Amendment 9

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 20 October 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Earl Attlee:

Moved by Earl Attlee

9: Clause 2, page 3, line 46, at end insert—“(3) After section 2 of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 insert—2A Potting (1) A person commits an offence of potting if the person—(a) maliciously causes an emergency worker to unwillingly or unwittingly come into direct contact with any substance containing urine, excrement or ejaculate,(b) is in custody and causes or permits their own urine or excrement to be intercepted without lawful reason or excuse, or (c) is in custody and causes or permits their own ejaculate to be intercepted without lawful reason or excuse.(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), a substance that looks and smells as if it contains urine or excrement is to be taken to contain such substances.(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(b), only in exceptional circumstances may the court accept a defence of “lawful reason or excuse” in the absence of evidence of a prior direction by a clinically qualified person.(4) In each and every case where the alleged offence takes place in a custodial environment and the Crown Prosecution Service decide not to prosecute on the grounds of not being in the public interest, the Lord Chancellor must be notified within 28 days of any such decision being made.(5) The Secretary of State must ensure that sufficient suitable kits for collecting evidence samples are available within the Prison Service.(6) A person guilty of an offence to which this section applies is liable—(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months;(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.””

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 9 standing in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede.

From time to time, it falls on this House and its committees to debate extremely distasteful matters. This will be one of those occasions. However, there are some euphemisms that we can utilise. We can use the term “relevant substance” to mean any substance mentioned in the proposed new Section 2A(1) of the 2018 Act. If we need to be more specific, we can refer to subsections (1)(b) and (1)(c) in the proposed new section. The type of assault in question is generally termed “potting”.

Let us suppose a dedicated and efficient junior official of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is walking down the high street and he or she is assaulted by an aggrieved taxpayer. Suppose the assault is achieved by inverting a bucket containing the relevant substance on his or her head, or alternatively by using what I would call the “custard pie technique”. The Committee will appreciate that the distress caused to the junior official would be off the scale. The victim would be comforted, if that was possible, by the knowledge that the police would regard it as a very serious assault. There is no doubt that the police would go to great lengths to secure the evidence and that the CPS would invariably prosecute if the police produced the necessary evidence. If such an assault occurred, the Committee would expect to see extensive national media coverage, possibly with public statements made by the Home Secretary or the relevant chief constable.

I have to tell the Committee that this type of assault is not unusual in the prison service today, but a thorough investigation and prosecution does not invariably follow. In the event of such an assault, the Committee will completely understand the overriding desire of the prison officer or other victim to immediately get under a shower and wash off every drop of the relevant substance. Unfortunately, this may interfere with the evidence trail.

There are other difficulties associated with bringing the perpetrators of such an assault to justice. First, the police have numerous and conflicting priorities; I am afraid that they are often unable or unwilling to attach much priority to an assault of this type when the victim is a prison officer or governor, and the assault occurs within the secure estate. A further difficulty is that the CPS is apparently not very energetic in prosecuting these cases. Part of the problem may be the evidence trail that I have already referred to.

I should also point out to the Committee that there is a complex criminal infrastructure in most prisons. It can be that the prisoner carrying out the assault has no grievance himself but makes the assault on behalf of others. Often, this is because the prisoner who is “invited” to do the deed has no more time that can be added to his time in custody without being charged with a new offence. He could also be put under considerable pressure by other criminals to commit the offence. The Minister will doubtless correctly tell us that there are existing relevant offences, but without a specific offence, prosecution is less likely.

Furthermore, the existing offences do not catch preparatory acts; that is to say, intercepting the relevant substance. Of course, the person who commits this offence of interception could easily and certainly be identified. My amendment proposes a new offence of potting. It makes it clear that, if the substance looks or smells like the relevant substance, it is that substance. It makes it an offence within the custodial environment for anyone to intercept their own relevant substance, under new subsection (1)(b), with a tightly defined medical exemption. The lawful reason or excuse exemption is less constrained for relevant substances falling under new subsection (1)(c) for obvious and understandable reasons. Proposed new subsection 4 requires the CPS to notify the Lord Chancellor if it is decided not to prosecute on public interest grounds. I would like to make it clear to the Committee that the intention is to make the probability of prosecution and conviction very high, in order to completely deter such assaults.

We ask prison officers, governors and others to look after some of the most mad, bad and sad members of our society. Some, as we know, are just minor offenders, while others are particularly evil, devious and dangerous. We have a retention problem within the prison service; allowing this type of assault to go unpunished must surely have a negative effect on morale and retention. We owe it to those charged with such onerous duties to protect them so far as is possible from assaults of this nature—and indeed from any other. We can discharge our duty by ensuring that there is a high probability of prosecution and conviction for these offences. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 11, in the name of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Gloucester, with her permission, as she is sadly unable to be here today. I declare her interest as Anglican bishop of prisons in England and Wales.

This amendment seeks to improve Section 3 of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 by expanding the definition of “emergency worker” to include all staff working in prisons. All those who work in prisons play a valuable role. However, currently, only officers and some healthcare staff are covered by this legislation and, as such, the risk for others working in prisons is increased, because prisoners are well aware of the more severe consequences of assaulting an officer compared with others working in prisons. Someone described this as effectively painting a target on their backs. This is an unintended consequence of the current legislation, which is unfair to many prison workers, undermines their safety and can be easily dealt with through this amendment.

The work of chaplains, educators and others who work in prisons is essential. They play a crucial role in the well-being and support of prisoners, in the work that underpins successful rehabilitation of offenders, and in maintaining a well-run and ordered prison. Prison chaplains, teachers, instructors and healthcare workers are vital vocations within the justice system. They need support and security to perform their roles well.

This amendment is supported by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance, and it has shared disturbing anecdotes from prison workers, as yet unsupported in law as emergency workers. One worker reported:

“Cutbacks in prison officers mean we are at greater risk than ever. I have been working in this environment for 10 years and have never known it so bad.”

Another noted:

“The prison is unsafe despite receiving an urgent notification last year—little has changed. We are running at significantly reduced numbers but there is no order or discipline in the jail. Staff assaults are an almost daily occurrence. One of my nursing staff was severely assaulted in the clinic room and I have a high level of staff receiving counselling due to fears around safety.”

A third said:

“I am a lone instructional officer in a textiles cutting and manufacturing workshop within an immigration removal centre. As a civilian, I don’t receive Control & Restraint training, carry a baton or wear a body-worn camera.”

Prison chaplains share in the front-line care of prisoners, providing pastoral and spiritual comfort. It is shocking that they might be seen as an easy target for physical assault. This is an account from a prison chaplain:

“I was leading some funeral prayers for an 18 year old. He was poorly and had had a hospital place to go to until a more needy child in the community got it. His Aunt Died and he requested funeral prayers. He was edgy as we moved to Chapel and I spent some time settling him before I led him through some prayers. As I was reading Ps23, I saw movement to the side. I remember asking myself ‘What happens if I am assaulted here?’. Momentarily later I was hit side on causing bruising to my face and bruising. I had some concern as I am currently on blood thinners. Staff back up was immediate, I had photographs taken and was taken out to hospital for a check-up. I then went home for the afternoon and returned into work the following day, I wanted to ‘get back on my bike and start pedalling!’. As a Priest Chaplain we speak about ministry through adversary, I can now stand alongside my uniform colleagues who are at risk every day from assault and understand better how to support them, because I have been there.”

Another said:

“As a Christian Chaplain I was assisting a visiting Imam to ensure that Friday Prayers was able to take place. Just as prayers were about to start I was asked by staff to go downstairs and speak to a prisoner who had not brought his ID card and was not therefore being allowed in. My intention was to ask his name and if his name had not already been ticked off on the list, to allow him in. When I arrived at the door the prisoner was extremely angry. He said he did not want to speak to me but would only speak to the Imam. I explained that it was a visiting Imam who would not be able to help him and that he was busy as prayers were about to start. He said that if he was not allowed in he would go back to the wing and ‘start smashing up staff’. I looked around to ascertain the whereabouts of staff and as I turned my head to the right I felt a blow to the left hand side of my head, knocking off my glasses and causing a cut to the side of my nose. He was immediately restrained by staff and taken to the segregation unit. I was attended to by healthcare staff. I remained on duty as the visiting Imam was a friend and I wanted to ensure that all went smoothly and that he was able to get off the premises after prayers.”

This chaplain received excellent care from colleagues working in the prison but should be supported through the law, as an emergency worker.

I would add that, in the last 12 months, I have spoken to two prison chaplains in my own area; one was assaulted and the other explained the fear they now face because of the amount of lone working they find themselves doing and how often there is no one nearby if something were to occur. It cannot be right that some front-line prison workers are protected while others are not.

In conclusion, prisons that are dangerous for staff are dangerous for prisoners too and disrupt the essential task of rehabilitation. Will the Minister give assurance that the Government are committed to making prisons safer working environments for all staff?

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 6:00, 20 October 2021

My Lords, I have Amendment 10 in this group. According to the Times newspaper, in an article dated 10 March this year, Chris Philp MP, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice responsible, according to the article, for sentencing, said that

“detailed research had found that the likelihood of being caught and punished was much more important in discouraging people from committing crime than length of jail sentences.”

Answering a Parliamentary Question about the deterrent effect of longer sentences, he said, again according to the Times:

“The evidence is mixed, although harsher sentencing tends to be associated with limited or no general deterrent effect. Increases in the certainty of apprehension and punishment have consistently been found to have a deterrent effect.”

I subsequently discovered that this was the Answer to a Written Question on 19 February from the Conservative Member for Rother Valley about pet theft—of which more on another day. The Bill certainly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Noble Lords around the Committee will be aware that we on these Benches have consistently said that longer prison sentences do not deter criminals and now, according to the Government, harsher sentences have limited or no deterrent effect. So why do we have Clause 2 in the Bill? Noble Lords may be surprised that, as a former police officer, I am not supportive of this measure. Something needs to be done about assaults on emergency workers, but an increase in the maximum sentence is not what is needed. What is needed is a change in attitude among the general public, in society and in the courts towards assaults on emergency workers in general and on police officers in particular. It appears to me to have become accepted by many that being assaulted is part of the job of a police officer or an emergency worker. But no one should be expected to tolerate abuse or assault because of the work they do, whether they are a Member of Parliament or an emergency worker.

The type of assault covered by this clause is common assault. Anything that causes a significant injury, even if it is not permanent, such as a bruise, can and should result in a charge under Section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, for which the maximum term of imprisonment is already five years. We are talking about relatively minor physical harm. Can the Minister tell the Committee how many cases of assault on an emergency worker to date have attracted the current maximum penalty of 12 months in prison—or a sentence of imprisonment at all?

The reason for my amendment, in effect for the Sentencing Council to review its guidance for the existing offence where the existing maximum penalty is 12 months’ imprisonment, is to ensure that the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service reflect the seriousness of this offence in their decision-making, rather than what we see week after week reported on social media, where assaults on emergency workers in general and police officers in particular are treated by the CPS and the courts as part and parcel of the job. That sends a message to criminals and the general public that you can assault emergency workers with impunity, because in court you will be just be given a slap on the wrist—if it even gets that far. What is the point of increasing the maximum penalty for an offence to two years when the Government themselves acknowledge that harsher sentences have little or no deterrent effect and the courts, which can currently send someone to prison for up to 12 months, rarely if ever do so?

The Government may say that in some cases severe penalties can have a deterrent effect—but an increase from one year to two years for an offence often committed in the heat of the moment during the course of a confrontation between a police officer and a member of the public is unlikely to be one of them. Far better that the Government mount a publicity campaign stating that it is completely unacceptable to attack emergency workers who put their lives on the line every day to protect and serve the public, than that they make a minor adjustment to the maximum penalty that is likely to go unnoticed by those it is targeted at, either as a deterrent or in court following conviction, unless there is a significant change in the attitude of judges, prompted by a change in the sentencing guidelines.

On Amendment 11, proposed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, clearly, prison officers are as vital a uniformed force as police, fire and rescue services, the ambulance service and the coastguard, and they are afforded similar protection. I quite understand how others working in prisons feel that they are more vulnerable and, as the right reverend Prelate said, they feel they have a target on their back because they are excluded. He gave the appalling example of an assault on a prison chaplain that resulted in bruising to the chaplain. But, again, I say that that offence could have been prosecuted under Section 47, where there is an even greater penalty available than for an assault on an emergency worker. So we are not supportive of the increase.

On Amendment 9, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, of course, if such substances are actually thrown at a prison officer or other emergency worker, it would amount to assault and therefore it would be covered by existing legislation around assaults on emergency workers, with a similar penalty to the one the noble Earl is proposing in his amendment. So we feel that there needs to be a change in attitude towards the apparent acceptability of assaults on emergency workers, rather than simply a cosmetic increase in the maximum penalty.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I think the noble Lord and I are in agreement that the problem is that we are not prosecuting these offences, rather than the outcome in the courts. Because, for the prisoners, it may be that even another three-month penalty for my new offence would be enough to deter them—or, using the existing penalties, as the noble Lord said, it is the probability of being prosecuted that matters.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Labour

My Lords, of course we want to change attitudes and that is what we must try to do, however long it takes us, but I have to say, from my experience over five years as a police and crime commissioner—I am sorry to keep on about this—this wrong seems to have increased on a fairly enormous scale. That is only anecdotal, but the truth is that many more of those who are about to be arrested seem to think that it is okay to have a go at the police in order not to get arrested. That seems to me to be very unfortunate, and it is going to take a long time before it changes. It puts the police, and obviously other emergency workers, in a nearly impossible position sometimes—and when I talk about the police, I am really referring to other emergency workers as well.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I do not want to see higher sentences for the sake of higher sentences, and I do think that their effect is often very limited, but I have to say—it seems odd, coming from these Benches, I suppose—that I have a certain sympathy with the Government here, because it seems to me that the position has to be dealt with immediately in some way, and one of the purposes of raising the maximum sentence available is to try, in the best possible way, to convince the courts that this is a more serious offence than sometimes they think it is. It is not always minor, I am afraid—sometimes it is undercharged—but it is a really serious problem that every emergency worker, and in particular every police officer, faces every time he or she makes an arrest, and I do not blame the Government for wanting to do something about it.

I am not saying it will be very successful; I think it is a much wider societal problem. But I do think it is something the Government are entitled to at least think about in this way. I do not say that with any happiness at all, but to claim that it is not a real problem is just untrue: it is a real, everyday problem.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I entirely accept that this is a real problem, but real problems require real solutions that have some chance of being effective. I cannot imagine anyone who commits an assault on a police officer or emergency worker actually knowing what the maximum sentence is for that offence—still less that the Government are currently increasing it. That information might just get through to the newspapers for a week or two, but there is no measurable deterrent effect from something that people do not know much about anyway. Most people must realise that if they get caught assaulting an emergency worker they will get into some kind of trouble, but whatever impels these dreadful assaults is clearly not likely to be affected by what is happening here.

What happens when you increase the maximum sentence? If you achieve generally longer sentences, you have made a commitment of resources. The question has reasonably to be asked: is this the best way of spending money to try to stop emergency workers being attacked? We must therefore look at any other measures that you can reasonably take that would have that effect, if, as I contend, there is no evidence that increasing the maximum sentence will lead to any reduction in attacks on emergency workers or police officers.

This is just one of many examples, and there are others that we will perhaps debate more fully later in the Bill, where the Government rush to have something to say—lengthening the maximum sentence certainly looks like having something to say—but it does not have the effect in the real world that we all desire.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I am a bit too squeamish to discuss Amendment 9 but I wanted to reflect on Amendments 10 and 11 and to follow on from some of the comments just made about the deterrence factor and expanding how long people are threatened with jail for.

I thought the Bar Council raised some very useful challenges for us to consider in relation to the section of the Bill dealing with assaults on emergency workers. The Bar Council asks us to consider if increasing the maximum penalty for such assaults is necessary or commensurate or whether it will work. It notes the limited evidence. I thought when I was listening to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who I was very compellingly convinced by, that it can feel a bit like virtue signalling rather than tackling the problem.

I was particularly interested in a slightly different point from the one that has been made and was struck by what the Bar Council said in relation to, I think, these amendments: there is a danger of creating a disparity between the penalties for attacks on emergency workers and those on other workers, and indeed a disparity between attacks on emergency workers and those on members of the public. There is an offence of common assault that should be considered a serious offence whoever is on the receiving end of it. Whoever is attacked, I would want the law to deal with it.

We heard from the right reverend Prelate how, if you start saying that an attack on this particular group of workers has to have a particular length of sentence, that might make other groups of workers—in this instance, in prisons—feel as though they are being neglected or somehow are not as important. We therefore have to be nervous about differentiating between categories of workers because that might end up being divisive, implying that front-line workers in some jobs are more important than others.

As a former teacher who has worked in the education sector—I worked with some challenging young people and was on the receiving end of some common assault, let us put it that way—I have been following closely the case of Professor Kathleen Stock, a feminist philosophy academic at Sussex University, whom the police have advised should not return to her place of work on campus because of the danger of violence from some self-styled anti-TERF activists. There have been all sorts of threats and harassment. They even have a special phone number for her to ring. There are other teachers who face this.

I raise that because when it comes to this kind of threat, that kind of potential violence and those kinds of assaults, it does not matter if you are a front-line worker. I do not know why the “emergency” bit should give you an extra penalty. I am not advocating for a special penalty for attacks on education workers. I just do not want people on the front line to feel that some are more important than others.

What will keep emergency workers safe? That is what we all want; we do not want anyone to be attacked. The description of what is happening in prisons gives us a bit of a clue. In that instance, it is the lack of staffing and resources causing the problem, not that attackers do not think they will be sufficiently penalised.

More broadly in society, and this has been hinted at, there is a crisis of authority. We have to ask a much deeper question about why people might want to punch a policeman and why people in the emergency services are treated with disrespect. To be honest, just adding on prison sentences or making that kind of point will not achieve what the Government want, even though I am sympathetic to their aims.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 6:15, 20 October 2021

My Lords, I will open by discussing first some of noble Lords’ contributions on their amendments.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, spoke to his Amendment 10. The amendment is about preparing sentencing guidelines for assaulting an emergency worker, or along those lines. My experience as a sitting magistrate is that those guidelines are not available at the moment so we use the old guidelines for assaulting a police officer as the guidance. However, I reassure him that whenever I sentence people I invariably make it explicit that part of the sentence, or maybe part of the uplift, is due to the role played by the person who was assaulted. So although it may not have been expressly set out in legislation about emergency workers, if it concerns a teacher or something like that, I will say that it is a very serious matter and I have taken that into account in the sentence. Nevertheless, I understand the points that the noble Lord made.

The amendment by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who spoke on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, seeks to expand the definition of “emergency worker” to include all prison staff, and he gave some very moving examples of chaplains, educators, instructors and healthcare workers. I think he has seen some of the same briefing that I have, which says essentially that many of those people are saying that they have never seen it so bad in terms of assaults on those people working in prisons.

As is often the case in Committee on Bills in this House, the debate went wider. I listened carefully to what the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said about being cautious about having a hierarchy of people who work in public service in one way or another. Nevertheless, I also took into account what my noble friend Lord Bach said: there is a role for sending a message about the Government responding in some way, although that does not necessarily mean increasing sentences themselves; there are other ways of responding that may be more effective.

I turn to Amendment 9, which I have put my name to, and I thank the noble Earl for tabling it. As well as sitting as a magistrate in London, I am also co-chair of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group here in Parliament and I have had a lot of lobbying on this matter, as I know other noble Lords have too.

The noble Earl explained the practice of “potting” in prisons. It can be done by prisoners who are mentally ill or, as he explained, by other prisoners as part of a tactic to punish officers who are targeted by particular groups of prisoners. He explained the circumstances where it may have a relatively minimal effect on the offender if they are towards the end of their sentence.

There is a widespread perception among prison officers that they have been neglected by the Government and that the CPS and the existing discipline structures within the prisons, and indeed visiting judges, do not take the practice of potting sufficiently seriously. In fact, on various TV programmes about working in prisons, we can all see, as I have, prison officers being potted. In fact, I have a magisterial colleague whose niece is a serving prison officer and, only a few months ago, she was potted herself. Of course, this is a completely disgusting and disturbing thing to happen. I hope that it will not reduce her commitment to the job of being a prison officer, but I have to say that I do not know; it might be one of the reasons that some officers choose to resign from the service.

There are many issues facing the Prison Service, which we have debated many times: high turnover of staff, pay and conditions, inexperienced managers, a change in the retirement age—the list goes on. I suspect that the noble Earl is right to anticipate that, in his answer, the Minister will say that the practice of potting could be charged in any number of ways and may well argue that it is covered by existing legislation. But the point that the noble Earl was making is that it simply is not taken seriously enough. The addition of a separate, specifically defined piece of legislation outlining this practice, making it more difficult for the authorities to minimise, would show that the Government value prison officers. This is an opportunity, I would say, for the Government to demonstrate that they value prison officers.

I do not know what the noble Earl plans to do at further stages of this Bill. This is such an egregiously disgusting practice and it is a tactic used in prisons; this is a specific way of responding to that tactic, which is within the Government’s hands in this Bill.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I begin by placing on the record my apologies for not being in my place at Second Reading for personal family reasons. I also place on record my thanks to many noble Lords for their kind and supportive words and messages; I am very grateful.

Turning to the substance of the matter before the Committee today, Clause 2 of the Bill proposes an increase in the maximum penalty for the offence of common assault and battery when that offence is committed against an emergency worker. The definition —this is important—of “emergency worker” is set out in Section 3 of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018. The pandemic has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that the vital front-line role that our emergency workers play, and indeed always have played, is of immense importance to our society. But we have recently seen an increasing number of assaults being committed against emergency workers in the course of their duties. This will simply not be tolerated.

Last summer, we delivered on our manifesto commitment to consult on this issue. We found that the large majority of respondents supported our proposal to double the maximum penalty to two years. This will ensure that the law provides our police and other emergency workers with sufficient protection to carry out their duties and will enable the courts to pass sentences that reflect the severity with which we view these offences. This measure builds on previous legislation introduced by the Government back in 2018. We have enhanced already the protection of emergency workers where more serious assaults such as ABH and GBH are committed—I think the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made this point. These more serious offences obviously carry higher maximum penalties than common assault. Where such offences are committed against an emergency worker acting in the course of their duties, this is regarded as an aggravating feature of the offence, warranting a higher sentence.

Let me deal first with the amendment from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester. I am grateful to her for tabling the amendment, and to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for acting as her spokesman this afternoon—I was going to say, “as the Aaron to her Moses”, if I may put it in those terms. The purpose of her amendment is to broaden the definition of “emergency worker” to encompass all staff in custodial institutions. The Committee will be aware that all prison officers, prisoner custody officers and those who exercise functions associated with these professions are already included in the existing definition of “emergency worker” from the 2018 legislation.

The problem is that broadening the definition of “emergency worker” can have unintended consequences. The broader definition would capture anyone employed or engaged to carry out functions in a custodial institution, which can extend to prisoners who undertake jobs within the institution. The amendment would then place this group of convicted prisoners on the same statutory footing as prison officers, constables and NHS staff. That would be unacceptable.

By means of increasing the maximum penalty for the assault of an emergency worker, we want to protect those who protect others. That is why it is right that emergency workers are on a different statutory footing. Clause 2, therefore, does not seek to amend the underlying definition of “emergency worker” that was accepted by Parliament when passing the 2018 legislation. I acknowledge the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, given the work of the Bar Council in this area, but it is right, I suggest, that we acknowledge the special position of emergency workers, as Parliament did back in 2018.

Of course, that is not to say that any form of violence in custodial institutions is acceptable; it plainly is not. We want to make sure that our prisons are safe for all staff, as well as all prisoners. Picking up on the point from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede—

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade)

I have a pertinent question. I am troubled by the rather lame excuse that the noble Lord offers from the Dispatch Box about the “unintended consequences”. Surely it would be very simple to put in place an exemption that barred prisoners from benefiting from that clause. I cannot understand why the noble Lord is so resistant to this particular move; there must be a workable way round it. I have been a Home Office Minister and have had lame excuses written for me—this sounds like one of those.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am afraid that the noble Lord appears to have missed the point of principle that I made before making what he characterises as a lame excuse, but which I thought was in fact rather a good point. The point of principle is that we have a definition of “emergency worker”, which Parliament accepted back in 2018. It is a good working definition, and we shall stick with it; that is a point of principle. The point on this amendment was that it goes too far because it has those unintended consequences. The noble Lord should not lose sight of my first point by concentrating only on the second, which he regards as lame and which I regard, from a legal perspective, as quite a nice point—I do urge upon him the point of principle as well.

I was coming to the point that we value prison officers. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, laid down the gauntlet and asked that we do so from the Dispatch Box. Of course we do. Our position on this amendment has nothing to do with not valuing prison officers or the work that anybody does in prison.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked what we were doing to protect prison staff. Those who carry out corresponding functions to prison officers and prison custody officers are already included in the definition of an emergency worker. Offences against those people will be treated as an aggravating factor in sentencing guidelines. That is what I wanted to say in response to that amendment.

I turn now to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, which seeks to place in statute a requirement on the Sentencing Council for England and Wales to prepare and publish a sentencing guideline for this offence. The position here—and I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said—is that the independent Sentencing Council has recently issued updated, definitive guidelines for a number of assault offences, including the offence of common assault. The guidelines came into effect on 1 July this year. I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, say that he had not seen that. The position is this, and I have had it checked: what came out is that it is in the general common assault guidelines. There is not a specific guideline for assaults on emergency workers, but those general guidelines deal with assaults on emergency workers. Perhaps I can have the relevant pages or document provided to the noble Lord if he has not yet seen them.

That document therefore contains, for the first time, specific guidance for courts to use when sentencing an offender for assaulting an emergency worker. It makes it clear to the court that an uplift to the sentence should be provided. Given that, I suggest that there is no practical purpose to this amendment. Of course, the Sentencing Council operates independently of government —I should make that clear—which is important for the independence of the courts. We can, I am sure, be confident that the council will give due consideration to the need to update the relevant guideline if Clause 2 is, in due course, accepted.

Turning to the points made about the increase in the sentence, particularly by the noble Lords, Lord Beith and Lord Paddick, the short point here is that deterrence is only one aspect of sentencing. One also has to consider punishment, public protection and the seriousness of the behaviour. We do not sentence only on the basis of deterrence, and this clause is certainly not—to pick up a phrase the noble Lord, Lord Beith, used—the Government rushing to have something to say. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that we do not want to see higher sentences just for the sake of it. I welcome, if I may say respectfully, his realistic approach to this issue. We need to show that this is a really serious offence and will not be tolerated.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked me a specific question that I will try to respond to. If I have not responded to all of it, I will come back to him. The information I have for how many have received a custodial sentence for assaulting an emergency worker is 1,533 in 2019 and 2,392 in 2020. There has also been an increase in the average length of sentences and we would expect that to increase further if the maximum sentence increases further. One must remember, however, that maximum sentences are for the most serious occurrence of the offence. Therefore, the fact that the maximum sentence is rarely or not used is not an indication that the maximum sentence is wrong. It might just be that there has not yet been an incidence that justifies the maximum sentence.

Finally, I turn to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Attlee to amend the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 to create a specific offence of potting, which would carry a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment on summary conviction, or two years following conviction on indictment. As we have heard, potting—for those familiar with the term only in the context of gardening—is, in this context, a rather more gruesome affair. It is usually taken to mean the throwing of bodily fluids—we have used the euphemism “relevant substances”, but we know what we are talking about—at a person, usually police or prison officers, by prisoners or offenders while in prison or custody. That is disgusting behaviour; it simply will not and should not be tolerated.

We take the safety of prison officers very seriously. We have committed an extra £100 million to security and we have given them body-worn cameras, police-style restraints and various incapacitant sprays to allow them to do their jobs more effectively. However, the problem with this amendment is twofold. Let me first take the part of it which provides that, where the CPS decides that prosecution is not in the public interest, it has to notify the Lord Chancellor within 28 days. That proposal—I heard what the noble Earl said—is plainly designed to ensure a high probability of both prosecutions and convictions. However, there is, with respect, a point of principle here: prosecutions are independent of government. The CPS has to make its decisions independent of political pressure. A provision that the CPS has to inform the Lord Chancellor of a decision not to prosecute is concerning because it risks blurring that important divide between government and the decision to prosecute.

Turning to the obligation to ensure that sufficient suitable kit for collecting evidence is available in the Prison Service, I do not understand that at the moment there is a problem there, but I am happy to discuss the point further. We do not need, however, a separate criminal offence. All of this can be prosecuted and captured under existing offences, such as assault and battery and other offences under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Section 24 of which covers maliciously administering poison or noxious substances. In the 2019 case of R v Veysey, the Court of Appeal held that urine—if I may say that from the Dispatch Box—can, in these circumstances, be a noxious substance. It is important, however, that the trial court is able to look at the individual circumstances, any aggravating or mitigating factors, and then decide the appropriate sentence.

We have clear guidance in operation to ensure a consistent framework to deal with crime committed in prisons. I do not know whether my noble friend has seen the Crime in Prison Referral Agreement, published in May 2019. That makes it mandatory for any assault—except where there is little or no injury—including any instance of potting, to be referred to the police. The police will then look at the evidence and seek to charge the offender. When the matter does not go to court, it can be dealt with by an adjudication in prison, which can also add extra time in custody. In light of that, and for the reasons I hope I have explained clearly, the Government are not persuaded that this amendment is necessary. For those reasons, I urge noble Lords who tabled these respective amendments not to press them.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 6:30, 20 October 2021

I am sorry—I thought very carefully about whether I should intervene. I was genuinely so taken aback by the Minister’s reference to prisoners being included that I nearly leapt up immediately. The question was then asked, but I have tried to replay it in my head. I absolutely understand that the Minister meant no offence but, out of context, I fear how it might be understood by those workers, such as chaplains, tutors and so on. By, in a sense, lumping them together with prisoners who have been employed, it could easily be misheard outside this House. I know that was not the Minister’s intention, but I ask him to put on the record that it was not what he meant.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to do that. As I am sure everybody recognises, that was not the point I was making. I appreciate that it was regarded as lame by some people, but the point that I sought to make was that the distinction and purpose of the amendment was to expand the definition from prison officers to other people working in prison. My point was that from the way in which it is drafted—and I appreciate that it could be redrafted—it could and would be read so broadly as to include prisoners who were doing jobs in prison. It was certainly not what I was saying to place prisoners doing jobs in prison with chaplains and others who are working in prison. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for giving me the opportunity to make that clear, if it was not already.

Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Judge

I seek one matter of clarification, although I should not need to. Is there no way, apart from raising the maximum sentence by legislation, by which government could bring to the attention of the prosecuting authorities, sentencing courts and so forth the aggravating features that cover all these amendments? There are the emergency workers in the first place, and the nauseating offence of potting, which I confess not to have heard of before, and assaults on prison officers. There are those who find themselves, in the ordinary course of their employment, exposed in these highly vulnerable circumstances to miscreance of an obvious character. Is there no governmental input to the Sentencing Council? Can the Government not influence those sorts of bodies to isolate the fact that these are manifestly aggravating circumstances, which should go to raise not only the likely sanction being imposed but the likelihood of prosecution?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

As the noble and learned Lord knows far better than I do, one has to distinguish between aggravating and mitigating factors and the likelihood of prosecution. With regard to the Sentencing Council, I am confident that it already has that point on board. The question before the Committee is that of maximum sentence rather than aggravating or mitigating factors. I have also said—and, I hope, explained—that there is clear guidance in place to make sure that, when these offences are committed, they are dealt with either through the courts or through prison adjudication.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords)

I just want to take the Minister back to the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham on the definition of prisoners as workers. I cannot think of any other legislation where a prisoner enjoys the same rights as a worker. There are many rights that workers enjoy in this country, but none of them that I am aware of apply to prisoners. There must be a way around this, perhaps by a government amendment or some sort of redrafting, that would allow the suggestion made to be incorporated.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I think I made it clear earlier that I was making two points in response to this amendment. The point that we are focused on at the moment is whether we could have more—and I say this respectfully—felicitous drafting than the drafting of the amendment that we currently have. I have accepted in principle that one could, and I made that clear in my previous answer and my answer to the right reverend Prelate. However, I do not want us to lose sight of my first response, on the point of principle: we have a definition in the 2018 Act of “emergency worker”, and that was regarded in 2018 as suitable and fit for purpose. It treated that definition as a separate status and a distinct group, and the Government’s position is that definition was good in 2018 and remains so now.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. On Amendment 11 from the right reverend Prelate, I am aware of the problem that he describes, but I did not make my new offence cover other Prison Service staff. I deliberately excluded probation officers just for reasons of simplicity, but if I managed to make my potting amendment find favour with the House, I would have to decide who was to be protected by it.

I am slightly disappointed by my noble friend’s response, because I thought that I was offering him the best thing since sliced bread, but he turned me down. The problem for the Minister running the Prison Service is that he cannot direct the police force to investigate these issues and, as he carefully explained to the Committee, he cannot direct the Crown Prosecution Service to pay greater attention to these offences either. My noble friend has no tools to protect prison officers—so I suspect that the Prison Officers’ Association will be a little bit disappointed with his approach.

I think we identified the underlying issue, which is the probability of being prosecuted for these sorts of these offences, and we need to have another look at that. I shall, of course, withdraw my amendment, subject to the usual caveats and discussions with the Opposition Front Bench.

Amendment 9 withdrawn.

Amendments 10 and 11 not moved.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.