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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:24 am on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 10:24 am, 18th March 2020

I am pleased to participate in this important debate, and I share the concerns of Grahame Morris, who is unable to be here today. I thank my hon. Friend Kenny MacAskill for his insightful opening remarks in this debate, and I echo the gratitude that we all rightly have for our prison officers, as we have heard across Westminster Hall today.

We have heard much about the kind of environment that can prevail in prisons, where the most dangerous members of society are incarcerated. Being a prison officer is not a job for those of faint heart, but it can be an extremely rewarding career, as was made clear to me when I visited Greenock Prison last year. It is not in my constituency, but it houses some of my constituents, and some of my constituents work there. Prison officers work in a difficult physical environment, with high walls and locked doors. The clientele can be extremely challenging, as we can all imagine.

The undercurrent of violence is something that prison officers just have to learn to cope with, but doing so every day at work must take a toll on mental health, and the impact on staff should not be underestimated. The people whom prison officers deal with have often been convicted of the most heinous crimes. A violent way of life is the way of life for many of the people prison officers have to cope with. Those violent prisoners will not always be welcoming or obliging towards the prison rules and regulations that are disseminated to them by officers. Even those who enter prison for non-violent offences can become violent when in prison, out of sheer frustration—no one likes to be locked up, regardless of the crime they have committed. The company that those people are required to keep must also have an impact.

Prison officers live every day with the threat of assault at the hands of seriously angry and violent prisoners. That should be recognised across the entire prison estate of the United Kingdom. The prisons in Scotland face challenges, as do prisons across the UK. Members have spoken about that in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, who opened the debate, reminded us that prison officers are the forgotten service. We rely on them, but too often they are out of sight, through the nature of the job they do. They have to master a variety of skills. They are not just guards. They often have to take on such roles as psychiatric support or social worker, which they work hard to carry out but for which they are not properly trained, and certainly not properly paid. All the time, as they carry out that variety of roles, there is an undercurrent of violence. That is the nature of our prisons. No one, as my hon. Friend reminded us, should have to go to work and routinely fear assault; that cannot simply be viewed as part of the job. If prison officers do not feel safe, they cannot keep prisoners safe, and often many prisoners do not feel safe.

John Howell pointed out the need for prisons to be maintained in good repair. The environment matters for the health and wellbeing of prison officers and prisoners. Wendy Chamberlain, who has particular insight as a former police officer, reminded us of the importance of rehabilitation. A greater emphasis on that would, in turn, create a better climate, ethos and atmosphere for prison staff and prisoners. The mental health of prison staff requires more attention. I do not think there is any doubt about that.

Jim Shannon talked about the challenge to prison officers from the rate of suicide in prison. Surely that has an additional impact on the mental wellbeing of prison staff, in addition to all the other challenges they face. We all know that many people in prison suffer from mental health challenges that are not supported to the extent they should be. Prison officers are left to pick up the pieces, which has an undoubted impact on their own mental health. It is incredibly difficult, in the kind of work that prison officers do, to leave the job at the prison gates at the end of a shift.

The challenge of drugs in prison is an additional complication for prison officers. I do not understand, given that if anyone tries to bring the smallest amount of drugs through an airport they are caught at security, how it is that somehow we cannot seem to keep drugs out of prisons. That is a puzzle that I have real difficulty in reconciling in my mind. Liz Saville Roberts—I apologise for my pronunciation—pointed out that we cannot separate the mental health of prison officers from that of prisoners. Given that they are in such close confines, that seems a self-evident truth. The prison officer testimony that she introduced was a powerful addition to the debate. We are all worried about the coronavirus. Given the close confines in prisons, that virus must be an additional complication for prison officers, in seeking to keep themselves, and the prisoners they serve, safe.

The criminal justice system and prisons are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but I will focus on an important health and safety issue for our prison staff that is reserved, and to which attention must be paid. A number of Members have referred to this really important aspect of the debate. Increasing the retirement age of our prison officers to 68, given what we have heard about the difficulties of their job and the constant threat of violence that too many of them face—if not actual violence, which is also far too common a reality for our prison officers—is cruel and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the important work that they do.

Prison officers, firefighters and police officers are all classified as emergency workers. The work that those groups do is essential to the smooth running of our society, and puts them in harm’s way. Why is it, then, that of those groups of emergency workers only prison officers are required to carry out their jobs well beyond the age of 60, until they are 68? Who on earth thinks that is a good idea?

We have talked about the health and safety of our prison officers. How can it not be as plain as the nose on our face that a prison officer who is, say, 66 years old should not deal with a young, fit, violent, angry prisoner who is aged 25? At 25, that prisoner, as well as being young, fit, violent and angry, is at the peak of his physical fitness. From a health and safety point of view, who on earth would think it acceptable for a 66-year-old prison officer to supervise or instruct that young prisoner, even if he were lucky enough to be ably assisted by his 65-year old colleague? It is completely unacceptable, and places the prison officer at unacceptable risk. Would any Member present seriously be happy with their 66-year-old father being placed in such danger because he was not permitted to retire?

I suspect, based on other debates, that the Minister will tell us, when he gets to his feet, that people are living longer. To that, I have to say, in this context: blah, blah, blah. What I mean by that, in case there is any confusion, is that it is just noise. I does not answer the question about ages. For the UK Government to tell prison officers that, despite decades of dedicated service, they must continue to work until they are 68 years old, knowing that that will directly place those older officers in danger, and potentially in situations for which they are physically unable to cope because of their advanced years, is negligent and not something that anyone present would want for their father or any other relative, because it is too dangerous.

If it is not advisable, desirable or safe for our relatives, or any of our loved ones, to work in such conditions at such an advanced age, it is simply not good enough for the prison officers in our communities who go to work each day. They are part of the emergency services, but they are not treated as such when it comes to retirement age, and apparently nobody can explain why that is the case.

Nobody can overestimate the impact that raising the retirement age to 68 is having on the morale of our prison officers. They feel undervalued, overlooked and forgotten about. When we consider how they are treated relative to other emergency workers, those feelings are perfectly justified, and that has to be addressed. Otherwise, we will exacerbate all the problems in prisons that we have heard about by haemorrhaging good prison officers, who will be a real loss to the service. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian pointed out that we are losing valuable experience from the service that is not easy to replace. Who benefits from that?

If as a society we believe that some people convicted of terrible crimes need to be kept away from society for a period of time, then as part of that we should automatically believe that those who supervise these people need to be treated in a way that reflects the importance of the job they do, and should be given parity with other emergency workers when it comes to retirement. It is quite simple: we do not want people in prison, but sometimes people need to be incarcerated, and that being the case, we need to appreciate and value the important work of our prison officers.

It really is time for this Government to do the right thing and stop deliberately refusing to see how illogical the retirement age of 68 is for prison officers in practical terms. They must give prison officers the ultimate health and safety protection that they need after dedicating their working lives to looking after those who the rest of society simply do not want to see. The UK Government need to deliver that parity, do the right and decent thing, and—to use a favourite phrase of the Prime Minister—just get it done.