My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It comes to us from the other place with unanimous all-party support, as seen by the list of sponsors and speeches made in support, including from Front-Bench spokesmen. It is good that a number of your Lordships want to participate in the debate, and I look forward in particular to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Morris of Handsworth.
I pay tribute in particular to my right honourable friend the Father of the House, the Member for Swansea West who based his Private Member's Bill on a precedent in Scottish legislation suggested to him by the Liberal Democrat Member for Teignbridge. It is not easy successfully to steer a Private Member’s Bill into law and he clearly expended a great deal of time and effort on the Bill. The Bill was modified during debate, partly because the legal basis in Scotland is different, so that it could not simply be transposed, and in response to government concerns. The Bill received its Third Reading on 14 July.
The Bill responds to a very effective campaign led by the Fire Brigades Union, the ambulance workers and the Manchester Evening News. I need hardly add that it is welcomed by the emergency services. It was significant that in the debates in the other place, Members from different parts of the country gave examples of the obstruction of fire engines or ambulances on their way to deal with emergencies—for example, pipes being cut to impede water supplies. Your Lordships would be appalled by some of the examples given. Perhaps the most lurid was that in a multi-floor building, a hole was made in the floor and covered with a mat, like a bear trap, so that firemen coming in were in danger of plummeting to the floor below.
There was general consensus that there is indeed a lacuna in the law which the Bill would remedy and that our emergency workers need protection from a variety of troublemakers and vandals when on their way to deal with emergencies. On 14 July, on Third Reading in the other place, the Father of the House said that two simple principles lay behind the Bill. He said:
“First, people who risk their lives to save others should not be obstructed, and should be free to undertake their rescue work without obstruction and attack by yobs and idiots. Secondly, people who need to be rescued in an emergency because they are in danger should not face additional danger because of the mindless activity of a minority of idiots.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/7/06; col. 1595.]
I turn briefly to the specific provisions of the Bill. As now amended, it will create an offence of obstructing an emergency worker responding to emergency circumstances—Clause 1(1). Emergency workers are defined as firefighters, ambulance workers, those transporting blood, organs or medical equipment, coastguards and lifeboat crews. It will cover firefighters whether they are employed by local authorities or others, such as the British Airports Authority or the armed services. It will cover ambulance workers, including air ambulances, volunteers and those working under contract for the health service. The Secretary of State will have the power to add or delete people or categories of people in the list of emergency workers. It will also createan offence of obstructing someone assisting an emergency worker who is responding to an emergency. The offence “without reasonable excuse obstructs” is the same as that in Clause 1(1).
Emergency circumstances are defined as circumstances that are “present or imminent” and that,
“are causing or are likely to cause”,
“serious harm to the environment”,
“serious harm to any building or other property”.
The maximum penalty will be a fine of up to £5,000; that is,
“a fine not exceeding level 5”.
I shall discuss some of the anxieties that were expressed in the debates in the other place, which I hope will allay some of the concerns in this House. The first was assault. This was originally part of the Bill, but was omitted in response to the Home Office’s concern that it was already covered by existing legislation and that it was wrong to overcomplicate the law if we could deal adequately with the problem under existing law.
There was serious debate on the categories to be extended. The procedure in Clause 5 gives power to modify by order. Mountain rescue teams, for example, are not mentioned specifically, but there is some uncertainty about the interpretation and whether they are included. It would be helpful to know whether the Government believe that they are covered by the “assisting” provision in the Bill. Otherwise, they are clearly good candidates for Ministers to consider. My noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere has taken a special interest in this.
The offence of obstructing persons assisting emergency workers applies to voluntary organisations and individuals when they are assisting emergency workers who are responding to emergency circumstances. St John Ambulance personnel will therefore be covered by the offence when they assist personnel employed by a National Health Service body to provide ambulance services or personnel who are providing these services pursuant to arrangements made by, or at the request of, a National Health Service body.
There was considerable debate about the nature of the sentence, particularly for assault. Clearly everyone wants to support emergency workers, and the Sentencing Guidelines Council will still consider making this an aggravated offence when dealing with people serving the public. I understand that no further advice has yet been received from the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when such advice is expected.
Defences were initially listed seriatim as in the Scottish Act, but it was cumbersome. The best legal advice was that the well tried formula “without reasonable excuse” was the appropriate solution, as it allows the sentencing authority to consider all circumstances, including, for example, if the obstruction was unintentional and for acceptable purposes.
I note briefly that Wales—for “Wales”, read “England”—is covered by the criminal provisions, but it is clear that the Welsh Assembly Government will be properly consulted on any extension of categories or persons. In the case of Northern Ireland, the appropriate authorities were consulted during the passage of the Bill. Northern Ireland already has legislation that covers the obstruction of police and firefighters, so the legislation there is more limited and covers ambulance workers, coastguards, lifeboat crews, and those transporting blood or organs. The definitions in the Bill ensure that these services are covered in Northern Ireland. Clause 5 again provides that any order adding or removing categories of workers relating to Northern Ireland will be made only with the consent of the Northern Ireland department concerned, or perhaps even Stormont.
Finally, I concede that the Bill is only part of the solution to a social problem. It needs to be assisted by education in schools and generally with the assistance of trade unions as part of the respect agenda. On14 July 2006, the Member of Parliament for Bolton South East referred to an initiative in Bolton by the emergency services through a programme called Crucial Crew. This is held in a large building and is attended by all the emergency services where emergencies are simulated for the benefit of primary school children. Again, the Member of Parliament for Worsley referred to a 13-week community scheme run by the fire services and the Prince’s Trust. The Greater Manchester Fire Service has a young firefighter scheme that focuses on boys and young men.
I emphasise to your Lordships that we are near the end of the Session. The timetable is tight, so any amendments passed could jeopardise the Bill, but I remind your Lordships of the flexibility of the Bill incorporated in the extension to other categories in Clause 5. I therefore hope that your Lordships will respond in that spirit. It is a limited but worthwhile measure to deal with unacceptable behaviour. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Anderson of Swansea.)
My Lords, as I make my first contribution in your Lordships’ House, I take the opportunity to place on record my sincere thanks for the help, kindness and support that I have received from all sections of the House. This includes all those who work so diligently to support the activities of this House.
I have received a great deal of advice, on which I have reflected. I can inform your Lordships that I am now much better informed, but none the wiser. This morning, I am not sure whether I am blessed or cursed, but I have the full weight of the Trades Union Congress behind me. I am told that I should avoid being controversial. I readily accept this advice for two reasons: first, I am never controversial—controversy comes only when others fail to agree with me; secondly, I believe that the matter before this House this morning engenders unity, not controversy.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, I too have followed the debate on this issue in another place, and I feel sure that there is no controversy about the fundamental aims of the Bill. We all agree that workers attending an emergency have the right not to be impeded or assaulted. Yet, sadly, assaults in many forms do occur on a regular basis. It is to be regretted that there are no reliable national statistics recording these assaults. In the West Midlands, however—an area with which I have a close association—the fire service records 64 incidents that occurred between 1 January and 20 September this year. Bricks, bottles and even a machete have been thrown at fire crews. Various explosive materials have been thrown on to fires. The path of fire engines has been blocked. Threatening behaviour has sometimes included knives.
How on earth have we ended up with a society in which emergency workers become the target of abuse and attack while carrying out their duties as public servants? These attacks are not only a danger to the emergency workers, but also to the people they seek to help. Why are our public servants victims, attacked and obstructed while serving the community? I suggest one cause; we as a society have systematically devalued our public services and disrespected our public servants for years, and we are now paying a very heavy price.
While I support the Bill in principle, I would ask a number of questions, which I hope my noble friend will address. First, are there not a range of laws in place which would allow for the arrest and prosecution of anyone involved in violent, threatening behaviour, criminal damage, hoax telephone calls and so on? Why are these laws not properly enforced? Where do they fall short? Secondly, if existing laws are not being properly enforced, what measures should be made or taken to ensure that they are? Finally, would the proposed law make it even harder to secure a prosecution by raising the burden of proof needed?
I would suggest that one additional matter needs attention. I note from the debate in the other place that the Manchester fire service has estimated that there have been 200 attacks or attempts to obstruct emergency workers, yet government statistics suggest that there have been only nine incidents for the same period. I would urge the Minister to ensure that there is a systematic collection of national statistics to identify and publicise the scale of the problem.
It has been pointed out that many of these incidents, although not all, are in areas of social deprivation. It has also been argued that many of the perpetrators are young. But poverty, social deprivation and age can never be an excuse for crime. I was brought up in a small, rural community, a village, in Jamaica. As it happens, my father was a part-time police officer. The villagers shared collective responsibility for all aspects of community life, which included the right of every adult to discipline the children in that village. They also had a duty to protect all the children. Never would a villager have failed to support and protect those people who gave their time as public servants. So, if in the 21st century we cannot get universal support for the work of our emergency workers, the law has a duty to protect them.
My Lords, it falls to me to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth, on his maiden speech. Although I now speak at a geographical distance from him, I hope that I may still refer to him as an old friend. He is, of course, one of the great trade unionists of today and his call for more statistics, I noted particularly, was very welcome on this grave matter. I know that the House will look forward to seeing him on his feet many times.
I wish to make three brief points. If I make them more slowly than has been my customary practice, because of a recent visual impairment, I hope that your Lordships will be patient with me. This Bill, which we may say is born of the Fire Brigades Union and other unions, was introduced in the other place by the Father of the House, the right honourable Member for Swansea West, Alan Williams, and supported by the Member for Cambridge, whom I have known in earlier ivory tower days as a student and colleague. The Father of the House said that the Bill addressed two straightforward issues:
“First, people who risk their lives to save others should not be obstructed … Secondly, people who need to be rescued in emergency because they are in danger should not face additional danger because of the mindless activity of a minority of idiots”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/7/06; col. 1595.]
The Bill manifestly plugs certain gaps in our law—even in the truncated form that it comes to us after consultation with the Home Office, which is a grave matter. The Father of the other place is to be congratulated on having emerged after such consultation with any Bill at all, let alone what we have today.
The Labour Party manifesto stated that,
“we will introduce tougher sentences for carrying replica guns, for those involved in serious knife crimes and”—
this is important—
“for those convicted of assaulting workers serving the public”.
The Bill does not deal with assaults. I comment only that it is questionable whether the Government are right in saying, as many of their spokespersons have, that matters of assault can be left to sentencing and the advice of the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
My first substantive point arises on Clause 1. Although the Secretary of State, under Clause 5, can amend Clause 1 by order to modify the range of persons covered by the Bill, is it clear that the range of persons already covered should not be wider? Previous debates have raised issues concerning, for example, the mountain rescue services, which may not operate a vehicle as is required under Clause 1(2)(f)(ii), and social workers who sometimes find themselves gravely obstructed in their duties, which are certainly seen as emergencies to the impoverished families they serve.
My Lords, I look forward to the noble Lord raising that point, which is appropriate to Committee. I shall continue with my Second Reading speech, in which I mentioned social workers, who might be considered.
My second substantial point refers to Clause 1(2)(b), which covers a person subject to,
“duties as an employee or as a servant of the Crown”.
The words “employee” and “servant” have of course recently been considered by judicial interpretation in distinguishing subordinate or dependent workers as employees from independent contractors, self-employed persons or autonomous workers, especially since the important decision in the Ready Mixed Concrete (South East) Ltd v Minister of Pensions and National Insurance case in 1968. Beyond the terms “employees” and “servants” are other agents, agency-supplied workers, temporary staff and so on, some of whom are employees and some of whom are certainly not. Many government departments hide behind the cloak of the Crown, but as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale of Richmond, said only the day before yesterday in your Lordships’ Judicial Committee, in the case of Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe:
“These days, the dividing line between governmental and non-governmental organisations is increasingly difficult to draw. The power wielded by the major multi-national corporations is enormous and growing”.
That was a most important judgment for the Judicial Committee. Today the outsourcing of work, from building work to call centres, makes the dividing line between the Crown, government and corporation workers more and more difficult. Perhaps the Minister would comment on the phrase used to describe employees, “servants of the Crown”. To make what is perhaps a Committee comment, I say that one should consider the word “workers” instead of those heavily constrained words.
My third point is regarding the words “without reasonable excuse”, which are fundamental to Clauses 1 and 2. Someone who obstructs without reasonable excuse is liable. As I apprehended, this phrase was consolidated into the Bill in Standing Committee C of the other place. But what exactly do the words mean? Not everyone shares the confidence of Ministers who have said more than once that it is a clear phrase. Perhaps the Minister will guide us on what limits the Home Office foresees the courts putting on “without reasonable excuse”. I shall give one example which, to my knowledge, has often arisen. When a local authority uses its powers to spray humps or what are euphemistically called speed cushions around its roads in a way that obstructs fire and rescue service vehicles, ambulance and many other emergency vehicles, does it have a reasonable excuse to do so even if it was found that its action had not been preceded by proper consultation in the neighbourhood? The Minister may not wish to answer that today, but it is a point to which he ought to refer at a later stage if he cannot say anything now.
Such issues do not detract from the virtues of this highly innovative and important Bill to protect workers in major services about which the noble Lord, Lord Morris, spoke so eloquently. In that respect, despite my three substantive points, I welcome the Bill most vigorously and trust that the Government will see to it that it is on the statute book before the next Queen’s Speech, for who knows how much time the measures proposed in that speech will take?
My Lords, this is one of those Bills which, when you look at it, you think, “Why do we need it?”. Surely all the activities we are trying to legislate against here are covered. However, when you go into the thinking behind it, you realise that the Bill is not designed to create a new offence but to seal cracks in the process of defending people who are going about their lawful and essential business. Once you are in that mindset it becomes very obvious that we should support this measure. One or two points have been raised, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, in his excellent maiden speech—I congratulate him on it—who said that keeping adequate records might have drawn us towards addressing this problem much sooner. The background list of ambushes and attacks on fire service workers covers three pages of the briefing I received. If those cases alone had been brought to the attention of the Government, I cannot help but feel that the issue could have been dealt with among the dozens of Home Office Bills coming before us—or is it just one continuous Bill? I am never sure; at times it feels like a stream of consciousness from the department. Many other things are grafted on to Bills.
Having said that, those in another place who have worked hard to get this measure through deserve credit. I am glad that my honourable friend the Member for Teignbridge was involved in it. When we spoke to him, it was a point of distinct paternal pride to him that he had managed to take the Bill forward. Looking at the matters addressed here, I can say that my honourable friend certainly can take pride init. I am not a lawyer, so my naivety may be understandable, but the Bill seems focused not on assaults, but on acts of obstruction that prevent people getting to a certain point. That is worryingly clear. My noble friend on the Benches behind me made the point that the Bill provides that the groups covered can be broadened if that is deemed necessary. It was also pointed out that mountain rescue teams are probably not going to be ambushed by large numbers of youths in the rundown parts of inner cities, by sheer accident of geography. However, if the groups covered can be expanded, I suggest that this Bill may well become a valuable asset.
We must also remember that legislation is only as valid as the amount of energy that goes into enforcing it. [Interruption.]
My Lords, I believe that this Bill is a good thing. I would be interested to know whether any work has been done on how easy the police think it will be to enforce it and achieve convictions. I made the point before we briefly adjourned that any law which is difficult to enforce is probably a waste of everybody’s time. Having said that, I wish it well.
My Lords, before I turn to the matter under debate, it gives me the greatest pleasure on behalf of these Benches to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth, on his quite excellent maiden speech. I have not had the pleasure of meeting the noble Lord except in passing in the Corridor, so I know him only through his public persona. But his speech seemed to reflect the qualities I associate with him—rational, well informed and professional, with just a hint of avuncularity. A glance at his CV shows how much he has to contribute to debates in your Lordships’ House—his early years in Jamaica, his work in the heartland of British manufacturing industry in the West Midlands, his work for the trades union movement and, finally, his string of high-level public appointments in a wide range of fields.
I hope the House will forgive me if I add one brief personal note. According to the noble Lord’s CV, between 1963 and 1973 he was a shop steward at a Black Country manufacturing business called Hardy Spicer. In the early part of that decade I was at university, and in the summer of 1964, with a group of friends, I drove a Land Rover out from the United Kingdom through the Middle East—a journey one could not dream of undertaking today without getting shot, probably several times over. In those days, few made-up roads existed and it was tough going even for a Land Rover. Noble Lords may not be aware, but the transmission system of the Land Rover depended then—it may still do so—on what I believe is called a constant velocity joint, made by Hardy Spicer. It never let us down. So, these many years later, may I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord and his colleagues at Hardy Spicer for having helped me get safely back to the UK. I am sure I speak for all Members of the House when I say how much we look forward to hearing from him again.
I turn to the Bill and thank the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, for introducing it today. The statistics given of assaults on NHS staff, ambulance workers and fire fighters, as well as on the police, make truly horrific reading. It beggars belief that there are people in this country who set out to injure and obstruct those who are engaged in emergency work and the saving of life. Therefore, we on these Benches support the approach behind the Bill. We wish it well and do not intend to table any amendments.
But there are issues, some of which have been raised by noble Lords, on which clarification from the noble Lord and the Government would be useful to the House and to the country. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, will forgive me if, in the spirit of gentle inquiry, I probe a little about his and, indeed, the Government’s thinking. I had the opportunity to raise with him on the telephone some of the points that I wish to raise today. In large measure, this arises because the Bill was so very extensively amended during its passage through the other place. Some of its original objectives seem to have been dropped and other aspects broadened. This is reflected in the fact that the Title of the Bill is not the same as it was at the outset of its passage through Parliament.
First, am I right that the Bill is now only concerned with “obstruction” or “hindering” of emergency workers and not “assault” on them? I accept, as someone said in the other place, that half a Bill is better than no Bill at all, but the most horrific of the incidents about which I and, no doubt, other noble Lords have been briefed—and truly appalling they are—are concerned not with the less serious issue of obstruction but with the much more serious one of often cold-blooded, premeditated assaults on emergency workers. The briefing referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Addington, from the Fire Brigades Union makes sobering reading.
I understand that this narrowing came about because of negotiations between Mr Alan Williams, the MP for Swansea West and sponsor of the Bill in the other place, and the Home Office. Is this narrowing because the Government believe that there really are adequate existing powers to deal with the problem of assaults on emergency workers? If that is the case and it is the Government’s position, then how come we have reached the truly grim position we find ourselves in today? Is it only down to lack of will and enforcement?
Secondly, does it mean that, so far as assaults on emergency workers are concerned, there are to be first, second and third levels of protection? At the first level are the police—protected, as I understand it, by Section 59 of the Police Act 1996; at the second level are the groups listed in Clause 1(2)(a) to (f) of the Bill—presumably the courts will be inclined to take more seriously assaults on such people; and, at the third level are all those who undertake emergency functions but are not so listed. Some clarification of these categories would be helpful to the House.
As a subset of this, it would be helpful to have a little further explanation of what protection against obstruction, if any, the Bill will provide to those emergency workers who are not listed. There has been reference to St Johns Ambulance but there are other individual groups—such as social workers engaged in sectioning people, which can be quite controversial—and it would be useful to know if such people will have any protection under the provisions of this legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred in this regard to the role of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I hope we will have further official comment on this from the Minister. In Committee, Fiona Mactaggart, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office, said:
“The council gives us a tool to be used in any area where an aggravated factor exists in respect of a particular offence. Given that we have such a tool, it is wrong not to use it for the whole range of aggravating factors, including one already acknowledged in an initial guideline involving people who are serving the public. The sentencing guidelines formulation on violent crime that is due to be made available shortly will deal with assault, and I hope that it will not only deal clearly with someone who is serving the public, but specifically highlight emergency workers”.—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee C, 26/4/06; col. 7.]
That was on the 26 April; it is now 13 October. As the Minister in the other place said the guideline would be made available shortly, I hope that we will have some further news on that.
Perhaps I may now turn briefly to “specificity”. As the Minister has heard me say at the outset of many of the debates we have had, I am not a lawyer. But during the Committee stages of other Bills when Members of the House attempt to get more precision and clarity into legislation, we are often warned that our efforts may have the reverse effect of that which we intend. If a Bill becomes too specific, too precise, the courts lose the ability to consider some cases as they fall just outside these more precise definitions. The House would welcome a reassurance that this pretty specific and precise piece of legislation will avoid this particular elephant trap.
I have another specific question. Here I follow the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth. Of course I understand the appalling nature of these crimes and we agree that we must act early and make every effort to stamp them out. But are the Government really convinced that there are not adequate powers in existing statutes to deal with the obstruction or hindering of emergency workers? At first glance to a non-lawyer, given the panoply of statute law available, it seems surprising that there are not. If the problem is one of enforcement, passing the Bill will have no effect—in fact, rather the reverse, since every law disregarded increases, at least at the margin, public mistrust and disregard of the law as a whole.
I have one final teasing question for the Minister. His party’s manifesto for the 2005 general election promised that,
“we will introducer tougher sentences…for those convicted of assaulting workers serving the public”.
Is this it? Do the Government now believe that they have fulfilled their manifesto promise? If so, it is a surely unusual route to fulfil a manifesto commitment through a Private Member’s Bill. If they have not fulfilled it, when we can we expect the necessary legislation, and what form is it expected to take?
No one reading the statistics can fail to be moved by the level, apparently increasing year by year, of attacks on emergency workers. Of course we support the purpose behind the Bill and we wish it a swift progress to the statute book. But the shedding of a little light on the detail would, I believe, be welcomed by the House and the country.
My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Anderson for sponsoring this important Bill which comes to us in good order from another place after some penetrating and, I am pleased to say, highly constructive debate. Like other noble Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Morris of Handsworth on his delicately phrased and uncontroversial maiden speech. For many years, I have been an admirer from afar of my noble friend for his work as a trade union leader and as a powerful advocate for the rights of workers. It is with some humility that I stand at the Dispatch Box and welcome him to our debates. I am sure he will make many telling contributions, not least to advance and defend the interests of those who work for us and provide important and valuable public services. I am sure that, along with all Members of your Lordships' House, we on the government Benches will listen very carefully to the important and wise words of my noble friend in our deliberations.
We all agree that any violent or obstructive behaviour directed against workers responding to emergency situations is unacceptable. Emergency workers are putting themselves in the front line in dangerous situations for the sake of their communities, and they should not face additional and avoidable dangers. It is unacceptable, whether those dangers are brought about by malice or by those who are thoughtless and have not considered the consequences of what they are embarking on.
I repeat the assurances that the Government have already given. We are committed to ensuring that emergency workers can go about their business without being impeded, obstructed or subjected to violence or abuse. We now have a Bill that is very clear and simple. It will be easy to understand, and easy for the courts, the police and prosecutors to use, and we are proud to support it.
The Bill will be a significant part of the legal protection for all emergency workers. It deals with deliberate acts of obstruction against those responding to blue-light emergencies. It will also provide a good basis and a bedrock for further work. As part of the respect agenda, we are committed to ensuring that people and communities treat those who help them with the respect they fully deserve. This Bill will be an important addition to that agenda.
The Bill will target those who obstruct emergency workers responding to emergency and life-threatening situations. Those are situations where there is an immediate and real risk of serious injury, or worse, and there may be only a few minutes to respond to that situation. In those circumstances, impeding or obstructing workers becomes particularly dangerous. Obstruction not only puts at risk the emergency workers but also risks the lives and safety of the public they serve.
There is no offence of obstruction at the moment for ambulance workers or coastguards, so this will be new for them. The Bill will also introduce a clearer and simplified obstruction offence for firefighters and increase the available maximum fine from £1,000 to £5,000.
The Bill rightly concentrates on services that may be involved in responding to emergency situations, where urgency is imperative. Those are the situations where we need to deal with obstruction in particular. The police, ambulance, and fire and rescue services may be involved in emergencies, and so may the coastguards and lifeboat crews. There may be others.
The police already have their own obstruction offence, and we do not need to duplicate it here. But the Bill includes all the other emergency workers I have just mentioned. It includes volunteers and those working under contract providing an ambulance service for the Health Service, including air ambulances. It also includes all fire and rescue services, whether they are working for local authorities, at airports, as members of the forces or for private companies.
The Bill also includes those who are transporting blood, organs or emergency equipment working on behalf of an NHS body and responding to emergency situations. Those carrying blood, organs and medical equipment to an emergency are in a similar position to the emergency services. Any delay could be dangerous. So I am pleased that, for the sake of clarity, such emergency workers have been included in the offence.
The Bill deals with obstruction, so we need to confine the categories of worker that it covers to those dealing with urgent cases, where delay and obstruction can have serious consequences. The Bill is particularly important for workers who may be isolated and not able to call on colleagues for support or ask for someone to take over if they are obstructed or delayed—in other words, blue-light workers. Other workers may, of course, face threats and violence, but if there is violence or a genuine threat of violence, the offender will be committing an offence of assault in any event and can be dealt with by the police and the courts. We do not want to complicate the Bill unnecessarily by adding categories of workers when the Bill will add nothing to their protection.
In previous debates, and earlier today, the question of mountain rescue teams and those involved in rescues in remote areas has been raised. They would certainly come under the category of “emergency workers”. But we have not heard of any case where a mountain rescue worker has been obstructed or impeded, so I am not sure there is a problem which we would solve by adding them to the list of emergency workers. If we found that there was a problem, we would be happy to consider adding mountain rescue teams and others to the list by order. We have that flexibility built in.
At the moment, I do not think the case has been made for including other categories of emergency worker in the offence of obstruction. But we should remember that if we want to add categories of worker, we can do so in the future. Parliament will have a chance to consider any proposed additions or modifications to the list. This is an important clause. It will mean that not only can we add new categories of emergency worker but we can quickly update the categories if required. We may need to make a change because one of the services currently covered has changed its name or has been reorganised, for example. We should be able to achieve that reasonably easily.
I know that many people have been keen to see an offence of assaulting an emergency worker, similar to the one that exists in Scotland. It has been referred to extensively in our debate by my noble friend Lord Morris, by my noble friend Lord Anderson in proposing the measure, and by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts.
The criminal law and administrative arrangements in Scotland are very different. For example, it has no Sentencing Guidelines Council to give statutory guidance on the seriousness with which such offences should be viewed. I will return to the role of the Sentencing Guidelines Council later. For England and Wales, a separate offence of assault would be redundant and would only complicate the statute book unnecessarily. It would not give any additional protection for emergency workers.
There are already comprehensive measures under the current law for dealing with attacks and violence in a wide range of circumstances. Offences range from common assault, through actual bodily harm, where the injuries are more than superficial, to grievous bodily harm, which can be very serious indeed. There is protection from harassment and, of course, offences of criminal damage where essential equipment is at stake. Penalties range from a maximum of six months’ imprisonment or a fine of up to £5,000 for common assault to a maximum of life imprisonment for grievous bodily harm with intent. That is why the current Bill concentrates rightly on obstruction.
There is a specific offence of assaulting a police officer in the execution of his duty. It is common sense that other emergency workers should enjoy the same legal protection as police officers when they are in the same position. That is the case particularly when firefighters, ambulance workers and the police might be attending the same incident and working side by side. Although the police are dealt with in a separate offence, we should remember that assault on a police officer carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison. This is the same as the maximum penalty for common assault, so there is indeed the same legal protection for everyone, as there should be.
We have no evidence to suggest that a specific offence of assaulting an emergency worker would encourage the courts to give tougher sentences. Indeed, a specific offence of assault might be more difficult to prove than the more general offence of common assault, because you have to prove the extra elements of the offence. If you had a specific offence of assaulting an emergency worker, for instance, you would have to prove not only that the accused committed an assault but that the assault was against an emergency worker, the worker was responding to an emergency and the offender knew that the person was an emergency worker. All those extra elements would have to kick in and apply. For common assault, you need only to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the offender committed the assault. That makes the general offence easier for the courts and the prosecutors to deal with.
Emergency workers are important to us all. If there were a specific offence of assault for them, a large number of at-risk groups might demand the extra protection that they thought a specific offence would offer. Public sector workers such as teachers or transport workers, for example, might ask for a specific offence. Different assault offences for different groups of people and different circumstances would become a potential recipe for confusion and would not give those groups more protection than they currently have under the law. We would not support that.
The real issue is not whether we need a new offence covering assault; it is to ensure appropriate sentencing for offences where emergency workers are involved. Sentencing must reflect the seriousness of an assault on an emergency worker. That is why the role of the Sentencing Guidelines Council is so important.
Robust guidelines are already issued by the council and more are under consultation. These guidelines make two things clear: first, that it is an aggravating factor in any offence if the victim is serving the public; and, secondly, that the courts must take into account the harm or potential harm that the offence might do. We are all clear that any offence against an emergency worker has the potential for widespread and significant harm. The courts must take those aggravating factors into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, made it clear that this Bill should not be seen in isolation. There is a huge programme of work to tackle violence, disorder and disrespect, and the Bill will complement it. In particular, it will complement the Government’s respect agenda, which addresses the problem of disrespect in our society and its destructive and corrosive consequences. The Respect Action Plan was published in January. It set out the Government’s goals and reiterated that we need to tackle anti-social behaviour by addressing disrespect in every walk of life. This includes disrespect towards emergency workers, who are, above all, serving their communities.
Offences against emergency workers are often committed by young people. The respect plan makes clear the critical role of schools and parents in tackling disrespectful behaviour by children. We also want to ensure that young people are active and learn how to make a positive impact as individuals in our society, so we tackle this behaviour before it escalates to the level where it needs to be dealt with by the criminal law.
The National Health Service and fire service are tackling the root causes of disorder, disrespect and violence against their employees. They are working closely with the police to ensure that even low-level violence is treated seriously if it is against NHS workers and that offences are prosecuted. Rigorous enforcement of the current law is a good deterrent. It also makes staff feel safer and more confident in the conduct of their job.
Recent statistics released by the National Health Service show that assaults on National Health Service staff in acute hospitals are down. That is in direct relation to the strenuous efforts that have been made to ensure that assaults on NHS staff are properly dealt with and properly prosecuted. Similarly, assaults on ambulance workers have been significantly reduced. So this approach is beginning to bear fruit; it is working.
The fire and rescue services have also introduced measures to deal with attacks on firefighters. The Chief Fire Officers' Association has set up a taskand finish group to look at all matters relating to assaults on firefighters with a view to making recommendations and producing best practice. I understand that this report is due to be made available to the service soon. So there is a lot that is being undertaken, and there is a lot more that wecan do.
I am grateful to noble Lords for bringing the Bill to us. Increasing dangers are faced by emergency workers and the Bill will fill a gap which helps us to tackle them. We need to make sure that, in addition to this change, we make the best use of the other mechanisms and powers available to us to tackle the dangers as part of what I have identified as a wider programme. In particular, we need to allow the Sentencing Guidelines Council to do the job of ensuring consistency across sentencing, and we should not underestimate the value of the non-legislative measures to which I have made reference. The shortcomings that we have identified in the system are shortcomings in enforcement, not shortcomings in the law. Dealing with such shortcomings is not as simple as making changes in the law, but I have outlined ways in which we are working with others to make it easier to tackle the sort of behaviour which makes emergencies worse than they need to be. That is why we are anxious to achieve practical benefits through this approach. The creation of the new offence of obstruction will be an important and valuable step, but it is not the whole story, as we have heard in this debate—it is an anchor for the other measures that I have outlined.
A number of points and questions were raised during the debate. I shall try to respond to as many of them as I can in the time that I have. I have made reference already to the sentencing guidelines. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked me when they might be produced. Overarching principles have already been issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council. These specifically include as a factor to be regarded as causing particularly serious harm,
“offences committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public”.
The council is considering further, specific guidelines for offences of violence, which are likely to have similar criteria.
The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, asked whether the Government were committed to consulting on mandatory minimum sentences for assaults on public workers as well. I think that I have already dealt with this question. We will concentrate greatly on advice that is given to us, particularly from the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the Sentencing Advisory Panel, which has also consulted on sentencing for assaults and other violent offences, including issues such as the use of weapons and victims who servethe public. It is also considering the results of the consultation and will make a recommendation to the Sentencing Guidelines Council for appropriate guidelines.
It may be worth drawing to the attention of your Lordships' House that the Government have tabled changes to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which will be debated on Monday. We are increasing the maximum sentence for possession of a bladed instrument from two to four years—so clearly we see these issues as very serious indeed.
My Lords, I assume that the Minister is about to leave the subject of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. The quote that he gave replicated what Fiona Mactaggart said in the other place on 8 April. We do not seem to have made much progress if we are just repeating those words and have not had anything definitive. The way the Minister spoke in the other place in Committee on this Bill indicated that she was expecting something specific pretty soon—those were her words. But it does not sound as if we have anything.
My Lords, all I can say to the noble Lord is that I think that we are closer now than we were then. But I take the point very seriously and, when I read through my notes coming into the Chamber, I spotted the point that the noble Lord has drawn very clearly to our attention. It is one that I shall ensure we pursue vigorously so that we get some better, more definitive answers in the course of our further deliberations.
The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, in his usual forensic way, made reference to employees and servants of the Crown and contractors. I shall consider very carefully the point that the noble Lord raised, but I am not sure that there is in fact a gap with regard to the provision of fire and rescue services. Clause 1(2)(a) and (b) covers employees of the fire and rescue authorities, employees of other bodies and Crown servants whose duties cover extinguishing fires. So I am not convinced that there are independent contractors carrying out those services. However, I shall look into the issue further. Of course, the order-making power in Clause 5 could be used to plug any gap that might exist. I hope that that gives the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, some comfort. I shall certainly carry out some further inquiries.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, pointed out that a large number of appropriate offences are already in existence to deal with violence, threats of violence and damage. Assaults on public service workers are taken seriously by the prosecuting authorities and we will work with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure cases of assault or obstruction of emergency workers are rigorously pursued. It is certainly worth drawing the attention of noble Lords to the British Crime Survey, which provides some valuable data on threats of violence and physical assaults on workers. In particular, it provides more information on different categories of public service workers who are the victims of assaults. I have some data here that I am more than happy to share with the noble Lord outside the Chamber. It would be rather complex to go through them in the debate today.
It may be worth saying, too, that courts take assaults on police officers very seriously. My study of crime statistics says that some 5,700 convictions were achieved in the last year for which I have figures for assaults against police officers. It is right that other service workers enjoy similar protection, which is why the Government are inclined to be as persistent as they are on this issue. We take it very seriously indeed.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, raised the issue of burdens of proof. I assure him that the offence does not raise the burden of proof, which is as always on the prosecution. The standard is the normal standard—beyond reasonable doubt. One reason why the Bill does not cover assault is to avoid making assault more difficult to prove, as I said in my opening comments. Common assault will be available without proof that the victim is an emergency worker and is responding to emergency circumstances.
I think that I have covered the main points raised in my concluding comments and my general commentary on the Bill. It goes without saying that we want to see the Bill on the statute book. We are conscious of the tightness of the parliamentary timetable at this time of year. I am sure that, given the good will that the Bill has received from all quarters in your Lordships' House today, it will find its way on to the statute book.
My Lords, I did make the point that the British Crime Survey has data on that, and I repeat my promise to share with the noble Lord the figures that we have. As I said, it would be wrong of me to weary the House this morning with those data, but data are available—perhaps not in the precise form that we would wish or the noble Lord would wish, but they are there.
In conclusion, I wish the Bill well, and the Government give it their proud and wholehearted support. I very much welcome the wide-ranging support that it received this morning. With the many fine brains that have turned their attention to it, no doubt it will reach the statute book in perfect form in due course.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clarifications and assurances, which went a long way to allaying many of the concerns. With respect, I thought that he was least convincing when he mentioned the Sentencing Guidelines Council and stated that since April we are closer to “soon”. Well, I suppose that we are closer to kingdom come, but that does not help people who may be affected by the Bill. Nevertheless, I welcome his comments.
I thank all those who made contributions, especially the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth, with his vast experience. I hope that he, like us, has found the experience helpful. He spoke with enormous knowledge of the trade union movement and the effect of the legislation on trade unionists.
The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, mentioned a number of problems. The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, also made the point about extending the categories, but there is always a danger of making the best the enemy of the good. There is now a more flexible system to extend the coverage by order as appropriate.
I am delighted that the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Hodgson, have given their blessing from two of the Front Benches. They asked specific questions but, as we saw from the Front-Bench contributions, the Bill has received a general welcome, and there is a general acceptance that there is a loophole in the law that should be filled.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.