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Prison Officers: Suicide

Volume 661: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2019

We do not hold the specific information requested by the hon. Gentleman. I fully appreciate that the pressures on prison officers can be considerable. However, we are committed to ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff, and have systems in place where if people are struggling, for whatever reason, including outside-work pressures, they will get the support they need.

Right across the public sector, the Government do not keep enough statistics on people in uniform who are taking their own lives due to physical and mental pressures at work. Will the Minister agree to meet me and members of the Prison Officers Association to discuss how we can record those statistics and, most importantly, how we can prevent prison officers from taking their own lives?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important and sensitive point. I should add that the prison chaplaincy service provides invaluable support for many prison officers who are struggling. I will meet him about this issue. The current figures record deaths in service. Clearly, the issue of mental health and people taking their own lives has to be addressed.

May I start by welcoming my hon. and learned Friend to his post? I think this is the first question time that he has taken in his new role.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that we not only pay the highest tribute to the dedication and professionalism of the men and women of our Prison Service, but recognise that the pressures that they face come in no small measure from the difficulty of establishing secure regimes and stability within our prisons? Will he take on board the recommendations of the Justice Committee—in particular, our suggestion for a workforce strategy across the whole of the Prison Service?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I pay tribute to the work of his Committee. We have seen welcome increases in the number of prison officers, and that will help with stability. Retention rates are very important. I will certainly study very carefully the recommendations of his Committee, and work with him and other Members to make sure that we achieve our common goal.

Prison officers do a very difficult job on behalf of the community, but the loss of thousands of staff, leading to the highest-ever number of assaults in prisons last year, has put them under enormous stress. Does the Minister accept that warm words are not good enough in this situation and there needs to be a serious increase in the number of prison staff to alleviate the pressure on officers?

I am pleased to inform the hon. Lady that there has indeed been a significant increase in the number of prison staff. We are now up to over 4,500 extra prison staff from the low point. I take her point that with increasing staff, more constructive work can be done with prisoners. The key worker scheme that we have now rolled out in the majority of adult male closed prisons, where prison officers work with six named prisoners, is already yielding results and making prisons safer places. I very much take on board the point she makes about assaults.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on his new appointment.

One of the issues that adds to the emotional stress on prison officers can be a very long commute at the end of a working day, particularly in London and the south-east in very high-cost housing areas. What discussions is the Department having with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that key worker accommodation is available for prison officers, who are often not that well paid, in high-cost housing areas?

My hon. Friend, as a former prisons Minister, knows this issue very well, and I pay tribute to him for his continued commitment to it. Yes, the question of housing is a difficult one. I am glad to say that recruitment rates in London have proved extremely successful. The extra increments that are paid to certain prison officers to recognise the particular pressures that they are under is a welcome part of the system. However, I will be happy to speak further to him about the issue.

The Minister will know that in Northern Ireland prison officers have been subjected to mental and physical pressures above and beyond—post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Justice Department have been very active in offering support. Has he had the opportunity to speak to those in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Department to find out what is being done for prison officers in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am always willing to speak to and learn from experiences in other parts of our United Kingdom, most particularly Northern Ireland. Various therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, are available to prison officers should they wish to seek them. There is also a fast-track referral system, which is particularly encouraged where staff have experienced trauma.