I am delighted to support this Bill, not only because Chris Bryant and I are rarely on the same side of something that is discussed in this place, but because a few months ago the all-party group on alcohol harm, which I chair, published “The Frontline Battle: An Inquiry into the Impact of Alcohol on Emergency Services”. It is a catalogue of attacks on police, fire, ambulance and hospital staff.
Throughout our inquiry, we heard countless first-hand accounts of the physical and emotional challenges for emergency service personnel of responding day in, day out, to alcohol-fuelled incidents. It is completely unacceptable that every 13 seconds a police officer is assaulted in the line of duty. It is unacceptable that medical staff have TVs thrown at them, or that an A&E consultant is kicked in the face. Assaults on people who work in these crucial areas should not be without consequence. We heard about police officers who were assaulted while breaking up drunken street fights, pumping the stomach of a young person and tackling house fires caused or exacerbated by alcohol-induced forgetfulness. We heard about our front-line emergency service staff being attacked day in and day out.
What really interested me was that the report received nationwide press coverage. It was covered not only by several national newspapers, but by breakfast TV. However much we in this House may like to think that all-party groups are important—I am sure they are to all of us—it is very rare for them to receive such national coverage. That is a reflection of the public concern about this issue.
We also learned how much such behaviour—attacks on emergency personnel, fuelled by the fact that people have drunk excess alcohol—has a significant impact on the morale and the health and wellbeing of those in our emergency services. We were shocked to hear how emergency services personnel were depressed, with some of them leaving the services simply because they could not tolerate any further assaults on such a scale.
One police force told us its staff survey showed that
“90 per cent of police officers expect to be assaulted on a Friday or Saturday night when they police during the night time economy”.
I was really shocked by an account involving female police officers going into licensed premises while policing the night-time economy:
“There is one thing that is specific to female officers and that is sexual assault. I can take my team through a licensed premise, and by the time I take them out the other end, they will have been felt up several times.”
That is completely unacceptable.
Frontline officers are in the firing line. Some 86% of police officers surveyed in the north-east told us they have been assaulted by people who had been drinking, and 21% of them had been assaulted six or more times during their service. Over 52% of ambulance service staff whom we heard from had suffered sexual assaults or harassment while on duty. One submission to our inquiry showed the devastated impact that assaults can have:
“Assaults can affect workers both physically and mentally: some frontline emergency staff have moved on to work in other fields. Others are forced into early retirement as a result of stress, or medically discharged.”
A hospital trust has recorded that in one year just three of its patients were responsible for more than 100 assaults on staff each. The Bill is necessary to protect the protectors. As I have said, making this an aggravated offence will stop patients such as those three each being able, time and again, to assault more than 100 staff members in one hospital without facing a penalty for such behaviour. There has to be a deterrent, and the Bill sends the message that this behaviour is not acceptable and will no longer be tolerated.