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I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to today’s very important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Holly Lynch on spearheading this cause and on the powerful case that she made. A very moving maiden speech was also given by my hon. Friend Tracy Brabin.
In common with other hon. Members, I have the utmost respect for our police officers and for the job they do in keeping our communities and our country safe. Over the past few months, I have had the privilege of taking part in the police service parliamentary scheme. I have always felt, albeit from a distance, that police officers go over and above the call of duty when carrying out their role. During my time on the parliamentary scheme, as I shadowed police officers in the course of their duties, I was impressed at first hand by just how committed and passionate they are.
It is alarming that, last year, an estimated 23,394 police officers were assaulted while undertaking their duty. This equates to 64 assaults every day. Police numbers have been much reduced since 2010, with the loss of about 19,000 officers. Clearly, this reduction puts added pressure on police officers and has a detrimental impact on morale and officer safety.
Most people do their jobs in safe surroundings, while police officers face dangerous situations and risk their own safety every day. As people who work hard on behalf of society to keep us all safe, police officers deserve to have the full backing of the law in the event that they are assaulted. That assurance will give officers the confidence that they will be fully supported and protected by the criminal justice system.
In my experience, the vast majority of the public do respect the police and the job they do. Luckily, most people do not have direct contact with police officers, but are reassured that the police are there doing their job to keep them and their communities safe. Unfortunately, a few openly attack or assault officers. We must all send a strong message that that is unacceptable, and those who seek to harm officers will indeed face severe consequences and robust sentencing on conviction.
We know that police officers put themselves in harm’s way in the course of their duty, and they do it selflessly. However, the view that being assaulted is “just part of the job” cannot be right. An assault on a police officer doing their lawful duty is, as we heard earlier, an assault against society. Currently, such assaults are covered by section 89 of the Police Act 1996. However, although sentencing allows for a custodial sentence of up to six months, the reality of a conviction for assault on a police officer is rare. It is more common for a caution, a fine or a suspended sentence to be imposed. Latest official figures show that 7,829 criminals were convicted of assaulting police officers last year, but only 1,002 of them were sent to prison.
Most of my constituency is covered by South Wales police, but a third is covered by Gwent police. Both forces have recorded instances of assault, including biting and spitting at officers. As we know, the seriousness of assaults varies, but in many cases officers are off work for some time. Obviously much distress is caused to the individuals involved, but during the periods when they are off work an even greater strain is imposed on police workloads.
I support the motion, and I urge other Members to do so as well.