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Prisons: Working Environments and Violence at Work

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

1. What steps his Department is taking to help (a) create safer working environments in prisons and (b) support prison staff who are victims of violence at work. (901679)

We are committed to making prisons a safe place in which to work and providing prison officers with the right support, training and tools to empower them to do their jobs. Our prison officers are the hidden heroes of the criminal justice system; they do great work, keeping the public safe every single day.

I am grateful for that answer from my right hon. Friend, and I hope he would acknowledge that prison officers work in a dangerous and violent environment. I urge him to take this opportunity to acknowledge also that expecting them to work in such a violent environment until they are 68 is wholly unacceptable. Will he commit to an urgent review of how the pension age for prison officers can be reduced so that it reflects that of other public sector workers in similar challenging environments, such as police officers and firefighters, who are able to retire at 60?

I appreciate the challenge that my hon. Friend fairly makes, and I would say a couple of things on that. First, anybody who is violent towards staff will face the full consequences of their actions and should be properly, effectively and swiftly dealt with—we will ensure that they are. On the age issue, all prison officers who joined the service after April 2001 go through and have to pass an annual fitness test. Obviously, that applies to prison officers over the age of 65, and even some of the people who have applied for those roles at that age range have passed the fitness test and are performing their roles effectively. The service, and the prisoners themselves, can benefit from people with that level of experience, who play an important part as key members of the team.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is not just the prison officers who feel the pain of the attacks and what happens to them—the families do, too. What is being done to help the families, not only of those who are suffering physically, but of those who are perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder coming out of prisons?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as he often does in this House; we focus on the frontline service personnel, such as our brilliant prison officers, but their families and friends pick up on this, as they are the people who work with them and are in their social lives and family lives. We do provide post-incident support through our care teams, trauma risk management teams and the work associated with occupational health. Obviously, there is also counselling for staff who are impacted by violence in the workplace. The best way we can crack down on this is by being very clear that that kind of behaviour simply will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, may I welcome the Secretary of State to his place and indeed welcome his colleagues on the Government Front Bench?

Uncontrolled violence in prisons is a key reason officers leave their jobs nearly as quickly as Tory Chancellors. One in four prison officers now quit their job within a year of starting, which damages the supervision of prisoners, leaving victims’ families sickened to see Stephen Lawrence’s killer bragging about using a mobile phone in his cell and the murderer Sean Mercer running a drugs empire from behind bars. When will the Government get back control of our prisons?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial remarks in welcoming our team to our places. I am sure that there will be a range of issues on which, across this Dispatch Box and away from it, we will be able to work together for the benefit of the safety of the public. Obviously, I also look forward to our exchanges here at the Dispatch Box.

We know that there is a link between staffing levels and prison violence, which is why we are continuing to strengthen the frontline. We have seen an increase in the number of prison officers from under 18,000 to almost 22,000; we have some 3,770 more full-time officers. He has also highlighted a couple of incidents. I agree that they are completely unacceptable, which is why I have initiated a review to ensure that those kinds of situations cannot happen again. People need to understand that if they are in prison, they are there for a reason: to keep the public safe. We will make sure that they are.

We might need to speed up; if we take eight minutes on one question, it is going to take time.