The Ministry of Justice has been accused of misleading the public over the state of staffing levels in UK prisons, following its announcement that a recruitment milestone will be reached nine months early.
This week the department said its target of delivering a net headcount increase of 2,500 staff by the end of 2018 – set by then-justice secretary Liz Truss in 2016 – was on course to be met within the coming weeks, showing that the drive was working.
But union the Prison Officers’ Association said the MoJ was “massaging prison officer recruitment figures” in a way that gave a “massively false impression” of a service that was still in crisis after years of budget cuts.
The latest figures, released by current justice secretary David Gauke, showed a net increase of 1,970 officers between October 2016 and December last year, with numbers up from 17,955 to 19,925 across bands three to five.
The MoJ said a further 1,582 new recruits had been offered roles and booked onto prison officer training courses, meaning the government was on target to recruit the 2,500 officers “nine months ahead of schedule”.
POA general secretary Steve Gillan welcomed the increase in officer numbers but insisted that the current drive would not be enough to “undo the damage of years of cuts” that began under the coalition government.
He said that the government figures were “smoke and mirrors” that did not properly reflect the changing nature of the prison workforce since 2010 – particularly for entry-level grade prison officers in band three, whose numbers he said had fallen by 16% over the past eight years. According to the MoJ, there were 24,831 prison officers in bands three to five in March 2010, of whom 983 were custodial managers at band five, and 3,940 supervising officers at band four. The remaining 19,908 were prison officers.
Gillan said the MoJ’s latest dataset included 3,333 staff in bands four and five, meaning that POA estimated there were 16,592 band three prison officers..
“In March 2010 there were 19,908 prison officers [at grade three] and as of 30 December 2017 there were 16,592 – a cut of 3,316,” Gillan explained.
“Further, in March 2010 there were 7,698 operational support grades and as of 30 December 2017 there were 4,422. That’s a cut of 43%.”
The union said it was calling on the government and the MoJ to “stop misleading the general public”.
Truss’s recruitment drive – announced at the Conservative party conference in 2016 – came against the backdrop of concerns over violence and suicide rates inside prisons, and has not been helped by staff turnover levels. The latest figures show the annual turnover rate among band three to five prison officers is 9.7%.
Lauding his department's recruitment “milestone”, Gauke acknowledged that prison officers often worked in “very challenging, difficult and dangerous circumstances” and that issues in the secure estate needed to be dealt with “head on”.
“I am determined to tackle the issues in our prisons head on and I am committed to getting the basics right so we can focus on making them safe and decent places to support rehabilitation,” he said.
“Staffing is the golden thread that links the solutions we need to put in place to drive improvement, so I am delighted our recruitment efforts are working.”
Civil Service World offered MoJ the opportunity to comment on the POA's observations. It declined.