Emergency Services Staff

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:05 pm on 4th September 2002.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 5:05 pm, 4th September 2002

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S1M-3327, in the name of Karen Gillon, on attacks on emergency services staff. As we are a bit behind time, I call Karen Gillon to open the debate immediately.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament condemns the mindless attacks against emergency services workers; recognises the vital role that fire-fighters, ambulance staff and police officers provide in supporting the local community and ensuring public safety, and considers that the Scottish Executive should take all necessary steps to ensure that the safety of all staff who work within the emergency services is safeguarded.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 5:09 pm, 4th September 2002

I thank members for their attendance and I thank those members of all parties—of whom there are 48 at present—for their support of motion S1M-3327. I welcome representatives of the emergency services to the chamber, including service personnel and members of their families.

I lodged motion S1M-3327 last week, following a mindless air rifle attack on a firefighter in Hamilton and a plea for the Parliament to act from a wife and a mother of two firefighters. If members had any doubt about the need for decisive action, they need look no further than today's Edinburgh Evening News, which shows that firefighters were ambushed again last night, in Edinburgh. As I came into the chamber, I was given a dossier by local firefighters detailing attacks that they have experienced.

What is most worrying about yesterday's attack in Edinburgh is that it appears that the gang of children started the fire deliberately to draw the crew out, so that they could assault the firefighters for their amusement.

During the fireworks show in Edinburgh last weekend, a group of about 30 youths attacked a firefighter and a paramedic, both of whom were assaulted and narrowly missed being hit by a rock that had been hurled at them as they walked to where a man lay stranded. They were acting as emergency services staff trying to save lives.

Such cases are not unique. Too often, we pick up newspapers or turn on the television to hear of mindless attacks on emergency services personnel. In Blackhill in Glasgow, 20 youths attacked a fire crew with knives, bricks, bottles and other objects and a firefighter was treated in hospital. In Parkhead, a gang of youths attacked a firefighter, who was injured. In Hamilton, a firefighter who was responding to an emergency call to rescue a nine-year-old boy from a 20ft gully was shot with an air rifle and required treatment in hospital.

It would be easy to list more attacks and I am sure that many members have received similar reports of attacks in their constituencies. The purpose of motion S1M-3327 is to say with one voice that attacks on emergency services staff are unacceptable and must be stopped before they spread further, with the eventual result that emergency services staff will refuse to visit certain areas for reasons of their own safety.

Last week, I spoke to local firefighters about attacks. They told me about how the attacks affect them and how the situation has changed. Between 10 and 20 years ago, they expected to get verbal abuse or to have the odd stone thrown at them, when they went to put out a poorly located fire on bonfire night or when they went to turn off a water hydrant that local kids were playing under on a hot summer day. They tolerated such behaviour; it was unacceptable, but they put up with it.

Now they are frequently subjected to unacceptable behaviour involving bricks, bottles, knives and air guns. In the Highlands, the new game is to tape down the head of an aerosol can, to light it and to throw it at fire crews as they approach. Such attacks involving hit-and-run tactics are cowardly and are without foundation or provocation.

The crews who are subjected to such attacks are responding to emergency calls. They already have to cope with ever-increasing demands in relation to response times and they are hindered regularly by hoax or vicious calls. Now they come under attack more frequently. They are attacked simply for doing their jobs which, as we all acknowledge, they do exceptionally well. It is part of the job of firefighters to risk their lives, day in and day out, to save others. They enter burning buildings to take out victims. They understand that element of their job when they sign up to be firefighters and their families know it too. However, they do not sign up to the thugs' agenda, which means putting their lives at risk for the sake of another's cheap thrill or mindless kick at the system.

We are in a unique and privileged position that enables us to do all that we can to protect the people who play such a crucial role in our society. We must shatter the culture of acceptability that seems to surround the issue. We cannot continue to wash our hands by saying that the thugs are out of control and that there is nothing that we can do.

There have been 22 separate incidents in the Strathclyde fire brigade area in the past six months and there have been 20 incidents in the Lothians this year. That situation is clearly unacceptable. The figures show just how serious the problem is becoming. The fire brigade and ambulance crews believe that violent incidents at work are under-reported and in both services a policy on violence at work has been adopted.

The statistics will never fully show the feeling of insecurity that crews must experience when they arrive at a scene. It is a testament to their professionalism that they are able to carry out their difficult work knowing that they could be attacked at any time for the sport and amusement of some moronic hooligan.

Strathclyde fire brigade already has a number of policies in place for the protection of crews. Risk assessment is done in line with the corporate safety policy. Any attacks are recorded and placed on a database, so that other brigade members can get the information. Perhaps that could be further improved by adding information to the brigade's website.

The most startling policy is contained in operational and technical note A12, which deals with minor disorders and civil disturbances. The note is a set of guidelines for crew on the appropriate action to be taken when they face situations. The guidelines include details on what kit should be worn and why firefighters should never work alone or leave appliances unattended. That is not always easy when firefighters are faced with a burning building containing casualties whom they have been trained to save. The note advises that look-outs should be posted on either side of the incident to inform the officer in charge of impending threats. Car doors should be locked while approaching or departing an incident. However, this is not the wild west. It should not be part of the role of firefighters to ride shotgun while attending to their duties. Firefighters are highly trained and highly skilled staff who are much better placed fighting fires than having to protect themselves from thugs.

Although my comments have focused on firefighters, many public sector workers face violence from the public simply for getting on with their jobs. We would not accept that in our line of work; we should not accept it for any other public servant. I firmly believe that the emergency services deserve action on their behalf by the Parliament. We need to look at the resources closely to ensure that the fire brigades are adequately funded to enable them to supply their staff with the appropriate safety equipment. We should also take action to install hidden closed-circuit television cameras where the emergency services believe that that would be in their interests.

We also need an effective programme of education to make the public aware of the consequences of such attacks. In particular, we need to make young people aware of what they are doing. They need to understand that by taking out fire crews, or ambulance staff, or police cars, they may well place at risk the lives of innocent civilians and even those of members of their own family. We need to get to where those young people are. That might be in schools or in youth clubs, or we might even need to engage with the young people on the streets. The young people on the streets are perhaps the most difficult to reach, but we cannot use that as an excuse for doing little. We must get the message across.

It is also vital that the public who witness such attacks play their role by reporting these yobs to the police. Campaigning newspapers can play their part too in making these crimes unacceptable. At the end of the day, it is we and our constituents who could be waiting for the emergency vehicle to arrive. It will not arrive if it has been smashed up in a mindless act of violence.

Finally, it is most important that the courts ensure that they take strong and decisive action against this mindless thuggery. A clear message must be sent out that such behaviour will not be tolerated in our society. Today's message must be that the Parliament values all public servants and that we will not accept mindless thugs stopping them getting on with the vital jobs on which we all rely.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

There are 10 would-be speakers, so speeches should be kept tight.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 5:18 pm, 4th September 2002

I congratulate Karen Gillon on securing tonight's debate on her important motion. As Karen Gillon stated, we have an opportunity to send out the clear message that we will not tolerate attacks on our emergency service workers. Those workers go out at all times of the night to save people's lives, so it is intolerable that they should come under mindless violent attack during the course of carrying out their job.

Such attacks are becoming all too common. Figures released last year showed that there had been a dramatic rise in the number of assaults on ambulance personnel in Tayside. Throughout 1999, assaults on paramedic staff in Tayside totalled 16. However, in the first six months of 2000, the figure had risen to 22 and continued to rise.

That led to a debate on whether the Scottish Ambulance Service should copy the London Ambulance Service by providing crews with stab-proof and bullet-proof vests. Surely, things have not come to the stage where our emergency service staff must go out equipped with bullet-proof vests. I hope that we do not have to see that day; sadly, it is having to be discussed.

Doctors in Dundee have to have a police escort to make out-of-hours calls because of fears for their safety. Last month, firefighters in Dundee faced a sustained attack by mindless young thugs—some as young as eight years old. That happened when the firefighters were attending a blaze in a scrap yard in the Hilltown area of the city. The blaze had been started deliberately to lure the fire service. If such attacks continue, it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured—as Karen Gillon says, that has already happened—or indeed killed. We must prevent that.

Our emergency services staff have a hazardous enough job without mindless thugs pelting them with stones and bottles. The lives of emergency service workers and members of the public are being put at risk. We need to hear today how the Scottish Executive will ensure the safety of those workers as they go about their crucial jobs.

Yes, education and resources are important, but we must also ensure that the law backs up emergency staff. Mindless thugs must be dealt with. They must face the full weight of the law. Indeed, their parents should perhaps face the full weight of the law. The current situation cannot continue.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 5:21 pm, 4th September 2002

I, too, congratulate Karen Gillon on bringing this matter to the chamber. We should thank her for doing so. Clearly, the matter is of the greatest concern.

People who are going about their jobs—especially when those jobs involve the saving of life and property—require to be protected. Of course, they should not have to be protected. They should be able to work without let or hindrance. However, as Karen Gillon has explained, we are seeing a sinister trend in which people who go to fight fires find themselves under attack. It would be bad enough if that happened spontaneously but, when a deliberate ambush is set up, it becomes a matter of even greater concern.

Unfortunately, this is yet another manifestation of the yob tendency in which unadulterated hooliganism, which has become so prevalent in the past year, goes unchecked. That cannot be allowed to continue. The trend manifests itself in other ways. For example, in high flats in Knightswood in Glasgow, workmen who were improving houses had to be withdrawn from the site because they were being pelted by missiles from the top storeys. Those workmen were trying to improve people's housing conditions but they found themselves under attack. As we have heard, ambulance crews too have found themselves under attack. Is it not an appalling commentary on our society that it is sometimes necessary to place police officers on duty in hospital casualty reception areas? That is extremely worrying.

What are we going to do about it? Over the past year, the minister has heard a lot from me. My party has suggested some positive and direct plans. There is a degree of urgency. The Executive has to consider its policy on law and order and acknowledge that it is not working. The Executive will have to do something to protect people who are going about their jobs, trying to save lives but finding themselves under attack.

I suggest that those who are arrested and charged with offences of this type should not be charged with a summary complaint and should certainly not go to the children's hearing system. They should be charged on indictment so that they can face sentences from the sheriff courts of up to three years' imprisonment. That would send out a message that we will not tolerate this kind of conduct.

However, we have to look further into the matter. We have to find out what the parents of those who are involved in such actions are doing. Pictures have appeared in the papers that clearly identify the youngsters. What actions are their parents taking? What action is being taken to deter members of those families from behaving in this outrageous manner?

Karen Gillon is to be congratulated on raising this issue. It is highly topical and it is highly important. The Parliament and the Executive must respond and respond firmly—otherwise, this behaviour will continue. It is a matter of the gravest concern to everyone. Something must be done before a life is lost in the service of the community. It seems inevitable that a vehicle will come off the road or that someone will be struck by a brick or another missile. Effective action must be taken quickly.

Photo of Angus MacKay Angus MacKay Labour 5:24 pm, 4th September 2002

I thank Karen Gillon and congratulate her on securing the debate, particularly as several of the recent incidents have taken place in my constituency and involved my constituents.

In the recent past, I was lucky enough to have performed the role of Deputy Minister for Justice. In that context, I was able to work directly with representatives of the emergency services in a variety of ways. On the basis of that experience, I pay tribute to the hard work and dedication that those services perform day in, day out across Scotland. The evidence from decades of hard work from that part of the public services is simple: those people save lives day in, day out.

As Karen Gillon mentioned, last Saturday my constituent Mr Crolla, a firefighter in Edinburgh, was attacked in the most cowardly manner while trying to help a member of the public who had got into difficulties. Mr Crolla and a paramedic colleague were attacked at the same time in Braid Hills. It can be argued—comments have been made by representatives of the emergency services and in some of the newspapers—that, as Braid Hills is an area of Edinburgh where increasingly large numbers of the public gather both at festival time to witness the fireworks and during the hogmanay celebrations, the site should be better managed in future. However, that does not detract in any way from the seriousness of the incident or the challenge that lies before us.

As Karen Gillon mentioned, in the past 48 hours in the Burdiehouse area of Edinburgh—again in my constituency—a fire was deliberately set in order to lure the emergency services into the area and attack them. The ingenuity, energy and enthusiasm shown by those who perpetrated the offence are clear. As I understand it, they removed bales of straw from nearby fields, took them into an underpass and set them alight in an area where that would cause maximum difficulty and where the efforts of the firefighters would be localised so that they would present readily accessible targets. Think what we could achieve if only that energy and ingenuity could be channelled into positive behaviour. However, that energy is not channelled into something positive—somehow those people are allowed to continue in such endeavours.

It is not just the emergency services that are suffering in that way. Recently, my colleague Sarah Boyack and I had a meeting with representatives of the bus drivers of Lothian Buses in Edinburgh, who have also been subject to a series of extremely cowardly attacks, including some that resulted in serious personal injury and even early retirement. Those bus drivers impressed on us in direct terms what such attacks are doing to their capacity to deliver a service across Edinburgh, in many cases to those who most depend on a secure bus service.

We can seek to take measures to mitigate such events. We could consider improving the safety film that goes behind glass in emergency vehicles in order to minimise the damage caused by smashed glass. We could consider mounting CCTV on emergency vehicles. All such ideas are laudable and should be considered. However, they tackle the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause. We must be clear about the cause, which is undoubtedly a youth disorder issue.

Although I do not have any instant panaceas, we must be unequivocal about recognising the challenge, which is one of youth disorder.

When I was Deputy Minister for Justice, I had a conversation with a senior police officer who said something that was very simple but for me was revelatory. We were talking about a particular issue and he said that I must remember, as many people forget, that policing can take place only by consent. If the public decide not to endorse the activities of the police, there is nothing that the police can do—they are outnumbered massively. That is a truth that extends to all the emergency services. They all operate by consent. Without that consent and with the behaviour that we have seen in Edinburgh recently, it becomes impossible to deliver emergency services.

We know that difficult negotiations on pay deals are taking place across the United Kingdom. I know some of the people who are involved in those negotiations—on both the trade union and employers sides—in Scotland. I do not want to comment on the detail of that. I know that there are people of good intentions on both sides who want to see a good service that is well delivered. However, we cannot expect those emergency services to recruit well, to deliver assistance when needed and to operate reliable emergency services if their staff face violent and reckless danger at work. If the violence continues, they will —rightly—seek to secure a pay premium to reflect that increased danger. Whatever other pay demands they make, I am sure that that will be part of the negotiations.

When men and women join the police, fire and ambulance services, they know that they face danger. Of course they join those services in order to earn a living to support their families and their communities, but they also do so in the spirit of public service. Every member should make it clear in their contributions today and hereafter that, if we do not take action as individuals and through our public institutions, we devalue their commitment and bravery.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 4th September 2002

First, like everyone else, I congratulate Karen Gillon on securing what is an important debate. The problem is serious: it affects every community in the country to a growing and worrying extent. It is important that we send a clear and unambiguous message from the Parliament today that such behaviour is utterly unacceptable. Colleagues have mentioned the article in tonight's Edinburgh Evening News of yet another callous and cowardly attack on firefighters in Edinburgh—the second attack in a matter of days.

Over the recess, I witnessed the great job that our firefighters do on the ground when I saw them fight a fire at the Cramond campus in my constituency. Although it has not been proved as yet, that fire may prove to be another example of the growing problem of youth disorder.

We are talking not only about firefighters but about employees across many of our public sector services. We are talking about attacks on bus drivers, as Angus MacKay mentioned, nurses, firefighters, police officers, general practitioners, social workers and pharmacists. Those workers do their jobs in the face of violence, but they also do their jobs as representatives of each of those sectors to protect us, to provide a service to us or to ensure that lives are saved and enhanced. We owe it to them to ensure that we send out a clear message tonight and that we back up that message with action.

My first members' business debate was about violence against social workers. That was some time ago, but it continues to be true that welfare workers and nurses are four times as likely to be physically attacked than are other workers. We know from Royal College of Nursing figures that half of all nurses have been assaulted while on duty. I have spoken to nurses in sick kids hospitals who have been assaulted while trying to deal with sick children—how sick is that? Three quarters of social workers have experienced violence or abuse while doing their job and in Lothian and Borders, as we have heard, a growing number of attacks are taking place on fire service crews.

I welcome the draft guidance on violence and aggression in the national health service and the fact that the proposals allow health boards to withhold medical treatment not only from those who are violent but from those who threaten violence. We should not allow people to threaten violence or to verbally abuse staff—both should be equally unacceptable.

I ask the Executive to look again at a proposal that I have raised on many occasions, which is the possibility of introducing some sort of enhanced new offence of aggravated assault if the victim is an emergency services worker. I think that the police are given legislative protection through the Police (Scotland) Act 1967. I echo the point made by Bill Aitken and others that we should ensure that, if and when such incidents occur and people are caught and charged as a result, we should throw the book at them—we should give them the full benefit of everything that the justice system can fling at them. In cases where people have lost their lives or limbs, we should ensure that that factor is reflected in the sentences that people are given.

Behind that response lies the big problem of education. We have to tackle the reasons why kids are doing such things and why their parents are allowing them to go out and do them. What kind of message are those kids being given at home about the role of the emergency services in our society and of the role of people who serve us all?

I urge the Executive to undertake a full audit across all the relevant services to ensure that we are doing all that we can. We can then redouble our efforts to protect the staff who protect us all. They deserve our support, whether that is given through better risk assessment and training or—in the case of social workers—through increased security measures. It may also be possible for security personnel to be present in accident and emergency departments or for CCTV, including the mobile CCTV units that Angus MacKay mentioned, to be used more widely. In addition, NHS community service personnel need to be able to have access to mobile phones to enhance their protection.

It is critical that we target the kids in the education and justice systems. We have no alternative but to use some of the resources that we want to be invested in front-line services to protect the delivery of services by front-line staff.

I thank Karen Gillon for giving us the opportunity to reiterate those points and to come together and speak with one voice in the chamber to ensure that the Executive addresses the problem across all the public sector services that have been highlighted this evening.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 5:35 pm, 4th September 2002

I, too, congratulate Karen Gillon on securing this members' business debate. She is right to say that the problem touches every community in Scotland. However, although the recent attacks in Blackhill in my constituency were well publicised, such attacks are under-reported. In areas such as Ruchazie, Springburn and Barmulloch throughout my constituency, there have been a countless number of attacks on emergency crews.

Margaret Smith made a number of comments that I want to echo. She pointed out that we are not just talking about emergency crews. As Bill Aitken said, housing staff are attacked daily as they try to find ways of improving local communities. We have to ensure that staff feel secure from attack and that we introduce legislation to deal with the matter. I support Margaret Smith's point that, given that an assault on a police officer is subject to the Police (Scotland) Act 1967, there is no reason why that legislation cannot be extended to cover anyone who provides a public service. The Scottish Parliament was created to consider Scottish solutions to such matters and the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill might provide us with the opportunity to find out whether we can introduce legislation to deal with the problem.

We should also examine whether the tenancy agreements that are in place in many communities such as Blackhill could be used to enforce action against those who perpetrate attacks. Anyone who wants to live in and be part of a community should contribute to that community. By their actions, some of the young people involved in the attacks are simply saying that they do not want to be part of a community. Introducing proposals to take action under the terms of tenancy agreements will send out a clear message that such attacks will not be tolerated. We must introduce measures to allow housing associations to take action in that respect.

Members have referred to the crucial issue of education. It is clear that attacks on emergency crews, council services staff and people who provide valuable public services do not impact positively on local communities. Shock tactics have often been used in educating young people and we must find innovative ways of informing and educating young people to ensure that they are aware of the consequences of their actions.

I hope that the minister will tell us about any possible proposals for legislation to deal with attacks on members of staff who deliver public services. I wonder whether he will also indicate his support for housing associations that might consider taking action against those have clearly demonstrated that they do not want to be part of our community. We need to consider every course of action that we can take.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 5:39 pm, 4th September 2002

I want to follow other members and state my gratitude to Karen Gillon for putting this subject before Parliament. As legislators, we must realise that there is no quick fix to this problem. Paul Martin mentioned one or two legal remedies that might be sought, and I hope that the minister will comment on those suggestions.

The Parliament must create a framework of social, legal and other policies that might make it easier to change attitudes or behaviour. That is what we are trying to do. One or two other people have referred to the fact that this is not just a problem of firefighters, bus drivers or ambulance men; it is not even about a specific form of public disorder. It is a whole attitude towards or lack of social responsibility, and that cannot be changed overnight.

On the other hand, the Parliament provides the forum in which we discuss how we might tackle the matter. I add my remarks to those of Angus MacKay. He and I take the same approach to what is happening in Edinburgh. Both of us take a huge pride in the city we represent and we are horrified that there are areas in the city where the fire service cannot go without a police escort. That is horrendous in social terms. It is also poor quality in operational terms when we know that the police do not have extra people lying around to accompany a fire truck. It is a waste of resources and money. I will keep my remarks short. We all share a sense of horror and a sense of urgency. We must start tackling the situation.

I regret to say that, in this instance, I disagree with something that the Executive has already decided, and that is to pack in public service broadcasting. I do not say that because I still have a family interest in that trade, but there is a role for the attitude-changing mechanism of television. If we know that children behave badly because of what influences them on television and in video games, then for goodness' sake, the good guys can start influencing them as well. If we think back 20 years to the anti-AIDS campaign that was run on television and in the mass media, we recognise that awareness can be raised quickly and we can do something to change attitudes. We will have to do that quickly.

I ask the minister to consider public service broadcasting. We cannot expect police and fire officers to visit every school in Scotland to start undoing the neglect of today's parents and grandparents in social education. I am part of the me generation and we are to blame in that we have not instilled in our children an understanding of the respect that is carried merely by being a public service worker. We have told them nonsense about having to earn respect. Nonsense! If someone is a firefighter or an ambulance man, they have already earned respect. Children have to learn the difference.

I did not mean to lecture too much, but it is off my chest now. We can hardly sit here and pontificate about how much we value public service workers, particularly firefighters, without saying—as Angus MacKay said—that we should consider how we prove that we value them through how we, as a society, reward them. I certainly believe that the Fire Brigades Union should be supported by the Parliament in calling for an independent inquiry into the worth of firefighters and their wage levels. We could do that as a Parliament. That is not going to upset anyone in London, is it?

As well as that, one or two of the suggestions that Margaret Smith made should be taken on board. They were practical remedies and I am happy to give them my support.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour 5:43 pm, 4th September 2002

Unanimity seems to be breaking out around the chamber. That is important and it is particularly good that there is also unanimity in the commendations for Karen Gillon for securing the debate. As usual, her timing is impeccable. I make that as a serious point.

We are moving towards the anniversary of the mass murders on September 11. If there was one good thing that came out of that—and I do not think that there were many good things—it was the reclaiming of the public sphere as a place for collective endeavour. We must reflect seriously on the reclaiming of the notion of public service and the reclaiming, in particular, of commendations for public service heroes.

Across the globe, we need to consider how we put substance around a lot of the rhetoric that was indulged in during the aftermath of those horrific events. That must be reflected in our treatment of our firefighters. What we are hearing—and I am sure that the deputy minister is hearing it loud and clear—is support for a campaign of zero tolerance of attack on public service and emergency workers.

There was a lot of sense in what my colleague Paul Martin said. I suspect that, saving the statutory provisions in relation to the police, any reasonable fiscals and sheriffs are already treating assaults or attacks on public sector or emergency workers as an aggravation. They certainly should be. If they are not doing so, they are failing.

I urge the minister to give serious consideration to whether we need to go further on that front and establish statutory charges in relation to the protection of emergency and public sector workers. We might consider using the vehicle of the Scottish Police Federation petition, presented by Mr Keil, on the use of saliva and blood as weapons of attack on public sector workers. A more wide-ranging consideration of such a provision would be a useful early exercise on the part of the Executive.

Karen Gillon mentioned a depressing dossier of attacks. We all know from our constituencies of individual instances that literally chill the blood and leave us feeling rather grubby about how we, as communities, do or do not react to what happens to people who are undertaking very difficult tasks. As Margo MacDonald said, we must seriously reflect on what our values are and how we instil in schoolchildren citizenship values and the notion that they have a sense of ownership of the public services. Paul Martin also pointed out that we must show tenants, owner-occupiers and others that there are responsibilities that come with living in communities, rather than people simply having the right to call on community services.

Like Margo MacDonald, I do not think that there are any easy solutions, and I certainly do not think that Karen Gillon suggested that when she lodged her motion for debate. However, there is an urgency that must be addressed. We must put meat on the bones of our concerns about public sector workers. The Parliament exists to ensure that such concerns are articulated into policy that is delivered and acted upon.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 5:47 pm, 4th September 2002

There are occasions when this Parliament speaks with one voice on major public issues. Tonight has been one of those occasions, started off by Karen Gillon's inspirational speech at the beginning.

There are few things more nauseating than attacks on public service workers, in whatever sphere, who are going to help other members of the public. It is right that the wider dimensions of the problem have been debated, and I would like to cite a couple of statistics. In 2000-01, firefighters attended 39,000 fires that had been deliberately started, and which resulted in 11 deaths and more than 400 casualties. In the same year, more than 4,000 motor vehicles were deliberately set alight, according to a report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary and Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services for Scotland. The average bus in Glasgow has its windows smashed eight times a year, and more than 160 people were injured while travelling on First Bus buses in Strathclyde last year. Vandals also caused £1 million of damage to buses.

As Angus MacKay and other members have said, the problem goes wider than emergency vehicles. However, I would like to add my voice to the call for the attacks on emergency service workers to be regarded as an aggravated offence. As Brian Fitzpatrick said, that happens already with regard to the way in which the judiciary deals with the problem. Children under 16 would usually appear before a children's panel and might get off with a warning. I do not think that there should be any circumstances in which a significant attack on an emergency worker does not result in a report to the panel and in the matter being dealt with seriously.

Whatever else one might say about emphasising care and the needs of the individual—which is perfectly valid—that must be balanced by the greater public issue of how we can stop such attacks happening in the first place. I say that as one who has often spoken in Parliament in a much more liberal fashion, in distinct opposition to the line taken by Bill Aitken.

Margo MacDonald was right to mention attitude changing. I am thinking about drink-driving. In my youth, people came up to me, as a lawyer, and discussed how they could avoid being breathalysed and caught for drunken driving. That situation has changed. It is no longer cool to be a drunken driver. Attitudes have changed.

We must draw together all appropriate mechanisms. There must be rapid on-the-spot responses to such incidents. People who do such things must be targeted. We must consider the system that has been used in England with the bus services and try to draw together all the agencies with their accumulated wisdom and ideas in local areas. The message from the Parliament is that action must be taken quickly and effectively and such behaviour must stop—there are no two ways about it.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party 5:51 pm, 4th September 2002

I apologise to Karen Gillon for not signing her motion. That is not because I do not fully agree with the motion; it is because I pressed the wrong button on my computer. It is probably just as well that I do not work in the emergency services.

I am sorry that Paul Martin has left. I did not want to intervene during his speech, but I cannot let some of his remarks pass. Criminal behaviour is criminal behaviour and it is up to the police to deal with it. It is not up to housing officers or voluntary members of management committees to deal with such behaviour and we should never change that.

In general, I agree with what members have said, but I add that we cannot over-emphasise the importance of our emergency services. Margo MacDonald is absolutely right. The issue concerns attitude change. There should be respect towards those who work in our emergency services and attitude change should be promoted through every layer of society. Respect must start from the top. It must start from the Government and those who are in power in countries that employ emergency services.

The worth of workers in emergency services must be reflected in working conditions. Such conditions include pay—Margo MacDonald and Angus MacKay have spoken about that—but they also include the health and safety of workers and the conditions under which they work. We should ensure that they have up-to-date equipment with which to work. Some firefighters have said that the uniforms and equipment that they use are not as state of the art and up to date as they should be. We should consider resources.

I want to discuss the ambulance service in the area that Karen Gillon and I represent. Through parliamentary questions that have been lodged, she will know about the state of the ambulance service in Lanarkshire. In East Kilbride, almost half of the shifts are not covered and single crews go out to emergency calls. What kind of working conditions are those, given that there are attacks on emergency staff? Single ambulance men are sent out to deal with emergency calls. We must deal with that issue. For the Executive to say that that is the Scottish Ambulance Service's problem is not good enough.

We must respect our fire, ambulance and police emergency services. Society must be shown that they are respected through Governments' taking some responsibility. I hope that the minister will deal with that in winding-up.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 5:53 pm, 4th September 2002

I, too, congratulate Karen Gillon on securing the debate for the first meeting of the parliamentary year. It is appropriate and I feel privileged to be the minister who will answer.

The Executive is concerned about attacks on all emergency services workers and I join members in totally condemning such attacks. We want those who are involved to be apprehended by the police and dealt with firmly by the appropriate body, whether by children's hearings or courts. I take the point that reports should go to children's hearings on such matters. The youth justice action points should encompass that area—I will return to that issue later.

Members have mentioned the fact that the public have a key role. The public—not least parents—must recognise what is happening and help to address the problem. Where are parents when children are out creating mayhem? What is happening in that situation? Are the parents having the problems addressed that are being created by those young people? As members have said, it is often very young people who are creating the problems.

Angus MacKay was Deputy Minister for Justice and was succeeded by Iain Gray. Angus MacKay referred to the attack in Braid Hills, which was particularly unpleasant. Other members have referred to a variety of attacks in their constituencies. We are all aware of what is going on. It is unacceptable, wherever it takes place.

I will go to the east end of Glasgow to see the crew that were involved in the attack a few weeks ago. I will make it my business to publicise our condemnation and the Parliament's condemnation of the attacks.

The situation is certainly not getting better. The issue of attacks on firefighters was recognised by Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, who formed a working party to examine the issue of protection from assault for emergency workers in 1996. That has led to several changes, particularly in relation to the police but also in other services. Those changes include the recording of attacks on police, the introduction of better clothing for police and the introduction of CS spray, which is now universal across all forces. Perhaps a result of those changes is illustrated by the fact that the number of attacks on police has gone down. The figure of 8,600 attacks in 2001 was a decrease from 10,000 the year before. There is a slight rise in the figure this year, but that is nevertheless a fairly significant drop. That drop may or may not be associated with CS spray.

Many steps have been taken as a result of the working party's report, but more needs to be done. Good practice on protection from assault, information about potential trouble spots and procedures for dealing with specific problems, such as contamination from hypodermic syringes and training techniques on means of dealing with aggression, are being introduced across many of the services to which members have referred.

One of the steps that was taken, to which members have referred, concerned strengthened glass. Paragraph 3.3 of a circular that was issued in 1997 stated that all new appliances should be fitted with the appropriate safety glass and that, where possible, there should be retrofitting of other vehicles, although it was recognised that that would be expensive. It also stated that the equipment in the firefighting unit should be properly locked and lockable.

However, this is about people rather than machines. If machines are damaged that is one thing, but damaging people is totally unacceptable and must be addressed. Margo MacDonald said that there is not a simple, one-off solution. We will not give up on public broadcasting, but we will consider it and focus it. We will assess its value and impact, and ensure that it is properly focused. We are bringing in youth schemes and evaluating schemes that already exist. We are using a proportion of our community fire safety budget to assist brigades to tackle related issues such as juvenile fire setting, which has been mentioned, the discouragement of hoax calls—which are unacceptable in all the public services—and to carry out other work with schools. I learned the other night, when I was out with my local police in Tullibody in my constituency, about the school watch scheme that operates round each school in our area because of arson attacks on schools. I am sure that other members could refer to that issue.

I am sorry that Paul Martin has left the chamber. He referred to anti-social behaviour generally and the links to neighbourhood schemes. My feeling is that we need to have a sense of the fact that the firefighting service and other emergency services are the community's services. They are owned by and belong to the community. If communities understand that, we will be able to transmit to young people that their behaviour is unacceptable. Restorative justice approaches are one way in which young people can be shown the consequences of their sometimes apparently harmless disorder, such as throwing stones. They think that that is fun but it is not fun; there are victims. We must help them to address that. Let us be sanguine about the matter; there are children who are particularly difficult to get to.

The saddest aspect of the matter, to which many members have referred, is that it is not just the firefighters that are subject to attack. It is also the police, ambulance drivers, accident and emergency workers, social workers, bus drivers and railway drivers. All those groups are subject to attack. That is unacceptable.

My son works in an accident and emergency department. He has described to me in graphic detail attacks that have been made on him and on the nurses with whom he works. He is abused almost daily in accident and emergency. That did not occur to nearly the same extent when I practised in accident and emergency.

Last year, HM fire service inspectorate began the process of requiring brigades to submit details of the number and type of attacks. Until we know the extent of the problem, we cannot gauge how to respond and we cannot see whether, as members feel, the problem is developing or whether it has been with us for some time. I mentioned that the figures for attacks on police have fallen slightly. There were 176 attacks on ambulances in 2001 and 181 attacks in 2002. Those figures show a slight rise, but they are fairly stable. Ninety-six patients were removed from GPs' lists because of violence. We have heard about the figures for attacks on the Lothian and Borders fire brigade. We are collecting statistics for a purpose. When we get the statistics, we will decide how to address the issue in individual areas.

There are policies and procedures for health and safety, risk assessments and operational technical notes for civil disturbances and minor disorders—to which Karen Gillon referred—and briefings with the aim of providing crews with information on operational risks, which include the potential for violent attacks. There are also community safety initiatives to bring young people on board by way of fire cadets and other measures.

The debate has shown once again that the Parliament is serious in its intent. I will examine the work of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's working party, check whether its recommendations have been fully implemented and consider whether further measures are necessary. In due course, I will report back to members on how we are making progress in dealing with this element of youth disorder. I commend members on the debate.

Meeting closed at 18:02.