I absolutely agree. Given the frontline work that our hard-working prison officers do, they should be an emergency service—a frontline uniformed service—as our other services are, and they should be rewarded and treated exactly the same. I have made that point before.
Like many other public sector professionals on the frontline of vital services, prison officers were also subject to the Government’s harsh pay freeze and public sector pay cap for many years. Even though the pay cap has now been lifted, prison officers are unfairly disadvantaged when compared with their public sector counterparts. For too many prison officers, it is too late. They still feel inadequately rewarded for the important work that they do.
Safety for prison officers has also declined dramatically, with a quadrupling of assaults against prison officers since 2010 and an alarming number of serious injuries, as found in the recent response to my written question, rising from 160 in 2010 to 850 last year. A number of examples have been given by hon. Members; time not permitting, I cannot go through them all, but the reality is that prison officers now go to work fearing for their safety—expecting to be assaulted, beaten or abused. It is truly horrific that they feel that way while this Government do little to address the underlying issues. Those are not the actions of a Government who respect prison officers or treat them with the dignity that they deserve, and nor is raising the retirement age of prison officers to 68.
The job of a prison officer is physically demanding and requires the satisfactory completion of a demanding fitness test. It requires fully fit personnel who are able to perform control and restraint techniques, exercise strength, maintain their fitness and stamina over long periods and react with agility in demanding and quickly changing environments, as alluded to by several Members. The public would not expect anything less from those who keep them safe—and neither, it seems, would the Ministry of Justice, which stated in its submission to the Cabinet Office that the changes were unacceptable. However, the Government have ignored serious concerns about prison officers’ ability to carry out their roles effectively as they get older, despite the Ministry of Justice’s own admissions.
The Government have repeatedly refused to engage with the Prison Officers Association and the prison officers that it represents. Instead of getting around the table to work with the POA to seek a solution, and to look for ways to resolve prison officers’ serious concerns about the retirement age, the Government have sought to pin the blame on it. I am deeply disappointed that Ministers—I appreciate that this Minister is new in her role and is not the Minister responsible for prisons and probation—have failed, quite frankly, to show the leadership needed. They have put the health and safety of prison staff at risk and made it clear that the Government see prison officers not as a vital workforce worthy of investment and support, but as a dispensable commodity.
Because of the way they have been treated by the Government, and with horrendous and dangerous conditions on the balconies and in the wings, many prison officers no longer see their role as a long-term career. It is little wonder that prison officers—both those who have served for years and those in their first year of service—are leaving at such a pronounced rate, creating a retention crisis and worsening the huge problems in our prison system that are of the Government’s making. That is why the next Labour Government will address this issue, and we will work with the POA and prison officers to make sure that they are properly trained and rewarded, and that they are physically capable of doing their jobs. Only then can we deliver a prison system that provides us with security and rehabilitation.