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Prison Officer Safety

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2019

We do not tolerate violence against our dedicated and hard-working prison officers. We are strengthening frontline officer numbers and rolling out the key worker scheme so that we can improve prisoner-staff relationships and tackle the causes of violence. We are giving officers the tools they need, like body-worn cameras and PAVA spray, to respond where incidents occur.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer but, in order to protect prison officers, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that the police and the justice system take crimes committed in prison as seriously as those committed outside in the community?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and it is important that crimes committed within prisons are taken seriously, just as crimes committed outside prisons are taken seriously. We have taken a number of steps, and I have already alluded to some of the measures we are taking to help prison officers in these circumstances. We also recently changed the law to strengthen sentences against those who commit crimes against prison officers.

A week before Christmas, one of my local prison officers, Ashley McLean, received horrendous facial injuries when he was violently attacked by a prisoner who was allegedly high on Spice. This was not an isolated incident. It happens every day of every week in one or other of our prisons. Much of that violent behaviour, as we have heard, is caused by drugs, so what steps are being taken to increase sentences for those found guilty of supplying drugs to inmates?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights an horrific incident, and I know the prisons Minister has already replied to a letter from him on this matter. We are fully committed to addressing the significant increase we have seen in the number of assaults on our hard-working prison staff. The new Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 increases the penalty for those who assault emergency workers, including prison officers, and I understand that the police are continuing to investigate this particular incident.

We have already heard that assaults against prison officers are at record levels, and those levels are rising at a record rate. Why is the Secretary of State more interested in taking prison officers to court for raising health and safety concerns than in sitting around the table and working with them to develop an urgent violence reduction strategy?

We are very focused on reducing violence, which is why we are taking the measures that we are: introducing the extra staff; giving prison officers access to PAVA; increasing the use of body-worn cameras; and increasing measures to stop drugs getting into prisons—as we have heard, they can often be a driver of this violence. So that is precisely what we are doing and will continue to do.

I recently met someone who trained to be a prison officer and left the job after six months. He told me that the three months of training left him ill-equipped to deal with the violence and intimidation, and to deal with prisoners with mental health problems. The Secretary of State will know that this is not an isolated case—it is widespread. What is he doing to improve training for prison officers so that they are equipped to deal with these incidents and have support when they are encountering this type of violence?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are constantly looking at ways in which we can improve the training for prison officers. The prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has been very focused on that. We have managed to increase the number of prison officers significantly—as I say, the figure is up by 4,300. We are now seeing those prison officers gaining more experience and becoming increasingly effective. As I say, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that we are moving in the right direction, but there is still much more that needs to be done.

What specific assessment has the Secretary of State made of the opportunities associated with the use of body-worn cameras by prison officers, given the successes we have seen in policing?

Again, my hon. Friend is right to highlight this issue. The increased use of body-worn cameras can help to ensure that we have evidence that can ensure that wrongdoing by prisoners can be brought to book—it can enable prosecutions to be brought. It also provides an ability to ensure that the truth can always be discovered, which is important. Body-worn cameras are not the sole answer, but they are part of an answer on how to bring the number of these incidents down. The nearly 6,000 additional body-worn cameras, alongside staff training, can help us to move in the right direction.

Every assault on a prison officer is, of course, one too many. In the last full year, there were five times fewer serious assaults on prison officers in Scotland than there were in English and Welsh prisons. Given that stark contrast, and the fact that while this Government were slashing prison officer numbers by nearly a third their numbers in Scotland actually rose, will the Secretary of State meet the Scottish Government to discuss what he could learn from Scotland’s approach to this issue as well?

We have a co-operative relationship with the Scottish Government and that will continue. Let me point out that since October 2016 we have seen an increase in prison officer numbers of 4,300, which is to be welcomed. At one stage, people said, “Those are new numbers but they are very inexperienced”, but of course as each month goes by those prison officers are gaining experience and confidence. I believe we will see improvements in the months and years ahead.