Clause 1

Emergency Workers (Protection) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 26th April 2006.

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Assaulting or impeding certain providers of emergency services

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to take amendments Nos. 17, 19, 21 and 22.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams Labour, Swansea West

I shall be opposing clause 1, because I have tabled an amendment proposing its deletion. Before I speak to that proposal, however, it may be helpful in expediting our discussion of the individual amendments to come if I provide an update on what has happened since Second Reading.

I anticipated that there would be a considerable number of amendments, partly because, as I said on Second Reading, in my laziness I picked up an Act from Scotland that had already been passed to save me the tedium of drafting. That Act was geared to Scottish law, however, so some of the amendments are technical amendments, reflecting the fact that the legal background to the Bill that I originally proposed is different in England and Wales from in Scotland.

The second factor contributing to the number of amendments is that, in order to achieve passage of this important Bill, which is much wanted by the fire services especially, I have agreed with the Government to make certain changes. Discussions have enabled us to agree that, as was mentioned on Second Reading, the Bill will focus not on the whole range of assault and impeding offences, as in Scotland, but on the offence of impeding emergency workers who are going about their duties. That has meant that the parts of the Bill dealing with assault have been dropped.

In that respect, the Government anticipated the mood of the House better than I did when I proposed the Bill. The mood of the House is that existing legislation and law can be used, and that the shortcomings are not in the law, but in enforcement. That was the clear mood on both sides of the House on Second Reading, so I had no problem in dropping  the provision that related to assault and in focusing on impeding of services. The Bill in its revised format has been welcomed by the fire service.

There has been one important development since Second Reading. At that stage the Minister indicated that it might be appropriate for the fine level to be set at a maximum of £1,000, whereas I had suggested a fine up to level 5, which is £5,000. I am glad to say that she has since agreed to come into line with the original proposal, so we have made an advance on sentencing since Second Reading, and I thank her for that positive response.

Another part of the deal that I suspect will require discussion is a restriction on coverage, because the Scottish Bill was very wide-ranging, and the Government believe that it is more wide-ranging than is appropriate. I am sure that the Minister will understand my asking her to expand on their thinking.

Before we complain about what we have not got, it is important to remember what the Bill will still cover if we agree to the amendments today. It will cover firefighters, ambulance workers, coastguards, lifeboat crews, air ambulances, people transporting blood, organs and medical equipment in an emergency, and volunteers and voluntary organisations running ambulance services. Even in its reduced form, the Billis a measure that we should all be proud to be associated with.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

My right hon. Friend downplays his achievement in introducing the Bill. I see the amendments not as a downgrading, but as an expansion of the original Bill to deal with a much wider problem than it countenanced. We know from Second Reading that the original Bill dealt with a narrow but important issue that can be dealt with by other means. The matters now contained in my right hon. Friend’s Bill cannot be dealt with by other means, and he is to be congratulated on what he has achieved so far in bringing forward a measure that will be of great importance to all those engaged in emergency services. I am very pleased to be part of the Committee in order to give the Bill my support, as I did on Second Reading, and to welcome what he has achieved.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams Labour, Swansea West

I thank my hon. Friend for his kindness. I have survived for 41 years in this House of Commons by possessing a surfeit of humility, but I am thankful for his kind comments. Since I am now ready to accept his plaudits, I shall add that an important safeguard has been built in to the Bill. Through new clause 1, the Minister will have time to think again in the light of experience and of whatever happens, which is important in our current troubled environment. The new clause will give her order-making powers that will allow her to add to or remove from the list of persons covered.

I am pleased to say that our endeavours have even come to the attention of our colleagues in Northern Ireland. I understand from a Minister that Northern Ireland, whose fire services are already protected, would like its ambulance services to be included in the Bill. I think that we have done a wider service than we at first anticipated. I believe that we can deliver a worthwhile Act, and I appreciate finding out that I am not the only one who thinks so.

In opposing clause 1, I can provide a counterbalance of succinctness. I do not support the clause because it is just not needed. The amendments will in effect merge clauses 1 and 2 and tidy up and shorten the Bill considerably.

I shall divert for a minute to another amendmentin the group. Amendment No. 21 applies to false information, and it may have been tabled because the situation is different in Scotland; I do not know. In any case, the Department has assured me that the amendment is not strictly necessary, because hoax calls are already an offence in their own right, and deliberate misinformation on the site or during the course of an emergency falls within the “impeding” terms of the Bill. On that basis, I urge my colleagues not to support the clause.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I repeat to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West the congratulations on introducing the Bill that the official Opposition extended when we supported it on Second Reading. We very much hope that it reaches the statute book.

We understand why it is necessary for the right hon. Gentleman to reach an agreement with the Government about the parts of the Bill that they do not like. Legislation is the art of the possible, and it is better to have a measure on the statute book than no measure at all. Nevertheless, I expressed on Second Reading some scepticism about the Government’s arguments for dropping the assault provisions from the Bill, which is the effect of the amendments.

The Government’s arguments fell into a number of categories. The first and most substantial was that they preferred to rely on the operation of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. They believed that that would enable a signal to be sent to offenders, and, importantly, to the courts, that there should be stiffer sentences for assaults on emergency workers. We will of course support the sending of that signal. Will the Minister clarify what arrangements she will make for publicity, so that the same type of signal that would be sent by the creation of a specific offence can be sent by the Home Office in publishing the revised sentencing guidelines?

The Government said that a specific offence was unnecessary because of the existence of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and on Second Reading the Minister stated that the situation was different in Scotland because the sentencing guidelines mechanism does not exist there. That is not an entirely fair representation of the situation. The Law Society of Scotland listened to the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill, and in a news release that it published on 26 May 2004, it made this observation:

“Some time ago, the Lord Advocate issued guidance for procurators fiscal on the prosecution of emergency workers. The Society understands that the guidelines are working well in practice.”

It appears that in Scotland, guidelines similar to those that the Government have suggested requesting from the Sentencing Guidelines Council already existed, urging courts to give stiffer sentences for assaults on emergency workers. Despite that fact, Members of the Scottish Parliament took the view that it was a good  idea to have a separate offence. I am therefore not sure that it is sufficient to argue that the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council stands in place of an aggravated offence.

Secondly, as I pointed out on Second Reading, the Government said in their manifesto at the last election that

“we will introduce tougher sentences for carrying replica guns, for those involved in serious knife crimes and for those convicted of assaulting workers serving the public.”

That manifesto was issued just a year ago. I am sure that the Minister will say, “Well, what we meant was that tougher sentences will take the form of a different arrangement with the Sentencing Guidelines Council.” But that was not what the Government meant in relation to the other crimes for which they promised to introduce tougher sentences.

The penalty for carrying replica guns is being increased under clause 37 of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which has been through its stages in this House and begins its Committee stage in the other place today. In relation to that offence, the Government meant that increased sentences would be introduced, but on the offence of assaulting workers serving the public, they say that tougher sentences mean different sentencing guidelines. They therefore cannot rely on the argument that reference to the Sentencing Guidelines Council was what they meant in their manifesto just a year ago. If the Government make a manifesto promise that they will introduce tougher sentences, they should stick by it.

The third argument adduced by the Government is that a specific offence would be difficult to prove. That is an odd argument to make. It does not seem remotely problematic to add to an offence the additional burden of proving that the victim was an emergency worker. Surely it would take a competent prosecutor a matter of minutes to establish that. I cannot see why it should present a real impediment to proving such an offence.

The fourth justification on which the Government relied is that racially aggravated offences are different. The Minister explained on Second Reading that that is the case because the purpose of those offences is to deal with situations in which people other than the victim might be caused fear. That argument could apply equally to emergency service workers, and it ignores the real reason for the introduction of racially motivated offences: Parliament wished to send a clear signal that that type of assault was particularly egregious and was unacceptable.

In conclusion, I return to the point with which I began my remarks. Hon. Members of all parties felt on Second Reading that a particularly important reason for the legislation was that Parliament needed to send a signal that assaults on emergency service workers, which have increased substantially, are totally unacceptable. That is why the Scottish Parliament introduced similar legislation. We have not had the opportunity to study its impact, but I have no reason to believe that it is not working perfectly adequately. I am concerned that by removing the specified provisions from the Bill, we are weakening that signal. By relying on the Sentencing Guidelines Council, we are not sending the tough signal that we would send by  introducing a specific offence. I understand the Minister’s arguments for not wishing to do so, but I think on balance that we should have stuck to the original proposals.

The Minister will no doubt respond to my points. We shall not press the matter, because we wish the Bill to pass and we respect the reasons of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West for tabling his amendments, but it is a pity that just one year after the Government made their manifesto commitment to deal with the problem, they have effectively reneged on it.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Liberal Democrat, Teignbridge 2:15 pm, 26th April 2006

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Swansea, West on promoting the Bill and on his success in getting this far. His previous ministerial experience has obviously stood him well in negotiating with the Government to get us where we are today—a point at which, we hope, the Bill will become legislation.

I will not repeat everything that the Conservative spokesman has said. I agree entirely with his points and I echo the regrets that he has expressed. It is a great shame that the Bill is only half the Bill that it could be—but half a Bill is better than no Bill, so we are happy to support it. Out of respect to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, who has negotiated us to where we are now, we shall not press any of the clauses to a vote.

Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will tell us why we are losing what should be a clear signal about the protection of emergency workers. During the last Parliament, I tabled an early-day motion that received broad support across the House proposing that assault on an emergency worker should be a summary conviction. That was different from what is now proposed. The offence, which under sentencing guidelines is just an assault, would have been put on par with assault on a police officer. A nurse, doctor or fireman, or any other emergency worker going about their duty, deserves the protection of the law in the same way that police officers do in going about their duty. Recent times have seen an increase not only in hindrance to fire and other emergency services, but in assaults on them.

In the national health service, there has been progress in prosecuting for assaults on medical staff, but I feel strongly that the likelihood of assaults will be reduced only if the Government send a clear signal to the people who offend to make it clear that such action is not acceptable. Those in the emergency services are trying to protect and save the lives of others. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the points that have been made. If she has conceded on the penalties, as the right hon. Gentleman said, she could talk to her Department about whether it would really be a problem for assault on an emergency worker to become a summary conviction.

The other sadness is the categories of emergency worker that have been taken out of the Bill. As I understand it, the amendments will mean that social workers no longer receive the protection that other workers do. If I am wrong, I hope that the Minister will intervene. She has not intervened, so I take it my interpretation is correct. I should be grateful if she could clarify that.

The clause on social workers was inserted as an amendment to the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005. The Labour party in Scotland accepted the amendment on the grounds that it felt that emergency workers included social workers who undertook certain categories of work, because there were times, especially when dealing with child orders, that stresses and the risk of assault were high in that role. If social workers are doing child intervention work, emotions can run very high in the affected families. Indications point to an increasing number of assaults on people doing such work. It would be a great shame if they were singled out and did not receive the same sort of protection as other emergency workers will receive under the Bill. Will the Minister explain why those exceptions and deletions are being made in the Bill?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman again on getting this far. I wish him every success with the Bill, and I look forward to its receiving Royal Assent within this Parliament, as I hope it will. We will not oppose it, but we would like further explanation from the Government as to why they are cutting it in half.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

It is a pleasure to support this private Member’s Bill under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.

We are having something like a mini-Second Reading debate on a non-stand part debate for clause 1. I wish to deal with the points that hon. Members have made, because they go to the heart of what we are trying to achieve in the Bill. We are trying to get rid of a very particular and serious wrong that often leads to further wrongs—the often wilful obstruction ofblue-light emergency workers in the course of their duty of trying to protect members of the public. Frankly, such activity is unacceptable and outrageous, which is precisely why we made the commitments on these matters set out in our election manifesto. I am glad to have the opportunity to describe how we are delivering on those commitments, and how the Bill will help us to do so.

Opposition Members have referred to provisions for racially aggravated assaults. That mechanism was rightly adduced by the Government before we had a process such as the Sentencing Guidelines Council. The council gives us a tool to be used in any area where an aggravating factor exists in respect of a particular offence. Given that we have such a tool, it is wrong not to use it for the whole range of aggravating factors, including one already acknowledged in an initial guideline involving people who are serving the public. The sentencing guidelines formulation on violent crime that is due to be made available shortly will deal with assault, and I hope that it will not only deal clearly with someone who is serving the public, but specifically highlight emergency workers.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) mentioned social workers. They are a precise example that goes beyond the main case that we are dealing with in the Bill and relates not to blue-light type emergencies, as it were, but to situations thatare full of the tension, anger and anxiety of anemergency-type intervention in a family’s life that could put a social worker at risk. Such situations would be covered by the offence of assaulting an individual,  which would be aggravated by the fact that the person was serving the public at the time when they were assaulted.

There is a very important difference regarding the advice given to procurators fiscal. That advice sends out a signal of the sort that Opposition Members mentioned, but it does not have the force of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which does much more than send a signal or give advice. Courts are obliged specifically under law to follow the guidelines, and if they do not, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides that they must state publicly in court why they have not. We therefore have a powerful mechanism to ensure that the status of sentencing guidelines is much more significant that anything that exists in Scotland or which has existed previously. That is the appropriate way in which to deal with aggravation and the fact that the person who has been assaulted was serving the public.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) rightly asked how we will make sure that the signal is heard and how it will be publicised. Hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s respect campaign. Such matters are at the heart of that campaign. We shall not just announce Sentencing Guidelines Council matters in the usual way. It is right we have an open, consultative process, but the problem is that the point at which the newspapers will report a matter is when we have a draft guideline and they want to suggest things that we might wish to change. I see hon. Friends nodding their heads. Perhaps they are thinking about the recent proposed draft guidelines.

Such issues do not receive sufficient publicity after they have been through the processes of comment and discussion by the Home Affairs Committee and elsewhere. We need to beef up the publicity. I am happy to give the Committee an absolute commitment not only that we will build such matters into the respect campaign, but that when the guideline is published, we will, probably working with trade unions, other workers in the field and employers, put energy into ensuring proper public awareness.

We shall deliver our manifesto commitment for tougher sentences not only by sending signals, but by putting in place a tough mechanism that courts have a duty to follow. Comments were made in the Chamber earlier today about the Home Office over-legislating. When we can create sensible arrangements in order to deliver the will of the House and the public, as they expect when they vote in a general election, without primary legislation, it is right and proper to do so. That will do more than send a clear signal; it will ensure that things happen.

I should like to join in the praise bayed by Members on both sides of the Committee of my right hon. Friend not only for his determination—we have had some robust conversations—but for his flexibility. As a consequence, we can fill a lacuna in legislation. People have been able to obstruct workers, including ambulance workers in particular, with impunity, and his Bill gives us an opportunity to provide better public protection. I am grateful to him for co-operating with the Government in order to make the Bill simpler, and more effective and flexible. If it becomes clear that  categories of public employees should be added, we will have the capacity to add them in future without further primary legislation.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:30 pm, 26th April 2006

I thank the Minister for her explanation of some of the differences between Scotland, and England and Wales. Will she respond to my point about the Labour party manifesto promises of tougher sentences for certain crimes and about where such sentences were introduced? I mentioned the carrying of replica guns. Clause 37 of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill increases the sentence for that offence from six to 12 months. Why was the Sentencing Guidelines Council not sufficient in relation to that offence?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

We are talking here about a single offence, not a separate one. The hon. Gentleman is referring to offences that are already on the statute book. The original version of my right hon. Friend’s legislation suggested a separate and new offence, not a heavier sentence for an existing one. We have an existing offence of assault and a mechanism that can produce a heavier sentence. We can obtain that heavier sentence by using the sentencing guidelines tool. In the cases to which the hon. Gentleman is referring, there is a specific offence, such as that of carrying a weapon.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 1 disagreed to.