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Today, we have had good news about the success of the recent knife amnesty run by the Home Office, because it is necessary in the fight against crime to reduce the number of knives on the streets. In a recent disturbing case, a teenager from my constituency was convicted of using a knife against a firefighter, who was trying to tackle a blaze, which shows the context in which our emergency workers are trying to do their jobs. The incident began with a scenario mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West, in which a group of youths were shouting abuse at a fire crew and taking items from the fire engine. As an officer went to help his colleagues deal with the yobs, he was confronted by a youth on a bike. The court was
told that the youth said, Shall I hold him down while you cut him up? The youth then said to the firefighter, Youve got an axe, but Ive got one of these, at which point he brandished a bladed weapon. We can all imagine how shocked the firefighter was to be confronted by a youth who was brandishing a bladed weapon. He told the police who assisted with the incident that he joined the service to protect the public, not to be threatened by them.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware, as a parliamentary neighbour of mine, of the excellent work that the emergency servicesall of themundertake in Bolton through a programme called Crucial Crew? Emergency set-ups are staged in a large building. All the emergency services are in attendance. Primary school children go through each of the scenarios. The aim is to try to impress upon them how important it is to observe decency when emergency workers are attending various incidents. Perhaps in that way we can inhibit some young people from becoming hooligans in future and thereby cure the problem that the Bill is intended to target.
Barbara Keeley: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think that he is absolutely right. I was a councillor for a number of years and was aware of such initiatives, which do a great deal of good.
I am here to support the Bill because the incident to which I have referred was much more serious than verbally abusing fire crews or throwing things at them. I find it shameful that one of my constituents did what I have described to a firefighter. I feel badly about that for the fire crew. There is a case for saying that we must start with people when they are at a very young age. The young man I mentioned was convicted and, rightly, received a 12-month sentence for an appalling incident. He was 17 and a half years old. It is serious when someone gets to that age and, unbelievably, thinks that it is acceptable or a jape to brandish a weapon at a firefighter who was doing his job and trying to protect the local community.
The chief fire officer for Greater Manchester and Councillor Fred Walker, who is the chair of the Greater Manchester fire authority, are concerned. They have told me that they want Members to hear about the incident to which I have referred so that we can understand the threat that fire crews face daily. It must be shocking and difficult for someone to return to work the next day, or even the same week, when they have been the victim of such a severe incident. We need the Bill because of that threat.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The hon. Lady rightly draws attention to a horrific incident. I have every sympathy with the firefighters in her constituency. She must be aware that the Government have deleted the specific provisions that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) wants to cover assault and to ensure that it is an aggravated offence.
Barbara Keeley: Indeed. We are trying in this debate to highlight various issues. A plethora of things can be done and are being done to deal with these issues. As I said, the young person who committed the offence that I have described is already in prison. He received a sentence of 12 months, and rightly so.
Further to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said, incidents can involve youths as young as eight or nine years of age. Perhaps that is where our attention should be focused. We must start to explain to young people the seriousness of the job that emergency workers undertake. We must get them to understand how vital that work is and that it should not be impeded in any way. Barry Dixon, the chief fire officer, feels that it is important that magistrates use the powers that they already have to deal with such wrongdoing so that young people do not carry on with abuse and assaults on fire crews.
As I said on Second Reading, community penalties might be appropriate for the incidents that we are discussing. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) talked about the respect agenda and the great work that is being done by the police and fire officers to engage with young people. That is an important example of what can be done.
The Princes Trust and the fire service run joint schemes in my area. The young firefighters scheme is probably similar to the Crucial Crew programme that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned. I know that firefighters attend a great variety of community events to talk about fire hazards and to show off their equipment, which helps to develop relationships with young people in the community. More than anything, given all the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West has been doing, we need to have the Bill on the statute book so as to add to the respect agenda, the good community work that is being done and the penalties that are available. We need to keep on highlighting the message to magistrates that they should be as firm as they can be, and use all the powers at their disposal, to stop young people developing the tendency to abuse and then later, possibly, to assault firefighters.
The situation is still as serious as it ever was. The Bill is as necessary as it ever was. I further congratulate the people whom I have mentioned, who alongside my right hon. Friend have been highlighting the matters that we are discussing. I have already referred to the Manchester Evening News and the report by Neal Keeling. Barry Dixon has undertaken a great deal of work and should be commended for so doing, as has Councillor Fred Walker. I know that that team of people will be delighted to see the Bill enacted. Again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West on introducing it.
Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) on his Bill, which is both timely and much needed. Its purpose is to deal with a genuine and urgent problem.
During previous deliberations, we heard statistics relating to offences against emergency workers, including actual assaults. The situation is improving in some
sectors, such as the NHS, since the introduction of programmes such as conflict resolution training and the determination of the NHS to protect its staff by prosecuting offenders. There were about 37,000 assaults in 2003 and the numbers went down to about 11,000 in 2004-05. Those figures relate to acute hospitals. New orders, such as acceptable behaviour orders, are assisting generally, but there is still a job to be done to prevent incidents. That is where the Bill will do its job. We must get in earlier, as it were. The news that the Government are supporting the new offence of obstructing an emergency worker in responding to an emergency will help to plug the gap and further diminish the number of incidents involving emergency workers. It will give them the same respect and protection in law as that which is accorded to our police force.
I was speaking to my local ambulance personnel recently. They were keen that I and my hon. Friends should support the Bill. That is why I am here instead of opening fêtes and fairs, the number of which seems to be growing exponentially in my constituency. It is important that I make sure that the Bill goes forward so as to assist ambulance personnel and others in their work. I am proud to be in the Chamber to support the Bill.
The obstruction of emergency workers responding to emergencies is a heinous crime that at best is irritating and troublesome and at worst potentially life threatening. The consequent danger and damage to the person awaiting emergency assistance can be devastating. I am pleased that the Bill defines emergency workers as firefighters and those transporting blood, organs and medical equipment, as well as coastguards and lifeboat crews. It is especially welcome that it covers all ambulance workers, including those working in air ambulances, volunteers and those working under contract to the health service.
I am especially concerned about the safety of those in our ambulance service and paramedics, whom I consider the unsung infantry of the NHS. I am therefore particularly pleased that the protection contained in the Bill is extended to them in clause 1(2)(c). They work in extremely stressful and sometimes dangerous circumstances. They are on the scene of an accident from the start and they use their skills to save lives. We should also have pride in them and they deserve not only our gratitude and respect, but our protection. They should be protected from harm and from obstruction in going about their duties, and they should have support in law.
Barbara Keeley: My hon. Friend is being characteristically modest in that she is not revealing what a number of us know: she has spent a great deal of time working with emergency crews out on their shifts. Having spent hours overnight with them in her own time at weekends and during summer breaks, she knows about these matters at first hand. I commend her for doing that, and I hope to take it up.
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I had hoped to get on to that point, although I was not going to be quite as obvious. Part of what I intended to do as an MP was to get out and about, particularly with public service workers. I am a former teacher, but teaching was probably not as
dangerousat least it did not feel as dangerousas some of the situations I have been in since I started going out on duty with police crews and the ambulance service. I believe that doing that should be part of my role as an MP.
I recently worked a night shift with an ambulance crew from Stourbridge station, which is an experience that I recommend to all parliamentary colleagues. Experiencing situations is very different from reading about them, or even from hearing first-hand stories. That experience has served to deepen my respect for the ambulance service and its personnel. I hope that it might also have deepened their respect for Members of Parliament, but we shall have to wait and see about that. [Interruption.] I hope that it might at least have deepened that crews respect for their own MP.
That night shift began at 9 pm and finished at 6 am. I do not think that anybody expected me to work the whole shift, so I think I got brownie points for doing so. Apart from one rest break at about 3 am, the crew work solidly for the duration, going from call to call and either tending to patients on site or, in some cases, taking them to hospital. At all times during that shift, they were constantly on guard, constantly concentrating and working together with almost unseen communication between them. The whole process was very uplifting.
We attended a variety of cases, including a cut head at the local swimming baths, a road traffic accident, alcohol-related incidents, a suspected heart attack, a young woman with severe abdominal pains, a distressed and disturbed patient in need of assistance, and the rescueI do call it a rescueand treatment of two young men who were the victims of a group attack. That attack underlined to me how helpful a Bill such as this could be.
We were returning to hospital with a patient from one of the other incidents that I have mentioned, when the paramedic who was driving noticed a man by the roadside whom he believed to be receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitationCPR. He called in the incident immediately, which is the right procedure, but he also took an immediate decision to divert our ambulance to it to assist. Upon parking it became clear that the incident was quite different from how it had first appeared. The young man on the floor was in fact being attacked, and his friend, whom my colleagueif I can use that descriptionfrom the crew had initially thought was giving CPR, was actually protecting him from further blows.
Both paramedics attempted to calm the situation and to assist both young men under attack. They managed to negotiate successfully, through a highly charged situation, and the young men were then attended to, and the badly injured patient on the floor was carried into the ambulance. However, while that was happening, two bystanders who had not previously been involved in the incident, attempted to prevent it by barring the way to the injured party and then hitting out at one of the paramedics as the injured man was lifted into the ambulance. Local police arrived within two minutes of the call to them having been made, and the situation calmed. But in those two minutes, when lives could have been lost and immediate assessments
and quick judgment were needed, the professionalism and dedication of my two colleagues shone through. Of course, that was a one-off experience for me, but men and women such as my two Stourbridge paramedics face such situations day in, day out, night in, night out. That incident brought home to me that inadequate protection is sometimes afforded to such excellent professionals.
I also welcome the provision in clause 3 that allows a person to be convicted for impeding an emergency worker by action directed at a vehicle used by an emergency worker, because of another unfortunate aspect of the incident I have described, which occurred as we began to drive back to the hospital with our injured patient and prior to the police establishing order in the fracas. At one point, two young men mounted the steps at the side of the drivers door and attempted to prevent our ambulance from moving away. The situation was unbelievably tense, but once again the calm and professional manner of my colleagues, and the way in which they handled the situation, enabled all of us to leave safely and to get the patient to hospital quickly.
The enacting of this legislation will underline our great respect for services such as the ambulance service, and it will also send a message to those who have less respect for them than us and to those who would try to frustrate their staff in their work. The decision to support the increase in the penalty for such behaviour to up to £5,000 will also serve to indicate to the wider public how seriously we regard such offences.
Members have mentioned other methods of getting this message out. I wish briefly to mention the work of the west midlands ambulance service, which runs an education programme throughout the midlands. It goes into schools and community groups to raise awareness of its work and to help to draw young people in particular closer to the service to encourage respect for its workers and appreciation of the role they play. When he speaks, will the Minister underline possible future plans to publicise and widen that educational role, which is very important?
Finally, I congratulate again my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West on his success so far with this Bill, and I hope that colleagues from all parties will continue to support it in its latter stages.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I join my hon. Friends in congratulating the Father of the House on this Bill. If it is enacted, it will be a worthy addition to the statute book, as is recognised by the cross-party support that it has. The Bill has undoubtedly been improved as a result of the lively and constructive debates on it in this House, and it will play an important role in addressing the serious problem of the obstruction of our emergency services. The Bill addresses an increasingly important issue. I hope that Members will forgive me if I repeat some arguments that have already been made, but the need for the Bill is worth reinforcing again.
The British crime survey shows that fire and rescue service firefighters and officers, along with police officers and prison service officers and others defined in the Bill as being in the protective services, are the
people who are most at risk of experiencing violence and obstruction at work. Some 14 per cent. of workers in the occupational category report that they have experienced an incident of actual or threatened violence while working. The figure for the work force as a whole is 1.7 per cent., so there is a huge and outrageous difference. The former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister collected figures for England and Wales from 2004 at the request of the Chief Fire Officers Association. The stats show that there were almost 400 serious incidents in a nine-month period alone.
It is not only the number of incidents that is increasing, but their ferocity and seriousness. I am sure that most hon. Members in the Chamber know of at least a single incident that has occurred in their constituency or nearby that illustrates how serious the problem is becoming.
The Fire Brigades Union has published research showing that the instances of obstruction on UK fire crews runs at approximately 40 a week, and we understand that the problem may well be getting worse. I understand that the research is the first of its kind in the UK. The problem is also seriously underreported, so it is suggested that there could be as many as 120 incidents in one week. We believe that there is serious underreporting because only 18 of the 50 English and Welsh fire and rescue services responded to requests for information when the figures were being compiled. Only a third of the brigades thus added their numbers to the statistics that we have available.
Barbara Keeley: My hon. Friend raises a valuable point that was discussed substantially on Second Reading. I mentioned that the Greater Manchester fire authority has an apparently appalling record in respect of attacks on its firefighters and I am sure that I speak for Salford Members when I say that we want to lose that record. I have read the material about the situation and my hon. Friend is right that underreporting is a problem. Does she agree that we should send out the message that the job of recording attacks that is carried out by the Greater Manchester fire authority and police should be done by other fire authorities?
Lyn Brown: I thank my hon. Friend for her timely intervention and agree with her. I understand that the arrangements for reporting have been tightened and improved so that the data that we have will reflect better the situation as a whole. However, the Bill will enable firefighters and fire officers to appreciate the importance of collecting such data because they will realise that it might be possible to do something about the problem.
My hon. Friend told us earlier about an attack that occurred in her constituency. It seems clear to me that the young man who was involved in the incident was not committing a first offence because it would not have been the first time that he had seen emergency workers as a legitimate target to allow him to have some fun. My guess is that his behaviour had been escalating up to the age of 17. If the Bill had been in place, perhaps his behaviour could have been addressed when he was 10 or 14 years old. The Bill would have imposed penalties, and perhaps the dreadful incident in my hon. Friends constituency could have been avoided. We need to nip
things in the bud as early as possible and say that certain behaviour by members of our community is totally unacceptable. If we can do that early enough, we can hopefully prevent such incidents.
The FBU states that fire crews in some parts of the country are served a diet of bricks, bottles and missiles as they fight fires. In some cases, firefighters have been lured to an incident, ambushed and attacked, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) pointed out. Scaffolds have been thrown through the windows of emergency vehicles and crews have been attacked with concrete blocks. Bricks and bottles have been thrown, and crews and vehicles have been spat at.
Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The serious problem that my hon. Friend describes is a long way away from young people acting out of order. Does she agree that instead of hugging a hoodie, we should perhaps hug a firefighter?
Lyn Brown: My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to say that I have taken a leaf out of the book of the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) over the past year. I have been out for an eight-hour shift with my local police force. I am in the midst of arranging a similar night outif one can call it thatwith my firefighters and ambulance crew. I look forward to seeing their experiences at first hand, although I am not sure that I will go as far as hugging them, unless, of course, they wish that to happen.
Dr. Iddon: My hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) sound like prime candidates for the police parliamentary scheme, which I have undertaken myself. I spent 30 days with the Greater Manchester police, so, like other hon. Members, I have seen it all. I strongly recommend the scheme to both my hon. Friends.
Lyn Brown: I am looking forward to taking part in the scheme. In fact, I have the papers on my desk as I speak. My only concern is that I might be expected to become fitter than I am. Once I have received clarification on that point, I will sign and submit the papers.
As I said, we unfortunately all know of incidents in our constituencies or neighbouring areas. I remember an incident that took place in a neighbouring constituency on a Guy Fawkes night when youths fired rockets at two firefighters as they responded to a call. Their injuries were so bad that they were both hospitalised.
At this juncture, it is useful to recall the words of the FBUs general secretary, Matt Wrack. He said in March this year that the union welcomed the Bill and the cross-party support for it because the
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