A Cumbrian MP has hailed a decision to give prison officers canisters of pepper spray to combat violence in jails as a “crucial step”.

Following a six-month trial of PAVA spray in four prisons, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said it will be rolled out nationwide to all jails which house male prisoners.

The £2m investment will ensure every prison officer is equipped with the synthetic pepper spray, which temporarily incapacitates those it is sprayed upon.

Mr Stewart, who is also MP for Penrith and the Border, told the News & Star the move will help reduce serious harm in prisons.

He said: “My number one priority is safety in prisons. We’ve got to make them safer. We are bringing in new scanners and new training for officers.

“And by letting prison officers use pepper spray, we can help save lives. This is a much faster method for officers, rather than putting on specialist equipment.

“Most prisoners want to keep out of trouble and see the prison authorities given the means to keep control, so that they can focus on rehabilitation.

“Safer prisons means dealing effectively with a dangerous minority, while allowing more offenders to education and work, reducing the likelihood of reoffending.”

John Podmore, former governor at high-security Belmarsh Prison in London, questioned if officers could defend themselves against violent prisoners.

Speaking on Tuesday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme, he said: “Good luck with one can of pepper spray against half a dozen prisoners. There is talk of this being a deterrent – I think for many prisoners it will be a challenge and there is a real risk the pepper sprays will be turned on the officers.”

Reacting to the concerns, Mr Stewart added: “The officers have protective equipment, with the spray secure to their belts. There are also procedures in place.”

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “New equipment alone can’t solve this prisons crisis, especially when there are over 3,000 fewer prison officers since the Tories came to office.”