I pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who gave a comprehensive overview of what is happening on prisons and probation. I am so pleased that the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) raised the issue of children. When we had the debate on imprisonment for public protection sentences, it focused on the fact that the whole family is serving the sentence and we do not give enough consideration to the implications for the family, and particularly to the support needed to assist the rehabilitation of prisoners as they are released.
I will declare an interest, as I am an honorary life member of the Prison Officers Association. There is no financial interest, and in fact I am told by the POA that it does not even gain me an extra pillow in a cell if I ever need it. It is as simple as that. We have had discussions over recent months—in particular a presentation in the Jubilee Room a few weeks ago, which a number of us attended—where we have been meeting prison officers working on the frontline. I want to report the conversations we have had and, on their behalf, set out some of the concerns they have expressed, which build much upon what my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said about the state of prisons.
There are three messages that prison officers want to get across. The first is that the austerity Budgets have taken so much from the Prison Service over the past decade that prison officers have left the system. It can only be described as being in crisis, and that is not just putting prisoners and prison officers at risk but putting the public at risk of dangerous reoffending. The second message is that Ministers need to understand that they cannot run prisons on the cheap. It requires investment, particularly in staffing, to ensure safe, secure and purposeful regimes. The third message, which the Chair of the Select Committee has raised and which I will come back to, is that prison officers want the Minister to know that they are fed up. Morale is at an all-time low, and it is developing into real anger at how they have been treated. To give one quote, they felt like they were “disposable commodities” to be “worked to the bone” and then discarded. They are voting with their feet to leave the service.
Mention has been made of the budget cuts that have taken place over the years and how we have arrived at this situation. To give one statistic, at one point at the height of austerity after 2010, the Prison Service saw a 30% cut in overall expenditure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has said, the figure is still 12% below what it was in 2010. Alongside that, we have had a number of fairly disastrous privatisation experiments—those have not just been in probation, but in the maintenance of the prisons themselves.
What happened in the first years of austerity was startling. In the early-2010s, a quarter of the operational workforce was laid off, and a crisis of violence was unleashed. Having laid so many staff off, we also got into a vicious downward spiral of insufficient staff and increasing violence, and therefore problems with retention. Recruitment drives simply failed to resolve the situation.
On one estimate, during that period we lost 100,000 years of professional experience built up over decades. As a result of that, exactly as has been said, prisons are fearful places with prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and assaults on staff, which have soared, so prison officers and support staff are leaving in droves. We have heard some of the statistics. Mark Fairhurst, the POA national chair, presented evidence to the Justice Committee, where he explained, just as my hon. Friend did, that many leave
“within the first two years”.
“We are at the highest attrition rate that the service has ever seen. We are currently running at 16% for prison officers and 19% for operational support grades. Some areas of the country have seen attrition rates of between 35% and 45%.”
The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the survey of how prison officers are feeling. Exactly as he said, half of those surveyed do not feel safe at work and 80% said that staff morale at their establishments was bad. When we talk to officers at some establishments, they tell us that it has collapsed completely. Many have a lack of confidence in the future.
It was also raised with us in conversations that the number of prison officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is rising and at critical levels. Serving and ex-prison officers receive little support for PSTD, and it has an overwhelming impact on their lives. It is unfortunately becoming almost accepted as the norm that prison officers will have to go through that. Mark Fairhurst told the Committee:
“There is no support if you have mental health problems. More and more of my members are getting diagnosed with PTSD, because of the trauma that they deal with and the things they see. There is no mental health support on site for those staff. They are leaving the job with ill health or capability retirement, so there is no support there for mental health.”
This is one of his most startling statements:
“We have come across scenarios in some jails where the most experienced member of staff on that same wing has nine months in the job. It is the blind leading the blind.”
To try to give us an understanding of what that meant, he said:
“When you have inexperienced staff dealing with experienced prisoners who have been in and out of prison all their lives, it has a massive knock-on effect on stability.”
Spending during the first five years of austerity fell by 20%. That is why, as has been said, with spending levels cut so dramatically over a period, it is hard for prison officers to fully comprehend why £4 billion is being spent on building a new generation of prisons to boost capacity when our existing prisons have become mired in squalor—that is the description used—and, according to the Public Accounts Committee only two years ago, there was a £1 billion backlog of work needing to be done.
Prisons are violent places. We have, at times, reached catastrophic levels of violence. It needs to be acknowledged—not to accept that it will continue—that violence is part and parcel of prison life. Prisoner officers cannot understand that the Government will not even include levels of violence in their new key performance indicators for prisons. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) introduced a private Member’s Bill in the last Session—the Prisons (Violence) Bill. We urged parliamentarians to support it to enable that sort of monitoring to be part and parcel of the performance indicators, so that the Government could develop a full strategy.
The POA has joined, as a founding member, the Joint Unions in Prison Alliance, alongside the other unions and working with the Prison Service. It fully supports the Safe Inside campaign to reduce violence in prisons. It is especially concerned about what it described as the “ultra-violence” in the youth custody estate. It warns that an urgent review is needed of the protections that prison officers need when working in that estate. It comes back to investment. The POA also said:
“Dangerous, squalid jails…make rehabilitation impossible. Prisoners are released more criminalised, more traumatised, more addicted to drugs than when they arrived. This is madness and should be completely unacceptable in a civilised society. Prisons are often the best chance that state has to turn someone’s life around, whether through education or treatment, but we’re doing the opposite—we’re making them worse.”
The POA has reached such a state of frustration that it is calling for a royal commission. I believe that was one of the proposals considered by the Conservative party before the last election. A royal commission should examine the problems in our justice system from end to end, to try to tackle imprisonment, incarceration and, more importantly, rehabilitation and, as other hon. Members have said, to look at preventing crime and preventing people reaching imprisonment.
The POA wants to raise clearly what has happened on pay and on retirement age. On pay, the unions welcome the Government’s increase in early starters’ pay, but are concerned about recent statements from the Government about not honouring the pay review rewards in future. Nothing will undermine morale more. When there is an independent assessment of pay, the POA is not allowed to take industrial action like other unions, and therefore has to rely on the pay review bodies. That the Government say they will not honour those recommendations is utterly defeating when prisons are seeking to recruit and retain.
The POA has made it clear time and again that it believes that a pension age of 68 is unacceptable for the physical job that prisoner officers undertake. It would welcome the Government returning to the negotiating table on retirement age, which they walked away from in 2016 after the POA rejected the offer to reduce retirement age. Those negotiations need to be reopened, because 68 is too late.
I have tried to give some understanding of what prison officers are going through at the moment. They ask straightforward questions: what happened to the Conservative party’s commitment and pledge of a royal commission on criminal justice? Will the Minister bring back those proposals? Will he commit to investing the resources, especially in staffing, that are needed to save the system from the current crisis? Will he look to improve workforce morale and retention by looking again at the issues of pay, terms and conditions, and the pension age, which is currently threatened? The final issue they want to draw attention to is the fact that there needs to be a clearer programme to reduce prison violence, ensuring there is sufficient support for prison staff so that they can perform their professional jobs without risk to their lives and limbs.