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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

The hon. Member makes a valid point. I am always of the view that these things are best dealt with by the independent judiciary; we must allow them to deal with the particular facts and circumstances. However, I have to place it on the record—the Prison Officers Association and the other unions would expect no less—that we cannot tolerate prison officers being viewed as punchbags, because people should not routinely be abused, albeit I do think that the judiciary have a duty to take cognisance of the issues and challenges being faced.

An analogy that I have heard when speaking to people is that prisons are a microcosm of our society. People will say, “Why don’t prisons educate prisoners like this? Why don’t they give them work training like that? Why don’t they care for them like this?” It is like going into a school or college and saying, “You’re going to do every class in the curriculum and you’re going to do it in this corridor,” because that is the situation in a prison. There is a requirement for education facilities, work facilities, health facilities and social engagement facilities; there is a requirement for kitchens. And those things are required in a confined space, so some of the things that can be delivered in a school, college, university or even a Parliament cannot be done, and certainly not to the same extent.

Equally, on the coronavirus, we have criteria being put down about social distancing, working from home and self-isolation. How can that be done by prisoners, let alone prison officers? There is a specific need there, and my request to the Minister is this. Can we get some guidance and assurance about testing and about the safety and security of staff and of prisoners?

Alicia Kearns made the correct point. We have to deal not simply with prison officers and prison staff, but with prisoners, because if we create conditions, as John Howell mentioned, that are unacceptable, that creates a toxic cocktail that we have to address. I therefore ask the Minister to be specific about what assurances he can give to staff, because some of the anecdotal tales coming back from the trade unions are of staff members being expected to do things that would not be asked of staff here and that are unacceptable or unsafe, and prison staff have families and elderly relatives the same as the rest of us.

That does not take away from the reason why the hon. Member for Easington brought up this issue in the first instance. It has already been touched on in the two interventions: violence on the prison estate. There was an underlying crisis even before the coronavirus came upon us. This has been ticking away. It has not been an act of God. It has not been a global pandemic from which we cannot isolate our country any more than any other nation can. There have been wilful acts of neglect by this and past Administrations. There has been a failure to act timeously and appropriately. Money was tight, but it is tighter now. Money can be found for corporations, but apparently it cannot be found for custodians. That cannot be right.

We must look at the records on the issues raised, in terms of staffing and violence, and in terms of specific drugs, such as Spice, about which I have some sympathy for the Government. Even with the best regime, the ability to stop drugs coming into prisons is a social as well as an institutional problem, which we have to deal with.

It is clear from the Library briefing, which many of us have, that prison workforce numbers fell by a quarter between 2010 and 2014, from 25,000 to 18,000. To be fair, the numbers have come up again slightly, but they are still not back to where they were. In addition, the numbers were higher before 2010, although that figure includes support staff, and, because of contracting and privatisation, which I will come on to, the fall in numbers has been ongoing.

More critical has been the loss of experience. Becoming a prison officer is not something that people can pick up in 10 weeks; it is picked up over years of service. They need to know who to watch out for, who to look out for, who is vulnerable, who needs to be watched because they are up to various things, and all the tricks and turns that go on. In 2010, 7% of prison officers had been in post for less than 2 years, compared with 35% in 2019. When we are dealing with a crisis in numbers and the estate, to have over a third of the staff being inexperienced is simply scandalous. The proportion of prison officers who had 10 years’ experience or more went from 56% to 46%.

There has been an increase in the numbers of assaults, and the record on that is quite lamentable. It reached a peak of 10,424 assaults on staff in the year ending June 2019. Before 2015, there were around 3,000 recorded assaults. That is a threefold increase and more; it is simply unacceptable.

I have some understanding of what the Government are dealing with in terms of Spice and I cut them some slack. It troubles our communities and our estates. It needs checks and it needs to be rolled back. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made the point that no one should routinely be afraid of assault when they go to work. No one whose loved one works in the service should worry about them on a daily basis. Some occupations will always trouble us, such as those that went down the pits, went offshore fishing or serve as police officers, but we take steps to ensure their safety. Little has been done and the situation has worsened for prison officers, which is simply unacceptable.

What is said to police officers—that they cannot and should not expect to routinely be punchbags—must equally apply to prison officers. Whether it is by concurrent or consecutive sentences, or by increased sentencing, action needs to be taken. I agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton that those perpetrating the assaults need to realise that their actions have consequences, and for prison officers such assaults cannot simply be viewed as being part of the job or par for the course.

It is frightening. The prison officers’ unions have provided testimony from individuals that is scandalous. A male private sector prison officer states:

“Prisons are totally unsafe for staff and prisoners. I have been a prison officer for over 20 years and its decline in that time has been shocking. This decline is down to the profiled staffing levels being reduced by 50%, with the same risk prisoners to work with.”

Another male public sector prison officer states:

“I have just returned from hospital after receiving treatment for yet another bite I received as a result of an assault by a prisoner. However, on this occasion the prisoner has been confirmed as being Hepatitis C positive!”

That is simply unacceptable. There is a whole catalogue of such comments and I could go on. A male public sector prison officer says:

“I have been in the Service for over 20 years and I have never felt scared to come to work - but now I fear for myself and my colleagues.”

That is scandalous, and we have to address it.

We must increase staffing levels and retain experience. That must mean looking at terms and conditions, and especially at pensions. We need to address those who perpetrate the problem. We need to tackle a culture of violence and the cocktail of drugs, which are mentioned by the prison officer staff unions in terms of how they want a charter implemented, and I ask the Minister to take that on board. It cannot just be soaked up by those who serve. Action must be taken by Government.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the private sector. I put on the record that I have great support for private-sector prison officers and staff, as I have for those who work in the public sector, but privatisation has been an unmitigated disaster, as it was in probation, and I would ask the Minister consider rolling back upon it. The best testimony that I ever received was the former inspector of prisons in Scotland, Clive Fairweather.

I do not think Clive Fairweather would necessarily have been a supporter of me or my party, as his whole background was having been a British Army officer—indeed, his final role had been as commander of the SAS—but I remember Clive telling me why he opposed private prisons. It has stuck with me ever since. He said, “When I was commander of the SAS, if I needed to authorise people to take the lives of others, I did so because of the authority I had and the cap badge that said I was acting on behalf of the Crown. If I need to take the liberty of an individual then I should do so not because it suits a corporation diktat or a corporation profit, but because of the authority of the Crown.”

People are complaining about money going to private hospital beds as we hit a coronavirus crisis. Let us remember that a lot of money has been going to private investors as we have had to fill up the private estate in order to balance prison numbers. That has meant that there has not been the money to spend on terms and conditions or to improve the estate, because so much is going out of the door in revenue payments that we cannot afford capital expenditure.

There are other issues I would like to briefly touch on. We have a growing elderly population. I said earlier that our prison staff are not trained to be psychiatric nurses, but nor are they trained to be geriatric nurses. Yet we now have—certainly not in Scotland, but in England—a centenarian in prison. In Scotland, I visited a prison where we had a particular ward that was for those who were septuagenarian, octogenarian or nonagenarian. It was a geriatric ward.

It caused huge difficulties for the staff, because most of those prisoners were in there for historic sexual offences. Accordingly it was not just the prison officers who were viewed as punchbags, but those prisoners too. It caused difficulties for the management of the prison to keep them separate and secure from those who would otherwise view it as an opportunity to “pay off”, as they say, some gratuitous violence.