Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:34 am on 20th October 2017.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda 9:34 am, 20th October 2017

I feel as though we are already in Committee. The hon. Lady makes a good point. Once a barrister, always a barrister; I am not sure whether she is being paid by the word or by the intervention. [Interruption.] Sorry; there had to be one anti-lawyer comment today.

The third thing that the Bill does is make provision for the taking of samples when an assailant has spat at an emergency worker. It makes it an offence punishable by a fine of up to £500 for an assailant unreasonably to refuse to give an intimate sample, such as a blood sample. That matters, because so many officers and emergency workers have been spat at and lived in anxiety for months about whether they had contracted a communicable disease.

I want to be very careful about how people refer to HIV in particular, but I have had one example of a police officer—I met him yesterday—who was spat at, with the saliva entering his eye and mouth. The assailant refused to give a sample, and the police officer had a false positive test for hepatitis B, which created enormous anxiety. His wife and children had to be tested as well. I just do not think that that situation is appropriate, and I hope the Bill will help to change it.

Some have argued that the Bill is unnecessary because the sentencing guidelines already deal with the matter. In particular, they say that the guidelines on assault occasioning bodily harm—section 47 offences from the Offences Against the Person Act 1861—state that the court should consider the fact that the offence was

“committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public” an aggravating factor. I believe that that is drawn far too widely in the guidelines, and I want to throw a cordon sanitaire specifically around our emergency workers.

The sentencing guidelines also make it clear, as they have to by law, that there are two categories of aggravating factor: statutory, such as previous convictions and offences committed while on bail, which have been mandated by Parliament in statute law; and a non-exhaustive list of other factors, including location, timing, an attempt to conceal evidence and 14 other factors. The point is that the fact that the assault leading to bodily harm was on an emergency worker is not a statutory aggravating factor, and my Bill would make it just such a factor.

Those who argue that that is unnecessary are arguing against the very concept of statutory aggravating factors, including hate crimes. I believe that the country now widely accepts the proposition that such factors should exist. Moreover, the victims of hate crimes say that the very fact that the court has to state that the homophobic or racial element of the offence is an aggravating factor gives them a sense that justice is being done. Part of the fury that 999 workers feel is caused by the fact that that element is never stated in open court, but now it will be.

Paragraph 4.12(c) of “The Code for Crown Prosecutors” states:

“A prosecution is also more likely if the offence has been committed against a victim who was at the time a person serving the public.”

That, too, is written in the widest possible terms, and I am trying to enhance the protection specifically for emergency workers, because they put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis.

Every single one of us knows that merely introducing a new offence will not put a sudden end to such assaults, and there is much else that we need to do to protect our emergency workers. This comes to a point that was made earlier: one reason many prosecutions are not brought is that the perpetrator is a vulnerable patient suffering from a condition that makes them violent. The health worker, who wants only the best for their patient, is understandably reluctant to press for a prosecution. A hospital might be so keen to keep out of the news that it will be reluctant to summon the police.

The truth is that if a mental health unit or an accident and emergency unit is under-staffed, it is far more difficult to maintain order and secure the safety of staff and patients. It should be a fundamental duty of any organisation that employs people in such circumstances to make sure its staff are safe. Someone who rocks up at A&E drunk or high and is told that they will have to wait for several hours is, of course, more likely to get aggressive and violent than someone who is seen swiftly. I do not say that to excuse anyone—of course I do not; violence against medical staff is morally offensive and medically counterproductive, and we should adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards it—but health bodies need to put the safety of their staff at the top of their list of priorities, and the Government must give the NHS the resources it needs.

I am not going to make many partisan points, but it is incomprehensible to me why the Government are going to cancel NHS Protect, which provides the statistics on this—without such statistics, we would not have been able to have this debate—and will rely only on staff surveys to get such statistics in the future.