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Covid-19: Emergency Worker Assault Cases

Volume 676: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

1. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the handling by the CPS of emergency workers' assault cases during the covid-19 outbreak. (902939)

6. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the handling by the CPS of emergency workers' assault cases during the covid-19 outbreak. (902947)

A disappointing feature of this pandemic is the number of assaults on emergency workers, but I am reassured by the robust approach that the Crown Prosecution Service has taken. During the first month of lockdown, the CPS prosecuted more than 300 cases of assaults against emergency workers. It is clear that, when an individual threatens to infect an emergency worker by deliberately coughing or spitting, it will be treated extremely seriously by prosecutors.

The scenes experienced here in London yesterday show us at first hand the total disregard that some people have for our emergency workers, not least by flouting the social distancing rules and showing a total disregard of the safety of our frontline officers. What is just as disturbing is that one of our own colleagues allegedly decided to disregard social distancing yesterday and put all the House staff at risk, not to mention his own colleagues. Can my right hon. Friend say what changes have been made to our CPS arrangements for charging offences against emergency workers?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know people out there are feeling pain and anger. They must know that their lives matter—all lives matter—but violence and aggression are not the way forward. We are living through an unprecedented pandemic. The police are doing a heroic job in difficult circumstances and I urge people to follow the social distancing guidelines so that lives are saved. The Crown Prosecution Service issued an interim charging protocol earlier this year, which made it clear that covid-related offences are to be prioritised with an immediate charging decision, and I am glad that we have seen some robust approaches to such offences.

My constituents are extremely concerned about the increase in instances of assault against emergency workers and, after last night’s disturbing scenes outside this building, it is no wonder why. Does the Minister agree that an effective method of tackling these crimes once the individual has served their custodial sentence would be restorative justice, whereby the CPS works locally with the police to ensure they use restorative justice? For minor crimes that do not carry a custodial sentence, out of court disposals could be used.

My hon. Friend is right that those scenes of people attacking our heroic police officers were frankly sickening. It is obviously a matter for operationally independent police forces to use their flexibility and discretion as they see fit. My hon. Friend is right that out of court disposals can allow police to deal with low-level offending and first-time offending swiftly and efficiently. Whether that would be appropriate in those cases, I am not so sure personally: assaults on emergency workers are particularly callous. They are heroic men and women who are sacrificing their own health and safety in the service of others. It will always depend on the individual facts of the case and will always be a decision ultimately for the independent police force.

Can the Attorney General confirm that in assault cases, as in all other covid-related offences, the law should apply equally to all, and that as superintendent of the CPS by tweeting her support for Dominic Cummings, she undermined the impartiality of her role and the rule of law?

It is plain for any reasonable observer to see that there was no question whatever of my having provided any public legal view on the matter to which the hon. Lady refers. To suggest that that was somehow a legal opinion is simply absurd. She should know that I have no role whatever to play in the day-to-day decisions on individual cases. I respect and have full confidence in the operational independence of the CPS and the police, and I would gently encourage her to share my support and share my confidence in them.

This is the first time I have had the chance in the Chamber to welcome the Attorney General to her post. I hope that she will take up the invitation to appear before the Justice Committee before the summer recess.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has rightly detailed to the Committee the way that charging protocols and priorities work, but there has been concern that when we drop below the serious cases of assaults on emergency workers, covid-related charges were made by the police in other cases without reference to the CPS at the initial point of charge, and people were charged under the wrong section or when the evidential test was not made. Will she ensure that CPS advice is made available to the police for all charging decisions for all covid-related cases under the regulations or otherwise, to ensure that we do not get a repetition of that unfortunate state of affairs?

My hon. Friend makes me an invitation I simply cannot refuse, and I look forward to appearing before his Committee in due course. He will know that the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the associated regulations were brand new pieces of legislation introduced at pace and at a challenging time. The CPS has committed to reviewing all of its prosecutions brought under that legislation to ensure that the new laws are being applied correctly and appropriately in all cases. It has carried out a review and in a relatively small number of cases there was some confusion. The police and CPS have committed to instilling new guidance to ensure that mistakes do not get made again.

Transport workers also provide essential services and on 22 March, while on duty at Victoria station, Belly Mujinga was spat at by a man who said that he was infected with covid-19. Eleven days later, she was dead from coronavirus. British Transport police have decided not to refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution—not even for common assault—so can the Attorney General demand the investigation be reopened and demand swift action, so that there can be justice for Belly Mujinga’s family?

This was a tragic incident and it was appalling, frankly, that Belly Mujinga was abused for doing her job at Victoria station. My thoughts are with her friends and her family. British Transport police did conduct an investigation following reports that a man claiming to have covid-19 coughed and spat at Ms Mujinga and a colleague. Their investigation found no evidence that an offence had occurred of that type.