Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill Debate

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Baroness Jolly Portrait Baroness Jolly (LD)
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My Lords, I am happy to support the Bill and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, for adopting it for its passage through this House. I thank the Minister for giving me some time to clear up any areas of confusion or concern I might have had. I think this will be my shortest Second Reading speech ever. The Bill is almost perfectly formed. I shall concentrate on NHS workers but of course the principles apply to all emergency workers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, said, all workers should feel safe in their work environment.

Over 10 years ago, I was a chair of a primary care trust and I would visit various health settings. I was continually horrified at some of the treatment meted out to ambulance and A&E teams, and to staff on wards. There are many areas within the NHS where staff are vulnerable: lone workers visiting patients with mental illness in crisis; minor injuries unit staff working late at night; and out-of-hours GPs visiting patients in an emergency. As employers, NHS trusts have improved quite a lot in their attitude. Violence should never be seen as part of what goes with the job. Those who are violent towards emergency workers must be punished and the Bill goes some considerable way towards achieving that.

The Bill gives emergency workers a right: the right to carry out their job without fear of being assaulted. I hope that as a result of it, and generally anyway, employers will see it as a responsibility to support their employees, particularly when they have been assaulted. They should also not condone such treatment by their own staff towards a member of the public, unless it is a last resort. This applies particularly to police services and mental health services. I am sure your Lordships could find other examples. An assaulted worker should be able to count on the support of their employer in bringing the charge and, where necessary, they should expect counselling to help them deal with any trauma.

Yesterday I had a useful briefing from the London Ambulance Service trust, which put all this into context and evidenced some of the points I am making. In London last year, a total of 534 physical assaults on ambulance staff were recorded—an increase on the previous year of 21.6%. It does not take us very long to work out that if this grows at the same rate, by 2020 there will be 1,000 physical assaults recorded annually against ambulance staff. This is just not acceptable. On average, one staff member is assaulted daily and staff working in the control room regularly experience verbal abuse while taking emergency calls. The trust offers training and support to its staff. All front-line staff receive training in how to report an assault and what to do in potentially confrontational situations. They are offered counselling and support following an assault. Each individual is different and the level of support required varies, according to need. MIND also runs a Blue Light Programme, which provides mental health support for emergency services workers. The London Ambulance Service uses that, too. It is also the only ambulance service in England to issue stab vests to all front-line staff. Although I applaud that, I am really sad that ambulance workers feel the need to wear a stab vest in their daily work.

It is also important to remember that the Bill should apply to settings where someone is carrying out their duty as an NHS employee but not in an NHS setting. This could be in a prison or a care home. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified whether the Bill also applies to volunteers, whether in the regular services, the police service or the voluntary sector, such as St John Ambulance, the coastguard service or the RNLI.

This Private Member’s Bill has also highlighted that violence is often the result of excess usage of drugs or alcohol. The Institute of Alcohol Studies report on alcohol’s impact on emergency services highlighted the proportion of front-line personnel who have been injured while dealing with a drunk member of the public: 76% of police, 50% of ambulance workers, 43% of A&E consultants and 10% of fire officers. This is just unacceptable. The Bill addresses this issue and, once enacted, I am sure that it will be dealt with. Many have tried to address the issue of alcohol and drugs but it is outside the scope of the Bill. I note that the usage of alcohol and drugs should never be seen as an excuse for somebody behaving in a violent way.

This is a well-crafted Bill, which should achieve what it is designed to do. I do not propose to lay any amendments in Committee and I wish it a speedy passage.