Emergency Services Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:30 pm on 4th September 2002.

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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I welcome the draft guidance on violence and aggression in the national health service and the fact that the proposals allow health boards to withhold medical treatment not only from those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.