The Scottish Government recognises the importance of providing a safe environment for people who live and work in our prisons. I am sure that all members across the chamber will want to thank prison officers for the good work that they do in very challenging and intensive environments.
The Scottish Prison Service provides a range of measures and interventions to those who require them. Those measures and interventions include occupational health support and access to counselling services.
Absence at the SPS increased month on month for over two years, but there are now positive signs that that trend may be reversing, with consecutive reductions at the end of August, September, October and November.
Scotland’s prisons are stable, safe and well run. That is very much to the credit of prison officers and staff, and I am very grateful for their unwavering dedication and commitment. I was pleased that agreement was reached on the Scottish Prison Service pay agreement for 2019 to 2022, which reflects the important contribution that is made by all staff in our prisons. In stark contrast to the pay award that is worth 2.2 per cent for prison staff in England and Wales, our prison officers received a 6 per cent pay increase. Furthermore, prison officers in Scotland have been provided with certainty over future pay rises through a three-year deal that will lead to their salaries increasing by up to 15 per cent over that period.
The recent Justice Committee report showed that sickness absence rates among staff are high and are rising, with the average number of days lost to sickness now standing at 17. Many existing staff are working increased hours to maintain the current system. Given that prison staff are the backbone of the system, surely the cabinet secretary agrees that urgent action must be taken to stop those rising levels of sickness absence. What plans are in place?
There are a few. As I said, over the past few months, there have been positive signs that the trend that Peter Chapman mentioned is reversing. The number of days that have been lost to sickness has reduced for four consecutive months, which is good and positive. We will not be complacent, but that says to me that the measures that the Scottish Prison Service has put in place are starting to work and pay off. I have given some detail on the number of interventions that are available to help with the mental health issues that prison officers suffer from.
We should not forget the physical impacts of what is a very challenging job. For example, 15,000 days per annum are lost due to musculoskeletal conditions. That is not helped by the fact that the United Kingdom Government has continued to maintain the pension age for our prison officers at 68, despite there having been reforms for other civil servants. I have continued to write to the UK Government to ask it to look again at the issue, because prison officers should not be forced to work until they are 68. Such powers very much lie in the hands of the Westminster Government, and I hope that Peter Chapman will join me in asking whoever ends up forming the next UK Government to pursue a different approach for our prison officers.