Protection for Workers

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 20th May 2010.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15 am, 20th May 2010

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-6350, in the name of Hugh Henry, on protection for workers. We have a bit of time available, so members should feel free to take interventions if they wish to do so.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

It is hard to imagine that in 21st century Scotland workers are still being assaulted simply for doing their job. Unlike MSPs who, in this Parliament building, have security measures built in almost at every step, the ordinary worker is often left vulnerable to attack and assault. Of course, the recent stabbing of Stephen Timms MP is a reminder that, outside the confines of Parliament, politicians can also be vulnerable.

I recognise that some people in the legal profession would say that the law already takes seriously the issue of assault. Equally, however, I point to the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which all parties in the Parliament, except the Conservatives, supported, because legislation was required. The act recognised that something more than the existing law was worthy of support to demonstrate to the violent minority that attacks on emergency workers are unacceptable. It also demonstrated to emergency workers that members of the Parliament were prepared to act to give vulnerable workers that bit extra in legal protection.

We were told at the time that the 2005 act was not necessary and yet, by the second year of its existence, 200 charges were proved under it in Scottish courts. If further legislation was not necessary or useful, why were those cases taken to court under that legislation?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Is the answer not fairly obvious: that the act replaced the previous common- law aggravation? To that extent, there was a transfer of the figures to the new category of offence.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

No. It is still the case that prosecutions can be made under the common law. The act is an addition, which is there to be considered as appropriate. I know that the Liberal Democrats accepted that argument and voted for the act at the time.

The new Administration, which was elected in 2007, reflected on the need for such legislation to protect workers who serve the public. The Official Report of the Justice Committee meeting of 15 January 2008 shows that Shona Robison said:

"Okay. Enough time has passed since the legislation came into force to allow us to consider its success and the potential benefits of extending its scope to cover other staff. That is an important point.

I will share some information on the success that has been achieved so far. According to the most recent figures, 1,256 charges have been laid under the 2005 act, of which 1,008 have led to prosecution and, thus far, 594 convictions. A further 218 cases are on-going. Seventy-five per cent of cases that have led to prosecution have resulted in convictions, which is a very high number indeed. I suggest that that shows the success of the act."—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 15 January 2008; c 469.]

As a result of that analysis, ministers extended the 2005 act. They decided to cover other health workers who work in the community, not necessarily always in emergency circumstances. I applaud ministers for taking that decision not to rely on the common law but to use the additional strength that is delivered by the act. Ministers were right at that point to reject the arguments of those who said that existing legislation was enough and that no new powers were needed.

I turn to other workers who serve the public and in doing so render themselves vulnerable to assault. Are they any less worthy of our support? Do the services that they provide mean that they deserve any less protection from the law than those who are covered by the 2005 act?

When a bus driver or a train driver is assaulted, the passengers are put at risk. When services are withdrawn because of violent incidents, whole communities are affected. Those who rely on public transport can be left isolated and vulnerable as a result.

When a postal worker is assaulted and the mail is stolen, scattered or not delivered, there can be significant implications. Families who rely on authorisation for financial payments can be left struggling, businesses can be affected and deadlines can be missed.

When a shop worker has to bear the brunt of an enraged customer's anger, that worker often has no back-up or support readily available. If local stores have to close for security reasons, as has happened, whole communities bear the brunt as a consequence. Often, it is poorer communities and more vulnerable people who are worst affected, because they have no alternatives.

If a shop worker does the right thing and carries out the will of the Parliament in relation to alcohol or tobacco sales, should they not expect the Parliament's support if they are assaulted as a result?

Are child care workers, elderly care workers and social workers any less important than the nurses or midwives who work in the community? It is right to give added protection to a nurse who serves patients in the community, but why not give protection to the child care worker who deals with sensitive cases of child abuse allegations or those who are there to help the frail elderly and are assaulted by whomsoever when doing so? Should they not be given that added legal backing if they are assaulted when carrying out their duties?

The number of assaults against many of those workers is staggeringly high. In 2007-08, the total number of physical assaults against public sector workers was 32,263. That number included 9,121 assaults on local government workers, which represents an increase of 3,000 on the previous year's figures. In 2007, the British retail crime survey report detailed a 50 per cent increase in physical assaults against shop workers compared to 2006. A Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers survey showed that nearly a third of shops reported at least one physical assault against staff in 2007.

Contrast that with the simultaneous reduction in the number of assaults perpetrated against health workers. According to figures produced by Unison in 2007-08, the number of assaults on health workers fell by more than 1,000 from the previous year. It could be suggested that the decline can be attributed to the threat of tougher penalties contained in the 2005 act. The increase in the number of convictions under that act, which I mentioned earlier, has underpinned the tough message that has arguably led to the reductions in assaults.

The success of the act has been recognised not only by ministers of the present Administration but by the trade union movement. The Scottish Trades Union Congress has spoken out clearly about the need for further legislation. I am grateful for the support received from a range of unions: Unite, which represents bus drivers; the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, which represents train drivers but also speaks up for other staff in the train industry and for the travelling public; USDAW, which has been relentless in its campaign for freedom from fear for shop workers and is determined to protect its members; the Communication Workers Union, which worries about postal workers being assaulted in the course of their duties; Unison, which represents care workers, who often work in extremely isolated and vulnerable situations; and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the building workers union, whose members often have to carry out emergency repairs and can be assaulted as a result. The unions are determined to do what is right for their members, which is why many union members have taken the opportunity to come to the Scottish Parliament today to demonstrate their support for more legislation.

We sometimes get hung up on statistics, which do not tell the human side of the story. When union officials and shop stewards speak to me about the need for legislation to protect workers, they are talking about protecting ordinary people who have a sense of duty to those whom they serve, and who are not asking for much. A member of USDAW, who works in a store in Portobello, approached someone whom they suspected of shoplifting but never got a chance to speak to the person before being knocked to the ground and rendered unconscious. The worker, who had simply been doing their job, suffered concussion and was off work as a result.

Bus drivers have been assaulted while trying to protect passengers from violent and aggressive passengers. The drivers were trying to protect not the bus or their cash but members of the travelling public. Do such people not deserve additional support? Train drivers and other railway staff constantly have to worry about being approached as they travel through the train. They sometimes have to step in to protect passengers, and there have been a number of cases in which railway staff were assaulted as they sought to protect other people.

Postal workers have been knocked down simply because a person was enraged by the non-arrival of a letter. That is unacceptable. Care workers have to go into frightening situations in which they must deal with people who are enraged by decisions that they have taken. They, too, deserve our support.

There is a compelling imperative to apply the logic of the Parliament's decisions equally and fairly. The Parliament decided that workers who serve the public deserve a level of protection over and above the law as it was in 2005, which is why it passed the 2005 act, whose success has been acknowledged by Shona Robison and which was subsequently extended by ministers.

The time is right to draw on the benefit of our experience and take the next step, by ensuring that all workers who are assaulted while they are serving the public receive the same level of support as we give to emergency workers. That is the least that we can do for the people who work to serve us.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that further measures need to be taken to deter violence against shop workers and other workers delivering a service to the public; notes with concern the finding of the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey 2008-09 that, of those adults who had jobs involving contact with the general public, 35% had experienced either verbal abuse or physical abuse; recognises that there has been a 78% increase in violence and abuse against Scottish shop workers over the last three years, according to Retailers Against Crime; welcomes the Freedom from Fear campaign organised by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), which seeks to make shops and shopping areas safer for staff and customers; acknowledges the efforts of the trade union movement as a whole to highlight the continuing problems of violence for those workers with direct contact with the public; recognises that there have been year-on-year increases in prosecutions under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, and believes that the Parliament and the Scottish Government should take further action to ensure that workers can carry out their duties without facing violence or intimidation.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 9:28 am, 20th May 2010

I pay tribute to Hugh Henry's work when he was a minister and since then to promote and pursue protection for workers. All workers who are going about their daily lives providing valuable service to the public should be free from the threat of violence. An attack on a person who is at work in our communities is an attack on our communities. Hugh Henry gave clear examples of that. Abusing someone while they are serving the needs of the public through their work is not acceptable.

We all know that, tragically, this is not a new problem. Steps have been taken in the past to address the issue. As Hugh Henry said, in opposition we supported the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill. We must all remain vigilant in tackling the issue, which is why the Government extended the coverage of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 so that doctors, nurses and midwives are offered protection whenever they are on duty.

We also need practical solutions. The work of the Scottish Business Crime Centre is just one example of that approach. We have continued the support that previous Administrations gave the centre, by providing more than £750,000 of funding to the SBCC since 2007. The funding has helped the SBCC to continue its long-standing work with the police and the business community to provide practical advice on how to develop crime reduction and prevention strategies for businesses. Such strategies include the work with retailers and the police on the retailers against crime programme, which operates in 20 towns and cities and enables intelligence to be gathered by and shared among more than 600 stores in Scotland.

Members will be aware of USDAW's excellent work, and in particular the freedom from fear campaign, which Hugh Henry mentioned. Since the campaign's launch in 2002, it has done much to ensure that workers can go about their working lives free from fear of attack. USDAW's annual respect for shop workers event, which most recently took place in November 2009, has also helped greatly. Workers who provide a service to the public are the life-blood of our communities. They are often paid low wages and they should not have to suffer as a result of society's wider problems.

The criminal law has an important role to play. That is why we will carefully consider the details of the proposed workers (aggravated offences) bill, when it is introduced in the Parliament.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and the courts take very seriously cases that involve attacks on people who were going about their daily working lives. We expect no less of the courts, which deliver. The common law of assault and the common law of breach of the peace offer protection to everyone in Scotland, including public-facing workers. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, maximum penalties all the way up to life imprisonment are available. In a recent case, an assault on a Glasgow taxi driver resulted in sentences of six years and 45 months being handed out to the two assailants. It is not clear that the proposed bill can provide for tougher sentences, given the range of penalties that are already available under the common law. However, as I said, we will carefully study the detail of the bill when we see it.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I accept what the cabinet secretary said. The bill that I propose to introduce will not provide for longer sentences than the ones that he outlined. However, the same logic applies to nurses, doctors, midwives and others who are assaulted in the course of their duties because, if assaults are sufficiently serious, the perpetrators can be given the long sentences that the cabinet secretary mentioned. The logic of my bill will be no different from the logic that currently applies.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I am grateful for Hugh Henry's intervention and, as I said, we will study the bill. We accept that sentencing is but one part of the solution to the problem. Other matters are referred to in amendments to the motion. We must consider how we tackle the issue. I think that there is a consensus in the Parliament that the problem that Mr Henry is trying to tackle is entirely unacceptable. We need to come up with a solution, so that we can protect workers, punish the people who perpetrate attacks and break the cycle that has gone on for far too long, down the generations. I will be happy to discuss the matter with Mr Henry.

We need to look at the causes of attacks on public-facing workers. Far too often, alcohol plays a part in attacks. Mr Henry was right to say that the people who sell tobacco and alcohol should be protected. Equally, people who perpetrate attacks while they are under the influence of alcohol should be dealt with. That is why it is critical that we rebalance Scotland's relationship with alcohol.

The facts are stark. Some 45 per cent of prisoners were drunk at the time of their offence. Some 70 per cent of assaults presenting at emergency departments might be alcohol related. Our relationship with alcohol is out of kilter and alcohol misuse affects every community, age group and socioeconomic group. There is a particular impact on public-facing workers. The cost of alcohol misuse in Scotland is £3.56 billion per year—that is £900 for every taxpayer. That is why we need to put aside party politics and go where the evidence takes us to address a societal issue that has a significant role to play, as well as considering the nature of legislation and sentencing in providing protection for public-facing workers. We cannot be seduced by the false premise that our problem with alcohol is only about young people or the most harmful drinkers. We need a culture change that complements other work in helping to protect everyone—including and in particular public-facing workers—from attack as they go about their daily lives, whether they be taxi drivers, bus drivers or shop assistants in Edinburgh or elsewhere. Indeed, Mr Henry mentioned Portobello, which is in my constituency.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Does the cabinet secretary agree with women's organisations that argue that we ought not to be seduced by the false belief that violence against women is caused by alcohol? If he accepts that view, why does he not accept that violence against workers is not excused by an alcohol problem?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Violence against women is entirely unacceptable. There is a cultural problem there, and equally there is a cultural problem of violence in Scotland. That is why the Government is seeking to change the culture in two aspects of Scottish society. One is our out-of-kilter relationship with alcohol, and the other is the cult of machismo. I would have thought that Johann Lamont would accept the requirement to tackle both those aspects.

Refusing a sale of alcohol is a potential flashpoint for retailers. That should not be the case. The law prohibits the sale of alcohol to anyone who is under 18 and to anyone who is drunk. In recent years, much has been done to help the licensed trade to raise standards, but we need to go further to rebalance our relationship with alcohol.

We commend the decision that was taken by previous Liberal Democrat ministers to introduce mandatory training requirements for all staff who are selling alcohol. Although many retailers already had training arrangements in place, the mandatory training requirements that came into force last year play their part in helping staff to deal with situations that can lead to disturbances and violence. Many retailers operate challenge 21 or 25 schemes to help their staff to refuse sales. I know that such schemes have been promoted and championed by Mr Baker and others. They help to create a barrier between the member of staff and the customer, as the member of staff can make it clear that a decision to refuse a sale is not simply a personal choice for them. Although challenge 21 and similar schemes do not change the law on underage sales, they are a helpful tool, which is why we are making provision in the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill to require age verification policies in all premises. That will help to bring all retailers up to the same standards as those who already have age verification in place.

To reverse the damage that alcohol does to Scotland, and the problems that are faced by public-facing workers in particular, we must strive to get to a point where alcohol is responsibly promoted, responsibly priced and responsibly consumed. Scotland's relationship with alcohol affects every age group and every community and we need to try new, evidence-based approaches. Parliament should not be afraid to try new approaches. We all have a responsibility to put the health and safety of all of the public, not just public-facing workers, above party politics.

It is greatly disappointing that the Labour Party chose to oppose the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill on the day it was introduced, before it heard any evidence as part of the parliamentary process. As was noted by experts at the time, Labour has found itself on the wrong side of the argument for the wrong reasons. We hope that Labour will accept that one way of reducing alcohol-related violence and harm, which are at the root of much of what Mr Henry is seeking to resolve—and we support him in that—is to reduce consumption, and that the most efficient way to reduce consumption is to increase price. Common sense suggests that Labour should be supporting minimum pricing and the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill more generally.

At Christmas and new year, I did an event with Lothian Buses in Edinburgh. What was the major issue for Lothian Buses and the safety of its workers? Workers and management told me that it is people who are under the influence of alcohol abusing staff. Yes, we must look at vigorous and tough enforcement, but we also have to address the underlying problem of the role that alcohol plays in driving violence and disorder.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

To clarify for the cabinet secretary, we do not oppose all the measures in the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill, and we will make other suggestions for dealing with alcohol misuse. We have not accepted the argument for a minimum unit price, but that is only one measure and there are others that we believe will be more effective in tackling alcohol misuse and dealing with the situations to which he refers.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I do not dispute that at all. However, there are three strands to this—the three Rs. Alcohol must be consumed responsibly and it must be promoted responsibly, but Mr Baker should recognise that it must also be priced responsibly. As long as there is cheap discounted alcohol—in Edinburgh and all across Scotland it is cheaper to buy strong alcohol than it is to buy water—there is something fundamentally wrong.

That is why two thirds of those who are accused of homicide were drunk or on drink and drugs at the time of the alleged offence; why there are almost 1,000 casualties, including 30 fatalities, on Scottish roads as a result of accidents involving alcohol; and why 62 per cent of domestic abuse cases involve alcohol.

Violence is never acceptable. The person who commits a violent act, whether it is an act of physical violence or verbal abuse, is responsible for his or her actions. We politicians should seek to address what may give rise to the abuse of and attacks on public workers. Our Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill seeks to do just that, which is why we ask all parties to unite in supporting all the measures in our bill. We will be more than happy to look at the measures in Mr Henry's proposed bill.

I move amendment S3M-6350.2, to insert at end:

"by accepting that a comprehensive approach to changing Scotland's relationship with alcohol is required, which includes effective enforcement of existing laws and innovative, evidence-based policies."

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative 9:41 am, 20th May 2010

I commend Hugh Henry for putting this issue on the political agenda, and for the work that he has undertaken to get his bill this far.

Many workers in Scotland work in threatening environments. It is wrong that anyone should feel intimidated just for doing his or her job. It is estimated that 38 per cent of people working in a public-facing occupation in Scotland have suffered verbal abuse from a member of the public in the past 12 months. The number of assaults reported against people who are working in local government rose from 9,121 to 9,910 in 2009 alone. The campaigns that have been undertaken by the unions have done much to highlight the fact that antisocial behaviour towards such employees is not only unacceptable but against the law—and that is the key point: it is already against the law.

During the debate on Hugh Henry's motion on the freedom from fear campaign, it was rightly highlighted that the origin of most attacks is connected to the sale of alcohol. The conflict that arises from shopkeepers and shop workers policing the sale of age-restricted products is frequently the starting point of the abuse that they receive.

Looking at the proposal to introduce a bill to make such attacks an aggravating factor, we need to know how that would fit with other aggravated offences. It is important to say that the courts can and do take account of a wide range of factors, in addition to the type of offence committed, when determining the appropriate sentence for a particular offender. Any previous convictions that the offender may have, their age and their motivation are just some of the factors that the court will consider. The courts might regard some of those as mitigating factors, possibly leading to a lesser sentence, while others might be treated as aggravating factors, possibly leading to a greater sentence. However, we as legislators might decide that to send out a clear message, to courts and to society more generally, a particular factor should be considered as aggravating an offence.

The concept of creating statutory aggravation for offences committed out of prejudice towards a specific group in our society is not new. We already have legislation for crimes motivated by racial hatred in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. More recently, in section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, the Scottish Parliament created an aggravation for crimes motivated by religious prejudice. More recently still, we have passed the Offences (Aggravated by Prejudice) (Scotland) Act 2009, which introduced new statutory aggravations that may be applied in cases in which there is evidence that a crime has been motivated by malice or ill will based on the victim's actual or presumed sexual orientation.

As we have heard from others, the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 created the specific offence of attacking an emergency worker, or someone who is assisting them, who is responding to emergency circumstances. Hugh Henry's proposal would extend the tougher protections in the 2005 act to workers who provide a service to the public and, in so doing, come into face-to-face contact with them.

My concern is that I do not know where all this will end. To quote from a recent article in The Herald:

"If you are white, heterosexual, not religious, don't work for the emergency services and are not disabled, you've just become a minority group in Scotland. In the eyes of the Scottish Parliament, if you belong to the above grouping and you are the victim of an assault - verbal or physical - the courts don't have to treat your attacker as harshly as they would otherwise."

Like the Herald journalist who wrote that, I am baffled by the approach that we are taking. The victim feels the same pain regardless of whether they fall into any of the categories of aggravation. No group is entitled to any less protection and that means that no group should be entitled to any extra. Indeed, no one, regardless of how we categorise them in society, should have a crime committed against them. The removal of crime from our communities should surely be our objective, rather than the constant addition of aggravating factors.

Of course, at certain points in history, we need to send out powerful messages that certain behaviour is not acceptable. Clearly, there can be an important role for any legislator in sending out that message. As a general rule, however, we should not use legislation simply as a tool to send out a message. As we said when the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill was debated, it would have been much more logical to allow the common law to do what it does best—providing flexibility of application according to the severity of the offence. The independence of our courts is one of the fundamental principles of our justice system, so we need to be careful not to be seen to be micromanaging the role of judges and sheriffs.

While I have concerns about the principles behind Hugh Henry's proposed bill, I also foresee serious concerns about some of the specific details of the bill and how it would work in practice. Those concerns might be dealt with when we see the draft bill, but we need to consider carefully how they will be dealt with. In particular, some of the definitions in the bill might be unclear. It is important that legislation is precise enough not to lead to confusion in its interpretation. For example, how would we define a worker who provides a face-to-face service to the public? Would someone who works in a call centre be covered? How about a teacher who is teaching a class of young people? In the age of internet shopping, are we sure that the definitions will be wide enough to cover that and the developments that might happen in future? Is the protection only for those who work in the public sector, or would it extend to those in the private sector?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Clearly, the detailed argument on the questions that the member raises can take place in the Parliament at a later stage. The member talked about face-to-face contact and asked whether call-centre workers would be covered. He might have more experience of call-centre working than I do, but I have a certain basic understanding of what happens in a call centre and I know that it is not necessarily face to face.

Many bus drivers do not work in the public sector. They work for private companies, as do train drivers. By definition, workers in the private sector are also covered.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative

The point that I was trying to highlight is simply that it is difficult to define and pinpoint which workers would be protected and which would not. Why should a call-centre worker who is the subject of a serious verbal assault not receive the protection that a worker in a face-to-face environment would receive under the proposed bill? We need to be clear about why people are excluded or included, especially as the common law already provides many of the protections that Hugh Henry seeks to create.

I cannot see why there should be any distinction between workers in different sectors. The bill could discriminate between victims of crime on account of their job. That would be a serious mistake for the Parliament to make.

In conclusion, Mr Henry continues to raise an important issue that we must consider carefully. Equally, we must consider carefully whether legislation is the best tool to achieve the outcome that we all seek.

I move amendment S3M-6350.1, to leave out from second "Parliament" to end and insert:

"Scottish Government must ensure that the courts have a full range of disposals to deal with such antisocial behaviour including sentences of six months or less."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 9:49 am, 20th May 2010

I begin as others have done, by welcoming the fact that Hugh Henry has raised the issue and acknowledging his long-standing contribution to the arguments about it. It is worth while to go back to the minister's observation that there is consensus in the chamber about the objective that Hugh Henry is seeking, which is to protect public-facing workers. The issue is about the ways in which we do that. As Hugh Henry said, the Liberal Democrats, when in government, supported the passage of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill. That legislation was a focused response to a particular problem. One of the challenges is to determine whether further legislation on the matter would be a focused response or a scattergun response that did not have the same effect.

I welcome USDAW's freedom from fear campaign and the other campaigns by the trade unions and others. Among other worthy aims—they are slightly wider than the issue that we are discussing this morning—they seek to raise awareness that violent and abusive behaviour towards workers who serve the public in whatever capacity is unacceptable. Liberal Democrats entirely support any effective action that will make a difference in deterring and reducing such behaviour. People should be able to do their job— particularly if they provide a service to the public—without risking abuse and violence.

In the opening speech, some reference was made, in slightly derogatory terms, to the legal profession, as if it was a different organisation. As one who spent his life in the legal profession, I believe that it has something to offer given its expertise on what goes on in the courts, what the responses are and so forth.

The argument has been about the passing of new laws. I want to sound a cautionary note against the idea that passing new laws is necessarily effective in reducing or stopping such behaviour. There are echoes of the debate at Westminster, where it has been claimed, probably by the Liberal Democrats, that some 3,000 new offences were created during the term of the previous Labour Government. We cannot necessarily say that the creation of those offences is linked in precise terms to specific reductions in certain sorts of crime. The issue must be not whether protection is deserved—obviously, it is deserved—but what the most effective methods are of providing and extending that protection as a way of delivering society's condemnation of such behaviour and its support for workers.

There are stringent laws against assault on the police, yet assaults on police officers increased by a full 10 per cent between 2007-08 and 2008-09. They were not prevented by the fact that there is a law against them. Since the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 came in, statutory minor assaults on emergency workers have been recorded. That was a significant motivation for the act—I think that Hugh Henry will know that. In 2008-09, 1,150 such offences were recorded by the police, which was an increase of 753 on the 2007-08 figure. The number of prosecutions under the statutory aggravation increased by 126 per cent between 2005-06 and 2008-09.

However, those figures can be interpreted in various ways. Is there greater awareness of the issue? Was the increase a temporary thing as the act came into force? Do more or fewer offences lie behind the figures? Hugh Henry gave us some information on that earlier. It remains an open question whether the existence of the statutory aggravation does indeed reduce or deter such conduct. Behind the figures might be an increased willingness to report particular cases. There are questions about the figures. Fife is consistently showing three or four times as many recorded minor assaults on emergency workers as Glasgow. It seems unlikely that a campaign of terrorism against emergency workers is going on specifically in Fife. The figures might bear closer examination.

When the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill was being considered, the extension of its provisions to include other workers was considered but rejected. The view was taken that such a move might weaken the protection rather than strengthen it because of a loss of flexibility. Indeed, that was the stated view of Andy Kerr, who also pointed out, first, that there was guidance from the Lord Advocate to procurators fiscal that attacks on workers who are delivering a public service should be regarded as an aggravating factor and, secondly, that monitoring of that guidance confirmed that both the courts and prosecutors treated such as attacks as serious.

Victim Support Scotland said at the time that extending the statutory aggravation to all involved in providing public services would be unwieldy and unnecessary. One of the issues was that of defining who should be covered, and that remains a problem. If the legislation covers, say, teachers, social workers and train or bus drivers, is their position different from that of, say, shop workers? If shop workers are covered, what about bar personnel, cleansing operatives or park workers, all of whom can be subject to attack? Once we move away from emergency workers to the general practitioners and other national health service staff who are covered by the 2008 extension, it becomes difficult satisfactorily to define who should be in and who should be out, and also to determine the effectiveness of the response.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Can Robert Brown explain to members the difference between an assault on a nurse who works in the community and an assault on a social worker who is trying to take a child into care following allegations of child abuse? What would be the difference in terms of the significance of their employment?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

It is possible to make some distinctions between emergency workers and others—I will come back to that—but the essence of the matter remains whether the extension of the statutory aggravation, which echoes the existing common-law aggravation, would make a difference to the protection that is available to workers in such situations.

I return to the basic issue. As I have said, the common law allows such assaults to be treated as aggravated offences, and the evidence in 2005 was that that was reflected in practice. Part of the argument is about whether there is a loophole in the substantive law. As Hugh Henry rightly says, there is a problem. From time to time, bus drivers get assaulted and buses get wrecked. Shop workers and other workers in public-facing jobs can have similar problems. He also touched on the fact that MPs have been seriously and violently assaulted. In addition to the recent example, a Liberal Democrat MP was involved in such an incident.

My strong view is that more can be done through non-legislative routes. Education campaigns are worth while, as the Labour motion says. The Scottish Government amendment makes a highly relevant point about the relevance of alcohol and the enforcement of existing laws, the importance of which Liberal Democrats have repeatedly stressed in the debate on alcohol legislation.

Our amendment makes additional reference to partnership working between agencies and the sharing of information about troublemakers, violence hot spots and so on. In most instances, barring customers or refusing service is a possible recourse that is not usually available to emergency workers.

There are many issues for employers, such as training in how to handle and prevent aggression—which the minister referred to in the context of alcohol—effective recording of incidents and work methods that reduce the risk of violence against staff. Rightly, the trade unions have had long-standing concerns about single manning of libraries or retail outlets, particularly in isolated areas. Age-restricted products can be a flashpoint for trouble, which is why broad approaches such as the challenge 25 scheme can be highly successful, as they act as a deterrent to sales to underage persons and to violent reaction if service is refused.

I pay tribute to Hugh Henry's campaigning on violence against workers. He has helped to raise the profile of the issue and to stimulate serious debate about the proper responses. This morning's debate helps in that regard, too. Liberal Democrats have significant reservations about following a legislative route, but we strongly support a package of other measures to ram home the message that all service workers in public-facing jobs are entitled to be free from fear of assault or abuse as they go about their work in our interest.

I move amendment S3M-6350.3, to insert at end:

"; recognises that attacks on public sector workers are treated with gravity under existing law, and believes that effective prosecution through the courts of such offences and the further development of non-legislative measures, including evidence sharing and partnership working, are an appropriate response to violence against workers delivering a public service."

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to the open debate. Members will have picked up the fact that they are welcome to speak for longer than the time that they have been given. That remains the case.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 9:57 am, 20th May 2010

I am pleased to speak in this morning's Labour Party debate in support of Hugh Henry's motion on protection for workers.

As others have done, I pay tribute to Hugh Henry for the work that he has done on the issue, both in Parliament and around the country. As well as liaising with trade unions and securing a recent members' business debate on the subject, he has lodged a proposal for a member's bill, which I hope will progress through Parliament. I also pay tribute to USDAW, which has supported Hugh Henry's work, and its freedom from fear campaign, and to the other trade unions that have worked tirelessly to promote the safety of union members and of workers in general throughout Scotland. It is correct that we debate the issue and give it proper prominence. As a Parliament, it is important that we recognise the need to protect the wellbeing of staff and workers throughout Scotland. I hope that Parliament's consideration of Hugh Henry's proposed member's bill has a positive conclusion.

As others have said, it is totally unacceptable that workers should be assaulted as they go about their duties. When people leave to go to work in the morning or in the evening, they do not expect to be abused or assaulted. Such events often lead to a great deal of trauma and stress. As a Parliament, we have a duty to recognise that and to look at what we can do to prevent such circumstances from arising and to back up workers who find themselves in such situations.

Some statistics report that 35 per cent of retail workers have experienced physical or verbal abuse. Such abuse seems to be a bigger problem in Scotland. One recent survey showed that 80 per cent of retail workers in Scotland reported having experienced verbal abuse in the past year. The equivalent figure for the UK was 65 per cent. As regards threats of physical violence, the figures were 40 per cent in Scotland and 32 per cent at UK level. Those statistics show that, unfortunately, it is clear that there is a bigger problem in Scotland, which makes swift action by the Parliament a priority.

There has been some discussion about the categorisation of workers and who would be covered by the proposed bill. As Hugh Henry correctly said, that issue can be dealt with as the bill moves through Parliament. The important point to bear in mind is that if public-facing workers face threats, intimidation or abuse, we as a Parliament require to back up those workers by ensuring that we militate against such circumstances arising.

In my constituency, I have worked closely with the Community union on the campaign against violence towards betting shop workers. Unfortunately, there have been such incidents in my constituency even in recent months. I pay tribute to the work that the Community union has done on the issue, which highlights the importance of protecting our workers. It is not just an issue for Parliament—employers have a responsibility to ensure that their workers are protected.

A number of factors underlie violence against or abuse of workers. As Hugh Henry mentioned, the staff in retail stores that sell alcohol and cigarettes find themselves in particularly vulnerable situations. I have spoken to people in such stores in my constituency, which gave me a real sense of the fear and intimidation that they feel. If there is only one member of staff in the shop at half past 9 at night and a number of unruly people, who might be underage, come in and start demanding alcohol, the situation is extremely difficult to deal with. It is often women or younger workers who are put in vulnerable situations in which they are intimidated. Those are the situations that we must bear in mind as we discuss the issue.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

The member mentions the dangers to women who work in shops. I am sure that he is aware that many women who work in certain stores, including women in my constituency of Midlothian, refuse to work beyond 5 o'clock at night because of the number of attacks that they have suffered over the years.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

That is right. I recognise the point that Rhona Brankin makes, as I have discussed the issue with women in my constituency.

I regret that the cabinet secretary spent a good deal of his speech promoting his party's policy on minimum pricing of alcohol. Protecting our workers is an issue on which we must try to get some consensus and agreement. We will not pay workers proper respect if we seek to gain party-political advantage on the issue.

There are a number of measures that we can take to make progress. Hugh Henry's proposed bill is one example. It is important that we give consideration to providing legal backing for the protection of workers. The 2005 act has made a positive contribution in that regard, as the number of prosecutions under it shows. Hugh Henry and others have made a strong case for extending that legal backing beyond emergency workers to other workers. We must broaden the scope of the legislation.

Employers have an important role to play. I mentioned betting shop workers. Employers must act responsibly and look at how they can protect their workers to ensure that they are not subjected to physical violence or abuse.

There is an important role for education and awareness raising. The more that people are aware of the issue, the more they will find such acts unacceptable and be able to influence those who might carry them out.

A worthwhile issue has been brought to the Parliament this morning. Politics is about making a difference, and Hugh Henry's proposed bill has the potential to make a positive difference for workers throughout Scotland. I hope that we can move forward with consensus and that the cabinet secretary and the Government can take forward Hugh Henry's positive suggestions.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 10:05 am, 20th May 2010

I was intrigued by the motion—intrigued because I was a supporter of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 and an active member of the social work team in Unison when the bill was out for consultation. The act gives protection to police officers, firefighters, ambulance crews and other emergency staff as they carry out their duties. I wondered what connected the act to shop workers, given that it was conceived specifically as a piece of legislation that would make it an offence to impede those who are seeking to save the lives of others. I do not for one minute believe that Hugh Henry would want to dilute the effects of the act; I believe that he would stand four-square behind our emergency services in ensuring that they are adequately protected. There has been discussion with trade unions and the Government to extend the provisions of the act to retail staff. The narrow terms of the act do not allow us to do that.

In 2003, a number of us in the trade union movement—Unison, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association and the Transport and General Workers Union, which is now Unite—called for legislation not just for emergency workers but for all workers who undertake duties that could put them in danger of assault. That call was not answered. I felt that child protection staff, mental health officers and care staff in particular deserved their call to be answered, and I used the very example that Hugh Henry used in his speech, of a child protection worker going into a home.

During the passage of the bill, we lobbied the Labour Party hard to include public sector and shop workers. However, it refused to do so. On 15 January 2004, Andy Kerr said:

"The common law is flexible: it can deal with attacks on public service workers whatever the circumstances. However, if we introduce a specific offence of statutory aggravation for attacks on all public service workers, that flexibility will be removed."—[Official Report, 15 January 2004; c 4907.]

Hugh Henry will not be surprised to hear that I did not agree with that view at the time.

Extending the act now would take away its specific focus on protecting our police officers, firefighters and ambulance staff, and all the other staff that it deals with. It would be unfortunate if one of the shining lights of good legislation from the previous Administration were to lose its focus.

There are issues of protection and safety for shop workers; by and large, those are issues that their employers should be addressing. Proper safety at work is the responsibility of every employer, and retail employers are no different.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

As a keen trade unionist, does Ms McKelvie believe that unions such as Unison, USDAW, Unite and so on are wrong to argue for the extension of the legislation and to demand its protection to public service workers? Does she believe that those workers do not require support and protection? The statistics prove that the violence is increasing. If she thought, in 2007, that they required protection, why does she think that they do not deserve protection in 2010?

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

Karen Whitefield picked me up wrong. It was in 2003 that I lobbied for the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill to be extended to all public service staff. The unions are not wrong, but the legislation should have been extended then. We had the opportunity to do so then, and you did not take it. The scope of the law is now too narrow to be extended. You know that, and your colleagues know that.

Health and safety is the responsibility of the employer, with trade unions pointing out some of the issues. I hope that no member considers it appropriate for us to ask someone else to take up the burden of the duty of care that we owe our staff; likewise, no other employer should think that it would be appropriate for them to hand over that burden to someone else.

Given that Retailers Against Crime is an umbrella group that covers most of the larger retailers—Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury's among them—I am almost certain that it would encourage its members to ensure that their staff are safe at work. Surely they are responsible employers and have the best interests of their staff at heart.

The figures in the motion are interesting. The motion mentions a 78 per cent increase in violence and abuse against shop staff over the past three years. I could not find that figure on the Retailers Against Crime website; all I could find was a note in the organisation's annual report that incidents dropped by 9 per cent last year. It is important to get that 78 per cent figure out into the public domain, and I would welcome Retailers Against Crime updating the figures on its website.

I commend USDAW for its freedom from fear campaign. It has raised the awareness of all of us about the issue. It did so in 2003, but was not listened to; the fact that it is being listened to now is important. Recent crime statistics in the Scottish Government's statistical bulletin show that, last year, assaults were at their lowest level for 10 years and possibly more—the figures only go back to 1999. Robberies were at their lowest for 10 years, and crimes of dishonesty at their second-lowest level—only the previous year's level was lower. Scotland appears to be a safer and more law-abiding place. However, we must address the fact that that is not the perception of workers in the public sector.

I wonder, then, whether Mr Henry might be able to point us all to the figures that suggest that there has been that 78 per cent rise in violence against and abuse of shop staff, as opposed to the 9 per cent drop in the Retailers Against Crime annual report or the excellent progress indicated in the Government figures. I found a figure that showed that there have been 13,000 physical attacks. That figure is way too high, and the Parliament can work on reducing it.

I ask Hugh Henry to tell us about the figures because it is in all our interests to ensure that people are safe at work and that we get the specifics right so that we can address any problems. We need all the information that is available if we are to make the right choices to protect staff. The Retailers Against Crime annual report says that less than 15 per cent of all the incidents reported to its members involved violence or abuse. Again, we need to clarify that figure. I am glad that it is so low—I hope that it is a true reflection of what is happening. Although very little of the organisation's workload involves threats to the safety of its members' staff, I would like to know whether there are ways in which we can make the situation safer still.

Photo of Cathy Peattie Cathy Peattie Labour

The member is normally quite proud of her trade union involvement, which is a good thing. Why, then, is she listening to employers and not to what the trade unions that represent the workers are saying?

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

Obviously, my experience is a bit different from yours. I have met employers who are listening to their trade unions. However, we should have been listening in 2003 to everyone who called for the provision at the time.

We have extra police on our streets, a justice system that is improving and crime figures that are going down. We need to clarify all the figures that have been mentioned today. With proper co-operation throughout the Parliament, we can help to drive those crime figures even lower and make this country a safer and better place in which to live. However, we need to do that with proper and accurate evidence to hand. We need the all figures.

I welcome Hugh Henry's impassioned support for all workers. I say again that I wish that those workers had been listened to in 2003. I look forward to working with Hugh Henry on his proposed bill, to which I will pay great attention when we start to discuss it properly because it could improve the lives and working conditions of everyone in Scotland. Working with other members, trade unions, other organisations and good employers, we can make the workplace safer for us all.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 10:14 am, 20th May 2010

I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of my colleague Hugh Henry's campaign to encourage the Government to take further action to ensure that workers can carry out their duties without facing violence or intimidation. I hope that there will be unanimity in Parliament that any violence or threat of violence towards Scottish workers is unacceptable.

I listened to the contradictions in Christina McKelvie's speech. I have been an MSP since 1999, and feel the need to suggest to her that her job is not solely to support her party; she must support those who sent her to the Parliament and listen to their concerns.

When the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill was being considered in the Parliament, members of the Labour group supported it, but also argued for an extension of its provisions. Our concerns and the pressing of that case did not end when the then Government said that it would go only so far. We have continued to press our concerns. If Scottish National Party members who once supported the legislation believed in the justice of the case and were not simply taking a kick at the then Government, it would be wise for them still to believe in the issues today. It is shameful and wrong that you will turn your back on your so-called trade union colleagues.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

I make it clear that I will never turn my back on my trade union involvement, which I have continued and which will be persistent.

In preparing to discuss emergency workers issues last year, I submitted a freedom of information request and received all the documents and communications between the ministers and the trade unions that there were at the time. I see nothing in those about Labour taking up any of the issues in question at the time. I have with me the public record of what happened, and am taking my lead from that.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

The public will hear your comments and will note your actions today. We will see how you vote today and whether you will support Hugh Henry's bill. Kind words are nothing in comparison with actions.

The passing of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 clearly demonstrated that Scottish society will not tolerate violence against workers who provide our emergency services. It sent out a clear message and, according to Unison, it appears to be having a positive effect. I am pleased about that. In 2007-08, the number of assaults on health workers fell by more than 1,000. It is time to extend the measures to include all workers who have face-to-face contact with the public. They deserve to know that Scottish society will not tolerate verbal or physical violence against workers. They deserve the same level of protection that emergency workers now enjoy. It is clearly right that workers should not face violence. That in itself is reason enough for members to support the motion.

We should be clear that violence and intimidation towards workers affect us all. If workers on public transport think that their safety is not being taken seriously, it is likely that we will all feel less safe on buses and trains. If shop workers feel intimidated by customers when they are being asked for alcohol or tobacco, they are less likely to have the confidence to say no. Workers who face constant threats or intimidation, even if the threats or intimidation are not physical, are far more likely to be off sick, and that has an effect on businesses and public services. It increases costs, reduces profits and increases other workers' work-related stress. That is why I support my colleague Hugh Henry's workers (aggravated offences) (Scotland) bill, which would create a new offence of assaulting someone who is acting in their capacity as a worker in providing face-to-face services to the public, and would cover the private and public sectors. Those who perpetrate such crimes must understand that there will be serious consequences and that they could lose their liberty. I am sure that, over a period of time, such an approach will reduce the incidences of workers who suffer from assaults and harassment.

Like other members, I congratulate the shop workers union USDAW on its freedom from fear campaign, which seeks to raise public awareness of the problem and encourage employers to take some responsibility for addressing it. The campaign has four main aims: to negotiate with employers for safety and security improvements in stores; to campaign with the Government for policies to help to tackle retail crime and antisocial behaviour in shopping areas; to raise awareness among the shopping public that violence, threats and abuse against shop workers are unacceptable; and to give shop workers the confidence to speak out and not to accept abuse as simply part of the job. USDAW is seriously concerned that verbal abuse and threats to shop workers are underreported. In addition, it has said that there is evidence that the problem of violence against shop workers is worse in Scotland than it is in England. That is rather worrying. Why that is the case is not clear, but it gives weight to introducing a distinctive Scottish response to the problem.

A survey in 2009 showed that 80 per cent of Scottish retail workers had reported verbal abuse in the previous 12 months, as opposed to 65 per cent of retail workers in the United Kingdom; that 40 per cent of Scottish retail workers had reported threats of physical violence as opposed to 30 per cent of retail workers in the UK; and that 19 per cent of Scottish retail workers had reported being a victim of physical violence at some time in their career, as opposed to 10 per cent of retail workers in the UK. Problems appear to have worsened in recent years. Recent figures from Retailers Against Crime show that 892 incidents of retail crime that involved violence or abuse of staff were recorded in Scotland last year. That is a 78 per cent increase in the past three years. It seems somewhat strange that the rest of us can find those figures, but Christina McKelvie could not.

I recognise and pay tribute to the work of ASLEF, Unite and Unison, which have all worked hard in the campaign. Many trade unions want to represent their members' legitimate and reasonable concerns, and they have been ably supported by the STUC and the Community union in raising awareness of threats to those who work in our betting shop industry. The trade unions have played, and continue to play, an important role in the campaign to protect workers from violence and abuse.

No one in Scotland should work in fear of violence or intimidation. We need to make it clear that Scottish society and the Scottish Parliament will not tolerate physical or verbal violence against workers. I hope that every member will support the motion in the name of Hugh Henry.

Kenny MacAskill said that we have to go where the evidence takes us. The evidence points to the success of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 in protecting those who work in our emergency services, but other evidence suggests that there is a problem for other public-facing workers, who also need our protection. I hope that members will give that evidence equal weight when they deliberate on whether to support the motion and Hugh Henry's bill.

In the new era of coalition, I am sure that violence against workers is one of the issues that we can all coalesce around. The question for other parties that are represented in the Parliament is whether they will consider joining Labour in addressing the concerns that exist. I am sure that members of the public who work to serve the public every day of their working lives will look with interest at whether they can count on the support of all MSPs in that endeavour.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I remind members that I am not taking part in the debate and that they should address one another appropriately, please.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party 10:23 am, 20th May 2010

Like all members, I welcome the fact that Hugh Henry has brought the issue of the protection of workers back to the chamber. Offences against workers are usually opportunist and are always cowardly.

Cultural change is required in Scotland. It has been mentioned that the numbers of such offences in Scotland are different from the numbers for the rest of the UK. There are several reasons for that, which are not hidden. A major reason is alcohol, to which I will return later. Some in our society seem to believe that those who serve the public are somehow fair game as targets for aggression. Initiatives such as medics against violence and the safer streets programme are important. I believe that they are helping to educate our population away from shameful behaviour towards public sector workers and people in private sector jobs who deal with the public.

I have worked in face-to-face public service roles in hospitals, shops and bars, and in Buchanan Street bus station, so I have experienced the problem in a range of settings. I have, unfortunately, often seen at first hand how a small number of maladjusted individuals behave towards people who are simply doing a job and trying to help the general public. I have observed verbal and physical abuse, bullying and the attempted intimidation of shop and transport workers, hospital and administrative staff and emergency workers. Having worked in administration in the accident and emergency department in the Western infirmary, I know that pain, discomfort and even fear can lead some people to act irrationally—and even abusively—on occasions.

However, as I witnessed, such behaviour is often associated with the consumption of too much alcohol. Drink is never an excuse for violent behaviour, but sadly it can be a reason for it. That includes situations in which infantile group bravado leads to confrontation with people whom those youths seem to think have some kind of authority over them and therefore must be challenged. The ease of availability of alcohol to young and inexperienced people must be examined. That includes pricing and sales point practices. However, it most certainly is not only youngsters who are violent in drink. There should be full sanctions on anyone of any age who is violent, including to shopkeepers who refuse to sell them drink when their behaviour or age is inappropriate.

On Sunday I was walking down Byres Road, and I saw a woman, who was no younger than 30, trying to put in the window of a cafe because she had been refused alcohol. It was about 5 o'clock in the evening, and a crowd had gathered. The woman seemed to get a great deal of comfort from the idea that she was being taken seriously. She made four or five attempts to break the window with chairs and was eventually restrained. People were afraid of restraining her, including the cafe staff, who were trying their best to get her away from their place.

Alcohol was involved in that case, but it is not an excuse. The person's behaviour had very little to do with the fact that she had had a wee bit to drink. She thought that she had a right to be served again by the cafe staff, and since they had done their duty in refusing her, they were at risk of violence. That is the type of thing that Hugh Henry's proposed bill would address. We must all stand alongside him in saying that such behaviour is totally unacceptable.

I welcome the debate, and I share with the representative trade unions the desire to add whatever protection might be possible—on top of what already exists—for shop workers and others who deal face to face with the public to that which already exists for all of us under the common law.

The previous Administration should have considered the issue when the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 was introduced. Members in all parties should regret that it was not considered, because there have been seven years of wasted opportunities to protect workers.

Although violent crime levels have fallen year on year due to increased police numbers, which we should welcome, a number of individuals—mostly drunken, but not always—still think that it is okay to carry out assaults on shop workers and others who provide face-to-face service to the public. That must be addressed so that those workers can feel that we in the Parliament are fully taking into account their concerns and safety.

I ask the Scottish Government to consider carefully the proposals in Hugh Henry's proposed bill, and to consider where it can improve the current legal framework on the safety and assurance of those who serve the general public face to face, in whichever working environment they operate.

Photo of Cathy Peattie Cathy Peattie Labour 10:30 am, 20th May 2010

I thank Hugh Henry for his work in highlighting the issue. I hope that his proposed bill can be progressed to tackle the problems that we are debating.

We recently debated Hugh Henry's motion on the USDAW freedom from fear campaign. We heard that, despite a long-term drop in reported incidents at UK level since the campaign began, there has been a 78 per cent increase in such recorded incidents of violence and abuse in Scotland during the past three years.

It is concerning that the problem seems to be worse in Scotland, where four out of five shop workers reported verbal abuse and two out of five reported threats of violence in the past year. Those figures reflect the need for the bill. We have acknowledged previously that front-line workers in emergency services deserve stronger protection. Since the 2005 act was passed, there has been a significant fall in the number of assaults on health workers and a rise in the number of convictions. However, even in A and E, not all workers are covered by the 2005 act. The current list covers those with professional registration, but other workers—including nursing and ancillary staff—are not adequately covered by the provisions for those who assist them. The risks that emergency workers such as medical staff face may often be shared by non-emergency workers such as porters.

There are various categories of workers employed by councils, utilities and agencies who could be involved in emergencies but are not covered by the 2005 act. There are also many workers in non-emergency situations who are put at risk in the course of providing a public service. Workers in our shops, public services and leisure facilities are too often subject to abuse and threats of violence. We must recognise and help all workers whose work with the public puts them at risk.

Social care staff frequently find themselves in difficult situations. It is estimated that in the UK, a social care worker is the target of physical violence every hour. The risk of assault that care workers face is twice the national average. For nurses, the risk is four times the national average. In 2007-08, there were more than 9,000 assaults on local government workers, which was an increase of more than 3,000 from the previous year. The frequency of abuse and assaults—including with weapons—prompted Unison's national officer for social workers to declare:

"social care has become a high risk job."

The incidence of violence in betting shops prompted the Community trade union, as we have heard today, to instigate a campaign that is specifically aimed at tackling the problems that are faced by its members who work in the bookies. Recently, stories about attacks on taxi drivers and bus drivers have appeared in the press.

We, as MSPs, may find ourselves in the firing line, so to speak. Stephen Timms MP, who has campaigned against knife crime, was stabbed recently in a constituency surgery. In several other cases, politicians or their staff have been injured, even fatally in some cases.

Hugh Henry's proposed bill would address the wider problem of violence against workers, including anyone who delivers a service and deals directly with the public in the course of their employment. It will strengthen the law and provide extra protection to all. Given that abuse may involve sexual, racial and other forms of harassment, and that ethnic and other groups may be particular targets, the proposals could help to counter prejudice and discrimination.

It is only right that workers whose work brings them into danger and exposes them to abuse should enjoy enhanced protection to address their increased vulnerability, whether they are shop workers, public service workers or postal workers. I want to ensure that the proposed bill also covers problems that can arise not only in the course of work, but outside work. If someone waits until a worker is off duty and attacks them when they are not at their place of work, that should be regarded as an aggravated offence. The offence might not have happened in the course of the person's work, but it has arisen as a result of it. Indeed, in my constituency, people have been threatened and assaulted as a result of their work. Such incidents, which leave people in fear of being attacked, can be very traumatic and have a devastating impact on workers by creating insecurity and undermining their confidence in their ability to work. Some might find alternative employment, while others are deprived of their livelihood.

We should do anything we can do to protect workers and give them confidence in the law's ability to protect them. I look forward to the introduction of Hugh Henry's bill and hope that the whole chamber will support it. After all, we need to do our job of protecting public servants as they go about their daily work.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party 10:36 am, 20th May 2010

I, too, congratulate Hugh Henry on bringing what I believe to be an important issue to Parliament. When I stop and think about it, I have to conclude that the wheels of our society turn through the provision of services to the public. Of course, we have informal social contact through friendships and so on, but society operates through workers having the ability to do the things that need to be done to help others. I have not the slightest doubt that, if workers believe that the law is not providing adequate protection, it needs to be changed.

However, the first question that springs to mind is the one that John Lamont raised earlier: do we really need to change the law? I am as convinced as I ever was that there is no need to do so and that the current law is adequate. Aside from its adequacy, however, there might be two other reasons for changing it. First, as we established in previous debates about aggravated offences, by making something an aggravation we generate in the legal system a box that can be ticked. As a result, that information has value in the system by allowing people to understand that the aggravation existed, and the fact that it is useful for, say, statistical and informational purposes might well be a very valid reason for producing a legal aggravation.

Secondly, in generating an aggravated offence in this regard, we might be making the law really send out a signal. I do not believe that, by and large, the law sends out signals, because I do not think that anyone is looking for them. Let me attempt to rationalise what we are being told. Is the fall in the number of offences in the health service a result of the 2005 act and the fact that people have suddenly realised that they might be committing an aggravated offence? No, because those people do not know that they are committing such an offence. Let us be honest: only anoraks know that. Has the 2005 act enabled the authorities, unions and anyone else to generate poster campaigns telling people who commit these offences that they might be facing more serious charges? If so and if those posters and other such information—which I have seen—have got the message across and thereby reduced the number of offences, that is plainly a very good thing and would of itself entirely justify having the aggravated offence, even though the law itself has not really been changed. That would seem like an extremely good reason for supporting the proposal in principle. That is a separate issue from the one that John Lamont addressed and—I think—correctly dismissed.

From what I have heard, the USDAW campaign is to be commended. I have not read up on it, but nothing that I have heard about it seems to involve changing the law. Instead, it seems to be all about providing information and changing people's attitudes, and is absolutely the right direction to head in.

The fact is that making people safer in their work, no matter whether it involves dealing with other people, machinery or anything else, is all about having a good system. If folk in our community represent a risk to workers, we probably already know about them. We just have to be better at sharing the information. In my days as a councillor, I was told by the council, "There are some people in your ward you really don't want to call on. We're not going to tell you who they are, but if you ask us about so-and-so we will tell you whether they're on our list." It was a very sensible precaution for those of us who might have found ourselves knocking on a door of someone who was known to be difficult—or, worse, dangerous. Our high streets and licensed trade have all kinds of good information-sharing systems to pick up troublemakers and other difficult folk, and I believe that such systems are an absolutely basic requirement. In our information society, that kind of information should be used in every service that we provide.

I do not think that anyone has mentioned the document "Managing Occupational Violence and Aggression in the Workplace", which was recently produced under the auspices of the NHS and the Scottish centre for healthy working lives. A table on page 11 lays out a number of reasons for the non-reporting of offences in the workplace, and I think that we need to consider them in any legislation or, indeed, any other activity. The most common reason for non-reporting—cited by 44 per cent of people, for what it is worth—was that the victim dealt with the matter themselves. I am sure that that is highly commendable. After all, as responsible and emotionally mature people, we should be able to deal with most of the trivial brushings-against and rubbings-up that we experience in life. However, that flies in the face of the idea that we should be passing information around. On that basis alone, we and indeed other workers must learn to report everything, because if we do not report it, someone else cannot find out about it. One person's trivial event might later turn out to be someone else's not-so-trivial event, but if it is never reported no one will ever know about it. Given that 29 per cent felt that the event was too trivial to report, it appears that a significant majority of events are never going to be reported because the victim on each occasion thinks that it is not worth doing something with it.

I should also note that 14 per cent of victims felt that management would not have acted on the event and 9 per cent felt that reporting would have made matters worse. Such systems issues have nothing to do with the law, and every employer needs to consider them in thinking about how they deal with the problems that are experienced by their employees, how they pick up and handle that information and how they make life safer for everyone afterwards.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 10:43 am, 20th May 2010

Violence in the workplace is never acceptable and there can be no excuse for physical and verbal assaults on workers. Every day, working people face a range of challenges; avoiding unwarranted attack should not be one of them.

However, in today's Scotland, the troubling reality is that a number of our fellow citizens face threats, verbal abuse and actual assault every working day. In his powerful opening speech, Hugh Henry detailed the stark reality that too many of our constituents have to confront as they go about their work. As we have heard, the Scottish crime and justice survey 2008-09 found that, of those adults who had jobs involving contact with the public, 35 per cent had experienced either verbal or physical abuse and 7 per cent had experienced physical abuse.

The previous Scottish Executive worked on the issue in partnership with my former colleagues in the STUC, and the initial secondment of Linda Shanahan, an STUC general council member, led to the publication of the strategy document "Protecting Public Service Workers: When the customer isn't right".

I am pleased that that partnership has survived the change in Government and continues to this day. As we have heard, the trade union movement is to be congratulated on its work, which includes the trade union Community's high-profile campaign to protect workers in the betting industry and, as members have mentioned, USDAW's freedom from fear campaign, which has been a powerful voice for the shop workers whom the union represents. The STUC has produced a toolkit on managing violence and aggression in the workplace, for use by local authorities. Hugh Henry and other colleagues ably demonstrated the commitment of other trade unions on the issue.

The STUC feels that it has a responsibility to play its part in delivering a safer society in Scotland. The participation of the congress and the work of the Scottish centre for healthy working lives shows that the commitment is not only to workers who are members of a trade union, but to all workers. My experience of the support that the STUC gave to the families of those who were killed in the disaster at the Stockline Plastics factory, which was a non-unionised workplace, is testament to that commitment.

However, the resources and campaigns will be used and supported only by responsible employers. Far too many workers who serve the public will continue to be exposed to verbal and physical abuse during the course of their work. That is particularly true for those who do not have the back-up of union representation. That is why I support Hugh Henry's bill proposal. Without legislation, some employers will not take their responsibilities seriously, but no matter how good an employer is, circumstances will arise from time to time that no amount of good practice can prevent, so there must also be a deterrent.

Unison has provided figures that show that, in 2007-08, the number of assaults on health workers fell by more than 1,000 from the previous year. As we have heard, many health workers are covered by the 2005 act. It has been suggested that that welcome decline in the number of assaults can be attributed to the threat of tougher penalties, as prescribed in the 2005 act. At the same time, the increase in the number of convictions under the 2005 act from 54 to 200 between 2005-06 and 2006-07 suggests that the legislation is having an effect.

Research indicates that, compared with the UK average, shop workers in Scotland feel more threatened and are attacked more often. I do not know the precise reason for that, but I suspect that a complicated mosaic of issues comes together to lead to such a situation. We as legislators must join with the trade unions to offer our support to workers and to provide the legislative underpinning that will deter those who would threaten workers' safety. We must also provide an appropriate judicial remedy when the deterrent is not enough.

The Parliament often promotes the value of post-legislative scrutiny and of learning from our mistakes and successes. The post-legislative scrutiny of the 2005 act demonstrates its success. The time is right to offer similar protection to other workers who engage with the public face to face. I am pleased that Hugh Henry is giving Parliament an opportunity to do that. I look forward to voting for the motion today and, in the weeks to come, to voting for the proposed workers (aggravated offences) bill. I hope that the Government and the Parliament more generally will support that bill when it comes before us.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 10:49 am, 20th May 2010

I am not usually late but, unfortunately, I had an important appointment with the doctor this morning, which is why I came into the debate late.

The large number of people who have experienced either verbal or physical abuse while carrying out a job that involves contact with the public is extremely concerning. Individuals should never feel intimidated or face abuse just for doing their job. However, although we welcome the aims of the freedom from fear campaign as a sensible blueprint for making progress, Liberal Democrats have considerable reservations about proposals to introduce a new offence of assaulting, obstructing or hindering a worker. Attacks of any kind on a worker are always completely unacceptable, but we are not clear whether the proposed new offence would do any more than duplicate the common law, which provides ample resources to tackle the issues through the offences of assault and breach of the peace.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Does Mr Pringle believe that the 2005 act does more than simply duplicate common law?

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

In that instance, some of the common law was duplicated. I listened to a discussion about legislation on the radio this morning. People said that, because so much legislation is going through the Scottish Parliament and the Parliament at Westminster, very often there is duplication. That is true.

Various figures offer a conflicting yet nonetheless universally serious view of the scale of the problem. According to Retailers Against Crime, violence against and abuse of Scottish shop workers has increased by 78 per cent in the past three years. The Scottish crime and justice survey found that, of those adults who had jobs that involved contact with the general public, 35 per cent had experienced either verbal or physical abuse, 34 per cent had experienced verbal abuse and 7 per cent had experienced physical abuse. Meanwhile, in 2008-09, 1,150 offences of minor assault of an emergency worker were recorded by the police throughout Scotland, with the majority in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Fife. That figure was up from 753 in 2007-08. However, as Hugh Henry points out in the introduction to the consultation on his proposed bill, according to figures provided by Unison, in 2007-08 the number of assaults on health workers fell by more than 1,000 from the previous year. As I entered the chamber, Nigel Don was talking about that, and he mentioned a successful poster campaign. That was an interesting point.

The conflicting picture of events points to the complexity of the issue. There are issues to do with the accurate recording of incidents and the possible significant differences between the experiences of workers in different sectors. Because of those potential differences, a blanket legislative approach might be inappropriate, as was widely acknowledged during the passage of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005.

We have discussed at length recently in the chamber the fact that alcohol is often—I would say very often—a root cause of violence and abuse. Situations in which individuals have been drinking and in which shop workers police the sale of alcohol often prove to be flash-points for anger and violence. I well remember my experiences as a justice of the peace. In a large percentage of cases that came before me, alcohol had in some way contributed to the offence, such as breach of the peace or assault, and those cases involved almost exclusively young men who were aged between 17 and 30. The police were dealing effectively with those people, which is why they were in a court of law.

A 2006 study published in the Emergency Medicine Journal sought to develop a detailed profile of offenders who are violent towards accident and emergency workers, using a sample of 218 incidents that were reported at a hospital. As my experience as a justice of the peace suggests, the average offender was male, with a median age of 32 and, in more than half of the incidents that were reported, was under the influence of alcohol.

Liberal Democrats believe that it would be much more effective to implement a zero-tolerance approach to assaults on workers and to enforce the current law with effective and persistent prosecution, while in tandem seeking to reinforce prevention through cultural change, particularly with regard to Scotland's relationship with alcohol. That approach would be tough on offenders, as well as offering the flexibility that is required to tackle what is a wide-ranging and extremely complex issue.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 10:54 am, 20th May 2010

This important debate on attacks on workers has been largely consensual. As other members have done, I congratulate Hugh Henry on bringing the issue again and again to the Parliament.

For most of my working life, I have been engaged in public-facing work, whether as a labour exchange clerk back in the late 1960s or when working for a big retail company, so I am well acquainted with some of the challenges. I remember an instance in a labour exchange in Glasgow when a shotgun was discharged at us as a result of someone not getting their milk tokens—for those of us who are old enough to remember what milk tokens were. Another strange incident that I recount just for the bizarreness of it was that I was assaulted by an adult using their child, but I will not go into the details of that because it would take far too long. The debate about such issues is entirely legitimate. My colleagues Robert Brown and Mike Pringle have expressed more than adequately Liberal Democrats' reservations about the legislation. Of course, ultimately it will be a matter for the entire Parliament.

As one would expect, there were some interesting contributions from Mr MacAskill, given the other area of activity that the Government is developing. We heard from him relevant and appropriate references to the role of alcohol in such attacks and he also recounted in some detail steps that the previous and current Administrations had taken to address that problem. John Lamont, who I am pleased to say is still with us, made specific reference to the common law and a particularly telling point about the legal definition of those who might or might not be protected. I am thinking about our staff in this place, many of whom are public facing, perhaps via the telephone, so there are some challenges in that respect. There might be an issue for schoolteachers and there is certainly an issue for college tutors. I have also been in that profession and on the receiving end of abuse, perhaps because assessments were not handed in on time. There are legal issues around who and how, but that is perhaps a question for those who are more expert in the law than I am.

There is no doubt, as Robert Brown said, that there is consensus that we need to address violence in our society more widely. Part of what he said was that although we can modify behaviour to some extent through legislation, it is harder to see how effective it would be in the light of behaviour that is caused by a rush of blood to the head that is fuelled by alcohol. Legislating on attitude is much harder. The work of the STUC and the various unions that have been referred to in educating members of the public about what is not acceptable is very much welcomed. As Robert Brown said, we need a package of measures.

James Kelly made a telling point, as did other members, about staffing levels, which brings major challenges. As we have extended retail hours to 24 hours a day, the larger number of staff who operate after 9 and 10 o'clock, even in the big shops, face a potential hazard. There is an increasing role for the various unions, particularly USDAW in the case of the retailers, to sit down with employers and ask them, "What methods are you engaging in?" All too often, we go into supermarkets after 10 o'clock at night and spend five minutes, or 10 minutes in the big stores, looking for a member of staff to help us. That is not safe for those staff members.

Christina McKelvie and Karen Whitefield had an interesting discussion about whose union credentials were better or stronger, and Bill Kidd recounted his personal experiences, which, although they were a little less dramatic than mine, were still relevant to the challenges that face staff in public roles. Nigel Don's speech was particularly well structured and well argued. He referred to a document that no one else did and used it to good effect. Mike Pringle reinforced Liberal Democrat doubts about the effectiveness of legislation.

I reiterate my congratulations to Hugh Henry on his on-going work on the issue and I look forward to the debate on his proposed bill.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 11:00 am, 20th May 2010

It is entirely appropriate that the debate has been brought to the chamber today. I pay tribute to Hugh Henry's efforts, which he has made over several years, to highlight the problem.

There is unanimity in the chamber that attacks on people who are public facing, whether in the public or private sectors, are totally and utterly unacceptable. If today's debate does nothing else, at least it highlights that fact and underlines that there is total political consensus in this chamber.

Hugh Henry opened his speech with a grim litany of the number of people who have been assaulted. Where I perhaps disagree with him—although I cannot prove him wrong, just as he cannot prove me wrong—is about the impact of the 2005 act. The common law of Scotland would have permitted those prosecutions, and indeed in some cases the prosecutions could and should have been taken on indictment, which would not have been dealt with under the 2005 act because it allows for only summary court procedure. We will never know about that, but it cannot be gainsaid that the current situation is unacceptable. The problem is that when one seeks to create a hierarchy of victims, for totally understandable reasons, it does not work in the overall interests of society.

Aggravations started some time in the 19th century, with the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1892, which stated that any assault on a police officer could result in summary conviction in either the sheriff court or stipendiary magistrate court in Glasgow and nine months' imprisonment. That legislation was used fairly frequently, because it was recognised that police officers, more than people in any other occupation, get into physical confrontations from time to time. Legislation and society in those days might not have understood and certainly did not anticipate that there would be a growing incidence of assault on people carrying out their duties in the public and private sectors. To some extent, it is understandable that there was a reaction.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party

I am pondering the member's thought about the hierarchy of victims. Perhaps it is not so much a hierarchy of victims as a hierarchy of situations in which offences take place. An off-duty policeman would be treated differently from one who was on duty, but I suspect that Hugh Henry's proposed bill would not distinguish between a shop assistant working in a shop and one who was going about his or her private life away from the shop.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

That is an arguable point that I will address.

As I was saying, following the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1892, aggravations have been created under a number of headings: racial, sectarian, gay, handicapped and health workers, as dealt with in the 2005 act. There is considerable merit in the arguments for all those aggravations, but what we end up with is some sections of society—in this case, a growing number of people—having greater protection than others. That leaves us in an unbalanced situation.

It will come as no surprise to Hugh Henry and other members when I suggest that anyone convicted of attacking a worker should face the full rigour of the courts. That brings me to the merit of Mr Lamont's amendment. The cabinet secretary was correct to underline that such conduct is unacceptable, but he is the same cabinet secretary who, following the conclusion of the Justice Committee's consideration of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill at stage 2, lodged with alacrity an amendment to reinstate in that bill the provision to inhibit the imposition of prison sentences of six months or less. It might seem to members, as it might seem to people outside, that a strange inconsistency exists in a man who freely and sensibly acknowledges the extent of the problem and calls—as he did today—for a solution to be worked out, but who inhibits that solution by his soft-touch approach to justice in general, and particularly in the way that I described.

Robert Brown was correct to raise the statistical quirks that have arisen. The good people of Fife have never struck me as being particularly lawless—[Laughter.] Some members might have more knowledge of Fife than I have, but I have always found the people of Fife to be congenial. Something certainly seems to be wrong when the number of assaults on emergency workers in Fife is 500 per cent greater than the number in greater Glasgow, but perhaps there is a reason for that.

Robert Brown emphasised the point that John Lamont made—that the difficulties are in defining the worker and drawing the distinction that is needed in any legislation. I direct Hugh Henry down that route—work on that is necessary if the proposal is to go further.

Patricia Ferguson underlined the figures, which I totally agree are unacceptable.

The message that the Parliament should send today is that we, too, recognise that a problem exists. People who have jobs that are trendily defined nowadays as being "public facing" derive considerable enjoyment from dealing with the vast majority of members of the public. A small minority of the public are troublesome and a very small minority have the capacity to create violence and to cause much misery. We require to address such people in any measures that we take.

As I have often said, the courts understand the extent of the problem and appreciate that people in many working situations are entitled to more protection and that sanctions against those who assault such people should be commensurate with the difficulty that has been caused. I repeat that we tend to fail to recognise that the courts take full cognisance of the circumstances in disposing of cases and act accordingly.

I have much pleasure in supporting Mr Lamont's amendment.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 11:08 am, 20th May 2010

It is always a pleasure to follow Bill Aitken—particularly on the day after he announced that he intends to retire from the Parliament at the next election. We are not losing Bill yet but, when he is gone, Parliament will be the poorer for his absence.

The debate has been interesting and wide ranging and I thank Hugh Henry for providing the opportunity to discuss the subject.

Many members of all parties have given excellent examples of incidents of violence being used against individuals who perform a huge variety of roles in society. Cathy Peattie mentioned the MP, Mr Timms, who was the victim of a knife attack at his constituency surgery. We also know of serious assaults on GPs in their surgeries—I remember an incident that involved a lady doctor in Hyndland and another some years back that involved a doctor in Vale of Leven who was exposed to a pointless, gratuitous and vicious attack. Bus drivers are routinely attacked. A former bus driver told me recently that bus drivers in Glasgow were routinely shot at with air-guns, so bullet-proof glass has been used in buses. That is a sad indictment of the small group in society—it is fortunate that it is small—that is prepared to act in that way.

In my area of responsibility, I know of the risks to which firefighters are exposed—pointless acts, such as youths throwing projectile stones at fire appliances. Nurses who perform their duty to help people in accident and emergency units—to heal people and to deal with injuries that those people have suffered, perhaps through taking drink or being under the influence of drugs—are exposed to violence.

I mention those examples because the range of cases is wide. Surely the starting point for us all is that everyone is entitled to live their life free of violence. That lies at the heart of the consensus that Robert Brown said exists in the Parliament. I agree entirely with Cathy Peattie that we need to help all workers who are at risk of violence. No one in the chamber disagrees with that general statement.

The fundamental questions are how we can tackle the problem and how we can help. To paraphrase a former Prime Minister, we need to be tough on crimes of violence and tough on the causes of crimes of violence. We need to consider legislative and non-legislative measures. Robert Brown developed that argument in his speech, which was especially cogent and coherent, as we might expect. He pointed to the vast range of initiatives that we can take to reduce violence. I will develop that idea. Other than legislation, we can use and are using—and we all support as a Parliament—many ways, methods, programmes and projects to tackle the problem.

However, the primary solution—if I can describe it thus—that Hugh Henry has presented is the tool of an aggravated offence that would apply to such crimes against shop workers, in order to protect shop workers, as he put it. I pay tribute to him for his persistent work on the issue. It is plain that he has fought long and hard for such a measure and that he will rightly continue to do so. As the Cabinet Secretary for Justice said, when Hugh Henry introduces his bill, we will scrutinise it extremely carefully and we will seek to work with him on it, as we generally do in relation to such matters.

I, too, pay tribute to USDAW for its campaign. In the debate on that campaign that Hugh Henry initiated on 14 April, I undertook to write to USDAW to seek a meeting. I am pleased to say that a meeting with John Hannett, USDAW's general secretary, will take place on 3 June. I will be interested to see what practical measures we can seek to take as a result of that meeting.

As the cabinet secretary said, the common law of Scotland has prohibited and criminalised assault as a form of human conduct for centuries—since at least Baron Hume's day. To assault somebody is wrong—it is plainly against the law. Law exists to protect the citizens in a free society from behaviour that is deemed to be unacceptable to the public, which is why it is a common-law assault.

The cabinet secretary pointed out that the potential sentence is unlimited. A life sentence for assault could be applied—it would be extremely rare, but it is a potential sentence. The cabinet secretary also said that some very long sentences have been imposed in practice. An assault on a taxi driver led to sentences of six years and of 45 months for the two assailants. They were rightly very long sentences. It is agreed across the chamber that the common law provides a good framework in which a strong message is sent to everyone in society that assaults are completely unacceptable.

Bill Aitken developed the argument that some of us, especially those in the police, fire and ambulance services, face particular risks in our work. He had an interesting exchange with Nigel Don on the issue. Bill Aitken referred to the concept of a hierarchy of victims and Nigel Don responded that treatment of an offence might depend on the circumstances in which the workers were engaged. I remember visiting Castlemilk police station to defend a client on the night of an attempted murder. That was a particularly futile and hapless task, as matters later proved, but the atmosphere in the police station at 10 pm, when the police officers were going out on the beat in Castlemilk, could have been cut with a knife. Plainly, that work involved them exposing themselves to the risk of assault, perhaps every night, as they went about their business.

In the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 we recognised, as a particular class of risk, the risk that police constables in Scotland take in their daily work. The Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 extended that provision to all emergency services, and rightly so. Workers in those services also face people whose behaviour is often in extremis—people who are in a state of crisis. As the cabinet secretary argued, often—perhaps in the majority of cases—such people are either drunk or under the influence of drugs. As a result, they have lost what sense they had in the first place—which, in some cases, may not have been especially great. It was right that we sent a message that assaults on emergency workers are particularly repugnant.

John Lamont said that the law should not send a message, but all criminal law sends a message—a moral message that certain behaviour is unacceptable. In that sense, the common law also sends a message that behaviour is unacceptable. However, I accept that we need to take care of the general criticism that Conservative members have made. Given that we recognise that every citizen in Scotland is entitled to live their life free of assault, where do we stop making a particular case for aggravation?

That brings me to two fundamental questions. First, does the application of an aggravation to an offence, whether under common law or under statute, lead to a reduction in the number of offences and/or offenders? Robert Brown was the first to ask that question. We need to be clear about the issue. Given that the 2005 act has applied for only a short period, it may be difficult to say as yet whether there is a causal connection.

Even if there appears to be such a connection—and there may well appear to be one—can we attribute any reduction to the fact that the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill was passed, creating an aggravated offence, or might it be attributable to other action that has been taken?

I will give members one example. From my work in relation to the fire service, I know that in response to the serious incidence of attacks on firefighters, particular action was taken in areas where there was a perceived problem. That action involved firefighters going out to speak to young people in areas where they and, perhaps, the police thought that there was a problem—explaining to youngsters what the job of a firefighter meant and getting through to those boys, so that they learned respect. Work of that sort, which allows young people to see that violence is pointless and wrong, is an effective means of addressing the issue, so it is right that we pursue it. Such steps may have contributed to a reduction in offences of this nature.

Secondly, in what way does law constitute protection? I do not think that any other member has made that point specifically, so I hope that I am not asking the wrong question. It could be said that law is simply words on a page. A criminal law is designed to deter and prevent behaviour, but it can be no more than a deterrent—it is not physical protection. Earlier, the cabinet secretary mentioned to me that the shop workers who are at particular risk are those who work in bookies. For obvious reasons, they are at particular risk of armed robbery. No one would argue that, when an armed robber comes into the bookies, the provisions of the 2005 act or any other act of Parliament are uppermost in his mind. In that sense, law provides no protection whatever. That can never be its purpose; it is not a bullet-proof vest or a security guard.

The word "protect" means

"to keep safe from harm or injury", as defined in the dictionary that I consulted last night. It can be said that the 2005 act protects emergency workers in a limited sense—in so far as it seeks to deter those who are disposed to committing such offences from so doing. That is the kind of issue that we will need to examine closely as the debate moves forward. As Christina McKelvie said, we will also need to look carefully at the statistics, which may be slightly more complex than they appear to be at first sight.

There are a huge number of non-legislative measures that are effective in reducing violence. I will canvass some of them briefly. The cabinet secretary alluded to the work of the Scottish Business Crime Centre. I pay particular regard to the role of the retail radio link and closed-circuit television. In towns and cities in Scotland, retail radios are generally linked to the police office. Each radio has a panic button, which is a real form of protection. The radios allow shops to communicate with one another and provide a form of early warning system. The retail radio link and CCTV are two of the most effective practical methods of addressing the problem.

The Scottish Business Crime Centre has also produced a training booklet for staff. Mr Don and Mr Kidd raised the issue of training. It is important that we train staff so that they can familiarise themselves with how to deal with difficult situations. Practical steps can be taken to do that.

I note the work of the violence reduction unit and the community initiative to reduce violence, which is reducing significantly the incidence of crimes of violence in Scotland. We were pleased to introduce the initiative, which will continue. I refer also to the cashback for communities scheme, which provides youngsters with positive opportunities, choices and chances. One of the key measures that people want from the Parliament to improve life and society and to tackle antisocial behaviour, especially low-level crime, is provision of more things for young people to do. The cashback scheme helps to do that, although it supplements a huge raft of work by the voluntary sector through bodies such as the scouts. All of those activities help to lead youngsters on to the right way and away from the wrong way—the temptation to get involved in drink, drugs, carrying knives and other activity that leads to crimes of violence being committed.

I note the risk of offences being committed by those who are under the influence of drugs. I am pleased that the Parliament supports the drugs strategy, "The Road to Recovery: A New Approach to Tackling Scotland's Drug Problem". Nearly half of prisoners—45 per cent—report that drug use was a problem for them on the outside and more than half say that they were under the influence of drugs at the time of their offence. The problem with people who are misusing drugs is that they tend to commit acquisitive crime—to shoplift—to fuel and feed their habit. Because of that, they pose a particular risk to shop workers.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I appreciate that to some extent the minister to trying to fill time in the debate. Will he direct his attention specifically to attacks on transport workers on buses and so on, which have occasionally been a feature of the area that James Kelly and I represent?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

How can we tackle the issue, which is a significant challenge?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I did not quite catch all of that, because there was an interjection from a noble member. However, Robert Brown has raised an important point: those who work in public transport, whether it is on the buses or trains and whether it is in Glasgow—Mr Brown's and Mr Kelly's area—or elsewhere in Scotland, are at particular risk. They deal with the public regularly and meet thousands of people every day. The vast majority will be a pleasure to deal with, but those workers face exposure to risk of violence in some situations. Mr Brown is therefore right to raise the point.

I am pleased to have taken part in this debate. I commend Hugh Henry for raising it, and we will carefully scrutinise the provisions of his bill once he introduces it. The range of activities in Scotland, whether that is putting 1,000 more police officers on the street, seeing crime at its lowest level in living memory or all the other measures that I have briefly canvassed in this short contribution, mean that we are making an impact.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 11:26 am, 20th May 2010

This has been a good debate on an extremely important issue. Many members have spoken about their own experiences of how workers who deal directly with the public can face challenging and even dangerous situations. In his excellent opening speech, Hugh Henry referred to the store worker in Portobello who suffered serious assault, and the cabinet secretary mentioned an assault on a taxi driver which led, happily, to a stiff sentence for the perpetrators. James Kelly referred to the incidence of violence against betting shop workers in his constituency, and Rhona Brankin spoke about the fears of shop workers that mean that they do not want to work after 5 o'clock at night.

Bill Kidd spoke of his personal experiences, most recently an extraordinary incident on Byres Road. A number of members, including the Minister for Community Safety in his closing speech, referred to the appalling attack on Stephen Timms. I am sure that the whole Parliament will wish him a speedy recovery. For myself, in the past few weeks I have experienced two incidents. One involved someone who was refused the sale of cigarettes, while the other involved a person who came into a cafe carrying alcohol being asked to leave, which ended up in racist abuse.

We all want to see a reduction in such incidents, which is why we have seen the concerted campaigns from a range of trade unions that want their members to be better protected in the workplace. A number of members, including Cathy Peattie and Karen Whitefield, pointed to the worrying statistics on attacks on workers.

Members have talked about identifying the need for legislation and the focus on the problem that new legislation might address. The available statistics show that the need and focus exist.

The Scottish crime and justice survey for 2008-09 found that, of adults whose jobs involve contact with the general public, 35 per cent had experienced either verbal or physical abuse. According to Retailers Against Crime, there has been a 78 per cent increase in violence and abuse against Scottish shop workers over just the past three years. The need to do more is clear. That is why we have seen the introduction of USDAW's freedom from fear campaign, to which the cabinet secretary rightly referred. Members have spoken about the importance of USDAW's work on the issue, and there have been campaigns by other trade unions. The union Community has campaigned consistently for better protection for betting shop workers, while unions that represent people in the transport industry—Unite, ASLEF and others—have backed further measures. Robert Brown asked what more might be done to protect workers in those industries; the trade unions that represent those workers feel that new legislation is required.

I remember that, not long after the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 was passed, there was a spate of attacks on bus drivers in Aberdeen. The question that struck me was whether there was not a case for further protection for those workers, too. Hugh Henry has led parliamentary activity on the issue, with his proposal for new legislation. His proposed bill has been backed by a great number of trade unions. It has received cross-party support among members, and there has been a strong campaign that has been widely backed by members of the public.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Does Richard Baker accept that the solution to attacks on bus drivers, which have been a feature occasionally, has much more to do with the working together and exchange of information among emergency services, public officials and others to prevent attacks from happening in the first place?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The experience of the 2005 act shows that new legislation can be an extremely important part of the process as well as being of benefit itself. Nigel Don's speech made that point thoughtfully and positively. The partnership working that Robert Brown spoke about is important, but it can be not only backed up, but facilitated and made a priority by new legislation. That is why I think that Hugh Henry has made a powerful case for the legislation that he proposes.

The bill is not being put to the vote today, but we sought to concentrate Parliament's mind on the crucial need to reduce the number of attacks on workers. I acknowledge that there has been scepticism from John Lamont and Robert Brown on the proposal, but there is a great deal of consensus that more needs to be done to tackle the problem. I hope that we can do more to persuade others to follow the route that Hugh Henry has proposed. I think that we can—there have been many positive contributions on that basis today—and I hope that, after due consideration of the bill proposal, there will be further cross-party support.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

Does Richard Baker agree that, in properly understanding all the issues in taking forward the bill, it is important to look at the risks that contribute to incidents of abuse and violence? One such risk is shown in the increase in shoplifting incidents, which have increased by 10 per cent in the past year. Indeed, they have gone up from 28,000 in 2005-06 to 32,000 in 2008-09. It is important to recognise the risk that those incidents present to workers.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I do recognise the risk, and James Kelly will know that we have concerns about shoplifting and how that will be affected by the Scottish Government's wider proposals on sentencing policy.

The experience of the 2005 act is a good argument for extending similar protections in the law to other workers. Hugh Henry referred to the evidence that was given by Shona Robison to the Justice Committee in 2008 to the effect that, at that point, almost 600 people had been convicted under the act and that the conviction rate was very high, at 75 per cent.

The law was extended to cover other staff in the health service but not, as Unison pointed out at the time, all health workers. The Scottish Government said then that it had an open mind on further legislation; I hope that it retains at least an open mind on the issue today. I welcome the fact that the cabinet secretary said that the Scottish Government is actively considering Hugh Henry's proposed bill. I am very encouraged by that and by the comment from the Minister for Community Safety in his closing speech that the Government will look carefully at the draft bill when it is published.

Those were encouraging speeches, so the speech from Christina McKelvie was regrettable. I do not know how professionals would describe the mass of contradictions that was her contribution. Retail has been a big issue in this debate: Christina McKelvie's contribution was all over the shop. At least I can welcome the fact that she will keep an open mind on the proposal as a whole. We heard from both Nigel Don and Bill Kidd very good speeches, which are to be welcomed. I hope that we can keep driving towards consensus.

On the Scottish Government's amendment, we agree that alcohol misuse is too often a factor in assaults on workers. We do not agree with the Scottish Government on the proposal for minimum unit pricing, but we want action to tackle alcohol misuse and we want effective enforcement of the current laws. The Scottish Government's amendment talks about that, but we believe that the Government could do far more itself. For example, only one person has been convicted in two years for selling drink to someone who was already drunk. We need better enforcement of the current provisions, but we also need new measures.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Does Mr Baker acknowledge that, in the vast majority of cases, the staff who work in our bars, pubs and clubs are extremely efficient and effective at preventing people who have had too much to drink from being served?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I do, but the idea that there would be only one conviction in two years under the provision that I mentioned is not realistic or believable. I accept the point, but it does not mean that the current licensing provisions should not be enforced more effectively.

A majority of retailers now run think 25 schemes for sale of alcohol, and we want those schemes to become mandatory for all retailers so that people know that they must be prepared to have proof of age wherever they wish to purchase alcohol. Greater understanding of that would lead to fewer incidents of friction with retail staff.

There is nothing in the Liberal Democrat amendment with which we actively disagree. Of course evidence sharing and partnership working are important responses to the issue, but the implication of the amendment is that new legislation is not necessary. We do not agree with that.

Robert Brown did not really answer Hugh Henry's question about why we should make a distinction between a community health worker and a social worker, both of whom work in highly charged situations. The arguments that he used could have been made on the 2005 act but, as I mentioned earlier when I referred to the evidence from the Minister for Public Health and Sport to the Justice Committee, all the evidence shows that the act has been hugely successful.

The Conservative amendment is trying to tempt me into the more troubled waters of the Scottish Government's general approach to sentencing. I do not disagree for a moment with anything that is in it, but we want to have a consensual debate. Also, it would delete the point in the motion about the Parliament and the Scottish Government tackling protection for workers. Although I whole-heartedly support the text of the Conservative party's amendment, the Conservatives would not find the same agreement with their new coalition partners at UK level. However, that is the new politics. Perhaps there are some troubled waters in that, too.

I did not agree entirely with Bill Aitken's speech, but it was, nevertheless, good. I understand from recent press coverage that he is on a fast track to canonisation. We wish him well in the future. He is here for another year and I am sure that he will continue to do great work on the Justice Committee.

Today, we have fought to forge consensus that more action should be taken to ensure that those who work directly with the public in Scotland should be able to do their jobs free from fear of intimidation or assault. Action is required on a range of fronts with, as Patricia Ferguson said, partnership working between all levels of Government, trade unions, employers and the police. There is clearly agreement on that, but I hope that we can also agree that the Parliament, having rightly taken legislative steps to protect emergency workers, should be prepared to take such action for other workers in the community.

That is the case that trade unions have made; they are in the Parliament again today to make it. It is also the case that Hugh Henry has made and I hope that it is the case—it is a powerful one—that the Parliament will accept.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

That concludes the debate on the protection of workers. Although we are a few seconds early, we can move straight to the next item of business as everybody is in place.