Political News: A Crisis of the Government's own making

Ellie Reeves explains how a decade of cuts has left the prison service on its knees

Our prisons play a vital role in keeping the public safe and key to this are the staff who keep them running. But more than a decade of Conservative cuts to the justice system has left them in crisis.

Violence is up, drugs are up and the service is haemorrhaging experienced staff. Most facilities were created in the Victorian era and many prisons are old, dilapidated and dangerous. With such a poor environment to rehabilitate, it’s no wonder that re-offending rates are over a staggering 40% and are costing the taxpayer £18 billion a year.

The Government’s recent Prisons Strategy White Paper acknowledged some of these problems and put forward some measures to be welcomed. However, many of the proposals have been promised before and not delivered. They also remain unfunded, with no clear timetable for delivery.

For example, it outlines that the government will recruit up to 5,000 additional prison officers. But this will do little to make up for the 86,000 years of prison officer experience lost since 2010. This knowhow is vital in de-escalating conflict and putting offenders back on the right path.

Given this loss, it’s unsurprising that violence has soared. Assaults more than doubled between 2010-11 and 2019-20, and assaults on staff increased by 242%, equating to approximately 21 prison officers being assaulted on a daily basis. This is completely unacceptable, and is influencing more and more officers to leave the service to find more lucrative and less risky work.

Most shockingly, over this period the Ministry of Justice has paid out £33 million in compensation for violent incidents in prison, equivalent to the salaries of 1,044 prison officers. This violence is not acceptable in any line of work and it is completely short-sighted of the Government to allow for a situation like this to have developed.

Yet the Government has consistently refused to accept the Prison Service Pay Review Body recommendation of a £3,000 pay rise for Band 3 officers. This is an insult to prison officers, who have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic in order to keep the country safe.

And the most recent HMPPS workforce quarterly figures show the impact of all of this. The leaving rate for Bands 3-4 Prison Officers last year was 14.0% – almost one in seven. For Band 2 OSGs it was 16.2%, or one in six. Both figures represent record highs.

The POA estimates that the cost alone of Band 3 officers leaving the service within their first two years is close to £30 million. So, it’s clear that the Government can’t just recruit its way out of this crisis, they actually need to invest in retaining staff and making the prison service once again a career path to stick to.

Prison staff have done incredibly hard work in incredibly difficult conditions, not least during the pandemic, and this needs to be recognised. But the situation and conditions facing hardworking loyal staff are deeply worrying.

As we begin to move away from Covid-19 restrictions, the Government needs to look again at its White Paper and put the emphasis on what will be done to properly retain staff, recognise their hard work and reduce the epidemic levels of violence in our prisons.

Ellie Reeves is the Shadow Minister for Prisons and Probation

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.