Police Officer Safety

Petition - Implementation of the 1995 and 2011 Pension Acts – in the House of Commons at 6:47 pm on 11 October 2016.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax 7:12, 11 October 2016

May I say how pleased I am to have the opportunity to raise in the Chamber the issue of police officer safety? I thank all those colleagues who have stayed for the debate. That is appreciated not just by me, but by the hard-working and dedicated police officers who we represent up and down the country. I also take this opportunity to thank all MPs who showed their support for the campaign at the drop-in session earlier today.

On Friday 5 August during the summer recess, I joined West Yorkshire police for a 2 pm till 10 pm shift to get the front-line experience, and to see just how the demands on local policing are changing. I spent the afternoon with neighbourhood policing officer PC Kim McCloskey, visiting community projects and seeing some of the great work going on at the grassroots Ovenden Phoenix football club, before spending the evening with response officers reacting to 999 calls. West Yorkshire Police Federation chair, Chief Inspector Nick Smart, had only recently been to see me to raise concerns about an increase in assaults on police officers, and to outline how depleted numbers are impacting on front-line capabilities.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General

My hon. Friend rightly talks about an increase in those incidents, but does she agree that one of the most important things we need to do is collect more accurate data so that we can see precisely what is going on in that respect?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and will come to that in more detail later.

With those concerns in mind, I was keen to see for myself just how well police officers on the front line are coping with cuts of £160 million over five years, resulting in the loss of 1,200 police officers—a reduction of 20% of the force. As an MP, I already work closely with local neighbourhood policing teams. Headed up by Inspector Colin Skeath, there is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and really to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. I pay tribute to the invaluable work they do. Long may it continue.

It was into the evening, when I moved over to response policing, that I joined PC Craig Gallant reacting to 999 calls. That was where I could really see the strain on the service. I had already discussed with the Police Federation and senior officers my concerns that, due to a combination of reduced numbers and the ever expanding responsibilities of the police, officers are now regularly being asked to respond to emergency calls on their own. Only days before my shift, a female police officer responded to a domestic call in my district. Disgracefully, she was head-butted by an offender, knocking out her teeth and leaving her with a broken eye socket.

It was not long into my time with PC Gallant that we attempted to stop a vehicle to speak to the driver. Having turned on the blue lights, the car initially sped away. However, after a short chase the driver eventually thought better of it and pulled over. PC Gallant asked the driver to get out of the vehicle, but he refused. As he continued to instruct the driver to get out the car, a crowd began to gather, with some onlookers becoming increasingly hostile; passing vehicles also began to take an interest. A second vehicle then pulled up at speed. As the passenger from the first car got out to get into the second, the situation very quickly escalated. PC Gallant found himself surrounded, dealing with an aggressive crowd from all directions. When he was forced to draw his baton while instructing the crowd to move back, I was so concerned for his safety that I rang 999 myself, believing it was the fastest way to make contact with the control room and stress just how urgently he needed back-up. Thankfully, other officers arrived at the scene shortly afterwards to help to manage the situation. Amazingly, no injuries were sustained on that occasion, but I saw for myself just how quickly situations can escalate and how vulnerable officers are when they are out on their own.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for bringing this very important issue to the Chamber for consideration. The hon. Lady will be aware that in Northern Ireland police officers carry personal weapons both on duty and at home because of the threat to them. I spoke to her about this issue today and she may have a different opinion, but does she feel that it is important that we protect police officers at home and at work, and that one way of doing that is to give them a personal weapon that they can access at any time? That provides safety for them and their families.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The circumstances in Northern Ireland are very serious and really quite different to some of the circumstances in the rest of the country. I am asking the Minister today to consider all available options to provide the safety and resources that police officers need on the streets. That is certainly one option that could be considered, with the specifics of Northern Ireland policing.

Returning to the incident on the streets of Halifax, it gives me great pleasure to welcome PC Gallant to Westminster to join us for this debate. I think it is fair to say that he remained much calmer than I did throughout the incident.

An assault on a police officer is an assault on society. It is totally unacceptable that public servants, working in their communities to protect people and help the vulnerable, are subject to assaults as they go about their jobs. Make no mistake, these are tough jobs, and while most officers will tell you that they understand there are risks, being a punching bag should never be part and parcel of the job. In West Yorkshire alone, there were 991 recorded assaults on police officers last year, with an estimated 23,000 across the country. In addition, many attacks are going unreported or are being side-lined in the pursuit of other charges, making it extremely difficult to understand the true scale of the problem.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

In Cleveland, a police officer has had their jaw broken twice in the past 12 months. That follows on from the fact that in the past six years, Cleveland has seen a 25% cut in the number of front-line police officers. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a factor? The amount of single staffing patrols has now increased to such a level that officers are exposed to increased danger.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

There are no two ways about it. I will come on to that in more detail in my speech. That is a very serious incident. Sending officers out on their own just is not working.

When I asked the House of Commons Library for statistics, by police force, of assaults on officers, it responded by saying that there is a lack of official statistics in this area. A recent Home Office report cites that assaults on officers and police community support officers are not collected as national statistics. Instead, the figures are estimates based on two limited data sources. To be fair to the Home Office, I very much welcome the recent efforts it has made to improve the system for recording assaults on officers, but there is still a long way to go.

Last year the Home Office asked forces to provide data on assaults on a voluntary basis. However, it recognised that there were flaws to that approach, concluding that

“the figures…are not directly comparable at police force area level”,

and that

“the estimates are relatively crude, and should be interpreted with caution.”

As the data are not collected, we simply cannot answer some of the bigger questions. Is the number of assaults going up? Are some forces failing to protect their officers? Have cuts to police budgets made policing more dangerous?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her campaign. I and other Members of the House attended the police bravery awards this year, where we saw the incredible work being done by our police forces all over the country. One of the issues that has been raised for several years is that cuts in the psychiatric service have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. Does she agree that that needs to be addressed? This is really not what police officers should be doing.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention; he is absolutely right. We see police forces having to pick up the slack where there have been cuts to other agencies—agencies that should be taking a lead in dealing with some of these quite difficult social problems. I will come to how many vulnerable people were missing when I did my shift with West Yorkshire police and the impact that had on how many officers were available to respond to 999 calls.

To return to the statistics, I am asking the Home Office to work with police forces to standardise the process of collecting that information. Quite simply, if an officer is assaulted, in any force at any time, let us record it. Assaults on officers must be the subject of robust investigations. While officers need to play their part in that and follow up by reporting instances where they have been the victim of an assault, I also appreciate that they will not report injuries unless they have the confidence that those involved will be investigated and prosecuted appropriately.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue on behalf of West Yorkshire police, our local force. Will she join me in welcoming the recruitment of an extra 300 officers in West Yorkshire? Does she also agree that we need some exemplary sentences as a deterrent, so that the police can have the assurance of knowing that anyone who perpetrates violence against a police officer or PCSO will receive a harsher sentence?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, sentencing plays a big part in deterring those contemplating assault on a police officer. I very much welcome that recruitment drive, but we have seen the loss of 1,200 officers in West Yorkshire, so the faster those new boots are on the ground, the better.

I welcome the work of the Police Federation’s John Apter in Hampshire, which has been an effective means of establishing best practice. I would encourage all forces to consider rolling out similar schemes for recording and investigating assaults on officers. Police officers who are assaulted deserve the full backing of the justice system, as the hon. Gentleman has just said. Since my shift with West Yorkshire police, I have become aware of at least five more assaults on officers in my constituency in the days that followed and have been made aware of some absolutely horrific incidents reported to me by serving officers all over the country—indeed, we have already heard many more today. 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, serve as a deterrent.

Photo of Byron Davies Byron Davies Conservative, Gower

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. After 32 years of policing in London, I can tell her that I was involved in several scuffles, with only the protection of a small piece of wood in a side pocket and a radio that was only good for throwing at decamping suspects. Does she agree that poor sentencing reduces the seriousness of assaults on police and has the effect of lowering morale and, above all, respect for law enforcement?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; he is absolutely right. Morale is essential in the police force. We have to get this right or we will start to lose good officers as a result.

To reiterate, we make the law here, but we ask the police to uphold and enforce it out there. To assault a police officer is to show a complete disregard for law and order, our shared values and democracy itself. That must be reflected in sentencing, particularly for repeat offenders. To give hon. Members just a couple of examples, a man who assaulted four officers in the south of England earlier this year, causing serious injury to one officer in particular by gouging their eyes, was ordered to pay compensation and received a two-month suspended sentence.

One of the most harrowing attacks on officers brought to my attention was on the front page of the Scottish Daily Mail in September. A man set upon two officers, one male and one female, subjecting them to an onslaught of blows after initially seeming to comply with a body search. Footage of the incident, which was widely shared on social media, shows onlookers beginning to film the assault on their smart phones, while the officers struggle to defend themselves. In court, the offender was ordered to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work, pay compensation to the officers and placed under supervision for 18 months.

I could go on—and I really could go on—because since securing this debate, I have been sent examples from officers all over the country, most of whom have themselves been on the receiving end of violent attacks, and who feel thoroughly let down by the system.

Having looked into sentencing in more detail, I referred to the “Assault Definitive Guideline” publication, produced by the Sentencing Council in 2011. The guidelines assist all members of the judiciary who deal with sentencing. They list the measures of both harm and culpability to assess whether an assault on an officer is a category 1, 2 or 3 offence. They then state the starting point for an appropriate sentence in each of the categories, with the factors that may be taken into consideration in arriving at a final sentencing decision.

The starting point for sentencing following a category 1 assault on a police officer, which represents the greatest harm and the highest culpability, is a 12-week custodial sentence. However, the guidelines then go on to say:

“When sentencing category 1 offences, the court should also consider if the custody threshold has been passed? If so, is it unavoidable that a custodial sentence be imposed and can that sentence be suspended?”

I really struggle with the notion of a suspended sentence. It feels as though the custodial element of the sentence itself does reflect the seriousness of the crime, but its suspended nature means that victims often leave court feeling that it will have zero practical impact on the offender.

I appreciate that the Minister will most likely stress the independent nature of the Sentencing Council, which I understand, but when sentencing has the potential to be such a significant part of the package of measures used to deter those from using violence against police officers, as Jason McCartney said, I am asking the Minister to consider any and all means available to him to work with his colleagues in the Department for Justice to ensure that we use sentencing as a means of offering the police all the protection we can. In addition, there are no two ways about it, and as we have already heard, the cuts have had consequences. The danger of assault is heightened when officers are on the front line with diminished support due to pressures on officer numbers.

Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Labour, Dewsbury

I thank my hon. Friend for the fantastic work she has done in campaigning on this very important issue. I spoke to a West Yorkshire police officer recently, who told me that there are nowadays only double crews at night. He explained that the risk was present throughout the day and that the risk did not discriminate between different times of the day. Does my hon. Friend agree that this represents a very significant risk to the safety of our police officers?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is absolutely right. We have seen an increase in the complexity of the crime that needs to be addressed at the same time as staggering cuts to the number of officers available to do that work, which does impact on the safety of officers as they go about their business.

Certainly in West Yorkshire—I know this is reflected in the forces across the country—the police have had to weather staggering cuts at a time when their case load is becoming increasingly complicated. I have seen the thin blue line stretched desperately thin, as the demands on officers continue to grow. The pressures of terrorism, safeguarding and cybercrime are all serious, but tackling these problems requires the appropriate resourcing. Increased awareness of exploitation in all its ugly forms, from child sexual exploitation to human trafficking, means that, quite rightly, priorities have changed to reflect that. Any officer will tell us that one of the biggest challenges putting additional pressure on the police is the changing nature of dealing with vulnerable young people and adults, particularly those with complex mental health challenges.

In the 24 hours leading up to my time on duty, Calderdale police had safely recovered nine vulnerable missing people and were involved in looking for an additional seven the following day. The weekly average for missing people in Calderdale is 43, with 416 a week going missing across the force. Some 114 of those are deemed to be high-risk individuals.

As MPs, as we have heard, we see it all the time—people with often complex vulnerabilities struggling to get the support they need in a climate where local authority budgets have been slashed and NHS funding has been squeezed. It is becoming a massive social problem, which is increasingly falling to the police to deal with, due to the inability of other agencies to take a lead or to take responsibility.

During my time with West Yorkshire police, I was able to see the difficulties stemming from having constantly to divert police crews into locating missing people, which undermines neighbourhood policing work and eats into the number of response officers available for 999 calls. We have a responsibility to keep the most vulnerable people away from harm and exploitation. Yet the police cannot be the catch-all for all problems. With reduced numbers, it is simply not sustainable and, let us be honest, nor are the police the most appropriate agency to be doing that work. We have to look at ways of empowering other agencies to take the lead. Not having the right answers to these questions means that the police are stretched as never before. As a result, lone officers—single crews—are regularly asked to attend emergencies and potentially dangerous incidents on their own, or with fewer officers than are required to manage such situations safely.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important issue to our attention. I must declare an interest, as I am proud to say that a member of my family is a serving police officer. I worry about his safety and the safety of his colleagues, given that they are so often required to go out on their own. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as a system of monitoring assaults on police officers, there should be a system of monitoring the number of occasions on which they are required to attend incidents on their own?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. A police officer who is deployed to deal with a dangerous situation alone is very vulnerable. That seems to be a significant contributing factor. When I went out with a police officer who had been deployed on his own, I saw for myself how quickly situations could escalate.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. When I talk to members of the Greater Manchester police force, they mention the large number of incidents involving people with mental health issues. As a result of cuts in mental health services, we in Greater Manchester have lost more than 1,850 police officers since 2010. That is a cut of 23%. I think my hon. Friend mentioned a 25% cut, and such a level of cuts is not unusual. Does she agree that it is inevitable that officers will be stretched and, as a result, put in danger?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

We have heard from Members on both sides of the House about the increased complexity surrounding crime, and the different types of crime with which the police are having to deal while also weathering truly staggering cuts. As a result, they are naturally more vulnerable when doing their work on the streets of all our constituencies.

When officers are deployed on their own, are they really equipped to deal with an incident when they arrive? The use of Tasers is probably a debate for another day, but, again, I ask the Minister to think about the package of measures that is needed to give officers every opportunity to manage the risks to which they are exposed on the front line. The provision of more widely available Taser units, with the training to accompany that responsibility, could be one of those measures.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

The extent of the problem is indeed startling. I have obtained some statistics, because we take measurements in Northern Ireland. Between 2014 and 2016, a quarter of all police officers serving there—1,631—were assaulted, and nearly 500 have been assaulted in the current year. Those are atrocious figures. The Government must tell the Northern Ireland Administration, and chief constables throughout the United Kingdom, that they need to recruit more officers, and judges must impose stiff sentences on people who are caught and found guilty of such crimes.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that staggering and depressing intervention. We have seen what he has described far too often, and the statistics are very serious. I hope that the Minister will respond with what could be easy and effective ways of dealing with sentencing to ensure that the greatest possible deterrents exist. We quite often see repeat offenders, and that cannot be allowed to continue. We must give police officers every protection that we can possibly provide.

What additional protections might officers need? Perhaps controversially, I want to refer to spit hoods. I am all for informed debate about the issue, but the truth is that if people are politically uncomfortable about spit hoods, I can promise them that somewhere, right now, there is a police officer who is being spat at and who is even more uncomfortable. As well as being thoroughly unpleasant, spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a real risk of transmission of a range of infectious diseases, some with life-changing or even lethal consequences. We have a duty of care to protect officers from that, whenever possible.

The Centre for Public Safety has published a briefing on the issue, and I thank it for the work that it has done in this regard. The briefing cited a recent occasion on which the Metropolitan police were called to a disturbance and arrested a 20-year-old woman on suspicion of a public order offence. The woman, who had hepatitis B, then bit her own lip and spat blood at three officers who had to be taken to hospital for anti-viral treatment. Anti-viral treatments are not guaranteed to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases, and an officer may have to endure a wait of over six months to find out whether the treatment has been successful.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Lady, who has been very generous in giving way, but she might wish to be aware that if she would like a reply from the Minister, he has only until 7.42 to give her that reply.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

I am getting there, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you for that reminder.

As I was saying, I am open to a debate on spit hoods, but they might not be so necessary if sentencing was more effective and offered a tougher deterrent. However, the Sentencing Council’s 2011 guidelines removed spitting as a factor increasing seriousness. In the council’s assessment of the guidelines, published in 2015, sentencers attributed a shift towards less severe sentencing to that decision. A district judge went so far as to say that

“a spit in the face can’t be identified as a sustained or repeated assault for greater harm. Yet in my view it is one of the most serious ways of assaulting.”

I am asking the Minister to ensure that the Home Office is collecting accurate data about assaults on police officers—data that will give us a much greater insight into the scale of the problem and empower decision makers to respond accordingly. I am asking him to work with colleagues to explore options for much tougher sentencing. If an officer is the victim of a category 1 assault, I would expect to see a sentence that sends a strong message. Assaulting the police shows contempt for our collectively agreed laws and all those who uphold them, and it will not be tolerated. It worries me that the ever-growing demands on the police are undermining their ability to do some of the basics. I am calling on the Minister to recognise that officers are routinely deployed on their own, that when an officer calls for back-up, only boots on the ground will do, and that numbers matter.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute, on behalf of all of us here, to the brave unarmed West Yorkshire police officers who apprehended the man who took Jo Cox from us on the streets of Batley and Spen earlier this year. Their actions demonstrated that we ask the police to walk towards some of the most dangerous situations, and we have a responsibility to offer them all the protection we can in doing so. We are grateful to them, and their courage is a testament to all our brave policemen and women across the country.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing and the Fire Service) 7:36, 11 October 2016

I congratulate Holly Lynch on securing this debate on such an important subject. It is good to see so many Members here tonight.

Last month, the Home Secretary and others paid their respects at events to mark National Police Memorial Day, a day that not only enables us to pay tribute to fallen officers but serves as a stark reminder of the dangers that the police face daily. The hon. Lady ably outlined examples of those dangers this evening. As she said, this is an issue with which she has been particularly concerned since her experience shadowing members of West Yorkshire police force in her constituency this summer. Many of us spend time with the police in our own constituencies, and I visit forces all around the country. We can see the phenomenal work that members of our police service do daily and the challenges that they face in our communities.

This has been a good debate, with a speech from the hon. Lady and interventions from other right hon. and hon. Members. I think we can all agree that police officers should be able to carry out their duties without fear of assault. Let me be clear that assaulting a police officer is completely unacceptable, and anyone who is found guilty can expect to face the full force of the law.

It is important that we have a good understanding of the scale of the issue, so that chief officers can do everything in their power to keep their officers safe. We have been working for some time to improve the data available. As a first step, it was right that provisional statistics of officer assaults were published in July, despite the limitations of those data. The figures indicated that in 2015-16, there were an estimated 23,000 assaults on officers across all forces. The data also indicated that there were nearly 8,000 assaults involving injury reported by officers, and 270 reported by police community support officers.

We will continue to build on that work, and we need to make it clear that it is completely unacceptable to commit an offence against a police officer. It is not good enough for people to say that such incidents are part of the cost of a police officer going about their business. That is simply not the case, and we need to put a stop to it. We need to ensure that the public understand that a police officer is to be respected and is there to serve the community. They keep us all safe.

I can assure the hon. Lady that sentencing guidelines already provide for an assault on a police officer to be treated more severely in appropriate cases. There are also two offences specific to assaults on police officers where there is little or no physical harm. Assaults resulting in more serious injuries would result in a charge of actual bodily harm or a more serious offence. In those cases, sentencing will largely be guided by the level of harm and offender culpability. In the most serious cases, where an individual is convicted of the murder of a police officer in the course of duty, a whole life order will now be the sentencing starting point, thanks to the work of the previous Home Secretary, as laid out in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. That was a landmark change, and one that the Police Federation had campaigned long and hard for on behalf of their members. It is right, as the hon. Lady outlined, that the courts still have the discretion, through the independence of the judiciary, to take account of all the circumstances of each case in determining the appropriate sentence. It is right for them to have that ability to assess in any given case, based on the facts of the case, what is the most appropriate sentence. She is also quite right to say that the Sentencing Council has a role to play in the sentencing guidelines, and that it is an independent body.

The hon. Lady touched on resources. I remind her that there has been a good deal for policing with direct resource funding to police and crime commissioners, including the precept, being protected this year. Ultimately, all decisions about local policing resources and roles are for chief constables, held to account by their locally accountable PCCs.

Single-crewing falls into the operational duty and decisions of local chief constables. Chiefs and PCCs have a duty to manage and support the police working effectively, ensuring the welfare of all officers and staff.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax

Does the Minister recognise that with the number of 999 calls to a lot of our forces, sometimes it is a choice between sending a lone officer or nobody, because those forces are that stretched?

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing and the Fire Service)

As we are limited to a few seconds of time, I will have to say that, in another place and at another opportunity, I will go through how the changing police force means that the work they are doing is changing. Having more officers on the frontline with their time focused on working with communities is a good thing. There is also the work with the College of Policing. I know that chief constables will continue to do what they can to ensure that they keep their people safe and enable them to work confidently to tackle the challenges of modern crime. We will continue to support them in this.

There is much more that I and probably other Members would like to say on this issue, but we are time-constrained. I will leave it there, but I look forward to speaking to the hon. Lady and the gentlemen who have come to watch us this evening straight after this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.