How has the number of prison officers changed under the Conservatives?

29 September 2023

“Over the past few years we have delivered an extra 4,000 new prison officers.”

During Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this month Rishi Sunak claimed that the government had “delivered an extra 4,000 new prison officers” in recent years.

This is correct when looking at band 3-5 prison officer numbers since 2015. Looking at the whole period of Conservative-led government since 2010, the number of these officers has fallen—although the prison population has also fallen over the same time.

The figures discussed in this article refer to prison staff in England and Wales, where prisons are operated by His Majesty’s Prison Service. Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own prison services.

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Fewer prison officers since 2010, but fewer prisoners too

Mr Sunak claimed that “over the past few years we have delivered an extra 4,000 new prison officers”.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) told Full Fact this refers to band 3-5 prison officers (that is, prison officers including supervising officers and custodial managers). The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) officers in these bands in England and Wales has increased by roughly 4,000 since 2015.

At the end of the 2014/15 financial year there were 18,221 FTE band 3-5 prison officers, compared with 22,288 at the end of 2022/23 financial year—an increase of 4,067.

However, the number of officers has actually fallen since the Conservatives entered government, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, in 2010.

In the 2009/10 financial year there were 24,831 FTE band 3-5 officers—about 2,500 more than there are currently.

However, the number of prisoners has also changed during this period—falling from about 85,000 in 2009/10, to about 75,000 in 2020/21 (when the Covid-19 pandemic affected the number of people being sent to prison), before returning to about 81,000 in the most recent data.

Retention rates

Mr Sunak also claimed that the government was “improving retention”, which the MoJ told us was a reference to a fall in resignation rates among band 3-5 prison officers.

This, again, is broadly correct. When looking only at underlying resignation rates for this group (that is, leavers excluding those who retired, died, transferred or were dismissed), the latest figures, which cover the year to June 2023, show a rate of 8.9%—a 2.6 percentage point decrease compared to the same period the previous year.

It’s worth noting however that these rates remain higher than before the pandemic. In June 2019, the resignation rate among band 3-5 officers was 7.4%.

These figures are published on a headcount basis.

Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew

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