I agree with my hon. Friend. There are many pressures and causes, but the pension age is a significant one. There are a number of remedies that need to be applied, as outlined by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
If it is not presumptuous, I wonder whether the Minister might consider inviting the right hon. Lord Hutton of Furness, who I understand is aged 64, to work in a prison and be part of a team being confronted by inmates with socks filled with pool balls, with razor blades and improvised knives, or surrounded by a group of youths, many of whom seem to have access to Spice and illegal substances, who are only too willing to attack prison officers. Setting prison officers’ pension age at 68 must have been an oversight. If the Government seriously and knowingly took that decision, it is a cruel and callous one, and risks the lives of prison officers working in physically demanding and often violent workplaces.
I urge the Minister to take two actions. First, to acknowledge that 68 is too late to expect a prison officer to work in an unsafe workplace. Secondly, to commit to bringing forward in the next Parliament—next week—the legislation and regulations required to align the pension age of prison officers with their colleagues in other uniformed emergency services.
Prison officers have heard the excuses in parliamentary responses; we heard some of them this morning in Justice questions. The offer that the Government previously made, to reduce the retirement age to 65, is simply a bad deal. Prison officers want pension age parity with their uniformed colleagues. The previous offer was attached to a derisory three-year pay deal and excluded many uniformed staff, who would still have to continue to work until they were 68.
I ask the Minister and everyone listening to the debate to watch the latest videos published by the POA and look at the horrific injuries suffered by prison officers. We should feel ashamed that they are doing a public service, protecting the public, while Parliament stands idle, forcing them to work in terrible conditions that are neither healthy nor safe. We should feel ashamed that we outsource our prison service and system, and that the safety and security of prison officers is left in the hands of companies such as Serco and G4S, whose first and foremost interest is shareholders and profits. We should feel ashamed that we want to put prison officers approaching the age of 70 into such a terrible and dangerous situations.
Our prisons are unsafe and understaffed. Prison officers are unappreciated and underpaid. The Minister should set out a comprehensive package to recruit and retain prison officers through improved pay, pensions and conditions. I ask the Minister to do more than give empty platitudes and hollow promises to prison officers. Please accept that 68 is too late and lower prison officers’ pension age to 60. No ifs, no buts; stand up today, make the promise and bring forward the necessary legislation next week—and I guarantee the Minister will get my vote for that legislation.