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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend Grahame Morris for having secured this important debate, although he sadly cannot be here today, and Kenny MacAskill for doing such an excellent job in taking it up in his absence. I also thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken for their excellent contributions to this debate; they have made some outstanding points, which I will touch on in my remarks.
Let us be in no doubt: our prisons are now more dangerous for prison officers, offenders and other staff than they have ever been. Staff working in our prisons now go to work fully expecting to be assaulted. In the latest safety and custody statistics published by the MOJ, we find that there were over 10,000 assaults on staff in the 12 months to December 2019, and close to 1,000 serious assaults on staff over the same period. Those are dramatic increases on the 2010 figures—just under 3,000 assaults on staff and just under 300 serious assaults on staff—which demonstrates a marked decline in both health and safety in our prisons. Nobody should ever have to be fearful of assault when they go to work every day, and it is shameful that this has become such a common occurrence across the prison estate.
There is no doubt that this horrific decline of health and safety in prisons is due to the huge numbers of prison officers who have left the Prison Service since the Government took office. I particularly want to mention the remarks of Liz Saville Roberts about Berwyn jail, which I have visited; it is a new jail that has huge space. I also visited Cardiff jail with her a year ago, which was very different. Clearly, however, these issues are relevant no matter where a prison is, because as the hon. Lady said so eloquently in her remarks, they are issues of culture and of support for staff.
The 2018-19 annual report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons stated that although
“There had been efforts to recruit and train new prison officers…many prisons still lacked a fully experienced workforce.”
“has been detrimental to security, stability and good order in prisons”.
Since 2010, the Prison Service has lost close to 3,000 band 3 to band 5 prison officers, who work in frontline roles on the wings and the balconies, and over 6,000 prison officers in total. Between 2010 and 2015 alone, the Government oversaw a situation in which the number of band 3 to band 5 frontline staff fell by over a quarter.
Although there have been some recent signs of positive improvements, the latest statistics show that the overall number of officers is once again falling, demonstrating that the Government have reached the peak of what their existing recruitment strategy can deliver. The number of experienced officers who have left is particularly concerning, with the proportion of officers who have three or more years’ experience having fallen from almost 90% in 2010 to just over 50% in 2019. These are points that have already been made by Wendy Chamberlain.
The role of a prison officer is not an easy one, nor is it one that can be easily taught in the classroom, so they urgently need training in order that they can gain experience. It is hard work, and it takes years of on-the-job training for new officers to learn their trade. The absence of experienced officers to mentor and guide them makes it even more of a challenge; the hon. Member for North East Fife emphasised the fact that it is not just physically demanding, but demanding on mental health, and the need for more support for those officers. The Government must not only redouble their recruitment efforts, but put in place a real retention strategy to stop so many new and experienced officers leaving the service.
The Government will inevitably try to lay the blame on other factors, including the widespread proliferation of drugs, particularly new psychoactive substances, as a cause for the rise in violence, and they have set out several measures by which they claim that they will be able to curb the trade in and use of illegal substance behind bars. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) both spoke about why drugs are so prevalent in our prison estate.
We support any efforts to clamp down on illegal drug use in prisons, which is putting prison officers’ and offenders’ safety at risk, but we are clear that the situation has been exacerbated by having insufficient prison officers to keep the situation in check, and that the flash technology that the Government seek to introduce is no replacement for experienced prison officers.
The Government must immediately seek to curb the rate at which experienced officers are leaving the prison system, and incentivise those who have left to return. A first step in doing so, in partnership with trade unions representing staff in prisons, would be to sign up to the “Safe Inside Prisons” charter that has been drawn up by staff with first-hand experience of working in dangerous conditions in prisons—all hon. Members in the debate have noted the excellent work that the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance has done on that. Doing so would show the prison workforce the respect they deserve for the work they do, and demonstrate that the Government take their welfare seriously.
On the issue of the prison estate, John Howell, who I have served with on the Justice Committee, made some excellent points about the need for leadership and more funding in the prison estate, and also the need for purposeful activity. Those are absolutely essential points that need to be heard by the Minister about what needs to be done to ensure that prisoners have things to do, but in a safe environment.
Under the previous prisons Minister, the Government promised a range of items of personal protective equipment, such as police-style rigid handcuffs and body-worn cameras, but the roll-out of the equipment has been woefully inadequate, with insufficient training provided to officers in their use and many cases where the equipment just has not been provided to their prisons. A body-worn camera would also provide little comfort to a prison officer who has just been assaulted. They want and need the measures to stop such assaults happening in the first place, which is why it is so important to have sufficient experienced prison officers in our prisons.
Finally, the Government must address the huge problems that they have created for themselves by raising the retirement age for prison officers to 68. That point was made forcefully by the hon. Members for East Lothian and for North Ayrshire and Arran, and rightly so. With such a physically demanding role, prison officers must be fully fit and sufficiently able to react in quickly changing environments, as required by the fitness test that they must complete. The public expect nothing less from those keeping them safe.
Yet the Government seem to believe, contrary to the MOJ’s own admission, that prison officers are able to carry out their demanding roles as they get older, ignoring significant concerns over safety in the process. The simple truth is that they cannot and they should not be expected to; 68 is too late as a retirement age for prison officers. The Government should now meet the POA and other staff representatives to resolve the concerns that prison officers have about retirement and their safety in prisons as they get older, and not try to pin the blame for the rise on staff.
With the growing spread of coronavirus across the country, there are also significant concerns for the health of prison officers and prisoners, who are locked up in a closely confined space in which viruses can spread like wildfire if not effectively controlled. I know the Government published a statement on their preparedness for dealing with covid-19 in prisons last Thursday, but I would be grateful if the Minister, in his response, could set out what measures are in place to ensure a safe staff-to-prisoner ratio in prisons if prisoners are hospitalised or forced to isolate, and how many prison officers and prisoners are currently isolated due to covid-19, including how many have tested positive.
With prisons still operating normally as of last Friday, including allowing visitors, do the Government have any plans to change this? If so, by when? What are the contingency plans in place should a significant number of covid-19 cases emerge in prisons? We would also welcome regular updates from the Minister on the number of prisoners, prison officers and other staff who have isolated or tested positive for covid-19, and on how the MOJ is responding to the situation.
For years, we have been warning repeatedly against the savage cuts made to the Prison Service, and about the effect that they would have, and have had, for prison officers forced to work in increasingly dangerous conditions. We have called for the Government to implement a real retention strategy for prison officers, to stop the exodus of experience from the Prison Service and to help protect health and safety, but they have not listened. In light of the testimony of prison officers and of the challenges, abuse and danger they face that we have heard about this morning, it is time they listened.