Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 18th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 10:45 am, 18th March 2020

I take that point and leave it where it lies. I thank the right hon. Lady for making it.

There is a long-standing national partnership agreement with the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England for healthcare services for prisoners. Under that agreement, people in prison custody who become unwell do, as hon. Members know, have the benefit of on-site NHS healthcare services, which provide the first-line assessment and treatment response.

This second point is really important. We recognise the importance of prisoners maintaining contact with their family during this difficult period. Public Health England supports our desire to maintain normal regimes for as long as we can. If those cannot continue, well-worked-up plans are in place to ensure that that continues by other means, to the fullest extent possible.

Keeping people informed is also essential. We are issuing regular communications to staff and all the individuals in our care to explain the steps that we may need to take to protect them from the virus, to minimise anxiety and ensure maximum understanding and co-operation as the situation develops. That means providing regular updates via National Prison Radio, issuing guidance to staff and governors, providing posters and so on.

Let me turn to the staff impact. Staff have been and will be affected by this disease. We are moving swiftly to make additional staff available to establishments so that if current staff are unable to work because of infection, we can continue to run as normal a regime as possible. Some contingency planning may include the need to ask staff to work in a different place and potentially do different tasks; that will be to ensure that we can maintain frontline operational delivery to protect the public and robustly manage risks. In addition, as and when required, operational staff currently working in headquarters will be redeployed to prisons to support the service to maintain minimum staffing levels. May I take this opportunity to thank the unions, which are engaging proactively and co-operatively in this national endeavour? We are hugely grateful for that support.

The point was made about not penalising non-delivery of teaching hours. That seems to me eminently sensible. I hope that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd understands why I cannot commit to anything, but I take that point in the spirit in which it was intended and I hope that it will be given appropriate consideration.

Let me turn to the fair point that was made that existing safety measures are necessary to tackle a threat that exists, notwithstanding covid-19. There has been significant investment in increasing staff numbers. We recruited more than 4,000 additional full-time equivalent prison officers between October 2016 and December 2019. A fair point was made on pay. In July 2019, the MOJ accepted the Prison Service Pay Review Body’s recommendations in full. The pay award was worth at least 2.2% for all prison staff, and there was a targeted 3% increase for band 3 prison officers on the frontline. It is the second year in a row that we have announced above-inflation pay rises, over 2%.

However, pay is only part of it. I completely recognise that conditions are critically important, too. How do we go about improving conditions so that experience is embedded in the Prison Service and those valuable officers will remain in place, providing the guidance, the culture and the leadership that a successful prison needs?

The first point is about the key worker role. This critically important initiative allows staff dedicated time to provide support to individual prisoners. That will help us to deal with emerging threats and improve safety, and of course it is important for those individuals to feel that they are being listened to and their concerns addressed. That helps them to feel valued, and of course helps the safety and stability of the prison. Key workers have a case load of about six prisoners. They have weekly one-to-one sessions with their prisoners to build constructive relationships and reduce levels of violence. That has started in all 92 prisons in the male closed estate, with 54 now delivering key work as part of their business as usual.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley made an excellent point about purposeful activity and gave the useful example of what is happening in Germany and, I think, Denmark as well. That is exactly what we need to be getting to, and I commend him for making that powerful point.

The second point is serious offender intervention. We also have a range of capabilities to manage the risk that the most serious offenders pose in prison, including rehabilitative interventions and separation centres. Mental health was rightly raised. There are mental health facilities, but, as per the entirety of British society, mental health is a bigger issue now than it was in 2010. In fact, one of the bright lights, if I can use that expression, in the prison estate is the improving quality of mental health provision. That needs further strengthening, of course.

The third point is about equipping prison officers. We are committed to providing prison officers with the right support, training and tools. One essential matter is that we have started to roll out PAVA synthetic pepper spray for use by prison officers, but we want to ensure that PAVA defuses tensions, not creates them. All roads lead back to having established and experienced staff, because they will need to use their discretion in a sensible way to operate it.