We are committed to delivering safe, decent and secure prisons. Reducing the number of deaths in custody is a key priority, and we are working hard to reduce levels of violence in our prisons. We have introduced a new protocol that will ensure that when there are serious assaults on prison staff, the perpetrators will be prosecuted wherever possible.
I hope that it will make a big difference to our staff. I pay tribute to prison staff, who do a difficult job. It is particularly difficult at the moment, with an upsurge in violence. A lot of that is due to the prevalence of so-called legal highs—new psychoactive substances—in our prisons. We have taken a number of steps to try to restrict access to those drugs, which are absolutely unacceptable in our prisons. When serious assaults previously took place, prosecutions might not have happened because those people were in jail. Now, they will, and I hope that will be a deterrent.
An obvious way of enhancing safety on the prison estate is by boosting morale, so why has there been a 0% pay award to prison staff and a threatened injunction from the Secretary of State if those staff dare to consider opposing this imposition?
We will continue to review the impact of benchmarking. There is no evidence that connects changes within the prison sector to the number of suicides in prisons, which has been much too high in recent months. Suicides have happened in prisons where there have been no staffing changes, as well as ones where there have been staffing changes, and in prisons where there have been good inspection reports and poor inspection reports. This is an issue in our prisons and a broader issue in society as a whole, and we must all work hard to deal with it.
The Secretary of State did not respond to the latter part of the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), concerning the injunction he has threatened against the Prison Officers Association purely for convening a national executive committee meeting to discuss how to respond to the 0% pay rise. How can he justify this legal attack on the democratic rights of a trade union?
The situation in our prisons is dire. Many times over the years we have heard the word “crisis” used. I have to say that the situation now is as bad as I have ever seen it. The most recent quarterly prison safety report makes exceptionally grim reading, with serious assaults on staff at an all-time high. Grimmer still was an e-mail I received from an officer who said:
“I have been a prison officer for 17 years. I have never felt so vulnerable before, we have had another serious assault on a member of staff that has required treatment. Do you have any idea what it’s like to go to work feeling scared?”
Is it not an outrageous truth that violence has become an occupational hazard for our prison officers?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the rise in serious violence in our prisons is wholly unacceptable. It is pretty clear to me that the biggest cause of that change has been the presence of so-called legal highs—new psychoactive substances—in our prisons. Only last Friday, I spoke to a prison governor who said that it is the key problem that staff face. We have taken a number of steps, including criminalising the throwing of substances over a wall in prisons. We are about to trial body scanners in our prisons. We will take all steps that we sensibly can to protect our staff. These substances are a danger to our society as a whole. They need to be dealt with effectively in our prisons, and they will be.