand or for short-term sentences.

As I mentioned in my previous answer, in line with our programme for government commitment, an order to extend the current presumption against short sentences from sentences of three months or less to those of 12 months or less will be introduced shortly.