(4 months, 2 weeks ago)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the pension age of prison officers.
Police offers, firefighters and prison officers are all classified as emergency workers. They all do an extremely important job, and their work is physically demanding and often involves an element of risk and danger. Because of that, police officers and firefighters, quite rightly, are allowed to retire at 60 years of age. However, prison officers, who work in an equally stressful operational environment, have been told that they must wait until they are 68. That is not right. In fact, it is patently unfair and deeply resented by the hard-working prison officers in the three prisons in my constituency. I am not surprised by that, because the prospect of having to work until almost 70 years of age adds to the stress of what is already a stressful job.
From the point of view of health and safety at work, there is a clear argument for reducing the retirement age of prison officers, but I believe there is another equally good reason to bring their pensions into line with those of their colleagues in the police and fire and rescue services. Last week, at the Conservative party conference, the Home Secretary made an excellent speech in which she made it clear that Government would crack down on serious crime. That commitment resonates with the public, particularly those who have been victims of such crime, because they want tough action. However, inevitably, such a crackdown will lead to more criminals being sent to prison.
Also last week, the Justice Secretary made a speech in which he made clear his determination to ensure that those who have been convicted of serious crimes will have to serve two thirds of their sentence, rather than the half that they currently serve. Although both initiatives are highly commendable, they will put pressure on already-stretched prison places. That is likely to mean that more prisons will have to be built. If that happens, I have a couple of suggestions. First, finding a suitable location for a new prison is always difficult, because few communities like the idea of having a prison in their backyard. Those of us who live on the beautiful Isle of Sheppey understand the benefits of having a prison, and particularly the work involved. As I mentioned, we have three prisons and plenty of room for more, so we will have another prison if the Government want to build one on the island, subject to improvements to the road that leads to them.
My second suggestion is offered more in hope than with any great expectation that it will be taken up. The Government should abandon their support for private prisons and ensure that any new prisons be run by the public sector. Do not get me wrong—I am a free-market Tory who believes that there is a place for the private sector in the prison service, for instance in catering, education, training and rehabilitation.
I have a couple of examples of the positive involvement of the private sector in the latter of those fields. A private construction company has set up a workshop in HMP Elmley, in my constituency, to train inmates how to install drywalls in buildings. The company guarantees that everyone who completes the course will be offered an interview when they leave prison. Obviously, that does not automatically mean a job, but an interview is the first step. I visited the workshop as part of the Prison Service parliamentary scheme, of which I am a member. I was impressed by the positive attitude of the inmates who were being trained. One of them told me that the training had turned his life around. Also in my constituency is HMP Standford Hill, an open prison where more than 250 inmates are allowed out every day, to do either voluntary work in the community with charities or paid work in one of the local companies that have agreed to employ them.
Those are just two ways in which the private and third sectors can help to rehabilitate prisoners. There are many other examples, but I do not have time to mention them all. Despite those excellent examples of involvement by the private sector, the supervision and care of prisoners should be the sole responsibility of the public sector, for two reasons.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I also have a prison in my constituency, since Deerbolt was upgraded from a young offenders institution to a prison. I agree that a lot of positive work goes on in prisons, but is he not concerned by the increase in violent attacks against prison officers in recent years? Does he not agree that that is another reason why 68 is too late?
The hon. Lady must have been listening to Justice questions this morning, when I said exactly that. Since she has a prison in her constituency, I urge her to join the Prison Service parliamentary scheme. If she will bear with me, I will come to the issue of violence in prisons later.
My first reason is that the state has a duty to protect the public. That is why it is the state that prosecutes those suspected of committing a crime, and the state—only the state—that locks up those who are found guilty. That being the case, I do not believe that the state can subcontract the incarceration of those prisoners to the private sector. That leads me to my second reason—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will just give my second reason, which is that allowing private companies to make a profit out of the incarceration of human beings is simply immoral.
Before the hon. Lady’s intervention, I remind hon. Members that the debate is tightly focused on the pension age of prison officers, and I hope that interventions and contributions will focus just on that.
Thank you, Mr Hanson; I will do a quick swerve. On the point about private prisons and the influence of private companies, does the hon. Gentleman agree that privatising probation—the state’s care for people on probation—was the wrong thing to do?
No, I do not. They are two entirely different issues. When people are on probation, they have either completed their sentence or they have not yet—[Interruption.] We will have to disagree on that.
If new prisons are built, the Government will have to recruit many more prison officers to staff them. In my area, it has often proven difficult to recruit enough prison officers. I am sure that that applies to many other areas, particularly in south-east England. There are a number of reasons for that difficulty, including the relatively poor salary offered to prison officers, their working conditions, their retirement age and the rising level of violence in our prisons.
The average salary of a prison officer is £23,530 per annum. The problem in my constituency is that people can earn more than that working in one or other of the two supermarket regional warehouses that operate there. There are also plenty of other well-paid jobs in the pipeline locally, and people can commute to London. Those available jobs are more attractive because they provide better working conditions than those of a prison officer.
What are those working conditions? For a start, prison staff are almost as much prisoners as the inmates they look after. Day and night, they work inside buildings surrounded by fences and high-security walls. In addition, prison officers spend their days dealing with inmates who do not want to be where they are. Unsurprisingly, that can make them unco-operative, aggressive and sometimes violent. To add to the problem, an increasing number of inmates have mental health problems.
All in all, that does not make for a happy work environment, and the situation in prisons is getting worse, with ever increasing violence. On average, 30 members of prison staff are assaulted every day. Last year, 1,000 of those assaults were classified by the Government as serious. I know what serious means, because I have seen at first hand the results of some of those assaults, including broken bones, dreadful facial injuries and fingers that have been bitten off.
To try to cut out those assaults, the Prison Officers Association has called repeatedly for frontline prison officers to be equipped with PAVA spray and rigid police-style handcuffs to protect themselves. Last year, the Prison Service ran a pilot in which PAVA spray was issued to staff in four prisons. That pilot was successful, and the Government promised to roll out PAVA across the prison estate. However, that promise has not yet been delivered; indeed, the roll-out has come to a juddering halt. I suspect the reason for that is complaints from the usual suspects, including the Prison Reform Trust, which claimed that prison officers would use PAVA indiscriminately and that its use would breach the human rights of prisoners.
The first of those claims is a shocking slur on the integrity of hard-working professional prison officers, and the second is simply utter rubbish. If the use of PAVA spray breaches a criminal’s human rights, why do police officers carry PAVA as part of their standard equipment? If it is okay for police to carry PAVA, why is it not for prison officers? Section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 states that prison officers
“shall have…the powers, authority, protection and privileges”
of police constables. PAVA offers protection for police and prison officers alike.
That leads me nicely to my last point. What reward do prison officers get for being treated like second-class emergency workers? What reward do they get for dedicating their working lives to the Prison Service in return for a pitiful salary, for working without complaint in a sometimes hostile and dangerous environment, and for risking life and limb on a daily basis? To be made to work eight years longer than their counterparts in the police and fire service, that’s what.
Finally, let me return to the Home Secretary’s speech last week. She said:
“And as well as giving the police the kit and powers they need, we must do more to recognise their commitment, their bravery, and their professionalism.
I have been humbled by the officers I have met and the experiences they have shared with me. This is why I have personally accelerated work to establish the Police Covenant.
This is a pledge to do more as a nation to help those who serve our country.
To recognise the bravery, the commitment and the sacrifices of serving and former officers.
And we will enshrine this into law.
We will also ensure that anyone who assaults a police officer receives a sentence that truly fits the crime, to make the thugs who would attack an officer, think twice.”
Prison officers are equally committed, equally brave and equally professional—they, too, serve our country and make sacrifices to protect the public—so I would like to make my own pledge to the prison officers who work in HMP Swaleside, HMP Elmley and HMP Standford Hill, and their colleagues in prisons across the country, that I will continue to represent them to the best of my ability. I will press the Government to introduce a Prison Service covenant, and I will press for prison staff to receive the same protection from assaults as the police. I want to ensure that those who attack prison staff are given stiff sentences, not a simple slap on the wrist, as has happened so often in the past.
In addition, I assure prison officers that I will support their campaign against prison privatisation, I will support their campaign for better conditions of work, including pay, and I will support their campaign for action to reduce violence in our prisons and for officers to be issued with the equipment they need to protect themselves from attack. Finally, I want them to know that I understand it is wrong that they have been forced into a position where retirement is becoming ever more out of reach and, for some people, potentially unachievable.
As I mentioned, the law is clear that prison officers are entitled to the same powers, authority, protection and privileges as the police. It is time to deliver on the 1952 Act and treat prison officers the same as police officers. As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said, and as I said this morning, 68 is too late, which is why I also support the POA campaign for a lower pension age. I urge the Minister to listen to the concerns of our fantastic prison officers and let them retire at 60.
I declare an interest as a member of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, which includes the Prison Officers Association.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this important debate. Unusually, given the nature of the debate, I agreed with 95% of what he said, and I was very impressed by the way he delivered it. I did a bit of research and noticed some interesting comments by him on KentOnline about being willing to go to prison for Brexit so, come November, he could bring a unique perspective to debates on this subject. I hope it does not come to that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s strapline: 68 is too late. We should not expect a prison officer approaching 70 to deal with violent and dangerous criminals in their 20s, 30s and 40s. He mentioned some of the challenges prison officers face. Of course, another challenge is the availability of drugs in prisons and their effect.
As my hon. Friend knows, Holme House Prison near my constituency has recently seen a rise in the abuse of Spice. That has caused dangers in itself, but it has also led the local mental health trust to withdraw services from the prison. Does he agree that that shows how dangerous the situation is for prison officers these days?
I completely agree. The conditions in many of our prisons are explosive. Holme House Prison is quite close to my constituency too, and I have visited it on a number of occasions. It is not just prison officers who are subjected to assaults; support staff are, too, and they need to be protected.
The debate is really serious. It is about life and death. Assaults against prison officers have almost quadrupled since 2010. As we heard this morning at Justice questions, there are more than 10,000 assaults a year, 1,000 of which are very serious. That works out at more than 28 a day on average—the same as the number of assaults experienced by the whole of our police service, which is a much bigger force. I am not justifying assaults on any emergency workers, but that is the scale of the problem.
I read through some newspaper headlines, which are really quite disturbing. I will mention a selection of them. One paper reported that a court was told how an inmate used a
“sock filled with pool balls to smash windows”
and injure prison officers. Another reported that a prison officer was stabbed in the head by an inmate in a “savage UK jail attack”. One story read:
“Teenage thugs injure 20 prison officers in riot at young offenders’ institute…One officer suffered a broken nose and another was concussed after being repeatedly punched.”
Other headlines included “Prison officer seriously hurt after being ambushed in cell” and “Prison officer has ‘throat cut’ by inmate at HMP Nottingham”. Conditions are difficult for new prison officers in our violent and dangerous prisons.
Prison officers need to be fit enough to protect not just themselves but prisoners from violence. Someone elderly, who does not have the same reflexes or strength as a younger person, cannot protect themselves or the people they are there to guard.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis. We heard the Minister talking this morning about the recruitment of an additional 4,500 prison officers, but from the information provided by the POA it seems that substantial numbers of newly trained prison officers—at least 72 trainee prison officers—are leaving the service each month. That must be due, at least in part, to the terrible conditions they face. Again, that is placing great strain on older officers who are expected to take up the slack.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, as did the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). Is it not the case that beyond a certain point some jobs are difficult to do? In the past, that could have included construction workers, working on cold, tough building sites in the dead of winter. This is another example of people reaching a point in life when it is no longer tenable for them to be expected to carry out these duties.
It is no longer tenable, Mr Hanson. We have reached tipping point, if I might quote a couple of quiz shows. The fact that prison officers are expected to work until the age of 68 disregards basic health and safety; in the opinion of many, it is a complete failure by the Ministry of Justice in its duty of care, under legislation, to prison officers.
I and many Members of the House believe that our uniformed emergency services deserve pension protection. Police officers and firefighters are able to retire at 60,
“to reflect the unique nature of their work”,
to quote Lord Hutton. A prison officer’s unique nature of work has been recognised as being the same as that of a police officer. Section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 gives prison officers
“all the powers, authority, protection and privileges”
of police officers. So the Hutton pension test—
“to reflect the unique nature of their work”—
applies equally to prison officers, police officers and firefighters. Sixty-eight is too late. How many Members of this House would be able to serve on prison landings at 68? There are few who would be able to serve for a week, or even a day, in such violent and dangerous prisons.
My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. He has talked about staff morale being at rock bottom, the soaring violence and the cuts to prison officer numbers. Does he agree that the prospect of having to work as a prison officer until the age of 68 is fuelling the record number of resignations from the Prison Service? We are in a cycle that we cannot get out of unless the pension age is changed and lowered.
I agree with my hon. Friend. There are many pressures and causes, but the pension age is a significant one. There are a number of remedies that need to be applied, as outlined by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
If it is not presumptuous, I wonder whether the Minister might consider inviting the right hon. Lord Hutton of Furness, who I understand is aged 64, to work in a prison and be part of a team being confronted by inmates with socks filled with pool balls, with razor blades and improvised knives, or surrounded by a group of youths, many of whom seem to have access to Spice and illegal substances, who are only too willing to attack prison officers. Setting prison officers’ pension age at 68 must have been an oversight. If the Government seriously and knowingly took that decision, it is a cruel and callous one, and risks the lives of prison officers working in physically demanding and often violent workplaces.
I urge the Minister to take two actions. First, to acknowledge that 68 is too late to expect a prison officer to work in an unsafe workplace. Secondly, to commit to bringing forward in the next Parliament—next week—the legislation and regulations required to align the pension age of prison officers with their colleagues in other uniformed emergency services.
Prison officers have heard the excuses in parliamentary responses; we heard some of them this morning in Justice questions. The offer that the Government previously made, to reduce the retirement age to 65, is simply a bad deal. Prison officers want pension age parity with their uniformed colleagues. The previous offer was attached to a derisory three-year pay deal and excluded many uniformed staff, who would still have to continue to work until they were 68.
I ask the Minister and everyone listening to the debate to watch the latest videos published by the POA and look at the horrific injuries suffered by prison officers. We should feel ashamed that they are doing a public service, protecting the public, while Parliament stands idle, forcing them to work in terrible conditions that are neither healthy nor safe. We should feel ashamed that we outsource our prison service and system, and that the safety and security of prison officers is left in the hands of companies such as Serco and G4S, whose first and foremost interest is shareholders and profits. We should feel ashamed that we want to put prison officers approaching the age of 70 into such a terrible and dangerous situations.
Our prisons are unsafe and understaffed. Prison officers are unappreciated and underpaid. The Minister should set out a comprehensive package to recruit and retain prison officers through improved pay, pensions and conditions. I ask the Minister to do more than give empty platitudes and hollow promises to prison officers. Please accept that 68 is too late and lower prison officers’ pension age to 60. No ifs, no buts; stand up today, make the promise and bring forward the necessary legislation next week—and I guarantee the Minister will get my vote for that legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing this important debate.
Prison officers are another group in a long line of people in the UK that this Government have let down. They deal with some of the most threatening and disruptive people in society, and their retirement age should recognise this. On average, eight prison staff are assaulted every day. The severity of the attacks and the nature of the injuries result in long periods of sick absence, which can only increase with the link to normal pension age and state pension age.
This policy is another blow to the morale of frontline prison staff, which we have already heard is at an all-time low because of the numerous changes being imposed by Government on the working conditions in prisons. The perpetual call for efficiency savings and cuts demanded by Government is creating a thoroughly demoralised and underfunded essential service. I should point out, Mr Hanson, that prisons in Scotland are administered by the Scottish Government but pensions are reserved to Westminster. So, Scottish prisons and English prisons are administered differently.
In recent years budget cuts have seen the Prison Service impose an almost total recruitment freeze, alongside pay freezes, leading to a return to a long-hours culture as prison staff are forced to work excessive hours, leading to staff becoming burnt out. The UK Government have still not provided any evidence that frontline prison staff can work in an operational role above the age of 65. When will we see that, if the Minister does not accede to the requests of everyone in the Chamber regarding the pension age of prison officers?
Have the UK Government conducted an impact assessment on raising the retirement age for prison officers above 65? The savings that the Government expect to make from increasing the pension age of frontline uniformed staff will be negated through an increase in payments for temporary injury benefit awards, medical inefficiency payments and medical retirements, along with permanent injury benefits.
Is the Minister’s Government confident that people over the age of 55 would pass the stringent fitness test for a frontline member of the Prison Service? They have to do annual tests. The Ministry of Justice, in its submission to the Cabinet Office on the proposed changes to the pensions, also believed that it was not acceptable for frontline prison staff to retire at the standard pension age.
In April this year, I invited the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir David Lidington), to accompany me and my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) to Her Majesty’s Prison Shotts, which is a maximum security prison that holds the most dangerous prisoners in Scotland, to see how well the right hon. Gentleman, who at that point was aged 62, could manage to do the job there. Unfortunately, he declined my invitation, but I am happy to extend it to all Ministers and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, because until people see the work that these people do on the ground, it is impossible for them to imagine what a day in a prison, working as a prison officer, can be like.
One requirement for prison officers is the ability to complete mandatory annual control and restraint training. Under the UK Government’s policy, that would require a 65-year-old—previously a 68-year-old—to physically restrain, potentially on their own, a violent person at the peak of their fitness. I must say that I saw prisoners in Shotts Prison who spent day in, day out in the prison gym, and they were terrifying. If those young, often fit men—they are all men in Shotts Prison—decided to turn on a prison officer, the officer would have no chance. The whole visit was quite scary, to be fair. Clearly, according to the UK Government’s policy, the Minister firmly believes that prison officers aged 65 fulfil their role properly and safely. So, again, I say to her: “Come and visit Shotts, and tell me what you think afterwards.”
The UK Government’s policy on prison officer pensions reflects its policy on pensions in general. It is not just prison officers who cannot be expected to work until 68, but millions of workers across Scotland and the rest of the UK. People are being expected to work until they drop. It is easy for members of the Cabinet and the wealthy to retire whenever they like, since they own their home and have plenty in savings and a massive pension pot, but most people in my Motherwell and Whishaw constituency work hard all their days, sometimes on low wages, to receive a pension that is one of the lowest in western Europe. The UK Government are allowing that. Working people deserve to earn a decent wage and expect a fair pension at a reasonable age.
Under section 8 of the Prison Act 1952, as has already been mentioned, prison officers,
“while acting as such shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable.”
If police officers retire at 60, it is only right that the men and women who work on the frontline of the Prison Service are afforded the same right by the public and Government that they protect.
The SNP commends the bravery, commitment and dedication shown by prison officers who face challenging, dangerous and physically demanding working conditions on a daily basis. We believe that the Prison Service must be treated as a uniformed service alongside the police service, fire service and Armed Forces. We call on the Government to lower the retirement age for prison officers in line with other frontline officers.
In December 2016, the UK Government presented a proposal to reduce the retirement age from 68 to 65 for some prison officer grades in England and Wales. That proposal was not extended to Scottish prison officers. So, if this Government see sense and propose to reduce the prison officer retirement age, the proposal must be made for all countries in the UK. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. In the brief time I have, I will start by thanking the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing such an important debate. I think the whole House can agree that he made a powerful speech, much of which hon. Members across the House will agree with. I have to say that I disagree with him on the points he made about the privatisation of probation, but that is a debate for another day; I will park that for today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) also made a powerful speech. In particular, he gave accounts of some horrific assaults and attacks against our hard-working prison officers. Many other hon. Members contributed through interventions. The theme of much of the debate was that 68 is too late, and I will come to that shortly.
I thank our prison officers for the hard work that they do, often unseen and behind the scenes, to keep us safe. The job that they do on a daily basis is one of the most difficult, and in one of the most dangerous settings imaginable. Yet rather than treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve, for almost a decade this Government have treated them with anything but. Instead of overseeing a highly motivated and trained workforce on the frontline of reforming offenders, the Government have overseen years of declining morale, declining working conditions and declining numbers among our prison officer workforce. The raising of a prison officer’s retirement age is one part of that. It is an important one, but it is not the whole picture.
Last week, in a debate secured by the Select Committee on Justice, we heard how the Ministry of Justice budget has been savaged in the name of the Government’s ideological austerity agenda. Thousands of prison officers and tens of thousands of years of irreplaceable experience have been lost as a result. Between 2010 and 2015, close to 7,000 frontline prison officers were lost. Despite a recruitment drive once the Government realised the terrible damage they were causing to the prison system, we are still well short of 2010 numbers.
It is very interesting that the Government have now decided to replace the numbers of police officers that they lost over the eight or nine-year period, but they cannot do the same for prison officers. I agree with the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) that a prison officer’s job is just as dangerous in some ways as that of a policeman or a fireman, but there is this disparity. Does my hon. Friend agree that public services over the last eight or nine years have been the recipients of some of the most vicious cuts that have been implemented by this Government?
I absolutely agree. Given the frontline work that our hard-working prison officers do, they should be an emergency service—a frontline uniformed service—as our other services are, and they should be rewarded and treated exactly the same. I have made that point before.
Like many other public sector professionals on the frontline of vital services, prison officers were also subject to the Government’s harsh pay freeze and public sector pay cap for many years. Even though the pay cap has now been lifted, prison officers are unfairly disadvantaged when compared with their public sector counterparts. For too many prison officers, it is too late. They still feel inadequately rewarded for the important work that they do.
Safety for prison officers has also declined dramatically, with a quadrupling of assaults against prison officers since 2010 and an alarming number of serious injuries, as found in the recent response to my written question, rising from 160 in 2010 to 850 last year. A number of examples have been given by hon. Members; time not permitting, I cannot go through them all, but the reality is that prison officers now go to work fearing for their safety—expecting to be assaulted, beaten or abused. It is truly horrific that they feel that way while this Government do little to address the underlying issues. Those are not the actions of a Government who respect prison officers or treat them with the dignity that they deserve, and nor is raising the retirement age of prison officers to 68.
The job of a prison officer is physically demanding and requires the satisfactory completion of a demanding fitness test. It requires fully fit personnel who are able to perform control and restraint techniques, exercise strength, maintain their fitness and stamina over long periods and react with agility in demanding and quickly changing environments, as alluded to by several Members. The public would not expect anything less from those who keep them safe—and neither, it seems, would the Ministry of Justice, which stated in its submission to the Cabinet Office that the changes were unacceptable. However, the Government have ignored serious concerns about prison officers’ ability to carry out their roles effectively as they get older, despite the Ministry of Justice’s own admissions.
The Government have repeatedly refused to engage with the Prison Officers Association and the prison officers that it represents. Instead of getting around the table to work with the POA to seek a solution, and to look for ways to resolve prison officers’ serious concerns about the retirement age, the Government have sought to pin the blame on it. I am deeply disappointed that Ministers—I appreciate that this Minister is new in her role and is not the Minister responsible for prisons and probation—have failed, quite frankly, to show the leadership needed. They have put the health and safety of prison staff at risk and made it clear that the Government see prison officers not as a vital workforce worthy of investment and support, but as a dispensable commodity.
Because of the way they have been treated by the Government, and with horrendous and dangerous conditions on the balconies and in the wings, many prison officers no longer see their role as a long-term career. It is little wonder that prison officers—both those who have served for years and those in their first year of service—are leaving at such a pronounced rate, creating a retention crisis and worsening the huge problems in our prison system that are of the Government’s making. That is why the next Labour Government will address this issue, and we will work with the POA and prison officers to make sure that they are properly trained and rewarded, and that they are physically capable of doing their jobs. Only then can we deliver a prison system that provides us with security and rehabilitation.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I understand that your chairing the debate is quite fitting, given that you still have a special interest in prisons and all things justice-related.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson)—the beautiful Isle of Sheppey, as he referred to it—for securing the debate on this important subject. He clearly demonstrated an ongoing commitment to raising awareness of the issues around the three prisons in his constituency, the prison officers and their families. I thank other hon. Members for their contributions. In the time I have, I will endeavour to answer as many as possible of the questions that were put to me.
Let me begin by providing a little of the history of prison officer pensions, for those who may not be aware of the retirement ages for prison officers and how they have changed since 2007. Pensions are, by their very nature, complex, but I will try to be brief. Prison officers are members of the civil service pension scheme, the policy and rules of which are owned by the Cabinet Office. Prior to 2007, the retirement age for those covered by that scheme was 60. Following an annual review by the Government Actuary’s Department, a new career average pension was brought in, with a pension age of 65 for new entrants from July 2007.
The demands of the prison officer role were considered at that time, and it was decided that when compared with other civil servants in the scheme who had demanding roles, such as seamen on Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, a special exception could not be made. The Prison Officers Association signed up to the 2007 scheme, which introduced a pension age of 65. In 2015, a new scheme was introduced that regularised the position for most staff and changed the pension age to 65, or to a staff member’s state pension age, which for many is 68.
It is important to be clear that the Government are alive to the issue and the views of staff and trade unions on retirement age. Efforts have been made twice—in 2013 and again in 2017—to provide a route to lowering the retirement age. The 2013 package offered prison officers the ability to purchase a lower pension age of 65 through the payment of heavily subsidised additional contributions into the scheme, with the additional option to pay further contributions to purchase a pension age of 60. A similar offer was made to prison officers in 2017, but there was no cost to the individual member of staff to purchase a lower pension age of 65. Both offers were rejected by the POA membership.
A comparison has been made today with firefighter and police pensions. Staff in those schemes have a retirement age of 60. Although it is true that work in those roles has some similarities to the work of prison officers, as was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, because of the higher physical demands consistently placed on firefighters and the higher potential for serious injury and fatality in both roles, the Government felt that the role of a prison officer was not analogous to those in the emergency services.
Putting that assessment to one side, it is crucial to understand that that lower retirement age is supported by pension contributions by staff of up to 14%—almost 10% higher than the average 5.45% contribution rate in the civil service. It is not, therefore, a like-for-like comparison. Should a change in retirement age be contemplated again in the future, it would involve a significant increase to the staff contribution to the scheme.
I am going to make some progress. I am really trying to get through these points in the time that I have.
The role of prison officer is a diverse, interesting and critical one, parts of which can be physically demanding. All prison officers who joined the service after April 2001 must pass an annual fitness test in order to remain prison officers. We do not discriminate on the basis of someone’s age; many factors determine a person’s ability to pass a fitness test. Staff who do not meet the annual fitness test standard are provided with advice and support by a fitness assessor on achieving and maintaining the required fitness level.
The Prison Service recruits staff to work up to the normal pension age of 65, and it has employed new prison officers in their 60s who have passed the fitness test and are performing their roles effectively. In addition, many staff who have the right to retire at 60 choose to work beyond their retirement age. It is therefore not true to say that it is inappropriate or unsafe for prison officers to work over a certain age.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey is right when he says that we must recognise the commitment, bravery and hard work of our prison officers.
Let me see if I can make some more progress, and then, if time allows, I will give way.
The Prison Service and Ministry of Justice already recognise and reward excellent staff work through a range of awards and honours, such as the Prison Service long service and good conduct medal, the prison officer of the year award and the Butler Trust awards. We are also proposing to the honours, decorations and medals committee the introduction of a new Queen’s Prison Service medal. The concept of a covenant has been raised, and I assure my hon. Friend that we are already considering whether such a covenant for prison staff would be beneficial.
The Government seek pay recommendations from the independent Prison Service pay review body. We recently accepted in full its recommendations for 2019-20, which resulted in the highest increase for prison staff in more 10 years, with band 3 prison officers—the largest group of staff—receiving a headline increase of 3%.
On the Isle of Sheppey, recognising the competitive labour market, we implemented a market supplement to support the recruitment and retention of staff. This means that the current starting salary for a prison officer at the Sheppey prisons, as well as a number of other sites in the south-east, is £27,293. After an officer has gained four years’ experience, that salary increases to just shy of £30,000.
HMPPS takes very seriously, as I think we all do, the health and safety of all staff working in prisons, whatever their age. Staff have access to on-site care teams and to an employee assistance programme that includes confidential 24-hour support, 365 days a year. They are covered by a wide range of occupational health services provided by specialist healthcare professionals. HMPPS has invested in nearly 6,000 body-worn video cameras and has started to implement the national roll-out of PAVA, which is a synthetic pepper spray. We are also introducing rigid bar handcuffs for use by prison officers as part of our continuing focus on improving safety and reducing violence.
We take attacks on our prison officers seriously. Under the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, they are treated equally in law with assaults on the police and other emergency service workers. HMPPS has been working closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that they understand the impact of crimes committed in prison. In May, we published the new crime in prison referral agreement between HMPPS, the police and the CPS to provide a more consistent approach to dealing with these matters. In addition, as part of a crackdown on crime behind bars, the Government are investing £100 million through the introduction of airport-style security measures, cutting-edge technology to detect and block mobile phones, and new funding to tackle corruption. Coupled with the 4,700 additional staff recruited since 2016, that investment should have a major impact on crime behind bars.
The Government are investing £2.5 billion in 10,000 new, modern prison places and will also spend an extra £156 million next year on maintaining our existing jails. That will give us space to absorb any rise in prison population created by the increase in police officers on our streets, along with tougher sentencing for the most serious offenders. Our ambition is to create a decent, safe and secure estate that is sustainable into the future.
I welcome much of what the Minister says, but does it not underline the point that if we are to have a police officer covenant, a prison officer covenant would also be a good idea? It would be a way of recognising prison officers and ensuring that we treat them in the right way, both during and after their service.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I think I have already addressed his point in my speech, but it is clearly a point that he is interested in.
The first new prison will be built on land adjacent to the existing well-performing maximum security prison at Full Sutton. Along with further building works, it will be subject to Government working through the best value-for-money options. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for suggesting the existing cluster of three prisons on the Isle of Sheppey as a location for a further site. [Interruption.] I believe he is indicating that he would be happy with a fourth, but I am sure that he will understand that decisions on the location of further sites have not yet been made.
It is again too early to say whether the new prisons will be privately or publicly run, but the Government are committed to maintaining mixed market provision in the custodial sector, with prisons run by both the public and the private sectors. Any decisions on the future management of the new build prisons will be announced in due course.
The Minister is setting out the case for financial prudence, but may I point out that private prisons account for 15% of the prison population but almost 25% of the budget? If we are being prudent with the public finances and looking to secure a decent settlement for prison officers, surely we should not be privatising our prison service.
As I said, it is too early to say whether the new prisons will be privately or publicly run, but no doubt we will be debating that question for some time to come.
On recruitment and retention, we know that retention of staff will take more than a one-size-fits-all approach, so specific action is being taken where attrition is most acute. Improvements to the recruitment process are ongoing and are aimed at reducing the time and cost of hiring, increasing the diversity of new recruits and ensuring that we attract the right people with the right skills.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will press on. I have only five minutes left, and I would like to leave my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey time to wind up.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) pointed out that eight prison staff are assaulted every day, and she spoke about morale and impact assessment. As prison officers are part of the wider civil service pension scheme, any impact assessment would consider a range of professions. There is a range of physically demanding roles, and when the pension scheme was introduced an exemption for prison officers was not seen as appropriate. I believe that workforce policy in Scottish prisons is devolved to the Scottish Government.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Although I understand the concerns of staff and their trade unions about retirement age, there are no plans to consider an exceptional package to allow prison officers a lower pension age than their colleagues across the civil service. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and all hon. Members for their time and for sharing their views with me this afternoon.
I will make just a few points, if I may. We have had consensus today, but I have to say to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), that the last Labour Government did not cover themselves with glory in the eyes of the POA. Talk to my prison officers: they remember vividly how the Labour party embraced the privatisation of prisons with great enthusiasm. But that was then.
I do not have time.
With regard to what the Minister said about the difference between prison officers and police officers, I revert to section 8 of the Prison Act 1952, which states that prison officers
“shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable.”
Yet because prison officers happen to be part of the civil service pension scheme, they have to work until they are 68 when the police do not. The Government might have to look at whether prison officers should be part of the civil service, or whether they should be a separate entity again.
The Minister mentioned that staff on Sheppey are getting enhanced pay, and that it is up to £27,000 for new staff. I accept that, but it creates another anomaly in the system: the existing staff do not get that enhancement, so there will be some instances of new staff actually earning more than existing staff. Once again, that is something that we need to look at.
I will end with a little advert. I urge all Members present who have shown an interest in the debate to get involved in the prison service parliamentary scheme.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the pension age of prison officers.