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National Health Service: Assaults on Staff

Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many attacks on NHS staff were reported in 2016-17 and 2015-16.

My Lords, the Government are committed to taking action against those who abuse or attack NHS staff. In 2015-16, NHS organisations, which are responsible for protecting their staff, reported 70,555 physical assaults. Of those, 52,704 were due to patients’ conditions or treatments they were receiving. Data has not been collected for 2016-17. We are reviewing with the NHS how in future information about assaults and abuse of NHS staff can help trusts promote best practice.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. Can I give him a little help with the updated figures? Has he seen the figures produced by the Health Service Journal and Unison which show a 10% increase in violence against NHS staff in the latest year? That is just unacceptable. Why did the Government in November 2017 abolish NHS Protect, which had the responsibility to protect NHS staff against violence? I know that it was replaced and that its staff, but not its functions, were transferred to the NHS Counter Fraud Authority, which focuses on fraud and protection of buildings. Will the Minister confirm that there is now no body responsible for the safety of NHS staff? I am drawn to the conclusion that this Government value property more than people.

I have to take issue with the point the noble Lord makes. It is absolutely not the case that the Government value property more than staff. We all value the work that NHS staff do every day in very difficult conditions. That is one of the reasons that we announced our historic funding settlement at the beginning of this week. On the problem that the noble Lord raises, he is right to say that, looking back over NHS Protect’s data, starting in 2008-09, there has been a steady rise in the number of assaults on and incidents of abuse of NHS staff. Clearly that is completely unacceptable. However, there is disagreement about the reasons for that, and it is worth dwelling on that. They include not just the greater volume of patients and better reporting, but the increase in mental illness and dementia, and more severe mental illness being dealt with in hospitals rather than police cells. I do not use that as an excuse, but merely to explain that there is some uncertainty about the reasons for it. It was under NHS Protect’s aegis that this steady rise happened. It has fulfilled its function, which is to make sure that security management services are available to every NHS trust—but in the end it has to be down to every trust to take responsibility for the safety of its staff, and that is the system we are moving ahead with now.

My Lords, given that alcohol is involved in more than 60% of assaults in the acute sector, more than 30% of assaults in the mental health sector and more than 70% of assaults in the ambulance sector, will the Minister explain why the Government have abandoned progress with the sobriety scheme pilot, which showed a very high success rate in avoiding reoffending in alcohol-fuelled crime? It would provide a tool for non-custodial sentencing where people are known to have assaulted NHS staff under the influence of alcohol.

I will look into the specific issue that the noble Baroness mentions. I do not have the details in front of me. I know that all local authorities provide free, taxpayer-funded rehabilitation services for those who are suffering from alcohol addiction. I should also point out that this Government have increased progressive taxation on stronger alcohol, such as white cider, specifically to try to change people’s drinking habits and to reduce alcohol-related violence.

Following the theme of alcohol, the Minister was kind enough to meet me and members of the Alcohol Health Alliance on 30 April. We stressed that accepting a minimum unit price, as in Scotland, would do much to remove alcohol—and, particularly, cheap alcohol—from vulnerable people, some of whom are responsible for the attacks to which we are referring. When will England accept a minimum unit price and implement it?

I was delighted to meet my noble friend on this topic. I know he cares passionately about it. We have said—and I have said in this House before—that we are looking at the Scottish example with interest now that Scotland has gone ahead with it. There is a growing evidence base to demonstrate the benefits of minimum unit pricing, but we want to see what transpires in Scotland before making any decisions about whether to move ahead.

My Lords, in England around 200 attacks on NHS staff occur every day, and this is nothing short of scandalous. Next week we have the Second Reading of a Private Member’s Bill, which has come from the other place, on assaulting emergency workers. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government are minded to support it—and, if not, what further action will be taken to protect health workers?

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is scandalous and that we therefore want to support the Bill. I believe that it will have its Second Reading here on 29 June. I can confirm that the Government will be supporting the Bill.

I am grateful for that reply from the Minister. I have the privilege of taking the Bill through its Second Reading next week. It will create, for the first time, an aggravated offence for those who attack all emergency workers, including paramedics, nurses, doctors and all those associated with helping NHS staff in emergency work, such as St John Ambulance and other volunteers, if they are doing emergency work. So I am thankful that the Government have provided time, and I hope that we will be able to get the Bill through quickly by the summer.

I salute the noble Baroness for taking it through its stages in the House of Lords. I reiterate our support for it—not just the principles behind it but the specific measures in it. Clearly it is unacceptable to assault the very people who devote their lives to serving.