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Prison Staff: Health and Safety

Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2020

Before we start, I must apologise: the screen on the left-hand side of the Chamber is not working. Hon. Members will have to look at one of the others, because I know that nobody would want to speak for too long.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered health and safety of prison staff.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), because this debate is of his instigation. It was his idea, and it is regrettable that he is not here to move the motion, but he is doing the correct thing by self-isolating. I understand that the same is true for the ministerial Benches; it is the appropriate action to take. I thank the hon. Gentleman and his staff for the support and guidance they have given me, and for the opportunity to speak in a debate that is especially important not only at this juncture, but in the wider context of recent years.

We have to start with an explanation of who we are dealing with when we talk about prison staff, because there is a great lack of awareness, if not ignorance. As a young lawyer in Scotland many years ago—over a generation now—I would give a jury speech that would basically explain that the ladies and gentlemen of the jury did not know the jury system in Scotland. They knew more about Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men” than they did about the fact that jury trials in Scotland have 15 members and three verdicts. Things are obviously slightly different when it comes to prison staff, but in many ways the context is the same. Many people’s impression of a prison will come more from “The Shawshank Redemption” than from the prison in the locality near them, or where people from their communities go. We have to challenge that.

The lack of awareness also extends to those who work in the Prison Service. That is why I put on the record the fact that they are a uniformed service; they are also an emergency service, although they are not classified in that way by Government. I think others will comment on that issue when we talk about how their pensions are treated: it is an outrage that people are expected to operate on a landing at the age of 68. Some jobs are age restricted, and being a prison officer should most certainly be one. They deserve to be treated the same as other services.

This is a historic issue. My good friend Professor Andrew Coyle served at both Peterhead prison in Scotland and Brixton prison down here in London, and is a global expert on prisons. I remember reading in his history of the Prison Service in Scotland that in the initial stages, police and prison officers had parity. The pay of a constable and the pay of a prison officer were the same until the latter part of the 19th century, but then that changed and since then prison officers’ pay has never caught up. To some extent, that is a tragedy, but it is where we are. I do not think we can reverse that, but we can mitigate it and take action, whether on pensions or other terms and conditions.

That brings me to the question of who we are talking about. As I say, there is a great deal of misunderstanding; I remember going into the Prison Service and chatting away to officers about this. There are many occupations at the present moment, such as health service workers, police officers or those who work with the children and elderly, where people will cross the street to thank them and shake their hand. That rarely happens for prison officers—they get a sharp intake of breath instead—but the service they give often mirrors that contributed by those other services, and the work they do is valuable.

There is also a sense of misunderstanding among those going into the service. I remember asking young officers at the training academy at Polmont in Scotland whether the job was what they had anticipated. They said they had gone in thinking their job would be like a security guard’s, but it was much more like that of a psychiatric nurse. Those of us involved in the prison estate know how much of the work is like that of a psychiatric nurse, even though these people are not properly trained or qualified for such work. It is about dealing with deeply troubled people; prison officers do have to deal with deeply violent people on occasion, but the work they do with young offenders, women prisoners and vulnerable prisoners is really quite exceptional. It is a matter not of brutality but of humanity, which is why we have to put on record our tribute to them.

We also have to remember that these people are not particularly well trained for this work, nor are they well paid. As I understand it, a prison officer in Norway goes through a degree course of four years. In Scotland, as in England, a person will be able to be active and working—albeit not necessarily on the landing—within a period of weeks that they can count on both hands. That is hugely different from what other regimes expect, but it is expected here. Indeed, once we include people’s toes as well as their fingers, they will be on the landing and expected to deal with frontline work. I do not argue that there needs to be a degree course, but I do think that we need to expect and understand the challenges that prison staff face, because they do that with sparse training and not for a king’s ransom, as has been mentioned in relation to a variety of other issues.

That takes us on to the particular issues. The first issue that I want to touch on is why the Minister and I are here. The reason is that the coronavirus is striking down Members of this institution as it will strike down members of our community.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to the coronavirus, will he accept that a large part of the problem that prison officers face is the working conditions and prisons’ terrible state of repair? On the Justice Committee, we estimated that the cost of the repairs would come to £900 million.

Yes, I fully concur. In many areas, the prison estate is Victorian; sometimes it even predates that era. It has to be upgraded. Good work has been ongoing in Scotland—that does not come cheap—and I know that work has been established here. Equally, we have to have the right institutions. Super-prisons are not the way to go. We have to have the right prison estate, and it has to be a suitable prison estate.

The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about what we need to do to support prison officers because they are behind the wire, but deterrence is one of the key issues; it is vital in prisons. At a prison in my constituency, HMP Stocken, there was a nasty attack on a prison officer. It is extremely troubling that although the guidance is that for attacks on prison officers there should be consecutive sentences, too often prisoners are actually receiving concurrent sentences, which essentially acts as no deterrent and tells prisoners that they can go on attacking prison officers as they will.

The hon. Member makes a valid point. I am always of the view that these things are best dealt with by the independent judiciary; we must allow them to deal with the particular facts and circumstances. However, I have to place it on the record—the Prison Officers Association and the other unions would expect no less—that we cannot tolerate prison officers being viewed as punchbags, because people should not routinely be abused, albeit I do think that the judiciary have a duty to take cognisance of the issues and challenges being faced.

An analogy that I have heard when speaking to people is that prisons are a microcosm of our society. People will say, “Why don’t prisons educate prisoners like this? Why don’t they give them work training like that? Why don’t they care for them like this?” It is like going into a school or college and saying, “You’re going to do every class in the curriculum and you’re going to do it in this corridor,” because that is the situation in a prison. There is a requirement for education facilities, work facilities, health facilities and social engagement facilities; there is a requirement for kitchens. And those things are required in a confined space, so some of the things that can be delivered in a school, college, university or even a Parliament cannot be done, and certainly not to the same extent.

Equally, on the coronavirus, we have criteria being put down about social distancing, working from home and self-isolation. How can that be done by prisoners, let alone prison officers? There is a specific need there, and my request to the Minister is this. Can we get some guidance and assurance about testing and about the safety and security of staff and of prisoners?

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) made the correct point. We have to deal not simply with prison officers and prison staff, but with prisoners, because if we create conditions, as the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned, that are unacceptable, that creates a toxic cocktail that we have to address. I therefore ask the Minister to be specific about what assurances he can give to staff, because some of the anecdotal tales coming back from the trade unions are of staff members being expected to do things that would not be asked of staff here and that are unacceptable or unsafe, and prison staff have families and elderly relatives the same as the rest of us.

That does not take away from the reason why the hon. Member for Easington brought up this issue in the first instance. It has already been touched on in the two interventions: violence on the prison estate. There was an underlying crisis even before the coronavirus came upon us. This has been ticking away. It has not been an act of God. It has not been a global pandemic from which we cannot isolate our country any more than any other nation can. There have been wilful acts of neglect by this and past Administrations. There has been a failure to act timeously and appropriately. Money was tight, but it is tighter now. Money can be found for corporations, but apparently it cannot be found for custodians. That cannot be right.

We must look at the records on the issues raised, in terms of staffing and violence, and in terms of specific drugs, such as Spice, about which I have some sympathy for the Government. Even with the best regime, the ability to stop drugs coming into prisons is a social as well as an institutional problem, which we have to deal with.

It is clear from the Library briefing, which many of us have, that prison workforce numbers fell by a quarter between 2010 and 2014, from 25,000 to 18,000. To be fair, the numbers have come up again slightly, but they are still not back to where they were. In addition, the numbers were higher before 2010, although that figure includes support staff, and, because of contracting and privatisation, which I will come on to, the fall in numbers has been ongoing.

More critical has been the loss of experience. Becoming a prison officer is not something that people can pick up in 10 weeks; it is picked up over years of service. They need to know who to watch out for, who to look out for, who is vulnerable, who needs to be watched because they are up to various things, and all the tricks and turns that go on. In 2010, 7% of prison officers had been in post for less than 2 years, compared with 35% in 2019. When we are dealing with a crisis in numbers and the estate, to have over a third of the staff being inexperienced is simply scandalous. The proportion of prison officers who had 10 years’ experience or more went from 56% to 46%.

There has been an increase in the numbers of assaults, and the record on that is quite lamentable. It reached a peak of 10,424 assaults on staff in the year ending June 2019. Before 2015, there were around 3,000 recorded assaults. That is a threefold increase and more; it is simply unacceptable.

I have some understanding of what the Government are dealing with in terms of Spice and I cut them some slack. It troubles our communities and our estates. It needs checks and it needs to be rolled back. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made the point that no one should routinely be afraid of assault when they go to work. No one whose loved one works in the service should worry about them on a daily basis. Some occupations will always trouble us, such as those that went down the pits, went offshore fishing or serve as police officers, but we take steps to ensure their safety. Little has been done and the situation has worsened for prison officers, which is simply unacceptable.

What is said to police officers—that they cannot and should not expect to routinely be punchbags—must equally apply to prison officers. Whether it is by concurrent or consecutive sentences, or by increased sentencing, action needs to be taken. I agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton that those perpetrating the assaults need to realise that their actions have consequences, and for prison officers such assaults cannot simply be viewed as being part of the job or par for the course.

It is frightening. The prison officers’ unions have provided testimony from individuals that is scandalous. A male private sector prison officer states:

“Prisons are totally unsafe for staff and prisoners. I have been a prison officer for over 20 years and its decline in that time has been shocking. This decline is down to the profiled staffing levels being reduced by 50%, with the same risk prisoners to work with.”

Another male public sector prison officer states:

“I have just returned from hospital after receiving treatment for yet another bite I received as a result of an assault by a prisoner. However, on this occasion the prisoner has been confirmed as being Hepatitis C positive!”

That is simply unacceptable. There is a whole catalogue of such comments and I could go on. A male public sector prison officer says:

“I have been in the Service for over 20 years and I have never felt scared to come to work - but now I fear for myself and my colleagues.”

That is scandalous, and we have to address it.

We must increase staffing levels and retain experience. That must mean looking at terms and conditions, and especially at pensions. We need to address those who perpetrate the problem. We need to tackle a culture of violence and the cocktail of drugs, which are mentioned by the prison officer staff unions in terms of how they want a charter implemented, and I ask the Minister to take that on board. It cannot just be soaked up by those who serve. Action must be taken by Government.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the private sector. I put on the record that I have great support for private-sector prison officers and staff, as I have for those who work in the public sector, but privatisation has been an unmitigated disaster, as it was in probation, and I would ask the Minister consider rolling back upon it. The best testimony that I ever received was the former inspector of prisons in Scotland, Clive Fairweather.

I do not think Clive Fairweather would necessarily have been a supporter of me or my party, as his whole background was having been a British Army officer—indeed, his final role had been as commander of the SAS—but I remember Clive telling me why he opposed private prisons. It has stuck with me ever since. He said, “When I was commander of the SAS, if I needed to authorise people to take the lives of others, I did so because of the authority I had and the cap badge that said I was acting on behalf of the Crown. If I need to take the liberty of an individual then I should do so not because it suits a corporation diktat or a corporation profit, but because of the authority of the Crown.”

People are complaining about money going to private hospital beds as we hit a coronavirus crisis. Let us remember that a lot of money has been going to private investors as we have had to fill up the private estate in order to balance prison numbers. That has meant that there has not been the money to spend on terms and conditions or to improve the estate, because so much is going out of the door in revenue payments that we cannot afford capital expenditure.

There are other issues I would like to briefly touch on. We have a growing elderly population. I said earlier that our prison staff are not trained to be psychiatric nurses, but nor are they trained to be geriatric nurses. Yet we now have—certainly not in Scotland, but in England—a centenarian in prison. In Scotland, I visited a prison where we had a particular ward that was for those who were septuagenarian, octogenarian or nonagenarian. It was a geriatric ward.

It caused huge difficulties for the staff, because most of those prisoners were in there for historic sexual offences. Accordingly it was not just the prison officers who were viewed as punchbags, but those prisoners too. It caused difficulties for the management of the prison to keep them separate and secure from those who would otherwise view it as an opportunity to “pay off”, as they say, some gratuitous violence.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the age of the sex offenders that he mentioned, they should rightly remain in prison, because the crimes they have committed will affect those children, and now adults, for the entirety of their lives? If they were not brought to justice until they were 70 years old, because the system failed in the past and we did not believe that those crimes had been committed, they must serve their time. The victims deserve to see justice being served.

Absolutely. I always remember that being put to me by the former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini. She said, “They took someone’s childhood. They can forfeit their old age.” That seems to me to be a reasonable trade-off.

The question is not whether they should be punished—that is undoubtable—but where they should be retained. Many of our prison estates, as I have already touched on, are Victorian. I had this discussion with the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service; we would be better acquiring a care home and making it semi-secure if we need to, although most of these people are hardly going to be running down our high streets on their zimmers, fleeing from a prison officer. The whole institution in which we retain them is inappropriate.

I mentioned the prison in Scotland because not only did they have to keep them secure from others who would have done them harm, but they could not even double them up. I thought it was funny at the time, but it was not really. They could not put them in a top bank because of their rheumatoid arthritis. It simply was not possible to double them up. It might be that as a society, we should be looking at acquiring different premises for those people.

The principle remains that they have to be punished, but the question is where they should be detained. Do we need to spend on that high security? For some of them, most certainly, but most of them are hardly going to be a threat. We could keep them under the same lock and key as a dementia ward in many instances, I would have thought. That would be easier for us and better for the staff.

There is also the question of throughput care. The great tragedy is the skills that prison officers have. I remember being at a showing of the movie “The Angels’ Share”, which I thought was quite beneficial in trying to challenge young people about their behaviour, and I remember a prison officer’s commenting that he spent more with time with those young people than he did with his own kids in his own family. Yet when they left the estate, despite the bond he had created and the fact that in many instances he had become a father figure, he could not relate to them. We have to get the balance. That officer would not want trouble when he is out with his family, taking them places, but there are skills that the prison officers can take out into the community.

First, we have to get other agencies to come into the prison earlier and more often—often they do not—to take their responsibility, as opposed to leaving everything with the Prison Service until the prisoner is discharged beyond the prison gate; and secondly, we should look at the opportunity for how we can use those skills and maintain the through care. We all know that the reason why so many people come back in through the revolving door is that they fall by the wayside and the person who was keeping them on the road was that particular prison officer.

I simply want to sum up, Mr Robertson. You have given me a great deal of latitude. I put on the record my thanks to the Prison Service and its staff. I ask the Minister: what steps will be taken not simply on coronavirus and the staff, but to address the underlying issues that are looming—and already exist—in the prison estate on staffing levels, staff morale, violence against prison officers and the drugs cocktail situation, as well as the growing issues of through care and in particular an elderly population? That is a big task, and we face many tasks at the moment, but we can no more expect our hospital staff to be heroic than we can expect our prison staff—who are being heroic—to be so. Not only must we give them the thanks to which they are entitled but, more importantly, in our privileged position as legislators, we must take steps to action plans to protect them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a pleasure to have two Front Benchers in this debate who have both been members of the Select Committee on Justice. They understand the sort of comments being made by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), and I hope that they recall the report on prison governance that we produced, which covered a number of the issues.

We are in an enduring crisis of safety and decency in our prisons. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, this crisis is not something that has just happened; it has been going on for a long time. Violence is at an all-time high. Up until March 2019, there were more than 34,000 assaults in the prison system and, of those assaults, more than 10,000 were on staff. That is an increase in assaults on staff of 15%.

A major contributory factor to the level of violence and the state that prison officers must endure is working conditions. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the prisons are mostly Victorian—or earlier—constructions. We need to tackle the level of accumulated maintenance in such prisons, but the focus of Government activity seems to be on 10,000 more prisoner places, rather than on curing the maintenance problem.

I give full credit for the £100 million put into the Prison Service to improve safety and security, and we should not lose sight of that, but the concentration on providing an additional 10,000 places has meant that repairs to prisons have taken a back seat. We can address much of that, and the prison in Leeds is doing so. Working parties of staff and prisoners together carry out maintenance activity within the prison. I would like to see something similar taken on board by other prisons, to get the work done. The Justice Committee looked at this and came to the conclusion that the backlog of maintenance required in prisons came to about £900 million—an increase from £716 million in 2018. That that is an incredible backlog, and it shows that not enough is being done to tackle this.

Several things contribute to the problem. One is a real crisis of leadership in prisons. There has been a tremendous amount of activity to try to give governors more power over what happens in their prisons, but I do not think that that has gone far enough. We need governors who really have control of their prisons, because after all, they see the detail of where maintenance is required and can deal with it continually.

Another significant aspect is space being made available for purposeful activity. There is no doubt in my mind that purposeful activity plays a strong part in prisons. I have said in the House before that, with previous Justice Committees, I have been to Denmark and Germany to see how prisons there deal with purposeful activity. In Denmark, one thing that made the biggest difference was not purposeful activity in the sense of making things, but the way in which the prisoners were treated. What made the biggest difference was that they did not eat communal style, as in the “Porridge” series, but were allowed to earn their own money and to cook their own food. There were some restrictions, such as knives having to be chained to the wall, but that made a huge difference in keeping the lid on violence in that prison and making sure that the prisoners were fit for rehabilitation. The German prison I visited—this goes back to the point that the hon. Member for East Lothian made about where in a prison these issues can be tackled—had a big warehouse for making furniture. The prisoners all played a part in making furniture, which had an enormous impact on their lives.

My last point, which I will just make before I leave space for others to come in, is that there has been too much ad hoc dealing with the problems in the Prison Service over the years. Nobody has taken a strategic direction, grabbed the issue by the neck and sorted it out. If there is one message that I would give to the Minister, it is that strategic direction needs to be put into the Prison Service. The issue needs to be addressed, because it is not just a question of prisoner safety, but of prison officer safety.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing the debate on this critical issue, and I wish him a speedy recovery. I also thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for stepping in at short notice.

First, it is important to consider what we, as a society, believe the purpose of our prisons to be. I am a former police officer and have witnessed at first hand the wide, varied and complex reasons why people end up offending and, consequently, entering our justice system. Surely the main aim of our prisons is to rehabilitate offenders so that they leave and do not go on to reoffend and are able to make a positive contribution to society. Punishment is obviously a factor, but in the vast majority of cases it should be secondary to rehabilitation.

However, the challenges facing the Prison Service make that very difficult to achieve. Tom Halpin, chief executive officer of community justice organisation Sacro, commented:

“The current overcrowding in Scottish prisons means the focus is on security and safety…Rehabilitation—particularly for those on short sentences—is simply not a priority.”

Prison staff are central to achieving positive outcomes for prisoners and wider society. They need to be properly supported, and to receive good training and the right resources to help them to rehabilitate. Failing to deliver that contributes to the poor health and safety of staff, as we are discussing.

As Members have laid out, the current situation for prison staff is frankly intolerable. Assaults on prison staff have been rising for more than 10 years and for every 1,000 prisoners in England and Wales there were 35 assaults on staff in 2010; last year, the figure had risen to 121.

It should not be like that. Every person should have the right to feel safe at their place of work. We must do better. Ultimately, our prisons are under-resourced and overcrowded. As of last July, Scottish prisons were close to capacity after the number of inmates increased from 7,400 to more than 8,200. Although prison staff numbers in England and Wales have increased since 2014 to 23,000, that is still fewer than were employed in 2010.

Prison staff are working at capacity, so they do not have the time to access the training and development they need to do their jobs better. That means they are not developing. As the hon. Member for East Lothian said, it is about not just initial training but ongoing professional development. A member of staff in the prison sector said:

“I feel the poor environment in establishments has been caused by inexperienced staff training new staff. The training staff unfortunately think the state of the prison is just the norm, and are teaching the new staff the wrong way to deal with situations and making some very dangerous decisions”.

That problem is compounded by the fact that staff retention is challenging. Last year, 38% of those who left the workforce in England and Wales had served in the Prison Service for less than one year; the figure in 2010 was just 7%. Things have totally deteriorated, arguably to crisis levels. If the service cannot retain staff, the staff cannot gain the skills and experience to deal with and support the complex needs of many in our prison or justice systems. That results in a huge burden on staff’s mental health. We must remember that health means mental as well as physical health. If we believe that both are equally important, we must demonstrate that by giving the support required.

The largest cause of sickness absence in the prison service is stress. In 2018-19, the Scottish Prison Service lost more than 14,000 days due to stress-related absence, an increase of 32% on the previous year. Just as we are trying to create workplaces that conform to physical health and safety standards, we must ensure that we create mentally healthy workplaces. Another member of prison staff said:

“I have seen perfectly healthy people join in the last 12 months and become very ill due to prison work and the lack of discipline to create a safe space for prisoners to live.”

I am keen to hear from the Minister on what further steps are being taken in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Does it have a mental health first aid programme? What steps is it taking to discourage presenteeism? Acknowledgment of mental health issues and early intervention can support better recovery and an earlier return to the workplace.

The “Safe Inside Prisons” charter, recently launched by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance, suggests some ways to help relieve the burden on staff. Primary among them is a proposal to introduce a single reporting system for violence in prisons, as the current system is very fragmented. Staff need to feel they can support any incident, and we need to make it easier for staff to do so. A new system should be accessible both internally and externally so that staff can report incidents away from the workplace.

I am pleased to have signed the early-day motion on this matter, tabled by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), which I am pleased to see has gained widespread support from all corners of the House. In particular, I highlight the part of the motion that refers to prison staff as “diligent, brave and committed”. I echo those remarks. The service they provide is remarkable and the Government need to recognise that by providing the resources required to help them.

I call on the Government to commit to a zero-assault ambition for prison staff and to use radical evidence-based policy to address the causes of violence in prisons. Everyone has the right to feel safe in their place of work. Although I welcome the Government’s commitment last year of £100 million to fund airport-style security for prisons, we must ask whether that is tackling the root causes of violence in prisons. It is not simply about preventing access to offensive weapons but about working to ensure that prisoners do not feel the need to carry them or use them in prison.

Prison will sometimes be the right outcome for certain types of offences and offenders. We need to ensure that it is safe and viable for everyone within it and that it delivers the outcome we want it to achieve, with people serving their sentences, coming out of prison and not reoffending. Overcrowding, under-resourcing and lack of training and development for those on the frontline of our prisons make that objective far more difficult to achieve, and that fails us all as a society. That is now more important than ever. The coronavirus pandemic that Members have referred to means we are entering a crisis that will have an increased impact on the health and wellbeing of both prisoners and staff. It is vital that the Government listen and take swift and decisive mitigating action.

I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for setting the scene so expertly. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). Her contribution is based on the point of view of a police officer and her interaction with prison officers over the years. I want to add my support to what was set out by the hon. Member for East Lothian. The Minister knows I have every confidence in him and I look forward to his response to the issues we have brought to his attention.

The hon. Member for East Lothian referred to “The Shawshank Redemption” and “12 Angry Men” as examples of how we might form an opinion of the way in which prison officers and the legal system work. My knowledge comes from those two films and also from the comedy classic, “Porridge”, which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) referred to. That series is more about mischief than badness, perhaps because of Ronnie Barker, and is a gentle way of looking at the Prison Service. If only it was like that, but it is not. It is a matter of concern in every corner of the United Kingdom.

I am sure we were all dismayed to read the November article in The Daily Telegraph, which outlined the situation that prison staff currently find themselves in. The background information that we have today, including that from the Library, indicates the same thing. The article stated:

“Prison officers are being assaulted almost 30 times a day as violence, self harm and suicides in jails hit a record high, Ministry of Justice figures show. The number of assaults on staff rose by 10 per cent in a year to pass 10,000 for the first time since records began more than a decade ago in June 2009. More than 1,000 of these were serious assaults, up seven per cent on the previous year.”

There is clearly an issue to address within the Prison Service. Those figures are reflected in Northern Ireland, which the Minister does not have responsibility for, although perhaps not to the same extent. The article continued:

“There were also more than 24,000 prisoner on prisoner assaults in the year to June, equivalent to 66 a day and a three per cent rise on the previous 12 months. That is also the highest for a decade. It means the overall number of assaults is closing in on 100 a day with 93 every 24 hours—another record high.”

That is a record high we do not wish to record because we want to record the good things and how we are improving them.

“Of these, 3,928 were serious assaults, of which 2,984 were prisoner on prisoner attacks.”

There is clearly an issue that must be resolved. I have spoken to friends of mine who work or have worked in the Prison Service. I am in regular contact with prison officers in my constituency, some of whom are retired. We are losing good men and women who get to the end of themselves due to the abuse that they suffer, followed by allegations and the feeling of a lack of support.

There have been record high resignation rates among prison officers. They are treated abysmally not only by the prisoners they interact with every day, but by the Ministry of Justice. There is a fear of stepping into situations and getting into more trouble, which is what we must address. Prison officers need protection. They need confidence in the system, the governors and the prisons, and they need to feel confident that our Minister and our Government will support and stand by them. Prison staff must be able to use the force that has been deemed appropriate and know that they will have support if an inmate makes a complaint. Too many officers complain to me about being left “hung out to dry” and then carrying the stigma after they have been cleared. The officers and also the educators, nurses and cleaners all have the absolute right to be safe and secure.

Can the Minister explain why frontline prison officers’ resignations have soared to 9%? What is being done to address that? In January, four prison officers and a nurse were hospitalised after a terrorist attack by two prisoners. Again, what has been done to assure those prison officers that they will be safe and receive the protective body clothing they need, as well as the security they need? There are many examples—it would probably take until 10.30 am to read them all out, which would not be fair to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). I will not do that, but there are lots of other things that we could put on paper.

Let me be very clear: if an officer is at fault, there must be an investigation. There should be no potential for abuse, but neither can we continue to have staff feeling that they are fighting a losing battle in keeping the peace and winning the fight against bullying and drugs, which are rampant in our prisons. In my constituency of Strangford, there are many people—especially the young—who go to prison not being drug dependent but come out drug dependent. We have to ask ourselves why that is happening. Every month at justice questions, right hon. and hon. Members ask about the availability of drugs in prisons. Again, it is something that has to be addressed.

I accept that we need to rehabilitate prisoners—it is right that we should—but we also need to have control of prisons in the hands of the Prison Service, the governor and the officers. People’s concerns include the fact that when

“a prisoner assaults staff or other prisoners, they are back on the wing 20 minutes later.”

One prison officer said:

“Prisons are in a state of emergency!”

The following is from a male public sector prison officer:

“I have been in the Service for over 20 years and I have never felt scared to come to work—but now I fear for myself and my colleagues.”

If that is how prison officers feel, we have to address those issues as soon as possible.

We wonder why the health of inmates is so at risk. I believe the reticence of prison staff about their safety and mental health means that they are unwilling to intercede when they see signs of bullying and abuse of drugs. Some of the people who go to prison are very vulnerable. They find themselves subjected to peer pressure and surrounded by people who have stronger personalities and characters, and they may find themselves slipping into lawlessness and criminality inside the prison and then outside. It is really important that we have rehabilitation and help those people to get out the other side and to try to live a better life afterwards.

We are harming our inmates by preventing officers from doing their job. A lot of this is due to the lack of adequate numbers on prison floors. It is clear that an adequate number of staff is essential in order to provide strength in numbers, and to serve as witnesses to any allegations. The Justice Unions Parliamentary Group has provided some papers and made three recommendations, which I will read out. The first is:

“Adopt the new Safe Inside Prisons Charter developed by nine national trade unions representing the majority of prison staff, and move to a tripartite system to tackle prison workplace violence involving close collaboration between unions, employers and the Health & Safety Executive.”

The second is:

“Launch a national prison violence reduction strategy as a matter of urgency, fully resourced and in partnership with staff unions—including action to retain prison officers, who are currently resigning at record-high rates.”

The third is:

“Fully abide by the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act and take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all workers in prisons, including those not directly employed by HMPPS.”

We must invest in our staff in order to improve prison facilities. I look to the Minister, as I always do, because I know he is aware of the situation and wishes to reply responsibly and positively. We need to understand how this can be done UK-wide, not just in English and Welsh prisons. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Naomi Long? If not, I ask him to contact her. I know that our new Justice Minister has indicated her desire to improve the mental health of inmates, and I ask the Minister to liaise with her in a UK-wide effort to improve working conditions and the health and safety of staff, as well as that of inmates. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Robertson; it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. I highly congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) on stepping in to lead the debate. I rise as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group, and I should also mention the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance and its “Safe Inside Prisons” charter. I thank all staff in prisons. They are, in many cases, by the nature of their work, invisible and unheard heroes, which we should bear in mind.

Staff in prisons will be very aware of the criteria against which they are held to account by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. If safety is one of the four healthy prison tests at inspection, surely health and safety in prisons must be on every agenda all the time. Whether in the private or public estate—no matter who employs the member of staff—safety is a priority.

Safety of course means freedom from violence and from the threat of violence, and must apply equally to everyone in the prison estate. It is therefore a matter of surprise to me that inspection reports reference prisoner-on-prisoner violence specifically, while violence towards staff is much less of a priority. Yes, the purpose of a prison inspection is to assess the experience of prisoners, but the very nature of the prison estate means that the health and safety of prison staff is intrinsically bound to the health and safety of prisoners.

To me, it is self-evident that a workplace that sets so low a priority for its staff’s welfare as to fail to record every incident of violence against them will inevitably also fail on the welfare of prisoners. The culture of fear and reluctance around the reporting of violent incidents needs to be challenged and radically changed. If present priorities effectively reward under-reporting, every step must be taken to ensure that violence against all staff is recorded and promptly acted on. Currently, the system appears to contain perverse incentives that actively encourage under-reporting.

If the targets against which prison management is answerable are producing such results—effectively creating an environment in which violence against staff is ignored—those targets or contractual requirements must be changed —they are otherwise unfit for purpose. Raising the priority of staff safety will require a culture of change at all levels. The regular use of body-worn cameras, for example, would aid in the collection of evidence. To bring about their intended effect, challenge, support and intervention plans need to be rigorous, sufficiently challenging for violent prisoners and supportive enough of prisoners who are victims of violence.

There must be a record of every act of violence against any member of staff employed in a prison, as well as meaningful consequences for prisoners who commit such violence. Those consequences could come through judicial process or internal prison procedures. Attacks on staff can no longer be excused as collateral damage in the hidden theatre of violence staged behind high walls across England and Wales.

HMP Berwyn is the newest facility in the prison estate, having opened three years ago, and the second largest prison in Europe, with capacity for 2,100 prisoners —there are about 1,800 there at present. I will read from the exit interview of a member of staff who left last month after working there for just over two years—the attrition rate is between 10% and 14%. I will try to be as brief as possible, and will leave out the sections that I could not corroborate with others—I have checked what I am about to read out. He said:

“Most importantly the staff and friends who I have worked alongside have made the job for me. They are the reason us staff come in every day, and I will always thank the place for letting me meet these people. I have made friends for life and also met a partner within the service, who is fantastic and has been brilliant and supportive, especially after I was recently assaulted on Christmas day at HMP Berwyn.

I feel at HMP Berwyn everything always seems to be about the prisoners. So long as the regime is running, nothing else matters. Band 3 officers are not listened to, staff safety is not a priority and is constantly compromised and undermined. Recently I was assaulted with hot water on 25/12/2019 on Alwen B Uppers by a prisoner. This has been the final nail in the coffin for me. I was almost left blinded in my left eye and during my time trying to recover occupational health had been in touch at the start of January with me and have offered support and a meeting on the 25/02/2020, two months after the incident, by which point I will have left HMP Berwyn, so this is no use whatsoever.

More importantly, I called North Wales Police in the new year of 2020 to discover they had no record whatsoever that I had been assaulted or taken into A&E due to an assault, and I had to chase up the police, crime number, security and police liaison officers to make sure it was reported correctly, and find that the prisoner was not taken to segregation immediately, and the paperwork that was meant to reach the police liaison officer was lying around on a desk somewhere. Surely this should not be the case when I myself was blind in one eye, at this time recovering at home, feeling helpless.”

I will move ahead. Talking about his own work, this man said:

“I was always on time, I worked late, I tried to be proactive and I worked through lunch, yet some people would stroll in 20 minutes late (weekends and mornings), sit in the office, let prisoners get away with basic things…hide within the jail, but would never be pulled up or even spoken to. I made myself ill giving my all to my unit. Yet you have people doing the bare minimum and getting away with it, and this used to drive me crazy.

Also we are trying to tackle drink and drugs as a priority within the jail, yet you clearly have staff taking drugs at weekends and coming into work under the influence. Yet nothing is ever said or done in regards to this. Also, staff who have been given criminal convictions during their employment have been allowed to stay in their jobs.”

I will move ahead again to “evidence handling”, and we must remember that this is a man who has been assaulted during his work:

“Evidence handling is poor. Nothing is ever bagged or tagged correctly. Extra training, I feel, needs to be provided on this. I was assaulted on Christmas day, yet my clothing was not taken from me. This could have been vital evidence. We are always short on prison officer numbers yet we continue to take more prisoners into the jail, and compromise staff safety, and try to make do, rather than lock wings down. We put people onto wings or on key working shift to unlock, then, when it comes to feeding, we are scraping around, looking for a third member of staff rather than just shutting a wing down.

I am reluctant to complete this form, as many times we as officers speak up and nothing ever gets changed. I doubt this form will even get the chance to see the number one governor or senior management team or be looked at, due to negativity. But I can with my hand on heart say I gave my all, 100% all the time… I wear my heart on my sleeve and I take pride in my work, and this can be backed up by anyone you want to ask in the jail. Yet I will make these points to try and help you retain staff, as I can assure you many others are close to leaving and a high percentage of your prison officers (very good ones at that) are currently seeking employment elsewhere and will leave if things do not change.”

The last few things that this man says are really important:

“I really want to see HMP Berwyn do well and be a good place to work, so I have therefore let it all out and given my honest opinions and hope these will be considered and taken into account. I loved working with many people within HMP Berwyn, and you have some great characters, team players and personalities.”

But those people need support.

I have a few specific asks; some of them relate to HMP Berwyn, but I think they are relevant to other prisons too. Can the Minister confirm whether an unused wing in Berwyn might be put into use as an isolation ward to deal with the covid-19 crisis? If that is the case, it could be of support to other prisons. Also, can he confirm that all necessary personal protective equipment and training for staff is being provided?

In these circumstances, and considering the size of the prison, can the Minister commit to reviewing the merits of phasing out the use of double cells at Berwyn, and making it a single-cell prison, as I understand that is what is happening with the new private prisons that are being developed? There is capacity, with the number of prisoners presently there; it will certainly be a lot easier than when we go to full capacity. If this change on single cells could be made, it would facilitate many aspects of the work for prison officers.

I have a question on covid-19; I do not know if it has been asked yet. We have had a request from the unions and from the teaching staff—staff who are not directly employed staff working in prisons. Can the Minister give an assurance that there will be no penalties by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service for non-delivery of teaching hours during education shutdown?

Finally, may I reiterate the call that the Minister’s Department adopts the “Safe Inside Prisons” charter, in the spirit of tripartite working between employers, unions and the Health and Safety Executive? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

I am pleased to participate in this important debate, and I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who is unable to be here today. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for his insightful opening remarks in this debate, and I echo the gratitude that we all rightly have for our prison officers, as we have heard across Westminster Hall today.

We have heard much about the kind of environment that can prevail in prisons, where the most dangerous members of society are incarcerated. Being a prison officer is not a job for those of faint heart, but it can be an extremely rewarding career, as was made clear to me when I visited Greenock Prison last year. It is not in my constituency, but it houses some of my constituents, and some of my constituents work there. Prison officers work in a difficult physical environment, with high walls and locked doors. The clientele can be extremely challenging, as we can all imagine.

The undercurrent of violence is something that prison officers just have to learn to cope with, but doing so every day at work must take a toll on mental health, and the impact on staff should not be underestimated. The people whom prison officers deal with have often been convicted of the most heinous crimes. A violent way of life is the way of life for many of the people prison officers have to cope with. Those violent prisoners will not always be welcoming or obliging towards the prison rules and regulations that are disseminated to them by officers. Even those who enter prison for non-violent offences can become violent when in prison, out of sheer frustration—no one likes to be locked up, regardless of the crime they have committed. The company that those people are required to keep must also have an impact.

Prison officers live every day with the threat of assault at the hands of seriously angry and violent prisoners. That should be recognised across the entire prison estate of the United Kingdom. The prisons in Scotland face challenges, as do prisons across the UK. Members have spoken about that in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, who opened the debate, reminded us that prison officers are the forgotten service. We rely on them, but too often they are out of sight, through the nature of the job they do. They have to master a variety of skills. They are not just guards. They often have to take on such roles as psychiatric support or social worker, which they work hard to carry out but for which they are not properly trained, and certainly not properly paid. All the time, as they carry out that variety of roles, there is an undercurrent of violence. That is the nature of our prisons. No one, as my hon. Friend reminded us, should have to go to work and routinely fear assault; that cannot simply be viewed as part of the job. If prison officers do not feel safe, they cannot keep prisoners safe, and often many prisoners do not feel safe.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) pointed out the need for prisons to be maintained in good repair. The environment matters for the health and wellbeing of prison officers and prisoners. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), who has particular insight as a former police officer, reminded us of the importance of rehabilitation. A greater emphasis on that would, in turn, create a better climate, ethos and atmosphere for prison staff and prisoners. The mental health of prison staff requires more attention. I do not think there is any doubt about that.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the challenge to prison officers from the rate of suicide in prison. Surely that has an additional impact on the mental wellbeing of prison staff, in addition to all the other challenges they face. We all know that many people in prison suffer from mental health challenges that are not supported to the extent they should be. Prison officers are left to pick up the pieces, which has an undoubted impact on their own mental health. It is incredibly difficult, in the kind of work that prison officers do, to leave the job at the prison gates at the end of a shift.

The challenge of drugs in prison is an additional complication for prison officers. I do not understand, given that if anyone tries to bring the smallest amount of drugs through an airport they are caught at security, how it is that somehow we cannot seem to keep drugs out of prisons. That is a puzzle that I have real difficulty in reconciling in my mind. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I apologise for my pronunciation—pointed out that we cannot separate the mental health of prison officers from that of prisoners. Given that they are in such close confines, that seems a self-evident truth. The prison officer testimony that she introduced was a powerful addition to the debate. We are all worried about the coronavirus. Given the close confines in prisons, that virus must be an additional complication for prison officers, in seeking to keep themselves, and the prisoners they serve, safe.

The criminal justice system and prisons are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but I will focus on an important health and safety issue for our prison staff that is reserved, and to which attention must be paid. A number of Members have referred to this really important aspect of the debate. Increasing the retirement age of our prison officers to 68, given what we have heard about the difficulties of their job and the constant threat of violence that too many of them face—if not actual violence, which is also far too common a reality for our prison officers—is cruel and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the important work that they do.

Prison officers, firefighters and police officers are all classified as emergency workers. The work that those groups do is essential to the smooth running of our society, and puts them in harm’s way. Why is it, then, that of those groups of emergency workers only prison officers are required to carry out their jobs well beyond the age of 60, until they are 68? Who on earth thinks that is a good idea?

We have talked about the health and safety of our prison officers. How can it not be as plain as the nose on our face that a prison officer who is, say, 66 years old should not deal with a young, fit, violent, angry prisoner who is aged 25? At 25, that prisoner, as well as being young, fit, violent and angry, is at the peak of his physical fitness. From a health and safety point of view, who on earth would think it acceptable for a 66-year-old prison officer to supervise or instruct that young prisoner, even if he were lucky enough to be ably assisted by his 65-year old colleague? It is completely unacceptable, and places the prison officer at unacceptable risk. Would any Member present seriously be happy with their 66-year-old father being placed in such danger because he was not permitted to retire?

I suspect, based on other debates, that the Minister will tell us, when he gets to his feet, that people are living longer. To that, I have to say, in this context: blah, blah, blah. What I mean by that, in case there is any confusion, is that it is just noise. I does not answer the question about ages. For the UK Government to tell prison officers that, despite decades of dedicated service, they must continue to work until they are 68 years old, knowing that that will directly place those older officers in danger, and potentially in situations for which they are physically unable to cope because of their advanced years, is negligent and not something that anyone present would want for their father or any other relative, because it is too dangerous.

If it is not advisable, desirable or safe for our relatives, or any of our loved ones, to work in such conditions at such an advanced age, it is simply not good enough for the prison officers in our communities who go to work each day. They are part of the emergency services, but they are not treated as such when it comes to retirement age, and apparently nobody can explain why that is the case.

Nobody can overestimate the impact that raising the retirement age to 68 is having on the morale of our prison officers. They feel undervalued, overlooked and forgotten about. When we consider how they are treated relative to other emergency workers, those feelings are perfectly justified, and that has to be addressed. Otherwise, we will exacerbate all the problems in prisons that we have heard about by haemorrhaging good prison officers, who will be a real loss to the service. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian pointed out that we are losing valuable experience from the service that is not easy to replace. Who benefits from that?

If as a society we believe that some people convicted of terrible crimes need to be kept away from society for a period of time, then as part of that we should automatically believe that those who supervise these people need to be treated in a way that reflects the importance of the job they do, and should be given parity with other emergency workers when it comes to retirement. It is quite simple: we do not want people in prison, but sometimes people need to be incarcerated, and that being the case, we need to appreciate and value the important work of our prison officers.

It really is time for this Government to do the right thing and stop deliberately refusing to see how illogical the retirement age of 68 is for prison officers in practical terms. They must give prison officers the ultimate health and safety protection that they need after dedicating their working lives to looking after those who the rest of society simply do not want to see. The UK Government need to deliver that parity, do the right and decent thing, and—to use a favourite phrase of the Prime Minister—just get it done.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for having secured this important debate, although he sadly cannot be here today, and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for doing such an excellent job in taking it up in his absence. I also thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken for their excellent contributions to this debate; they have made some outstanding points, which I will touch on in my remarks.

Let us be in no doubt: our prisons are now more dangerous for prison officers, offenders and other staff than they have ever been. Staff working in our prisons now go to work fully expecting to be assaulted. In the latest safety and custody statistics published by the MOJ, we find that there were over 10,000 assaults on staff in the 12 months to December 2019, and close to 1,000 serious assaults on staff over the same period. Those are dramatic increases on the 2010 figures—just under 3,000 assaults on staff and just under 300 serious assaults on staff—which demonstrates a marked decline in both health and safety in our prisons. Nobody should ever have to be fearful of assault when they go to work every day, and it is shameful that this has become such a common occurrence across the prison estate.

There is no doubt that this horrific decline of health and safety in prisons is due to the huge numbers of prison officers who have left the Prison Service since the Government took office. I particularly want to mention the remarks of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) about Berwyn jail, which I have visited; it is a new jail that has huge space. I also visited Cardiff jail with her a year ago, which was very different. Clearly, however, these issues are relevant no matter where a prison is, because as the hon. Lady said so eloquently in her remarks, they are issues of culture and of support for staff.

The 2018-19 annual report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons stated that although

“There had been efforts to recruit and train new prison officers…many prisons still lacked a fully experienced workforce.”

That point has been made by all Members who have contributed. Even the Ministry of Justice’s own permanent secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, has said that the reduction in staff numbers

“has been detrimental to security, stability and good order in prisons”.

Since 2010, the Prison Service has lost close to 3,000 band 3 to band 5 prison officers, who work in frontline roles on the wings and the balconies, and over 6,000 prison officers in total. Between 2010 and 2015 alone, the Government oversaw a situation in which the number of band 3 to band 5 frontline staff fell by over a quarter.

Although there have been some recent signs of positive improvements, the latest statistics show that the overall number of officers is once again falling, demonstrating that the Government have reached the peak of what their existing recruitment strategy can deliver. The number of experienced officers who have left is particularly concerning, with the proportion of officers who have three or more years’ experience having fallen from almost 90% in 2010 to just over 50% in 2019. These are points that have already been made by the hon. Member for East Lothian and by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain).

The role of a prison officer is not an easy one, nor is it one that can be easily taught in the classroom, so they urgently need training in order that they can gain experience. It is hard work, and it takes years of on-the-job training for new officers to learn their trade. The absence of experienced officers to mentor and guide them makes it even more of a challenge; the hon. Member for North East Fife emphasised the fact that it is not just physically demanding, but demanding on mental health, and the need for more support for those officers. The Government must not only redouble their recruitment efforts, but put in place a real retention strategy to stop so many new and experienced officers leaving the service.

The Government will inevitably try to lay the blame on other factors, including the widespread proliferation of drugs, particularly new psychoactive substances, as a cause for the rise in violence, and they have set out several measures by which they claim that they will be able to curb the trade in and use of illegal substance behind bars. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) both spoke about why drugs are so prevalent in our prison estate.

We support any efforts to clamp down on illegal drug use in prisons, which is putting prison officers’ and offenders’ safety at risk, but we are clear that the situation has been exacerbated by having insufficient prison officers to keep the situation in check, and that the flash technology that the Government seek to introduce is no replacement for experienced prison officers.

The Government must immediately seek to curb the rate at which experienced officers are leaving the prison system, and incentivise those who have left to return. A first step in doing so, in partnership with trade unions representing staff in prisons, would be to sign up to the “Safe Inside Prisons” charter that has been drawn up by staff with first-hand experience of working in dangerous conditions in prisons—all hon. Members in the debate have noted the excellent work that the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance has done on that. Doing so would show the prison workforce the respect they deserve for the work they do, and demonstrate that the Government take their welfare seriously.

On the issue of the prison estate, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who I have served with on the Justice Committee, made some excellent points about the need for leadership and more funding in the prison estate, and also the need for purposeful activity. Those are absolutely essential points that need to be heard by the Minister about what needs to be done to ensure that prisoners have things to do, but in a safe environment.

Under the previous prisons Minister, the Government promised a range of items of personal protective equipment, such as police-style rigid handcuffs and body-worn cameras, but the roll-out of the equipment has been woefully inadequate, with insufficient training provided to officers in their use and many cases where the equipment just has not been provided to their prisons. A body-worn camera would also provide little comfort to a prison officer who has just been assaulted. They want and need the measures to stop such assaults happening in the first place, which is why it is so important to have sufficient experienced prison officers in our prisons.

Finally, the Government must address the huge problems that they have created for themselves by raising the retirement age for prison officers to 68. That point was made forcefully by the hon. Members for East Lothian and for North Ayrshire and Arran, and rightly so. With such a physically demanding role, prison officers must be fully fit and sufficiently able to react in quickly changing environments, as required by the fitness test that they must complete. The public expect nothing less from those keeping them safe.

Yet the Government seem to believe, contrary to the MOJ’s own admission, that prison officers are able to carry out their demanding roles as they get older, ignoring significant concerns over safety in the process. The simple truth is that they cannot and they should not be expected to; 68 is too late as a retirement age for prison officers. The Government should now meet the POA and other staff representatives to resolve the concerns that prison officers have about retirement and their safety in prisons as they get older, and not try to pin the blame for the rise on staff.

With the growing spread of coronavirus across the country, there are also significant concerns for the health of prison officers and prisoners, who are locked up in a closely confined space in which viruses can spread like wildfire if not effectively controlled. I know the Government published a statement on their preparedness for dealing with covid-19 in prisons last Thursday, but I would be grateful if the Minister, in his response, could set out what measures are in place to ensure a safe staff-to-prisoner ratio in prisons if prisoners are hospitalised or forced to isolate, and how many prison officers and prisoners are currently isolated due to covid-19, including how many have tested positive.

With prisons still operating normally as of last Friday, including allowing visitors, do the Government have any plans to change this? If so, by when? What are the contingency plans in place should a significant number of covid-19 cases emerge in prisons? We would also welcome regular updates from the Minister on the number of prisoners, prison officers and other staff who have isolated or tested positive for covid-19, and on how the MOJ is responding to the situation.

For years, we have been warning repeatedly against the savage cuts made to the Prison Service, and about the effect that they would have, and have had, for prison officers forced to work in increasingly dangerous conditions. We have called for the Government to implement a real retention strategy for prison officers, to stop the exodus of experience from the Prison Service and to help protect health and safety, but they have not listened. In light of the testimony of prison officers and of the challenges, abuse and danger they face that we have heard about this morning, it is time they listened.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for leading this debate and for starting it in such a helpful and comprehensive way. I also thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), in his absence, for securing it. I entirely agree that he is doing the right thing, as is the Minister for whom I am standing in, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who is also self-isolating.

The debate has been genuinely excellent. One of the points made early on was this business about “The Shawshank Redemption”—the extent to which in our constituency mailbags the conditions in prisons are not necessarily the No. 1 priority. However, everyone in this House recognises that the state of our prisons is a critically important aspect of a functioning and decent society. I am grateful to all those who have taken the trouble on this most difficult day to make their points as they have.

I will add my own perspective briefly. A meeting with a constituent that I will never forget was with an experienced prison officer from Cheltenham. He had been seriously injured by an inmate at HMP Bristol, and came to speak to me about what had happened. What was so striking was that, despite that ordeal, he remained in post, undaunted, unbowed and utterly committed to his job. He demonstrated the finest values of the Prison Service, to which I pay tribute—not just with the usual platitudes about dedication, but acknowledging the values of courage, compassion, judgment and professionalism. He also demonstrated what everyone in the debate recognises as important: the determination to root out what Winston Churchill referred to many years ago as the

“treasure in the heart of every man”.

As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, being a prison officer can be a rewarding career for that very reason—being able to turn lives around.

Perhaps the most important point that I have taken away from this debate, made by both Government and Opposition Members, is that we need people like my constituent to stay in the Prison Service, because there can be few jobs in which experience is more important. Those senior officers provide leadership to others and set the culture of a successful prison. Equally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, those governors who have been in post will make the difference too. That is just one reason why this debate is so timely and important, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Easington for bringing it before the House.

I will set the context not by way of excuse but as a fact that we have to address. The prison population is more volatile than it was 10 years ago. That is partly down to drugs and partly down to various other social symptoms, I am sure, but that population is more volatile. That is part of the context.

Let me turn, however, to the issue of covid-19, which the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), rightly raised. Covid-19 is testing, and will test further, every part of our national life. Our prisons will not be immune from that. The most careful thought and planning has gone into preparing our prisons. That work does not emerge from a clear blue sky, but is built on existing and well-developed policies and procedures to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Prevention is of course better than cure, and basic hygiene practice has been rolled out in prisons, as one might expect. For those infected, prisons are well prepared to take action whenever cases or suspected cases are identified. Plans include isolating where necessary. Turning to the point about HMP Berwyn made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), the issue of whether specific prison wings can be used is a matter, quite properly, for consultation with the governor. That may be the appropriate thing to do, but it is not a diktat from Whitehall. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising the issue. The governor will need to be looped into any such decision.

I seek from the Minister a response to the concern locally that Berwyn will continue to fill. Its population is currently about 1,800, so it is slightly under capacity. It has been filled slowly, deliberately. At this time, it is even more important that there is not a rush to fill that prison, because it has the potential to do very good work in other ways.

I take that point and leave it where it lies. I thank the right hon. Lady for making it.

There is a long-standing national partnership agreement with the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England for healthcare services for prisoners. Under that agreement, people in prison custody who become unwell do, as hon. Members know, have the benefit of on-site NHS healthcare services, which provide the first-line assessment and treatment response.

This second point is really important. We recognise the importance of prisoners maintaining contact with their family during this difficult period. Public Health England supports our desire to maintain normal regimes for as long as we can. If those cannot continue, well-worked-up plans are in place to ensure that that continues by other means, to the fullest extent possible.

Keeping people informed is also essential. We are issuing regular communications to staff and all the individuals in our care to explain the steps that we may need to take to protect them from the virus, to minimise anxiety and ensure maximum understanding and co-operation as the situation develops. That means providing regular updates via National Prison Radio, issuing guidance to staff and governors, providing posters and so on.

Let me turn to the staff impact. Staff have been and will be affected by this disease. We are moving swiftly to make additional staff available to establishments so that if current staff are unable to work because of infection, we can continue to run as normal a regime as possible. Some contingency planning may include the need to ask staff to work in a different place and potentially do different tasks; that will be to ensure that we can maintain frontline operational delivery to protect the public and robustly manage risks. In addition, as and when required, operational staff currently working in headquarters will be redeployed to prisons to support the service to maintain minimum staffing levels. May I take this opportunity to thank the unions, which are engaging proactively and co-operatively in this national endeavour? We are hugely grateful for that support.

The point was made about not penalising non-delivery of teaching hours. That seems to me eminently sensible. I hope that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd understands why I cannot commit to anything, but I take that point in the spirit in which it was intended and I hope that it will be given appropriate consideration.

Let me turn to the fair point that was made that existing safety measures are necessary to tackle a threat that exists, notwithstanding covid-19. There has been significant investment in increasing staff numbers. We recruited more than 4,000 additional full-time equivalent prison officers between October 2016 and December 2019. A fair point was made on pay. In July 2019, the MOJ accepted the Prison Service Pay Review Body’s recommendations in full. The pay award was worth at least 2.2% for all prison staff, and there was a targeted 3% increase for band 3 prison officers on the frontline. It is the second year in a row that we have announced above-inflation pay rises, over 2%.

However, pay is only part of it. I completely recognise that conditions are critically important, too. How do we go about improving conditions so that experience is embedded in the Prison Service and those valuable officers will remain in place, providing the guidance, the culture and the leadership that a successful prison needs?

The first point is about the key worker role. This critically important initiative allows staff dedicated time to provide support to individual prisoners. That will help us to deal with emerging threats and improve safety, and of course it is important for those individuals to feel that they are being listened to and their concerns addressed. That helps them to feel valued, and of course helps the safety and stability of the prison. Key workers have a case load of about six prisoners. They have weekly one-to-one sessions with their prisoners to build constructive relationships and reduce levels of violence. That has started in all 92 prisons in the male closed estate, with 54 now delivering key work as part of their business as usual.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley made an excellent point about purposeful activity and gave the useful example of what is happening in Germany and, I think, Denmark as well. That is exactly what we need to be getting to, and I commend him for making that powerful point.

The second point is serious offender intervention. We also have a range of capabilities to manage the risk that the most serious offenders pose in prison, including rehabilitative interventions and separation centres. Mental health was rightly raised. There are mental health facilities, but, as per the entirety of British society, mental health is a bigger issue now than it was in 2010. In fact, one of the bright lights, if I can use that expression, in the prison estate is the improving quality of mental health provision. That needs further strengthening, of course.

The third point is about equipping prison officers. We are committed to providing prison officers with the right support, training and tools. One essential matter is that we have started to roll out PAVA synthetic pepper spray for use by prison officers, but we want to ensure that PAVA defuses tensions, not creates them. All roads lead back to having established and experienced staff, because they will need to use their discretion in a sensible way to operate it.

The association between PAVA and key workers is understandable, but when many staff are away from duty and dependent on bringing staff in on detached duty to another prison, prisons end up, I am told, without that critical number of key workers—there is a vicious circle and PAVA will not be able to be implemented. Will he commit his Department to looking at how PAVA can actually be brought into prisons? The association between key workers and PAVA at present is not working in all prisons.

Time is slipping away. I appreciate all the Minister is saying about what the Government are doing to make prison officers feel more valued and safe, but I must press him on the issue of pension age. A lot of forceful points have been made today and we have little time left to address them. I ask him simply to say whether he is sympathetic.

I absolutely take the point that the hon. Lady and others raised. The reality is that whether a prison officer is 68, 67 or 66, there will be challenging circumstances. If there is a 25 year-old prisoner and a 52 year-old officer, that will present real challenges. I do not have a glib response for the hon. Lady, but I have heard the matters that she has raised. To solve the issue of our prisons we need to ensure that there are enough staff of the right level of experience to deal with these challenges. That will be the most important point and, frankly, that will make more difference than whether somebody is 68 or 67. The reality is that we need enough people of the right calibre and the right experience to manage volatile situations.

Time is against me and I want to leave the hon. Member for East Lothian time to respond. I could talk further about the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, which addresses the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who is no longer in her place, raised. It means that those who assault emergency workers, including prison officers, feel the full force of the law.

We are supporting the emotional and social wellbeing of staff, which is critically important, as well as protecting them from violence. They have access to an occupational health service. We are rolling out TRiM—trauma risk management—that, as hon. Members will know, is being rolled out among police forces as well. There are post-incident care teams, occupational health support, cognitive behavioural therapy, and so much more.

The health and safety of our staff and those in our care remains the top priority for the Ministry of Justice, and we are making significant efforts to ensure that the safety challenges in prisons continue to be addressed. Covid-19 presents a new set of challenges. We are tackling them, informed by the best scientific evidence available, alongside the existing health and safety pressures we are facing in our prisons. I take this opportunity to thank prison staff. They are being tested and they are going to be tested. We value, admire and support them, and we are going to get through this.

Thank you, Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again.

I want to thank everyone here, although time constrains me from thanking each hon. Member individually. There has been a uniformity of purpose and a recognition that the virus is going to cause significant problems in the prison estate. It is but a microcosm of our wider society, and hopefully this will be the catalyst to allow us to address not just that particular issue, but the underlying problems.

I thank the hon. Member for Easington, who cannot be here but who was the initiator of the debate. I repeat my thanks to all who participated and to the Minister for his response, which we take in the spirit in which it was given. Once again, we thank all those who serve in difficult times, because prison officers are an emergency service. The challenges that everybody is facing are being faced by them in greater form and to a greater extent, because of the close proximity of those they work with.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered health and safety of prison staff.