Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill Debate

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Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood

Main Page: Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood (Crossbench - Life Peer (judicial))
Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Portrait Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood (CB)
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My Lords, in common, I have no doubt, with all noble Lords, I have a great regard for our emergency workers and a great regret that they appear to be ever more frequently subjected to assaults and other violent offences. I also share with many others the greatest admiration for the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, who is sponsoring this Bill in your Lordships’ House.

Popular, no doubt, as this Bill is, and as well-nigh certain, I suspect, it is to pass, I fear that I cannot support it. Let me at once make clear that my central objection is not with its core objective—plainly, the discouragement of these deplorable offences by more severe punishment of those who commit them—and still less with its detailed drafting. Rather, it is with the inevitable consequence of all Bills of this kind, which is, in short, prison sentence inflation—that upward spiral leading inexorably to the ratcheting-up of sentences across the board, and thus an ever-increasing prison population, with all the several dire consequences that follow from that, all of which were the subject of a very full debate on prison overcrowding in your Lordships’ House which I had the privilege of securing and opening.

Of course I understand the public’s and, in turn, Parliament’s instinctive reaction to any and all spates of fresh or increased offending and fresh areas of concern about criminal behaviour: “Lock ’em up, throw away the key, or at the very least raise the statutory maximum for the offence”. Thus it was that in 2014, the maximum sentence under the Dangerous Dogs Act was increased from two years to 14 years; in 2015, minimum custodial sentences were introduced for carrying knives; and last year, the maximum sentence for stalking and harassment offences was doubled from five years to 10 years, and in aggravated cases from seven to 14 years. More recently still, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was increased from 14 years to life. In 2005, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, IPP sentences were notoriously introduced, increasing the number of indeterminate sentence prisoners by 5,000 in the first three years. Of course, under Schedule 21 to that 2003 Act the minimum terms to be served by mandatory life prisoners were increased, and have twice since been raised still higher, so that they have risen steadily from an average of 12.5 years in 2003 to more than 21 years now. The Sentencing Council is, of course, loyally responsive to all these demonstrations of Parliament’s will, so as a result, guideline sentences have been progressively longer so as to maintain some sort of coherence across the entire spectrum of criminal offending. So it will be consequent on this Bill.

I repeat that I too would love to reduce the number of assaults on our emergency workers, but as the Government—the Ministry of Justice and its Minister—originally said in response to the public petition for this Bill before they surrendered to the popular call for increased sentences, all these offences are already criminalised, and, indeed, they are treated more seriously, as aggravated offences, when committed against public sector workers, so that in fact merely increasing the maximum sentences will not realistically provide additional protection.

There are, for example, some 7,000 assaults annually in our prisons against prison staff—I think there are about 40,000 assaults including assaults against other prisoners. That, realistically, is not the result of there being insufficient penalties available. Rather, it is the consequence of prison overcrowding, a problem that this Bill can only further exacerbate. On Wednesday this week, the Times recorded the Ministry of Justice’s new building programme and its plan for the prison population to rise within the next few years by about 10,000 to some 93,000. Mr Rory Stewart, the Prisons Minister, expressly envisages public demands for ever-longer and “more brutal” sentences, with increasing focus on victims. He said:

“We can see this already in people coming forward all the time with more legislation”.

This is just such a Bill, and for my part, I regret it.