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Prisons: Staffing Levels

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2019

In my first orals in this role, I am very pleased to pay tribute to the hard work of all our prison staff. I have had the opportunity, since I was appointed, to visit a number of prisons and I have seen at first hand the dedication of their staff. It is critical that we recruit and retain staff to keep our prisons secure. We have invested significantly in increasing staff numbers, recruiting a net total of an additional 4,366 prison officers between October 2016 and June 2019, surpassing our original target of 2,500, and we will continue to recruit officers to ensure that our prisons are decent and safe.

Since 2010, the number of prison officers has dropped by 80,000. Violence and insecurity in our jails have soared. What estimate has the Minister made of the impact in jails of her party conference’s proposals to increase jail sentences on violent and sexual offenders and the cost of delivering it?

We have recruited more than 4,000 staff since 2016. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that if the police catch more criminals and we prosecute them, there will be more people going into our prisons. That is why we have committed to investing £2.5 billion in prison places. He is also right to identify that we will need not only prison places but more prison officers. We are actually ahead of our recruitment targets in this regard. The Prison Service has been lauded as a good employer: for example, it is in the top 100 graduate employers.

I congratulate the Government on their efforts to recruit more prison officers. However, does my hon. and learned Friend accept that cuts earlier this decade contributed to a vicious cycle of prison violence because fewer officers on landings led to more assaults, which caused more staff to leave, leading to more violence and so on? With morale and retention of prison officers at rock bottom, does she accept that more must be done to reward these brave public servants—for instance, by improving and reducing their retirement age to 60 because 68 is far too late?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the profile of the work of prison officers in his Westminster Hall debate last year, as well as this morning in questions, and for participating and promoting the excellent Prison Service parliamentary scheme. He is right to refer to prison officers as “brave public servants”, and the Secretary of State referred to them in his conference speech as “unsung heroes”. We made offers to staff to reduce the pension age in 2013 and 2017, but both offers were rejected by the Prison Officers Association.

I welcome the Minister back to the Ministry of Justice in her new role. Like her predecessors, she comes to this House triumphant about the Government’s recruitment campaign. However, the reality is that we just have to look at the breakdown in the number of prison officers to see that it is far from the truth. Some 80,000 years of cumulative prison officer experience have been lost, a third of officers have less than two years’ experience and the number of officers is now falling again—still lagging 2,500 behind 2010 levels. Will the Minister in her new role simply commit to bringing prison officer numbers back to 2010 levels?

We have made a significant breakthrough in the number of prison officers. We have introduced the key worker scheme, which allows prison officers to build relationships with the prisoners, and during my visits to prisons I have heard that the scheme is extremely popular among prisoners and prison officers. We are professionalising our workforce in the youth estate, providing all frontline officers with a foundation degree—

Order. Resume your seat, Minister. I am sorry, but these exchanges are very protracted. I know lawyers like to expatiate, but the answers are just too long, with people reading out great screeds. That is not what the House wants.

But in looking at the way in which the Prison Service operates, will my hon. and learned Friend also review the kind of prisoners who are sent to open prisons? Bearing in mind the announcements made last week, there is concern that open prisons will contain more people who have been convicted of very serious offences and are therefore not suitable for open prisons. Will she review this?

I can, very briefly, assure my right hon. Friend that we are looking at the recategorisation of offenders to ensure that they are in the right prisons for them.