Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill Debate

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Lord Wasserman

Main Page: Lord Wasserman (Conservative - Life peer)
Lord Wasserman Portrait Lord Wasserman (Con)
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My Lords, I do not intend to detain the House very long on this glorious Friday morning, but this past week I have been inundated by emails and other messages from police and crime commissioners around the country urging me to show up in the Chamber this morning to support this Bill, and I am delighted to do so. I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, for agreeing to steer this short but very significant Bill through your Lordships’ House.

As I say, I have had a large number of messages from police and crime commissioners telling me how strongly they support this Bill, and how important they believe it to be. I am not saying that PCCs are happy with the Bill. Indeed, most of them have gone out of their way to make the point that they are not happy with it because they do not believe that it goes far enough in protecting emergency workers from assault while in the process of carrying out their duties. According to one PCC, the provisions in this Bill,

“are still derisory but better than nothing”.

I think it is fair to say that that reflects the tone of most of the messages I have received.

I must confess that I had not quite realised the extent of the problem until I began preparing for this debate. I was stunned to learn from representatives of the Police Federation that, as has already been mentioned, there were some 2.4 million assaults on police officers in the last 12 months. As other noble Lords have already made abundantly clear, the problem is by no means confined to police officers and those, such as police community support officers, who work alongside them. Firefighters, prison officers, doctors, paramedics, nurses and others who assist these professionals in dealing with emergencies are regularly subject to assault as they go about their business of serving us.

For noble Lords who want examples of the kinds of assaults which the Bill is aimed to tackle, I suggest that they resort to Twitter under the hashtag “protecttheprotector”. They will find countless examples of what we are talking about this morning. There can be no doubt that there is a serious problem out there which needs addressing, and the Bill is aimed to do so. For this reason, I strongly support it and welcome the Government’s support for it.

I must admit that two aspects of the Bill cause me some unease. The first relates to the whole idea of using prison to solve social problems of this kind, as the previous speaker mentioned. As the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, pointed out in her excellent article on the Bill in the 25 June edition of the House magazine, many of those who engage in assaulting emergency workers in the course of carrying out their duties are either drunk or under the influence of drugs.

I am not convinced that putting such people in prison for six or even 12 months would do them—or the rest of us—any good. I have always thought that prison should be a last resort and that we should think first of other forms of punishment, such as community sentences. In this context, I was delighted to read in yesterday’s Times another reference to Rory Stewart, the Minister for Prison Operations and Reform, who apparently shares this view. According to the report, he goes even further than I and believes that short sentences should be scrapped.

“The best way of protecting the public”,

he is quoted as saying,

“is to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the under 12-month prison population, because people on community sentences are less likely to reoffend than people put in prison”.

However, I recognise that this is very much a minority view in the emergency services community, and do not intend to say any more about it this morning.

Another aspect of the Bill upsets me which I believe is much more important. It has already been touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly. That is what the introduction of the Bill tells us about our society. What kind of community do we live in where those who serve us, those who put their very lives on the line each day in order that we, our loved ones and fellow citizens can be safe and sound, are subject to assaults of the most unpleasant, degrading, painful and even life-changing kind while they are in the very act of helping their fellow men and women? How sad that it should be thought necessary to resort to the statute book and, even more significantly, to prison sentences, to deal with such antisocial behaviour. What a terrible reflection this is on the fundamental, underlying values of our society.

This is not the time or place to discuss why we find ourselves in this situation, but it raises a number of issues which require urgent consideration if we are to reverse present trends and build a civilised community for our children and grandchildren. The Jewish tradition, in which I was raised, is very clear about service to the community. The rabbis taught that acts of kindness to others are as important as every other law in the Bible. Yet the fact is that in Britain in 2018, we are having to amend our statute book to strengthen the sanctions available to the courts, including longer prison sentences, to punish individuals who have assaulted emergency workers who are in the very act of helping them, such as putting out fires in their homes or transporting them to hospital in an ambulance for urgent medical treatment. It is therefore with much sadness and no joy that I strongly support giving the Bill a Second Reading.