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Prison Officers: Occupational Pension

Volume 822: debated on Thursday 16 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government until what age a newly recruited prison officer must stay in post before they are able to claim their full occupational pension.

My Lords, a newly recruited prison officer may draw the full occupational pension on reaching state pension age, which is between 65 and 68, depending on their date of birth, and must have had at least two years’ membership within the scheme to be entitled to receive a pension.

My Lords, I am 65. In my time, I have undertaken military operations overseas and international aid operations overseas, but I am no longer fit or strong enough to do so—nor could I undertake the duties of a prison officer, including exercising control and restraint over prisoners. Does the Minister think it morally right to ask a prison officer to serve until he is 68 years of age?

My Lords, while the Government acknowledge the challenging environment in which prison officers work, we consider 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.

The Minister referred to challenging conditions in prison. Would he accept that it is a violent environment? Are prison officers who are sick or injured by assault, or who—very importantly—fail the fitness test, entitled to their full retirement pension between the ages of 60 or 68, or is it diminished because they have not reached the retirement age?

My Lords, the noble Lord and I share a background in the criminal justice system, and I am as aware as he is of the potential for violence to be inflicted on prison officers pursuing their duties. When a prison officer is no longer fit to undertake operational duties, and the operational health practitioner confirms that ill-health retirement is appropriate, the officer would be retired due to ill health and may receive in full the pension benefits due to them, calculated up to the last day of service. I acknowledge with gratitude that the noble Lord alerted me to his question in advance, so I was able to seek further background from officials. If there is other material on which he would like me to expand, I can of course speak to him in person, or I can write.

My Lords, prison officers get unfair bad press, and they are undoubtedly badly treated by this Government. There is poor pay and a pension age of 68, as has just been said, all while working in often ultraviolent workplaces. Additionally, the Government cynically exploit those emergency front-line workers by depriving them of the most fundamental employment right of all: the right to strike. Second-rate treatment on pay, pensions and the right to strike is immoral and cannot possibly be justified. Can the Minister explain why prison officers in Scotland, who have the right to strike, are legally allowed to withdraw their labour, while those south of the border are not?

My Lords, in relation to the final matter that the noble Lord raises, in spite of my Scottish background, I regret to say that I am not at this stage able to answer his question directly. However, with his leave I shall look into the divergence between Scotland and England and Wales and revert to him in writing.

Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons why prisons have become so dangerous over the years is that we warehouse people? We do not rehabilitate them: people go in bad and often come out worse. Actually, if we want to quieten the damage and the violence, we need to return to rehabilitation. I speak as someone who was blessed by rehabilitation: it was an essential part of the Prison Service, which it is not now.

My Lords, I beg to differ. The importance of rehabilitation is known. Indeed, as we are on the topic of retirement of prison officers, one of the things that prison officers can do under legacy schemes is retire from the Prison Service, take their pension and go back in at occupational support grades. In that capacity, they can do a number of functions, including working in approved premises, which is the new name for bail hostels. There, their invaluable experience can assist people released into the community under conditions to meet those conditions and attune themselves to a less regulated environment outwith the prison estate. Their service in that regard is valued immensely by the Government and by prison governors.

My Lords, I note that I was a member of the board of visitors at HM Prison Pentonville. Why have the Government not placed UK prison officers in line with front-line emergency workers in the police and the fire brigade who can retire at the age of 60 and claim their full occupational pension, instead of having to reach 68 years of age?

My Lords, I am sure the House will join me in acknowledging my noble friend’s service as a prison visitor. Although it is the case that police and fire service schemes have a lower retirement age of 60, employees in those professions contribute significantly more of their salary to their pensions—12% for police officers and 14% for firefighters —whereas prison officers pay only 5.4% of their income into their pension schemes. That is significant, because it is that level of contribution which allows actuarial assessment of the impact of retirement of officers.

My Lords, the safety and security of prison officers and prisoners is clearly essential if prisons are to be effective, including, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, pointed out, in terms of rehabilitation. We are losing experienced prison officers, yet the Government’s response, that prison officers work later than many other services, until they are 68, is not the way to address this. I do not think the Minister answered the Question of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, which was very specific: until what age must a newly recruited prison officer stay in post before they are able to claim their full occupational pension? In effect, how many years must a prison officer be in post to receive their full pension? It is quite clear for the fire service and for the police, but we have not had that information for the Prison Service. Can he provide it?

A prison officer can retire at an age between 65 and 68. That is now in line, according to the alpha scheme under which prison pensions are paid. A person on the scheme must have had at least two years’ membership within the scheme to be able to receive a pension.

My Lords, when answering a previous question, my noble friend said that somebody retired early on grounds of ill health may receive the full pension. There is a degree of difference between “may” and “must”, so what will be the conditions?

My Lords, it is dependent on the assessment carried out by occupational health as to the person’s capacity.

My Lords, I am sorry to come back to the Minister but I asked him specifically about the full pension and he has answered only for “a pension”. There is a difference between receiving a pension, which will be a reduced pension, and a full pension. Will he tell me, if he has the answer, how long it is for a full pension? If he does not, will he write to me and place a copy of the letter in the Library?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her clarification of the point, which perhaps was obvious to your Lordships at the outset. As I understand it, it will be a matter of occupational health assessment. I will clarify that position and write to the noble Baroness, as she requests.

My Lords, this change, this diminution of the pension rights of prison officers, was one of the impacts of the Hutton review, which affected all public service employees in different ways—including significant cutbacks. Recently, the Pensions Minister suggested that the Government were seeking to make public service pensions even worse. This may have been freelancing on behalf of the Pensions Minister, and maybe this is outside the noble Lord’s brief, but was this a serious proposition? When will the Government make it plain what their policy is in relation to public service pensions?

My Lords, the noble Lord anticipated that this would lie outwith my brief. I regret to say that I am not in possession of the terms of the statement to which the noble Lord referred by the Prisons Minister in the other place—

The Pensions Minister —in that case, my information is even further away from what the noble Lord asked, so I will, with his leave, have to revert to him on that point in writing.