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Offences Against The Person (Amendment)

Volume 204: debated on Tuesday 25 February 1992

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4.23 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Offences against the Person Act 1861 to provide for increased penalties for assaults upon members of the emergency services on duty; and for connected purposes.
The police are responsible for protecting us from disruptive and unlawful elements in our society. The Metropolitan police and the Surrey constabulary, which cover my constituency, do a wonderful job; so do the ambulance men and firemen who serve my county.

Every day throughout the country the emergency services display devotion to duty under pressure. The police are coping with five times as many crimes as there were 30 years ago, yet we have to ask whether the members of the emergency services are getting the protection that we, as citizens, expect.

We have all heard of and been appalled by the stories during last autumn's riots of attacks on members of the emergency services who were trying to protect citizens. We know from Police Federation reports and others of policemen and policewomen who have been assaulted while investigating an incident or trying to keep the peace. Let us not ponder on the sick mentality of those who carry out such attacks. Let us start by ensuring that the punishment fits the crime. These attacks are nasty, brutish and despicable, regardless of the extent of the injuries caused.

My Bill does not focus on the tragic murders or the sickening cases of grievous bodily harm which have recently been reported. Here the full force of the law is unleashed. What is often not noticed is that members of the emergency services are increasingly faced with routine violence which can inflict injuries on them while they are carrying out their duties. The courts do not seem to be imposing stiff sentences on offenders. In recognition of that fact, my Bill is specifically concerned with assault and threatening behaviour which impedes an officer from carrying out his or her duty to protect the public.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) has raised these matters many times in the House. I pay tribute to him. Alan Eastwood, the chairman of the Police Federation, disclosed last year that close to 20,000 police officers were attacked, a figure which he claimed represents one in four of the force's operational strength. In Surrey, between January and December 1991, 238 officers were assaulted. In London, 3,725 attacks were recorded against police officers in the 12 months to October 1991.

The Government have reacted to the concern expressed by colleagues. I look forward to the publication of the Home Office's survey of statistical evidence of attacks and consequent sentencing. I hope that it will soon be available. It appears that not only is the number of incidents rising but the attacks are becoming more vicious. In Surrey alone, in the six months to October of last year, 18 officers were placed sick as a result of the assaults made on them, causing in total 211 days lost through attack-related sickness. The police also tell me that attacks on women police officers are increasingly sadistic.

The police rightly expect that the perpetrators of assaults should be severely punished. Unfortunately, that is not happening. In Surrey, between November 1990 and October 1991, 140 incidents, involving 142 offenders, were concluded. Out of that number, only 11 offenders received a custodial sentence. More specifically, the deputy chief constable of Surrey tells me that on one morning last December, magistrates in Chertsey imposed the following penalties: holding a car boot sale in contravention of a planning notice, a fine of £1,400; no car insurance, a fine of £200; fishing in the Thames without a licence, a fine of £60; assault on a police officer, occasioning actual bodily harm, a fine of £50. Last year a Surrey police officer went before the Crown court to give evidence about the attack upon him by two men. The policeman had sustained a quite serious back injury and broken bones in his arm, and he was still having physiotherapy treatment nine months later. The thugs who administered that beating received only community service orders of between 180 and 200 hours respectively.

A sentencing policy of that nature is, frankly, laughable and displays no sense of proportion. What is even more demoralising from the point of view of the police is when a section 47 offence under the Offences against the Person Act 1861, which might carry up to two or three years' imprisonment, is reduced to common assault, with a maximum of six months, or is dropped altogether, or only a warning is given. It is no wonder that the police are furious. That can only encourage the have-a-go mentality of idiots who will take a swing at the police because they know that they will get away with it.

The police are at the sharp end of tackling crime. As citizens, we can assist with communitywide involvement in neighbourhood watches or can become special constables, but, essentially, individual officers have to take the impact of increasing violence with little physical protection. They expect our support. They should take a dim view of how they would be protected by the Labour party's threats to extend political control over police and crime prevention, knowing how some socialists always have a soft spot for criminals and how the Labour party has voted against or tried to weaken every major piece of legislation that the Government have introduced to increase sentences.

I am not surprised that many police officers are buying their own body armour or considering American-style batons. Such batons could be a useful adjunct and should be part of the equipment of every police force in the country. However, they may be better for restraining than for straightforward defence.

We have to increase the penalties available in law and to encourage magistrates to impose them. I hope that magistrates pay attention to the criticism that is targeted on their sentencing policy by many hon. Members.

The criminal must be seen to pay for the assault. The police are not fair game, ready for a punch-up by any gang that feels that they can get away with it. An assault on a police officer should lead to immediate custody, even if the injury is relatively minor. The penalty should range up to a gaol sentence of two years, with or without hard labour —the phrase that appears in the original 1861 Act.

Other members of the emergency services are also vulnerable, as recent events have shown. Only yesterday, youths were reported to have thrown stones at firefighters who were trying to extinguish a blaze on a housing estate. Sadly, that was not an isolated incident. Stone throwers have made emergency calls to lure firemen into ambushes. Do those louts consider what would happen if the emergency services were stopped from attending a genuine fire or the consequences for anyone trapped in the fire? Those are not minor incidents; it is a very worrying state of affairs.

In protecting our emergency services, particularly the police, we are protecting not only the individuals who wear uniforms but society. Police officers, firemen and ambulance men and women come to the aid of individuals. If they are deflected from their duty by mindless violence, we, as citizens, suffer.

Assaults on any citizen are serious. Assaults on the emergency services when they are trying to protect citizens are unforgivable and brutish. They must be stopped by the full imposition of the powers of law and I hope that my Bill will go some way towards toughening those provisions and that magistrates will then apply them.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian Taylor. Mrs. Maureen Hicks, Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock, Mr. John Bowis, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Dudley Fishburn, Mr. Christopher Gill, Mr. Robert Hayward, Mr. Michael Irvine, Mr. Tim Janman, Mr. Roger King and Mr. Graham Riddick.

Offences Against The Person (Amendment)

Mr. Ian Taylor accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to provide for increased penalties for assaults upon members of the emergency services on duty, and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 13 March and to be printed. [Bill 88.].