Taking of samples under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984

Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 15th November 2017.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 5 and 6 stand part.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

As I am sure all hon. Members are aware, clauses 4, 5 and 6 relate to spitting and the taking of intimate or non-intimate samples. The reason for the clauses is clear: the incidence of people spitting at emergency workers has risen dramatically. Spitting may seem relatively innocent to some people, but it is perfectly possible to pass on communicable diseases by spitting. Often, an individual who has been spat at will not know for some considerable time whether they have contracted a particular communicable disease and will therefore be put through precautionary medical interventions that they would not otherwise have had to go through. We have all heard stories of false positives for various diseases being given to police and other emergency workers following that process.

Spitting is not just a question of saliva. Sometimes—if someone has been in a fight and lost a couple of teeth, for instance, and there is blood in their mouth—people spit an amount of blood. However, I want to make absolutely clear from the beginning, in case there is any doubt, that I do not believe that that has anything to do with HIV. It is my understanding, from all the medical evidence I have looked at and the advice provided by NHS England, NHS Wales and the World Health Organisation, that spitting does not transmit HIV, including when there is blood in the saliva. There is no evidence that that is the case. There has been some wild talk that it is, but it is not. I remember that there was a similar debate when I was a priest in the Church of England and people were concerned about taking communion wine. In actual fact, the combination of saliva, silver and alcohol was a good way of killing off the HIV virus.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I think he had an inkling that I may raise HIV. I accept his helpful explanation. Does he feel that there is a case for further guidelines to be provided with the Bill, particularly to help prevent unnecessary stigmatisation?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

One of the delights of the past 20 years for me as a gay man, many of whose friends died in the early years of HIV, is that HIV is no longer seen as a death sentence. It is another medical condition. People have much more rational attitudes to it than they used to. That has been helped by significant senior figures, including in politics, such as Lord SmithChris Smith—being able to speak openly about their HIV status, and of course by dramatic changes in medication, which have transformed people’s life chances. There may be some downsides to that in terms of whether people practise safe sex and all the rest of it, but the truth is that there is considerably less stigma than there was. As I said on Second Reading, I would be distraught beyond belief if I thought that the Bill would add to that stigma.

I am open to suggestions about whether there should be specific provision in the Bill to require NHS England or the authorities in Wales to make clear what is appropriate in relation to specific communicable diseases. It may be that we want to return to that on Report, but as I say, I am keen that clauses 4, 5 and 6 remain in the Bill. Our emergency workers should not be spat at, whether it is only saliva, saliva with blood, or whatever—they should not be. It is designed to be an assault, it is designed to be offensive and it is designed to make people fearful about whether they have contracted a communicable disease.

The one reason why I am slightly hesitant about a list of suitable communicable diseases is that diseases change. Who would have thought that one of the things that we are looking for in the modern era would be tuberculosis? Over the past five to 10 years, however, the number of instances of TB in the UK has risen, so it is one of things that we would be looking for today, if not what might first come to mind. The medical advice about hepatitis B and C has also changed over the years, so I want to maintain a degree of flexibility. I also assume that clinicians would be giving the right advice for the individual emergency worker who has been spat at in any particular set of circumstances.

I am keen to keep the clauses in the Bill, although I do not think anyone is arguing that they should be removed. It is important that we have not gone for a nuclear option of saying, “The state will be able to take intimate samples willy-nilly”—that would not be appropriate. We have amended existing legislation, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Terrorism Act 2000, to provide expressly for emergency workers who have been spat at, making it clear that anyone unreasonably withholding an intimate sample—broadly speaking, blood—may be subject to a fine, but only a fine, and in such circumstances it would still be possible to take a non-intimate sample. For many of the communicable diseases we are talking about, only a non-intimate sample would be needed, so I very much hope that this measure will be used pragmatically, because that is how the legislation has been written—not in a grand ideological way, but pragmatically.

I hope that the legislation will send out a strong message: spitting is not on, and if people spit at an emergency worker they could be subject to a fine if they unreasonably withhold an intimate sample and they would be required to provide a non-intimate sample. With those comments, I very much hope that hon. Members will support that clauses 4, 5 and 6 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department 10:15 am, 15th November 2017

I wholly endorse what the hon. Gentleman was saying about the pragmatic approach of the clause. I also congratulate him on the way in which he spoke about the sensitive issue involved. I wholly endorse and associate myself with his comments about the progress we have made as a country in our approach to HIV.

We will proceed with sensitivity on the issue, but the fact remains—the evidence is there in all the testimony, case studies and examples given on Second Reading—that, as well as dealing with the physical and mental aspects of being assaulted, in certain circumstances emergency workers may be concerned that they have contracted a serious infectious disease as a result, especially when those attacking them threaten as much. If exposed to the risk of infection, emergency workers might have to wait for up to six months to find out whether they have been infected.

During such periods of uncertainty, the emergency workers may also be concerned that they are in turn infecting those around them, including their friends and family. One only has to read the speech of the hon. Member for Halifax or the examples given by the hon. Member for Rhondda—I am thinking in particular of PC Bruce and PC O’Shea and the story of what they had to go through—to realise that that is absolutely intolerable. That is why the clause is required.

Emergency workers may also have to take medication that ultimately is not required, some of which may have severe side effects. Such incidents can cause great distress and worry to the individuals and their families, so we are very keen to work with the hon. Member for Rhondda to find ways to protect emergency workers from the worries of unnecessary medication that may result from exposure to infectious disease. We therefore support his proposals in the Bill. However, we will want to work with organisations, including the National AIDS Trust and the Terrence Higgins Trust, further to consider their concerns. We will also continue to work closely with the police and other emergency services to ensure that the Bill’s proposals are practical and affordable. The hon. Gentleman has been extremely pragmatic throughout the course of the Bill. We want to put on the statute book legislation that will actually have some effect, and the Bill is genuinely practical in that respect.

I am reassured to hear the hon. Gentleman say he will continue to work with officials and stakeholders to ensure the Bill is the best it can be. I join him in making it absolutely clear that this Bill should not propagate stigma associated with HIV, which was a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. It must be noted that there is a very low risk of contracting HIV through biting or spitting blood, and only in very particular circumstances. Alongside creating this power we want to work with the police and emergency workers to ensure there is a better understanding of the risks involved. It is ultimately about supporting our emergency workers and providing peace of mind.

For the sake of consistency we agree that the Bill should extend police powers in the Terrorism Act 2000 to marry up with the extension of powers in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Clause 6 makes further consequential amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, on disclosure, and to the Human Tissue Act 2004. It exempts blood and non-intimate samples from the controls in that Act for health protection purposes following assaults on emergency workers. It also makes provision for a constable to require a person to attend a police station for the purposes of taking a sample.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. I should put on the record my gratitude to him for the way he has been willing to work with me and to meet and take phone calls at all sorts of strange hours. I should also say that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley has been particularly helpful to me, not least because this is an area of the law that she knows well, in helping draft the legislation and in persuading colleagues that this is a good piece of legislation. She has not got quite as good a name as Hooley, a former MP several years ago, whose campaign slogan was “Hooley for Heeley”. I do not know what the name of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove would be in similar circumstances.

Without further ado, I hope the Committee will support these clauses and the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 5, 6 and 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose.