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Prisons: Staff

Volume 779: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the recruitment and retention of prison staff in private prisons, and prisons outside London and the South East.

My Lords, private providers are obliged to maintain sufficient staff to ensure that prisoners and staff are safe and secure. We monitor performance against measures specified in the contract. High application volumes are generally received for prison officer and other vacancies in prisons outside London and the south-east, most of which have relatively low levels of staff turnover.

My Lords, there are prisons outside the south-east that have acute staffing difficulties, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, where the problems have been exacerbated for some years by staff being sent on detached duty to southern jails. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government are addressing that issue? What assessment have the Government made of the impact of the new terms being offered to London and the south on recruitment by private prisons such as Birmingham and Northumberland, where already the low numbers of staff have led to serious, indeed shocking, incidents?

As the noble Lord acknowledged, we have taken steps to improve the rate of recruitment in the south-east, and London in particular, by introducing a range of financial incentives. That is because in these areas there is considerable employment competition. That does not apply to the same extent in the north-east and north-west. Indeed, application rates in that part of the country are considerably higher than they are in the other parts of the country. Accordingly, it is not anticipated that these incentives, directed to particular areas where there are difficulties of recruitment, will have an adverse impact elsewhere.

My Lords, should we not look again at the whole question of private prisons? There are many people who feel that the incarceration and looking after of prisoners is the duty of the state and should not be farmed out?

I am obliged to my noble friend. The state has many duties and obligations, many of which are successfully contracted out to independent contractors, as they are in the case of prisons.

Will the Minister tell the House about the position of recruitment for the new prison, HM Prison Berwyn in Wrexham, north east Wales, which is not a private prison? Will he say how recruitment is progressing and to what extent that is being met by transfers from within the system and by recruitment from outside the system?

As I understand it, recruitment at the new prison is progressing in a satisfactory way and will be done in a staged manner. We will not, of course, suddenly introduce a large number of prisoners into a new prison at one time. I do not understand that there has been any need to recruit from elsewhere within the prison establishment, but I recognise that there are difficulties across the prison establishment, not only with recruitment but with retention of experienced officers. Of course, we are always looking at ways to innovate and deal with that matter. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned the possibility of golden handcuffs—which might be particularly appropriate in the case of prison officers.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how long prison officers are trained for and what are the core skills and competences which they are expected to have at the end of that training?

I am not in a position to give details on the scope of core skills, but I undertake to write to the noble Baroness setting them out. I understand that there is an initial training period of five weeks—but, again, I will seek to secure confirmation of that and, if I have to correct it, I will again write to her on that point. I will add that, once prison officers are trained, there is a process of mentoring once they begin full-time engagement as a prison officer.

My Lords, in HMP Northumberland, which is run by Sodexo and was exposed recently by “Panorama”, there was a 40% drop in staff from 2010 to 2013, and numbers have continued to fall since Sodexo took over in 2013. What specific requirements does the department impose on contractors in relation to staffing levels and training in private prisons, and do the Government have any plans to make those requirements more rigorous?

The position with regard to private prisons is, as I indicated before, that private providers are contractually obliged to maintain a sufficient level of staff to ensure safety and security within the prison, but particular numbers and ratios are not specified by the Government in those contracts. Those contracts are of course monitored.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many reserve prison officers have been recruited, from the proposal made by the previous Government’s Chief Secretary?

Does my noble friend agree that the vital work of prison officers is powerfully reinforced by voluntary initiatives such as that recently launched by the SPCK to raise literacy significantly among prisoners?

Clearly, the primary function of our prisons is education and reform, which is why we look at prisons not in isolation but in the context of a further social need to ensure through-the-gate services for prisoners.