Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill Debate

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Baroness Vere of Norbiton

Main Page: Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Conservative - Life peer)
Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, for introducing this Bill and all noble Lords for their contributions today. We must also thank Chris Bryant, and the tens of thousands who took part in his poll, for getting the Bill to where it is today. I hope that we can give it a fair wind through your Lordships’ House as it heads towards the statute book.

In the past few months, we have marked a year since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower and the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, including the murder of Police Constable Keith Palmer outside this very building. These events are a sobering reminder of how much our emergency workers do to protect us.

However, their bravery and commitment is not demonstrated solely by such major incidents; each and every day emergency workers across the country show remarkable courage simply by carrying out their work, examples of which were set out very vividly by the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Paddick. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked us to imagine a day without them. Indeed, just imagine.

I thank my noble friend Lord Wasserman for pointing me towards #ProtectTheProtector, which highlights just some of the cases of violence towards emergency workers—assaults that happen every day. Whether it is paramedics saving lives in A&E, police officers working to keep us safe, members of the fire service fighting some of the most daunting public disasters, or prison officers working out of sight of the public eye with some of society’s most dangerous and troubled individuals, all our emergency workers deserve to have their significant contribution to public life recognised.

Although the very nature of the work done by our emergency staff frequently puts them in potentially dangerous situations, we should be clear that an attack on these workers while they are carrying out their critical work is a particularly heinous crime. We need to ensure that our laws and the penalties for breaking them adequately reflect this, and that is why the Government are supporting the Bill today.

For some time now, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have been working together to gather evidence about what is happening on the ground, looking at what more we can do to protect emergency workers. Most noble Lords have quoted statistics from a range of sources, so I shall not repeat them, but none of them should make us as a nation feel proud. Indeed, it is a terrible reflection on our society, as noted by my noble friend Lord Wasserman.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, and the noble Lords, Lord Bach and Lord Kennedy, mentioned that there might be a problem with under-reporting. We hope that by providing the targeted offence in this Bill, victims will be encouraged to report assaults. The Bill will, subject to your Lordships’ agreement, have a real impact in responding to these attacks. We estimate that there will be approximately 15,000 prosecutions of the new offence per year. I should make it clear to noble Lords that these may not be new offences but offences that would otherwise have been tried under other existing laws. The Government could not be clearer: the prevalence of these assaults will not be tolerated. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned, emergency workers should have the right to carry out their work without fear of assault. Those who are violent towards our emergency workers must be prosecuted and must receive an appropriate penalty. That is what this Bill seeks to do.

The Bill represents a truly cross-party effort. There have been several significant changes since its introduction last summer, and these have been the result of a great deal of collaboration between the Government and the honourable Member for Rhondda. It is testament to this non-partisan approach that the changes that have been made further strengthen the Bill. It has been my pleasure to meet many noble Lords ahead of today’s debate, and I know that there is a desire to make rapid progress on this Bill. As I said, the Bill has evolved following extensive cross-party collaboration in the other place. I would therefore urge noble Lords to support the Bill as its stands so that our emergency workers can get the additional protections they are very clearly asking for.

I turn now to the Bill itself. The first clause creates a new form of assault where it is carried out against an emergency worker in the exercise of their functions. An offence committed in these circumstances will have, on indictment, a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment, which is double the current maximum penalty for common assault. The Government believe that this increased penalty will allow the courts to sentence in a way that better reflects the circumstances of the assault and the victim.

There has been some discussion of spitting. I can confirm that spitting is indeed an assault and can be prosecuted as such.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised concerns that sentences handed down by the magistrates’ court may not in some circumstances be appropriate given current custom and practice. I would be very happy to meet him and the Police Federation to discuss what steps we can take to ensure that certain more serious offences are dealt with appropriately.

Some argue that this increased penalty of 12 months is still not sufficient. However, I must stress that the incidents we are talking about are those that would otherwise be charged as common assault. These are assaults which may not involve any injury and can amount to a push or a fear of injury. The maximum penalty must be proportionate to the nature of the assault. If the assault is more serious, it should properly be charged as either actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm. These offences already have a maximum five-year penalty.

The second clause sets out the aggravating factor. For these more serious offences, which include actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, manslaughter and sexual assault, the Bill places a duty on the court to consider such an assault when committed against an emergency worker in the exercise of their functions as an aggravating factor in sentencing. This builds on the requirement in the sentencing guidelines and ensures that, for example, an assault causing actual bodily harm may be considered as more serious when committed against an emergency worker, and may therefore merit a more significant penalty. This provides a clear and unequivocal direction to the court to treat these offences more seriously. I should note, however, that the sentencing guidelines already enable judges to impose more significant sentences for those attacking public sector workers.

Clause 3 provides a definition of an emergency worker for the purposes of the Bill. I am pleased to be able to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, that this definition makes no distinction between those who are paid and those who are unpaid. For example, volunteers such as St John Ambulance medics working to support the provision of NHS services are essentially acting as emergency workers and would be covered by the Bill, and volunteers for the RNLI or Mountain Rescue would be covered under the search-and-rescue category. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Browne, that the coastguard is also covered. In arriving at this definition, considerable thought has been given to ensuring that the Bill focuses on those workers who are at the front line of emergency response and whose day-to-day work routinely puts them in danger as they deal with challenging circumstances and with challenging people. I believe that the definition of emergency worker in the Bill as it currently stands is as it should be. It makes no distinction between being on duty and being off duty, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy: a firefighter who is off duty but finds himself or herself having to deal with a fire would indeed be covered.

What the Bill is not about is assaults against these workers in any circumstances—in other words, when a worker is not acting in the exercise of their functions as such a worker—however regrettable and reprehensible such attacks may be. These offences will continue to be dealt with under the law for assault as it currently stands, as for any other member of the law-abiding public.

I turn now to the specific points raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned the provisions to increase the maximum penalties handed down in magistrates’ courts. I am sure noble Lords will agree that that is a complex issue and goes far beyond the potential new offences being discussed today. I assure noble Lords that the Government keep this issue under review, but we currently have no plans to commence the provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, raised the important issue of prison overcrowding. It was my pleasure to respond for the Government to the debate on prison overcrowding, and the Government of course take this point on board. We must consider carefully the maximum penalties for various offences. However, that cannot mean stopping all penalty increases immediately, and I hope the noble and learned Lord will agree that in this case it is justified. On the other hand, the Government are looking across the piece at ways to reduce short-term prison sentences and increase judicial confidence in community sentences, with or without treatment orders. Custodial sentences should be a last resort. I reassure my noble friend Lord Wasserman that, in some cases under this Bill, community sentences will be appropriate. As was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, treatment for drug addiction and mental health problems may also be necessary. I recognise also her comments about support for workers and access to mental health services. I will ensure that the Health Minister, my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy, is aware of her comments, and I will certainly write to her with more information.

On a final note—

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton
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I am grateful to the Minister for allowing this intervention before she reaches her peroration. She suggested that the Government’s estimate is that there will be 15,000 prosecutions under this Bill when it is enforced as an Act. Frankly, that flies in the face of the Scottish experience, where the figure is more than 80% less than that. I do not expect the Minister to share all the detail of this but will she undertake to publish the methodology by which this estimate has been reached so that it can be tested? How much of it will be displacement of what would otherwise have been prosecuted? That would give us some opportunity to estimate the worth of this approach.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton
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I thank the noble Lord for his comment and I will certainly do what I can to unpick the figure of 15,000. My understanding is that much of it will be the displacement of existing assault offences under Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act and assault on a police constable offences under Section 89 of the Police Act 1996.

On a final note, I would like to discuss one particular group of emergency workers who are included in this Bill: prison officers. In doing so, I would like to share my experience. Several months ago, I visited Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton. I was very well looked after by a prison officer called John Melhuish. He showed me round the wing, introduced me to a group of prisoners who I chatted with, and generally made me feel very welcome and made sure that my visit went smoothly. I wrote to thank him for the visit and for the work that he does every day. Mr Melhuish wrote back to say thank you for the thank you, because prison officers do not get very many. It is therefore my great pleasure to say a public thank you to all of them today.

Prison officers are the unsung heroes of emergency workers. They operate out of sight but they should never be out of mind. They respond to some of life’s most serious crises and emergencies involving some of society’s most challenging people. As the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, explained so vividly, they do so in a very challenging environment. The courage of prison officers in these situations is remarkable. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, pointed out is true for emergency workers in general, prison officers cannot simply remove themselves from the scene. I would like to recognise this today and to state once again that we welcome the Bill on behalf of all the emergency services, including on behalf of prison officers. I again thank all those who have brought the Bill this far. I commend the many staff associations that have been working hard to push these issues to the fore—the Police Federation, the Prison Officers’ Association and many others.

I cannot agree with my noble friend Lord Wasserman that this Bill is derisory. It is reasonable and proportionate. The protection of our emergency workers affects us all. This sentiment has been reflected in the strength of the cross-party support and collaboration that has gone into the drafting of the Bill. It is this cross-party energy that has resulted in the Bill as it stands. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, said, it is almost perfectly formed.

I urge Members of your Lordships’ House to support the Bill in its current form so that we can swiftly deliver the legal changes that our front-line emergency workers deserve.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark
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My Lords, when the Minister addressed the comments of my noble friend Lord Browne on covering RNLI workers on the coast, she assumed that that would cover such workers in Scotland. Clause 4(1) of the Bill states:

“This Act extends to England and Wales only”.

Perhaps the Minister will write to me and clarify that.

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Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton
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I will write to the noble Lord and clarify my comments.