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Prison Officers: Working Conditions

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the working conditions of prison officers.

Before I begin, I should explain that I have three prisons in my constituency, and I have raised regularly in this House issues that concern people working in them. As I have done on many other occasions, I pay tribute to the fantastic men and women who work in Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside on the Isle of Sheppey. I am immensely proud of those dedicated, hard-working professionals, who work in an extremely challenging environment, facing the threat of violence almost daily with few complaints and a great deal of courage.

Violence is not the only issue that concerns prison staff—I intend to talk about numerous other issues later —but I will start by addressing it. Ministry of Justice figures show that violence in our prisons is at its highest level since records began. In the last quarter, there were 21,270 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, of which 3,029 were serious. At the same time, there were 8,429 assaults on prison staff, of which 864 were serious. In one quarter alone, about 4,000 serious assaults took place. Given the nature of what constitutes a serious assault, I suspect many were carried out using some form of offensive weapon.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 made it an offence to be in possession in prison of an offensive weapon, so I would expect action to have been taken against those assailants. However, during 2015 and 2016, there were just 149 prosecutions, which hardly seems to be a deterrent to potential troublemakers. Such a low prosecution rate means that offenders know that if they attack a prison officer, they will probably get away with little more than a slapped wrist.

The lack of prosecutions against violent prisoners by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service has been a long-standing bugbear of mine. I have pointed out on a number of occasions—I make no apology for doing so again—that if a police officer is attacked while on duty, the full weight of the law rightly comes down on the attacker. However, if a prison officer is attacked while on duty, too often nothing happens. That cannot be right.

There are a number of reasons for the increase in violence, and I will touch on a few of them. There has been an increase in organised crime in prisons. I have heard stories of prisoners resorting to violence to avoid the risk of early release because their criminal activities in prison are so lucrative. There has also been an increase in the number of gangs in prisons: they are behind much of the organised crime, including the supply of drugs, which is big business.

The use of drugs in prisons is a huge problem, as I am sure we are all aware. A steady supply is smuggled in by visitors, corrupt prison staff and, increasingly, drones. My local prisons have introduced drone-exclusion zones, but they have no real means of enforcing the ban. The problem will be solved only by installing in every prison a system to detect, track and jam drones before they reach their destination.

Another concern is the increased incidence of prisoners smoking Spice and other harmful drugs in their cells. When prison officers enter the cell, they are at risk of harm from inhaling the lingering smoke. I know of a young prison officer in one of my prisons who was seriously affected by the inhalation of Spice fumes and had to be sent home because he was so ill. To counter that, gas masks should be made available to prison officers who enter cells in which it is suspected that an inmate has been smoking harmful substances, such as Spice. Stemming the flow of drugs is essential, and prison officers believe that the task of detecting drugs will be improved by the use of more sniffer dogs in prisons. I urge the Minister to consider that.

Drugs are not the only issue making the management of our prisons difficult. Mobile phones are also a big problem, as they are used to conduct much of the illicit business in prisons. People perhaps do not realise that mobile phones can be used to take photographs of prison officers, which can be sent to contacts outside the prison, who then intimidate them. The Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012 was supposed to help solve that problem by allowing phone signals to be blocked, but I understand that there have been difficulties implementing the Act. That is why I welcome the new Bill going through Parliament, with Government support, which will make it easier to prevent the use of mobile phones in prisons.

Combating prison violence can be problematic for a number of reasons, including the lack of control in some prisons. For instance, the Prison Officers Association alleges that prison managers sometimes fail to stick to the agreed regime management plans, which are put in place to set out work practices based on the number of officers available at any given time. The POA claims that some prison managers ignore RMPs because they fear the reaction of prisoners if they are not allowed out of their cells, even if there are not sufficient prison officers to supervise them. That leads to too many prisoners being unlocked without proper supervision. I should add that there is no evidence that that is happening in my three prisons.

That leads me nicely to another problem: the lack of prison officers. The Prison Service is in the process of recruiting more officers. Like the POA, I welcome that recruitment drive, but the influx of new recruits has presented its own challenges. Under benchmarking, the Prison Service lost thousands of experienced prison officers. They have been replaced with young, inexperienced officers, who are being asked to manage increasingly violent prisoners. We must do our bit by giving them the tools they need to do their job safety and effectively. One such tool is PAVA—pelargonic acid vanillylamide—which is similar to a pepper spray and is widely used in the police force. The Prison Service is piloting the PAVA in four prisons, and the results have been extremely positive.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I rise as the co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group. He made a comparison with police forces. I have taken part in the police service parliamentary scheme, which enables MPs to gain a fuller understanding of the nature of the work that we expect public servants, including prison officers, to do. Will the Minister consider establishing in prisons something along the lines of the police service parliamentary scheme so that Members of Parliament can go into that environment? I appreciate it is very dangerous, but we could none the less learn much from it and take away much that would be of benefit to our public servants.

I welcome that intervention, and I will talk about that issue later in my speech.

I met my local police chief inspector, who happens to be a very small woman, and she said that, without PAVA, she would not be able to do her job on the beat. Between November 2017 and February 2018, HMP Bedford recorded 23 assaults on staff, of which two were classified as serious, whereas, HMP Preston, which has a larger prison population, recorded just eight assaults on staff, of which one was classified as serious. It cannot be a coincidence that, during that period, officers in Preston were issued with PAVA, but those in Bedford were not. The use of PAVA seems to be a no-brainer. I urge the Minister to roll out its use and issue PAVA to all prison officers in all prisons without delay. I would also like to see made available to prison officers rigid handcuffs, radios and body-worn video cameras.

The environment in our prisons gives rise to another big concern. Unlike police officers and firefighters, prison officers have to work until they are 66 years old. Over time, that will increase to 68.

My hon. Friend is coming on to changing the pensionable age for prison officers. Recently, I visited HMP Dumfries in my constituency and was most impressed by the prison officers and the standard of their work. They expressed concern about the pensionable age being 68—as they put it, 68 is too late. I agree with them. Not everyone is physically robust at that age and, if they are not, does my hon. Friend agree that those prison officers should be found jobs in offices so that they need not be on the frontline?

I certainly agree with that, but the problem is, what happens when the administrative jobs run out? What do we do with them then? I think there is another solution. Police officers and firefighters have dangerous and physical jobs, which is why they are allowed to retire early. Prison officers, too, have dangerous, physical jobs. I believe that the time has come to allow them the same rights as their colleagues in the police force and the fire service.

I have a number of personal case studies from prison officers at the prison in my constituency. One of the issues that they have flagged up is that changes have, in effect, blocked their ability to be promoted, because to accept promotion, officers have to sign up to the lesser conditions, so we are losing the experienced officers whom we so need to run our prisons. Is my hon. Friend aware of that and does he share those concerns?

Yes and yes. That is just another example of the way in which those in the Prison Service—prison officers in particular but also other prison staff—are treated as second-class citizens of the public service. It is time for us to treat them in exactly the same way as police officers and firefighters.

Equalising the retirement age, for example, would help to make the role of a prison officer more attractive, as would increasing the salary structure. It is difficult to recruit prison staff because they are paid less than other public sector workers, such as border staff. A lot of prison officers who leave the service become border staff. Is it any wonder that a very small minority of corrupt prison officers are tempted to earn money on the side by turning a blind eye to criminal activity in prisons?

As I have pointed out before in the House, it is particularly difficult to attract staff to work in Sheppey’s prisons, because local people can earn more working in a warehouse than they can working in a prison. I believe that my prison staff are worth more money, and they should be paid what they are worth. There is also a frustration among prison officers that they are seen simply as turnkeys. That, too, is wrong. They are not jailers. They are not prison guards. They are prison officers. They should be treated with the respect that their position deserves.

One way to enhance esteem for prison officers would be to make better use of them in other roles, such as in the provision of education and healthcare to prisoners. An inmate is more likely to respect a prison officer if they know that that officer is helping them in some way. That is simply human nature.

I am not expecting—surprise, surprise—the Minister to wave a magic wand and to deliver immediately all the measures that I have suggested. However, it would be nice if he at least acknowledged the important role of prison officers and pledged to start some of the reforms needed to make their working conditions better.

Finally, I have another special request to make of the Minister—the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) touched on this earlier. I was invited by my local prison officers to spend a day with them on the frontline. I agreed straightaway. I thought it would be a good way of understanding better the conditions in which they work. But I made one condition: I would join them only if I was able to wear a uniform and to be treated in the same way as a prison officer, so I could really know what was going on at the coalface. I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members with prisons in their constituencies would like to do the same. Unfortunately, the Prison Service ruled that I would not be allowed to take part in such an exercise. I would be really grateful if the Minister encouraged the National Offender Management Service to change its mind.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). It is important for the Houses of Parliament to focus on prisons and in particular on the service of prison officers. As my hon. Friend pointed out in his substantial and eloquent speech—he is extremely well informed, with three prisons in his constituency—and indeed as my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) and for Henley (John Howell), and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) pointed out in their interventions, we have a very strong debt of obligation towards our prison officers. Prison officers are very unusual uniformed public servants. They generally operate outside the public eye, and prisons are not places that the public generally visit. That is why I wish to come on to that good idea of a parliamentary scheme suggested by hon. Members.

The job of prison officers is very unusual. On the one hand, it has some of the features of the job of the police, in so far as they are dealing with criminals and therefore with a lot of violence and trauma but, on the other, a particular set of skills is also required. Unlike a police officer, a prison officer may often see the same individual hour after hour, day after day, week after week and even year after year, having to provide a moral exemplar for such individuals on their journey towards ceasing reoffending. Prison officers are helping to educate and support them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey pointed out, in everything from healthcare through to employment.

The challenge presented by my hon. Friend is what we can do practically to help prison officers in their daily work—and, my goodness, they face a challenging situation.

I am fascinated by the idea of providing opportunities for Members of Parliament to work in prisons. I happen to be the deputy chairman of the Industry and Parliament Trust. Will the Minister work with me to see whether the trust might develop a form of fellowship to take the idea forward?

My hon. Friend makes a very generous offer. We are incredibly interested in that, but the real thing that we need to make the idea work is Members of Parliament prepared to do it. If the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and even my hon. Friend the Member for Henley are interested in being part of a parliamentary scheme, we really have got something to take to the head of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service: I can say not just that this is a theoretical idea, but that we have real, living Members of Parliament who are genuinely interested. We can set up a pilot scheme, learn from what happens in the armed forces and the police service parliamentary schemes, and look at the potential support suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. That would be an incredibly useful thing.

For anyone listening to the debate who is not aware of such schemes, the amazing idea behind the armed forces and police parliamentary schemes is that Members of Parliament can see for themselves what people are going through on the frontline. In fact, legislation considered on Friday, partly on behalf of the police, was driven in part by the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who had been on the police scheme and had been inspired by seeing the action of police officers. So the scheme has changed legislation here in Parliament.

To accelerate, what useful things can we do for prison officers, apart from paying tribute to them for their extraordinary service, intelligence, commitment, honour, loyalty, courage and resilience, and for the way in which they work with unsociable hours and difficult people? Concretely, there are three different types of thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey touched on terms and conditions, but that I will not touch on today, because we are in confidential discussions with the public sector pay review body, looking at exactly the issues raised, such as those of how we move people from the pre-existing closed-term contracts to the new fair and sustainable contract, and the difference in salary compared with other employment opportunities.

To give one small example, of which my hon. Friend is probably aware, in the Isle of Sheppey we pay an increased amount to attract people away from competing professions, such as in transport or the police, to get them to work in the Prison Service. There is much more to be said about that, but I want to talk concretely about the equipment that we can bring in to try to make a prison officer’s life better. We talked about PAVA spray—pepper spray, in other words. My hon. Friend also talked about the introduction of rigid handcuffs and discussed other equipment being proposed, including suggestions for stab-proof vests, body-worn cameras, which we are rolling out across the estate, and CCTV. All that will increase the confidence of the prison officer in dealing with the prisoner.

We also need to be able to prosecute prisoners who assault prisoner officers. We were very proud, on Friday, to be able to double the maximum sentence for anybody who assaults a prison officer from six months to 12 months. But that requires the Crown Prosecution Service to bring those prosecutions. Too often, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there has been an attitude that, somehow, assaulting a prison officer is different from assaulting a police officer on the street.

That is a particularly sore point with me. The CPS standpoint has always been that it is not in the public interest to prosecute a prisoner who is already in prison. It may not be, but it is certainly in the interest of the staff who have to suffer those assaults.

It is 100% in the public interest to prosecute prisoners who assault prisoner officers. If they are not prosecuted, the authority of the state is undermined; it becomes almost impossible for prison officers to run a decent and human regime, very difficult for people to be unlocked from their cells and difficult to move people into education and purposeful activity.

If the education and purposeful activity and the decent and safe environment of the prisoner are not delivered, the prisoner is much more likely to reoffend when they leave that prison. That is a direct threat to public safety; therefore, as my hon. Friend implies, the Crown Prosecution Service must prosecute prisoners for attacking prison officers. We owe that to prison officers, but we also owe it to the public as a whole to have safe, clean and decent prisons. These are our prisons; in the end, prisoners are citizens who come out and reoffend on the streets. We have to restore discipline.

My hon. Friend spoke about drugs and the importation of mobile telephones. In the end, those issues can be dealt with. There are basically only five ways in which mobile telephones or drugs can get into a prison—after all, there is a fence around the prison. They can be thrown into the prison, flown into a prison, dragged into a prison, posted into a prison or carried into a prison. Every single one of these ways needs to be addressed.

We address the issue of people flying things into prisons by tackling drones; of people throwing things into prisons by the use of nets and proper yard searching; of people dragging things into prison by identifying the wire set-ups that run into prison windows; and of people posting things into prison—for example, a letter impregnated with Spice so it can be smoked can be photocopied. But we have not been good enough in England for nearly 40 years is searching humans going in and out of prisons.

Scotland is different. I venture to suggest that it is not a coincidence that the violence and drug rates have been lower in Scottish prisons and that there has been much more regular routine searching of people going in and out of Scottish prisons. I do not think that is an accident. I would be very interested in working with the Prison Service to pilot in 10 prisons increasing the security and routine searching at the gate, to see what would happen. But that will not be enough—many other things need to happen. At the core are people: the prison officers themselves.

There is no point in my standing here and pontificating about the Prison Service because there are more than 100 prisons. With the best will in the world, even if I visited two prisons a week, I would not be able to visit them all in a year. There are more than 20,000 prison officers and 84,000 prisoners. In the end, good prisons depend on good people. That is about recruiting, training and promoting the right kind of people and managing people in the right way.

How do we recruit the right kind of people? We search for exactly the values we are looking for. We train them by focusing on institutions such as Newbold Revel, the prison officer training college, to make sure people feel proud of being prison officers. I am very interested in reintroducing the passing out parade—getting families in to applaud people as they graduate from that training college, so that they feel they are extraordinary public servants, protecting our nation through their work. They need to feel that in their uniform, in their passing-out parade and in every day of their work.

We need to get the training right when people enter, and when people move into the custodial manager role. We need to think about how supervisory officers on the units, even if they do not have formal line management responsibilities, can mentor and drive those young, inexperienced staff. In many prisons, 60% to 65% of prison officers have been there for less than a year; we need supervisory officers to be able to work with them, to give them the confidence and the jailcraft to manage those prisons.

Then, we need to think about what happens at the governor level. How do we make sure that we do not end up in the situation that my hon. Friend found in a prison in his constituency, where there were four governors in five years? We need governors to stay longer in the prisons. We need them to be formally trained before they arrive in those prisons. One of the key determining features in trying to work out why one prison is performing well and another is not has to do with questions that are very difficult to put on paper. We sit here and look at staff numbers, drug levels and the age of the building, but the biggest constant is always the human factor: the culture of that prison and the prison officers, the nature of the leadership and management, the morale of the place and the way in which people work together.

This has been a really important debate. From our point of view in Parliament, we are very proud that there are three Bills on their way through the House of Commons that will help prison officers. One of them is doubling the maximum sentence for assaulting a prison officer. We have another Bill going through that will focus on new psychoactive substances and testing of drugs in prison. We have a third Bill going through the House that focuses on excluding mobile telephones from prisons.

Legislation on its own is not enough. It is about public understanding and support for one of the most unique, precious and impressive services that we have in the United Kingdom. That is why I believe that the proposal, made today by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, of a parliamentary scheme focused on telling Members of Parliament about the Prison Service will be an enormous help in getting legislators to understand how much our prisons matter to our society and, above all, understanding how much we owe our prison officers.

I congratulate the Minister on an outstanding speech, made just from schematic light notes.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.