Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill Debate

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Lord Kennedy of Southwark

Main Page: Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour - Life peer)
Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I put on record how much I support the Bill and thank my noble friend Lady Donaghy for sponsoring it as it begins its passage through the House of Lords. I apologise to the House and in particular to my noble friend Lady Donaghy for being a minute late and so arriving after the start of her contribution. I can say to the House that I now know how the noble Lord, Lord Bates, felt—although, whether it will please the House or not, I am not planning a Dispatch Box resignation today. I also thank my friend in the other place, Chris Bryant MP, who introduced the Bill last year with cross-party support.

This is a small, four-clause Bill that would introduce a new offence of common assault or battery against an emergency worker. This would be triable summarily in the magistrates’ court or on indictment in the Crown Court, leading to maximum prison terms on conviction in the magistrates’ court of six months and in the Crown Court of 12 months, and/or a fine in either court. It is of course regrettable that we have to even consider bringing such legislation forward. I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, that this is a sad reflection of the society we live in today.

Later in my speech I will refer to cases where emergency services workers, police officers, firefighters and other professionals have been spat on, kicked, punched and sexually assaulted when carrying out the duty of their chosen profession and keeping the public safe. It is disgusting, disgraceful, and totally out of order, and it is right that Parliament acts to update our legislation and deliver what I think the overwhelming majority of the British public want: to see the people in the various professions I have outlined protected from the abuse and assault that they risk every day they walk out wearing a uniform to do their job.

As I have mentioned previously, Clause 1 sets out the new offence. It is welcome that this clause also provides that if the worker is not at work but is carrying out functions which, if done in work time, would have been in the exercise of their role as an emergency worker, they will still have that protection.

Clause 2 creates a statutory aggravating factor that increases the seriousness of the offence on sentencing, which is welcome, as is Clause 6(6), which makes it clear that the courts would not be prevented from treating the fact that an offence has been committed against an emergency worker as an aggravating factor in relation to other offences. It is disappointing that the offence of spitting, which is disgusting, is not at present an aggravating factor. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, can refer to that when she responds. My noble friend Lord Harris also referred to that issue.

Clause 3 sets out what is meant by an emergency worker. The obvious ones are of course police officers, firefighters and NHS workers, but I was pleased to see that the Bill also details other workers who carry out equally important functions, such as prison officers and prison custody officers, who are at great risk of assault on a daily basis. So the scope and meaning of emergency worker has been cast wide, which is to be welcomed, as is the fact that Clause 3(2) makes it clear that it is immaterial whether the employment is paid or unpaid, so special constables, volunteer firefighters, and St John Ambulance and RNLI volunteers would also be afforded the same protection without any question whatever.

I was also pleased to read in Clause 4 that the Bill will come into force two months after becoming law, rather than a Minister being required to bring it or any part of it into force. There is the issue of Section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which my noble friend Lady Donaghy referred to, which gives the power to magistrates to hand down a prison sentence of up to 12 months but has never been commenced, as it can only come into force by order of the Secretary of State as set out in Section 336(3) of that Act. The Labour Government, who brought the Act into effect, never enacted the provision, nor did the coalition Government, and to date the Conservative Government have not chosen to enact it. So all parties that have been in government in recent years have had the opportunity to bring this part of the Act into force but have decided not to do so. There may be good reason for that, as the section may be viewed as too broad. That could have a disproportionate effect on the prison population, which is already at record numbers, and in turn that does not always lead to good outcomes, as rehabilitation is the key and we want to see the rate of offending brought down. Where shown to be working well, community punishments, payback and work programmes have their right and proper place in the criminal justice system. I therefore very much see the point the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, made in his contribution.

Having said that, this is a special case, for the reasons outlined by many noble Lords in their contributions today. The Bill is very specific, focusing on a specific group of workers, who do some difficult and challenging jobs, and who need our support. These jobs need to be done to protect the public, save lives and to keep us all safe, and these workers need protecting so that if they are assaulted, the perpetrator on conviction is very likely to be sent to prison. Therefore, in responding to the debate, can the noble Baroness, Lady Vere of Norbiton, state the Government’s position on enacting Section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act, which would give magistrates the power to send a person to prison for up to 12 months?

In preparing for this speech today, I have received some excellent briefings from UNISON, the London Fire Brigade, the London Ambulance Service, the Police Federation and others, and I thank them all very much for that. Today, we have heard examples of appalling assaults. The London Ambulance Service listed 534 assaults on ambulance crews in 2016-17, with a least one member of its staff assaulted every single day, and that is on top of the verbal abuse that staff in emergency control rooms take while dealing with emergency calls. I was shocked to learn that the London Ambulance Service issues stab-proof vests to all front-line staff. That is a terrible indictment of where we have got to and shows the lack of respect for people carrying out an important function—dealing with people who are in distress and injured, sometimes very seriously.

Looking more widely at NHS staff, according to available NHS trust data, there were 56,435 assaults in 2016-17. When extrapolated to cover the NHS in England, that suggests just over 200 reported physical assaults every day, and that is just reported assaults. Unison, the trade union that has thousands of members working in the NHS, has a number of case studies which highlight the abuse its members have received. One of the most tragic was psychiatric nurse John, who, having been subjected to assaults at work, developed PTSD. He ended up himself being sectioned at a local mental hospital and, while there, he took his own life. The subsequent inquest into his death found that the assaults he had suffered during his occupation had played a material part in his decision to take his own life. That is truly tragic.

I was also dismayed to learn of the attacks on firefighters. I have been told of an incident in Yorkshire where fireworks were thrown into the cab of a fire engine when it arrived to attend to a fire on bonfire night. Fireworks are explosives and you have to be a complete idiot to throw them at anyone. There is no excuse for such behaviour.

The London Fire Brigade provided me with information about an incident last year in which firefighters, on attending a blaze, came under attack from 20 youths throwing fireworks at them. One of the fireworks hit a firefighter on his shoulder. It then bounced off his shoulder and got inside his helmet. It exploded next to his ear and caused extensive damage to his ear and his hearing. As a result, that firefighter is still not yet back at work. Again, that is a terrible tragedy. The Bill seeks to provide further protections to all emergency service workers and it has my full support.

There is one group of emergency service workers whose more regular customers are not always pleased to see them, and that is of course the police, who uphold the laws that we pass in this House and the other place. In recent months I have spent time with the Metropolitan Police under the Police Force Parliamentary Scheme and it has proved to be an invaluable experience for me. The most challenging times were the three shifts I spent with the police in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. I was shocked at the abuse directed at the police on every single shift I was on. It was vile verbal abuse that no one should have to put up with, and it was often worse when directed at the women officers. It was abuse about their appearance and was truly horrid and disgusting.

As we have heard, the Home Office estimates that there were 24,000 assaults on police officers in England and Wales, but the data collected by the Police Federation suggests that there were more than 2 million unarmed physical assaults on officers over 12 months and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon over the same period. Those figures suggest that an assault against an officer happens every two minutes. The figures from the Home Office and the Police Federation are very different. I have not seen how either set of figures has been collected or what is considered to constitute an assault, for which they may be using completely different data. Of course, the Home Office figures are reported assaults but not all assaults are reported, which might explain some of the difference between the figures, as my noble friend Lord Bach mentioned.

The Bill proposes a maximum sentence of 12 months but of course, unless Section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act is commenced, the maximum sentence in magistrates’ courts can be only six months. An early guilty plea would result in a third of the sentence being taken off, so the maximum sentence handed down by a magistrate would be four months. Of those four months, only two would actually be spent inside—that is, eight weeks—and the other two months would be served on licence.

Of course, if it is an either-way case and goes to a Crown Court, the sentence can be up to a year, but we must question the deterrent effect of the proposals as the Bill is currently drafted. Can the noble Baroness, in responding to the debate, address the issue of increasing the sentence for offences to 24 months as opposed to the 12 months currently in the Bill, and will she also agree to meet me and members of the Police Federation with officials from the Ministry of Justice to explore this? Even if the Government are not prepared to agree to a sentence of 24 months, what can be done with the sentencing guidelines and other directions that can be given to the courts on the appropriate way to treat these offences? I ask that particularly in respect of police officers but prison officers, too, I am sure, face similar challenges in their work.

I welcome the Bill but with the regret that in today’s society we need to have such legislation on the statute book. However, that is a matter for another debate on another day. I look forward to the noble Baroness’s reply on this important Bill and, in particular, her response to the points I have made about the police. I hope that she will agree to a meeting at a future date. Finally, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Donaghy on bringing forward this Bill and I wish it every success.

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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.