Before I call the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), I remind all hon. Members that the matter of appeal of proceedings relating to the convictions of two people, and the sentencing of three people convicted of the manslaughter of PC Andrew Harper, are sub judice under the terms of this House’s resolution; reference should not, therefore, be made to either the merits or otherwise of the convictions or sentences in that case. I thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in consulting the Table Office in advance of his debate. I remind any other Member participating in the debate to be equally mindful of the sub judice resolution and matters still before the courts. The debate can go on until 5.45 pm.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered protections for emergency service workers.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank everybody for taking the time to contribute to this debate.
The pandemic has reminded everyone of the important role our emergency service workers play in protecting, defending and saving lives. Doctors, nurses, police officers, paramedics, fire service personnel and everyone else on the frontline have served with fortitude and commitment during these unprecedented times. While the country has retreated to the safety of our own home, our emergency service workers have rolled up their sleeves to protect and save lives. They have held the hands of dying patients, provided counselling to distraught family members, maintained order in some of our most vulnerable communities, and upheld hope in our everyday lives. I am proud that in Stockton we have an award-winning hospital that is filled to the brim with a talented and passionate workforce. Throughout the pandemic, I volunteered at University Hospital of North Tees and saw at first hand the commitment of a workforce who give 110% to caring for local people.
While this pandemic has made us appreciate those who work in the health service, it has also allowed us to see the diverse roles that other frontline workers play. In Cleveland, we have frontline police officers who are second to none. To most of us, it seems perverse that anyone would want to assault another person for doing their job. Abusing someone who, by definition, goes to work and dedicates their life to helping others is simply wrong, but during a night shift with my local police force, I witnessed the horrid abuse our emergency service workers face. I shadowed police officers as they attended a call to deal with an aggressive, drug-fuelled individual who was making it his business to abuse the hospital staff who were trying to help him. Matters then turned physical, and the individual lashed out at officers, throwing fists and feet in an effort to evade arrest.
Whether physical or verbal, abuse is abuse, and it should never be tolerated. Sadly, incidents like the one I witnessed are not rare. In 2019, more than 11,000 people were prosecuted for assaulting emergency service workers, and it is thought that this number has risen by as much as a third this year. In our year of crisis, when we are more reliant on our emergency service workers than ever, the number of assaults has increased. We cannot allow that to go on.
Between 2008 and 2019, 92 police officers lost their lives while on duty. Some 39% of officers across the country have been assaulted. Between August 2019 and July 2020, 6,668 were assaulted, which is an average of 18 assaults on officers every single day. Within those national statistics are even darker pockets of local problems. In Cleveland, in the year to October 2019, there were 440 assaults on emergency service workers. That is 440 too many. This year, that has risen by more than 50%, to 662. Whatever we are doing is not working, and we must do more.
It would be impossible to discuss this issue and not think about a man who embodied duty and service, and who committed his life to uphold, defend and protect. That man is PC Andrew Harper. At the time of the incident, Andrew Harper had finished his shift and, like many other emergency service workers across the country, he carried on to do a few more jobs, to help colleagues and his community. I realise that we are not allowed to discuss the details around the case and the sentence imposed, but let us be honest: I do not think anybody here is not aware of the case. The nation has been shocked by a story that has pierced the public consciousness and has been inspired by PC Harper’s wife in her quest for justice.
PC Harper’s wife, Lissie, has shown unbelievable courage, bravery, energy and passion in her effort to ensure justice for her husband and the family of any other emergency service worker who might find themselves in such a horrific situation. Lissie’s online petition, calling for life sentences for those convicted of killing emergency service workers, has attracted more than 730,000 signatures. It is a new movement for change from a British public who want to see protection for their protectors, and justice for them and their families.
I am delighted that Lissie’s drive and relentless pursuit for positive change has been recognised by the Government. Through discussions with the Lord Chancellor, I am aware that the Government are looking at options for strengthening the law in relation to those who kill emergency service workers while engaged in unlawful activity. I hope that through debates like this one we can continue to push the issue up the agenda.
When someone signs up to work for our police force, our NHS or our fire service, and gets up each morning and puts themselves in harm’s way for us, they should do so with confidence that if things go wrong we will stand by them and, when necessary, ensure that justice is delivered for them and their families. We must do more. I know that the political will is there and appreciate the progress that has been made.
The Government’s sentencing White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, includes proposals to increase the maximum penalty for assaulting an emergency service worker from 12 months to two years. It is a good start, but I see it as only that. It is a starting point to build, so that the law can act as a deterrent and deliver real justice.
I am proud to support the Government’s announcement of a police covenant to recognise the sacrifices of those who work in policing. The covenant will recognise the huge contribution made by our officers and ensure that they are not disadvantaged as a result of their commitment and that they have access to justice.
Having spent time on duty with my local police officers, I know the solution lies not just with tougher sentences for those who do harm to emergency workers, but in what we give our officers to do their job. Some say a workman should never blame his tools, but I believe everybody should have the right to ask for the tools they need to do their job safely.
In March 2020, the Home Office provided £6.7 million to English and Welsh police forces to purchase more than 8,000 new tasers. The equipment is there, and I welcome it. However, access to training is sometimes a stumbling block. Looking forward, we should aim to set a standard. If a police officer wants the training to be able to use a taser, he should be entitled to it.
Perhaps most crucially of all, almost every officer I have spoken to has impressed on me the importance of high-quality body-worn cameras. In fact, I have seen at first hand how a poor standard body-worn camera can fail when needed most. My local force is now led by an excellent chief constable and the body-worn cameras have been upgraded and replaced. At that time, an officer down the road, working in Durham, was afforded an acceptable camera. Officers working in my constituency were not. They were put at the risk of harm, with inadequate kit.
There must be a minimum standard. Officers should not be left without the necessary equipment to do the job, just because they work in one force rather than another. There has been a cultural shift away from supporting our emergency services workers. Many mourn the lack of respect, the verbal abuse and the gotcha culture. They are constantly subjected to it. Social media is full to the brim with those gotcha moments—people pushing their phones against the noses of emergency services workers while shouting in their faces. Body-worn cameras act as now-essential security to an officer when that happens, nipping in the bud the threat of false allegations that unjustly create so much anxiety for our emergency services workers.
Our frontline officers must have the highest-spec body-worn cameras—no ifs, no buts. If we are putting people in harm’s way to uphold our laws and to protect and save lives, we need to give them the equipment that they need to protect themselves. When things go wrong and that protection is not enough, we must stand by them and ensure that justice is done.
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at about 5.25 pm. There are 11 Back-Bench Members wishing to speak. I am sure that you can all do the maths. If you speak for about two or three minutes each, we should be able to get everyone in.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for bringing forward what I think is a timely debate.
I represent an area in Northern Ireland where an element of the community believes it is only right and proper to target the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I will use that as an example. It is our police service, and those people have been brought up to treat its members as second-class citizens. They target the police on every occasion. If police are responding to something in the community, to try to help, elements there will target them. As for the protection that is given to them, unfortunately the courts are not necessarily all that lenient to and understanding of a police officer who takes action. I am not talking about breaking the law, but taking action to protect himself, his colleagues and the community. Sometimes, because of that, other people can take legal action, and they are helped, through the legal aid system, to do so. That is a major problem.
I am glad that body-worn cameras were mentioned. Without the use of body-worn cameras to provide back-up evidence, many allegations would have been upheld against the fire and ambulance services. It is vital that they have equipment to protect them to that degree. I have great admiration for those who, on the occasions when everyone else is going away from a problem, have to go in and deal with it. They should not face abuse. Abuse comes in many and various forms. It can be verbal or physical, and often the verbal abuse can be as damaging to an individual as physical abuse. We need to address that and ensure that it is a priority, and that we protect those who put themselves on the frontline to protect our society.
My father was a police officer and unfortunately witnessed abuse at first hand, to such a degree that he was injured on duty. He was given no protection. I am talking about the early times in the troubles. Unfortunately he spent quite a long time in hospital. Those who perpetrated the crime were never pursued. I hope that such a case would never happen today.
We need to highlight the situation of firemen. Young people think that it is a bit of fun to throw stones and bricks at a fire engine. We have had that happen in Northern Ireland. We have to ensure that the penalty for being involved in this is not just getting a slap on the wrist, but a penalty that will work through the rest of those people’s lives and ensure they will not be involved in it. I know that we have a short time limit, so thank you very much for the opportunity to take part in this debate, Mrs Murray.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I take this opportunity to thank all the emergency service workers the length and breadth of this country for the vital work they do day and night, under what must be incredibly difficult circumstances. I know first hand from my experiences as an MP and as a resident of Hull West and Hessle how dedicated and conscientious they all are: every day, they put their personal safety second to that of the public they serve. I will quickly mention the 12 officers of Humberside police who have been nominated this year for the national police bravery awards in recognition of their heroism. I give my personal thanks to Keith Hunter, our police and crime commissioner; Chris Blacksell, the chief fire officer; Lee Freeman, the chief constable; all the officers, staff and prison officers; and of course everybody working in the NHS.
The sad fact is that nationally, assaults on police officers increased by 20% during the first period of lockdown, and many officers will doubtless be worried when looking forward to the next four weeks. I want to share a couple of statistics with the Minister: first, from January 2018 to December 2019, 999 Humberside police officers were assaulted in the line of duty. They were punched, kicked, spat at, verbally abused and bitten, and suffered bruising, cuts, swelling and even broken bones, as did our firefighters and paramedics. During the period from April 2018 to March 2019, Humberside Fire and Rescue Service reported a total of 17 attacks, 11 of which were attacks against firefighters. Last year, on average, a prison officer was assaulted every hour, 24 hours a day.
We need to ask ourselves, “How did it come to this?” We need to look at the cuts to those services, and the fact that all our emergency services have been asked to do so much more with fewer staff and fewer resources. While no one would fail to welcome the increased investment in police officers, I want the Minister to reflect on the impact on police staff. Some of the feedback I am receiving from police staff is that police officers are being used to replace duties that were being done by police staff, because police staff numbers continue to be cut. I give personal thanks to all our police community support officers, because they do incredible work in building relationships with local schools in the area and talking to local communities. However, as the Minister knows, they are classified as police staff, and some of those positions are vulnerable as police staff numbers and budgets continue to be reduced. I urge the Minister to look not just at the investment in police officers but at the importance of police staff, because we sometimes think that police staff are only there to answer the phones but, as I am sure the Minister is aware, they do so much more.
It is quite right that there should be severe penalties for assaults on emergency service workers, but we also need to look at how, for some people, prison is a revolving door for persistent criminal behaviours. We need to consider how the National Probation Service can seriously encourage rehabilitation and stop those persistent criminals from bouncing in and out of prison and assaulting our officers. I have mentioned the 12 officers from Humberside nominated for bravery: they received their nominations for tackling a man armed with a machete terrorising staff and shoppers in the town centre. That man was severely mentally ill, and has now been detained indefinitely. No jail tariff would have deterred him, and while it may seem strange to be talking about adult mental health support in respect of the safety of our emergency service workers, it is not. If we want to reduce assaults on those workers, we need to look at the link between adequate mental health support and those people who go out there and attack our officers.
The proposed police covenant sounds very welcome, but will it have teeth? Will it be mandatory? How will it be enforced? How can we make sure it is adopted up and down the country, in every area, and how can the covenant be turned into concrete mental health support for officers and all the people involved in the emergency services? It is vital that the voices of those on the frontline continue to be heard by Government, and after that listening must come the action.
It is a pleasure to serve
under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on securing this debate and on making such a powerful case in support of our emergency workers. This cause could really unite the people of our country. In seeking to protect those who protect us, our emergency service workers are among the finest in our society, and I am sure that Members from right across the House will join me in thanking them.
I have had the great pleasure, as I am sure have many Members across the House, of visiting my local teams, including the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, our firefighters, our NHS hospital services and West Yorkshire police and its training centre. I have been on patrol with local officers on a number of occasions, and often they help the most vulnerable in society at their time of greatest need. I have been shocked every time I have been out on patrol by how many call-outs were for people with severe mental health issues.
Emergency service workers face the most extraordinary pressures daily, and we ask so much of them. They often face appalling levels of abuse. In West Yorkshire last year, we had some shocking statistics. In 2019-20, some 2,185 assaults on West Yorkshire police were recorded in Leeds and the wider region, up 15% from the previous year. I am sure that colleagues across the House agree that any abuse is unacceptable. It should not become part of their job to face such abuse and violence from those whom they protect. I believe that the Government get that and understand that this situation is unsustainable. It is our job, our duty as policy makers, to find a solution and put an end to this trend and protect emergency workers. I have raised the issue with the Home Secretary, and I believe that there is strong understanding in Government of what needs to be done. I welcome the Government’s sentencing White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, which includes proposals to increase the maximum penalty for assaulting an emergency worker from 12 months to two years’ imprisonment.
The law is ultimately moral, and as a society we should say that there is fundamental justice in abuse or violence against our emergency service workers resulting in the strongest sentence possible. I reiterate my support for what my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South said, and I continue to support the Government in bringing this injustice to an end. We must protect those who protect us and thank them for all they do in this country.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on his presentation. I remember very well as a child running about in Ballywalter in Northern Ireland—the ’60s and ’70s were my early days. If we ever had any altercations with the PSNI, or the Royal Ulster Constabulary as it was then, dear help us, it was not only the police we had to worry about; when we got home, our mums and dads would be waiting. My dad was of the old school. I know that we are now allowed to do this any more, or at least are not supposed to, but if I got it wrong with the police, I got a clip round the ear, and the one from my dad was always worse than the one from the policeman. By the way, a policeman would also have clipped you around the ear—that was a fact of life. However, it has completely changed; we are in different times, so I understand. I will just make a couple of quick point in a very short time.
I will refer to Northern Ireland, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) did. The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service reported a 20% increase in emergency calls and responses on a recent night, Saturday 31 October. Its crews dealt with hostile members of the public throwing missiles, including fireworks, as they responded to calls. There was a debate here on Monday—I could not attend because I was in the Chamber—on the misuse of fireworks, which each and every one of us will be aware of in our own constituencies. Even though it was really important that crew members were there, they had to withdraw for safety reasons.
The issue is quite clear: when it comes to the emergency services, including fire and rescue, ambulance and police services, we must have a zero-tolerance policy, backed up by the Crown Prosecution Service dealing with it. There is no better Minister to answer this than the one who is here, but it is not only about the Minister and where he is; it is about the CPS and where it is. We need the law of the land coming down hard on those people.
Some 1,600 physical assaults against the UK ambulance staff were recorded between January and July as the country battled the covid-19 crisis. Obscenely, that is the equivalent of more than seven attacks every day during the covid-19 crisis. There were also 149 sexual assaults against ambulance workers. I tell the Minister that we must legislate to ensure that the message from this House is clear: anyone who attacks emergency service personnel will be arrested and prosecuted—end of story.
There is something really wrong in society if people attack those who have been tasked to protect us, including the police and those ambulance service workers who were taking injured people to hospital. There is something wrong with society. It is time for society to grasp what is wrong and do something about it, and I look to the Minister for that response.
It is reassuring to serve under your diligent stewardship, Mrs Murray. The pandemic has shown us all the strength and resilience of our frontline emergency services and workers, whether they are in the police force, fire service or national health service. I know that I speak for everyone in the House when I say how grateful we are for their hard work, especially during this incredibly difficult time.
It is unsurprising that those who work on our service frontline are becoming physically worn out and mentally exhausted. Some nurses and doctors serving the NHS are still suffering from the trauma of the first wave of coronavirus. Worse, police officers are increasingly becoming targets of assaults and violence. In 2019, 10,033 cases of violence against prison staff were recorded. Only this summer, several officers were bloodied and wounded at the hands of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protestors. So grave is the situation that the Police Federation is now running a campaign entitled Protect the Protectors, to raise awareness of the need for greater support for those who serve in our police forces.
Our police officers are entrusted to defend us all. As citizens in uniform, their authority is granted only through communal consent by citizens. I maintain that an attack on any officer is an attack on all of us and those who commit such heinous crimes should be granted no quarter when it comes to their prosecution and punishment.
I welcome the Government’s White Paper entitled “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, which includes a proposal to double current maximum sentences from 12 months to two years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) stated, this is but a good start to the journey, not the destination.
We Conservatives have and will continue to invest in, support and defend our police forces. In March 2020, the Home Office provided £6.7 million to English and Welsh police forces to purchase over 8,000 new tasers. The Conservatives stood on a manifesto that promised to recruit 20,000 new officers. In the first wave, between November 2019 and March 2020, 6,435 new officers have been recruited.
Enabling and ensuring tougher sentences on those who attack our police officers is a continuation of our values and commitments to our police. I stand foursquare behind any decision on tougher sentences for those who assault any emergency worker. I hope to see the proposal to double the maximum current sentences implemented.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing this important debate.
This year more than most we are relying absolutely on the work of our emergency services, as we work to tackle the impact of covid-19. We are forever indebted to the people who put themselves between us and harm, whether that is the 7,300 police officers, with 194 new colleagues on the way, the 19,000 frontline NHS staff or the 2,100 firefighters who serve my constituency, Heywood and Middleton, and the wider Greater Manchester community. It is our duty in this place to ensure that we look after the people who look after us.
Eight years after the event, Greater Manchester still remembers the loss of Greater Manchester police officers Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone. The then Prime Minister David Cameron rightly called their murders by Dale Cregan a despicable act of pure evil. On that occasion, their killer received a whole-life tariff, and rightly so, but that should never be in question. Criminals should know the consequences of taking the life of one of our bravest. I do not believe in the death penalty for a number of reasons, legal and moral, but there should be no just opposition to the idea that someone who takes the life of one of our emergency workers should be removed from decent society permanently.
I support calls led by the families of fallen frontline workers—Lissie Harper in particular—for a review of how the law works in such cases. There should either be a new law relating specifically to the killing of people in frontline service positions or reform of existing laws on homicide. The Law Commission already recommended introducing degrees of murder, along with other reforms, just over 10 years ago. While some of those changes were adopted, I feel there is an opportunity to complete the reforms and bring our legal system into line with the society it serves.
I will not speak for much longer, as I know this is a popular debate. Support for our frontline personnel is an area on which we can all broadly agree. I will conclude with an extract from the police oath, in which they promise to serve
“with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people”.
We owe them nothing less from this place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I want to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for leading the debate. Although Darlington lies a little upstream from Stockton South, he and I both represent Tees Valley constituencies, where the work of our emergency services is highly valued.
My stepfather was a fireman who served in Cleveland Fire Brigade. I recall my horror and disbelief at his retelling of incidents whereby, on certain shouts, the officers on the attending appliance would be pelted with rocks. It would not be uncommon for the shouts to have been the result of a hoax call. Sadly, the number of recorded cases of violence against our emergency services personnel continues to rise, and we must do more to protect them.
In preparation for the debate, I spoke to temporary Chief Inspector Chris Knox, who heads up neighbourhood policing in Darlington. Chris has done phenomenal work in the town I represent and will be a sad loss to our community when he retires next year, although I wish him well for a long and happy retirement. Sadly, County Durham police have suffered 298 assaults since 1 May this year, with 56 taking place in Darlington.
Order. There is a Division in the House, so I will suspend the sitting for 15 minutes, or for 25 minutes if two Divisions are expected. We will continue when we return.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The debate may now continue until 6 pm.
It is a pleasure to continue serving under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I was speaking of temporary Chief Inspector Chris Knox of County Durham police. Chris said to me:
“It is imperative that the law protects officers because every day we are expected to protect the public and we need the government to back changes”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is pretty bad form for the shadow Minister in Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition to be scoring political points while Members are making their speech? Surely, on an issue as important as this, we should be united across the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes an important point about the scoring of political points during the national pandemic that we are facing.
In my regular discussions with the chief executive of the North East Ambulance Service, Helen Ray, she has highlighted to me the fact that her colleagues want to see community sentences handed down to assailants that are served in the service that they committed the offence against. That would ensure that punishment was restitutional and perpetrators fully appreciated the impact of their offences on the people who risk their lives serving us. It is unacceptable that, in the course of this year, there have been more than 1,600 assaults on ambulance staff and more than 2,000 cases of verbal abuse.
We must do more to protect our emergency services. We must do more to prevent assaults on emergency services. And we must do more to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I would like to make a few brief comments. I thank emergency service workers in Ipswich, especially for what they have been doing as the pandemic has been happening, and in particular Suffolk police. I do not think anyone who joined Suffolk police ever thought that they would have a role in policing social interactions and enforcing social distancing rules. Indeed, I do not think any police officer ever thought that they would have to do that. It is not something that they want to do or that is very easy. I thank Suffolk constabulary for getting the balance just right and being acutely sensitive to the need to ensure that the virus is contained, but also not overstepping the mark. Huge thanks go to them and also to the Kestrel team, whom I was out with a few weeks ago on a patrol across Ipswich. They are dedicated and truly exceptional professionals.
With regard to the tragic death of PC Andrew Harper, I have been moved, like most of the country, by that story and the fantastic campaign that Lissie has run. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and other hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), who have also been involved. I was very sad that I was not able to meet her. I was due to a few weeks ago, but because of self-isolation, I was not able to do so. I was very glad, though, to co-sign, with 21 colleagues, a letter to the Attorney General, calling for tougher sentencing in this area and mandatory life sentences for those who are found guilty of appalling crimes against our emergency service workers.
Many of the points that I wanted to make have been made by others, so I will just say, as cogently as I possibly can, what I truly believe and I think other people and colleagues also believe, which is that our emergency service workers are the best of the best. They have come to the fore more than ever before during this pandemic, and we need to back them up and hold to account those who commit crimes against them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing this important debate. It gives us a chance to bring into the light the real risks that our emergency service workers face.
Police officers are asked to confront violent and dangerous people every day—day in, day out—and other emergency service workers also run towards danger when other people run away. I want to pay tribute to my dad, who served more than 30 years as a policeman. I have yet to meet a braver man than him. While growing up, I listened with fascination to stories from his work. Only as I got older did I understand the risks that he took in taking on criminals on behalf of the public he served. I am equally proud of my sister, who followed in his footsteps. She is blessed with two young children, and I know that it occasionally crosses the mind of everyone in our family how horrific it would be for them if anything happened to her.
I vividly remember hearing on the news, in 2012, that two female police officers had been killed and fearing that my sister was one of those officers. The two police officers who were killed were PC Nicola Hughes and PC Fiona Bone. They were called to a false burglary report and killed in a gun and grenade attack. They were killed while carrying out their duties as police officers. They were killed while working to keep us all safe.
Every time anyone who has a police officer in their family hears something on the news about harm to or the death of a police officer, we worry it might be our family member. Tragically, 1,600 police officers have paid the ultimate price while serving in uniform. In September, we had the case of Sergeant Matt Ratana, who was killed while serving in the Metropolitan police. Earlier today was Sergeant Matt Ratana’s funeral, and my thoughts and condolences—as I am sure all Members agree—go out to his family and friends on this difficult day.
Eighty-eight per cent. of officers who responded to a national police safety survey said that they had been assaulted at some point during their careers. However, we are all very aware that it is not only the police who experience assault. We all heard the disgusting stories about the abuse and assault that NHS emergency workers faced during the pandemic. Firefighters and prison officers are also assaulted. Many other workers face such abuses, and that cannot be tolerated.
I fully support the proposal in the Government’s sentencing White Paper to increase the maximum penalty for assaulting emergency service workers from 12 months to two years, but that must be a starting point. If we do not see a big drop in the assaults taking place, we need to look at that again. Anyone who harms emergency service workers carrying out their duties must face justice.
That brings me to my concluding remarks, about another area where we should and can go further. The killer of PC Nicola Hughes and PC Fiona Bone was sentenced to a whole-life tariff, which means that he will never leave prison. That is justice for their families. Too often, I have come across intellectual snobbery about people who want justice—but that is a valid, legitimate and moral perspective. I am afraid, however, that not everyone gets justice.
I am mindful not to make reference to any particular case, but I am happy to join my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South in his campaign to support the widow of PC Andrew Harper, Lissie Harper. As others have mentioned, she is campaigning for life sentences with a minimum term for the killers of emergency service workers, whether an intentional act or not. PC Andrew Harper was killed in the line of duty. I pay tribute to his bravery, in pursuing criminals without thought for his safety and in signing up to be a police officer in the first place. Legal precedents already distinguish between different types of manslaughter, but Lissie has made a strong case for us to put in a new law as supported by her campaign, to ensure that proper protections are in place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on securing this debate on a topic that I think everyone in this House can support. Our police and emergency workers do some of the most difficult jobs out there. They put their lives on the line, confronting violent situations every day to keep the public safe. They pick up the pieces when things go wrong and do their best to bring calm to some of the most challenging situations.
This morning, I heard from Jamie Thompson, who is the chair of the Cheshire Police Federation. He told me that legislation passed in 2018 has made a difference to sentencing in Cheshire, but cases of attacks on police officers continue to rise and we need to be tougher. In 2019, there were 30,000 assaults on police officers in England and Wales, with 625 in Cheshire. I am particularly grateful to the Cheshire constabulary, who, over the past few months, have seen an increase in antisocial behaviour during the pandemic. I commend them for their hard work in tackling that for local residents.
To be clear, any attack on a police officer, prison officer or emergency worker is completely unacceptable. I suspect that I might be the only Member speaking in this debate who has used the legislation in a judicial capacity over the past couple of years. As a magistrate, when dealing with cases in which ambulance staff have been attacked as they carry out their work, or a prison officer going about his job has been knifed, I hear the personal impact statements from those brave members of our community who have to live with both the physical and mental consequences of such terrible incidents. Earlier, someone mentioned the impact of seeing body cam footage and, as a magistrate, having watched some of those terrible experiences, I can only imagine the heartache that those brave people go through.
I welcome the fact that the Government have been clear that Ministers will keep maximum penalties under review to ensure that they appropriately reflect the seriousness of the crime. In another point, will the Minister feed back to the Attorney General that decisions taken by the CPS when charging are critical, and that it should be encouraged wherever possible to charge assaults under section 47 rather than section 39, in order for a case to go to the Crown court for a more serious and lengthy sentence?
Finally, I welcome the introduction of the police covenant, which is a critical step. It will provide formal recognition and a clear sign of the value that the Government place on supporting police and their families.
I congratulate Back-Bench Members on actually sticking to the time—we have got all of you in. I now call the SNP spokesperson.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. As others have done, I commend the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing the debate, which is very timely, particularly as we all think about the role of emergency service workers who are performing extraordinarily at the height of a global pandemic. At this juncture and with your forbearance, Mrs Murray, I pay tribute to the fire station staff in Easterhouse in my constituency, the police staff in Shettleston and Baillieston, and the Lightburn ambulance crew based in Carntyne.
As hon. Members will know, one of the obligations on the SNP, as the third party, is to provide summing-up for a debate. I appreciate that the subject of the emergency services is a devolved matter, so I hope to share a few thoughts about what we do in Scotland and how that can be of help as we have this debate here in Westminster.
The Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 provides protection for emergency workers across Scotland so that they can continue to do their jobs at protecting communities and keeping Scotland safe. The SNP has extended the Act in order to cover GPs, other doctors, nurses and midwives when they are working in the community. We want to ensure that no one faces abuse or violence while at work, and we have put in place severe penalties for those who abuse emergency service workers. The penalty applicable under the Act is up to 12 months’ imprisonment, a £10,000 fine or both. For more serious incidents, the Crown Office may choose alternative common law offences that attract higher penalties of up to a life sentence. The average custodial sentence for offences against emergency workers has increased by 12% over the past 10 years, from 151 days in 2009-10 to 169 days in 2018-19. The Act has also given the police, prosecutors and courts the necessary tools to ensure that people who attack public-facing workers face reasonable and effective penalties.
At this stage, I pay tribute to NHS frontline staff, who really are under the cosh at the moment. There are a range of services that NHS Scotland staff can access for their physical and mental health, which I think we would all agree is particularly important in the light of the covid-19 pandemic. They include employment assistance programmes, trauma counselling services and pastoral support. Of course, we offer such services to ensure a safe working environment. Police Scotland have the necessary support in place and it is backed up by the chief constable, who has pledged to reduce the impact of violence, to improve the safety of officers and staff, and to provide appropriate support when violence occurs.
I will finish by saying that this year has thrown up unprecedented challenges for our frontline staff. The pandemic will undoubtedly leave many lasting legacies for us as a society, but I agree with the fundamental point made by the hon. Member for Stockton South that, be it in Westminster or in the Scottish Parliament, it is our duty as legislators to guarantee that all emergency workers receive the support they need alongside protection from any abuse or violence that is experienced while working. We would all agree that such violence is totally unacceptable. On that basis, I am happy to commend the hon. Member.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on securing this important debate. It was harrowing to hear of the incident that he witnessed when he rode out with the police. I have had similar cases in Croydon, and I agree with him entirely in his conclusion that whatever we are doing, it is not working.
As mentioned previously by hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), who made a thoughtful speech, today was the funeral of Sergeant Matt Ratana. He was killed on 25 September as he prepared to search a handcuffed man at the custody centre in my borough of Croydon. Sergeant Matt Ratana, who was just a few weeks away from retirement, served in the Metropolitan police for 30 years, spending his last years in Croydon as a neighbourhood police officer and then as a custody officer, as he thought he could have a bit more of a peaceful time before his retirement. I am grateful to the Minister for visiting Croydon to meet local officers who worked with Matt. The shadow Home Secretary and the Mayor of London also visited. As others have done today, I pay tribute to Matt and all our emergency service workers who have lost their lives in service.
As part of the brief I am so fortunate to hold, I am touring the country virtually to speak to police and crime commissioners about their area and the issues. Recently I was on a virtual visit to Cleveland, where I met police officers and the chief constable from the area of the hon. Member for Stockton South. I heard about the great pressure they are under, dealing with high crime levels and the impact of covid with a much reduced workforce, following 10 years of cuts.
The messages from the Government are undoubtedly confusing and challenging when it comes to this huge covid crisis, but I think we all agree that the police have done an absolutely brilliant job of dealing with what has been a very difficult task. I thank all emergency service workers who have gone above and beyond during the covid pandemic.
At last year’s Conservative party conference, the Home Secretary said, quite rightly, that emergency workers
“need to know they have a Prime Minister, a Home Secretary, and a Government that stands beside them.”
I want to ask the Minister a few questions today about how we are going to make that commitment a reality. As has already been said, over the past five years assaults on police officers have risen by almost 50%, and there has been a 21% increase in officer assaults during lockdown. That is more than 10,400 assaults with injury on the police just last year, and 30,000 including those without injury.
That comes at a human cost, but it also has a financial cost. The College of Policing has estimated that 71,000 days were taken as sick leave in 2018-19 as a result of assaults on police officers, which has an estimated cost heading for £5 million. Between January and July this year, there were more than 1,600 physical assaults on UK ambulance workers. In London, there were 355 physical assaults on ambulance workers and 239 verbal abuse incidents.
As we know, violent crime has risen by more than 150% since 2010, meaning the police are now dealing with 1 million more violent offences with thousands fewer officers. The dramatic cuts to the police workforce have meant that single crew day patrols are the norm for lots of police forces, leaving those officers alone to deal with the risks every time they respond to a situation. Last week in New Zealand, a police officer was shot and her colleagues are asking why she was on her own in that patrol car and not with a co-worker. Heaven forbid we should see that happen here.
Cuts to mental health services mean that the police are very often the ones picking up the pieces, as has been mentioned. Only a few weeks ago, a police officer told me about an incident where a police officer was stabbed after breaking into a home to access somebody who was suffering from a mental health breakdown, having been asked by the NHS to do so.
There are five immediate priorities. First, we desperately need a bigger workforce. We welcome the increase in police officer numbers, but we know that that number will not replace those we have lost.
Secondly, the rising number of attacks on police officers is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. What work is being done to understand exactly why assaults are increasing and what can be done about it? What is the link between the reduction in the number of police officers, the use of single crewing and the increase in recorded assaults? Is there any? What research is the Home Office doing?
Thirdly, the Government need to tackle sentencing—a point that has already been raised. It was a privilege to meet Lissie Harper and I am seeing her again this month. The shadow Home Secretary and I met her to talk about her campaign, to which I pay massive tribute—it really is very powerful. The families of attacked or murdered officers would like to see a much tougher approach to assaults on police officers, and I think they are right. There should be stronger penalties for those who attack the police and the emergency services. What progress have the Government made on obtaining legal advice on the issues that Lissie Harper has raised with the Home Secretary? We welcome the sentencing White Paper, but I ask the Minister to set out a clear timeline for when they will bring that important piece of legislation to Parliament.
Fourthly, the issue of protective equipment has been raised. It has been brought to the surface starkly during covid-19, with horrible spitting at emergency service workers. We welcome body-worn cameras and the use of spit guards in policing. What work has been done to learn the lessons of what has happened during covid to make sure that our police officers are protected in future?
Finally, when will we have the legislation that has been committed to, with proper legal protections for police officers when they pursue suspects on the roads? We know that the police put themselves in incredible danger to ensure suspects are caught, and they should not be criminalised for doing that job.
Can the Minister confirm when the covenant will be introduced? It is incredibly important for the police.
I am running out of time, but I pay tribute to the Police Federation’s Protect the Protectors campaign that has been running for several years, which the hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) mentioned. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who has led a lot of the work done by the shadow home affairs team, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for the private Member’s Bill that doubled the maximum sentence for assaults against emergency service workers. Our brave workers put themselves in harm’s way every day, and they have the right to get all the protection that they deserve from us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, in what is a very well-timed debate, given the increasing period of difficulty and complexity the whole country is going into, which will yet again present challenges for our frontline emergency workers, not least the police. I am grateful to Members for their heartfelt contributions and their recognition of the amazing job the police have done during the lockdown, alongside their emergency worker colleagues.
Our brave workers, across all emergency services, do an extraordinary job in the most difficult of situations, keeping us safe, day in and day out. Those jobs can be tough. Many of them face more danger in a week than most of us will see in our lifetime. I am only too aware of the sacrifices that our police officers and other emergency workers make to protect us. They face the danger so we do not have to. That has never been more apparent than over the past few months. They continue to serve our country courageously, day after day, and I cannot speak highly enough of the bravery, commitment and sacrifice they make each day during these difficult times. As somebody who has spent a lot of my adult life involved in policing, I have seen that on a particular and singular basis on the frontline, many times.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) mentioned spitting and the appalling situation of police officers being spat at, particularly with covid about. It has caused great anxiety for many police officers. Will my hon. Friend assure me that there are robust punishments in place for those individuals who use covid as a weapon?
I am just coming to that point, if my hon. Friend will bear with me for a moment. I hope that my speech will cover most of the issues that have been raised during the debate, but I will come to one or two questions at the end.
A number of Members made the point that it is completely right that we should support and protect our emergency workers to the greatest extent possible. It goes without saying that an assault on an emergency worker is completely unacceptable in any circumstances. There is no excuse for it—there is no excuse in background, circumstance, resourcing or any other wider issue.
Throughout the year, we have heard reports of people deliberately spitting and coughing on emergency workers in an attempt to weaponise the virus against those who look to protect us. Such behaviour is utterly disgraceful, and personally I cannot understand what is going through the twisted mind of somebody to do such a monstrous thing. It is vital that those offenders face the full force of the law. Their actions constitute an assault.
Throughout the year, we have seen examples of tough sentences imposed on those using coronavirus as a threat against emergency workers. In April, an individual was sentenced to a total of two years in prison for assaulting police officers, including biting and coughing at them, claiming they were infected with coronavirus. Someone who deliberately coughed at a police community support officer and assaulted another officer was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment a week after the incident.
However, the Government want to go further and send a clear message that those kinds of attacks will not be tolerated. That is why we recently announced our intention to legislate to double the maximum penalty for assaults on emergency workers from 12 months to two years—an example that I hope colleagues north of the border in Scotland will follow.
We must also look at what happens when much more serious attacks take place—so serious that in some instances they have claimed the lives of those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. The deaths of Sergeant Matt Ratana, whose moving funeral I had the privilege of attending virtually this morning, and PC Andrew Harper epitomise the kind of bravery and extraordinary sacrifice that will not be forgotten. We are determined to do everything in our power to protect those who put our safety before their own, by ensuring that the police have the tools and resources they need to keep themselves and us safe.
The Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor were pleased to meet Andrew Harper’s widow, Lissie, who has been mentioned by a number of Members, to discuss Harper’s law, and I hope to meet her myself soon. We will continue to work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that assaults on emergency workers are handled with appropriate severity across the criminal justice system, and that includes the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary. It might be interesting to compare the sentences given for assaults on police officers, for example, with those given for assaults on judges.
Dealing with traumatic incidents and helping people who often experience traumatic events can have real consequences, and not only for the victims. These are not jobs that can be left at the office: the pressure of the role will leave its mark on a person’s personal and family life. That is why the Government have invested £7.5 million in a new national police wellbeing service. Following two years of development and piloting, that wellbeing service was launched in April last year, providing evidence-based guidance, advice, tools and resources that can be accessed by forces, as well as individual officers and staff. There is an emphasis on prevention and on helping forces to identify mental health issues early through psychological screening, giving officers access to support before a problem takes hold. The wellbeing service offers a wide range of services, from practical workshops to individual guidance.
However, as hon. Members have mentioned, the Government are going to go even further to ensure that our police get the support and protection they need. We have accelerated work to introduce a police covenant, and remain absolutely committed to ensuring that it has a meaningful impact on those working within, or retired from, policing roles, whether paid or as a volunteer. We expect to establish a robust governance structure in the coming months to drive progress, and policing partners have already been involved in those discussions. The covenant will be enshrined in law, and the Home Secretary will have a duty to report annually on progress. Our focus will be on health and wellbeing, physical protection, and support for families. We will continue to work closely with policing partners to ensure the covenant has a lasting impact on our police.
Those of us who have been out with police officers, as hopefully many Members have been, know that they confront violent situations every day to keep the public safe. The recent review of officer and staff safety conducted by the National Police Chiefs’ Council highlighted a number of areas where improvements can be made and where partners can work together to improve the protections for our police. To carry out their vital roles and stay safe, it is essential that police are equipped with the right protection, training and tools, including the latest, most accurate Taser, body armour, and body-worn cameras, as the review quite rightly highlighted. This, along with the police covenant, provides an opportunity for us to make a significant difference to the lives of those working in policing and their families.
However, we should not forget that there are other emergency service workers who are worthy of protection, not least in the NHS. The NHS violence reduction strategy aims to protect those workers against deliberate violence and aggression from patients, their families and the public, and to ensure offenders are punished quickly and effectively. We also know from the tragic events of Grenfell Tower and from major incidents like Whaley dam the extent of the physical and psychological challenges our firefighters can face, as hon. Members have referenced.
In 2018, the Government launched the fire and rescue national framework, directing all fire and rescue services to have in place a people strategy to support their staff, including a specific focus on mental health and wellbeing. I am pleased that this has inspired positive action, and that the National Fire Chiefs Council’s wellbeing board continues to instigate positive change across the sector, focusing on prevention, early intervention and individual support.
The emergency services are among the most selfless and courageous members of our society. They deserve every support and protection we can give them, and I know it will have been heartening for them to hear the unequivocal support they have received from every Member who has spoken this evening.
I thank hon. Members for their heartfelt and valuable contributions to this important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response, and for the work he is doing to put more police officers on our streets and properly equip them with the powers and equipment they need to tackle crime. All of our emergency services run towards danger when we run away, and that is why we have to do more, be on their side and protect them.
When I talk to frontline officers and doctors and nurses, they all talk about the word “respect”, and we have to re-instil that respect for our emergency service workers. The work that we do on sentencing is about creating a deterrent and about sending a signal to our society. I thank the hon. Members for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for a unique perspective on the challenges in Northern Ireland and on the PSNI. I look forward to the hon. Member for Strangford coming back for a “clip around the ear” debate at some point, because I think that might work.
I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), who discussed the mental health challenges faced by modern-day emergency services, probably like never before. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), who spoke about the continuation of our values. That is what it is about: we made a commitment to put more police on the streets, and we also made a commitment to toughen up sentences for the worst crimes. There are few crimes worse than attacking the people who go out every day to help us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) is clearly a right winger like me, and wants to get tough, get real and hand out real justice. When we look at other countries—
Order. The sitting stands adjourned.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).