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Prison Officer Recruitment

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2018

Skilled professional prison officers are absolutely heart and centre of running good prisons. That is why we have committed to recruiting 2,500 extra prison officers. I am pleased to say that we are now nine months ahead of target on delivering those prison officers.

I of course welcome the fact that the Government are making progress in recruiting extra prison officers, but will the Minister reassure the House that he is making every effort to retain the services of experienced and long-serving officers who are absolutely essential for mentoring new recruits into the service?

Absolutely. As my hon. Friend points out, this is not just about numbers. Working in a prison is incredibly challenging, and having the experience and the prison craft to do it is vital, so we are putting incentive schemes in place to try to retain our most experienced staff and to understand, when they do leave, why they are doing so.

There is a huge opportunity for rehabilitation in prisons, which is often not taken. What rehabilitative capacity will this increase in prison officers create?

The central objective of bringing in 2,500 extra prison officers is to allow us to pair each individual prison officer with six prisoners, which allows them to develop their individual personal relationship over time through weekly meetings to achieve exactly the rehabilitative and educational objectives needed to reduce reoffending and protect the public.

The redevelopment of Wellingborough prison will provide many new employment opportunities for people across Northamptonshire, including in my constituency, but what are the Government doing to attract local people into the profession and to encourage them to stay in the role—including, for example, former members of the armed forces?

I am very pleased that this has been raised. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, almost 40% of prison officers traditionally came from the armed forces, but that number has fallen. We are now working very closely with the Ministry of Defence to explain what an interesting career this can be, and we are doing a lot of advertising. But the most important thing we can do is remind people that, as we have all seen when meeting prison officers, although it is a very challenging and sometimes quite difficult career it also can be a deeply fulfilling one, and we would like to encourage many more people to come forward into the profession.

15. What effect does the Minister think the shortage of prison officers has on the number of suicides and the amount of self-harm in prisons? (904202)

There are a number of drivers of suicide and self-harm, of which the number of staff is one. There are other questions around the estate, but probably the largest single driver that we have seen since 2011 is the use of new psychotropic drugs that are creating extraordinary psychotic episodes and leading to a direct increase in violence. We must address those drugs.

The Government’s recruitment drive is welcome, but is it not true that we are just now catching up? The number of staff at Feltham young offenders institution in my constituency has fallen by a third, from 600 in 2013 to 461, which has had a huge impact on the governor and staff. The institution has been deemed unsafe for both staff and prisoners. Is it not time that the Government committed to working closely with staff and the Prison Officers Association to tackle this crisis and ensure that we get back on track with rehabilitation for young offenders?

One hundred per cent.—we will be working very closely with prison officers for exactly that reason. As the hon. Lady points out, we must get the numbers right. Those 2,500 extra prison officers will be vital in order to get the 1:6 ratio needed for rehabilitation.

I have listened carefully this morning to the Secretary of State talking about high-security prisons. Ministers talk of finally starting to address the crisis that they made by axing so many prison officers, yet over a third of high-security prisons have actually seen a fall in the number of prison officers since the Department’s so-called recruitment drive began. Will the Minister guarantee that these high-security prisons will have more staff by the next Justice questions?

One of the challenges around the high-security estate, particularly in places such as London, has been the employment opportunities. We have put new incentives in place—a signing-on bonus and a retention bonus—to recruit people in London. I am not in a position to guarantee the employment market exactly, but we are making a lot of progress—for example, in recruitment to the high-security Belmarsh Prison in London.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but nearly one in four prisons has seen prison officer numbers fall since the Government’s recruitment drive began. Moving on, we have another problem of very experienced officers leaving the service, creating a dangerous cocktail of inexperienced officers and experienced prisoners. In the last year alone, 1,000 prison officers with more than five years’ experience each have left the service. That is the equivalent of more than 5,000 years of experience in the Prison Service lost in the last year alone. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be more prison officers will five years’ experience at the end of the year than there are now?

The hon. Gentleman’s fundamental point is right: we need experienced prison officers. It is very difficult working in a prison. We can bring in huge numbers of new junior staff, but it will be difficult to get the kind of results we need unless they have experience. We therefore have a plan whereby we have targeted the prisons that are losing the most experienced officers and we are understanding why that is happening. We are both working with the staff and putting in place financial incentives to retain experienced staff.

22. The new recruits are certainly welcome, but senior officers are also important. I am told that on certain grades, prison staff acting up to higher roles are paid more than if they accepted the actual promotion. This acts as a disincentive to staff looking to take on more responsibility. Will my hon. Friend look into this anomaly? (904209)

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend, particularly on prisons and advocating for the prison population in her constituency. It is absolutely true that there is a strange anomaly in the human resources procedure, and we must tackle it. It cannot make sense that people are paid more to act up than to occupy the role. We want people to have career development and we will focus on the issue immediately.