|Fri 27th April 2018||
Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill
3rd reading: House of Commons
Report stage: House of Commons
|15 interactions (948 words)|
|Fri 20th October 2017||
Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill
2nd reading: House of Commons
|3 interactions (101 words)|
Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Jeremy QuinMain Page: Jeremy Quin (Conservative - Horsham)
Yes, clearly there is an issue. It is entirely appropriate that different police forces should have autonomous powers to be able to take these issues in the direction that they want. Different police forces face different challenges at particular times, then there is the issue of resources as well.
It is absolutely true that this is a growing issue. One problem is that, because police officers may sort of have got used to this behaviour, other emergency workers are now being treated in exactly the same way. Let me read one case from the east midlands last November:
“A man spat at a newly recruited police woman 24 times while under arrest in the back of an ambulance. The handcuffed man laughs as he spits at the officer who warned him he was being recorded on her body camera. He repeatedly targets her face as he sat on the bed next to a paramedic. The police woman was in her first year on the job when she became a victim of the vile attack.”
I think that every single one of us wants to send out an absolutely clear, unambiguous message from this House—I know that the hon. Member for Shipley does not like sending out messages, but sometimes declaratory legislation has an effect as well—that spitting at emergency workers is not on and that the full force of the law should be used against those who do it.
To be honest, when the law behaves in such a pernickety way as to be able to provide a ludicrous—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who has some legal expertise, is laughing at the idea of lawyers being pernickety. I know that that is sort of their job, but when we end up with loopholes being abused in such a way, the law ends up looking like an ass. It is therefore incumbent on us sometimes to draw legislation as widely as possible to ensure that all such offences are caught. That has been the deliberate intention of the Bill.
Incidentally, I hope that in drafting the Bill, with the assistance of Government draftspeople and ministerial help, we have managed to land on a piece of legislation that is more effective than the parallel legislation that exists in Scotland. Scotland may, in fact, want to look at our legislation and reshape its own law to reflect this.
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“we are human, just like everybody else, and we have a job to do. If nothing else, just remember that I have got a family that I would like to go back to.”
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. One challenge we face in this place is that sometimes those of us who represent the more rural areas are perceived as representing some sort of rural idyll, where there are no problems and no concerns. That is far from the case, and we need to make sure rural areas are covered adequately too.
I will not try your patience much longer, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to say in conclusion that it is my hope and that of many others in this House that the passage of the Bill will send a clear message to emergency service workers about how deeply they are valued, and provide some reassurance that they do not need to tolerate abuse and assault while carrying out their duties. I hope too that the Bill’s passage will send a message to the public that emergency service workers are protected by legislation and that those who are violent towards them will face the full force of the law.
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Absolutely. In return for the hon. Gentleman’s sense and solidarity in not pressing the amendment, we will focus on making sure that the relevant authorities, particularly the CPS, are clearly instructed to consider spitting as included under common assault. I hope that in a small way this speech in the House of Commons will re-emphasise, in case anyone is in any doubt, that it is Parliament’s intention that spitting should always be included within the offence of common assault.
That brings us to the amendment and various new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, which would further increase the penalty for assaulting emergency workers, police officers and prison officers. This is a complex set of new clauses. New clauses 1 and 2 relate to the existing law—in particular the Police Act 1996, as it relates to a police officer in the execution of their duty—and seek to do two things. The first is to increase the maximum penalty from six months to 12 months. On that, we respectfully argue that if the Bill passes today, we will have already increased to 12 months the maximum penalty for such an assault on a police officer in the exercise of their functions. It would therefore be unnecessary to further amend the Police Act.
The aim of new clause 2 and amendment 9 is to double the maximum penalty from 12 months to 24 months either by amending the Police Act or dealing with the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Government wish to resist this approach because we have to weigh up two principles. On the one hand, we believe very strongly that emergency workers are entitled to a particular form of respect and protection because they work on our behalf—they provide services to us; they represent us. The police officer courageously confronting the criminal and the prison officer courageously confronting an offender in a prison are both acting on our behalf, and an assault on them is an assault on us. On those grounds, it is absolutely valid that the maximum penalty for such an assault be doubled. This is an important moment in English law.
There is, however, a second important principle in English common law: we are all equal, and victims are equal. The victim of sexual assault should be remembered above all as a victim of sexual assault, not on the basis of their profession or occupation, or of the function they were engaged in at the moment of the assault. That is why we believe that the proper indication of our respect for public servants should be to double the maximum penalty, but to move beyond that and quadruple it would begin to create the kind of situation that exists in Russia, which I hope will never exist in the UK, whereby uniformed officers become a caste apart and go into a category of a superior form of human being with an entitlement to a quite separate form of protection. On those grounds, we think that moderation and proportionality would require us to stick at 12 months, not 24, and we courteously request that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley withdraws new clause 1, and does not press new clause 2 and amendment 9.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many people who do things on behalf of the public in their daily lives are entitled to protection, but not all of them are covered by the Bill. There is a more fundamental point that relates particularly to sexual assault. We want to make it absolutely clear that what really matters in such circumstances is the brutal, undignified nature of that assault on anyone, regardless of their profession. That is why we have to get the balance right in sentencing.
This brings me to new clauses 4 to 18, which relate to assaults on prison officers. As a Justice Minister, I have strong empathy with the intention behind the new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. Prison officers operate in an environment that the public are rarely allowed into. They have a dangerous and stressful job—I will touch on that a little more in my closing speech—and are entitled to a much higher degree of protection, but too often they do not receive it. We therefore think it absolutely right for them to be included among the emergency workers and for the maximum penalty for an assault on a prison officer to be increased from six months to 12 months. Beyond that, we want to do more to protect prison officers, including through the use of protective equipment and the devices they carry. We want to encourage the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to bring more prosecutions for assaults on prison officers. However, for two reasons, we do not think that this particular ingenious proposal—that someone assaulting a prison officer should have to serve twice the length of the sentence currently set out under the Criminal Justice Act 2003—represents an appropriate response.
The first reason, which is philosophical, is that if an individual has been put in prison for their original offence, they should be punished for that offence, with a subsequent offence judged and punished separately. For example, if an individual has been put in jail for 12 years for the importation of a class A drug, their punishment has been designed to fit that crime. If they then assault a prison officer, they need to be punished for assaulting a prison officer. Their initial crime of importing class A drugs should not be used to punish them for assaulting a prison officer.
The second reason, which is practical rather than philosophical, is that under the new clauses, someone who has been put in jail for 12 years would automatically get a further six years in jail if they assaulted a prison officer. However, someone who had been put in jail for six months would, under my hon. Friend’s proposals, get a further three months in jail, yet the assault that those two individuals had committed would be exactly the same.
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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.
This is the first time that I have spoken in today’s debate, not because of a lack of support for the Bill, but to make sure that it receives its speedy passage through the House of Commons. I reiterate my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who have run an absolutely fantastic, speedy campaign since my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax first introduced this through a ten-minute rule Bill last year. In that time, she has brought together the House of Commons, and the shadow Minister and Ministers, which is rarely done, in supporting this legislation. Hopefully today we will see the Bill pass through—amended, but all the better for it.
We have had a fantastic debate today, conducted in a comradely and collegiate spirit, with some real expertise on all elements of the criminal justice system. All have been united in the objective of getting this right and delivering protection for the people who go out every day and risk their lives to keep all of us safe.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, the most common comment I have heard from countless police officers and emergency service workers, to whom we have all spoken, is that over the years assault and sexual assault have come to be accepted and seen as the norm within the police and NHS. While this debate has been going on, the assistant chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police, Jim Colwell, has tweeted that overnight there were 10 assaults on the officers under his care, including kicks, punches, headbutts and spitting. He asks, how the public feel about this and whether they accept it. The House is saying today that it is absolutely unacceptable. It is not part of the job that he and his colleagues do. We as parliamentarians are saying that society has zero tolerance for anyone who assaults our emergency service workers.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has made some important points, particularly about early release and behaviour, but in all his examples, as explained by colleagues, the CPS made the wrong charging decision. I accept the principle behind his amendments, but, as we have heard today, the CPS needs to be more accountable for what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) described as lazy prosecutorial decisions, and that applies equally when the CPS decides to charge someone when it should not have. A constituent of mine was recently charged and taken to court, but the magistrates threw the case out immediately because the decision to take it forward had been so ridiculous. The CPS should be held responsible and accountable for that decision, just as the police are held accountable, and rightly so, for the decisions they make that have serious consequences for the people they protect or charge. That is another point the House has made today. I hope the Minister will say how we can hold the CPS and prosecutors to account for their charging decisions.
I must comment briefly on the strain that our emergency services are under and which has played a part in the rise in the number of assaults. Very rarely have our police and emergency services been under more pressure. The job is getting harder, and for those on the frontline it is becoming overwhelming. Our emergency services are increasingly relied upon not just as the service of last resort but as the service of first resort, as the gaps between the services that make up our social safety net and on which our communities rely get wider. The NHS is under unbelievable pressure and is struggling to cope with limited resources. Waiting times for A&E are up. Ambulance services across the country simply cannot meet demand. The police are increasingly single-crewed or inappropriately dispatched—for example, female officers being dispatched to incidents of serious and violent sexual assault. Our emergency services are increasingly dealing with people suffering from mental health issues unable to access the services they need.
In that climate, nobody would suggest that the Bill is a panacea for our emergency services. The strain, stress and complex range of factors behind this increasingly difficult climate will not be solved easily, but the Bill is important, and it is vital that it be passed today, because the right to go to work and feel safe is a right that has been too easily cast aside. Our emergency services are increasingly finding themselves in vulnerable situations, and all too often security at work is far from a reality. The offences and examples we have heard today are, as the Minister said, not just crimes against the person but crimes against our society. We ask these dedicated individuals to go out and serve our communities on our behalf, and the least we can do is afford them the protection that makes it clear that society views their being assaulted in the course of their duties with the utmost seriousness.
In conclusion, I again thank and congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda and for Halifax. The Opposition are delighted to support the Bill and to see it pass safely through its Third Reading today.
Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Jeremy QuinMain Page: Jeremy Quin (Conservative - Horsham)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, which addresses my point. We should consider anything that can be done to speed this up.
Like colleagues across the House, I pay tribute to emergency service workers in my constituency for what they do day in, day out on behalf of our communities. I cannot fathom how anybody could think it appropriate to verbally or physically assault somebody who is doing their job and trying to help them. As Members of the House, we are incredibly privileged to be able to see the work of our emergency services at close hand. That is an opportunity that not many members of the public ever get. We get a unique bird’s eye view of what is happening in our communities.
A few months ago, I went out on a “nightsafe” operation with local police officers in Corby. It was an eye-opening experience to see at first hand what they have to put up with—the volatile situations officers can find themselves in within a split second of a call coming in, the risks they face on a daily basis in fulfilling their duties. One of the big upshots of the Bill, apart from doing the right thing, is that the debate, not just in the House but out there in the country, will ensure much greater understanding among members of the public about what is going on.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned the House of Commons Library figures, but I think they bear repeating: 24,000 assaults on police officers in 2016-17; 7,159 assaults on prison officers in 2016-17; 70,555 assaults on NHS staff in 2015-16. Those are eye-watering figures that I do not think anybody in the country would have comprehended before we started a proper debate on this issue.
I absolutely share that sentiment. The Bill has done a public service in itself by bringing this concerning problem to the fore: it is a national outrage that people out there in the country should be aware of, and this debate has certainly generated that awareness, which I welcome. This issue shows the House at its best. All too often people see the House in a bickering and adversarial context that they find disconcerting, unacceptable and distasteful. Our emergency service workers are the best of British and do so much for our communities. Let us make the law the very best it can be and back them to the hilt.