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Prison Officers Association: Withdrawal from Voluntary Tasks

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2017

(Urgent Question): The prisons Minister told the Select Committee on Justice this morning that he has the number of the chair of the Prison Officers Association on speed dial.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting a little ahead of himself. At this stage, all he needs to do is put the urgent question in the very simple terms in which it was put to me, by saying, “To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if she will make a statement on the Prison Officers Association instruction to withdraw from voluntary tasks.” I have just done the hon. Gentleman’s work for him. If he wants to say it again, he may, but that is the way to deal with it. He will have his opportunity to speak in a moment. He is ahead of himself, which I suppose is better than being behind the curve.

Mr Speaker, thank you for asking the urgent question on behalf of the Opposition. I am grateful for the chance to update the House on this important issue.

Strike action is unlawful, as we have said to the Prison Officers Association. It will seriously disrupt normal operations in prisons and, although we will of course take any actions we can to mitigate the risks, we are clear that action of this nature by the POA poses a risk to the safety of prisons and prison staff. The duties that the POA refers to in its bulletin are not voluntary but a fundamental part of a prison officer’s role, and essential to running a safe and decent prison. They include: assessment of those at risk of suicide; first aid; restraint training and intervention; and hostage negotiation. The instructions by the POA are clearly designed to disrupt the safe and decent running of prisons.

We have made the maximum pay offer that we could to all operational staff in prisons. In addition, we offered a £1,000 retention payment to all operational staff and a reduction in pension age to 65, fully funded by the Government. We were disappointed that the offer was rejected by the POA membership, despite being endorsed by the POA leadership. This year’s pay award is now a matter for the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body, which will take evidence from all parties and report to the Government in April. The POA, of course, has the opportunity to make its case to the pay review body, but we are not waiting for the pay review body to respond.

In the past week, we have outlined progression opportunities that will take earnings to more than £30,000 a year for more than 2,000 staff across the country. We have also introduced allowances in areas in which the cost of living is higher to take basic rate prison officers up to £30,000 a year. We understand that prison officers do a difficult job in very challenging circumstances, so we are making these moves on pay to recognise their effort and hard work. In addition, the Government are investing £100 million to increase the net number of prison officers by 2,500 in the next two years. I urge the shadow Minister, if he has good sense and cares about the safety and order of our prisons, not to put prison officers and prisoners at risk, but to condemn this unlawful strike action.

The prisons Minister told the Justice Committee this morning that he has the number of the chair of the Prison Officers Association on speed dial. If the Minister is dialling, it is clear that he is not connecting because the situation could easily have been avoided. Ministers could have spoken to the POA before imposing a pay policy that has proven to be so divisive and unpopular. They need to sit down and talk to the POA, rather than threaten legal action and claim the action is unlawful before any court has made any such determination. In order to fix a prison system currently relying on staff doing extra work voluntarily—for no extra money—to keep our system running, Ministers need to focus on the real problems.

At the Conservative party conference back in October, the Justice Secretary announced 400 more officers to work in 10 challenging prisons, but the staffing shortfall at those prisons has grown in the last quarter. After the White Paper announcement of 2,500 additional officers, there was a fall of 133 staff in the last quarter of 2016. That 2,500 is now further away than it was in November.

So where is the Justice Secretary? Why have some prisons with no recruitment and retention problems received the pay award, while some prisons struggling most on that front have received nothing? How much additional money has been earmarked for this recruitment drive? What discussions have taken place with the POA leadership today?

To turn around this mess, we need a Justice Secretary who is serious—serious about working with prison officers—and we need a prisons Bill that will deliver serious reform. Sadly, at the moment, we have neither.

In relation to the additional allowances that were announced for staff last week, and also the pay progression opportunity for 2,000 prison officers across the estate, the POA was consulted. If the hon. Gentleman had read its press release in detail, he would have noticed that the POA actually welcomed those things; its issue was that it wanted them to apply to all the country. However, it is not novel to have a pay allowance in areas where it is difficult to recruit and where the cost of living is too high—it is not novel in the Prison Service, and it is not novel in the public sector.

The hon. Gentleman talked about extra money that is going into the Prison Service. I made it absolutely clear that we have £100 million for a net 2,500 officers. He referred to data relating to December last year, following our announcement in November, so let me update him briefly on where we are on prison officer recruitment. We are on track to recruit the 400 new officers the Secretary of State announced in October for the 10 most challenging jails. We have more people in training today to be prison officers than ever before. We are also investing £4 million in marketing to attract new prison officers.

The Labour party, I am afraid, is confused on prisons. Last year, it told us that it wanted the prison population cut from 80,000 to 45,000. Last Sunday, we heard from the shadow Attorney General that prisoners should be allowed to keep mobile phones so that they can carry on their life of crime in prison. Until the Labour party has sorted out its position, it is in no position to question us.

The Justice Committee has always made it clear that it recognises that there are great pressures on our prisons, and that includes pressures on the dedicated men and women who work in them. However, does the Minister accept that it is not helpful, given the efforts that are being made to turn the situation around, which takes time to achieve, to embark on a course of action that, legal or otherwise, creates further restrictions on the regime and, therefore, further tensions in the prison population? That makes it harder to deliver rehabilitation and, sadly, makes the job of prison officers harder in the long term.

The Chairman of the Justice Committee makes an important point. We have made progress on pay with the Prison Officers Association, and we have had progress on health and safety; indeed, today we were to meet the POA to discuss pensions. I absolutely agree with the Justice Secretary that today’s action only puts prisoners and prison officers, who work very hard, at risk.

As we have heard, prison staff in England and Wales have been demoralised by understaffing, underpayment and overcrowding in prisons. While the Government have offered a pay rise to prison staff to encourage further recruitment and retention of current staff, as we have heard, that will apply only in the south-east and London. The Minister said that that is not novel, but it does not address the issue of morale across the board.

This is a matter for England and Wales, but I am here to encourage the Minister to look at the Scottish Government’s attempts to reduce the number of people in prisons by moving away from ineffective, short-term prison sentences and making more use of community alternatives. Does he agree that he should concentrate efforts on such schemes? Never mind the marketing budget he spoke of to recruit people, what will he do to ensure that newly recruited prison officers are retained and that the morale of all prison staff, who already have a very stressful job, is restored?

The hon. Lady is right—the morale of prison officers is important to us. However, let me be clear: we had a pay deal endorsed by the Prison Officers Association towards the end of last year that was rejected. That pay deal is now a matter for the independent pay review body. We have submitted evidence and the POA can submit its evidence, so we are taking action on pay for the Prison Service as a whole. We have also put in place additional allowances for 31 jails where it is particularly hard to recruit. Further to that, we have created a new progression opportunity for 2,000 prison officers across the country, and today we were due to be in talks about pensions. We value prison officers and the work they do, and we want to support them, but unlawful strike action is not the way to progress. It would actually achieve the opposite, which is to put prison officers at risk.

While strongly regretting the strike action announced by the POA, I welcome the reduction in retirement age to 65 that the Minister has told the House about. In his further discussions on pensions when this strike is over—I hope he will be able to get back around the table soon—will he bear in mind the comparison with the pension offers for the police and the armed services, in that members in those schemes have to pay more?

I will certainly bear that in mind, although the pension deal offered to the POA and prison officers would have been fully funded by the Government.

Last year 119 prisoners took their own lives in our prisons—the highest level of suicides on record. The POA instruction urges members to withdraw from ACCT—assessment, care in custody and teamwork. While I have every sympathy with the 7,000 POA prison officers who now face these challenges in our prisons, what impact will that withdrawal have on the already dismal mental health support available in our prisons?

As I said earlier, involvement in ACCT processes and ceasing suicide and self-harm are fundamental to a prison officer’s duty. I would encourage and urge all prison officers to carry on with their tasks as they should.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work that he is doing with a difficult pack of cards? Does he agree that a prison officer joins to serve, and that that means to serve in whatever guise without striking?

I certainly do agree. In fact, the legislation on this was introduced by the previous Labour Government, so I was surprised that the shadow Minister would not condemn this unlawful strike action.

When prisons are in crisis and staff are on strike, every available penny should be spent on making prisons safe. Is the Minister aware that last year £500,000 of compensation was paid to serious criminals because they were released late from prison? When will he get that under control and provide prison officers with a safe working environment and prisoners with a safe and drug-free environment in which to be detained?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we published a White Paper last year, and only last week introduced the Prisons and Courts Bill—the first Bill in 65 years that not only puts turning around our prisoners’ lives at the centre of our work but improves safety and security in our prisons. We are taking action.

Will the Minister update the House on some of the measures in the Bill that should help to resolve the situation and ensure that our prisons are places of safety and reform?

The central aspect of the Bill is to make it very clear that the fundamental purpose of prisons is to turn around offenders’ lives. If prisons are focused on that, we will reduce reoffending, and the £15 billion reoffending bill, but also help to make our prisons places of safety and reform.

To avoid any doubt, will the Minister say today that he will accept the recommendations that the independent pay review body makes?

We will obviously look at its recommendations. Let me make this clear: we value prison officers and the hard work they do, and we have already taken a lot of action to recognise that. The right hon. Gentleman cannot ask me to commit at the Dispatch Box to results that I do not know.

I agree with the Minister that it is wrong for this strike to go ahead, particularly given the services that it affects. I know he will share my concern at the 6,000 assaults on prison officers up until June 2016. Will he reassure me on the actions being taken to tackle this and to ensure that those who commit these assaults are held to account?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Prison officers work in a very challenging environment, and our job is to keep them safe in that environment. We are looking at a number of things, including making sure that any crime scene is preserved, working with the local police forces that attend the scene, and making sure that impact statements are well prepared and admissible in court. We are also ensuring that when someone assaults a prison officer and is convicted, the sentence is consecutive rather than concurrent with their existing sentence. I agree that it is vital that we keep prison officers safe.

This dispute is, on the surface, about pay, and the Minister has said an awful lot about that, but he must realise that it is also about unhappiness that has been developing in the Prison Service for many years now, principally about safety at work. The levels of assaults on prison officers, suicide and self-harm are unprecedented. Fixing that is how the Government are going to resolve this in the longer term. When are we going to start to see safety in prisons improve?

I have said right from the start that the levels of violence in our prisons are too high. We have been working very closely with the Prison Officers Association on health and safety and have made progress—for example, on regime management plans that the POA would accept. We are also investing £100 million to add 2,500 officers to the frontline, in addition to the points on pay that I have already made. These problems were long in the making, and yes, it will take time to resolve them, but we have the resolve to do so and we are doing it.

The job of prison officers is made more difficult by the presence in our prisons of drugs and mobile phones. Can my hon. Friend tell me by what date will we have at least one prison—just one—that is free of drugs and mobile phones?

My hon. Friend will have noticed measures in the Bill that we introduced last week to make it easier to test for drugs and deal with the problem of drugs in our prisons, and we are taking a lot of action on mobile phones. For example, new legislation under the Serious Crime Act 2015 has allowed us to turn off 160 mobile phones in our jails in the past few months. We are also working with mobile network operators so as to be able to switch off mobile phones in our jails. A lot of work is being done, but it will take time.

These are worrying developments. Does the Minister share my concern that this action will have an impact on family visits? As he knows, the ability for prisoners to meet their families and see their children—there are 200,000 children of prisoners—is extremely important for rehabilitation. Can he confirm that this will not be affected?

As I have said, strike action is unlawful. If prison officers withdraw their labour, that will make the regime even more restrictive, as the Chairman of the Justice Committee suggested. That is why we are urging hard-working prison officers to go back to work and make sure that prisoners can carry on with these regimes, whether in continuing important rehabilitative work or in making sure that our prisons are safe.

It is concerning that this action could lead to Tornado teams being withdrawn. Will the Minister confirm that contingency measures are in place to ensure that prison order can be maintained at all times?

I am sure that our prison officers will always do their duty if there is disorder in prisons, even at this difficult time. We are obviously urging the POA to withdraw its bulletin, but we also make sure that we have contingency plans for times like this.

The Minister does not need me to tell him that staff morale in our prisons is extremely low, which is not helped by very low staff numbers. In my constituency since 2010, the numbers at Frankland have gone down by 32%, at Durham by 48% and at Low Newton by 17%. When does the Minister think that he will be in a position to produce a pay offer that recognises the difficult and dangerous job that prison officers do?

We are already doing that; we are recognising that difficulty. As I have said, pay packets will go up to about £30,000 as a result of the measures we have introduced in the past week. The independent pay review body will report in April, after which we will take further action.

The Government’s commitment to opening new prison places in fit-for-purpose buildings, including in north Northamptonshire, is very welcome news. What impact does the Minister think that that will have on prison officer safety?

Modern, fit-for-purpose prisons will have a huge impact on prison officer safety, not least because they will not have all those corners where people can hide. They will also be good for rehabilitation. Today we have opened Her Majesty’s Prison Berwyn, which is the largest prison in Europe and is taking its first prisoners today. That is a huge step in our efforts not only to reorganise the estate, reduce overcrowding and improve safety in our prisons, but to ensure that they can be places of rehabilitation.

I have listened carefully to the Minister. He said that he thought that this action was designed to disrupt the safe and decent running of prisons. Does he not understand that the whole reason why prison officers are withdrawing from these tasks is that we do not have safe and decent prisons? We have intolerable and dangerous prisons; I would not want to work in them, and I am sure that the Minister would not either.

As I have said, our prison officers do an incredibly difficult job. I visit prisons almost every week and I know how hard the officers work. The POA has decided to make a stand on pay, as we have seen in today’s bulletin. I urge it to withdraw its bulletin because it will not do anything to improve safety in our prisons.

In addition to the workforce strategy that we will publish later this year, which will focus on the professionalisation of the workforce, last week we announced a progressive promotion opportunity that will allow band 3 officers to do roles relating to safer custody, mentoring and hostage negotiation, and to get a pay rise. That is a huge step not just in professionalising the workforce and allowing people to operate in more senior roles, but in improving the pay packets of our hard-working prison officers.

Does the Minister accept that his precipitative action will be counterproductive and that any lockdowns are likely to lead to a lot more trouble in prisons?

The precipitous action, if I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, is unlawful strike action, which will do nothing to make our prisons safe.

It would be easier to manage the 85,000 prisoners in our jails if we did not have to incarcerate 10,000 foreign nationals who should be in prison in their own country. This week Jamaica rejected the Government’s offer of returning its foreign nationals. What steps are the Government taking to get these people back to secure detention in their own countries?

Since 2010 we have deported 33,000 prisoners —5,810 in 2015-16 alone—to their home country. There is a lot more work that we can do, and I am engaging directly with the Governments of the top 10 countries from which foreign national prisoners come in order to speed up the process.

Our prisons are unsafe and dangerous, and the Minister inherited that situation. We must not forget that we have lost 7,000 experienced prison officers. When Spice, which is a very cheap drug, came on the market, prisoners who were recalled within 28 days of being released were able to expand their business on the next landing. The steps that are being taken are a sticking plaster rather than major surgery. We need to recruit massive numbers of prison officers. We need proper pay and proper skills, not adverts for 18-year-olds with no experience.

We lost 6,000 or 7,000 prison officers, as the hon. Lady has said, but during that period we also closed 18 prisons. The key change in our prisons, as she has rightly says, is the advent of drugs such as Spice and Black Mamba, which have a huge value in prisons and make prisoners violent. In addition, our cohort of prisoners has become more violent: three fifths of people in our prisons are there for dangerous or drug-related offences. That is why we face a game-changing situation. More staff is part of the answer, but dealing with drugs and mobile phones is a key part of it, too.

Is not improving working conditions for prison officers part of the solution to the problem, and are not the Government wholly right to close old Victorian prisons and open modern ones, such as that in Wellingborough?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the working conditions for prison officers and the estates in which we house prisoners are important to improving safety in our prisons. I look forward to the new prison in Wellingborough opening shortly.

Given that 15 of the most dangerous prisoners have been transferred to Hull following the Birmingham riot earlier this year, that prison officers are saying that they fear for their safety, and that the prison was in lockdown in December, does the Minister understand why morale is so low, especially when the pay award is not going to areas such as Hull? Will the governor there have the flexibility come April to give these hard-working prison officers that pay increase?

Yes, prison governors will have control over their budgets and will be able to make decisions about staffing and how their staff are deployed from this April. We have to be absolutely clear. The POA says that this unlawful strike action is about pay. However, only last week we announced not only promotion opportunities but increased pay for vast numbers of prison officers across the country.

Having had an in-depth conversation with a constituent who has just left his role as a prison officer, I understand that the prison population is getting younger, that Spice and mental health issues are on the rise, and that morale is at rock bottom. Given the POA instruction urging its members to withdraw from detached duties such as Tornado work during prison riots, what is the Minister doing to reassure the families of vulnerable people in prison that they will not suffer during this dispute?

The best reassurance we can give to the families of prisoners is for the Prison Officers Association to withdraw its bulletin and not to pursue unlawful strike action.