Last month, I presented my Prisons (Violence) Bill in the House of Commons.
The new “Prisons Strategy” White Paper is a golden opportunity for urgently needed change if Ministers will only commit to doing whatever it takes to tackle both prison violence and, indeed, the causes of prison violence. My Bill aligns with the White Paper’s stated aim of reducing prison violence and uses the paper’s framework of key performance indicators—“management targets” in common parlance—to achieve this. KPIs are already used in private prisons to reward or penalise their operators, but the Government’s new strategy extends these targets and adds new ones to public sector prisons too. It is obvious that the new KPIs need to include safety for both prisoners and staff but, curiously, this commitment is entirely missing from the White Paper. My Bill seeks to correct that omission. It would enshrine a statutory duty on prison management—whether in the public or private sector—to minimise violence. If KPIs are the Minister’s preferred method of choice, that is the method we will use here too.
Currently, the only prison safety targets involve serious assaults, and such assaults must involve hospital treatment. This needs to be extended to all kinds of violence, if Ministers are serious about a zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour. Penalties could include fines for both public and private sector operators, with the money raised going towards making injury compensation schemes fit for purpose by widening the scope for claims, removing the unfair barriers throughout the process, and lifting awards to reflect the bravery and commitment shown by prison officers and other staff working in our prisons system.
Even Ministers accept that staff cuts of more than 25%—in the name of austerity— have triggered the crisis. This is evidenced by the recent rush to recruit more prison officers, but resignation rates have gone through the roof, with more officers now leaving the service each week than joining. The White Paper actually calls for an extra 5,000 prison officers to run the new generation of private prisons, but how will the Minister do that in the light of the last failed recruitment drive?
The second part of my Bill would enshrine in law a range of initiatives designed to protect staff and prisoners from violence and to encourage staff, especially prison officers, to stay in the job. The most wide-ranging of these is the “Safe inside prisons” charter. This set of reasonable and straightforward principles for safe systems of work is endorsed by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance, a coalition of nine prison unions: the Prison Officers Association; the University and College Union, which represents prison educators; the Royal College of Nursing; the British Medical Association; the National Association of Prison Officers; the Public and Commercial Services Union; Unison; the GMB; and Unite the Union. Those unions have long called for the Ministry of Justice to adopt the charter and mandate other prison employers to do the same. Unfortunately, it seems that Ministers will not consider this until every recognised union signs up. That seems to me to be a rather flimsy excuse for inaction.
Some other vital steps that we could take in order to hold on to staff may be beyond the scope of my Bill. First, the Government could accept all the pay review body recommendations, including the £3,000 pay rise for entry-level prison officers, and make sure that future advice is legally binding on Ministers. Secondly, we could cancel all plans for new private prisons until we get to grips with why they are up to 50% more violent than publicly run prisons. Thirdly, we could bring the prison officer pension age back down to 60, because 68 is simply too late.
Above all, my aim with this Bill is to focus minds on the terrible conditions that face both staff and prisoners in our prisons, and to start a national conversation about how we may solve this crisis. It is time to replace warm words with action.
Since presenting my Prisons (Violence) Bill last month, numerous prison officers have contacted me to share their experiences of being attacked at work.
This morning, I asked the Minister if she would listen to her own prison staff and back the provisions in my Bill to reduce violence, including the obvious step of counting all kinds of violence against prisoners or staff as Key Performance Indicators, or management targets, for every prison.