|Fri 27th April 2018||
Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill
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
2nd reading: House of Commons
|19 interactions (2,386 words)|
Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Holly LynchMain Page: Holly Lynch (Labour) - Halifax)
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.
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.
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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—
Just before I finish my peroration, I give way to the hon. Lady.
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.
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Clauses 4 to 6 therefore should not remain in the Bill.
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?
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?
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.
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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.
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 DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Holly LynchMain Page: Holly Lynch (Labour) - Halifax)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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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).
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.
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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.
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.