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Police Officer Safety

Part of Community Pharmacies – in the House of Commons at 5:04 pm on 2nd November 2016.

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Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax 5:04 pm, 2nd November 2016

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think we will hear similar stories from MPs all around the Chamber in the debate today.

During the 30-minute Adjournment debate, to which the Minister referred, I had so much to say, and took so many interventions from hon. Members, all keen to share stories from their own constituencies, that I left the Minister only six minutes to respond, and even then I could not stop myself intervening on him. So I again thank my Front-Bench colleagues for facilitating this opportunity for the Minister in this debate, although I must confess that I am disappointed with the content of the Government’s amendment and with the Minister’s remarks, which simply did not go far enough in addressing this issue.

An assault on a police officer is an assault on society. It is totally unacceptable that public servants who are working in their communities to protect people and help the vulnerable should be subject to assaults as they go about their jobs. Since taking up this campaign, I have been contacted by police officers from all over the country, most of whom have themselves been on the receiving end of violent attacks. They feel that the failure to take the incidents seriously has just compounded their frustration. I shall give the House some 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 his eyes, was ordered to pay compensation and received a two-month suspended sentence. In Nottinghamshire, an officer was punched unconscious while trying to arrest a prolific offender who was already in breach of a suspended sentence. The offender was detained only after assaulting a second officer. He received another 15-week suspended sentence and was ordered to attend a “controlling violence in drink” course.

Increasingly, and terrifyingly, we are seeing acid being used as a means of assaulting police officers. Last year in Warwickshire, a PC was patrolling alone on her bicycle when she saw three men breaking into a property. When she stopped and identified herself as a police officer, she was attacked by the men who pushed her from her bike, kicked her and poured acid on to her face before other police officers could arrive. In my force, a police sergeant who responded—again, alone—to a dispute at a garage in Bradford had acid thrown in his face by an offender who was trying to evade arrest. The offender had nine previous convictions for 19 offences and was already on licence for a four-and-half-year jail term. He was sentenced to 20 months, yet the officer was lucky to keep his eyesight.

Police officers who are assaulted deserve the full backing of the justice system. Since my shift with West Yorkshire police, I have been made aware of at least five more assaults on officers in my constituency in the days that followed. What 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. We make the laws in here, but we ask the police to uphold and enforce them out there. To assault a police officer is to show a complete disregard for law and order, for our shared values and for democracy itself, and that must be reflected in sentencing, particularly for repeat offenders. I therefore ask hon. and right hon. Members to support the motion today, which calls on the Government to implement statutory guidance on sentencing to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

In west Yorkshire—this has been reflected in comments about 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. Any officer will say that one of the biggest challenges that is putting additional pressure on the police is the changing nature of dealing with vulnerable young people and adults. In the 24 hours leading up to my time on duty, Calderdale police had safely recovered nine vulnerable missing people, and they 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, 114 of which are deemed to be high-risk individuals.

I have done a series of shifts with front-line services in my constituency and I would recommend it to all MPs. Just last Saturday I spent the evening with out-of-hours mental health services—a whole other debate for another day—and two people were detained under the Mental Health Act, with police crews unable to leave either patient. One patient who had already been assessed required an appropriate bed, and the second required an assessment suite. With neither available due to pressures on mental health services, the police officers were tied up all night, putting extra pressure on their colleagues who had to prioritise 999 calls on a Saturday night on Halloween weekend.

We have a responsibility to the most vulnerable people to keep them from harm and away from exploitation, but the police cannot be the catch-all for every problem. That is simply not sustainable with reduced numbers. To be honest, they are also not the most appropriate agency to be doing that work. The reality of not having the right answers to such questions is that the police are stretched like never before and, as a result, lone officers—single crews—are regularly asked to attend emergencies and potentially dangerous situations on their own or with fewer officers than are necessary to safely manage the situation.

I want to return to the unpleasant issue of spitting, which I covered in my Adjournment debate. I am all for informed debate about the use of spit hoods as a means of protecting officers from spitting but, to reiterate what I said in that debate, if we are politically uncomfortable with the use of spit hoods, I promise that a police officer somewhere right now will be being spat at and is even more uncomfortable. As well as being thoroughly unpleasant, spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a real risk of transmitting a range of infectious diseases, some of which have life-changing or even lethal consequences. We have a duty of care to protect officers from that, wherever possible. Hon. Members may be aware of the tragic case of a policewoman in Kiev in Ukraine, who died earlier this year after having contracted TB from an offender who spat at her while she was arresting him. Only this week in west Yorkshire, a man with hepatitis C was jailed for eight weeks for spitting in the eye of a police officer. If the answer is not spit hoods, it could again be tougher sentencing, but let us have that debate. Let us have it quickly and let us ensure officers on the front line are protected.

Finally—there is a lot more that I could cover, but I want to give others the opportunity to speak—having taken up the “protect the protectors” campaign, I have been contacted by those behind the Finn’s law petition, which was referred to by the Minister and has now secured well over 100,000 signatures. Finn is a police dog who was stabbed in the head and chest last month while chasing a suspect. I was not aware until now that if a police dog or horse is assaulted, the offender can be charged only with criminal damage. I am delighted that the Petitions Committee has allocated time for a debate on reforming the law to look at ways of giving police dogs and horses more protection to allow them to continue their vital duties of supporting officers and keeping us safe.

It worries me that the ever-growing demands on the police, combined with cuts in numbers, are undermining their ability to do even some of the basics. I call on the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing to recognise that officers are routinely deployed on their own. When an officer calls for back-up, only boots on the ground will do and numbers matter. I urge all hon. and right hon. Members to support the motion and help to keep our police officers safe.