14 July 2006 : Column 1593

House of Commons

Friday 14 July 2006

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (Motion to sit in private):—

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 30.
Division No. 289]
[9.34 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Dr. Brian Iddon and
Helen Southworth

Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Brown, Lyn
Burnham, Andy
Burns, Mr. Simon
Carswell, Mr. Douglas
Challen, Colin
Clark, Greg
Duddridge, James
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Gapes, Mike
Gove, Michael
Griffiths, Nigel
Hendry, Charles
Hillier, Meg
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Keeley, Barbara
McIsaac, Shona
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
McNulty, Mr. Tony
Norris, Dan
Penrose, John
Roy, Mr. Frank
Selous, Andrew
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Soames, Mr. Nicholas
Stanley, rh Sir John
Waltho, Lynda
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Young, rh Sir George
Younger-Ross, Richard
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Andrew Pelling and
Anne Milton

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided.

Orders of the Day

Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [12 May], That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question again proposed.

9.50 am

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): To state the obvious, I am delighted that the Bill has reached this stage, because if it completes Third Reading, it will have time to clear all its stages in the House of Lords and will, I hope, be enacted. The fact that it has reached Third Reading is due to support not only from its sponsors, but from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) drew my attention to the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, on which I based my original Bill. My Bill has all-party sponsors; moreover, at every stage we have had all-party support, including from Opposition spokesmen, and I am grateful for that.

I should like to cite two individuals in particular. I suffer from the great disadvantage in the House of Commons of not being a lawyer, so it was invaluable to receive the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is not always associated with a benevolent approach towards private Members’ Bills, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), both of whom gave legal advice and support when I was in negotiations. As those who followed the progress of the Bill from the start will know, the provisions in the Scottish Bill were much wider, and there were negotiations with the Home Office and others to try to ensure that a similarly wide-ranging Bill was introduced in the House.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentions our hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore); hon. Members might think it unusual that he is not in his place on a Friday, especially as he is a sponsor of the Bill, as my right hon. Friend says. I think that my hon. Friend would want it to be known that he is attending a funeral, which keeps him from his business in the House.

Mr. Williams: My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon explained that to me personally, too.

After negotiations with the Home Office, the Bill became not only shorter but clearer. My only regret, if I may make a personal comment, is that the great scourge of private Members’ Bills, as I described him in Committee, Eric Forth, is not here today. I do not think that my Bill was a unique case, but Eric actually suggested that he supported its intentions. I pointed out to him in a slightly mischievous way that his only objection was exactly the one espoused by the Home Office. I felt that that combined opposition was too much for me to take on, and so we are considering a truncated Bill. The Bill has been welcomed by the emergency services. Strangely enough, it has been welcomed in Northern Ireland, too, which has asked for the Bill to apply there, because it has no such provisions on ambulance workers.

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The Bill addresses the offence of impeding emergency workers. It is based on two straightforward, simple principles. First, people who risk their lives to save others should not be obstructed, and should be free to undertake their rescue work without obstruction and attack by yobs and idiots. Secondly, people who need to be rescued in an emergency because they are in danger should not face additional danger because of the mindless activity of a minority of idiots. Rescue work is essentially a team operation, and it is important that the team operate together. If part of the team is dislocated, the team does not work as effectively, so victims could be at greater danger. Sadly, that has become more important now, because of the threat of terrorist attacks.

On Second Reading, I mentioned the unbelievable conduct of some people, and I will reiterate a few examples. Greater Manchester fire and rescue service helped to lead a campaign on the subject, with the prompting and help of the Manchester Evening News. The fire and rescue service reports as many as 200 incidents a year of impeding and assault. Barry Dixon, who gave me considerable briefings on the Bill, told me of incidents from across the country of pipes being cut to stop the water supply. That is the least of the imaginative devices that some thugs use. Stoning is not unknown, and scaffold poles have even been driven through the windscreens of fire tenders. Fires have been lit deliberately as an ambush to lure the fire services to places where the thugs are waiting for them. Once inside, firemen find such refined tactics as razorblades fixed underneath banisters, so that as they try to haul their equipment upstairs their hands are severely injured.

There was an instance of live electric wiring being fixed to the inside of a door, so that the firemen trying to reach the source of the fire were in danger of electrocution. In the most grotesque case, in a multi-floor building, a hole in the floor was covered with a mat, like a bear trap, so that firemen coming in were in danger of plummeting to the floor below. That is the sort of dangerous nonsense that our rescue services have to endure.

The Bill’s provisions are wide-ranging. Clause 1 covers firefighters, rescue services, ambulance workers, including air ambulance workers, and voluntary organisations. I stress the latter, because some people were afraid that voluntary organisations were omitted. As Opposition Front Benchers proposed in Committee, clause 2 covers individuals who come to the help of the emergency services. The Bill covers the coastguard, lifeboat crews, and people transporting blood, organs and medical and rescue equipment to the site of an emergency. That is a list of provisions in the Bill, but the trouble with lists is that they are not always accurate and do not always fully reflect need. For that reason, we have built in a safeguard clause, which means that the list is not conclusive. That safeguard clause—clause 5—allows Ministers by order to add or remove categories of workers that they think need to be added. That builds in flexibility, so that we can act if the idiots find new targets.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend elaborate on other groups of workers who, although not usually considered emergency service providers, none the less fall into that category in some
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situations? Examples include approved social workers when they are sectioning people, and child protection officers when they have to remove children from danger. Can my right hon. Friend clarify the scope of the provision?

Mr. Williams: As I said, the Bill was truncated in negotiations. We have built in the option under the order-making powers so that any organisation or group of workers who feel they should be covered by the Bill may make representations to the Home Office, and it would be a relatively simple matter for the Home Office to add any group to the list. We have kept options open. I do not pretend that the list is comprehensive.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): On similar lines, one important service that has not been covered, unless I have missed something, is the air rescue service, which is extremely important in Snowdonia, as my right hon. Friend knows, where climbers and others get lost on the mountains.

Mr. Williams: I should have thought that that service was covered, especially as it operates within the country, rather than at sea. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that with the help of his memory box, which Ministers have and the rest of us are denied.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): Most of us know that excellent services are provided by volunteers. Mountain rescue crews are often volunteers. I was recently at an open day event in my constituency where St. John Ambulance volunteers were in attendance. They often help at such events, as well as at football matches and on many other occasions. Will non-professionals carrying out such health-providing services be covered? We know that St. John Ambulance in particular provides a vast amount of those services.

Mr. Williams: At this stage, it is not possible to amend the Bill, but I am sure the Minister is listening to representations and would be glad to receive back-up representations from the organisations and groups involved.

The penalty was in dispute on Second Reading. In my original Bill, which was based on the Scottish Act, the maximum penalty was a fine of £5,000. At that stage the Home Office was minded to reduce that to £1,000, which I was not exactly happy about. Fortunately, as a result of discussions and negotiations within and outside Government, the £5,000 penalty has been restored, which was welcomed by the fire service.

The other aspect addressed in Committee was defences. The Scottish Act, on which I originally based my Bill, listed defences. It was pointed out, correctly, as I said in connection with my safeguard clause, that lists are not comprehensive. The Home Office offered the suggestion, which I accepted, that instead we should resort to the concept of reasonableness. That is a fairly standard process in law. A person would be guilty of impeding if he impeded without reasonable excuse. For example, a reasonable excuse would be that he did not realise that someone was an emergency worker. This change from the specific list to what I call the catch-all phrase was unanimously endorsed in Committee.

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The Bill is relatively simple and straightforward. I hope there are now few areas where there is grave disagreement. The Bill that has evolved is better and clearer than the one that I originally proposed to the House, and I commend it to the House.

10.4 am

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) on the progress that he has made in steering his Bill to Third Reading. I agree with most of the sentiments that he expressed. The Bill will unquestionably make life easier and allow prosecutions for hindrance of services.

In reply to two of the points that were raised, the air ambulance service is specifically covered under the Bill where it is operating at the request of the national health service. Where it is not operating in such circumstances, the position is unclear. Perhaps the Minister needs to address that. According to my reading of the Bill, mountain rescue services are not mentioned and therefore would not be covered by the Bill. Again, that is an omission that the Minister may wish to reflect on, in view of the powers that he is granted.

In his usual self-effacing way, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West said the Bill is far better than it was when he started. In some ways, it is. All Bills improve through the Committee stage. Sadly, as we discussed in Committee, some important elements and opportunities have been missed by the Government and the Home Office, particularly the opportunity to put an assault on an emergency worker on the same level of seriousness as an assault on the police. That would have been in the original Bill and is in the legislation in Scotland. A Liberal Democrat amendment to the Scottish Bill which specifically included social workers engaged in child work or sectioning was accepted by the Labour party in Scotland. That was all removed from this Bill by the Government because they thought it was not compatible with English legislation. It was an argument that I understood but did not necessarily agree with.

We wish the Bill further progress and look forward to its being enacted and becoming law. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman once again on pushing it forward.

10.7 am

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). He was kind enough to ask me to be a sponsor of the Bill, but with his experience of the procedures of the House, it was not the most onerous task to support his Bill as he is so capable of steering it through all its stages. It is no surprise that it has reached Third Reading this morning.

When my right hon. Friend moved Third Reading, he mentioned Eric Forth, my former constituency neighbour in Bromley, and the fact that he was fortunate enough to have Eric Forth’s support for the intent of his Bill. I pay tribute to Eric Forth as a formidable opponent and a regular at our sittings on a Friday morning. My two Bills on environmental measures, which I fought for several years to get through the House, always fell on
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what became known as Eric Forth’s killing fields for private Members’ Bills. I had to sit silently as he eloquently talked them into oblivion. I am pleased to say that elements of one of my Bills have been resurrected in the legislation on home information packs, but sadly not with my name on them. None the less, Eric Forth was a formidable person who will be missed at our Friday morning debates.

It is surprising that we need to address the issue that is covered by the Bill. We have had emergency workers for many years and the problem is not new, but the Bill will be welcomed by those workers.

I understand that accident and emergency workers have been excluded from the Bill. It is arguable that in their daily work they frequently need immediately to respond to the needs of people who have been brought in for care and attention, and obstructing accident and emergency workers can have catastrophic consequences for people who need their attention. I accept that accident and emergency workers work in buildings and that they are often supported by security guards, but they face a great deal of aggression for no apparent reason. I have witnessed such behaviour when I have accompanied people to accident and emergency. The obstruction of such workers should be dealt with more severely, and the situation would be simplified if the Bill applied to them, too.

The Government’s respect agenda, although not directly addressed by the Bill, is part of what the Bill seeks to achieve because it is better to prevent emergency workers from being obstructed or attacked while carrying out their duties in the first place. I commend the work of the Metropolitan police, the fire service and others to explain to young people the dangers posed by things that they do sometimes for a lark and the consequences for other people if they impede emergency workers. That approach includes explaining to young people the importance of the work done by emergency workers and the dangers to which emergency workers expose themselves in addition to the problem of their possibly being attacked. That helps young people to address antisocial behaviour in the wider community and gets them to understand the consequences of their actions for not only emergency workers, but people who need emergency services.

Dan Norris: Does my hon. Friend accept that although the Bill is welcome and positive in many respects, other aspects of Government legislation are making a huge difference to, for example, the number of assaults experienced by NHS staff? The number of assaults against nurses has drastically reduced in recent years because of other aspects of Government business.

Clive Efford: I am grateful for that intervention, but I will not pursue it, because I can see that Mr. Deputy Speaker thinks that that would stray too far from the Bill. Nevertheless, we need to address the antisocial behaviour that has made this Bill necessary. The Government are addressing that point through the respect agenda, which has my full support. I commend the work that has been done, but I believe that we need to invest more money to minimise the number of times that the Bill is used to protect emergency workers.

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Mr. Kidney: I agree with my hon. Friend that education is important in preventing the obstruction of emergency workers. Does he agree that it is still important for Parliament to pass this law, which sends a message to young people that the matter is so serious that there is a specific offence of obstructing emergency workers?

Clive Efford: Yes; the Bill is necessary. As I have said, it is surprising that the gap in the law still exists and that we still need to simplify the law regarding firefighters. Although existing measures can be used against those who obstruct firefighters, the Bill simplifies the procedure and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West has said, covers other emergency workers, such as ambulance workers—I am surprised that they have not included before—and coastguards.

The Bill is necessary, and the emergency workers and public sector workers whom it covers will welcome it. As has been said in this House on numerous occasions, emergency workers risk their well-being when they attend emergencies and protect the public. They do an enormous amount of good work in our local communities, and they deserve the cover of the Bill if they are impeded in doing so. Once again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West on successfully piloting the Bill through the House.

10.16 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I spoke in the debate in March, and I am delighted by the Bill’s progress. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) on his work on this important Bill.

I support the Bill, because unfortunately Greater Manchester has one of the worst records for assaults and attacks on firefighters. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West has already referred to the fact that about 200 assaults a year are recorded on our fire services, which is a record that we want to lose. Although hon. Members would be concerned by an assault on any emergency worker, we know that the greatest number of assaults are directed at the police, firefighters and prison officers.

I want to praise the role played by the Manchester Evening News and its reporter, Neal Keeling, in highlighting the scale of the problem faced by firefighters in Greater Manchester. That newspaper has run an effective campaign to highlight the issue as the Bill has progressed through Parliament, although it is sad to say that there is still a need for such reporting in my area.

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