Holly Lynch contributions to the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018

Fri 27th April 2018 Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill (Commons Chamber)
3rd reading: House of Commons
Report stage: House of Commons
23 interactions (2,734 words)
Fri 20th October 2017 Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
19 interactions (2,386 words)

Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill Debate

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Legislation Page: Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018

Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
(Report stage: House of Commons)
Holly Lynch Excerpts
Friday 27th April 2018

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Michael Tomlinson - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 11:19 a.m.

My hon. Friend comes back to his point, I suspect, about being honest and straightforward. We either think it is the right thing to do, in which case we should do it, or we do not, in which case we should say so, not do it and stick with the system we currently have.

I do not want to obstruct the safe passage of the Bill, but I thought it important to raise those issues and potential anomalies, and to acknowledge the fact that this Bill is breaking new ground.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 11:15 a.m.

It gives me great pleasure to speak on the Report stage of this Bill. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), who has been a friend of this campaign from the very start. He raised a number of interesting points, and I look forward to hearing Ministers’ response. We have greatly benefited from his legal expertise throughout this process, and I am grateful to him for that. I am grateful to Members across the House who have recognised the role that I have played in initiating this campaign, but it has been a tremendous team effort, and I will thank a number of people on Third Reading.

I rise specifically to speak in support of amendment 3, which would add sexual assault to the list of assault charges in clause 2, so that it would become an aggravating factor within sentencing if sexual assault were inflicted on an emergency service worker. Having started this campaign with the Police Federation following the experience I had with a single-crewed police officer—a tale I have shared in the Chamber on several occasions—one of the deciding factors in broadening the campaign to cover more emergency service workers was having met female paramedics who had been subject to sexual assaults while on duty. That is why I am so keen to see this addition made to the Bill.

A very clear pattern emerged of female paramedics having to deal with male patients who are often under the influence of drugs or alcohol, as we have heard, in towns and city centres and predominantly on Friday and Saturday nights. I am grateful to Stacey Booth, an organiser with GMB—which I must declare is my trade union—from West Yorkshire who introduced me to a number of paramedics who recounted their experiences, which were worryingly similar.

One of those women was Sarah Kelly, who I am delighted has joined us in Parliament this morning, after taking the brave decision to share her story in the hope that it would help us to fix the broken system that has let her down. On some occasions, it was a combination of the patient being under the influence of drugs, alcohol or both, with a diminished capacity to determine right from wrong, and they took advantage of the situation, sexually assaulting a lone female paramedic in the back of an ambulance. On other occasions it was even more sinister: sexual predators, who have fine-tuned this approach, engineer a situation where they are alone in an ambulance with a female paramedic, with the specific aim of sexually assaulting them.

The risk to ambulance staff is heightened because, unlike the police, who have access to a certain degree of information about a person’s previous criminal history prior to attending an incident, the ambulance service does not. I have met female paramedics who have been dispatched to the address of someone who has only recently sexually assaulted them, pending a court appearance, which must be against all safeguarding and legal advice.

Sarah has led the way in Yorkshire, seeking to work with her trade union and her employer, the Yorkshire ambulance service, to implement the necessary changes from a grassroots level—to accurately report and record such attacks, follow up with support and advice in order to secure a conviction and to build up the data required to put protections in place so that unnecessary risks do not have to be taken in future. I commend her efforts. As we have reflected on many times over the course of the Bill’s journey, the reason why we have to go that bit further on protections for emergency service workers is that we are the ones who ask them to run towards danger and persevere with individuals who seek to do them harm, because they simply cannot walk away.

Like other paramedics, Sarah, having been sexually assaulted by the perpetrator, had to continue to persevere with him in the back of the ambulance until they arrived at hospital, first and foremost because he needed medical attention, and she could not walk away or escape him. We owe it to Sarah to make this amendment a reality in law. She is not alone in her experience as a paramedic, nor are paramedics the only emergency service workers to be exposed to this particularly vile manifestation of assault, so I urge all colleagues to lend their support to amendment 3 and add it to the Bill.

I also support amendment 2, to which I have added my name, and I will return more specifically to the hideous act of spitting when I speak to amendments 4, 5 and 6. I am also sympathetic to a great deal of the work done by the hon. Member for Shipley, and I agree with a number of the points that he outlined in his new clauses. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 11:20 a.m.

It is such a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). She is a truly passionate defender of the interests of police officers, and she does that with great skill. I pay tribute to her and to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

I have a few observations, building on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. In his powerful submission he said that it is important that police officers—I know there are some in the Public Gallery—receive justice, and that that justice is not “a sick joke”. However, we must also ensure that we do not inadvertently replace one sick joke with another.

In my experience as a prosecutor, the biggest injustice for police officers was along the following lines. A police officer attends the scene of a serious robbery, for example, and he or she makes an arrest. During the course of that arrest, the defendant spits at the police officer, in an extremely upsetting and unpleasant incident. The defendant is taken to the police station, where he is subsequently charged with robbery and with assaulting a police constable in the execution of his duty. The case then comes to court, and the defendant says to the prosecutor, through his solicitor, “Alright. I will plead guilty to the robbery”—that is technically a more serious offence and punishable with life imprisonment—“but do me a favour and drop the offence of assaulting a PC.” A lazy prosecutor—this point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley—might say, “Oh for goodness’ sake. Let us carve this up. He is going to get a custodial sentence of two to three years for this unpleasant robbery. Is it really worth proceeding with the charge of assaulting a PC?”

What should happen in those circumstances? A conscientious and decent prosecutor would speak to the officer and say, “This is what is being proposed. What are your thoughts about it?” If in those circumstances the officer says, “I want justice to be done. I want this individual to have on their record not just that they are a robber, but that they have assaulted a police officer”, it would be wrong for the prosecution not to proceed with that charge and for justice not to be done. A prosecutor should already take into account the feelings of the victims, and I suggest that it would be in breach of their duty as a prosecutor not to proceed in such circumstances, and it would be a failed assessment of the public interest. In my experience, where those decisions have gone wrong and a case has been dropped, police officers rightly feel that their interests have not been taken into account.

Break in Debate

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 11:32 a.m.

I take that point entirely.

My final point is about the issue of grievous bodily harm with intent, which most right-thinking people would think is the appropriate offence to charge someone with who had bitten a police officer’s finger, but a middle ground exists between grievous bodily harm with intent and common assault, which currently has a maximum sentence of six months—that is, assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Why do I mention that? As has been intimated, common assault is for offences that leave no mark at all. If any offence leaves a mark that, in the language of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, is more than merely transient or trifling—in plain English, that is reddening of the skin—the defendant can be charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm, whether the victim is an emergency worker or not, with a maximum penalty of five years. That would mean, once the discount for an early guilty plea is taken off, that someone could be inside for 20 months maximum.

This is my central point: let us support this Bill and let us send out the message that attacks on our emergency workers are heinous, that they are not to be tolerated and that the law should come down like a ton of bricks. However, let us also not forget that getting justice means selecting the offence so that the punishment will fit the crime—

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard


Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 11:33 a.m.

Just before I finish my peroration, I give way to the hon. Lady.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 11:33 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly powerful speech and raising some really interesting issues. For me, when we are looking at how we can make a difference in this area, our role as legislators means that we are in some ways limited in how we intervene in the other areas of injustice that he has raised. My question to him, using his legal background and expertise, is this: once we have done our bit by amending the legislation—that will go some way to addressing this problem—how do we appropriately intervene to address the other areas of injustice that he also outlined?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 11:34 a.m.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. It would be a very dark day indeed if Members of Parliament in this place were effectively directing independent prosecutors how to exercise their discretion—I know she is not suggesting that for a second—so we have to tread extremely carefully. Ultimately, when a prosecutor decides which charge to choose, they will have to weigh two things: first, sufficiency of evidence—is there sufficient evidence to make it more likely than not that a jury properly directed would convict?—and secondly, is it in the public interest? They have to weigh certain factors in considering the public interest, ranging from the likely sentence at the end of a conviction to protection of the public, and all sorts of things. What we say in this Chamber, however, is capable of forming part of that public interest. If we send the message out that we expect condign punishment, to use a faintly pretentious expression, to be visited on those who assault our emergency workers, that factor can properly be weighed into the mix when prosecutors decide—in the circumstances of the emergency worker who attends the nightclub or the police officer who has their finger bitten off—what offence to choose. The message will ring out from this Chamber that we expect our protectors to be protected.

Break in Debate

Clauses 4 to 6 therefore should not remain in the Bill.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Parliament Live - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:20 p.m.

I will rattle through my speech, as I know we are pushed for time. I entirely appreciate and sympathise with amendments 4 to 6 and, following our discussions with Ministers, I understand the practical challenges of clauses 4 to 6, but I want to push a little further. If we remove these clauses, what else can we do to mitigate some of the outstanding anxieties that will still persist?

As the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has outlined, spitting makes up 21% of all assaults on police officers in West Yorkshire. For that reason, it is important we get this right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, certain organisations advocate vaccination as one option to protect against some communicable diseases. Although I endorse that as part of the solution, there are two problems with it. First, I am uncomfortable that vaccination removes responsibility from the spitter not to spit in the first place, and on to the 999 responder to take precautions in preparation for being spat at. That is part of the reason why I am so supportive of amendment 2, which I am pleased was fully discussed in the previous group of amendments.

My second problem is that, as the Minister will know, most forces have an immunisation programme to vaccinate against hepatitis B. However, due to the global shortage of hepatitis B vaccines, forces have had to follow Government advice to suspend those programmes, which means people in roles identified as at increased risk, such as police officers, special constables, detention officers, PCSOs and crime scene investigators, are already going without this level of cover.

I am pleased that stocks of the vaccine are starting to become available again, but there is a backlog of immunisations. Some officers are particularly vulnerable during this window, making the types of mitigation we are now exploring all the more pertinent if we are to abandon clauses 4 to 6.

I also have concerns that the support and advice received by emergency service workers who have been spat at varies greatly. I would like the advice and support to be standardised for all those defined as emergency service workers, as per the definition in the Bill, so they can access the very best specialist medical advice within hours, allowing them to make informed decisions. That will restore the power balance and their dignity, which the spitter has sought to take from them.

Another criticism of these clauses is that the rates of transmission, and therefore the risks, are so low that there simply is not the evidence to warrant testing in the first place, yet we know that is not what is happening in practice. On Second Reading I told the story of PC Mike Bruce and PC Alan O’Shea of West Midlands police, who both had blood spat in their face as they tried to arrest a violent offender. They both received medical advice recommending that they undergo antiviral treatments, and they faced a six-month wait to find out whether the treatment had been successful.

As I explained on Second Reading and repeat now to reinforce the point, during that time PC O’Shea’s brother was undergoing treatment for cancer. Because medical professionals deemed that the risk of passing on an infection was too high, should he have contracted a disease, PC O’Shea was advised not to see his brother throughout the intervening period. He was also advised not to see his parents, because they were in such regular contact with his brother. PC Bruce had a false positive result for hepatitis B and his young family were also then tested and faced a six-month wait for conclusive test results, which confirmed that they all had the all-clear.

Although those experiences are two of the most anxious and prolonged I have come across, they are not uncommon. I need to be able to look those two officers in the eye and say to them that we have not given up on making sure that no officer has to go through the same experience, rather that we are simply taking another approach. I look to the Government to work with us on making that happen, beyond the Bill, if we are to remove clauses 4 to 6.

Stephen Crabb Portrait Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con) - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:25 p.m.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Does she agree that the clauses on spitting were some of the most popular measures in the Bill, as originally drafted, when we discussed it with constituents who are emergency workers, so if we are going to drop them, we need a strong statement from Ministers today on what more can be done to tackle this problem, which she clearly highlights?

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:25 p.m.

I agree entirely with that point, and I am reassured by what the Minister said about seeking to toughen up deterrence in respect of the language contained in an earlier provision in the Bill. In the event that spitting does not cease with immediate effect, we will still have to ensure that we offer those protections relating to dealing with those anxieties, and offering clarity and support. The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) is quite right: that is what I am looking to see from Ministers today.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:25 p.m.

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:25 p.m.

I certainly will—I will return the favour.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:25 p.m.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, just at this last moment. What was striking about the point she made was that in the instance that she cited a police officer was given medical advice that there was a risk, yet that medical advice appears, statistically, to run entirely counter to the statistics that were provided by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). So part of resolving this, and giving clear protection and advice to officers, is about ensuring that consistent medical advice is given—does the hon. Lady agree?

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard

I entirely agree. That goes back to the earlier point that we cannot fix everything through legislation. I agree entirely that where there are shortcomings with this legislative approach, even if we withdraw it, we will not fix the problem. So what alternatives—the hon. Gentleman has rightly reflected on those—do we need to put in place? I am open to any and all suggestions—but without that legislation I am looking for alternatives.

Rory Stewart Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:26 p.m.

First, I very much welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has proposed that these clauses be removed from the Bill. To answer directly the case made by the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), let me say that at the core of this problem is a problem of anxiety. The individual who is spitting blood at the police officer is exploiting a myth—they are exploiting something that simply is not true. Public Health England is absolutely clear that the chances of contracting a blood-borne disease through somebody spitting at you is close to zero. This is unbelievably important, because the most significant way we can prevent this epidemic of spitting, is by making it clear to the people doing the spitting that the terror they are trying to communicate is a joke—it is absurd. These people are, in the traditional sense of the word, “terrorists”; their intention is to spread terror. What they are trying to do is psychological.

Putting into the Bill something that reconfirms the psychological fallacy that someone can communicate a blood-borne disease through spitting will simply encourage these people to spit even more. What they are trying to do by spitting, in some deranged way, is to make a death threat. They are trying to say, “By spitting at you with blood, I am giving you a terminal disease”, but they cannot do that. The best response to someone who is attempting to produce a fiction or magic, and is trying to intimidate you through magic, is to say, “This is nonsense. What you have done to me is disgusting. I’ve got a gob load of spit on me, but there is absolutely no way you’ve harmed my health by doing this.”

That needs to be made absolutely clear, because there are two separate problems involved in this. One relates to the risk of transmission and the second relates to the nature of these tests. The risk of transmission of a blood-borne disease through spitting is, as Public Health England says, close to zero. The second problem is with these tests. The hon. Member for Halifax gave an example of a false positive, but there are also many examples of false negatives, and these tests are not timely—they cannot communicate an early transmission. Consequently, the only way in which a medical professional should respond to these cases is by focusing not on a test result, which is irrelevant because it is not reliable, but on the mode of transmission. In other words, if somebody has been spat at there should not be any post-exposure prophylaxis treatment given, regardless of an apparent result of a test.

If, on the other hand, someone has been injected with a needle, in almost every case PEP should be allocated, again regardless of the result of the test as that result might show up too late for the PEP to be effective. The proper medical procedure is therefore to focus on the mode, not the test. That means that in this case it would not be of significant use to test somebody, it would not be strictly necessary, and it would not be proportionate in balancing the benefit and the cost. The right to know would therefore not trump the right to privacy in this case.

Break in Debate

Stephen Crabb Portrait Stephen Crabb - Parliament Live - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:54 p.m.

Thank you for letting me make this speech from a sedentary position, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will not keep the House long, and I am sorry that I was not able to participate in the earlier proceedings as fully as I wanted to.

As a sponsor of the Bill, I want to put on record how pleased I am to see it reach this point. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is a good friend and a great parliamentarian. When he took on the task of bringing this issue back to the House to put it on the statute book, building on the excellent foundational work of the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), I was never in any doubt that he would be successful, because he would be working with the spirit of Back Benchers on both sides of the House. We knew from when the hon. Member for Halifax brought the issue to this place that there was a lot of support on both sides of the House for increasing penalties and seeing our emergency workers get the respect on the statute book that they deserve.

I would like to commend and congratulate the Ministers, without whom we would not be at this stage. Right from the very start, they were committed to seeing the Bill get through the House successfully. They have worked with the hon. Member for Rhondda and others across the House in an intelligent and pragmatic way, and they deserve an awful lot of credit for bringing the Bill to this point.

My constituency, Preseli Pembrokeshire, is in the Dyfed-Powys police force area, which is geographically the largest police force area in England and Wales. Statistically it is also the safest part of the United Kingdom in terms of crime rates. Nevertheless, I have been staggered over the last six to nine months, since we embarked on the passage of the Bill, by the number of personal testimonies that I have received from serving police officers in the Dyfed-Powys police force area, PCSOs, firefighters and others about their experiences while they are out there serving their communities on the frontline as emergency workers.

A number of colleagues have made the point that the Bill is not perfect. It will not answer the totality of the issue of the assaults that these workers face, the personal trauma they go through and the psychological impact on them and their families—of course it will not, but it is a really significant step forward.

Probably the biggest thing I have learned from conversations with police officers and PCSOs, and from emails I have read, is the enormous psychological impact of incidents such as these on an emergency worker. Just because a police officer or firefighter is tough and strong does not mean that the impact on their mental health and emotional wellbeing is any less—quite the opposite on occasion.

The Bill sends a powerful message and signal. On Report my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said that he wants legislation to do more than just send a signal, and I agree. We do not just pass symbolic legislation in this place, and the Bill will be more than symbolic. Yes, it will send out a powerful statement, but it will make a solid practical contribution to a better statute book for our emergency workers. It makes it clear that assaults, whether violent physical assaults, verbal assaults or the disgusting act of spitting, are not acceptable in our society. Our emergency workers deserve every bit of credit, respect and esteem that we can give them, and supporting this Bill is a practical way of showing that.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Parliament Live - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 1:55 p.m.

It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb). He has been a fantastic supporter of this campaign from the start, which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) have appreciated.

I start by paying tribute to my partner in crime fighting, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, for his work in getting us here today. He is always incredibly generous in crediting me with starting this campaign, but the truth is that without his tenacity, his leadership, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of how this place works, we simply would not have made it this far. I know that blue-light responders, NHS workers, and prison officers all over the country are truly grateful to him.

For all our political differences in this place, and what can often seem like the glacial pace of delivering change in Westminster, to go from a harrowing experience in my constituency when out with West Yorkshire police in summer 2016, to being here today, just two years later, at Third Reading for a Bill that will create a new offence of assaulting an emergency service worker, is a showcase of Parliament at its best. That does not mean that getting here was easy, and unusually the journey between Committee stage and Report was the most trying period of the Bill’s passage. It is not entirely the Bill that I hoped it would be for the reasons we explored on Report, but it is a massive step in the right direction.

We know that only a package of measures—legislative and otherwise—will bring about the societal change we want. That will involve working with the Crown Prosecution Service, the judiciary, employers, offenders, and emergency service workers to promote the reporting of such acts, ensure that appropriate support is provided, and that the consequences that follow reflect the seriousness of the crime.

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to PC Craig Gallant, the single-crewed officer who I shadowed on that fateful evening in Halifax. Not only did he narrowly escape potentially serious or even life-threatening injuries at the hands of an angry mob, but nothing quite prepared him for the trauma of me thrusting him into the spotlight as the face of a national campaign to protect emergency service workers, and the merciless ribbing that he took from his colleagues as a result. Thank you PC Gallant for allowing me to tell that story. I know that your colleagues understand and appreciate that they will be better protected in future because of it.

I also thank Lambeth police because, ironically and infuriatingly, during Second Reading my flat in London was broken into and robbed. When the police came to investigate, they told me that they would normally ask for more information about my whereabouts during the time the robbery took place, but that they knew exactly where I was because they had been following the debate. Fingers crossed that my flat is still intact when I return to it this evening. If not I will be joining the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and revisiting sentencing guidelines across the board.

My biggest regret is that we could not agree on more concrete proposals to address the fears and anxieties of a 999 responder who has been spat at by an offender. I understand the practical problems with the clauses as originally drafted, and the limitations of testing, yet unless we establish evidence-based best practice that extends to all those covered by the Bill, I fear that the problems we are trying to overcome will persist. I want to ensure that those who have had either blood or saliva spat at them receive the best possible medical advice from a specialist, within hours of the incident. I am hopeful of that becoming a reality, based on earlier conversations and the contribution from the Minister at the Dispatch Box, and I hope for firmer proposals before the Bill completes its journey through both Houses. I am grateful to the trade unions representing emergency service workers that have been with us all the way on this journey—Unison, the GMB, the Prison Officers Association and the Police Federation. Again, I join the hon. Member for Shipley in paying particular tribute to Chief Inspector Nick Smart, the chair of the West Yorkshire Police Federation. He has been incredibly important in helping us to turn one incident into a national campaign for change.

We have had a good, constructive dialogue with the Government throughout this process. While we have encountered practical challenges and differences of opinion, I am pleased that we have been able to work through the vast majority of those in as collaborative a way as possible. I am grateful to both the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, the right hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) for that relationship. I also thank the shadow Policing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who has made a series of speeches on the Bill from the Dispatch Box. Characteristically, she always got the tone and content absolutely right.

I say to all who have shared their stories with me, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and other MPs who have supported the Bill, often when there was a difficult tale to tell, that those experiences have assisted with the shaping and fine-tuning of these law changes, and emergency service workers, NHS workers and prison officers, now and in the future, will be better protected because of it.

Jeremy Quin Portrait Jeremy Quin - Parliament Live - Hansard
27 Apr 2018, 2 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who has done so much to push this cause over the last two years. I congratulate her on that and wish her well on her return to her flat—I trust it will be in good order when she gets back.

It was also a pleasure to hear the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), on Third Reading. He speculated about whether he was important to his constituents, but he is certainly important to this place, and he has done important work today. It is a pleasure to be here to support him, as it was to support him on Second Reading back on 20 October. In replying to the debate, the hon. Gentleman regaled the House with his story of being locked in a police van for his own protection by the police, who then unaccountably forgot about him. All I can assume is that no policeman will ever be so remiss again following the work done by him, the Ministers and all the House in helping to progress the Bill on to the statute book.

I am delighted that the Bill has made so much progress. The measure is supported firmly by my local police federation and by my excellent police and crime commissioner, Katy Bourne. Earlier, I did my district an injustice when I said that there had been 28 assaults on police officers in Horsham in 2016-17—there were 21. However, even one assault is one too many and we are sending a clear message this afternoon.

My interest in this issue was sparked before the debate came to this House by a constituent—a police officer—who wrote to me. He had responded to a call from a man who had been stabbed. On locating him, he found him with stab injuries in the neck, face and head. My constituent provided life-saving first aid, and while he was administering it, he was spat at, as was his colleague. My constituent was in full uniform—it was clear that he was a police officer—and he wrote to me, saying that due to the man’s

“aggressive nature and the risk of injury he had to be handcuffed so we could…administer first aid.”

It is a disgrace that anyone has to go through that, and we are sending a message today that such behaviour is never, ever acceptable.

I thought it was iniquitous that after that assault, although the assailant could go home from hospital, my constituent had to wait for weeks for tests to be taken and results to come in. I was sorry that clause 6 had to be withdrawn, but I understand why the hon. Member for Rhondda said that that was the case. I urge the Government to do all they can with education or vaccines to ease the situation for all our emergency workers who face these circumstances, but with that one proviso, I wish the Bill Godspeed.

Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Legislation Page: Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018

Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Holly Lynch Excerpts
Friday 20th October 2017

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Stephen Crabb Portrait Stephen Crabb - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:24 a.m.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The devolved Administrations have their own systems for collecting data, but that should not be a barrier to ensuring a proper UK-wide picture of what is going on across the whole country.

If we are serious about taking a zero-tolerance approach to mindless attacks on frontline workers, let us ensure that we have a framework of law that reflects that, not only for the police but for firefighters, paramedics, nurses and prison officers. There have been calls for the scope of the Bill to be widened to include workers in other health and care settings. As I have said, that is a matter for discussion in Committee. The important priority today is to ensure that this Bill passes its Second Reading with the strongest possible support from across the House.

Before I finish, I wish to address one more aspect, which is the proposed powers to take blood samples and non-intimate samples such as saliva. When I began my research, I confess that I did not appreciate the significance of this issue in the context of assaults on emergency workers. One of the officers I met last week described an assault when she went to assist a woman at a domestic incident. The woman turned aggressively on the police officer and attacked her, causing several injuries including significant bleeding when she dug her long fingernails into her hand. The attacker then shouted at the officer that she was carrying a blood disease. For the past five months, that officer has been living with stress and anxiety over what she may or may not have been infected with. No samples have been taken from the attacker to check whether or not she was lying, so the officer has faced the long process of being tested herself. She told me how she has been afraid of just how much physical contact she should give her own children, for fear of passing something on. The right to take samples from suspects will rapidly accelerate the process of determining a potential contraction and will give a confident assurance to those emergency workers affected that we are here to help them through the situation.

There is plenty of detail to be worked out in the Bill, but this morning gives us the opportunity to show our strongest possible support for its Second Reading. It is a chance to signal the extent of our respect and support for our emergency workers. This is not just about signalling, however. I am sceptical of proposed legislation that is just declaratory or that contains just rhetoric; the important point about this Bill is that it is practical and useful, and its measures will make a real difference to the working lives of some of the most important people in our society.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:27 a.m.

I am delighted to speak on Second Reading. First, I must pay tribute to my honourable friend—in the truest sense of those words—the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has taken on this campaign, pushing it forward with his trademark tenacity, attention to detail, pragmatism and, of course, humour, which have allowed us to get to where we are. I know that I channel the voices of frontline emergency service workers all over the country when I thank him for the leadership he has demonstrated with this Bill.

For those who are not familiar with how the “Protect the Protectors” campaign started—which surely cannot be that many people now, given that I am genuinely losing my voice from having told the story so many times this week alone—it began last summer when I took the opportunity to join West Yorkshire police in my constituency for a Friday evening late shift, shadowing a single-crewed response officer responding to 999 calls.

It was not long into my time with PC Craig Gallant that the on-board automatic number plate recognition system flagged up that a car we had just passed should be stopped in order to speak to the driver about drugs offences. When the blue lights were put on, the driver initially sped away, but after a short chase, he eventually came to a stop. PC Gallant got out of the police car to speak to the driver, asking him to get out of his vehicle, but the driver, who had passengers in his car, refused to do so. It was a warm summer’s evening in an area of Halifax where, unfortunately, deprivation has fed a variety of social challenges, and those out on the streets took an almost instant and tribal dislike to the lone officer in their community.

While PC Gallant persevered with the driver, passers-by and passing vehicles began to take an interest, and a small and increasingly agitated crowd began to gather. The situation very quickly escalated when further vehicles pulled up at speed. The occupants of those cars got out to confront the officer, while the passengers of the first vehicle sought to escape by getting into one of those that had just arrived. Now facing a hostile crowd, with those engaged in criminal activity seeking to create havoc to facilitate a getaway, and some residents, disappointingly but probably unknowingly, assisting them by joining the threatening gang that had gathered, PC Gallant locked me in the police car for my own safety and was forced to draw his baton to protect himself while instructing the crowd to move back. Locked in the police car, I was equipped with nothing more than a fluorescent observer jacket. I did not know if PC Gallant had called for back-up and I did not know how to use the car radio to make contact with the control room. I cannot stress to colleagues enough the sense of powerlessness: the fear that I might have to sit in that police car and watch him take a beating, or worse. I decided that calling 999 directly was the fastest way to make contact with the control room. I cannot convey either just how it felt, having asked for the police, to be told repeatedly by an automated message, “Please hold the line.”

What was probably only seconds felt like an eternity while I watched the scene unfold. Having finally been connected, I relayed the situation to the control room. To say I was relieved when reinforcements arrived is something of an understatement. After the passengers from the first car had managed to escape, despite PC Gallant’s best efforts, their quick getaway and the arrival of further officers meant that the situation was defused fairly quickly. Astonishingly, no injuries were sustained on that occasion. It is fair to say that PC Gallant remained much calmer than I did throughout the ordeal, but I saw for myself just how quickly situations can become dangerous and just how vulnerable officers are when they are out on their own.

Those who attended the photo drop-in on Wednesday—I thank all those who did—will have had the opportunity to meet PC Gallant, who, after the incident, simply got on with the rest of his shift and shook it off, having not been assaulted on that occasion at least, unlike on so many others.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab) - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:31 a.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and it is good to see her having a glass of water. I met PC Gallant the other morning. She has given us a powerful and shocking report of the incident she witnessed. Does she agree that our constituents would be shocked to find out how many attacks take place? For instance, the Police Federation survey estimates there were nearly 21,000 attacks on police officers just in Gwent in 2015-16.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:31 a.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. This is what we are seeing increasingly. It is both the frequency and the severity of these incidents. If we do not take this opportunity to act and address them, they will become more normalised and we absolutely do not want that to happen.

Having shared that experience with colleagues during an Adjournment debate last October, I then found myself inundated with what can only be described as horror stories from not only the police, but emergency service workers from all over the country who had been subjected to assaults that seem to be increasing in both frequency and severity. What thoroughly depresses 999 and NHS workers is that sentences handed down to offenders for assaulting them often fail to reflect the seriousness of the crime, or, more crucially, to serve as a deterrent. Many described feeling like they had suffered an injustice twice. first at the hands of the offender and then again in court when sentences were unduly lenient.

We make the laws in here, but we ask the police to uphold and enforce them out there. To assault an emergency service worker is to show a complete disregard for law and order, for our shared values, and for democracy itself. That must be reflected in sentencing, particularly for repeat offenders. Because of the separation between lawmakers and the Sentencing Council, we have sought to explore all the ways we could toughen legislation in the Bill to protect those on the front line.

In previous speeches I have made on this subject, I told Parliament about how, just days before my shift, PC Vicky Tompkins had responded to a call in my district. On arriving, she was head-butted by an offender, knocking her to the floor. The assault snapped one of her teeth and dislodged another, causing other fractures to her mouth and face. She had to have temporary filling work and a splint put in her mouth. There is a video of PC Tompkins recounting the incident on the Police Federation’s website, which is incredibly difficult to watch. The offender was released and went on to assault another police officer not long after.

I was proud to see PC Tompkins receive an award at the district awards in June this year, following the role she played in saving the life of a suicidal young woman who was holding on to the outside of a multi-storey car park by her fingertips. Since then, however, PC Tompkins has joined the increasing number of those who have handed in their resignation and taken the decision to leave policing. I take this opportunity to thank her for her service and to let her know that her experience has fed into this campaign, which I hope will make a significant difference in protecting those who continue to serve and those who will serve.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:34 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has fought a magnificent campaign over the past 12 months. We worked together when I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Office. I commend her for seeing this legislation through with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The scenes she describes are upsetting and just plain wrong. Does she agree that investing in body-worn cameras for police officers will help them to secure convictions, and, I hope, higher sentences, and perhaps save them from the arduous task of having to give evidence in court and be cross-examined to explain what happened? The videos will show what happened to them and I hope that will increase convictions in these circumstances.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:35 a.m.

I am really grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. I thank her for her support. We had an open dialogue when she was in her previous role, which was incredibly helpful. She is absolutely right that body-worn video has given frontline officers in particular the assurance that, should they be confronted in that way, there will be an evidence base that will help to secure prosecutions in court, which is what we all want.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds) (Con) - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:36 a.m.

On that point, in a recent conversation with police officers in Bury St Edmunds, they said how beneficial body-worn videos are. Is there scope in the Bill for their use in other circumstances, for example for those who work in ambulances and so on who also go into very aggressive situations? They could help them, too.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:36 a.m.

Again, I am grateful for that considered and thoughtful intervention. There are lots of issues surrounding the challenge we are trying to address. Legislation and sentencing is one element, and, as legislators, that is our brief, but there are all sorts of conversations about personal protective equipment. Are our frontline emergency service workers carrying everything that would be helpful in those circumstances? The hon. Lady is right that we can look in Committee at where there is scope to incorporate that, but some of those conversations will need to happen beyond this legislative process.

The second aspect of the Bill aims to deal with the hideous act of spitting at emergency service workers. As well as being horrible, spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a very real risk of transmitting a range of infectious diseases, some with life-changing or even lethal consequences. At an event organised by Rob Marris, the former Member for Wolverhampton South West, I met PC Mike Bruce and PC Alan O’Shea of West Midlands police, who were also able to join us for the drop-in on Wednesday; my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda recounted one of those conversations earlier. Both officers had blood spat in their faces while trying to arrest a violent offender. They both had to undergo antiviral treatments to reduce their risk of contracting communicable diseases and they faced a six-month wait to find out whether the treatment had been successful.

During that time, PC O’Shea’s brother was undergoing treatment for cancer. Because it was deemed by professionals that the risk of passing on an infection was too high should he have contracted a disease, he was advised not to see his brother throughout that intervening period. He was also advised not to see his parents, because they were in such regular contact with his brother. PC Bruce had a false positive result for hepatitis B, and, for six months until conclusive test results came through and following further tests within his family, he was understandably reluctant to be close to his wife or children, fearing for their wellbeing. Victim impact statements provided by both officers outlining their experiences, failed to secure a custodial sentence for the prolific offender. Conversely, it only empowered him further. He left court knowing that he had a much greater impact on their lives than he had initially thought and showed absolutely no remorse. At the moment, as we have already heard, if an emergency service worker is spat at, they can take a blood sample from an individual only if that person gives their permission. Needless to say that in the case of PC O’Shea and PC Bruce, the offender was not in a helpful mood, so they were subjected to antiviral treatments and a six-month wait.

The Bill would protect not just police officers, but all blue light emergency responders, as well as healthcare professionals, those engaged in search and rescue work, and prison officers.

David Morris Portrait David Morris - Hansard

I have read in the newspapers—in truth, I do not know if this is correct—that when people have an AIDS test or something similar, their insurance is reviewed. Could we put in the Bill, during the Committee stage, special provision for emergency workers so they are not penalised in this way by certain insurance companies?

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:39 a.m.

That had not been brought to my attention until now, and I will certainly look into it. This too may be a conversation that we need to have outside the context of the Bill, but we will undoubtedly explore all the opportunities during its passage.

A report published in December by Yorkshire ambulance service revealed that staff faced “violence and aggression” on a weekly basis. There was a 50% increase in the number of reported incidents of verbal and physical attacks on staff, with 606 incidents reported in 2015-16. Richard Bentley, a paramedic in Leeds who was also with us on Wednesday, told the BBC that he had faced three serious assaults in five years He had been bitten, head-butted, and threatened with a knife. Members of West Yorkshire fire and rescue service have also reported being subject to assaults. On bonfire night, the service received 1,043 calls, with crews attending 265 incidents. It was disgraceful that, faced with such pressures on the busiest night of the year, firefighters in West Yorkshire were subject to 19 attacks overnight.

The Bill would also cover assaults on prison officers. Over the past 15 years, there has been a steady but dramatic increase in the number of reported incidents of prison officers being spat at or bitten. We should bear in mind that anyone can spit. People do not need to go to the trouble of acquiring or fashioning an offensive weapon in order to inflict life-changing consequences on another person; they can simply use their own bodily fluids. Regardless of whether the spitter has a communicable disease, the inability to determine that at the time of the incident leaves emergency service workers with no choice other than to undergo antiviral treatments and face an agonising six-month wait. When I checked with the Prison Officers Association, it confirmed that a prison officer would be expected to be at work during the intervening time, and—unlike those in the other services—might be asked to return to his or her duties on the same wing, to face the spitter every day of that agonising period.

When I was growing up, my mum was a nurse and my dad was a police sergeant. When she was working in A&E, someone tried to kick my mum in the stomach while she was pregnant with me. My dad received a bravery award following an incident when he came home absolutely black and blue after a violent offender had resisted arrest. I am pleased to say that he succeeded in making that arrest.

This is not a new issue, but in my time as an MP I have seen that the threats facing our emergency service workers are more prevalent than ever. If we do not take this opportunity to act, we shall be letting down some of the bravest in our society and those on whom we all rely the most. I am very pleased that the Government recognise that fact, and that we are, I understand, working together to deliver changes that would go some way towards giving our emergency service workers the protection that they need in order to do their jobs and keep our communities safe.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 10:42 a.m.

I, too, support the Bill. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who rightly made the point that an assault on an emergency worker is not just a simple case of disrespect, but undermines the very fabric of our society. That places such assaults in a category all their own.

The hon. Gentleman also said that lawyers had a part to play, and I hope that, as a lawyer myself, I shall have some sort of contribution to make. During the 20 years or so in which I practised before coming to this place, my experience was that courts generally treated assaults on frontline and emergency workers in a context of aggravation, and that tougher sentences tended to be imposed. Notwithstanding that, it is right for us to put those protections in statute and reassure emergency workers in particular, when they go out to serve us and deal with the public, that we, as a Parliament, a country and a society, are behind them through legal means.

While, as I have said, I fully support the Bill, I hope that the hon. Member for Rhondda will forgive me if I draw the House’s attention to some of my concerns about it. I genuinely want it to complete its passage through both Houses and become law, but I do feel that it needs an awful lot of work. I have a great deal of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman, because I have presented a private Member’s Bill myself, and I know that it is almost impossible for such a Bill to reach this stage in a perfect state, so this is not a criticism. However, it is important for us to get it right now if it is to succeed.

I have to say that when I read the Bill’s long title I winced, because it referred to emergency workers acting in the execution of their duty, whereas the body of the Bill refers to “the exercise of functions”. It is unclear which of those terms will apply to any legislation. If I understand the procedure correctly, the long title cannot be altered at this stage. I hope that that does not hamstring the hon. Gentleman, and I certainly hope that the Bill will not be constrained by incidents in which workers are simply carrying out the execution of their duty. I have witnessed too many occasions on which people charged with assaulting police officers during the execution of their duty have been able to walk because of a technicality—a breach of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, for instance—which means that those officers have not, at that precise moment, been acting in the execution of their duty.

Break in Debate

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant - Hansard

I have inadvertently misled the House. Earlier, I suggested that I could not change the long title, but I could change it in Committee.

Incidentally, I was trying to say earlier that hon. Members do not have to keep on saying thank you to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch).

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard

Steady on.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 11:56 a.m.

Inadvertently, the hon. Gentleman—in his usual humble, don’t look at me, I’m pretending not to be here sort of way—has drawn attention to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). I know from talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), when he was the Policing Minister, about the important work the hon. Lady has done on this proposal, and she deserves the thanks of the House.

It is great that the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that the long title can be changed. I just wonder whether it should refer to assaults on “public service workers”. There are a number of categories of people I do not think anybody would seek to demur from including. This is not a full list, but they might include social workers, as several Members have mentioned; psychiatric nurses, particularly when they are on an interaction; those who work for Border Force; people involved with public transport; and our local authority staff. We talk about ambulances, but I am not quite sure whether those who volunteer for St John Ambulance would be covered.

Break in Debate

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 11:59 a.m.

I rise to make three points in welcoming this Bill and seeing, I hope, the House at its best in coming together on something that we all clearly agree on.

On Friday night, three police officers were injured breaking up a brawl in Boston, one of them seriously. Subsequent comments on Facebook included, “The only thing I’m disappointed in is that the other two coppers didn’t get knocked down as well.” While there were more responsible people saying, for example, “Police officers are willing to help anybody and that’s why they put on their uniform”, that underlines why such legislation is necessary. We tell ourselves in this place that everyone is on the side of our public servants, but frankly that is not always the case. I pay tribute to Constables Mike Redfern, Michael Rooke and Dan Lewis, who were injured on Friday night in the course of their duties. This legislation is clearly vital.

Much has been said about the definition of an emergency worker, and it will surprise nobody that I would like to chip in a couple of extra suggestions. I agree with a lot of what has been said about social workers. I would add—not simply because my mum was a nurse and I am married to a doctor—that our general practitioners are often at their most vulnerable when they are alone in a room with a patient who may be seeking emergency treatment with an on-the-day appointment. I urge the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the Minister to consider whether workers in the NHS more broadly, who are often also providing emergency care, should be considered in this. I think, having declared my interest, that particular consideration should be given to GPs, because they are often particularly vulnerable.

It is extremely good news to see the inclusion of prison officers such as those serving at North Sea Camp prison in my constituency, and the RNLI, which does hugely valuable work on a voluntary basis. In Lincolnshire we are lucky to have an RNLI that thrives and does exceptional work. Apart from having to deal with prank calls, they often find that the people who benefit from their work, in sometimes extraordinary circumstances, do not always appreciate it as much as they should.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 12:04 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly powerful speech. He makes a very valid point about the RNLI. I recently visited the RNLI at the Tower on the Thames and saw the unique circumstances that it faces. Predominantly, people end up in the Thames because they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or because they have attempted to self-harm or commit suicide, and the RNLI meets a great deal of resistance from the people it seeks to assist. I am really pleased that we have been able to incorporate protections for it within the Bill.

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman - Hansard
20 Oct 2017, 12:03 p.m.

I absolutely agree. It is a testament to the thought that has already gone into this Bill that we are not asking whether we should add the RNLI. However, the hon. Member for Rhondda was right to say that while we might wish to protect every public servant in one go, there is a risk that the Bill becomes a sort of spine on which we hang a huge number of professions. We do not want a whole load of unintended consequences when, as I think we all agree, this is a very good Bill for us all to support. The more we can do that, the better a place we will end up in.

I welcome this Bill hugely. I very much hope that it can be refined in Committee. I put in a special word for my wife, specifically, and for GPs in general.