Political News: Raising the alarm over retirement

With MPs across the House telling the government that 68 is too late, now is the time for POA members to pile on the pressure, explains Charley Allan

Of all the campaigns fought by the POA in Parliament – from poor pay to health and safety, privatisation to whistleblowing – nothing cuts through quite like “68 is too late” for prison officer retirement.

Maybe it’s because most MPs and Peers know they wouldn’t last a week on the landings, whatever age they are. Or maybe they understand the danger to staff and vulnerable prisoners alike of expecting officers in their sixties to control and restrain pumped-up thugs a third their age.

It’s a cross-party concern, with Parliamentarians of all political stripes putting pressure on ministers to end this cruel injustice. The government always tries to blame the POA – for example, when debating the topic back in 2019, then-minister Wendy Morton told MPs that “efforts have been made twice, in 2013 and again in 2017, to provide a route to lowering the retirement age” but “both offers were rejected by the POA membership”.


But as the Labour MP for Easington, Grahame Morris, explained earlier in the same debate, the previous offer “was simply a bad deal” because it 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.” And, he wondered, “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.”

Morris was among a number of MPs, including Gordon Henderson, the Conservative MP for Sittingbourne & Sheppey who called the debate, and Marion Fellows (SNP, Motherwell and Wishaw), who highlighted the dangerous discrepancy in Lord Hutton’s infamous 2011 review, with firefighters and police officers – but not prison officers – exempted from the retirement age rise to 68.

Addressing this criticism, Morton accepted that the work of firefighters and police officers, who can retire on a full pension at 60, have “some similarities to the work of prison officers” – but claimed that, “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” (see Gatelodge Winter 2019 for more on this debate).


Two years later and the government still refuses to budge – or even to open negotiations with the union. When MPs returned from Summer Recess in September, Rachel Hopkins (Labour, Luton South) raised the issue at Justice Questions, asking ministers about “the effect on the recruitment, retention, safety and morale of prison officers of raising the retirement age for that role to 68”. 

Then-minister Alex Chalk admitted that “there are no plans to revisit the retirement age” – but added: “We are pursuing a series of initiatives to boost morale, safety and retention, and ensure that prisons are as secure and rehabilitative as possible.”

In her follow-up question, Hopkins quoted the government’s own words against them, highlighting how ministers “have previously stated that, because of the higher potential for serious injury and fatality among firefighters and police, they do not consider prison officers deserving of the same pension age protections and the right to retire at 60.” And, she charged, “with serious violence against staff still plaguing our prisons, does the Minister accept that the message received by prison officers is that they will have to wait until one of their own is killed in the line of duty before their safety concerns are taken seriously?”

A clearly shocked Chalk dodged the question completely, simply noting that Hopkins had made “an important point”. On pensions, he stated that “employee contributions for police officers are at 12%, and 14% for fire officers, and 5.45% for prison officers”, adding that the situation was “under review” before claiming: “We made a generous offer in 2017 to bring forward the retirement date when the taxpayer would pay the entirety of employee contributions, but I regret that that was rejected by the POA.”

But, as POA deputy general secretary Joe Simpson explained afterwards on the union’s YouTube channel: “This offer, which was far from generous, was rejected because it tied POA members to just three years before the state pension age. That would set it at 65 for now but this would rise along with the state pension age if and when the government raises it, which they surely will.”

And he added: “As for employee contributions, that’s a matter for negotiations, but the government won’t even agree to discuss this with us.”


Back in the Chamber, it was Shadow Solicitor General Ellie Reeves’s turn to grill the minister, and she focused on the government’s pay betrayal of prison officers and the retention crisis that’s hollowing out the service.

“Our prison officers do fantastic work keeping prisons and communities safe and throughout the pandemic they have gone above and beyond,” Reeves pointed out. “But since 2010, the Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that over 86,000 years of prison officer experience has been lost. These key workers are moving on to better-paid work that doesn’t involve abuse and assaults on a daily basis. Why then did this government reject the pay review body’s recommendation of a £3,000 uplift for Band 3 prison officers? Shouldn’t we be giving these key workers a pay rise to recognise their vital work in keeping our country safe?” This, of course, is a critical issue for the POA (see Gatelodge Spring 2021 and Summer 2021) and Reeves is quite right that poor pay has led to an exodus of experience. In his answer, Chalk – who was promoted to Solicitor General two days later in the reshuffle – admitted that “retention matters because, if you have more experience in a prison, that does lead it to be safer and more rehabilitative”, while claiming to be doing “everything possible to increase retention”. 

Continuing the Commons questioning, Patricia Gibson (SNP, North Ayrshire & Arran) swung the spotlight back to retirement age. “Does the Secretary of State believe that it is safe or appropriate for prison officers – the invisible emergency service – who by definition deal with the most violent and dangerous criminals across the UK, should be expected to do so up to the age of 68,” she asked, “and does he not agree that this completely unrealistic retirement age has negatively impacted retention and recruitment rates?”

Then-Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, who was sacked two days later and replaced by Dominic Raab, repeated that “there have been attempts, two attempts in recent years, to try and resolve this issue. There wasn’t an agreement reached with the POA. I very much hope that any future discussions could result in some agreement. We continue to look at this issue.”

But, as Simpson pointed out on camera, “previous offers to reduce retirement age have been woefully inadequate and tied to multi-year pay deals and unrelated workplace reforms within England and Wales”.


The government needs to stop ducking the issue and open discussions with the union before even more damage is done. Reduce retirement age, raise wages – and we may see more officers staying in the job for longer, which means more experience, more stability and hopefully less violence.

It’s obvious to almost everyone, inside and outside of Parliament, that this is the way to tackle the prisons crisis. The government seems unconcerned about what happens behind those high walls, so it’s up to all of us to make them care – and for MPs to hold them to account.

Lobbying can really work. Get in touch with your MP – especially if they’re a Tory – and tell them why this matters. Make it clear that your vote at the next election – and potentially those of your colleagues, family and friends – will only go to someone who agrees that 68 is too late.

Unity is strength – and if we vote together, we can win together, too. * Watch the POA video of September’s JQs: https://youtu.be/C5wItfaDDJI

Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.