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Prison Officers Association: Protest Action

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if she will make a statement on today’s protest action by the Prison Officers Association.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the chance to update the House on this important issue.

Prison officers do a tough and difficult job, and I have been clear that we need to make our prisons safer and more secure. I have announced that an extra 2,500 officers will be recruited to strengthen the frontline. We are already putting in place new measures to tackle the use of dangerous psychoactive drugs and improve security across the estate.

I met the Prison Officers Association on 2 November. Over the past two weeks, my team has been holding talks with the POA on a range of measures to improve safety. Those talks were due to continue this morning. Instead, the POA failed to respond to our proposals and called this unlawful action, without giving any notice. The chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, Michael Spurr, spoke to POA chairman Mike Rolfe this morning reiterating our desire to continue talks today. That offer was refused. The union’s position is unnecessary and unlawful, and it will make the situation in our prisons more dangerous. We are taking the necessary legal steps to end this unlawful industrial action.

The Government are absolutely committed to giving prison officers and governors the support that they need to do their job and to keep them safe from harm. In addition to recruiting an extra 2,500 prison officers, we are rolling out body-worn cameras across the prison estate and we have launched a £3 million major crimes taskforce to crack down on gangs and organised crime. In September we rolled out new tests for dangerous psychoactive substances and we have trained 300 dogs to detect these new drugs. We have set up a daily rapid response unit, led by the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), to ensure that governors and staff have all the support that they need.

Taken together, these measures will have a real and swift impact on the security and stability of prisons while we recruit additional front-line staff. I urge those on the Opposition Front Bench to join me in condemning this unlawful action, and in calling on the POA to withdraw this action and get back to the negotiating table.

The Justice Secretary has been told repeatedly that the prisons she presides over are dangerous and volatile. Assaults on staff and prisoners are rising. In the 12 months to June 2016, there were nearly 6,000 assaults on staff, 24,000 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, and 105 self-inflicted deaths of prisoners. There are 6,000 fewer officers on the frontline than in 2010. Staff shortages are stark and morale is low, and officers and prisoners alike feel unsafe. The Government’s White Paper does not provide the rapid action that our prison system so urgently needs and has so long asked for.

The Secretary of State has consistently failed to acknowledge that this is a service in crisis. Today’s protest action by prison officers is the clearest sign yet of the fact that this is a crisis over which she and her ministerial colleagues have lost control. Will she confirm when she last spoke personally to representatives of the POA and when she will talk to them next? What solution was put to the POA to address urgently its concerns about safety? Does she accept that the increase in violence on staff and between prisoners is a direct result of her Government’s staff cuts? Does she regret her Government’s decision to cut 6,000 prison staff, and how does she intend to increase the number of prison officers now, not in two years’ time? This is a Secretary of State in denial. She has let down our judiciary, lost the confidence of our prison staff and failed to take effective action in the face of a crisis of violence in our prisons.

It is disgraceful that the hon. Gentleman refuses to condemn illegal industrial action that is putting our hard-working front-line prison staff at risk—it is completely irresponsible. I have made it absolutely clear ever since I was appointed to this role that safety is my No. 1 priority. That is why we are rolling out new tests for psychoactive substances and making sure that all staff have body-worn cameras. It is also why we are already recruiting new staff, for which we have announced a £100 million increase in the prison budget. The hon. Gentleman needs to act more responsibly. He needs to work with me, as does the Prison Officers Association, to make sure that our prisons are safer. Sanctioning illegal industrial action in our prison estate is actively putting people at risk of harm, and I ask him to reconsider his disgraceful stance.

Following the recent disturbances at Bedford prison, I put on record my thanks to the prison officers and members of the Tornado force for restoring order so rapidly and carefully, and to the prisons Minister for keeping me in touch with affairs throughout the evening a week last Sunday. It is a great shame that prison officers have been led into unlawful action today, but does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not recognise that in addition to adding staff, she needs to look urgently at the retention of existing staff and the reasons for their disquiet? Please will she do so as part of her ongoing review?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right about the importance of retaining our valuable officers with experience in our prisons, which is why we have given governors extra freedoms to take the measures they need to take, and why we need to increase safety across our prison estate. I have made that a clear priority, and we have already put in place a number of measures to improve security and safety. Unlawful industrial action is not the way to improve the situation. We had been in discussions with the POA—I met its representatives on 2 November—but it has walked away from talks that were designed to deal with some of the issues. I urge the POA to come back to the negotiating table, to stop putting its members at risk and to work with us to make our prisons safer.

Given my experience on the Justice Committee over the past year, it is abundantly clear to me that this is a toxic mix of policy and resource. The policy is that we are sending far too many people to jail on shorter sentences, and the resource problem is that we have an ever-increasing ratio of inmates to prison officers. Officers are utterly demoralised. On the ground, inmates are being kept in cells for 23 hours a day because there are not enough resources in the prison estate to ensure that they have meaningful and purposeful work. Everybody agrees that meaningful and purposeful work is the way to better rehabilitation. Does the Lord Chancellor recognise the huge resource issue? If so, how many prison officers do we need to recruit to get to a 2,500 net increase, bearing in mind the retention problems that have been adequately articulated in the Chamber today? Is she inclined to look at reducing the number of young people who are sent to prison for short sentences which, quite frankly, do not achieve anything?

We are recruiting 2,500 officers across the estate, but we are also taking immediate action to stabilise the position and ensure that security measures are in place. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s question about young people, I want more early intervention to prevent those people from going into custody in the first place by dealing with issues such as mental health and substance abuse at an early stage. That is what we will be announcing shortly.

There can never be any excuse for unlawful industrial action, which helps no one, so I join the Secretary of State in her condemnation. Perhaps she will update us about the form and timeframe of the legal action.

Does the Secretary of State concede that underlying issues of staff morale and a lack of retention, especially of experienced officers, have been highlighted repeatedly? Did the discussions that the POA unfortunately walked away from include suggestions from the management of NOMS about to how to improve retention? When will we bring forward a comprehensive scheme to deal with retention and the loss of experienced officers?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Justice Committee, for joining me in condemning today’s illegal industrial action. I again urge the Labour Front-Bench team to join me in that condemnation. The Chairman is right about safety in our prisons. I can confirm that several issues were on the table in the discussions with the POA and that offers have been put forward. That is why I want the POA to come back to the negotiating table, instead of indulging in illegal industrial action, so that we can work together to make our prisons safer

Prison officers in my constituency do an amazing job with the most dangerous and difficult offenders at Wakefield prison and New Hall women’s prison. Action such as today’s is, thankfully, incredibly rare, but does the Secretary of State have any regrets that her Government and the previous Government have presided over a slow-burning crisis that has culminated in today’s action, riots in Bedford prison, an increase in violence and self-harm, and escapes from Pentonville?

The hon. Lady is correct to say that prison officers do a fantastic job. I want us to recruit more of them so that we strengthen the frontline and enable them to spend their time reforming offenders. That is what we all want, and it is exactly what our plans in the White Paper are about. We are facing an issue at the moment, and that is why we have taken additional measures to deal with psychoactive substances, which have been a serious problem, and with serious and organised crime. We are offering direct support to governors in prisons to make sure that we stabilise the situation in the short term.

I am a frequent visitor to HMP Lewes in my constituency, so I know what a fantastic job the prison officers there do in difficult circumstances. One problem they are facing is a rise in the number of sexual offenders in prison, either on remand or serving a prison sentence, which makes life difficult for prison officers to manage. Will the Secretary of State update us on what work is being done to help prisons such as HMP Lewes?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The prisons Minister will be visiting HMP Lewes on Friday, when he will follow up some of the issues she raises.

We have nearly 7,000 fewer prison officers in our prisons than in 2010. The Secretary of State is now desperately trying to recruit 2,500 prison officers, yet she comes to that Dispatch Box and attacks prison officers for taking desperate measures because their safety is at risk every day. How does she think that will help with recruitment?

I support prison officers, who do a fantastic job. The people I am attacking are those in the Prison Officers Association who have called this illegal action, despite the fact that we were in talks with them and there was an offer on the table, which has not been responded to. I wholeheartedly support the good work of prison officers across the country, and I want them to benefit from the improvements we are making on the frontline and to safety. We are launching a new apprenticeship programme to recruit more people, and we have a new programme encouraging the brightest and best graduates to become prison officers. Of course these things will take time, but I have also talked today about the measures we are taking in the short term to stabilise the situation in our prisons.

Testing for psychoactive substances has the potential to be a game changer, so has there been an increase in the number of charges for possession? Has the message finally got through to people that if they take Spice, we will know they are doing it, they will be charged and they will take the consequences?

My hon. Friend clearly has much experience in this area and what he says is absolutely right. The prisons and probation ombudsman described psychoactive substances a game changer in our prison estate, and they are one of the reasons why we face the current situation. We rolled out testing in September, and we have trained 300 sniffer dogs to detect those substances. That will have an impact, and we are already beginning to see it in some of our prisons.

The Lord Chancellor should perhaps bear in mind that questions of what is and is not legal are to be determined by the courts, not by Ministers and not by this House. I say to her gently that she cannot praise prison officers in one breath and then condemn them for being reckless in the next without trying to achieve some understanding of how things have reached this point. If she really wants the POA to come back to the negotiating table, might she think about the tone she adopts in dealing with this dispute, so that it might have some confidence that if it does return, it will be listened to?

I respectfully say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have had a number of meetings with the POA and discussed issues of safety, on which I share its concerns. I am absolutely not attacking the hard-working prison officers on our frontline, but it is a mistake for the POA to call for unlawful industrial action in the middle of talks. I urge it instead to come back to the negotiating table, because that is how we will get a safer environment for our prison officers to work in; we will not get that through unlawful industrial action.

When I was a very junior civil servant under a Labour Government, one of my first tasks was to get an injunction to stop the POA going on strike—we did that many years ago. Will the Secretary of State tell us the effects of the current unlawful industrial action, both on those who work in our prisons and on those detained in them?

We have implemented our contingency plans across the prison estate, at local, regional and national levels, but clearly we will not be able to run full regimes and that puts people at more risk. We are managing as safely as we can, but I strongly urge the POA to come back to the table to start negotiations again, so that we can reach a solution that helps make our prisons safer.

I have three prisons in my constituency, two closed and one open, and a fourth prison is nearby in Doncaster. Therefore, for the past 20 years I have known only too well the stresses and strains that those working in the service are under, particularly because the people who end up in prison today are pretty nasty characters who have committed some terrible crimes. The Secretary of State has said that she wants to hear from those on the frontline about how we can make our prisons safer, so may I urge her to look at the charter of minimum safety standards produced by the Community union, which has worked with its front-line officers to identify practical ways forward to secure safer conditions in our prisons? Will she meet people from Community to discuss that document?

I visited HMP Bronzefield a couple of weeks ago, where I met members of Community and discussed these safety issues. We agreed on a great number of things, which, in the White Paper, the Government have announced are taking place, and I am keen to continue those discussions.

May I welcome the measures that my right hon. Friend announced recently? I join her in condemning the action by the POA, which is not going to help it or the prisoners it is meant to be looking after. I, too, am concerned about retention, which affects the young offenders prison in my constituency. My local officers raise with me their fear that the courts do not have the sanctions available to impose tough enough sentences on those who assault prison officers—there is no deterrence. Will she examine that?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that crimes committed in prison against prison officers need to be treated extremely seriously, and I am working closely with the Attorney General and the Home Secretary to make sure that that is followed through.

We all welcome the Secretary of State’s willingness to tackle violence in prisons by funding additional officers, but she must be honest with the House about how this does not extend to those people working in our prisons in the private sector. Prisoners do not choose whether they end up in a public or private establishment, and those who work in the private sector, including those from my Community union, perform a public service in guarding those prisoners, whether the contract is directly with the Government or not. What is she going to do to help ensure the safety of all in our prisons and give them the respect they deserve?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and I can confirm that those increases will also apply in the private sector as well as in the public sector.

In response to concerns from prison officers, this Government criminalised psychoactive substances in prisons. My right hon. Friend has announced an increase in the number of prison officers, but will she inform the House what other steps have been taken to increase safety in prisons, including limiting the illegal use of mobile phones by prisoners?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; mobile phones and drones pose a serious security threat. We are working closely with the mobile phone companies to be able to block those mobile phones in prisons. We are also rolling out the use of body-worn cameras across the estate to give officers more protection, and we are offering prison governors specific support in dealing with the issues they face in their particular establishments.

Prison officers at Holme House prison in my constituency tell me that they, like others, have suffered cuts and seen increases in violence. The former Lord Chancellor and Education Secretary designated it an academy-type prison with new freedoms for the governor to do things differently. Assuming that these powers still exist, what difference are they making—or has that failed experiment also been abandoned?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the White Paper in full, where we announced that further powers are being devolved to governors right across the prison estate. This enables them to conduct their own recruitment campaigns and give special payments to retain officers, and it is working.

The Secretary of State has talked about short-term issues, but if we are truly to see long-term reform of the Prison Service we need to empower governors to manage, lead and innovate. Does she agree with that and will she proceed on that basis?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are giving prison governors power over their education budgets, so that they can ensure that the offenders in their institutions are getting the skills they need to secure a job on release. We are enabling them to work with local employers and also to co-commission health services, so that there is closer work towards getting prisoners off drugs, which is a major cause of reoffending.

Parc prison in Bridgend has an enviable record of successful work in cutting intergenerational reoffending, reducing reoffending and of family intervention, which makes a difference. Does the Secretary of State understand the importance not just of staff numbers, but of appropriately skilled and trained officers, and, once we get them, of retaining them, because her record to date does not show that she does?

I completely agree that retaining staff is vital, which is why we have given these additional freedoms to governors. We are also recruiting more staff to the frontline so that staff feel safer, which is a very important part of the job. By having more staff on the frontline, we will enable more time to be spent turning offenders’ lives around, which is why the prison officers to whom I speak wanted to go into the service in the first place. What is important is getting offenders into jobs and off drugs.

When the former shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Falconer, opened a debate on prison reform earlier this year, he rightly recognised that the problems in our prison system go back not one year or five years, but decades. Given that we have a situation in which more than half of adult males reoffend within a year of their release, should we not be focusing on rehabilitation rather than blame?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Reoffending is a huge cost to society—£15 billion a year—but it is also a huge cost to the victims who suffer from those crimes. The prison system is not turning lives around in the way that it should, which is why our White Paper was a plan for prison safety and reform. We need to have safe prisons in order to be able to reform offenders, and by reforming offenders our prisons will become safer too.

The tone of the statement from the Secretary of State today has been absolutely shameful. It is no wonder that relationships are at an all-time low. Will she take this opportunity to apologise to the House and to the officers for allowing things to get this far?

In my view, it is those on the Opposition Front Bench who need to condemn unlawful industrial action. I know that that will not solve the safety problems in our prison estate, but I want a constructive relationship—I want the POA to come back to the table.

Is not the real problem that we still lock people up in Victorian prisons, which is not good for the safety of the prisoner or of the prison officer? Is not the solution to build modern new prisons such as the one the Government are building in Wellingborough? Will the Secretary of State update the House on how that programme is being developed?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As well as recruiting new staff and retaining our highly valued existing staff, we also need officers to be able to operate in modern, fit-for-purpose buildings, such as the one that we are putting in place in Wellingborough. I would be delighted to update him shortly on the plans for that.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the level of demoralisation that exists right across the criminal justice system in members of staff such as prison officers? In my respectful view, her tone today has been entirely misplaced and ill-judged. Given the current crisis that pervades our criminal justice system, is it not about time that she changed her approach and began talking to the people who have served that system for many, many years and stopped taking unilateral action against them and their terms and conditions at work?

I have had many discussions with prison officers across the prison estate, and I agree that there are issues with safety, which I am seeking to address. I want the job of prison officer to be highly respected, as it is a very important role in our society. What I am saying today is that we have been having discussions with the Prison Officers Association, and that it has failed to respond to the offer that has been put on the table and, instead, called unlawful industrial action. It is very, very poor indeed that the Opposition refuse to condemn unlawful industrial action, because that is what we are talking about.

I was particularly interested to hear the Secretary of State’s comments about the measures to tackle psychoactive substances. Does she agree that the rise in psychoactive substance use in our prisons has been a contributory factor in the increased levels of violence that we are seeing today?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that psychoactive substances have played a large part in the violence issues, which is why it was so important that we rolled out those drugs tests over the past month or so and that we have trained dogs to detect those substances. We have also seen a rise in the use of mobile phones and drones, which poses a new security threat. Again, we are dealing with that.

In order to get staff numbers up quickly before the fresh permanent recruitment kicks in, will the Government consider swallowing their pride and launch a programme to re-recruit prison officers who have recently left the service on temporary six or 12-month contracts?

We are absolutely willing to consider those people returning to the service. We want to recruit high-quality officers.

The Justice Secretary says that she wishes to recruit high-quality officers. Does she agree that veterans of our armed forces have exactly the type of skills needed to deal with challenging situations in our prisons? Will she update me on what is being done to ensure that they are recruited into the Prison Service?

We have a specific programme to recruit former armed service personnel who are highly suitable to working in the Prison Service as they bring with them values of discipline and hard work, which are so important in turning the lives of offenders around.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the plans to ensure that prisoners are rehabilitated so that when they leave prison, they do not reoffend?

We are putting the role of the Secretary of State into primary legislation to ensure that we are not just housing offenders, but turning lives around, getting people the education that they perhaps have not had in the past, getting them into work once they leave prison and getting them off drugs. All those things lead to a reduction in reoffending.

I for one have enormous respect and admiration for our prison officers and for the difficult work that they do. A fortnight ago, the Secretary of State came to this House and committed to bring on stream an additional 2,500 prison officers. What reaction has she had to that announcement from the Prison Officers Association?

We did announce an additional 2,500 prison officers. That will enable every single officer to be responsible for six prisoners, which we know will achieve the results of improving safety and ensuring that we reform offenders. I would like to see the Prison Officers Association support that change.