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Prison Officers (Work-related Stress)

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Wallace.)

The background to the debate is the publication last month of a report on work-related stress and the well-being of prison officers. It was commissioned by the Prison Officers Association because of the union’s ongoing serious concerns about the health of its members, especially in the light of the Government’s policy of increasing the retirement age to 68 for prison officers and the startling cuts that have taken place.

The report was undertaken by three experts in the field of occupational health, and particularly occupational psychology, at the university of Bedfordshire. I pay tribute to those researchers for their assiduous work. They were Dr Gail Kinman, who is professor of occupational health psychology; Dr Andrew Clements, a lecturer in occupational psychology; and, assisting them, Jacqui Hart, a PhD candidate and researcher. All of them are appropriately qualified and have high reputations in the field.

Let me take the House through some of the findings of the research, which many of us have found shocking to say the least. The Health and Safety Executive establishes benchmarks to measure and monitor work-related stress among employees. Those benchmarks have been developed into a framework after extensive consultation with employers and the unions, and they are agreed standards by which organisations employing staff can assess the work-related stress experienced by those staff.

There are seven elements of work activity—described as the psychosocial hazards—and they are the most critical predictions of employee well-being. They relate first to the demands of the job—the work load, pace, and hours of work—and to control of work, which is the way a person can control their working environment. There is also management support, peer support—the help workers receive from their colleagues—and relationships, which includes interpersonal relationships, interpersonal conflicts and bullying. The benchmarks also include the measurement of the role and whether the job requirements are clear, and whether or not there is belief in the objectives of the organisation. The final benchmark is about change and how well that is communicated and managed in an organisation. The Health and Safety Executive has developed a self-reporting questionnaire that is widely used across industry and the public service.

Last week I met representatives from the Prison Officers Association to discuss mindfulness in the Prison Service. Mindfulness has been accepted by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as an intervention for repeat episodes of depression, but it also improves compassion, reduces absenteeism, helps with relationship building, and reduces stress. Does my hon. Friend think that mindfulness in the Prison Service could help improve job satisfaction and the mental and physical health of prison officers?

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend in this House in introducing mindfulness training for Members as well as staff, and developing that whole concept. I have explored the development of mindfulness which, despite elements of contention, has become extremely popular in its application in working environments. I will suggest to the Minister that we need a meeting to talk about the strategy from here on in, and one provision we could include in that is the offer of services such as mindfulness in the sector, which could prove extremely effective.

A new prison is to be built in Wrexham and the chief executive of North Wales health authority is predisposed towards mindfulness. Does my hon. Friend think that teaching mindfulness to prisoners and prison officers at that new prison from the outset would be a good experiment and pilot scheme for mindfulness in prisons?

Given our concerns about that prison—a Titan prison that will house a larger number of prisoners than any other prison has housed—and about the scale of such a prison and the problems that will result from it, I think mindfulness would be an important strategy that should be built in from the beginning.

As I was saying, the health and safety questionnaire was developed in consultation with employers and union representatives. It is now used widely across the public and private sectors and is based on a self-report questionnaire. It is a standard procedure used by academics who in this case established a survey online. They received 1,682 respondents, which is as large as any national opinion poll, and it was a fairly representative sample.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman warmly on obtaining this Adjournment debate. The Prison Service is little short of being in crisis. Since 2010, prison officer numbers have been cut by 41%, but the prison population has gone up. The ratio of prison officers to prisoners has never been so bad, and that is a danger. Both the hon. Gentleman and I are officers of the justice unions parliamentary group, and I hope that the Minister will agree to meet us to discuss this important issue.

I know that the Minister cares about this issue, and I alerted him in advance of this debate that that is one of the requests that we would make. The survey is shocking. Even the in-house survey carried out by the National Offender Management Service has some shocking results in comparison with other areas of the public service. I will come on to my request for a meeting on how we might take this issue forward.

In the survey, the prison officers scored considerably worse than any other sector on all the seven hazard indicators. There were large gaps—the well-being gap—on issues such as demands of the job; the control that people feel they have of their work; management support, which is extremely disappointing; and relationships and change. The gap was less on peer support, so prison officers appear to get better support from their colleagues than they do from management.

The survey was compared with the London prisons survey of 2010. The levels of well-being for peer support were similar, but the scores for management support, control, the roles that people play and relationships were considerably poorer. The management of change was rated considerably poorer than in the earlier survey.

The quotes from the individual members surveyed can be more revealing than the figures. One of the questions was about time and other pressures of work. I could cite numerous quotes from the report—I have provided the Minister with a copy—but I shall give just a few:

“The pressure is on from the time you walk in to the time you walk out. It is full on all the time. You try to get a moment to yourself but something always crops up and you are off again.”

Another officer says:

“Currently, with the staffing shortfalls and the new regime they’ve got in place, it is constant crisis-management every day of the week. There is no let up.”

On every question, the individual responses are stark and revealing. On management support, one officer said:

“No support or care. No compassion. More time spent defending ourselves against management than against inmates.”

Another said:

“Previously, every person I had to line manage I knew as an individual. I knew their strengths and their weaknesses. Now I’m lucky if I see the staff I report on once every couple of months.”

Prison officers work in a very specific environment, dealing with challenging individuals, so there is always a risk of violence and intimidation, but I did not realise the scale of that until I read the survey.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prison Service is not only in crisis, but is a powder keg? Somebody must be held accountable because someone, somewhere will be seriously hurt in the Prison Service. Nine members of staff are assaulted daily, which means 3,400 a year, up 9.4%. More dramatically, serious assaults on staff have increased by 36% since 2010. What does that say about the Prison Service at this time?

My hon. Friend refers to the crisis in our prisons, which is a consistent theme coming out not just from this survey but from all the discussions that have taken place, including the representations we have received from both prison officers and former governors.

A total of 49% of prison officers said that they receive intimidation and threats from prisoners often and regularly, and 30% had been assaulted with more than half of those having to take time off as a result. On the level of management support, 70% said there was little support from management. There is one quote from a prison officer that I found particularly startling:

“I have seen active service whilst in the army, but I have never felt as vulnerable and threatened as I do in my current role.”

On stress, one third reported that their doctor had diagnosed them with stress-related illness—a clinical diagnosis of stress—since working for their current employer. It was also felt that there was a stigma attached to disclosing stress, and that it could make a prison officer subject to discrimination. That is extremely worrying.

The survey included a general health questionnaire that is used to assess aspects of psychological health and somatic symptoms, such as feeling run down or suffering from headaches, anxiety and insomnia, social dysfunction—not being able to enjoy everyday life, or not being able to make decisions—and depression, where people felt that life was hopeless. I was shocked by the figures. Six out of 10 reported that they were under strain. The worst figure was that one in 10 reported that sometimes life was just not worth living. The researchers who undertook the survey are experts in this field. They said that there were unusually high levels of psychological distress and that a high proportion required some degree of intervention to improve their well-being.

Another issue considered was emotional exhaustion— the concept of burn-out. This was extremely high, with 74% saying that they felt emotionally drained at work at least once a week. Some of that related to physical health, with 18% reporting chronic health problems. Hypertension is the most common problem. The survey also included questions about work-life balance, which is one of the psychosocial issues that comes up when assessing one’s enjoyment of work and career. Eight out of 10 responded that their time at work stopped them participating in family life, and six out of 10 frequently felt too emotionally drained to participate in family life. They were asked a question that is fairly common in such surveys: whether they dwelt on work problems outside of work. Some 70% said they could not switch off, while 50% were troubled by work-related issues when not at work. On job satisfaction, six out of 10 had considered leaving the Prison Service in the near future, and seven out of 10 said that if they could choose again they would choose a different job.

What conclusions can be drawn from this? First, it is blindingly obvious from the survey that psychosocial working conditions are far from satisfactory. None of the Health and Safety Executive’s objective benchmarks has been met. The researchers said that the psychological stress levels for this group of workers were far higher than in other emotionally demanding occupations, including police and social workers, with reports of anxiety, sleep disruption, cognitive failure including memory loss and, most worryingly, the one in 10 who felt that life was not worth living. The researchers said that there is an urgent need for employment bodies to take steps to protect the psychological well-being of their staff.

Some of these issues have to be addressed urgently. Like other Members, I have talked to POA members, front-line staff and representatives, and the same story comes up time and again. Staffing cuts have placed the service in crisis, and the staff and the prisoners they look after are suffering. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) mentioned the number of assaults. Nine members of staff are assaulted every day—up 9.4% recently—which is 3,400 a year, while the number of serious assaults is up 36%. Last year, we published a report on prison violence. It was circulated to hon. Members, but I will place it again in the Library. It was a shocking report, and I make no apologies for insisting that pictures of assault victims be published as well, because they are absolutely horrendous. Nobody should have to experience or risk that on a daily basis in their working lives.

As we know, the number of prison suicides has increased by 69%. It is a tragedy for the prisoner and their families, but it also has an impact on other prisoners and the staff who have to handle and deal with the suicide. All the evidence suggests that it can be devastating for the members of staff, and there is evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among staff who have to deal with suicides.

I return to the conclusion that many have reached, which is that much of this is related to staffing cuts. I have asked for the figures provided by the Prison Service to the Prison Service Pay Review Body, because I thought that they would be the most accurate. There has been a cut in staff numbers from 51,212 to 37,218 in the past four years—a cut of 27.3%. In the prison officer grades, there has been a cut from 25,553 to 18,934 members of staff—a 25.9% cut. I know that various figures are bandied about—the Minister and others have presented us with various figures—but whatever the exact figures, the scale of the cuts has been acknowledged overall.

As I said in the Justice Committee, I think the Government miscalculated the prison population and cut too many staff, and I am told that they are now recruiting up to 1,700 officers—almost in a panic measure—and trying to recruit the 800 staff laid off in the last year into a reserve army to be used almost on an agency basis. As a result of the staff cuts, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) said, there has been a significant increase in the staff to prisoner ratio from 1:2.9 in 2010 to 1:3.8. Overall, that means we have fewer members of staff looking after more offenders.

Staffing numbers are an issue, but staffing support also matters. The Minister has a responsibility—well, we all have a responsibility—to build sufficient staff resource into the system to address the stress and psychological well-being issues identified in the report. I have heard reports of what is available to staff now, but there seems to be a significant lack of confidence in the facilities available and in the management support given to staff.

The POA and prison officers generally have also raised the issue of the retirement age. Prison officers now face having to work until they are 68. When he reported on public sector pensions provision, Lord Hutton recommended that exceptions be made to the overall increase in pension age for uniformed services, where

“the Normal Pension Age should be set to reflect the unique characteristics of the work involved. The Government should consider setting a…Normal Pension Age of 60 across the uniformed…services…and keep this under…review.”

Unfortunately, the only uniformed services identified were the police, armed forces and firefighters. For some reason I have yet to discover, prison officers were not included, even though they are a uniformed service and even though, as we see from the research, they are suffering from greater stress and psychological problems arising from their work load—more than the police or social workers.

Is it right that in 2014, we as a nation should be asking 68-year-old men and women to tackle some of the most dangerous people in the country?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. A question was put to prison officers in a survey, and 75% indicated that working after 60 would very much or significantly impair their job performance. The prison officers do not think that they can do their job effectively after the age of 60. I have to say that sometimes we just have to listen to the people who do the job.

I had some discussions with prison officers and a number of them agreed with the view that they were being asked to do an impossible job. They said that they were being put under unacceptable further pressure and that the Government needed to look again at the issue of pension age and at why this uniformed service was discriminated against in comparison with the others.

Let me suggest a way forward. We received research commissioned by the POA but undertaken independently by the university of Bedfordshire, and there is also the Prison Service’s own survey. Particularly concerning are the differences between the scores highlighted for members of the Prison Service in comparison with others in the civil service. There were large discrepancies between how people felt about their job and how they were being treated. Let me cite an example. When it came to recommending Her Majesty’s Prison Service as a great place to work, only 21% were positive. In the area on “my work” there was a score of minus 15% in comparison with the civil service survey and from high performers the score was minus 18%. On “my manager”, it was minus 24%; and on “resources and workload” it was minus 19%—and so it goes on. When it came to discrimination, bullying and harassment, 19% said that they had experienced discrimination at work over the past 12 months, while 18% had experienced the bullying or harassment themselves. Even in the National Offender Management Service survey, some of the figures are somewhat worrying.

The overall evidence from the university of Bedfordshire and even from the Government’s own survey shows clearly that we need another way forward. First, we need an urgent meeting between the justice unions parliamentary group and the Minister to discuss the research and to establish how to develop support for staff and tackle some of the identified issues of work-related stress.

Secondly, in light of this research, I urge the Government to look again at the pension age of prison officers. If necessary, they should commission further research if the current research is not satisfactory. If we need a more detailed examination of forcing prison officers to work until they are 68, I would welcome the opportunity at least to engage in a further review of that decision, backed up by further research.

The third issue is about staffing. I know that the Minister will report that new staff are being recruited. I hope that that happens as quickly as possible and that we can get them trained and into our prisons. We have, however, lost a lot of experienced trained staff as a result of the cuts. As a consequence, I believe that our prisons are now not only less safe, but are not fulfilling the role of rehabilitation that we want them to fulfil. Thus, for now and the future, lessons need to be learned from the staffing cuts that we have seen. I am convinced that we will have a constructive response from the Minister to the idea of having a meeting and working on these issues together to resolve what I find to be an extremely worrying situation.

It is the normal convention. The Minister is a very agreeable and agreeing sort of fellow, and so is the right hon. Gentleman. I therefore think that we can probably proceed in a harmonious manner, subject only to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) being content. I anticipate that he will agree, because he is a caring, sharing Member.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and, given the number of years that I have been in the House, I am amazed. One learns something new every day, and I am obliged to you for having taught me something extra today.

Over the years, in my capacity as a lawyer, I have visited many prisons. When prisons are overcrowded, the atmosphere can almost be cut with a knife. Some years ago, I visited someone who was on remand in Bedford prison. In those days, Bedford was as overcrowded as some of our prisons typically are today. It was not a very comfortable place to be in, even for an hour’s conference with an accused person, and I wonder what it was like for prison staff, and for the prisoners themselves, when there was lockdown for 15 or 16 hours a day. Lockdown is one of the facets of overcrowding. It means no rehabilitation, and it means that there is little likelihood of someone coming out of a prison in a better frame of mind than the one in which he or she went in.

I applaud the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for seeking time for discussion of this matter. I was also at the launch of the report to which he referred, and I think that it is a valuable document. We are always talking about the need for evidence-based policy, and this report is evidence-based if ever anything was. Three academics, specialists in their field, were commissioned to prepare it, and I am sure that the Minister will not in any way seek to impugn their integrity by suggesting that because it was commissioned by the Prison Officers Association, they might have reached a view before the evidence had been collated. That would be unfair and unjustified, and I can see no basis for it.

I shall truncate my speech, because the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has made all the points that needed to be made, but I shall make one or two brief observations. As the Minister will know, overcrowding increases the risk of violence. Unfortunately, the risk of violence is very high at present. I know that there is a difference of opinion between the Ministry of Justice and the Justice Committee, of which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and I are members, but something that could well be described as a potential crisis is now on our doorstep.

Prison officers are, by and large, rough, tough individuals. They are not shrinking violets by any means; if they were, they would not be in the job in the first place. However, in the report, one prison officer said:

“I feel…let down. I signed up with the prison service at 21 to work until I was 60. 1 am now 48, and my health and stamina are starting to weaken. I do not feel strong enough to cope with the young prisoners who are more violent than ever before and have more freedom to attack staff and get away with it. Being told I have to work till 68 is the last straw—I will be burned out or dead before I get to retire”.

Another said:

“When involved in restraining prisoners I find I pick up little niggling injuries a lot more than I did 10 years ago. I know I will not physically be able to deal with this part of the job when I am over 60.”

And another gentleman said:

“No matter how fit you are, at 68 you are not going to be able to fight or roll round the floor doing C and R with a 20-25 year old who goes to the gym every day and pumps iron.”

I do not think that we need to stress those points. Suffice it to say that prison officers feel greatly under threat. As the Minister knows, there is now a higher incidence of lockdown, which is never a happy position for prisoners, staff or anyone to be in. It creates a bad atmosphere, and it sets any thought of rehabilitation backward. That, in my view, is fairly obvious.

The report is excellent, and it provides good evidence. If the Minister thinks that other reports should be prepared, so be it, but I echo what was said by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington in asking him to meet members of the justice unions’ parliamentary group, of which the hon. Gentleman and I are officers. We want to discuss this matter not to make any political points, but to ensure that we have a healthy and safe environment for prisoners and prison staff in order to maximise rehabilitation and, above all, safety. One of the ways forward is to reconsider the definition of uniformed agencies. That point has been made and brings to mind Lord Hutton’s view. I urge the Minister to take heed of both what has been said in this debate and the need for an urgent meeting so that we can discuss these matters fully—not, as I said, to make political points and for point scoring, but because they are urgent issues and we as parliamentarians and Ministers need to address them in the best way we possibly can.

I thank the Minister for agreeing, in that rather strange way across the Chamber, for me to have my tuppence-worth, and you, Mr Speaker, for your forbearance in this matter.

I echo the thoughts of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), and thank you, Mr Speaker, and the Minister for letting me speak, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I also congratulate him on securing this debate.

I had not intended to speak. I was halfway out the door when I heard the subject of the debate, and I came back to listen to it because it is an important subject. My hon. Friend has given some crucial facts to us, such as that 60% of prison officers feel under tremendous strain and one in 10 feel that life is not worth living. These are terrible statistics. I would like to add to those the statistics that I have received from parliamentary questions, such as that 90% of prisoners have one of the top five psychiatric conditions, and, as my hon. Friend said, that there has been a 69% increase in prison suicides over the past year alone. If we have prison officers on one side who are highly stressed and prisoners on the other side who are highly stressed, that is a recipe for disaster. It is a potentially explosive situation which I think needs to be looked at in the round.

I want to be consensual in what I say, but I do think stopping prisoners receiving books, or proposing to do that, was a step backwards. It was a step towards the 19th century, not the 21st century. I hope the rest of my speech will be consensual, however.

Within society itself, there is a mental health crisis. According to another parliamentary question I put down, there was a 500% increase in the issuing of prescriptions for anti-depressants between 1991 and 2011, from 9 million prescriptions to 49 million. There is an issue in society, therefore, but it is exacerbated within prisons.

As I mentioned in my intervention, I believe that mindfulness can play an important role in helping us to get on top of these issues. Mindfulness was introduced in Parliament by me and Professor Richard Layard, a Labour Lord, in January last year. Some 115 MPs and Lords have been involved, and 10% of MPs have had mindfulness training. It has been introduced here in Parliament, which is a hothouse—there is a lot of stress here—and I think it can be rolled out to the Prison Service, the police service and the armed services.

What matters is how we pitch mindfulness as an intervention, so that it is accepted. In fact it is quite chic. Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post practises and preaches it. It is done by Apple, Google and all the top international companies. If it is good enough for the captains of industry, it is also good enough for ordinary workers like prison officers and police officers, and, indeed, their clients, in tandem—because mindfulness works best when it includes the teacher and the pupil, the GP and the patient, so that compassion is increased.

I believe that if we were to introduce mindfulness in prisons, it would help with a whole range of issues. Prisoners are literally a captive audience. They are in there 24 hours a day, and what do they do? Do they learn the skills that mindfulness brings—the skills of gratitude, appreciation, personal balance and equanimity that would help them to be better prisoners? Those skills would help them to be less violent towards the prison guards and to be better citizens when they move out into society.

This has worked in the past. Prison officers and police officers face stressful situations. A £5 million grant was given to the US Marines to undertake mindfulness training in a pre-combat situation. They were trained in the US before they went out to Afghanistan and Iraq and it worked. Indeed, it was such a success that it is now being rolled out to the US army. If it can work for big beefy Marines, it could work for British prison officers. The work with the Marines involved a five-year pilot project. The results are still coming in, but they are all positive.

The biggest impacts for the Marines were not only in the field among the officers and their fellow Marines, but in their relationships with their spouses and children when they got back to the US. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned the fact that prison officers felt disconnected when they went home at night and were unable to take part in family activities because they were so stressed out. Also, they do not earn fantastic wages. All jobs are stressful, but sometimes these officers’ family lives and community lives are destroyed because of needless stress. Sometimes we politicians take decisions that make people’s jobs even more stressful, and the stress for those officers has been cranked up in recent years with the increase in the number of prisoners and the reduction in the number of prison officers.

We have a golden opportunity to introduce mindfulness in prisons. Prison officers and police officers were in Parliament last week, in Westminster Hall, to meet representatives of the Mindfulness Initiative, which is looking into the use of mindfulness in the criminal justice system, in education, in the health service and in the workplace. We have taken evidence from experts across the UK and around the world, and we are now drawing up policies that we hope to present on 15 January next year. I will send the Minister a copy of those policies, and I hope that he will be able to make an assessment of the role of mindfulness in the prison service and the emergency services.

I hope, too, that the Minister will consider introducing mindfulness in the new prison in Wrexham. Health services are devolved; they are a Welsh Government issue and a North Wales Health Authority issue. Prison services, however, are not devolved. There needs to be a meeting between the health authority, Ministers in Cardiff and Ministers here in London to consider setting up a pilot project to measure key indicators such as the absenteeism of prison officers, the recidivism of prisoners and the stress levels of all involved. If mindfulness worked in the Wrexham setting, perhaps it could be rolled out across the whole of the British prison service for the benefit of the prison officers, of the prisoners and of wider society.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who initiated the debate. He is a member of the Justice Committee, as is the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). I almost regretted allowing the right hon. Gentleman to speak, for fear of being unable to pronounce the name of his constituency, but I hope that I have done it justice.

Last, but certainly not least, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) for his remarks. Let me deal with his points about mindfulness straight away. I can tell him that the NHS has set out five ways to well-being, the fifth of which is mindfulness. The Ministry of Justice has already started working on this issue and will launch projects on mindfulness in the new year. The director of NOMS in Wales, Sarah Payne, takes a particular interest in this important issue, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it.

Let me say at the outset that prison officers face significant demands on a daily basis, and that working effectively with some of the most difficult members of society face to face takes a special set of skills, values and ability. I am immensely proud of the commitment of our prison staff in delivering their work. Behind the closed walls of prisons, these civil servants undertake essential services on behalf of society, and they do so professionally to keep us all safe. The POA-commissioned survey on work-related stress among prison officers draws attention to several important themes. Although there are some differences in the outcomes of the separate 2014 NOMS staff survey, it would be wrong to dwell on those at the expense of a more focused debate. We need to understand the work environment that prison officers encounter on a daily basis and what is done to support those charged with carrying out one of the most difficult but rewarding jobs in society. It is also important to recognise that the challenge that prison officers face has increased over recent months as a consequence of staffing shortages, an unexpected rise in the prisoner population and the unprecedented change being delivered by the prison benchmarking programme. That programme has the support of the POA.

Substantial work is under way to address the shortfalls and to support change but, in the short term, it is understandable that many staff have felt under significantly more pressure during 2014. It is also important to acknowledge that, regrettably, that position has been exacerbated by an increase in prisoner assaults on staff and prison violence in general. Understandably, in some cases staff have reported to governors that they feel less safe. I want to make it absolutely clear that NOMS understands that, and that every incident and every event of violence against NOMS staff is taken extremely seriously. It is not acceptable that any member of staff is injured in the line of duty.

Does the Minister share my concerns about the situation at HMP Northumberland, which is in my area? When that prison was privatised, Sodexo immediately reduced the work force by a third, yet the prison population has been increasing. Have not prison officers who are left to carry out the work every right to be stressed? What will the Minister do about it?

Those who manage contracted prisons absolutely have a duty to make sure that they keep their staff as well. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will go on to say what we are doing about this important issue.

NOMS takes its responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 very seriously. We are working towards a new protocol for escalating matters when prison staff are victims of assault to the Crown Prosecution Service, which rightly recognises the seriousness of these incidents. In my time as Minister, I have encountered excellent examples of how governors and their teams have worked closely with staff and trade unions to listen to concerns and to introduce more structured regimes that better reflect the resource available and provide more reassurance for staff.

It is also relevant to this debate that we are clear about what NOMS is doing to address the staffing situation and that we explore in more detail the significant welfare support that NOMS already has in place to support this group of front-line public servants in critical roles. To address the staffing shortfalls, NOMS has over the past few months recruited new prison officers at unprecedented levels: 850 will have joined by Christmas, with a further 250 by February; and NOMS is on target to have recruited 1,700 in total by April. Plans are already in place to meet the future prison officer recruitment plan for 2015-16, with a further 1,000 prison officers starting at that point.

In addition, NOMS has an active staff reserve, which is made up of experienced former prison officers, to provide flexible additional support as part of a modernised service. As those resources come into place in prisons, the operational pressures on staff to work additional payment-plus hours and to provide detached duty support to other prisons will reduce significantly and beneficially in the new year. That information has been welcomed by POA colleagues and will impact positively on staff well-being.

In the new year, as prisons begin to reach their new benchmark staffing levels and transition to new safe, decent and secure operating levels, staff will have an increased opportunity to focus on the quality of the work that originally interested them, namely to reduce reoffending and to change lives for the better.

The evidence that the Prison Service continues to provide a rewarding career in which staff are able to change lives is irrefutable. It is demonstrated in the commitment and tenacity that prison officers have shown in recent months in the difficult circumstances that I have described. It is also evident in the organisation’s ability to attract 1,700 new prison officer recruits.

Staff turnover is only 2% for NOMS employees. Officer leaving rates for 2013-14 were 3.8%. More than 96% of the officers employed by NOMS choose to stay. The average length of service of a prison officer is 14 years. This is a demanding but rewarding role in which staff can and do make a significant and positive impact on offenders’ lives.

NOMS will continue to support staff and to provide them with the skills and development opportunities that they need to be able to perform their duties with confidence. New prison officers are tested for their suitability to work in a prison environment. They must pass a fitness test and full occupational health assessment before they are appointed to the role. Importantly, NOMS training investment also includes a strong focus on providing the necessary training and development that line managers need to support, coach and mentor staff.

For those staff who are regrettably assaulted on duty or who suffer ill health as a result of the impact of their work, there are well-established support mechanisms in place to help. It is perhaps one of the disappointing aspects of the POA-sponsored survey that it does not reflect the exceptional work between staff, managers and occupational health that has, in many cases, led to staff returning successfully to full duties through phased return-to-work programmes and counselling support.

We are committed to running safe establishments and are working hard to reduce violence in our prisons. We do not tolerate violence of any kind in prison and any assault is taken extremely seriously. A new violence reduction project is being established. There will be guidance to governors on that issue in early 2015, and we will implement a coherent set of short-term tangible actions that are aimed at reducing violence, some of which may involve trialling innovative approaches in targeted establishments.

The violence reduction project has been created to gain better understanding of the causes of the current levels of violence in prisons and to ensure that there is strength in the handling of violence in terms of both prevention and response. The project will consider such issues as the use of body-worn video cameras for prison officers, raising our intelligence capability to protect those officers and staff, developing more robust case management of violent prisoners, and the potential impact of the growing use of new psychoactive substances. We expect to be able to announce more in the new year.

We have always had a complex and challenging prison population, but we are taking appropriate steps to ensure that we carefully manage the increased levels of violence. We are also committed to managing violence and supporting the victims of assaults. The new joint protocol, to which I have referred, which is produced by NOMS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers, will set out that when there are serious assaults on prison staff, the perpetrator will be prosecuted unless there is a good reason why not. As I have said, that initiative has been warmly welcome by the Prison Officers Association.

The increase in serious assaults is wholly unacceptable. However, we are holding a more violent population and, as I have told the Justice Committee, the number of people sentenced to prison for violent offences has increased by 40% over the past decade. We will never tolerate violence against our staff. We do not underestimate the hard work and challenges that they face on a daily basis and are continually looking at new ways to offer support. We are exploring new technology to protect staff, including body cameras and slash-resistant material to be worn under shirts.

The access that prison staff have to a range of counselling interventions is on a par with the very best of employers. Staff are provided with an occupational health adviser, who will work with them and their line manager to support them in the goal of a successful return to work. We have many examples of that working well. When staff are involved in a difficult prisoner incident, a structure that involves the use of in-house staff care teams, staffing debriefs and continuing support comes into effect as a matter of course.

Equally, the access that staff who are unable to work for a period of time have to sick pay provides a full opportunity for them to recuperate before returning to work. For staff who are unable to work for a period of time due to sickness absence, NOMS will pay six months on full pay and six months on half pay as part of the individual’s terms and conditions of employment. That can be extended in the case of an injury at work, as the governor has the opportunity to grant sick absence excusal in appropriate cases.

In recognition of the stressful nature of the prison working environment, NOMS is committed to supporting the well-being of staff by reducing stress and increasing employee attendance. There is also well-publicised support available to staff, including a comprehensive employee assistance programme, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It includes access to counselling and other therapies as required, a health promotion website and well-being zone, specialist trauma support services and mediation. A network of peer support in the form of care teams also operates in every prison and can be extremely effective.

Work on improving the management of stress in NOMS includes: regional stress action plans; individual stress risk assessments; a 24-hour helpline for staff; the inclusion of stress-related issues in people plans, listen-to-improve sessions and team meetings; governors using team meetings and focus groups to identify local stress issues, to show transparency in decision making and to offer feedback in resolving them; and the roll-out of stress-awareness workshops across the estate.

In addition to that support, I want to take this opportunity to share some of the good practice happening in the prison estate. There are numerous examples of governors maintaining regular contact with staff who are off and of presenting deputy director of custody commendations in cases where staff have been assaulted. The young people’s estate is also developing and implementing a post-assault protocol for supporting staff, which identifies a process to follow to ensure that staff are fully supported when they return to work.

Well-being days are also actively pursued as establishments recognise what a positive impact they have on staff. Staff who have been off sick are being given a mentor outside their line management. Staff have also been visited by their governor, either at home or in a neutral venue, and numerous establishments have referred staff to bespoke counselling sessions. I want to put all that on record to show the full extent of the care we take to look after our staff when they are assaulted, wholly unacceptably, in the line of their work.

In 2013-14, NOMS delivered 49 staff well-being events across the agency. Approximately 3,200 staff members attended those events for advice, support and health checks. Additionally, most prison staff are able to use the prison gym facilities at allotted times and may access support from local physical education instructors to design their own bespoke fitness and well-being programmes.

NOMS conducts an annual staff survey that includes elements that focus on well-being and motivation. This year’s survey had a 44% response rate, and 75% of respondents stated that they wanted to remain working for NOMS for at least the next year or three years. In line with the focus of the POA-sponsored survey, NOMS has adopted the Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards as a framework for the prevention and control of stress, and it has issued a toolkit containing guidance and useful documents for use locally. NOMS encourages all staff, irrespective of their role or position within the organisation, to contribute actively towards the identification, prevention and management of stress. As I said, stress awareness workshops for staff are provided, as well as a 24-hour confidential helpline that staff can ring.

I am conscious that the well-being report makes reference to the retirement age of prison officers, so I wanted to respond to that by being clear that safe systems of work are in place across the prison estate to ensure that staff work in an environment that is as safe as reasonably practical. In this context, the current fitness standards and assessments for prison officers are based on the requirements of an individual to perform the job safely. Since July 2007, NOMS has been recruiting staff to work until the age of 65. It has employed new prison officers in their 60s who have passed the fitness test and are performing their roles effectively. In addition, a number of staff who have the right to retire at 60 now choose to work beyond their retirement age. A recent statistical report identified a total of 814 prison officers over the age of 60, with an average length of service of 24 years, who are working within NOMS.

I know that the Prison Officers Association will wish to put its case forward for further consideration on the retirement age of prison officers, as it is entitled to do. Following a meeting with my officials and the POA on 1 December, I agreed that officials and the POA could meet to discuss changes to the pension scheme and the associated retirement age. I know that members of the POA met officials on 1 December and I will consider the next steps on this matter with the Cabinet Office.

I conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken this evening. I have a personal commitment to this extremely important matter. I find it wholly unacceptable that anyone who works for the state in any capacity should be assaulted in their line of duty. I take this issue seriously, I raise it regularly with officials and I will follow up on the initiatives that we have announced. Of course, my door is always open. I will agree to meet the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd at some point, our diaries permitting.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.