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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:58 am on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 9:58 am, 18th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Grahame Morris on securing the debate on this critical issue, and I wish him a speedy recovery. I also thank Kenny MacAskill for stepping in at short notice.

First, it is important to consider what we, as a society, believe the purpose of our prisons to be. I am a former police officer and have witnessed at first hand the wide, varied and complex reasons why people end up offending and, consequently, entering our justice system. Surely the main aim of our prisons is to rehabilitate offenders so that they leave and do not go on to reoffend and are able to make a positive contribution to society. Punishment is obviously a factor, but in the vast majority of cases it should be secondary to rehabilitation.

However, the challenges facing the Prison Service make that very difficult to achieve. Tom Halpin, chief executive officer of community justice organisation Sacro, commented:

“The current overcrowding in Scottish prisons means the focus is on security and safety…Rehabilitation—particularly for those on short sentences—is simply not a priority.”

Prison staff are central to achieving positive outcomes for prisoners and wider society. They need to be properly supported, and to receive good training and the right resources to help them to rehabilitate. Failing to deliver that contributes to the poor health and safety of staff, as we are discussing.

As Members have laid out, the current situation for prison staff is frankly intolerable. Assaults on prison staff have been rising for more than 10 years and for every 1,000 prisoners in England and Wales there were 35 assaults on staff in 2010; last year, the figure had risen to 121.

It should not be like that. Every person should have the right to feel safe at their place of work. We must do better. Ultimately, our prisons are under-resourced and overcrowded. As of last July, Scottish prisons were close to capacity after the number of inmates increased from 7,400 to more than 8,200. Although prison staff numbers in England and Wales have increased since 2014 to 23,000, that is still fewer than were employed in 2010.

Prison staff are working at capacity, so they do not have the time to access the training and development they need to do their jobs better. That means they are not developing. As the hon. Member for East Lothian said, it is about not just initial training but ongoing professional development. A member of staff in the prison sector said:

“I feel the poor environment in establishments has been caused by inexperienced staff training new staff. The training staff unfortunately think the state of the prison is just the norm, and are teaching the new staff the wrong way to deal with situations and making some very dangerous decisions”.

That problem is compounded by the fact that staff retention is challenging. Last year, 38% of those who left the workforce in England and Wales had served in the Prison Service for less than one year; the figure in 2010 was just 7%. Things have totally deteriorated, arguably to crisis levels. If the service cannot retain staff, the staff cannot gain the skills and experience to deal with and support the complex needs of many in our prison or justice systems. That results in a huge burden on staff’s mental health. We must remember that health means mental as well as physical health. If we believe that both are equally important, we must demonstrate that by giving the support required.

The largest cause of sickness absence in the prison service is stress. In 2018-19, the Scottish Prison Service lost more than 14,000 days due to stress-related absence, an increase of 32% on the previous year. Just as we are trying to create workplaces that conform to physical health and safety standards, we must ensure that we create mentally healthy workplaces. Another member of prison staff said:

“I have seen perfectly healthy people join in the last 12 months and become very ill due to prison work and the lack of discipline to create a safe space for prisoners to live.”

I am keen to hear from the Minister on what further steps are being taken in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Does it have a mental health first aid programme? What steps is it taking to discourage presenteeism? Acknowledgment of mental health issues and early intervention can support better recovery and an earlier return to the workplace.

The “Safe Inside Prisons” charter, recently launched by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance, suggests some ways to help relieve the burden on staff. Primary among them is a proposal to introduce a single reporting system for violence in prisons, as the current system is very fragmented. Staff need to feel they can support any incident, and we need to make it easier for staff to do so. A new system should be accessible both internally and externally so that staff can report incidents away from the workplace.

I am pleased to have signed the early-day motion on this matter, tabled by Liz Saville Roberts, which I am pleased to see has gained widespread support from all corners of the House. In particular, I highlight the part of the motion that refers to prison staff as “diligent, brave and committed”. I echo those remarks. The service they provide is remarkable and the Government need to recognise that by providing the resources required to help them.

I call on the Government to commit to a zero-assault ambition for prison staff and to use radical evidence-based policy to address the causes of violence in prisons. Everyone has the right to feel safe in their place of work. Although I welcome the Government’s commitment last year of £100 million to fund airport-style security for prisons, we must ask whether that is tackling the root causes of violence in prisons. It is not simply about preventing access to offensive weapons but about working to ensure that prisoners do not feel the need to carry them or use them in prison.

Prison will sometimes be the right outcome for certain types of offences and offenders. We need to ensure that it is safe and viable for everyone within it and that it delivers the outcome we want it to achieve, with people serving their sentences, coming out of prison and not reoffending. Overcrowding, under-resourcing and lack of training and development for those on the frontline of our prisons make that objective far more difficult to achieve, and that fails us all as a society. That is now more important than ever. The coronavirus pandemic that Members have referred to means we are entering a crisis that will have an increased impact on the health and wellbeing of both prisoners and staff. It is vital that the Government listen and take swift and decisive mitigating action.