[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the pension age of prison officers.
Just over two years ago, at 4.30 pm on Tuesday 8 October 2019, I stood here and made a speech in which I pleaded with the then Prisons Minister to listen to the concerns of our fantastic prison officers and let them retire at 60, in the same way that comparable frontline emergency workers in the police and fire service are allowed to do. Sadly, my pleas fell on deaf ears, and many prison officers still face the prospect of having to work until they are 68, so I make no apologies for raising the subject yet again on behalf of the many hard-working people who work in the Prison Service, particularly those based in the three prisons in my constituency: Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside.
The people working in our prisons do an important, difficult job. For the most part, they do so without complaint and with the utmost integrity and dedication. That dedication saw many of them going to work every single day throughout the pandemic, putting their own health at risk not only to execute their duty of care to their prisoners, but to protect the wider public. Sadly, because they work for the Cinderella emergency service, they receive few plaudits and very little thanks. Let me thank our prison staff for everything they have done during the past 18 months, often in a very difficult and dangerous environment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and associate myself with his thanks to prison officers. Does he agree that they face a challenging job—challenging even for a young officer—and that there is an overwhelming case for looking again at the retirement age and reducing it? Does he also agree that we should also ensure that they are safe while doing their job and give them all the protection they need?
I certainly do agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will cover all those points in my speech.
The truth is that prison officers deal every day with individuals who have been locked up to keep the rest of us and our communities safe. Too often, those men and women face violence and hostility just for doing their job. Despite that violence and hostility, which would be challenging for fit young people, these dedicated emergency workers are still being told that their retirement age will rise to 68.
I declare an interest as a life member of the Prison Officers Association.
In his 2011 report, Lord Hutton said that firefighters and the police had a pensionable age of 60 because of the “unique nature” of their job. A lot of people in the Commons are at, around or above the age of 60. How many of them would be able to work in a prison and grapple with some of the most vicious and violent people in this country?
The answer is not very many. I certainly could not do it. I have often been on the wings of prisons in my constituency, and I have always felt the atmosphere of hostility—not to me, but towards everybody in authority. The prospect of having to work until 68 adds to the stress of the job, which is already more stressful than most people could ever imagine. Those of us who have had an association with our prisons are lucky that we do understand.
It is often overlooked by the public and many hon. Members that the job of a prison officer is more dangerous than that of people working in other emergency services, including the police. Don’t get me wrong: I have the utmost respect for other emergency service workers and fully understand the challenges they face. The police often have to face some very violent people, but the vast majority of people with whom they come into contact are innocent members of the public, including the victims of the thugs and criminals who break the law.
On the other hand, the people with whom prison officers come into contact are almost exclusively those convicted of a crime, which means that prison officers are regularly in close proximity with challenging individuals. Those individuals may suffer from mental health issues, which is an increasing problem, or may have been regular users of drugs that have had a detrimental impact on their behaviour, including by making them more aggressive, impervious to pain or more capable of resisting attempts at restraint.
On the point about drugs, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue seems to be an increasing prevalence of drugs in our prisons, which makes the job of prison staff that he has eloquently outlined even more dangerous than it was 10 or 15 years ago? The campaign to press for a lower pension age ought to be agreed to by the Government and implemented as quickly and safely as possible.
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a secondary threat to prison officers, which I have raised in several previous debates, from the fumes of some of those drugs. Prison officers with whom I have come into contact have often gone into cells and been seriously affected by them. It is a huge problem.
In addition, we have to remember that most inmates do not wish to be in a prison environment and may be unco-operative at best or aggressive and violent at worst. That makes the expectation that prison officers should have to work until they are 68 not only completely unjust, but frankly dangerous.
As I pointed out, police officers and firefighters are permitted to retire at 60, because it is acknowledged that they do a dangerous and stressful job, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said. It can be physically demanding and contains significant elements of risk and volatility. Why are prison officers, who work in equally dangerous and demanding operational environments, not treated in the same way? I believe that the answer is because, as I have also mentioned, the Prison Service is the Cinderella emergency service. Prison officers are treated as second-class emergency workers. Not only are they paid less than police officers, but they are often denied access to the same level of protection as their police counterparts.
For instance, prison officers are required to carry a large amount of equipment on a daily basis, which is estimated to weigh between 2.5 kg and 3 kg. Most prison officers are forced to use only a utility belt to carry it. Requests to use utility vests similar to those worn by the police were refused on the grounds that prisoners would find them intimidating. I find that reasoning deeply insulting and illogical. Why should a prisoner feel any more intimidated by a prison officer wearing a utility vest than a member of the public holding a conversation with a police officer wearing the same style of vest?
In addition, some prison officers are being denied access to the body-worn cameras that are vital in providing evidence if assaults, including serious assaults, committed against them are ever to be prosecuted. I understand that some prisons have been told to stop investing in body-worn cameras until a new system is available in November 2022. Although the new system is said to be safer and more effective, in the interim it will potentially leave thousands of assaults unrecorded and unsupported by evidence, which in turn means that the perpetrators are less likely to be prosecuted.
It is worth mentioning that of the nearly 79,000 prisoners currently incarcerated under the Prison Service, 30% have been convicted of offences involving violence against the person, so it should come as no surprise that attacks on prison officers are increasing. According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 8,476 assaults on prison staff in the 12 months to September 2020, which is 35% of all incidents of assault that occurred on the prison estate. Some 823 of those were serious assaults. The Government’s definition of serious assault in the context of the prison estate is as follows:
“Serious assaults are those which fall into one or more of the following categories: a sexual assault; requires detention in outside hospital as an in-patient; requires medical treatment for concussion or internal injuries; or incurs any of the following injuries: a fracture, scald or burn, stabbing, crushing, extensive or multiple bruising, black eye, broken nose, lost or broken tooth, cuts requiring suturing, bites, temporary or permanent blindness.”
I have been contacted by many constituents who work in the Prison Service and have suffered such assaults in the line of duty. I have seen with my own eyes the appalling results, including broken bones, severe facial injuries and some life-changing injuries, such as an officer who had his finger bitten off.
Let us not forget that such attacks will also have a psychological impact on the victims, and in some cases an assault will stay with the officer long after the physical injuries have healed—potentially for the rest of their life. Although the number of assaults has decreased slightly over the course of the pandemic, it is worth noting that, even with inmates spending far less time out of their cells, the number is still more than double what it was six years ago.
The Government are on record as saying that they do not treat prison officers the same as police officers and firefighters because prison officers do not face the same risks of injury, and that the difference is not an age thing. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that a prison officer will have to be very seriously injured, or even die, before the Government step up and treat them as equals?
Yes, sadly I have to agree with the hon. Gentleman. The statistics do not bear out the Government’s claim that police officers suffer as many injuries as prison officers; it is simply not the case. One of the problems is that, if somebody attacks a police officer, all hell breaks loose, and every effort is made to catch the perpetrator. If a prison officer is injured, the injury is hidden under the carpet; the perpetrator gets a slap on the wrist—if they even get that. The hon. Gentleman is right. The figures that I have quoted will continue to rise; there is no doubt about it.
With that in mind, is it really fair or safe not only to expect a prison officer in their 60s to restrain violent criminals in their 20s or 30s, some of whom have very little left to lose even if they carry out the most violent acts of which they are capable, but to entrust the safety and wellbeing of other officers and prisoners to the ability of that prison officer to restrain those criminals? It is simply unacceptable. It is not an exaggeration to say that that scenario might eventually cost lives, and that surely invites the question of why prison officers are not treated in the same way as their fellow emergency workers.
It is worth reminding the House that section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 states that serving prison officers
“shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable.”
If that is the case, why do prison officers not have the same equipment to protect themselves as their police colleagues, and why are they not allowed to retire at 60, like their police colleagues? Unlike other emergency workers, prison officers spend their working lives effectively in prison themselves, in high-security environments and looking over their shoulders, especially when staffing levels on a landing are not as they should be because of difficulties retaining officers—often as a result of their relatively poor pay and working conditions.
Prison officers not only face physical violence but run the daily risk of other acts from inmates, such as “potting”—a disgusting and outrageous practice where urine or excrement are thrown over prison staff simply going about their duties and ensuring the orderly running of the prison. As I said, prison officers also face the risk of exposure to the fumes of powerful synthetic drugs such as spice, which can have health implications if inhaled accidentally.
In addition to all that, between April 2020 and March 2021 there were 38 instances of hostage taking across the prison estate. There were also 1,217 instances of barricades or prevention of access—whereby one or more offender denies access to all or part of a prison to those lawfully empowered to have such access by use of a physical barrier. There were 159 instances of concerted indiscipline where
“two or more prisoners act together in defiance of a lawful instruction.”
As a result of such things, officers often need to use physical intervention, or force, to overcome situations where lives may be at stake and time is likely to be of the essence. It is another example of a situation where officers in their 60s may be put at specific risk. They are targeted by troublemakers as more vulnerable targets because of their age. That is to the detriment of not only the officer’s own safety, but the safety of their colleagues and inmates. Statistics from the Ministry of Justice’s website clearly show that such incidents are far from hypothetical or atypical.
While prison officers face this relentless threat of violence and aggression, there are other pressures on them that add to their already high stress levels. For instance, prison officers often have to take on the role of informal counsellors, helping people who have perhaps never before had any meaningful structure or authority figures in their lives. Trying to help people with addictions or mental health problems, or dealing with prisoners who want to talk about traumatic incidents from their own past, are stressful situations for prison officers.
Order. I thank the hon. Gentleman; he is making a fantastic speech. However, he has six other colleagues who wish to speak, so if he could stop before 4.50 pm—or near that time—then we can give everybody 3 minutes to join him in support of his campaign. Is that all right?
Those stress levels will, of course, frequently have an impact upon both physical and mental health. Prison officers have to face all the challenges already mentioned, while also, like all emergency workers, working shifts and facing a working day in which almost anything can happen—including potentially having to make life or death decisions under fast-moving circumstances. There is evidence that working a shift pattern can be harmful to physical and mental health, and may shorten life expectancy, which in turn erodes the ability of officers to enjoy a well-earned retirement. The longer prison officers are forced to work, the more harm it is likely to do to their health. For that reason alone, it is beyond understanding why they are currently being forced to work six years longer than a police officer or a fire fighter, and why younger prison officers face the prospect of working until they are 68.
It is possible that the Minister will remind me that police officers have to contribute 12% towards their pension, while firefighters contribute 14%. In response, I remind her that those emergency workers get paid a far higher salary than prison officers. That leads me—
I will carry on, because I have been told I have to shut up.
That leads me neatly to an important question: is it not possible that prison officers might be willing to make a higher pension contribution for an earlier pension date? The only way to answer that question would be for the Government to agree to hold new talks with the Prison Officers Association. Will my hon. Friend the Minister, for whom I have immense respect, agree to such a meeting?
I will try for less than that, Sir Charles. I declare an interest as another honorary life member of the Prison Officers Association. As one of my witty colleagues said, the only benefit is possibly a more comfortable cell.
The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) summed up the argument precisely. I just want to remind colleagues that we had this debate some time ago with regard to firefighters and we had it with regard to police. I can remember the consensus that was built. No one wanted a firefighter of 60-odd coming through that window to carry us down a ladder. No one wanted that. Similarly, nobody wanted to see police at this age—up to 68—going out on the streets and trying to defend us when such physical assaults were occurring at the time. Nobody wanted that. To be frank, the reason why prison officers have been discriminated against is that, like their prisoners, they are locked away and we just want to look away completely from the problems that they experience. That is the reality of it. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for time and again bringing to this House the reality of what the members of the Prison Officers Association and those across the service are actually experiencing—the physical nature of the job.
Let me also remind people of this. When we had the firefighters discussion, we looked at or had actuarial work done, and one of the interesting things was the number who died soon after retirement. We could not understand that, but part of it relates to their experience in work and particularly the stress that they were under, causing cardiovascular problems.
If my right hon. Friend does not mind, I just want to finish.
Exactly the same applies to prison officers. In fact, some would argue that it applies more, because the nature of the threat is continuous. The time has come to deal with this. Exactly as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has said, the talks need to start to resolve it now, because none of us wants to put these workers through that sort of threat, suffering and stress—all of that—by forcing them to work that much longer.
In addition to that, the point that they would make—this is dedication to the job—is that they want to deliver the best service possible. When they get to a certain age, they are not able to guarantee the safety of the prisoners, because they do not have the physical resource to do it. What officers want to do is deliver a quality service. We should be supporting them in that, so the appeal is to start the talks again, start negotiating, and if more is to be paid in contributions, more should be paid in salary to compensate for that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this really important debate. Violence in prisons, especially against workers, has increased significantly since the mass cuts to staffing and other budgets from 2013 onwards, with assaults on staff tripling to more than 10,000 a year by 2019. That level of workplace violence should be unacceptable for any employee, but there is increased danger for those over the age of 60. It simply cannot be right to expect officers in their 60s to control and restrain people who are a third their age.
Ministers have not provided any evidence to show that frontline prison officers over 60 can work safely in such a dangerous operational environment. I am aware that the report by Lord Hutton of Furness proposed that some uniformed services—as we have heard, police, firefighters and the armed forces—should be exempt from the rise in the retirement age to 68. The decision excluded prison officers from the “uniformed services” that were spared the retirement age rise. That has never been explained or justified, which has caused anger and despair among prison officers. Expecting officers to manage, care for and control violent, dangerous and difficult people until the age of 68 is quite simply unfair, unsustainable and, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said, dangerous.
The Prison Act 1952 gives serving prison officers
“all the powers, authority, protection and privileges”
of police officers. It is quite right that police can retire at 60, given the often violent and volatile nature of their job. Will the Minister explain why prison officers are not afforded the same protection?
Pension age should be negotiated as a stand-alone issue, but it is clear that Ministers see employee contributions as part of the discussion. But those relate directly to pay, and if pay is going to be on the table, the starting point must be the Prison Service Pay Review Body’s recommendation of a £3,000 uplift to entry-level salaries, which the Government deemed unaffordable. According to the Prison Service Pay Review Body, officers
“were said to be leaving the Service for…supermarkets; the Police; Border Force; railway companies; and other security and uniformed services”,
with one prison visited experiencing a turnover rate of almost 25%. Low pay and a high pension age are both reasons why morale is at an all-time low. The current recruitment and retention crisis shows that we need a complete pay overhaul that makes salaries competitive, attractive and fit for purpose.
Lastly, I am concerned about the growing number of female officers who fail their annual fitness test. The Prison Officers Association believes that menopause may be a factor. The situation has caused accusations of unfair and discriminatory treatment of women. Does the Minister agree that the annual prison fitness test is not fit for purpose, and will she commit to replacing it with a system that measures relative fitness, considering factors such as age and sex?
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this incredibly important debate. Hull Prison is in my constituency, and I want to thank the prison officers and other staff who serve our community there, as well as the prison governor, Shaun Mycroft.
This issue is a major concern. In my previous job as a criminal lawyer, I was instructed on numerous occasions to represent prisoners for adjudications, and I was always struck by the serious nature of the allegations against prisoners and the degree of serious harm caused to prison officers. To me, the idea of a 68-year-old man or woman wrestling with a prisoner in order to contain a situation is utterly ridiculous.
I will not speak for much longer, but I want to say two things. The Government need to get back to the table and negotiate constructively, with a view to dealing with this incredibly dangerous issue. Having served in the shadow Justice team with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), I know how seriously she takes the issue. We regularly discussed the matter in shadow meetings while I was on the team, and I know full well that this party—the Opposition—will deal with it as soon as we get the opportunity, if the Government fail to do so.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing the debate. My constituency contains three prisons: Frankland Prison, Durham Prison and Low Newton Prison. Between them, they employ hard-working and dedicated staff and hold a range of prisoners, from low-level offenders to some of the most dangerous people in the country.
The Hutton report recommended that police officers and firefighters should rightly be exempt from the rise in retirement age to 68. However, while those workers have a pension age of 60, prison officers were excluded—a clear oversight. Section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 gives prison officers the protection and privileges of police constables, so why are prison officers left with this pension injustice? It appears that the Government believe that prison officers deserve equality of powers, protections and privileges, but not of pensions.
Make no doubt about it: prison staff do a difficult and dangerous job. On a recent visit to Frankland Prison, I heard directly from staff about the risks they face. Violence in prisons, especially against staff, has increased significantly since mass cuts to staffing from 2013, with assaults on staff tripling to more than 10,000 a year by 2019. Those risks are why lowering the pension age of prison officers would mean so much to the people of Durham. My constituents have to live with the effects of this policy, whether it is a prison officer who just wants to feel secure on the landings, or a family who want a loved one in their 60s to be safe at work.
The danger of this policy was expressed perfectly by a prison officer in my constituency who asked me to put the following question to the Minister: could she picture her parents, grandparents or, indeed, herself at 68 years old trying to stop a young, fit, violent offender with a weapon? If not, why do the Government expect that of my constituents? This is the reality of life on the landings for prison officers. It is perfectly understandable that staff morale is rock bottom. Whether on pay, pensions or working conditions, the Government have consistently failed officers.
Will the Minister do the right thing and commit to a negotiation in good faith with the Prison Officers Association on the stand-alone issue of prison officer pension age, because 68 is clearly too late? Prison officers are not asking for the world. All they want is to be treated fairly, to be safe at work and to have dignity in retirement. Is that really too much to ask?
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate. I would like to put on the record that I am the adviser to the co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group, particularly at this time when it is important to refer to the register of interests.
Do the Government really think it is sustainable to attract new prison officer recruits by asking them to work up to 50 years of their lives in prisons as they stand? On top of the dangerous conditions, poor pay and high pension age make for an unattractive proposition for new staff looking for a solid lifetime career—the sort of staff that the Prison Service would like to attract.
This dereliction of duty by the Government as an employer, combined with low pay, is helping to drive the current staffing crisis. Since 2010, the Ministry of Justice’s figures show that over 86,000 years of prison officer experience has been lost. In my area of north Wales, over 130 band-3 officers have left HMP Berwyn since April this year, costing £13,000, on average, to recruit and train. That amounts to £1.7 million of public money lost and wasted. These key workers are moving on to better paid work that does not involve abuse and assaults on a daily basis.
We saw this year how dangerous the job can be when an officer suffered a near fatal attack at HMP Swansea, which prompted calls for an inquiry into staff safety. The most recent independent monitoring board report noted that there were 258 assaults on staff at HMP Berwyn, 22 of which were classed as serious. If I may, I will briefly put on the record something from an exit interview, to give an experience of staff. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I would like to put on the record a quote from an exit interview at HMP Berwyn, because it illustrates some of the situations that our prison officers face. The prison officer referred to keeping serious staff assaulters in the prison:
“I have personal experience of this, a prisoner who assaulted myself and another Officer was serving for an assault on an emergency worker. He was not a ‘do not return’ on the system. Some staff are forced to move off their wing while the prisoner who has carried out the assault continues to reside on the wing. Staff are not taken into consideration.”
However, Ministers have never provided any evidence to show that frontline prison officers over the age of 60 can work safely in such dangerous working environments. A high pension age disproportionately impacts on older and female staff, who are still required to adhere to a universal fitness test. The situation is causing resentment and accusations of unfair treatment to women and of discrimination on the basis of sex. The equality analysis of the fitness test by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service shows that 100% of the people who failed both the standard and adjusted tests for the third time were female, which is a shocking statistic. It is also shocking that around 66% of officers who fail the test for the first or second time are women, given that less than 40% of the prison staff are female. Given those statistics, how can a pension age of 68 be fair to women and older workers who struggle physically to stay in the job?
I want to close by talking about pension contributions. I understand that this is among the issues that prison officers are prepared to discuss with the Minister—I wish that she were in her place, but I am sure I will have an opportunity to raise the issue with her in a moment—although it also has to be recognised that their salaries need to be far higher than they are at present, because they do not reflect the same situation as that for the police force. I am proud to support the “68 is too late” campaign.
It is not my duty to defend colleagues, but I put on the record the fact that the Divisions went on for some time and people are stuck in the Lobby. This is an issue that I need to raise with various Committees, such as the Procedure Committee.
As ever, Sir Charles, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this really—I wish I could say it was a timely debate, but it is not a timely debate, is it? It is something that we have discussed many times before. Eight years ago, when I was a flying Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), I resigned my position on this very issue, because for the life of me I could not understand why prison officers had to work until the age of 68 before they got their pension. To be honest, I still have not had any answers; we still have not had any facts, figures or answers to qualify the fact that prison officers should work until they are 68, while at the same time the police and firefighters get their pension at 60—and rightly so; I agree that they should.
Basically, we should not keep having this competition between different frontline public services, because it is not a competition. What we see is something that is terribly, terribly, terribly unfair. What is also strange is how we allow a French company that deals in hospitality to run some of the prisons in this country. However, that is a subject in itself, for another debate.
I congratulate the staff—every one of them—at HMP Northumberland. I agree that “68 is too late”; it is far too late. I have been speaking to prison officers who are frightened; I have been speaking to prison officers’ families who are frightened; I have been speaking to prisoners who are frightened; and I have been speaking to auxiliaries who are frightened. The stress levels, because of what is happening in our prisons at this moment in time, are unacceptable.
We have got to deal with this situation. I hope that the Minister agrees, if she only agrees to do one thing today, to meet the Prison Officers Association to discuss a way forward, so that pensioners in the Prison Officers Association who are working in prisons can get a decent pension at the age of 60.
Thank you, Sir Charles, for calling me to speak.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing today’s debate and for opening it in the fashion that he did. He has my full support for the bid to return prison officers’ retirement age to 60. Indeed, it has been a very consensual debate throughout, as shown by all Members who have participated.
This is an issue that I have raised a number of times in this Parliament on behalf of my constituents, several of whom are serving prison officers. Having listened to the direct testimony from constituents about having to restrain prisoners and deal with violent incidents that happen daily across the prison network, the situation is clearly becoming more and more difficult for officers, and these physical difficulties can only get harder with age. My own visits to HMP Shotts and HM Young Offenders Institution Polmont have further convinced me that this is indeed the case.
Although I do not have the latest Scottish figures, across England and Wales, 7,612 assaults on prison staff were recorded in the 12 months to June 2021, which equates to an average of 21 assaults every day. That is a worrying number, irrespective of the age of the officers involved. Quite simply, if police officers retire at 60, it is only right that prison officers, who work on the frontline of the Prison Service, are afforded the same right by the society that they protect. In my opinion, the UK Government are letting prison officers down.
In addition to the police, the fire service and all the armed forces retire at 60, and rightly so. Prison officers ought to be able to retire then as well, because they are dealing with very dangerous and violent individuals; we have heard so much testimony on that fact today. They are not like other civil servants; their job is a dangerous one. It is and should be treated as a uniformed emergency service.
For years, the UK Government have said that there are no plans to change the retirement age for prison officers. Stonewalling on this issue does nothing for the brave men and women who are providing crucial public services that we rely on for law and order in our society to function effectively. Indeed, when I raised this issue on 17 December last year by way of a public petition from local constituents, Ministers did not even respond. I think that my constituents in particular, and our nation’s prison officers in general, deserve much better. This simply sends out a message that this Government do not care.
The Government repeatedly hide behind their decision to increase the pension age as reflecting the “generally improving life expectancy”. While it is true that people may be living longer, that does not equate to their physical and mental abilities being able to withstand the daily demands faced by prison officers. Given that lack of respect, it is little wonder that figures from the Ministry of Justice show, as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), that more than 86,000 years of prison officer experience has been lost, since 2010, as experienced officers leave, no doubt in part for better working conditions and higher pay.
Budget cuts have seen the Prison Service impose an almost total recruitment freeze in recent years, so recent movement by the Chancellor for pay rises for public workers is very welcome. However, with long hours to fill, significant labour shortages and a volatile situation to police, prison staff are simply becoming burnt out. Prisons were among the employers with the most demand for staff in late October and early November, according to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, with adverts for prison officers rising by some 30%. In conclusion, I am in little doubt that the pension age issue is a significant factor in that situation. Our prison officers simply deserve better. They should be treated equitably with police officers and allowed to retire at 60. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view on this.
I am very grateful to our SNP colleagues, and to you, Sir Charles. It is an absolute pleasure to see you and to serve under your chairmanship. The view from the front line is absolutely clear; prison officers and governors have told me exactly the same thing: they simply do not believe that they or their colleagues can be safely running around floors in their mid-60s.
From the conversations that I have had, most of those nearing retirement age have decades of service in prisons behind them. Imagine it: decades of rigorous physical effort—bending through doorways and wrestling with violent prisoners on the floor—the repeated mental strain of conflict and constantly being in flight or fight mode at work. It must be exhausting to witness and deal with terrible circumstances, day in, day out. Worst of all is dealing with the trauma caused by brutal assaults at work.
I am sure the Minister understands the physical toll all of that takes, because we all know that being a prison officer means dealing with very damaged people. It means stepping into danger to protect colleagues or prisoners or to stop a situation that is escalating out of control. It means someone being on their feet for long hours, walking the halls, never knowing when the next crisis will emerge. The Minister will note that, thankfully, violence against prison officers fell during the pandemic. However, in the most recent stats, the rate of assaults on staff was still 177% higher than in 2010, and the level of violence is now rising fast: up 14% in the last quarter.
I have HMP Liverpool and Altcourse prison in my constituency, and I am pleased to work with the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers and prison officers. Would my hon. Friend agree with a prison officer who has written to me, saying:
“We are the police behind these walls! Yet police in the community can retire at 60”?
Is this not simply about decency and fairness for our prison officers?
I certainly agree with that. It is about decency and treating people fairly, and we are simply not seeing that. Whether or not a job becomes more dangerous depends in large part on what happens with recruitment and retention, and that is affected by the Government’s decisions on pension age.
It cannot be said often enough that the safety of our prisons and prison officers depends on staff experience. It depends on the extent to which prison officers and staff have the jailcraft to maintain good relationships with prisoners, understand the real dynamics going on in a wing, and de-escalate, by using many different mechanisms, dangerous situations before they become violent and out of control. That depth of experience has been stripped away over the past 10 years as more and more long-serving officers have left the service. In prisons today, 25% or more of staff have no experience at all of the pre-pandemic regime—that is frightening. I hope the Minister will tell us what plans she has to stop the service being hollowed out even further.
We rightly have a system where even senior managers walk the wings and respond to incidents alongside colleagues. They must also maintain the ability to restrain big and dangerous adult men if the escalation fails, and be kept safe doing so. Much upward progression still requires operational fitness, and moving to a non-frontline role will often involve a demotion and pay cut. Faced with those options and with retirement still years away, many will not remain in the service and their enormously valuable experience will be lost. Does the Minister agree that it is just too difficult for a prison officer in their mid-60s to be rolling around on the floor with a violent prisoner? Does she accept that we have a retention crisis in our prisons, which affects the all-important link between retention and safer working conditions?
Over the past year, this Government have rightly called our prison officers hidden heroes, so surely it is time to put those warm words into action. We will not solve the problems in our prison system until people know that their skills and experience will be valued and developed, and their hard work rewarded. The whole of this debate has simply involved asking the Minister to negotiate in good faith and understand the true value and nature of the work, the dedication shown and the importance of retaining experienced prison staff.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). He is a tireless advocate for the many prison officers and staff who live in his constituency, as well as those who travel to work there. Within days of me being appointed, he stopped me to kindly invite me to visit his three prisons with him and meet his constituents who work so hard there. I genuinely thank him and respect him for raising the issue again.
This is one of those debates to which I wish a little more attention was being paid. While there are clearly passionately held views across the Chamber, this has been a constructive and fair debate where the views of prison officers and staff have been put forward, and I genuinely thank hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that prison officers and staff who are watching and hon. Members will take away from this debate the fact that, although I might not be able to give some of the answers that I have understandably been urged to give, I want to engage with the Prison Officers Association and other unions, many of which I have had the pleasure of meeting already. I want to engage with them constructively on not just the very important issues of pay and pensions, but their working conditions.
Hon. Members have rightly outlined some of the horrendous circumstances that officers find themselves in when they are working to contain some of the most dangerous people in our society. I am very proud of the Ministry of Justice’s hidden heroes scheme, which has been rolled out this year and, I hope, pays tribute to those officers. My hon. Friend referred to it as the Cinderella service. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, because the service happens behind those very tall, thick brick walls, it sometimes feels like prison officers are separate from our wider community. I genuinely want to work with the POA, prison officers, staff and governors to shed more light on what happens behind those walls over the coming years. I think that the public would not only be interested in but proud of many examples of the work that our officers and staff do.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the positive way in which she is responding to this excellent debate. Although our focus has been on the pension age, will she say a little more about the need to ensure that prison officers have the best possible protection while at work, including the use of body-worn cameras and, in certain circumstances, pepper spray?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making a very important point about the wider terms and conditions of employment. I do not want anyone in the Chamber or listening to the debate to leave thinking that it is somehow acceptable for prison officers to have to face in their workplace the threats, abuse and serious violence described by hon. Members. We must not as a society shrug our shoulders—I know that nobody in this room would do this—and say, “Oh well, what do you expect?” or words to that effect. We absolutely can do more to protect officers in the prison environment, and I will come on to some of the wider measures in a moment.
I appreciate that in this context, when a request is made to the Minister, how the Minister responds is a matter of great sensitivity. Will she commit to meet the Prison Officers Association? It is very clear in its ask for negotiations on the pension age to be reopened. If she could commit to meet the POA to discuss the matter further, that would be very welcome.
As I have said, I have already met the Prisoner Officers Association. I hope I was very clear when we first met that this was the beginning of a constructive and positive relationship. I will happily meet the POA, of course, and I would be delighted if my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey would join me in that meeting. I want to be frank, though. I do not want there to be any claims of inadvertently misleading people. I cannot commit today to discussions on pensions per se, but I am very happy—as I have said in the past, in fairness—to listen to the Prison Officers Association and its members. I am very keen to do so.
I am conscious of giving my hon. Friend time to respond. The retirement age for prison officers is linked to their pension arrangements. Prison officers are classified as civil servants, so are members of the civil service pension scheme. This is a defined-benefit scheme that pays a pension for life without investment uncertainties. It has one of the lowest employee contribution rates across the public sector; employers make contributions of 27% into the scheme on behalf of the employee.
When a pension age of 65 for new entrants was introduced in 2007, I am told it was done so following great consideration of the prison officer role and the demands it makes of prisoner officers and other operational roles in the civil service. I am told that the POA signed up to this scheme. Following the introduction of the alpha scheme in 2015, the normal pension age for prison officers is set at state pension age, which is between 65 and 68.
I am conscious that I have only 4 minutes, so I will continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has already made the point that we have tried to make change on this before. When the Prison Officers Association membership were balloted eight years ago, they did not accept the package to retire at the lower age of 65 with heavily subsidised additional contributions to the scheme. Although POA members rejected the offer, the Prison Governors Association accepted it and as a result some manager grade staff now have a lower pension age. Another offer was made in 2017, in which prison officers would have incurred no cost to access a pension at the age of 65, but again this was rejected by a union ballot union.
I will finish, if I may, because I want to deal with the points about security and I must finish at 5.48 pm in order to give my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey time to respond.
Any lowering of the pension age for prison officers would invariably mean that their pension contributions would have to increase. Prison officers’ pension contributions are less than half those of schemes for firefighters or police officers.
I do not want to waste time by repeating myself, but I will meet the POA. I cannot agree on the Floor of the Chamber to negotiate, but I hope that the POA, having met me, understands that I make that offer of a meeting in good faith.
I want to emphasise the point about fitness tests. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) made an interesting point about menopause in particular. Since 2001, officers have had to pass an annual fitness test that is based on the requirements of the role, and which tests strength, muscular endurance, speed and agility. No specific adjustments have been made in relation to menopause because we must apply those tests equally. However, the test is based on the specific needs of the individual. It is intended to be both age and gender neutral, and I am sure colleagues will understand that we must be careful not to discriminate on the basis of age in such circumstances. I am conscious of the huge contribution that older and more experienced officers make. They can often de-escalate situations and they can help newer recruits to learn to do the job as well as they can.
On the important issue of security, we are investing £100 million in a prison security package that includes X-ray scanners, body-worn cameras and PAVA spray, which we want to roll out alongside rigid bar handcuffs to give officers the support of those items.
I will sit down now, Sir Charles, but I look forward to discussing this further with hon. Members.
While I accept that the Minister cannot accept preconditions for any meeting, I welcome the fact that she has committed to meet the Prison Officers Association to discuss it concerns. That is a step forward. She might want to discuss with the POA whether its members would prefer to no longer be classified as civil servants and be dealt with in the same way as police officers instead.
I repeat my invitation to the Minister to visit the Isle of Sheppey. I would be delighted to show her not only the prisons, but some of our lovely countryside.
Finally, I am grateful to colleagues who have bothered to turn up today to support our prison officers. I suggest gently that they might like to consider joining the prion service parliamentary scheme, of which the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and I are the co-founders.