It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I understand that your chairing the debate is quite fitting, given that you still have a special interest in prisons and all things justice-related.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend Gordon Henderson—the beautiful Isle of Sheppey, as he referred to it—for securing the debate on this important subject. He clearly demonstrated an ongoing commitment to raising awareness of the issues around the three prisons in his constituency, the prison officers and their families. I thank other hon. Members for their contributions. In the time I have, I will endeavour to answer as many as possible of the questions that were put to me.
Let me begin by providing a little of the history of prison officer pensions, for those who may not be aware of the retirement ages for prison officers and how they have changed since 2007. Pensions are, by their very nature, complex, but I will try to be brief. Prison officers are members of the civil service pension scheme, the policy and rules of which are owned by the Cabinet Office. Prior to 2007, the retirement age for those covered by that scheme was 60. Following an annual review by the Government Actuary’s Department, a new career average pension was brought in, with a pension age of 65 for new entrants from July 2007.
The demands of the prison officer role were considered at that time, and it was decided that when compared with other civil servants in the scheme who had demanding roles, such as seamen on Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, a special exception could not be made. The Prison Officers Association signed up to the 2007 scheme, which introduced a pension age of 65. In 2015, a new scheme was introduced that regularised the position for most staff and changed the pension age to 65, or to a staff member’s state pension age, which for many is 68.
It is important to be clear that the Government are alive to the issue and the views of staff and trade unions on retirement age. Efforts have been made twice—in 2013 and again in 2017—to provide a route to lowering the retirement age. The 2013 package offered prison officers the ability to purchase a lower pension age of 65 through the payment of heavily subsidised additional contributions into the scheme, with the additional option to pay further contributions to purchase a pension age of 60. A similar offer was made to prison officers in 2017, but there was no cost to the individual member of staff to purchase a lower pension age of 65. Both offers were rejected by the POA membership.
A comparison has been made today with firefighter and police pensions. Staff in those schemes have a retirement age of 60. Although it is true that work in those roles has some similarities to the work of prison officers, as was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, because of the higher physical demands consistently placed on firefighters and the higher potential for serious injury and fatality in both roles, the Government felt that the role of a prison officer was not analogous to those in the emergency services.
Putting that assessment to one side, it is crucial to understand that that lower retirement age is supported by pension contributions by staff of up to 14%—almost 10% higher than the average 5.45% contribution rate in the civil service. It is not, therefore, a like-for-like comparison. Should a change in retirement age be contemplated again in the future, it would involve a significant increase to the staff contribution to the scheme.