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Crime: Emergency Services Staff

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 1 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce a new sentencing tariff for those who commit a crime and who kill a member of the emergency services as a result.

My Lords, in addition to the sentencing reforms we announced in our White Paper, the Government are currently considering options for strengthening the law in relation to those who kill emergency workers while engaged in unlawful activity. This consideration will include proposals made by the family of PC Andrew Harper, who we remain in close discussion with.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for her reply. I declare my interest as a former police officer with the Thames Valley Police, the same force that the late PC Andrew Harper so gallantly served. I commend PC Harper’s widow, Lissie, for her courageous campaigning on this issue. Like many members of the emergency services, I suffered serious injury while on duty and saw colleagues nearly killed in the line of duty. Such incidents should never be regarded as an occupational hazard for those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public. Does my noble friend the Minister agreed that, whatever the legal complexity, we can, and should, do more to increase the deterrent against criminals causing harm to our emergency services?

I thank my noble friend for sharing his personal experience of the dangers faced by members of our emergency services. Those are why in 2018 we introduced the new aggravated offences of assaulting emergency workers and are now revisiting the maximum penalties for them. We are all aware that in some cases, such assaults have led to much more tragic circumstances, in which some emergency workers have died in the line of duty. That is why it is right that we also consider whether a change in sentencing or to the criminal law is required where an emergency worker is killed by another person in the course of unlawful activity. I am sure that all noble Lords join me in paying tribute and sending our sincere condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of Matthew Ratana, who was fatally shot on 25 September while on duty at the Croydon custody suite.

My Lords, in addressing and ensuring better public protection for our communities so that residents feel safe, what extra measures are the Government introducing inside and outside prison to improve ways of dealing with terrorism offenders? Will we see a drive to recruit more counterterrorism specialist probation officers?

Public protection is the Government’s number one priority. We have already made changes to the law regarding the sentencing and release of terrorist offenders. As part of the proposal in the sentencing White Paper that we talked about last week, the Government intend to introduce a new power to prevent automatic early release for a wider range of offenders who are a significant public protection concern. Earlier this year the Government also announced that they will double the number of specialist probation officers who focus on terrorist prisoners. The Government also intend to create a new counterterrorism assessment and intervention centre.

My Lords, it is absolutely right that we should feel horrified by some crimes, and I certainly endorse the good wishes sent by the Minister. However, we must not get into the situation that, for every type of offence, there is a specific sentencing statutory provision. It makes the task of judges almost impossible if they constantly have to compare statutory penalties for one offence with another which are marginally different in effect.

I agree with the noble and learned Lord, which is why we are taking our time in considering this complex issue of whether there should be any changes to sentencing or to criminal law. We will work through this in a timely manner, consulting with the judiciary all the way.

My Lords, it is quite right that there should be proper consultation on this, as the Minister says. However, we should look at the sentencing tariff not only for those who kill but for those who cause serious, life-changing injuries to emergency workers. Two years ago, in a drunken spree, Hayden Brown drove into the patrol car carrying PC Tom Dorman—now Sergeant Tom Dorman—and a colleague. As was said in court, the two officers were thrown into the air “like ragdolls”, and Sergeant Dorman lost his leg as a result. Brown has now been released from prison after serving 10 months, while Sergeant Dorman must live with the consequences of that criminality for the rest of his life. How does that square with the Government’s rhetoric of protecting the protectors?

The noble Lord is correct. The White Paper is looking at serious assaults very seriously. That is why we are changing the time served of sentences of over seven years from the current 50% to two-thirds. In the White Paper, we are also looking at changing it from 50% to two-thirds for sentences of four to seven years. All these things will ensure that the public have confidence in the judicial system.

My Lords, I am the son of a policeman and spent my first five years living in a police station in Llangollen. The November 2018 guidelines for an unlawful act of manslaughter were arrived at after four years of consideration and consultation with 45 bodies, including the council of Her Majesty’s judges, the criminal Bar, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, the Ministry of Justice, the Justice Committee, the unions, the Howard League for Penal Reform, leading academics, the royal medical colleges and many others. The guidelines were widely accepted and came into effect less than two years ago. Why is the Ministry of Justice proposing to revisit this issue so soon?

My Lords, it is for public confidence. We consulted over the summer and there was a wide agreement that the tariffs should go to two years rather than the 12 months.

I associate this side of the House with the sympathy expressed to the families of Sergeant Ratana and Police Constable Andrew Harper. As we have heard from many of the questions asked, serious assault, not-so-serious assault, murder or manslaughter of any emergency worker should be attended by higher sentences. Can the Minister give an assurance that there will be a consultation about differential sentencing for those sorts of crimes, and that it will be published very shortly?

I am very sorry that I cannot give an assurance on when it will be published but, as with all these things, there will be consultation, and it will be on everything from minor and major assault to murder and manslaughter.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with the analysis of Andy Symonds, chair of Norfolk Police Federation? He said that it was essential that courts, as well as the Government, played a part in stopping violent offenders, and that there was a need for predictable, tough sentences for offenders who attack police officers. He says that this has not happened, and that it is one of the main drivers of the rising numbers of assaults that we are seeing year on year. Putting on a uniform for public service always carries a risk. We in Parliament and the courts should respond to that risk by unambiguously making clear to those who assault the uniformed services that they will face the most severe penalties.

Sentencing is ultimately a matter for the independent courts, which is why in 2018 we introduced the new aggravated offence of assaulting emergency workers. As I said, we are looking at increasing the 12 months to a two-year maximum penalty. While sentencing is for judges in individual cases, it is for the Government to give courts the full range of powers to deal effectively with anybody who attacks any policeman or emergency worker.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. As I said, we did go on rather too long in the supplementary questions and answers, and I apologise to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, whom I tried to get in rather prematurely.