Testing prisoners for psychoactive substances

Part of Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 29 Mawrth 2017.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Llafur, Halifax 2:45, 29 Mawrth 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Stringer, and I take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the outstanding Library and Clerks, who have been incredibly helpful in assisting me in preparing the new clause. I support new clause 6. In the event that a prisoner spits at or bites a prison officer, the new clause would give the prison governor the power to request a blood sample from that prisoner. Refusal to provide a sample would become an offence in and of itself.

The new clause follows similar work that I have been doing with police officers and other emergency service workers, where spitting and biting have been on the rise as a means of assault. Not only is it a horrible act, but spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a very real risk of transmitting a range of infectious diseases, some with life-changing or even lethal consequences. Arina Koltsova, a law enforcement officer in the Ukraine, died just last year after contracting tuberculosis from an offender who spat at her while she was trying to arrest him. I have sought practical and proportionate ways to improve the situation for those who face such risks as part of their job.

Over the past 15 years there has been a steady but dramatic increase in the number of reported incidents of prison officers being spat at or bitten. In 2000, there were 35 recorded incidents of spitting. By 2015 this number had increased to 394. Over the same period biting went up from 89 incidents to 291. I want to share the stories of two police officers who were spat at: while I appreciate that the Bill deals exclusively with prison officers, I am trying to convey to the Committee the very human impact on our public servants, as well as their families. This is the same regardless of which public service is being provided.

PCs Mike Bruce and Alan O’Shea of West Midlands police both had blood and saliva spat in their faces while trying to arrest a violent offender. They both had to undergo antiviral treatments to reduce the risk of contracting communicable diseases, and they faced a six-month wait to find out whether the treatment had been successful. During that time, PC O’Shea was advised that he could not see his brother, who was undergoing cancer treatment, because the risk of passing on an infection was too high. He was also advised not to see his parents, as they were inevitably in regular contact with his brother. PC Bruce had a false positive result for hepatitis B, and for six months until conclusive test results came through, he was understandably reluctant to be close to his wife or young children, fearing for their wellbeing. His wife and children also had to be tested because of his false positive result.

While PCs Bruce and O’Shea are police officers, their harrowing experiences will be similar to those of prison officers up and down the country who are currently undergoing antiviral treatments, because, as it stands, they are powerless to seek clarity about the health of the prisoner at the time of the incident. At the moment, if a prison officer is spat at, they can take a blood sample from an individual only if that prisoner gives permission. Needless to say, the prisoner often deliberately seeks to prolong the distress and anxiety exerted on the officer for as long as possible by refusing to grant permission or provide a blood sample. This new clause would deny them the ability to torment a prison officer in this way and would restore the balance of power.

Let us bear in mind that any prisoner can spit. They do not need to go to the trouble of acquiring or fashioning an offensive weapon in order to inflict life-changing consequences on another person; they can simply use their own bodily fluids. Regardless of whether the spitter has a communicable disease or not, the inability to determine that at the time of the incident is leaving prison officers with no choice other than to undergo antiviral treatments and face an agonising six-month wait. I have checked with the Prison Officers Association, which confirms that a prison officer would be expected to be at work during that six-month wait and could be asked to return to their duties on the same wing as the individual who has spat at or bitten them. We could put a stop to that with this new clause and restore the appropriate balance of power, dignity and peace of mind to prison officers. Measures such as this are already being used in Australia to protect public sector workers, and it is worth mentioning at this point that this new clause is intended to complement new clause 5, which would create a stand-alone offence of assaulting a prison officer. We will have chance to debate the merits of that later in Committee.

I heard the words of the Minister this morning and I am satisfied that he accepts that retention of prison officers is a problem. However, while the Bill goes a long way towards giving governors more responsibility and increases the scrutiny upon them, I do not believe that it goes far enough in addressing the pressures that governors face in prisons. There is a real danger that the Bill will shift responsibility away from the Government and on to the governor, without giving them the resources to bring about the improvements that they want to deliver. This clause would be a cost-effective way of making prison officers that much safer, and I believe that that focus is missing from the Bill. It is intended to serve as a deterrent and would have a positive impact on safety, and therefore on the retention of prison officers and staff. I hope that Members will support this new clause.