Emergency Services Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:24 pm on 4th September 2002.

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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.