Prison assault rate ‘not acceptable’, Minister tells MSPs

The level of assaults in Scottish prisons is “not acceptable”, the country’s Community Safety Minister has said.

Ash Denham faced questions on rising levels of violence as prison officers are to be balloted on industrial action in a pay row.

During topical questions at Holyrood, Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr pressed Ms Denham to make a full statement to the Scottish Parliament on the ballot and prison violence.

He accused the Scottish Government of having “ignored” ideas from his party which he claimed may help stem prison violence, such as equipping prison officers with body-worn cameras.

Mr Kerr said: “If a strike goes ahead it is entirely the fault of the SNP,” adding the ballot is a “mark of failure”.

He said: “The Prison Officers Association says that they face rising levels of violence.

“I’ve compiled figures from every prison service annual report since the SNP came to power in 2007 and they show that the number of assaults in prison has never been higher and it has risen 50% on the SNP’s watch.

“Does the Minister think that that is acceptable and will she apologise to the prison officers for that appalling statistic?”

Ms Denham said: “No, it’s not acceptable.”

She said the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) had set up a national strategic group to oversee the response to violence against staff and local groups were also in place.

She said these could commission “a range of tactical options”, such as national search operations, to help recover weapons and contraband that can lead to, or be used in, violence.

The Minister added: “We have not seen the same levels of violence in Scottish prisons as experienced in prisons in England and Wales.

“We are not complacent about that and we support the ongoing work of the SPS in tackling the violence in our prisons.”

Ash Denham MSP
Ash Denham MSP

She continued: “We recognise the sometimes difficult and dangerous circumstances that prison officers work in and we’re very grateful to them for the service that they give.”

Ms Denham said the SPS has “robust contingency measures” in place to ensure the safety and security of staff and prisoners, adding Scotland’s prisons are “generally stable and secure environments”.

She stressed the issue with the prison officers association is about pay, not conditions.

“The recognised trade unions have submitted to the SPS their pay proposal for 2019/20, and that is being considered ahead of formal pay negotiations,” the Minister added.

Announcing the decision to ballot prison officers on industrial action, the Prison Officers Association Scotland said its members are feeling anger and frustration as they face what union bosses claim is the prospect of another year of capped pay rises.

A date has not yet been set for the ballot.