Emergency Services Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:53 pm on 4th September 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

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.