As my hon. Friend knows, I think it is disgraceful that our society has descended so low that people who work in accident and emergency departments or who go out with ambulances or are district nurses or GPs cannot perform their duties without fear of assault and abuse. Since coming to my present office, I have made it a major priority that national service managers must do whatever they can to reduce the impact of violent assaults on national health service staff. We issued a circular on the effective management of security in accident and emergency departments—which was prepared in part by the previous Government—and, since then, we have issued further health and safety guidance on minimising the risk of violence to staff. I return to my initial point: it is, and must remain, a major target of national health service management to ensure that staff are not assaulted and abused. It is the duty of the whole criminal justice system to make sure that anyone who assaults a national health service staff member is punished severely.
I thank the Secretary of State for taking such decisive action in an important area that the previous Government neglected so badly. Can my right hon. Friend inform the House how we might improve the patients charter so that we can move from the empty rhetoric of the charter introduced by the Conservative Government and towards a charter with real rights and responsibilities for both patients and staff?
National health service staff at all levels and in all disciplines tell me that certain aspects of the patients charter have led to an increase in the number of assaults on and abuses of staff, particularly in accident and emergency departments. That is one reason why we intend to change the patients charter and make it an NHS charter in which patients have responsibilities as well as rights.
The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that many NHS non-executives fear that they are being attacked by the Secretary of State. There is a large number of outstanding appointments. The system was essentially endorsed after exhaustive examination by Lord Nolan. If the right hon. Gentleman discusses the matter with his noble Friends Baronesses Dean, Jay and Hayman—and many others in this place who served on trusts—he will discover that they are very worried that he will exceed the actions of one of his predecessors who vindictively dismissed 150 appointees when he came to power. Will the right hon. Gentleman state that he has no intention of attacking those NHS non-executives who have done so much for the health service?
I do not propose to demean the House by answering that stupid question about the former Secretary of State's Tory friends losing their places on national health service trusts, when my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) was referring to the physical assault and abuse of nurses, doctors and ambulance staff. If the right hon. Lady thinks that there are parallels between the two cases, no wonder she made such a mess of this job.