Prison Officers (Stress-related Sickness Absence)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

2. To ask the Scottish Government what urgent action it plans in response to recent reports of a rise in stress-related sickness absences among prison officers. (S5T-01858)

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of providing a safe environment for those living and working in our prisons. Prison officers work in a difficult and intensive environment that can, at times, be dangerous. The Scottish Prison Service provides a range of measures and interventions to those who require them, including occupational health support and access to counselling services.

Absence at the SPS was increasing month on month for more than two years. There are now positive signs that that trend may be reversing, with slight reductions at the end of August and September.

Scotland’s prisons are stable, safe and well run. That is very much to the credit of prison officers and staff across the country, and I am very grateful for their unwavering dedication and commitment. I was pleased that agreement was reached on Scottish Prison Service pay for 2019 to 2022. The agreement reflects the important contribution that is made by all staff in our prisons and rightly sees the lowest-paid staff in our prisons receive a pay increase of up to 6 per cent in the first year and up to 15 per cent over three years. As part of that pay deal, agreement was reached on wider reforms, including the introduction of a new attendance management policy, which should directly help to tackle the very issue that the member has raised.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

Overcrowding in prisons, combined with an increase in violence, mental health issues and the use of psychoactive substances have all been raised as key factors in sickness levels. Some staff feel inadequately skilled or trained to deal with some of the issues that they are confronted with. It is obvious that the issue urgently requires to be given priority. Will the cabinet secretary agree to do that?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank Alexander Stewart for asking the question. I know that, in his time as a councillor, he took a real interest in prison-related issues. If there was one factor that could be dealt with, and one silver bullet or panacea, we would have found it, but clearly there is not. As Alexander Stewart says, there are a range of factors. The SPS is doing important work to try to tackle the issue, including the provision of telephone and face-to-face counselling to staff. There has also been a pilot of a variety of occupational health interventions, which are being evaluated to see whether they can be rolled out across the prison estate.

As well as the mental health issues, on which the member is right to focus, it is worth mentioning the physical demands of such a job. We know that approximately 15,000 days per annum are lost to musculoskeletal conditions. The SPS has therefore introduced free physiotherapy services for staff in HMP Edinburgh and HM YOI Polmont; that has been very positive, and consideration will be given to rolling it out further.

I agree with Alexander Stewart that there is urgency about this issue, which is why work is already taking place. In the past couple of months, we have seen a more positive trend, but clearly there is still a lot more for us to do collectively.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

The fact is that, in the past year alone, stress-related sickness has gone up by nearly one third and prison officers are quitting altogether because, for some of them, the thought of going back to work is too much to bear. Will the cabinet secretary guarantee that staff will get the vital resources, support and training that they need to ensure that they can fulfil their duties?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

We have invested when the Prison Service has told us that it needs more financial resource. This year alone, we have invested an additional £24 million in the Prison Service. It told us that it needed that additional funding because of the pressures that it faced as a result of the overcrowding problem.

I can give an absolute assurance to Alexander Stewart and, indeed, to all members that, when the Prison Service tells me that it has an issue that needs to be dealt with urgently, this Government will listen to it. That is demonstrated by the historic pay deal of 15 per cent over three years for prison officers, who do an excellent job and one that—as I am sure that all of us, including those of us in the Government, recognise—is becoming increasingly difficult.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Does the cabinet secretary agree that prison officers do an incredible job and should be recognised for the important work that they do in what are often difficult circumstances? I saw that for myself when I visited Barlinnie this morning with the Justice Committee.

The Scottish Government is committed to reducing the prison population by introducing a presumption against short sentences. What impact would the Conservative Party’s policies on justice have on our prison capacity?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

That is a fair point. Alexander Stewart acknowledged that overcrowding is one of the factors that are involved in the staff sickness and absence rate. The Government and I, as justice secretary, are absolutely committed to reducing prisoner numbers. The recent Conservative justice policies of ending automatic early release for prisoners on short sentences and supporting whole-life sentences, along with the Conservativesopposition to a presumption against short sentences, would increase the prison population by about 40 per cent to about 11,500. As far as I am aware—Conservative members can tell me otherwise if this is not the case—the Conservatives have never announced a policy of building additional prisons. Therefore, that 40 per cent increase would have to be managed within our current prisons. At least three new Barlinnies would have to be built to cope with that level of demand.

Conservative members might think that staff are being affected by the overcrowding position at the moment, but the problem would not only be exacerbated by their policies; frankly, our prison staff would be at breaking point.