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In June 2007, I launched a campaign to spell out clearly the message of zero tolerance. Since then, I have taken steps to reinforce the message that attacks on staff are unacceptable. Those steps include investing in additional training for front line staff; accountability for zero tolerance being placed at senior level in every trust; the passage of new legislation — specifically, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 — the relevant provisions of which are due to be commenced later in 2009 and will allow certain staff to remove people who create nuisance or disturbance from hospital premises, thereby ensuring a safer environment for staff and patients.
I have also initiated a high-level working group to examine the effectiveness of current legislation that protects healthcare workers from assault and to evaluate the support that is offered to staff. That working group has completed its report, and I am considering its recommendations.
The legislation relates more to damage to hospital premises. Of course, if one damages premises, whether they are hospital or other premises, one is subject to compensation claims if that damage can be proved. Trusts will be active in that direction.
As regards zero tolerance, I am primarily concerned with assaults against staff, whether they are physical or verbal. Physical assaults are running at just over 4,000 per annum and verbal assaults at 2,000 per annum. Although the increase has been arrested and we are looking at a fairly flat incidence rate, the number of continual physical and verbal — or both — attacks is still far too high for Health Service workers to have to deal with. I am looking at a further legislative step for the working group to consider that would follow the model that is being looked at in Scotland, where it will be a criminal offence to impede Health Service staff going about their business. I believe that that will be an important step. I have had discussions with the Northern Ireland Office and with Paul Goggins, given that the matter remains reserved. Nevertheless, it seems that that is the next step that we should take.
We will also enlist the general public’s support through ongoing publicity campaigns. I have launched a leaflet that highlights the importance of the matter. That leaflet will go into every home in Northern Ireland over the next few weeks.
Has the Minister looked into the possibility of getting a limited supply of anti-stab vests for those ambulance personnel who are perhaps working on night shifts and who have to deal with pubs and clubs emptying, which is when there is an increased level of attack on ambulance personnel? Unfortunately, from personal family circumstances, I speak with some experience on the issue.
I have not looked specifically at such equipment, but I am happy to do so. If the Ambulance Service comes forward with requests for that type of requirement, it will find me very receptive. Legislation has been passed that protects fire and police personnel specifically. However, and bearing in mind my answer to the previous question, I want to see legislation in place that will protect all Health Service staff, including ambulance personnel. It is an affront to consider that ambulance staff — and fire and police personnel — who are going out to support those members of the public who are in trouble are subject to assault.
One aspect of monitoring the effectiveness of zero tolerance is monitoring prosecutions. Some trusts do that effectively and others do not. Has the Minister had any discussion with the Public Prosecution Service or the PSNI with regard to monitoring the prosecution of those who are charged with the offence of attacking Health Service workers?
When I launched the next stage of the leaflet campaign last week in the Ulster Hospital, I spoke with Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland. The Member will be aware that we have police support in the accident and emergency department of the City Hospital at the weekend. As the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 stands, it is up to individuals to take forward prosecutions, albeit that they are supported by the trusts. I am trying to move us beyond that, so that the initiative rests not necessarily with the individual employee, but with the employer. I think that that is a much better way to go forward.
The police are not slow to give us support. However, 80% of the people who are admitted to the accident and emergency department of the Belfast City Hospital each weekend are under the influence of alcohol.