The hon. Lady and I have sat down and discussed this matter with the unions. We are determined to make sure that we have safe and appropriate ways to protect prison officers, which is why we have piloted PAVA at four sites, two of which I have now visited. We are currently completing an equalities assessment, and we should be in a position to begin the full roll-out in April.
I thank the Minister for that answer, which is good news. I hope he will keep in mind that a significant proportion of prisoners expressed the view that PAVA is necessary, so I hope he will give me a guarantee that he will stick to his word and that this vital protective equipment will be rolled out soon in the spring.
Absolutely. As the hon. Lady will bear in mind, we have to be thoughtful about how we use this spray. It is there to deal with issues of extreme violence. This type of pepper spray is a new measure, and we have to be particularly clear when we use it against people with protected characteristics, which is why we are conducting the assessment. I believe that once we have conducted it, this will mean less extreme violence in prisons.
In the past 12 months, there were more than 10,000 assaults on staff in our prison service, which is more than one every hour and represents a 30% increase year on year. Clearly that is unacceptable, and it is having a deterrent effect on the recruitment of prison officers, who are so important in keeping prisoners and other staff safe. How is the Department doing on the recruitment of additional staff to make up for the 7,000 who have been lost?
The answer is that recruitment has gone quite well. We now have 4,700 additional officers; we have more than we have had at any time since March 2012, so we are at the highest level for seven years.
Taking into account the fact that prison officers are allowed to claim for compensation for only three attacks throughout their career, will the Minister outline his opinion on the abuse that prison officers are expected to take as part of their jobs, which would be unacceptable in any other job?
The important thing is to begin by paying a huge tribute to prison officers, who are doing an incredibly important job. They are probably one of the most important operational bits of any public service, and we owe them a huge duty of care. We have to make sure that the drugs and weapons do not get in. We have doubled the sentence for people assaulting prison officers, and I am happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman to talk about this in more detail.