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Prison Officer Safety

Volume 617: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2016

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

What a pleasure it is to be here under your command, Madam Deputy Speaker. This debate on prison officer safety is rather well timed given what has been on our TV screens and in our newspapers. Before I start, I want to thank all those who work in the Prison Service—prison officers, managers, governors—and the numerous organisations, both charitable and voluntary, that support the service to ensure that prisoners have a chance to rehabilitate and that we are kept safe. We owe them a huge debt. I also praise the prison officers who serve at The Verne immigration centre, which was a prison until quite recently and is now under the auspices of the Home Office.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent announcement about the recruitment of 2,500 more prison officers by the end of 2018 and her aim for every offender to have a dedicated prison officer providing regular one-to-one support. More officers will certainly help to deter attacks on them, which have risen worryingly over recent years. In the 12 months to June 2016, there were nearly 6,000 assaults on staff—up 43% on the previous year. Of those, 700 assaults—an increase of 20% on the previous year—were regarded as serious and required hospital treatment. A recruitment drive is most welcome, as I have said, but the problem of retaining staff remains. In 2015, of the 2,250 officers who were recruited, only 440 were retained. We must remember that there are 7,000 fewer officers now than in 2010, when the prison population was about 2,500 lower.

The recent action by prison officers, which I do not support, was driven by a genuine concern for their safety—I am certain of that. We must take note of that. If we do not, not only we will fail to recruit sufficient new officers, but the exercise will be a complete waste of money as they all leave. Understaffing is the root cause of their discontent. Savings have understandably been made in the public sector, and I have voted for such savings on many occasions, so I do not condemn the Government for making the savings necessary for us to learn to live within our means. However, if we make savings, we must note the consequences and act if they are unintentional and serious. My next point refers to the prison estate in general, not to the young offender institution in my constituency, which is excellently led by James Lucas, a former soldier with whom I do a lot of business. The increased workload, lower morale, poor leadership in some cases, a higher retirement age—more on that in a minute—and an increased risk of being assaulted have all contributed to the problems we see today. Frankly, who can blame the officers?

I touched on the pension age and the necessity for prison officers to work until 68, which does affect their safety. Let me explain. I witnessed a demonstration laid on by prison officers of how to remove a troublesome prisoner—on this occasion, actually a prison officer—from his cell. The officers were equipped with all the necessary protective gear and they went in to remove this troublesome fellow. He did not react violently. He simply stood in his cell, not co-operating and using his weight and strength not to move. Those three beefy officers eventually got the man out, but it took them an awfully long time. I am 58 and in reasonably good nick, but I am not so sure that I would be able to drag someone out of a prison cell in 10 years’ time, particularly if they were behaving violently or were under the influence of drugs, as they often are. I ask the Minister to respond to this particular point about the physical demands on a prison officer when they get to the age of 60 and above.

I have also seen pictures of riots, which were taken on the body cameras that the Government are introducing—again, I entirely commend what they are trying to do—to ensure that evidence can be gathered. In addition, the cameras are a deterrent, because the prisoners who might offend know that they are being filmed and therefore that they will be found guilty if caught. I have faced crowds in Northern Ireland, but I was always surrounded by guardsmen armed to the teeth. In one particular riot, I think one prison officer had a shield, but the rest were caught out at quite short notice. Two of them were female prison officers, and they were facing a baying crowd of thugs, who were really geared up and were looking for that moment of weakness. Had those prison officers shown that weakness, I am convinced that 10 to 15 of the prisoners would have pounced, and those prison officers would have been seriously hurt.

I sought the hon. Gentleman’s permission to intervene before this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The £1.3 billion investment that the Government have offered over the next five years is good news, but there is a short-term issue to take care of, which the hon. Gentleman has outlined very well. Does he agree that, when it comes to discussions on safety, they must take place with counterparts in Northern Ireland, and that those who have experience of how to deal with difficult cases across the prison system in Northern Ireland over some 30 to 40 years could help, as there is a lot of knowledge that could be used for the betterment of the service in Northern Ireland? I make that point as a careful and gentle suggestion to the Minister.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Like anything in life, those who are trying to achieve something turn to those who have experienced it. They listen to their experiences and, if they are wise and if the advice is good, they will adopt it. Perhaps the Minister will respond on that particular point.

I pay tribute to the officers who faced this baying crowd. They stood their ground and maintained control of the prison. As it happened, the most thuggish of the men, who was bouncing up and down on the wire netting that was there to prevent people from falling, actually fell off the end of the netting and damaged his ankle. It was extraordinary. At the point that the ring leader went down, calm returned almost instantly. It just shows how little things have to be affected in a prison before these very brave men and women are faced with some very unpleasant experiences. I have a question for the Minister. Can the Government—I would be very grateful for an answer to this—bring prison officers under the same retirement age as the uniformed services to reflect the occasional physical testing characteristics of the job?

There is no doubt that the presence of drugs in prison is contributing to attacks on officers. I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurance that dealing with drugs is high on her agenda. Spice is the modern curse in prison. It fuels violence against officers because of its mind and behaviour altering effects. Worse, it exacerbates existing mental health issues, personality disorders and behavioural issues, causing unpredictable bouts of violence. This point was picked up by the report of the Independent Monitoring Boards for the year to March 2015. Under problems, it says:

“The widespread and apparently un-checkable presence of so-called ‘legal highs’ or ‘Spice’ on the wings. This is leading to trading, debt, bullying of more vulnerable prisoners and their families, criminal networking and gang activity, violence and unpredictable behaviour among prisoners.”

That of course has a knock-on effect on those who are guarding them. Dogs are one solution, but in my constituency the young offender institution has only one dog, and, as we all know, much as we love them they cannot work seven days a week. They have to be rested. More dogs may be a solution. Perhaps the Minister can expand on that. I believe someone mentioned that the number of dogs would be increased.

Spice is endemic and is seemingly brought into prisons via drones and social visits, thrown over prison walls, brought in by new or returning prisoners and, apparently, by soaking letters in it. As I said, drugs lead to bullying and debt, increasing the risk to both prisoners and officers.

Another way of improving safety for officers is to hold more regular searches. As I understand it—perhaps the Minister can help me—they used to happen once a month or thereabouts. Searches are more irregular now because in order to search one cell, officers have to shut down a whole wing, and they do not necessarily have the resources to hand when that needs to be done. A lockdown of an entire wing in one prison recently revealed a range of illegal goods.

More officers would reduce the need to lock prisoners in their cells for longer than is necessary. The report from Winchester prison today underscores that point. Taking part in purposeful activity would counteract the inevitable resentment that builds up behind a locked cell door. A fairly treated prisoner—I am not all flowery on this, but I believe that prisoners should be treated fairly—is less likely to resort to violence.

There are concerns about whether the courts take assaults on prison officers as seriously as they take assaults on police officers, despite the fact that, as I understand it, both have equal standing and protection under the law when on duty. In early 2015 a joint protocol was published on the appropriate handling of crimes in prisons, but the issue remains a very real one. Will the Minister review the range of sentences handed down to prisoners who assault prison officers? Anyone who assaults a prison officer or any other public servant in uniform should face an automatic custodial sentence. A strong deterrent and message is needed, and a tougher stance should be taken by the courts. Anything that the Government can do to assist me and other colleagues in the House, and certainly prison officers, would be helpful.

Let me highlight that point with two brief examples. In the first case, a prisoner who was due to be released the next day “potted” a female prison officer. “Potting”—if there is anyone in the Gallery, I apologise for being so crude—involves urine and excrement being thrown over an officer. It is disgusting, demeaning and outrageous. That prisoner was released the next day, when he was arrested for assault, fined £200 and given a suspended sentence. That is farcical. In another case, another female officer was “potted” and the prisoner received a mere 21 extra days on his sentence. That officer was then goaded and teased by the prisoner when she returned to work. Again, that is unacceptable. Perhaps because “potting” causes no physical damage, the courts tend to be more lenient, but the effect on officers who have been subjected to such disgusting humiliation is traumatic, and offenders should be dealt with harshly. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that.

The prison population is becoming more violent, with the number of those sentenced for violent offences rising by 30% in the past 10 years. Officers are clearly struggling to cope on many occasions, and their concerns have been expressed in a number of ways to me personally and by taking the action which I did not agree with, but which many of us understand. A survey of Prison Officer Association members in 2014 found that the demands of the job are particularly high and support from managers is low. I am not commenting, as I said, on any prisons in my constituency, but we had a saying in the Army that there are no bad soldiers, only bad officers. I suspect that that is true in every walk of life and I am sure it applies in the case of prison staff.

I do not know whether the Minister is prepared to comment on what control is kept over managers and governors to ensure that prisons are managed properly. Let me give a tiny example from a prison I visited some time ago. I said to one of the prison officers, “I’m sure the manager comes round every day with his board and pencil and says, ‘Bob, good morning. It’s your wife’s birthday. Happy birthday to her. Your little son is 10 today. How marvellous. I hope you have a very nice day. If there are any problems, do come and see me.’” This officer’s jaw hit the floor, and he said, “I don’t think so, Richard. That is not exactly how it works.” As it happened, he had not seen his governor for some time. That is a tiny example, and I do not know, but I would say that the governor was not in touch with the men and women he was commanding.

The warning signs are therefore clear, and we would be irresponsible to ignore them. In my humble view, the line that used to exist between prison officer and prisoner has become increasingly blurred. The forgotten army, which is how I often refer to prison officers, needs our support, and we owe them and all who work in our prisons our thanks and a duty of care.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing tonight’s debate. I start by joining him in saying that our prison officers are indeed brave, but the work they do—important work that keeps the public safe, but also helps to turn around offenders—often goes unnoticed, and it is worth putting on record that we do value them immensely.

I am determined to improve prison safety for our prison officers and for prisoners themselves. Recent events, including incidents at HMP Bedford and HMP Pentonville, emphasise how important it is that we act now on prison safety and security. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, prisoners at HMP Portland have displayed significant levels of violence against staff, so I would like to echo his concerns, and I reassure him that the Government are taking decisive action to tackle this serious problem—to stabilise it in the short term and to overhaul the system to deliver reforms of longer-term benefit.

I thank my hon. Friend for his support in the House yesterday in condemning the actions of the Prison Officers Association and stressing that strike action was neither constructive for prison officers nor safe for prisoners. I welcome the POA’s decision to stop its unlawful industrial action and the fact that prison officers have returned to work. That incident does not, of course, diminish the principle that underpinned the POA’s action: that prison officer safety is a key challenge and concern.

A point was raised about the lessons we can learn from Northern Ireland. I welcome that point, and I will take it on board. The Department is determined to learn lessons wherever it can to deal with the different challenges across the prison system, be it safety, security or turning prisoners around, but also extremism. So I welcome that point, and I would like to engage directly with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to take the issue forward.

The levels of violence our prison system has seen over the past five years are unacceptable. There were over 23,000 assaults in the year to June 2016, and over 3,000 of those were against staff. Rising violence against the very officers who devote their lives to public safety must be tackled as a matter of urgency, and that is what the Government are doing.

As we set out in our new “Prison Safety and Reform” White Paper, the Government will be investing over £100 million to recruit an additional 2,500 staff across the estate by the end of 2018. Prison officers do a vital job. I want them to benefit from the improvements we are making on the frontline and to safety to change prisoners’ lives for the better.

We recognise the challenge faced in recruiting an extra 2,500 staff, so we are launching a number of initiatives, including a new apprenticeship programme to recruit more people. We are about to launch an “Army officer to prison officer” recruitment programme, and we also have a programme to encourage the brightest and best graduates to become prison officers.

Of course, those things will take time, but we are making serious and significant progress, including with the 400 extra officers that we have pledged to recruit by March 2017 for our most challenging prisons. We are on track to deliver and meet that target.

Increased staff numbers will give prison officers more time, as my hon. Friend has said, to turn around the lives of prisoners and ensure that they turn against criminality and violence in increasing numbers. Nearly half of all offenders who leave prison go on to commit crime within a year. Investment will provide the capacity for prison officers to play a dedicated officer role, engaging with about six prisoners on a one-to-one basis. They will build constructive relationships with prisoners, listening to their frustration, defusing tension and ultimately reducing the level of violence.

Staffing is only one component of the challenge that we face in our prisons, where there is a game-changing situation involving drugs, phones and drones. The rise in the use and trade of psychoactive substances has been a game changer for the Prison Service. Along with phones, their use and trade drives a destructive cycle of bribery, debt, violence and self-harm. Assaults against staff have increased in that context, so it is essential that we get those issues under control, in tandem with new staffing approaches.

What can we do physically to stop those drugs getting into prisons? Apparently the situation is endemic across the country. We cannot search people—I do not think that we have the machines to identify the drugs—so how do we stop them?

That is a very good question. The initial challenge posed by the new psychoactive substances—otherwise known as legal highs—was that there was no test that could detect them. It was, therefore, very easy for people not only to get them into prison, but to make them up from a number of components. We now have a test that can identify the drugs so we have introduced mandatory drug testing, but we are also going further to tackle the criminality that drives the smuggling of the drugs into prisons. We will invest £3 million in a new, prison-wide intelligence and search capability that will allow us not only to gather intelligence across the system about which criminal gangs are behind the drugs and trying to get them into our prisons, but to stop them.

Tackling the use of mobile phones is also vital, because, while some prisoners want access to them in order to contact friends and family, a vast number of prisoners use them for criminal purposes, including arranging a time for drugs to come in and telling someone where to send the drone. Dealing with the illicit smuggling of mobile phones into our prisons is absolutely key. Like drones, it is a technological problem, and I believe that technology is the way to deal with it. That is why we are working with the mobile network operators to find a way to prevent mobile phones from working in our prisons, and with drone manufacturers to create no-fly zones across our prison estate.

My hon. Friend specifically mentioned violence against staff. Alongside measures on drones, drugs and phones, it is essential that we increase staff confidence in the prison system. That starts with achieving swift justice when assaults occur. My hon. Friend and I share that concern. We are rolling out body-worn cameras across the estate in order to give staff added confidence, while also supporting bringing timely and effective trials for prisoners when necessary. We will work with other parts of the criminal justice system, including the National Crime Agency and the police, to improve the evidence-collection process, to ensure a “right first time” culture. By clamping down on staff assaults, we will help to break the vicious cycle of violence committed by some of our most challenging prisoners.

My hon. Friend mentioned the retirement age of prison officers, which ties into yesterday’s action. The Government are actively engaged with the Prison Officers Association in negotiations around pay, pensions, the retirement age, retention and health and safety. That is why we were surprised by the action of the POA yesterday. We have an outstanding offer to the POA as of last Friday, and the POA is yet to respond to it. I believe that by coming back to the negotiating table, we will be able to discuss these issues to secure the safety of officers and to ensure that the jobs in their profession are as well rewarded as they obviously should be.

The Secretary of State and I have made it clear over recent weeks that we are taking decisive and urgent action to improve prison safety. The safety and security measures in our White Paper will work alongside key measures such as the £1.3 billion that we are investing to regenerate the old Victorian estate and reforms to empower prison governors. We have a genuine commitment to alleviating violence against our staff, which we cannot ignore in the current context.

My hon. Friend mentioned prison management, and I believe that our reform programme will really help in that context by empowering governors and giving them control over their budgets. That will enable them to make decisions about the employment, education and training of prisoners. It will also enable them to deploy staff in a way that best allows them to deliver a prison regime that not only provides safety and security, but turns prisoners around. Prison governors will be real managers and leaders of their shop. At the moment, too much comes from Whitehall. We want to give prison governors responsibility and freedom, with, obviously, the right accountability framework. With that, we will see the change in management culture that my hon. Friend pointed to.

My hon. Friend mentioned the prison population, which comes up in numerous debates. Prison has to be the last resort for anyone who has committed a crime. Our job is to make sure that where people have committed an offence and are sentenced, there is capacity in the system for our prisons to deliver on the orders of the court. I do not believe that the way to deal with the prison population issue is to let prisoners out arbitrarily, especially considering the impact that that would have on victims and families. I believe that the best way to deal with the population in the long term is to cut reoffending. By reducing reoffending, we will reduce the prison population.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that the Government are pressing forward with these measures at great speed and intensity, because, like him, we value the admirable work that our prison officers do. We want them to benefit from the improvements we are making, both on the frontline and to safety and security, which will ultimately help them to change prisoners’ lives for the better.

Prison safety is an integral part of the health of the system in which prison officers operate. As I have said, we encourage the POA to come back to the negotiating table so that we can work together to tackle the safety challenges that concern us all.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.