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Prison Officers: Pension Age

Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the pension age of prison officers.

May I say how nice it is to see you in the Chair for the first time, Mrs Cummins? I have led lots of Westminster Hall debates in which the only other Member present was the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is always here. Moving the motion feels a little like groundhog day because I moved identical motions in October 2019 and in November 2021. I have also tabled a number of parliamentary questions about the scandal that many prison officers are expected to work until they are 68, when their counterparts in the police and fire services are able to retire at 60.

I have raised the issue many times because I hoped that the Government would accept that the pensions disparity is unfair and would take steps to rectify it. Sadly, successive Prisons Ministers have failed to do so, but I am nothing if not persistent, so I am here again to speak out on behalf of prison officers, including those working in my three local prisons, His Majesty’s Prisons Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside.

Let me begin by reminding my right hon. Friend the Minister that the law in relation to prison officers is quite clear. The Prison Act 1952 gives prison officers

“all the powers, authority, protection and privileges”

of police officers. However, despite that clear legislative statement, prison officers do not have the same protection and privileges as police officers when it comes to their pension rights. That problem dates back to at least 2011, when Lord Hutton undertook a review of public sector pensions in which he did not take the 1952 Act into account, and prison officers found themselves forced to work eight years longer than police officers in order to claim a full pension.

I recognise the hon. Member’s persistence on this issue, for which I am very grateful. The Minister will know that I sit on the Select Committee on Justice, which has heard from the Prison Officers Association. Would the hon. Member be interested to know, as I would, what the Minister would say to the POA regarding retirement age, about which it has expressed strong concerns?

As somebody who has worked very closely with the POA over my 13 years as a Member of Parliament, I certainly would. I will come to the stance of the POA later in my speech.

First of all, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I may always be in Westminster Hall, but it is lovely to see you in the Chair.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate. I have raised this issue before, as I know he has. We have signed early-day motions on the issue, and Members will know where I stand on it. Prison officers carry out some of the most brutal public service work in dangerous and often violent conditions. Often it has intense impacts on their mental and physical health, making it a large demand to ask them to work until they are 68. Does he agree that prison officers’ retirement age should be aligned with that of police officers, and that the retirement age of 68 puts people off training to become great prison officers?

Not only do I agree, but I will go on to explain why. The Hutton report set up a protected group, stating that

“for the uniformed services—the armed forces, police and firefighters—where pension age has historically been lower to reflect the unique nature of their work a pension age of 60 is appropriate.”

Unfortunately, prison officers were not included in that protected category, which is both wrong and puzzling, not least because the work of uniformed prison officers is definitely unique.

I rise as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group; I also work with the POA. Not only is the retirement age wrong and unfair, but it has a direct effect on the quality of the service provided in our prisons. We know that recruitment is in crisis. More than that, retention is in crisis. We lose good-quality prison officers because, with these pension arrangements, they are not prepared to stay.

No one could argue with what the right hon. Lady says. I certainly would not.

I was talking about the uniqueness of the Prison Service. For instance, each day of prison officers’ working lives, they are expected to act in a range of different roles, including as social workers, teachers, dispute resolvers and, most significantly, police officers and firefighters within the prison. That range of responsibility is unique in the public sector, which makes the exclusion of prison officers from the protected category deeply unfair.

When challenged about that unfairness only last year, the Government’s response showed a disappointing and surprising lack of knowledge about working in a prison environment. Lord Stewart of Dirleton said that

“by comparison with emergency services such as the police or fire brigade, while the environment is a challenging one, it is to an extent controlled, which those other occupations are not. In that context, we consider that 68 is indeed an appropriate age at which to retire.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 June 2022; Vol. 822, c. 1683.]

I have to tell the noble and learned Lord that his conclusion is utter nonsense. Many prisons are violent places in which some very dangerous and resentful criminals are incarcerated against their will.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the protections in the Prison Act 1952 but, regardless of that Act, how on earth do we expect people of 68 years of age to be rolling around the landings with some of the most dangerous criminals in this country? Regardless of the rules and regulations, how come there is such a massive difference between other protected services and the Prison Service? Rightly, the pension age is 60 in the police and fire services. Have a look around the Chamber at Prime Minister’s Question Time: how many 60-year-olds are sitting there who are past their sell-by date? Can anyone imagine some of them getting on the landings with the most dangerous criminals in this country? I really cannot.

As someone who is 75, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not feel I am past my sell-by date, but I recognise that next year, when I am 76, I will be, which is why I will not be standing at the next election.

I was talking about violence in prisons. It is hardly surprising that prisoners rebel against authority and take their resentment out on those in charge. Assaults on prison officers have increased dramatically over the past few years. In addition to those violent criminals, there is an increasing incidence of gang culture, radicalisation among some prisoners and a proliferation of terrorists in our prisons, none of whom have much to lose if they mount an unprovoked attack on prison staff.

I point out to Lord Stewart that his conclusion is wrong, because it does not recognise the fact that police officers come into direct contact with violent criminals only for limited periods, mainly during their arrest and interrogation. However, once those criminals are tried, convicted and sent to prison, it is prison officers who are expected to be in close contact with them 24 hours a day, every day, week, month and year of their sentence. For that reason alone, as the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) said, it is totally unfair that police officers can retire at 60 while prison officers have to work until they are 68, doing some of the most difficult tasks that we could impose on them.

I am sorry, but I really do not think I have time.

Another argument that the Government put forward for forcing prison officers to work eight years longer than their police and firefighter counterparts is that employees in those professions contribute significantly more of their salary to their pensions. But as my right hon. Friend the Minister will know, prison officers have repeatedly made it clear that they would be willing to pay more towards their pension if they earned the same amount as the police and firefighters.

I fully anticipate that the Minister will point out that previous Governments offered to reduce the pension age for prison officers in 2013 and 2017, which is true. However, both offers came with unacceptable strings attached. In addition, had those offers been accepted by prison officers, the proposals would only have reduced their retirement age to 65—still nowhere near parity with the police and firefighters.

I mentioned earlier that prison officers are unique, and they are unique in another way. Unlike the police and firefighters, who have their own pension schemes, prison officers are technically part of the civil service and are therefore members of the civil service pension scheme. I appreciate that that is a complication when considering any reduction in pension age, but it is worth pointing out that prison officers make up less than 5% of the membership of the civil service pension scheme, so making them a special case, which I believe they should be, would have little impact on other civil servants.

My view is that with good will on both sides, the Government and the Prison Officers Association should be able to sit down and work out a realistic and cost-effective way to allow prison officers to retire at 60. However, reaching any such agreement would require both sides to enter into meaningful negotiations without prejudice and pre-determined positions. With that in mind, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister agreed to meet the POA, if only to talk about the practicalities of such a negotiation process.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing this important debate, as it highlights the vital role that prison officers play in keeping the public safe and rehabilitating prisoners. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them for their tireless work day in, day out.

Prison staff are vital key workers, with many going above and beyond every day to keep safe the public, their colleagues and those committed by the courts to the care of His Majesty’s Prison and Probations Service. I am always hugely impressed by the commitment of prison staff, who sometimes work in the most challenging of circumstances to turn around offenders’ lives. In so many cases, they manage to do exactly that.

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuous support in representing his constituents on this matter. As he alluded to, his constituency contains three establishments, known as the Sheppey cluster: HM Prisons Elmley, Swaleside and Standford Hill. I know he has met officers in those establishments a number of times, and he continues to show support and convey the messages they rightly give him by discussing the points raised in public forums, such as here in Westminster Hall, and in meetings with Ministers. He is committed, assiduous and, on the subject he has brought forward today, very consistent.

The pension age for prison officers is linked to their pension arrangements. As my hon. Friend said, prison officers are classified as civil servants and are hence members of the civil service pension scheme. The pension age for all members of the civil service pension scheme is set to reflect their state pension age, which is between 65 and 68, depending on their date of birth. It is important to note that the rules and regulations in all public sector pension schemes, including the pension age, are introduced in legislation by His Majesty’s Treasury and applied within the civil service pension scheme by the Cabinet Office. The current pension age in the civil service scheme is set at state pension age, as a result, as my hon. Friend said, of the recommendations made in the 2011 independent Hutton report on the future affordability and sustainability of public sector pension schemes.

The report’s concluding recommendations were that membership of all final salary schemes should be closed and that all active members should be enrolled in a career average scheme, with an increased pension age to reflect their state pension age. Those changes, as colleagues will know, were introduced by the Treasury in the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 and applied to all public sector schemes.

As you know, Mrs Cummins, the civil service is comprised of hundreds of thousands of people, and it is the Government’s duty to ensure that their pension arrangements are fair and affordable, now and for future generations. It is also the duty of the Government to ensure that they meet their wider obligation to manage the public purse.

I want to emphasise that it is recognised, of course, that the role of prison officer is physically demanding. In 2007, the Cabinet Office gave consideration to that prior to the pension age being increased from 60 to 65 for newly recruited civil servants. Its finding was that, as a number of other civil servants had similarly demanding roles—for example, seamen on Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships—a lower pension age could not be justified following comparison with members of other schemes.

I am sure the Minister will appreciate that the POA does not understand the comparison with seafarers, and it is difficult for anybody in the Chamber to do so. Will he respond to the POA’s concern that the Treasury is trying to derail pension age discussions because of its cynical estimation that many prison officers will have to leave before the age of 68 because they will fail their annual fitness test or due to injury or illness? That in itself will save the Treasury money. That deserves a response.

It certainly deserves a response, and I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the points she has made. We want attractive career paths to be available to everybody who works in HM Prison and Probation Service. Those might be different as people go through their working lives, but we want to try to facilitate that as much as possible. I will come to the emphasis that we rightly place on occupational health and helping to support people through those journeys.

Since the introduction of the pension age of 65 for new recruits in 2007, HMPPS has been recruiting new prison officers in their 60s who have passed the fitness test and are undertaking the role safely and securely. As has been mentioned, consideration has also been given to comparisons between the role of prison officer and roles in the emergency services, such as firefighter and police officer, whose pension schemes both have a pension age of 60. Of course, that age had been increased from 55 under the Hutton recommendations.

It is important to note—my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey did note this, and pre-empted me by saying he thought I would say it; he was right—that those in the police and firefighter pension schemes pay more into their pension to allow them to take their pension at the age of 60. Under the civil service scheme, a prison officer contributes, on average, 4.6% of their pensionable pay whereas the rate for the police and firefighter schemes is between 12% and 14% of pensionable pay.

As my hon. Friend also said I would say, in 2013 and 2017, HMPPS worked with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office in making an offer that would have allowed prison officers to purchase a lower pension age, from the state pension age to 65, which was put to them for ballot by their trade union, the POA. The offers made to purchase a lower pension age would have been significantly subsidised by the employer, reducing the additional financial impact on officers. As my hon. Friend also said, those offers were part of a wider package with other reforms and they were rejected at ballot.

Prison officers who are members of one of the legacy civil service final salary schemes retain the right to take formal retirement at the age of 60 and draw the full benefits that they have accrued in their legacy scheme. Many officers who could seek to take their unreduced pension at the age of 60 and retire from the service on that basis have taken the personal decision to continue to work full time, or have taken partial retirement and continued to work in an operational role, but on reduced working hours.

As I was saying a moment ago to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), who represents Plaid Cymru, HMPPS takes very seriously the health and safety of all staff working within the prison estate. Staff have access to onsite care teams and an employee assistance programme, which includes confidential 24-hour support, and they are covered by a wide range of occupational health schemes, which are provided by specialist healthcare professionals. Furthermore, HMPPS has delivered the trauma risk management programme to provide practitioners in every prison, and colleagues in trauma risk management identify staff members who may be struggling after a traumatic event, and offer them onsite support. Those practitioners are trained to identify symptoms and to signpost assistance and support to relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

In August 2022, HMPPS published the employee offer known as “Looking After Our People: The Prison Service Employee Package”. That guide brings together information about career progression, training, benefits and support. It gives an overview of the work being done to make sure that the Prison Service provides the right employment offer for the future and it will be updated every year. HMPPS values career progression and prisons experience, which is why the career pathways framework has been created.

The Minister will know, because it has already been mentioned in the debate, that there is a serious retention and recruitment problem with prison officers. When the Justice Committee recently heard from prison officers, many of them said that they were not looking to remain as prison officers within the Prison Service because of the retirement age. That significant problem needs to be addressed.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I take both recruitment and retention extremely seriously. I was just saying that there is a particular value to experience and we need a mix in our workforce and diversity of all sorts, including diversity of length of tenure and experience, both to share and deploy that experience and to bring on the newer recruits who are coming through. Retaining staff is an incredibly important point.

Many factors affect retention. I accept, of course, that the pension is absolutely part of the blend of remuneration, benefits, working conditions and all the other things that go to determine people’s career choice about whether to stay in a particular role or not. However, what I will say to the hon. Lady is that even with a pension age set to mirror an individual’s state pension age, the civil service scheme is still one of the best pension schemes available. It has one of the very lowest contribution rates across the public sector, at the 4.6% that I have already mentioned, and there is an employer contribution of 27% into the scheme on behalf of the employee. It also has one of the best accrual rates, which is set at 2.32%.

I have always thought of the Minister as a very reasonable man, and he has made a logical case, although I disagree with virtually everything he said. He has basically given the real reasons why the Government and the Prison Officers’ Association should meet to discuss these issues, although there has been a reluctance to do so. Everything he said can be challenged, and I think that constructive discussions between the Prison Officers’ Association—representatives of the people working in the prison—and the Minister and his team would be highly productive. Will he give that commitment before he concludes his speech?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that constructive discussion is always good; that is why we meet here in Westminster Hall and have these debates, and why my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has raised this subject today and on previous occasions. It is absolutely right that Ministers are held to account and answerable. I was just about to raise discussions with the profession and the POA. In my role, I am lucky enough to speak to prison officers frequently, and I am always happy to speak to the POA.

I thank my hon. Friend for consistently representing his constituents and others, and for bringing this important matter to the House. I mean that sincerely. I put on the record again my thanks to and appreciation of the prison officers of all grades and roles who work in the prison estate for the incredibly valuable and irreplaceable work that they do every day.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.