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House of Commons Hansard
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Crime (Assaults on Emergency Services Staff)
07 February 2017
Volume 621

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make certain offences including malicious wounding, grievous or actual bodily harm and common assault aggravated when perpetrated against a constable, firefighter, doctor, paramedic or nurse in the execution of his or her duty or against a person assisting these persons in the execution of their duty; to make provision to require those suspected of certain assaults that may pose a health risk, including spitting, to be required to undergo blood tests and to make it an offence, without reasonable excuse, to refuse to undergo such tests; to make provision about the sentences for those convicted of the offences; and for connected purposes.

I come to the Chamber once again to raise the profile of the risks facing those working on the frontline in our emergency services. I seek approval for a Bill that would offer our police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses and paramedics greater protection from harm than that allowed under existing legislation.

Having been out with all the emergency services in my constituency, may I start by paying tribute to the work that they do? Behind the uniforms are incredibly brave and dedicated individuals who, regrettably, face risks that they simply should not have to face on an almost daily basis. They routinely go above and beyond their duties to keep the public safe, yet when someone sets out deliberately to injure or assault an emergency responder, the laws in place must convey how unacceptable that is in the strongest possible terms. This Bill sets out to do just that.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the many Members who, on a cross-party basis, have lent their support to my “Protect the Protectors” campaign. I launched the campaign after spending a Friday evening in August out on patrol with West Yorkshire police in my constituency. I joined PC Craig Gallant, who was single crewed and responding to 999 calls. When a routine stop very quickly turned nasty, I was so concerned for his safety that I rang 999 myself to stress just how urgently he needed back-up. Thankfully, other officers arrived at the scene shortly afterwards to help to manage the situation. Although, amazingly, no injuries were sustained on that occasion, I saw the dangers for myself and understood just how vulnerable officers are when they are out on their own.

Following that incident, and having secured an Adjournment debate on this very issue, police officers from all over the country started to contact me with their harrowing stories of being attacked while on duty. What has shocked me, and what thoroughly depresses police officers, is that sentences handed down to offenders for assaulting the police often fail to reflect the seriousness of the crime or, more crucially, to serve as a deterrent.

To assault a police officer is to show a complete disregard for law and order, our shared values and democracy itself, and that must be reflected in sentencing, particularly for those who are repeat offenders. Many officers described feeling like they had suffered an injustice twice—first at the hands of the offender; and then again in court when sentences were unduly lenient. Within two weeks of the incident involving PC Gallant, PC Dan McLaughlin from Halifax was assaulted when, during an arrest, an angry male grabbed his radio and used it to strike him repeatedly on the head. I am pleased that PC McLaughlin is able to join us today in support of this legislative change, which would help to keep him and his colleagues safe.

During my Adjournment debate in October, I outlined the flaws in the Home Office’s then system for collecting data on just how many assaults there were on police officers. I welcome the fact that the Minister listened and that changes were made, which we all hope will give us a much more accurate picture.

Official Home Office statistics suggest that there were just over 23,000 assaults on police officers last year. That is 450 a week, and it equates to an officer being assaulted every 22 minutes. However, just this week the Police Federation published the results of its welfare survey, which was undertaken by 17,000 serving police officers. The survey revealed that there are actually closer to 6,000 assaults every day—an assault every 13 seconds—with the average police officer being assaulted 19 times a year.

In our Opposition day debate on police officer safety at the end of last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) told the Chamber about the mum she had met who told her children that their dad was the clumsiest man in the world to explain away his bruises when he came home from work as a police officer. Although the figures sound incredibly high, they sound worryingly in line with the experiences of that family.

My Bill would protect not just police officers, but all blue-light emergency responders. A report published just before Christmas by Yorkshire ambulance service revealed that staff faced “violence and aggression” on a weekly basis. There was a 50% increase in reported incidents of verbal and physical attacks on staff, with 606 incidents reported in 2015-16. Richard Bentley, a paramedic in Leeds, told the BBC that he had faced three serious assaults in five years. He had been bitten, head-butted and threatened with a knife.

Members of West Yorkshire fire and rescue service have also reported being subject to assaults. On bonfire night, the service received 1,043 calls, with crews attending 265 incidents. It was disgraceful that, faced with such pressures on the busiest night of the year, firefighters in West Yorkshire were also subject to 19 attacks overnight. The Bill would ensure that anyone who assaults an emergency service responder, doctor or nurse, and is charged with malicious wounding, grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm or common assault, would be eligible for a tougher sentence because an assault on an emergency service worker is an assault on society. It is totally unacceptable that public servants who are working in their communities, protecting people and helping the vulnerable are subject to assaults as they go about their jobs. These changes would go some way towards reflecting that.

The second aspect of the Bill aims to deal with the hideous act of spitting at emergency service workers. As well as being horrible, spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a very real risk of transmitting a range of infectious diseases, some with life-changing or even lethal consequences. At an event organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris), I met PC Mike Bruce and PC Alan O’Shea of West Midlands police. Both officers had blood spat in their faces while trying to arrest a violent offender. They both had to undergo antiviral treatments to reduce their risk of contracting communicable diseases, and they faced a six-month wait to find out whether the treatment had been successful. During that time, PC O’Shea was advised that he could not see his brother, who was undergoing cancer treatment, because the risk of passing on an infection was too high. He was also advised not to see his parents because they were in such regular contact with his brother.

PC Bruce had a false positive result for hepatitis B, and for six months until conclusive test results came through, he was understandably reluctant to be close to his wife or children, fearing for their wellbeing. I am pleased that PC Bruce and PC O’Shea are here today to lend their support to these changes which, had they been in place at the time, might have saved them such an agonising wait.

In previous speeches I have made on the issue, I shared with Members the story of Arina Koltsova, a police officer in Ukraine who died after contracting tuberculosis from an offender who spat at her while she was trying to arrest him. At the moment, if an emergency service worker is spat at, they can take a blood sample from an individual only if that person gives their permission. Needless to say that in the case of PC O’Shea and PC Bruce, the offender was not in a helpful mood, so they were subjected to antiviral treatments and a six-month wait.

Laws in Australia provide that refusal to give a blood sample can result in a $12,000 fine and a custodial sentence. My Bill would mean that refusing to provide a blood sample will, in itself, be a crime punishable by fine or custodial sentence. If an emergency service worker, doctor or nurse has already had to endure being spat at, this measure would hopefully save them having to endure a six-month ordeal of waiting to see if the consequences are much more serious.

It has been made very clear to me that the experience I had out on the streets of my constituency last summer was not an isolated incident. It reflected the daily challenge that our police officers face. Paramedics, firefighters, doctors and nurses are sadly also in need of these protections, yet it is worth remembering that when they find themselves under attack, it is the police who are called. I hope that this change in sentencing will go a small way towards giving these dedicated public servants the protections they should not require, but sadly do.

I am not naive to the nature of ten-minute rule Bills, and nor am I under any illusions about where we are in the parliamentary calendar, but I hope that the Policing Minister and the Home Office team have heard the details of my Bill and will reflect on its merits. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Holly Lynch, Conor McGinn, Rob Marris, Liz Saville Roberts, Anna Turley, Michael Dugher, Scott Mann, Hannah Bardell, Tom Blenkinsop, Tracy Brabin, Jim Shannon and Philip Davies present the Bill.

Holly Lynch accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be a read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 136).