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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:05 am on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:05 am, 18th March 2020

I thank Kenny MacAskill for setting the scene so expertly. It is a pleasure to follow Wendy Chamberlain. Her contribution is based on the point of view of a police officer and her interaction with prison officers over the years. I want to add my support to what was set out by the hon. Member for East Lothian. The Minister knows I have every confidence in him and I look forward to his response to the issues we have brought to his attention.

The hon. Member for East Lothian referred to “The Shawshank Redemption” and “12 Angry Men” as examples of how we might form an opinion of the way in which prison officers and the legal system work. My knowledge comes from those two films and also from the comedy classic, “Porridge”, which John Howell referred to. That series is more about mischief than badness, perhaps because of Ronnie Barker, and is a gentle way of looking at the Prison Service. If only it was like that, but it is not. It is a matter of concern in every corner of the United Kingdom.

I am sure we were all dismayed to read the November article in The Daily Telegraph, which outlined the situation that prison staff currently find themselves in. The background information that we have today, including that from the Library, indicates the same thing. The article stated:

“Prison officers are being assaulted almost 30 times a day as violence, self harm and suicides in jails hit a record high, Ministry of Justice figures show. The number of assaults on staff rose by 10 per cent in a year to pass 10,000 for the first time since records began more than a decade ago in June 2009. More than 1,000 of these were serious assaults, up seven per cent on the previous year.”

There is clearly an issue to address within the Prison Service. Those figures are reflected in Northern Ireland, which the Minister does not have responsibility for, although perhaps not to the same extent. The article continued:

“There were also more than 24,000 prisoner on prisoner assaults in the year to June, equivalent to 66 a day and a three per cent rise on the previous 12 months. That is also the highest for a decade. It means the overall number of assaults is closing in on 100 a day with 93 every 24 hours—another record high.”

That is a record high we do not wish to record because we want to record the good things and how we are improving them.

“Of these, 3,928 were serious assaults, of which 2,984 were prisoner on prisoner attacks.”

There is clearly an issue that must be resolved. I have spoken to friends of mine who work or have worked in the Prison Service. I am in regular contact with prison officers in my constituency, some of whom are retired. We are losing good men and women who get to the end of themselves due to the abuse that they suffer, followed by allegations and the feeling of a lack of support.

There have been record high resignation rates among prison officers. They are treated abysmally not only by the prisoners they interact with every day, but by the Ministry of Justice. There is a fear of stepping into situations and getting into more trouble, which is what we must address. Prison officers need protection. They need confidence in the system, the governors and the prisons, and they need to feel confident that our Minister and our Government will support and stand by them. Prison staff must be able to use the force that has been deemed appropriate and know that they will have support if an inmate makes a complaint. Too many officers complain to me about being left “hung out to dry” and then carrying the stigma after they have been cleared. The officers and also the educators, nurses and cleaners all have the absolute right to be safe and secure.

Can the Minister explain why frontline prison officers’ resignations have soared to 9%? What is being done to address that? In January, four prison officers and a nurse were hospitalised after a terrorist attack by two prisoners. Again, what has been done to assure those prison officers that they will be safe and receive the protective body clothing they need, as well as the security they need? There are many examples—it would probably take until 10.30 am to read them all out, which would not be fair to Liz Saville Roberts. I will not do that, but there are lots of other things that we could put on paper.

Let me be very clear: if an officer is at fault, there must be an investigation. There should be no potential for abuse, but neither can we continue to have staff feeling that they are fighting a losing battle in keeping the peace and winning the fight against bullying and drugs, which are rampant in our prisons. In my constituency of Strangford, there are many people—especially the young—who go to prison not being drug dependent but come out drug dependent. We have to ask ourselves why that is happening. Every month at justice questions, right hon. and hon. Members ask about the availability of drugs in prisons. Again, it is something that has to be addressed.

I accept that we need to rehabilitate prisoners—it is right that we should—but we also need to have control of prisons in the hands of the Prison Service, the governor and the officers. People’s concerns include the fact that when

“a prisoner assaults staff or other prisoners, they are back on the wing 20 minutes later.”

One prison officer said:

“Prisons are in a state of emergency!”

The following is from a male public sector prison officer:

“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.”

If that is how prison officers feel, we have to address those issues as soon as possible.

We wonder why the health of inmates is so at risk. I believe the reticence of prison staff about their safety and mental health means that they are unwilling to intercede when they see signs of bullying and abuse of drugs. Some of the people who go to prison are very vulnerable. They find themselves subjected to peer pressure and surrounded by people who have stronger personalities and characters, and they may find themselves slipping into lawlessness and criminality inside the prison and then outside. It is really important that we have rehabilitation and help those people to get out the other side and to try to live a better life afterwards.

We are harming our inmates by preventing officers from doing their job. A lot of this is due to the lack of adequate numbers on prison floors. It is clear that an adequate number of staff is essential in order to provide strength in numbers, and to serve as witnesses to any allegations. The Justice Unions Parliamentary Group has provided some papers and made three recommendations, which I will read out. The first is:

“Adopt the new Safe Inside Prisons Charter developed by nine national trade unions representing the majority of prison staff, and move to a tripartite system to tackle prison workplace violence involving close collaboration between unions, employers and the Health &
Safety Executive.”

The second is:

“Launch a national prison violence reduction strategy as a matter of urgency, fully resourced and in partnership with staff unions—including action to retain prison officers, who are currently resigning at record-high rates.”

The third is:

“Fully abide by the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act and take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all workers in prisons, including those not directly employed by HMPPS.”

We must invest in our staff in order to improve prison facilities. I look to the Minister, as I always do, because I know he is aware of the situation and wishes to reply responsibly and positively. We need to understand how this can be done UK-wide, not just in English and Welsh prisons. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Naomi Long? If not, I ask him to contact her. I know that our new Justice Minister has indicated her desire to improve the mental health of inmates, and I ask the Minister to liaise with her in a UK-wide effort to improve working conditions and the health and safety of staff, as well as that of inmates. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.