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Prison Staff: Health and Safety — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member) 9:30 am, 18th March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered health and safety of prison staff.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I start by paying tribute to Grahame Morris, because this debate is of his instigation. It was his idea, and it is regrettable that he is not here to move the motion, but he is doing the correct thing by self-isolating. I understand that the same is true for the ministerial Benches; it is the appropriate action to take. I thank the hon. Gentleman and his staff for the support and guidance they have given me, and for the opportunity to speak in a debate that is especially important not only at this juncture, but in the wider context of recent years.

We have to start with an explanation of who we are dealing with when we talk about prison staff, because there is a great lack of awareness, if not ignorance. As a young lawyer in Scotland many years ago—over a generation now—I would give a jury speech that would basically explain that the ladies and gentlemen of the jury did not know the jury system in Scotland. They knew more about Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men” than they did about the fact that jury trials in Scotland have 15 members and three verdicts. Things are obviously slightly different when it comes to prison staff, but in many ways the context is the same. Many people’s impression of a prison will come more from “The Shawshank Redemption” than from the prison in the locality near them, or where people from their communities go. We have to challenge that.

The lack of awareness also extends to those who work in the Prison Service. That is why I put on the record the fact that they are a uniformed service; they are also an emergency service, although they are not classified in that way by Government. I think others will comment on that issue when we talk about how their pensions are treated: it is an outrage that people are expected to operate on a landing at the age of 68. Some jobs are age restricted, and being a prison officer should most certainly be one. They deserve to be treated the same as other services.

This is a historic issue. My good friend Professor Andrew Coyle served at both Peterhead prison in Scotland and Brixton prison down here in London, and is a global expert on prisons. I remember reading in his history of the Prison Service in Scotland that in the initial stages, police and prison officers had parity. The pay of a constable and the pay of a prison officer were the same until the latter part of the 19th century, but then that changed and since then prison officers’ pay has never caught up. To some extent, that is a tragedy, but it is where we are. I do not think we can reverse that, but we can mitigate it and take action, whether on pensions or other terms and conditions.

That brings me to the question of who we are talking about. As I say, there is a great deal of misunderstanding; I remember going into the Prison Service and chatting away to officers about this. There are many occupations at the present moment, such as health service workers, police officers or those who work with the children and elderly, where people will cross the street to thank them and shake their hand. That rarely happens for prison officers—they get a sharp intake of breath instead—but the service they give often mirrors that contributed by those other services, and the work they do is valuable.

There is also a sense of misunderstanding among those going into the service. I remember asking young officers at the training academy at Polmont in Scotland whether the job was what they had anticipated. They said they had gone in thinking their job would be like a security guard’s, but it was much more like that of a psychiatric nurse. Those of us involved in the prison estate know how much of the work is like that of a psychiatric nurse, even though these people are not properly trained or qualified for such work. It is about dealing with deeply troubled people; prison officers do have to deal with deeply violent people on occasion, but the work they do with young offenders, women prisoners and vulnerable prisoners is really quite exceptional. It is a matter not of brutality but of humanity, which is why we have to put on record our tribute to them.

We also have to remember that these people are not particularly well trained for this work, nor are they well paid. As I understand it, a prison officer in Norway goes through a degree course of four years. In Scotland, as in England, a person will be able to be active and working—albeit not necessarily on the landing—within a period of weeks that they can count on both hands. That is hugely different from what other regimes expect, but it is expected here. Indeed, once we include people’s toes as well as their fingers, they will be on the landing and expected to deal with frontline work. I do not argue that there needs to be a degree course, but I do think that we need to expect and understand the challenges that prison staff face, because they do that with sparse training and not for a king’s ransom, as has been mentioned in relation to a variety of other issues.

That takes us on to the particular issues. The first issue that I want to touch on is why the Minister and I are here. The reason is that the coronavirus is striking down Members of this institution as it will strike down members of our community.