I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns), whose 30 years in the House have been a joy to behold—although I have been here for only seven of them. We recently visited Chelmsford prison together, and I saw at first hand his commitment not only to his constituents but to the cause of improving prisons in this country. Chelmsford prison is one of the 10 prisons we selected for the early recruitment of prison officers. We said that 400 prison officers would be recruited by the end of March. I can confirm that they are now in training or in post in those prisons, including Chelmsford.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the extremely kind and generous comments at the beginning of her answer. I welcome the fact that, following the recognition that more staff are needed at Chelmsford prison, new staff are now being trained up. Does she know when those staff are likely to come on stream, to ensure that we have proper staffing levels and the proper protection for prison officers?
The training period for a prison officer is 10 weeks, so we will see them come on stream very shortly. Since November, 43 job offers have been made to new prison officers at Chelmsford. Following our visit to Chelmsford prison, we announced a rise in starting salaries for prison officers there, so they will now be paid a minimum of £26,500.
Prison officers have to be both tough and humane; it is a difficult path and a difficult job to do. What plans does the Secretary of State have to increase the professionalism of the people who do that job? That may in turn help with their retention.
First, may I say what a fantastic group of professionals we have in our country’s prison officers? I want to make sure there is good career progression right through from entry into the Prison Service to becoming a governor, and good training—we are launching a new apprenticeship scheme for prison officers to make sure people have the right skills all the way through.
The Unlocked scheme is being rolled out. When will the graduates start?
The Unlocked scheme is like Teach First for the Prison Service. We have had an incredible number of applications to join it. The final assessment was held on 1 April and we are now able to offer places to 60 candidates, who will start their training on 18 July. It is a really important scheme for not only bringing top graduates into our prisons but exposing employers to the fantastic work that goes on there.
Of course we all welcome the recruitment of new prison officers, but does the Secretary of State not agree that the problems in our prisons stem from the mistaken actions of her Government in cutting 6,000 prison officers in the first place?
I have been very clear that we need to recruit more prison officers. It has been my No. 1 priority in this job. We are on track to achieve the 2,500 officers. We have faced a number of challenges across our prison estate, and we have already talked about psychoactive substances, drones and mobile phones. I am clear that we need the prison officers in place. When we have achieved the 2,500 officers, we will be able to ensure that each one has a caseload of six prisoners whom they will look after, and that will help us to turn those lives around.
I have been pressing for a number of years for a new- build prison in Magilligan in my constituency. Hopefully, that will take place in the next year or two. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that any future Government will closely liaise so that prisoner supervision, whether in prisons in Northern Ireland or in England, is replicated to achieve best practice to ensure the best possible outcomes?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to learn from each other to make sure that our prisons do the best possible job. Of course they are there to punish offenders, but they also must turn lives around and reduce reoffending rates.
What assessment has been made of the high levels of turnover of prison staff and the negative consequences that that has on the management of prisons in Northern Ireland? I know that the matter is devolved. There are extremely low pay rates, low prospects and nothing to encourage people to work in the Prison Service.
In prisons in England and Wales, 80% of our staff have been with us for more than five years. However, I want us to retain and train up those experienced members of staff. We are creating 2,000 new grade 4 posts at a salary of £30,000 to make sure that we retain those experienced prison officers who are so vital to running our prisons well.
Will the Secretary of State clarify whether there are any plans to increase the numbers of staff providing education and training to prisoners, because that will help prisoners’ employment prospects and stop them reoffending?
We are making sure that governors decide how education will work in their prisons. We will set standards. We will see how fast prisoners progress in English and maths and whether they are getting the vocational work skills they need to get a job. I was recently in HMP Onley and saw the fantastic work being done by Halfords, getting those people into employment. Ultimately, the governor will have control of the education budget. Governors can decide how best to spend it and how to get the best results.