Abuse of Public-facing Workers (Offences)

– in the House of Commons on 15th September 2021.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:44 pm, 15th September 2021

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for and in connection with offences relating to verbal and physical abuse of public-facing workers in the course of their employment.

“Abuse is a regular occurrence unfortunately. I’ve been sworn at, spat at, pushed, had trollies rammed into me, had grown men tell me they will rape and kill me. I have plenty of colleagues that have been assaulted, one had a man wait in the car park for him and smashed a glass bottle over his head.”

That is one constituent’s account of the abuse they face at work, but there is more:

“I’ve had threats to ‘smash my face in’ and threats such as stabbing, threats to my family, punching threats, needles, threats to follow me home, waiting around until I’ve finished work, arson and generally abusive shouting, swearing, and spitting”.

These stories are a part of a wider pattern that goes beyond only one section of the economy or one type of workplace.

Many people will have looked in horror at the footage from Asda in Clapham, which showed a man brutally attacking workers and customers at that store. My union, the GMB, is campaigning for stronger legal protections for workers because of such assaults. I have also heard from cabin crew workers, who have suffered rising levels of abuse as they try to enforce social distancing protocols on planes; journalists facing increasing harassment, abuse and even assault by far-right groups; NHS workers being accosted by anti-vaxxers and covid deniers while going about treating the sick; librarians facing rising levels of abusive behaviour; workers in bars and restaurants facing violence and intimidation from customers; and transport workers, often working alone, who have been spat at, threatened and physically assaulted. Everywhere, we have rising levels of abuse directed at people who work with the public.

Last June, a survey conducted by the Institute of Customer Service found that more than half of customer-facing employees have experienced increased hostility from customers during the coronavirus crisis. More than half of the participants in a survey from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers reported being threatened with physical violence. Some 88% had been verbally abused, 13% reported being racially harassed and 16% had been spat at or targeted with other bodily fluids. In a 2010 survey, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers reported very similar.

Covid has made this growing problem even worse, but it would be a mistake to think it was the cause. Before the outbreak, the 2020 crime report found that 83% of people in the convenience store sector had been subject to verbal abuse. It is estimated that there have been more than 50,000 incidents of violence. Some of the responsibility lies with individuals. We need to see a change in behaviour and in the culture of how we treat front-facing workers. That change will not happen on its own. Part of our discussion should include what employers can do to protect workers. We need better reporting, better support and a more robust pursuit of prosecutions, but we also need to see the Government take action.

Today, with this Bill, I am here to propose that the verbal or physical abuse of public-facing workers carrying out their duties has to be made its own specific offence. Some say we already have enough on the statute book on this and that there are already laws that, taken together, cover the offence of abusing frontline staff, but our laws reflect and shape our society. If the existing legislation reflects a situation in which we have seen spiralling levels of abuse, it is time that changed, because the status quo simply is not working.

The British Retail Consortium reports that only 6% of incidents of violence and abuse ended in prosecution, and in only 3% of cases was the victim performing a public service an aggravating factor. The lack of action has consequences. In a survey conducted by the RMT, 43% of respondents said they had not reported the incidents to their managers. When asked why, the most common reason was that they did not feel it would be taken seriously or that it was just part of their job. A quarter said that they had reported incidents and no action had been taken. USDAW found similar, with a survey saying that a quarter of its members had never reported the abuse they have suffered and that it was a regular occurrence.

The most recent polling from the Institute of Customer Service reports that nearly half of the workers who participated in the survey do not report incidents of abuse. Over half of those who had been abused did not think it would make a difference, and why would they when the rate of prosecution is so low? No wonder the system is not working. The sentencing for common assault is complicated. There are three categories of harm and culpability, 19 aggravating factors and 11 mitigating factors. A new law would make the process far simpler. We have already seen how it could look in practice. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018—the “protect the protectors” Act—provides a good template.

The 2018 Act was a welcome step forward, but the law has been applied inconsistently. For example, the Prison Officers Association told me that it has been unevenly applied to its work context, with different rulings classifying prison officers as emergency workers or not. Similarly, social workers, who are often required to engage in emergency work, are not included in the Act, but they are protected while enforcing child protection orders or carrying out mental health assessments in Scotland under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005. Those inconsistencies would disappear if the law encompassed all public-facing workers.

A new offence would simplify the legal process, iron out inconsistencies and encourage law enforcement to proactively investigate and support complainants against perpetrators. It would also empower frontline workers to speak up and report incidents of abuse, knowing that there is a greater chance that they will be listened to and investigated.

It should be an inalienable right to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace, but many people feel that they are ignored by a system that does not care about them or take them seriously. Today we have an opportunity to demonstrate that we do care. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Olivia Blake, Andrew Gwynne, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Rachel Hopkins, Kim Johnson, Navendu Mishra and Kate Osborne present the Bill.

Olivia Blake accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 January, and to be printed (Bill 157).