I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I was in Morrisons in Porth in the Rhondda last Wednesday, and the chap behind me in the queue was saying “Shouldn’t you be in Westminster?” I said no, that there were no votes and so I was in the constituency, and then I started packing up my stuff, having paid, and I overheard the woman on the checkout say to the man behind me, “So, who is he? Is he someone important?” He said, “That’s Chris Bryant, he’s the MP for the Rhondda,” and she said, “Oh, not very important then.”
For the most part, we are not very important, but we do have an important power as MPs, which is to introduce legislation. I am and have been conscious in introducing this Bill that introducing a new offence should only be done after long and serious consideration. We do not want to fill up the statute book endlessly with new bits and pieces of offences, and when new offences are unnecessary one should not proceed.
I am very conscious that there have been an awful lot of lawyers in the Chamber today, and it is only a sadness that Henry IV’s injunction from 1404 that no members of the law should be allowed to come to Parliament has not been maintained ever since—[Interruption.] I think the lawyers called it the Parliament of Dunces, so perhaps we would be dunces without the lawyers. I am genuinely grateful to those who have spoken today.
Yesterday, the Minister tweeted:
“1870 Declaration of the National Prison Association of the United States…‘It is the judgment of this congress, that repeated short sentences for minor criminals are worse than useless;
that, in fact, they rather stimulate than repress transgression.’”
I completely agree with him, and several hon. Members have made similar points today. The aim of this Bill is not primarily to send lots more minor criminals to prison for short periods. What we want to do is send out a very clear message that assaulting an emergency worker is not a minor offence but a serious offence, and that we in Parliament take it seriously and expect the prosecuting authorities to take it equally seriously.
Why? Well, apart from anything else, there has been a very significant rise in the number of assaults in recent years. When there is a rising tide, the people’s representatives should take cognisance of that and take action. Too often, magistrates I have heard tell of have said, or implied, that somehow policing involves a bit of rough and tumble and that police officers should just get over it. That is not the view of this House, and it should not be the view of our magistrates or our judges. That kind of mentality has all too often in recent years infected people’s understanding for other emergency workers as well. There is a sort of assumption that a mental health nurse should put up with a certain amount of physical violence. I simply do not accept that.
I was in the mental health unit of the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant, last month. Staff told me that they had had quite a few assaults recently where the police had refused to take any kind of action, even though a doctor had certified that the person concerned—the perpetrator of the assault—knew perfectly well the distinction between right and wrong and that there was no issue of mental incapacity. We want the whole of the criminal justice system to take these issues seriously.
I fully understand that just changing the law will not change the situation overnight. As Alex Chalk made very clear, there are real issues around the decisions that are made at the point of charge, and subsequently when it comes to discussions between either side just before coming to court. If passing a law, or creating a new offence, stopped offensive and offending behaviour, then the world would see no murders or thefts.
However, this Bill will have a tangible effect: the courts will give more appropriate sentences; the prosecuting authorities will have another tool in their box to deal with this issue; and the victims—the emergency workers themselves—will hear in court that the fact that they are an emergency worker has made a difference to the sentence that is passed down.
Of course we have to do more. Understaffing in some of our emergency services certainly does not help. When those services are under excessive pressure, it makes it more difficult to protect staff. We will have to keep a very close watch on the statistics as they develop, because, with NHS Protect having disappeared, it will be more difficult to ensure that the work that we have done has some effect.
I wish to thank some hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend Holly Lynch. I have spent so much time with her over the past few years that I feel as if I am sort of married to her. I do not think that she wants to marry me. [Interruption.] I am a practising homosexual—one day I will be quite good at it! Well, my husband hopes so anyway.
I also thank Philip Davies. I have his telephone number now, so I expect that we will be co-operating—[Interruption.] I will not tell my husband that. Obviously, we will be co-operating on more pieces of legislation. I am grateful to Stephen Crabb, because he has been a very strong supporter of this Bill. I am only sorry that he is somewhat incapacitated today; he is too old to be playing rugby now and he should stop. I pay tribute, too, to my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, who has played a really important part in making sure that the Labour party is fully behind the measures in this Bill.
There are many organisations that I wish to thank, including Alcohol Concern, the GMB, which is my trade union, UNISON, Unite, the Police Federation, and the British Medical Association. I also wish to thank the Welsh Assembly for bringing forward the legislative consent motion in plenty of time for this Bill to have full effect in Wales as it will in England.
I also thank the Ministers, particularly the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, who is an admirably splendid chap. I know that he wants to do his best by the police, and that he has had many conversations with the Police Federation about how we can make sure that some of the things this Bill are fully implemented. Dominic Raab, who is not now the Minister in charge of this legislation, was very helpful in getting the Bill to Second Reading and through the Committee stages, and I am grateful for that.
I also pay tribute to the Minister of State, Rory Stewart. We have disagreed in meetings on occasions, but we have managed to come to a very good accommodation today. I hope that this Bill is now in a state that means it will be able to go through the House of Lords at some speed, and I am grateful for all the support that he has provided through his officials. I also thank the Clerks of the House, who of course are always magnificent.
I could not finish without mentioning Erasure—a popular beat combo, m’lud, from your youth. “A Little Respect” was a great song, but more importantly, a little respect goes a long way in politics. All we are seeking to achieve with this Bill is a little respect for our emergency workers. It has also been a delight for us to be able to show a little respect for those on different sides of the House. I think that our constituents would, on the whole, prefer it if we were able to develop common solutions to common problems through legislation and other means, rather than by always shouting at one another. But I am not going to get too pious about that, because I do quite like shouting at Government Members.
This Bill is about saying to every single police constable, prison officer, custody officer, paramedic, nurse, fire officer, doctor, A&E consultant, lifeboat officer, A&E porter, ambulance driver and mines rescue officer, “We stand with you. We will protect our protectors.”
It is a genuine pleasure to follow Chris Bryant in the closing stages of this important and significant Bill.
We are also coming towards the closing stages of the parliamentary day. Hon. Members will be scurrying back to their many and various constituencies, and we will turn ourselves from parliamentary thoughts to constituency matters. Later tonight and over the weekend, Members up and down the country will no doubt be running around their patch and connecting with real people who do real jobs. I am sure there is not a single Member who does not, from time to time, meet those whose mission it is to put themselves in harm’s way or to intervene in a crisis, including our ambulance service, nurses, NHS staff, police and firefighters. These emergency workers are exactly that: the people who turn up and are on hand when there is an emergency.
I cannot speak for others, but I have to say that when I meet such people on a regular basis, I am filled with what can only be described as a deep sense of personal unworthiness. That is not just because my day job is pretty insignificant—squalid even—but because I really do not think that I could do what they do. People who run towards, rather than away from, an emergency are special. We need them, and we need to protect them.
I have been delighted to watch the progress of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, and I join others in paying tribute to him and Holly Lynch for bringing it forward. The House will know the hon. Gentleman as an experienced, astute, often entertaining and charming—I heard him called that today—parliamentarian. I have no doubt that those skills will allow him to take this Bill through Parliament and on to the statute book.
The issue is far larger than we might expect. Whichever figures we use—Police Federation or Home Office figures, or somewhere in between—it is true that an astounding number of assaults on police officers take place every year. There may be hundreds or more each day. Every day also sees something like 20 assaults—one an hour, we heard today—on prison staff and nearly 200 assaults on NHS staff. That is indeed shocking. Although we have to tackle and drill down into the reasons why such appalling behaviour exists towards those who are working in difficult conditions to help us, it is essential that there is a clear message that this is not something that our society is prepared to tolerate. In fact, the Bill will not only send a message; it will have a tangible effect on anyone wanting to test the limits of acceptable behaviour. It will mean that they can expect some increase in the sentence they are likely to get.
I am delighted to see genuine cross-party support for the Bill; it is always a joy to see that. We are showing a unanimous front for those who protect us. Raising the bar in the way that the Bill will is nothing less than a step towards a greater civilising of us all. Recognising the special place inhabited by emergency workers can set the balance a little more in the right direction—a little more in their favour.
I am sad to say that this year, because of rising incident numbers, Avon and Somerset police introduced spit guards for trained officers for use in situations where someone has already spat, is going to spit, or has threatened to spit at an officer. We have heard about a lot of incidents like that. It is, to me, utterly shocking behaviour, not just because of the particularly distressing and disgusting nature of the act itself, but because of what is implied by the act about the relationship between the aggressor and people who are there to support and protect—and also, most shockingly, because it is sometimes used by those who know they are infected, or affect to be infected, as a weapon to frighten people. Barbarism of this sort cannot be accepted, even though, as we have heard, its effects are minimal or infinitesimal—almost non-existent. I cannot find words to describe how I feel about it, other than to say that there really must be a greater deterrent and more consequences.
With regard to assaults on NHS staff, again, words fail me. I am sure that many if not most of the attacks come from people who are a little over-refreshed, but that is not any kind of excuse and certainly no justification. Again, the police and the courts must be provided with the powers they need to deal properly with such incidents. While courts currently have the option to consider attacking an emergency worker to be an aggravating factor in sentencing, the Bill will put that on a statutory basis, making it a specific requirement to consider such assaults to be aggravated. Similarly, by extension, those thinking about assaulting an emergency worker might currently consider the fact that their target is an emergency worker, but should this Bill succeed, they will have no option but to consider that fact when they are looking down the barrel of the sentence they will receive.
There is no debate to be had about the debt we all owe to those who work to protect us. As Members of this House, we all meet our local NHS staff, our local police and our firefighters—all those who put themselves on the frontline when the chips are down—and we are all in awe of the work they do for the rest of us. We must give them our support and our protection. That is, after all, nothing more than they give us every day: their support and their protection.
I know that time is short, but I wanted to share with the House my own experience. Last year, I joined West Yorkshire fire and rescue service and West Yorkshire police the night before bonfire night, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax and the chair of West Yorkshire fire and rescue service, Councillor Judith Hughes. I was first placed in a pump and then moved to a fire car. The fire car is the unit that responds first to reports of incidents so that those attending can judge whether a pump is needed. We were also checking that bonfires on public land were not causing a hazard. We received many reports over the evening and checked quite a number of neighbourhood bonfires, where we were welcomed.
But there were two incidents where I saw at first hand the danger from attack that our firefighters and police officers face. The first such incident was when we were called to a fire where a mattress had been set alight against the wall of an end-terrace house. The house was down a narrow back road, with access restricted to a single line of traffic, and row after row of houses criss-crossed by unlit back alleys. Attending the incident, I saw the professionalism of our firefighters in assessing the situation. I also saw, when we were on our way back to the car, an officer shine his torch down a dark alley where a number of masked people were moving towards us with what I can only describe as malicious intent. It is not uncommon for a fire to be set with the intention of luring firefighters and police officers into dangerous situations in order to ambush them. That appalling fact will shock us all, and it is a vivid reminder of just how necessary the Bill is.
The second incident occurred when we attended a neighbourhood bonfire. Instead of a bonfire, we found what can only be described as a community burning of rubbish that coincided with bonfire night. There were mattresses, plastic sofas and other hazardous items all set on fire. Stood around the fire were about 20 young people. We were chatting to them, and then when someone threw a firework into the fire, I was promptly ordered back into the car. While we were walking away, we were fired at with rockets placed in plastic tubing. The officer I was with sustained burn injuries across his head. The rockets continued to be launched at us in the car. We escaped without any further injuries, but the situation could have been so much worse.
I was shocked and scared, but that is an everyday occurrence for our firefighters, police officers and emergency workers. In West Yorkshire alone, there were 95 attacks on operational fire crews last year, up from 65 the year before—a shocking 50% increase. West Yorkshire police recorded nearly 2,000 assaults on employees, and there were 840 incidents of verbal and physical abuse against Yorkshire ambulance service staff.
One firefighter told me that his wife never sleeps when he works nights. I asked him what the worst thing that had ever been thrown at him was, and he told me he had once been attacked by youths throwing excrement in glass jars at him and the crew. These, I remind the House, are firefighters—firefighters who have no power of arrest; who time after time run into danger to save lives and protect the public; and who, as the campaign is aptly named, are more than a uniform and deserve our utmost respect and the full protection of our laws. These laws need to be strengthened so that our firefighters and all other emergency workers are properly protected from the attacks they face in the course of their duties, and so that those responsible are brought to justice. I am proud to support the Bill.
Thank you for letting me make this speech from a sedentary position, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will not keep the House long, and I am sorry that I was not able to participate in the earlier proceedings as fully as I wanted to.
As a sponsor of the Bill, I want to put on record how pleased I am to see it reach this point. I congratulate Chris Bryant, who is a good friend and a great parliamentarian. When he took on the task of bringing this issue back to the House to put it on the statute book, building on the excellent foundational work of Holly Lynch, I was never in any doubt that he would be successful, because he would be working with the spirit of Back Benchers on both sides of the House. We knew from when the hon. Member for Halifax brought the issue to this place that there was a lot of support on both sides of the House for increasing penalties and seeing our emergency workers get the respect on the statute book that they deserve.
I would like to commend and congratulate the Ministers, without whom we would not be at this stage. Right from the very start, they were committed to seeing the Bill get through the House successfully. They have worked with the hon. Member for Rhondda and others across the House in an intelligent and pragmatic way, and they deserve an awful lot of credit for bringing the Bill to this point.
My constituency, Preseli Pembrokeshire, is in the Dyfed-Powys police force area, which is geographically the largest police force area in England and Wales. Statistically it is also the safest part of the United Kingdom in terms of crime rates. Nevertheless, I have been staggered over the last six to nine months, since we embarked on the passage of the Bill, by the number of personal testimonies that I have received from serving police officers in the Dyfed-Powys police force area, PCSOs, firefighters and others about their experiences while they are out there serving their communities on the frontline as emergency workers.
A number of colleagues have made the point that the Bill is not perfect. It will not answer the totality of the issue of the assaults that these workers face, the personal trauma they go through and the psychological impact on them and their families—of course it will not, but it is a really significant step forward.
Probably the biggest thing I have learned from conversations with police officers and PCSOs, and from emails I have read, is the enormous psychological impact of incidents such as these on an emergency worker. Just because a police officer or firefighter is tough and strong does not mean that the impact on their mental health and emotional wellbeing is any less—quite the opposite on occasion.
The Bill sends a powerful message and signal. On Report my hon. Friend Philip Davies said that he wants legislation to do more than just send a signal, and I agree. We do not just pass symbolic legislation in this place, and the Bill will be more than symbolic. Yes, it will send out a powerful statement, but it will make a solid practical contribution to a better statute book for our emergency workers. It makes it clear that assaults, whether violent physical assaults, verbal assaults or the disgusting act of spitting, are not acceptable in our society. Our emergency workers deserve every bit of credit, respect and esteem that we can give them, and supporting this Bill is a practical way of showing that.
I start by paying tribute to my partner in crime fighting, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, for his work in getting us here today. He is always incredibly generous in crediting me with starting this campaign, but the truth is that without his tenacity, his leadership, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of how this place works, we simply would not have made it this far. I know that blue-light responders, NHS workers, and prison officers all over the country are truly grateful to him.
For all our political differences in this place, and what can often seem like the glacial pace of delivering change in Westminster, to go from a harrowing experience in my constituency when out with West Yorkshire police in summer 2016, to being here today, just two years later, at Third Reading for a Bill that will create a new offence of assaulting an emergency service worker, is a showcase of Parliament at its best. That does not mean that getting here was easy, and unusually the journey between Committee stage and Report was the most trying period of the Bill’s passage. It is not entirely the Bill that I hoped it would be for the reasons we explored on Report, but it is a massive step in the right direction.
We know that only a package of measures—legislative and otherwise—will bring about the societal change we want. That will involve working with the Crown Prosecution Service, the judiciary, employers, offenders, and emergency service workers to promote the reporting of such acts, ensure that appropriate support is provided, and that the consequences that follow reflect the seriousness of the crime.
It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to PC Craig Gallant, the single-crewed officer who I shadowed on that fateful evening in Halifax. Not only did he narrowly escape potentially serious or even life-threatening injuries at the hands of an angry mob, but nothing quite prepared him for the trauma of me thrusting him into the spotlight as the face of a national campaign to protect emergency service workers, and the merciless ribbing that he took from his colleagues as a result. Thank you PC Gallant for allowing me to tell that story. I know that your colleagues understand and appreciate that they will be better protected in future because of it.
I also thank Lambeth police because, ironically and infuriatingly, during Second Reading my flat in London was broken into and robbed. When the police came to investigate, they told me that they would normally ask for more information about my whereabouts during the time the robbery took place, but that they knew exactly where I was because they had been following the debate. Fingers crossed that my flat is still intact when I return to it this evening. If not I will be joining Philip Davies and revisiting sentencing guidelines across the board.
My biggest regret is that we could not agree on more concrete proposals to address the fears and anxieties of a 999 responder who has been spat at by an offender. I understand the practical problems with the clauses as originally drafted, and the limitations of testing, yet unless we establish evidence-based best practice that extends to all those covered by the Bill, I fear that the problems we are trying to overcome will persist. I want to ensure that those who have had either blood or saliva spat at them receive the best possible medical advice from a specialist, within hours of the incident. I am hopeful of that becoming a reality, based on earlier conversations and the contribution from the Minister at the Dispatch Box, and I hope for firmer proposals before the Bill completes its journey through both Houses. I am grateful to the trade unions representing emergency service workers that have been with us all the way on this journey—Unison, the GMB, the Prison Officers Association and the Police Federation. Again, I join the hon. Member for Shipley in paying particular tribute to Chief Inspector Nick Smart, the chair of the West Yorkshire Police Federation. He has been incredibly important in helping us to turn one incident into a national campaign for change.
We have had a good, constructive dialogue with the Government throughout this process. While we have encountered practical challenges and differences of opinion, I am pleased that we have been able to work through the vast majority of those in as collaborative a way as possible. I am grateful to both the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Rory Stewart and the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, Mr Hurd for that relationship. I also thank the shadow Policing Minister, my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, who has made a series of speeches on the Bill from the Dispatch Box. Characteristically, she always got the tone and content absolutely right.
I say to all who have shared their stories with me, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and other MPs who have supported the Bill, often when there was a difficult tale to tell, that those experiences have assisted with the shaping and fine-tuning of these law changes, and emergency service workers, NHS workers and prison officers, now and in the future, will be better protected because of it.
It is a great pleasure to follow Holly Lynch, who has done so much to push this cause over the last two years. I congratulate her for that and wish her well on her return to her flat—I trust it will be in good order when she gets back.
It was also a pleasure to hear the promoter of the Bill, Chris Bryant, on Third Reading. He speculated about whether he was important to his constituents, but he is certainly important to this place, and he has done important work today. It is a pleasure to be here to support him, as it was to support him on Second Reading back on
I am delighted that the Bill has made so much progress. The measure is supported firmly by my local police federation and by my excellent police and crime commissioner, Katy Bourne. Earlier, I did my district an injustice when I said that there had been 28 assaults on police officers in Horsham in 2016-17—there were 21. However, even one assault is one too many and we are sending a clear message this afternoon.
My interest in this issue was sparked before the debate came to this House by a constituent—a police officer—who wrote to me. He had responded to a call from a man who had been stabbed. On locating him, he found him with stab injuries in the neck, face and head. My constituent provided life-saving first aid, and while he was administering it, he was spat at, as was his colleague. My constituent was in full uniform—it was clear that he was a police officer—and he wrote to me, saying that due to the man’s
“aggressive nature and the risk of injury he had to be handcuffed so we could…administer first aid.”
It is a disgrace that anyone has to go through that, and we are sending a message today that such behaviour is never, ever acceptable.
I thought it was iniquitous that after that assault, although the assailant could go home from hospital, my constituent had to wait for weeks for tests to be taken and results to come in. I was sorry that clause 6 had to be withdrawn, but I understand why the hon. Member for Rhondda said that that was the case. I urge the Government to do all they can with education or vaccines to ease the situation for all our emergency workers who face these circumstances, but with that one proviso, I wish the Bill Godspeed.
This is the first time that I have spoken this morning, not because of a lack of support for the Bill, but to make sure that it receives its speedy passage through the House of Commons. I reiterate my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who have run an absolutely fantastic, speedy campaign since my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax first introduced this through a ten-minute rule Bill last year. In that time, she has brought together the House of Commons, and the shadow Minister and Ministers, which is rarely done, in supporting this legislation. Hopefully today we will see the Bill pass through—amended, but all the better for it.
We have had a fantastic debate today, conducted in a comradely and collegiate spirit, with some real expertise on all elements of the criminal justice system. All have been united in the objective of getting this right and delivering protection for the people who go out every day and risk their lives to keep all of us safe.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, the most common comment I have heard from countless police officers and emergency service workers, to whom we have all spoken, is that over the years assault and sexual assault have come to be accepted and seen as the norm within the police and NHS. While this debate has been going on, the assistant chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police, Jim Colwell, has tweeted that overnight there were 10 assaults on the officers under his care, including kicks, punches, headbutts and spitting. He asks, how the public feel about this and whether they accept it. The House is saying today that it is absolutely unacceptable. It is not part of the job that he and his colleagues do. We as parliamentarians are saying that society has zero tolerance for anyone who assaults our emergency service workers.
Philip Davies has made some important points, particularly about early release and behaviour, but in all his examples, as explained by colleagues, the CPS made the wrong charging decision. I accept the principle behind his amendments, but, as we have heard today, the CPS needs to be more accountable for what Alex Chalk described as lazy prosecutorial decisions, and that applies equally when the CPS decides to charge someone when it should not have. A constituent of mine was recently charged and taken to court, but the magistrates threw the case out immediately because the decision to take it forward had been so ridiculous. The CPS should be held responsible and accountable for that decision, just as the police are held accountable, and rightly so, for the decisions they make that have serious consequences for the people they protect or charge. That is another point the House has made today. I hope the Minister will say how we can hold the CPS and prosecutors to account for their charging decisions.
I must comment briefly on the strain that our emergency services are under and which has played a part in the rise in the number of assaults. Very rarely have our police and emergency services been under more pressure. The job is getting harder, and for those on the frontline it is becoming overwhelming. Our emergency services are increasingly relied upon not just as the service of last resort but as the service of first resort, as the gaps between the services that make up our social safety net and on which our communities rely get wider. The NHS is under unbelievable pressure and is struggling to cope with limited resources. Waiting times for A&E are up. Ambulance services across the country simply cannot meet demand. The police are increasingly single-crewed or inappropriately dispatched—for example, female officers being dispatched to incidents of serious and violent sexual assault. Our emergency services are increasingly dealing with people suffering from mental health issues unable to access the services they need.
In that climate, nobody would suggest that the Bill is a panacea for our emergency services. The strain, stress and complex range of factors behind this increasingly difficult climate will not be solved easily, but the Bill is important, and it is vital that it be passed today, because the right to go to work and feel safe is a right that has been too easily cast aside. Our emergency services are increasingly finding themselves in vulnerable situations, and all too often security at work is far from a reality. The offences and examples we have heard today are, as the Minister said, not just crimes against the person but crimes against our society. We ask these dedicated individuals to go out and serve our communities on our behalf, and the least we can do is afford them the protection that makes it clear that society views their being assaulted in the course of their duties with the utmost seriousness.
In conclusion, I again thank and congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda and for Halifax. The Opposition are delighted to support the Bill and to see it pass safely through its Third Reading today.
I will be brief, because I think we all want Stephanie Peacock to be able to speak to her Bill. I congratulate Chris Bryant on bringing forward this Bill and on the way he has gone about achieving success with it. I must say in passing that if anyone is thinking of bringing forward a Private Member’s Bill, I would advise them to go and speak to the hon. Gentleman, because he has produced a perfect template for how such a Bill should be brought forward in such a way as to ensure that we have a good piece of legislation on the statute book, rather than simply producing a good idea that ends up being bad legislation. This has been a first-class example of that.
Holly Lynch deserves equal praise, because she has shown that she is a doughty supporter of all the emergency services but particularly of the police, not just in word but in deed, and I know how much they appreciate that. I also want to thank the two Ministers, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, my right hon. Friend Mr Hurd and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend Rory Stewart. They might not have gone as far as I would have liked—they seldom do—but without their constructive approach to the Bill, we would not be here today. We should not underestimate the role that they have played in ensuring that that has happened. I should also like to praise my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris. He does an awful lot of work in ensuring that Bills such as these get to this stage. He usually works under the radar and he does not get the credit he deserves, but I know that he does an awful lot to ensure that these Bills get through.
Our emergency services are incredibly important to all of us. They put themselves in harm’s way every single day, and we are all troubled by the rising tide of assaults that they face as they carry out their jobs. This legislation sends a signal that we support them, but it does more than that. I will celebrate every time a criminal who assaults an emergency worker gets a longer prison sentence as a result of this Bill. That is the reality of how this legislation will benefit people. It will ensure a longer prison sentence for those criminals who deserve to go to prison for longer, and that is a great outcome. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda on the way in which he has brought about this legislation.
At this very moment, in all our constituencies, the emergency services are working hard to protect us. We owe them our gratitude, and we also have a duty to protect them. I have seen for myself the excellent work that the police do when I have been out on the streets of west Oxfordshire following them on the beat and visiting hospitals. On the late night shifts, I have seen some of the people they have to deal with, some of whom are drunk or violent. It is simply unacceptable that our emergency services should be treated with anything less than the highest respect.
In 2015, there were 800 assaults on NHS staff in Oxfordshire, with a conviction rate of only approximately 1%. We in this House cannot automatically control violence, but we can control some of the legislation that relates to it. It is important that we should provide that little extra protection to ensure that our emergency services know that they are being treated with the highest respect.
This is a welcome Bill, and it will make a difference. The tweet that was referred to by Louise Haigh is absolutely right. The assistant chief constable, Jim Colwell, has highlighted the assaults that officers in Devon and Cornwall are facing today. I hope that each of those officers will see, through their ACC highlighting that and it being mentioned today, that their experience has made some difference to changing the law to deal with those who think our emergency services workers are their target rather than people they should respect. This is a fantastic Bill and I look forward to it passing its Third Reading.
I have very limited time—less than seven minutes—and I hope that hon. Members will take the comments that I made on Report as a proper tribute to the extraordinary work that has been done by the hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Halifax (Holly Lynch). Wonderful speeches have also been made by other Members today. I hope that all members of the emergency services feel strongly the passion and support in this House for their work. In this limited time, I will be unable to pay as full a tribute as I would like to the extraordinary work that is done day in and day out by the police, the fire service, our NHS workers and other members of the emergency services. I would, however, like to focus on one service that has not received as much attention as it might have done in this debate, and I refer of course to the Prison Service.
Prison officers operate out of sight of society. They have the most extraordinarily challenging profession. It requires unbelievable resilience for a prison officer to walk into a cell knowing that, on many days, the individual in that cell might have self-harmed or even killed themselves. It takes astonishing courage for a prison officer to confront a prisoner who is coming at them with a broken broom or with a toothbrush in which are embedded nine blades. It takes astonishing decisiveness day in, day out, for a prison officer to deal with the crises and emergencies that happen in our prisons. It also takes great moral authority to act as a mentor, a teacher and in some ways a friend to help prisoners on the path to reformation. Yet these people are now being attacked more than 8,000 times a year. Their jaws are being broken, and they are being sent to hospital. They must be protected. That is why we welcome the Bill on behalf of all the other emergency services, but particularly on behalf of prison officers.
Let me say this, in the few minutes that I have left. An attack on a prison officer is an attack on the state. An attack on a prison officer is an attack on us. When an individual is attacked, it affects the entire operation of the prison. It affects that individual’s willingness to take risks—to unlock a prison door, and to allow prisoners to engage in education or purposeful activity.
The response that we now have to such attacks, as a society, is much more limited than it once was. In the past, prison officers were able to depend on penalties that we would no longer want to introduce, for very good reasons. Corporal punishment has, of course, been removed. Solitary confinement has been removed. Restrictions on family visits have now been removed. The only serious sanction that remains when a prisoner assaults a prison officer is the law that we are discussing today, which is why we want to encourage the police to work with us to prosecute prisoners who assault prison officers. We have heard today that very successful cases are being brought against people who spit at police officers, but almost no cases are being brought against prisoners who spit at prison officers. Too often, I am afraid, those in other parts of the criminal justice system seem to think it acceptable to assault a prison officer, although they would not think it acceptable to be assaulted themselves.
Let the House therefore be clear that we respect prison officers for their courage, for their decisiveness and for their moral example. Let the House be clear that all our progressive liberal instincts on reforming prisoners must be accompanied by respect for basic order and discipline. We should not be ashamed to say that prison officers ought to be able to exercise order and control, and that we will need a whole package of measures if our actions are to lead to purposeful activity. That package will include proper searches at the prison gates to ensure that drugs and weapons are not getting into the prisons, and a clean and decent environment in which the windows are not broken and the floors are kept clean.
We must make it absolutely clear that we respect the safety of prison officers, through the measures that we are taking in terms of protective equipment, the right kind of restraints, and the piloting of pelargonic acid vanillylamide and pepper spray. Everyone must understand that safety, security and decency do not get in the way of education or purposeful activity, but constitute the foundation without which purposeful activity cannot take place.
If we are to work with prisoners and if we are to reduce reoffending, we must ensure that, through this legislation, we show that we respect the honour and dignity of prison officers and members of other emergency services as public servants, and appreciate the service that they provide on our behalf; that we express the deep gratitude that we feel for everything that they do; and that we demonstrate through every single action that we take—this important Bill will double the maximum sentence for an attack on our emergency service officers—that an attack on them is an attack on us. That applies to an attack on the police, an attack on members of the fire service, an attack on health workers and, above all, an attack on prison officers, whose service is all too often forgotten but who do such extraordinary work on behalf of the public.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.