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Prison Staff: Health and Safety

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2019

Keeping our prisons safe, both for the dedicated staff working in them and for the men and women in our custody, is our top priority. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service continually assesses the risks to staff in our prisons, putting in suitable measures and controls. The effectiveness of those controls is monitored locally and nationally, and through joint audit work with prison unions.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but it must be of concern to the whole House when the Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that violence against prison staff is at a record high. There were almost twice as many assaults in 2018 as there were in 2010. Does the Minister agree that everyone working in our prison system, whether as a prison officer, an educator, a nurse or anything else, should have an absolute right to a safe workplace, safe from violent assaults? Will he support the joint trade union “Safer Inside” campaign to secure that objective?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and he is right to alert us to the day-to-day bravery of prison staff in whatever part of the prison estate they work. A lot of work is going on to improve how prison staff interact with prisoners, and the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 allows the courts to impose greater sentences to deal with assault. I will look very carefully at the proposals that are being set out tomorrow and work with Members across the House to ensure that we rise to the challenge of prison violence.

Sexual assaults against prison staff have soared by 360% since 2010—a shocking statistic that the Government should be ashamed of. Does the Minister agree that the recent attack that saw a prisoner ejaculate over a female officer should be treated as a sexual assault —and a serious sexual assault at that—and be prosecuted as such?

The hon. Lady raises a very interesting point. While I think it would be invidious of me to comment on a particular case, I can see the force of her point. That is quite clearly a very serious assault and there are aggravating features in there, which make it particularly distressing for the worker involved. As I said, a lot of important work is going on with regard to body-worn cameras and we need the roll-out of PAVA spray to help protect prison officers who, let us face it, are doing such an important job that is all too often unheralded.

The use of psychoactive substances is regrettably on the rise in prisons and has an effect on behaviour. What are the Government doing to tackle that?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Indeed, the service has started research on the effects on prison staff of second-hand exposure to psychoactive substances, in particular across 10 prisons. That testing programme will be extended. We have also established a drugs taskforce, because the best way to deal with the risk is to minimise the use of drugs in prisons. That is a tough challenge, but one that the whole service is working towards.

Teachers, nurses, cleaners and many others are a vital part of our prison workforce. However, alongside prison officers, they are exposed to the dangers of the prison estate, which the prisons inspector just today has stated contains too much violence, drug use and inactivity, and frankly remains in a state of emergency. Staff have the right to work in a safe environment that is free from violence, abuse and danger, but violence against staff is reaching record highs. Will the Justice Secretary commit today to meeting the teachers I met earlier, and who are in the Gallery to hear his answers, to ensure the safety of all our staff in our prisons?

I am always interested in meeting staff from across the prison estate, and that includes the teachers who are here today. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight Peter Clarke’s important report. That report contains significant findings relating to the ongoing challenges, but it also celebrates the professionalism, the caring and the well-run safe, calm parts of our prison estate that exemplify a successful history and pattern of working. I was delighted to be able to attend the prison officer of the year awards last week to acknowledge some of the outstanding service given by prison officers and other employees in HMPPS.