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14 July 2006 : Column 1613

Meg Hillier: My apologies. He has moved places, just to confuse me.

My hon. Friend talked about the Government’s respect agenda. Throughout the debate, there has been an undercurrent of comments about the lack of respect that such attacks demonstrate. They illustrate a lack of respect from young people and adults towards the vital services that emergency workers provide to us all. The Government’s respect agenda and the provisions of the Bill meet up in a very helpful way in that regard.

My hon. Friends the Members for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) and for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) highlighted horrific examples of the problems that some emergency workers face. I want to place on record the fact that I have now been inspired to go out with emergency workers in Hackney. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge said, there is nothing like doing it if we want to learn at first hand the difficulties that emergency workers face. My hon. Friend’s indignation highlighted the points that she raised, and I congratulate her on one of the most eloquent speeches that I have heard her make in the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is not in the Chamber today, but my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) paid homage to his skills as an orator in the House on these sitting Fridays. I commend her particularly for her eloquence and statistical knowledge, and for the research that she has done on this important issue. I will not go into the issue of the Olympics in Newham, but she will realise that I mention it in passing because they will be taking place in Hackney as well.

We are here to discuss the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Bill. It is an important Bill, because our emergency workers are the backbone of a decent and caring society. The citizens of a well-run country with a responsive and effective Government expect proper and appropriate action to be taken in an emergency or crisis. They should receive such action, and we should do all that we can to prevent anything from hindering it. That is what the Bill is all about. It underlines and reinforces the totally legitimate expectation of British citizens that emergency workers will be able to carry out their duties and serve the public without fear of obstruction.

We have focused on the police, fire and ambulance services today. I am glad, however, that the Bill also covers voluntary organisations and other agencies that work on behalf of the state. These include organisations such as St. John Ambulance, and the mountain rescue teams that provide such great service in remote parts of our islands to rescue people in difficulty. No one has yet mentioned the lifeboat crews, who voluntarily do a great deal in their free time to rescue people in difficulty at sea. Speaking as a former merchant seawoman, I feel strongly about safety at sea, and it is vital that the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution should be recognised in our debate today.

The offence of assaulting a police officer already exists, as hon. Members have mentioned. It carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, as does common assault. The criminal law includes a range of powers and penalties to protect individuals from violent behaviour. Perhaps the lawyers in the House will criticise me for saying this, but I am not too concerned about the difference. My concern is the
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outcome. If someone is prevented from doing their job—be they a police officer, a firefighter, an ambulance worker or any of the other emergency workers that we have mentioned—the sentence must be proportionate to the crime. Sentencing guidelines allow the courts to take into account that the person involved is a public sector worker. The Bill will reinforce and underline that, by creating a separate offence.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Lady mentioned St. John Ambulance. A St. John Ambulance crew attended a carnival in Chudleigh in my constituency recently, to provide first aid services. Is she aware that, if someone tried to prevent those crew members from doing that job, it would not be an offence under the provisions of the Bill? The legislation would kick in only for an ambulance capable of carrying out blue-light duties responding to a blue-light incident.

Meg Hillier: I am indeed aware of that distinction. I am sure that the Minister will go into this in more detail in his response. It is important to implement law that it is possible to deliver, and by drawing the provisions narrowly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West has done, it is possible to be clear about exactly when the law will kick in. Difficulties could result if the Bill had a very wide remit. However, it could represent the first step towards further changes. We often see law being introduced incrementally. As one part proves successful, other elements are added to it. The Bill contains a degree of discretion, in that the Secretary of State may add further categories of worker. It does not allow for other situations to be added, but who is to say that that could not be changed in the future?

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Lady refers to making clear what the provisions cover. I am not an hon. and learned Member, and perhaps I am being a bit slow, but I would have thought that it was very clear to say that if someone obstructs a St. John Ambulance crew who are in uniform at an event, they are committing an offence. To say that it is an offence to obstruct emergency workers at certain times when they are responding to certain incidents is actually unclear.

Meg Hillier: We are becoming involved in definitions now. It is a question of whether St. John Ambulance, for instance, is attending on behalf of the public service, which will often not be the case. I may not be best qualified to comment on such questions, but the Minister may be able to clarify the position. The hon. Member for Teignbridge may not be hon. and learned, but he is certainly au fait with parts of the law with which I, as a new Member, am less familiar.

As I have said, the sentencing guidelines allow sentences for attacks on public servants to be weighted. I hope that the Sentencing Advisory Panel’s recent consultation on sentencing for violent crimes against the person will produce some sensible proposals. Perhaps the Minister could give us a tantalising glimpse of anything that may have emerged from that consultation, which was wide-ranging and to which a number of interesting contributions were made. That might reassure Members, including me, that some of the points we have raised could be dealt with in that way rather than by the Bill.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham spoke of young people larking around, and impeding emergency workers. As he and others have pointed out, education is an important way of tackling that kind of obstruction. I also agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes).

I want to say something about the work of the London fire service. I am particularly impressed by what Graham Howgate, the Hackney borough commander, has done in collaboration with the Shoreditch service. They have been working with fire cadets. Young people are chosen for the scheme because they are likely to become criminals if they are not channelled in the right direction at a particular time. They may commit a crime if they are not given support, and this excellent scheme provides them with that support. It gives them a sense of purpose, and educates them about the work of the fire service. The results have been good so far, and I wonder why the scheme has not been adopted more widely. Although such matters are not in the Minister’s remit, I hope he will take up that question with Ministers in other Departments.

Since the creation of a borough command unit in Hackney, some interesting collaborative work has been done, thanks largely to Valerie Shawcross, chair of the London fire authority. Although largely unsung, her achievement has been significant.

One of the first things that Commander Howgate and his team observed was that a number of fires are started in abandoned cars. They would often have to deal with such fires, and clear up the mess. Such fires were frequently started by young people in particular spots in Hackney, but happily the problem has now been solved. Cars are removed much more quickly, because the fire service mapped the incidence of the attacks. It was realised that if the cars were removed, there would be less arson, less antisocial behaviour and fewer opportunities for young people to impede emergency workers in connection with their crimes.

Although the Bill is welcome, the low-level obstruction that Members have mentioned is also important. The Hackney firefighters repeatedly find that equipment is stolen from their fire engines when they are out on a job. They themselves may not be impeded, but bolt cutters—which are particularly popular—and other emergency equipment are often stolen as trophies. Lack of respect for public services is a crucial part of what the Bill attempts to tackle. It deals with the worst elements, but we and, in particular, the Government, have a responsibility to consider a number of possible solutions.

I was disturbed by the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, which involved an adult. We should bear it in mind that young people do not always cause these problems, although we tend to focus on them. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is smiling, because of course he wants to hug the hoodies, but not all young people are bad, whether they wear hoodies or not.

The Bill sends out an important signal about the seriousness of impeding emergency workers. Members may have heard of a project called “Prison? Me? No way!”. It is run by an educational trust set up by prison officers, which visits secondary school across the country
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to demonstrate the reality of prison to young people. There is a mock-up of a cell on the back of a lorry, and young people are locked into it. Prison officers drill the young people in teams, and explain to them clearly what the prison regime means. In combination with such educational initiatives, the Bill should help young people to realise gradually that if they commit the offences that we have heard about today, they could end up in prison. Organisations such as the one that I have described are there to remind them that that is a very undesirable consequence of such action.

The Bill obviously focuses on the criminal act of impeding emergency workers, but the services themselves have acted both to protect their staff and, crucially, to encourage them to report incidents. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley, Greater Manchester is ahead of the game because of the particular problems that it has experienced. Various initiatives have been launched, including the placing of video cameras in the cabs of appliances so that offenders can be identified. I know that one of the Opposition parties has persistently resisted the installation of CCTV. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Teignbridge wants to tell us now whether he supports the move to put video cameras in cabs. It appears that he does not wish to take me up on that, but it may be a subject for another debate.

As we heard earlier, in Northern Ireland support is already given to firefighters along the lines suggested in the Bill, but the Bill will apply to ambulance workers and coastguards there. It is important to recognise that it will not apply only to England.

Although the Bill mainly concerns ambulance workers, we should bear in mind the implications for other public service workers, notably in the national health service. Early indications suggest that 71 per cent. of staff trained in the NHS to deal with potentially aggressive and violent incidents believe that they have the necessary skills to do so, compared with only 29 per cent. before the training. We must not sit back and assume that the Bill alone will solve the problem. I am sure none of my hon. Friends is doing that. We may try to initiate further debates in the House to discuss other ways of protecting emergency workers. The law is an important tool, but it is not the only one.

The NHS, supported by the British Medical Association, Unison and the Royal College of Nursing, has produced posters reminding would-be offenders of the tough penalties that they could incur. I hope that public information campaigns will stress the reality that the Bill is law, and that people may, in the most serious cases, be sent to prison.

Several of us have mentioned young people and antisocial behaviour. What is needed is proper youth work, and I am glad that the Government have provided more money for the purpose. In my borough of Hackney, nearly £1 million extra will be spent on youth work this year. We pay attention to the respect agenda, and aim to tackle antisocial behaviour at all levels, nipping it in the bud. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, it must come to be seen as absolutely unacceptable.

The decent folk whom I meet on doorsteps nearly every week want to lead peaceful lives. They do not want their emergency workers to be impeded. Low-level activity escalates quickly if it is not challenged,
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and we must challenge it. Sport, including competitive sport, is an important way of channelling young people’s energies in the right direction, as is education. I will cite one example from a visit to Mossbourne city academy on the edge of my constituency. I talked to children and staff at the school, and asked one child what he liked about the school. He said that he liked the discipline. I was surprised that a 12-year-old said that, as one does not tend to think of that as a top desire of a child of that age.

Michael Gove: Young Conservative.

Meg Hillier: I would not want to comment on how the hon. Gentleman brings up his children.

I was puzzled by what the child said, so I asked him what he meant. He said that the discipline meant that he could get on and do his work, concentrate and not be messed around. He was not a top achiever but a child who wanted to learn and have a disciplined framework in school. Children stay late and come at weekends to work at that school, because they find it a quiet and calm environment. In that regard, the Government’s agenda of extended education also helps to generate respect. Children want a framework of stability, and the Bill will help to achieve that.

I want to end on one incident from my experience as a teenager. I was sailing with my older brother, who had offered to take me out off the Isle of Wight. I was not an experienced sailor, but I thought that it would be exciting, which it was until we capsized in the middle of the Solent. I was cold, shivering and scared. I give credit to my older brother, who did everything that he needed to do and whom I trusted, but I was young and scared. Who came to our rescue? It was the coastguard. Had they not been there, I do not know whether I would be here today. There were there, however, and they were not impeded. Nobody tried to stop them getting to me, and they rescued me. For that, I am ever grateful.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West on introducing this important Bill and adding a further protection to our emergency workers in the course of their duties in protecting the public of this country.

11.31 am

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I add my voice to all those who have praised my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and congratulate him on successfully steering his Bill through all its stages. The signs are encouraging that it will also pass today’s stage.

I supported the Bill on Second Reading, and I am pleased to do so again today. On that earlier occasion, my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West explained his reason for adjusting the focus of his Bill. He made a good decision. In its new form, the Bill is positioned between those cases that involve no offence having been committed and those more serious cases involving assaults on emergency workers, which can attract serious sentences of imprisonment, as we heard earlier. An offence of obstructing an emergency worker in the execution of his or her duty is a valuable addition,
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as, for a long time, there has been such an offence to protect police officers from being obstructed in the execution of their duties.

Some people might therefore think that the Bill is quite narrow, but I hope to show that its application is broad. People might be pleasantly surprised at what a valuable tool the Bill will be to emergency services in adopting policies of zero tolerance to such behaviour, and to the prosecuting authorities—the police and the Crown Prosecution Service—in enforcing the law. The Bill extends the same protection from obstruction enjoyed by the police to the other blue light services, but applies more widely than to the blue light services alone. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has secured a provision in the Bill for the protection to be extended later to other emergency workers. I congratulate him on ensuring that the Bill protects emergency workers from obstruction at every stage of their response to an emergency, which is important.

Some Members have asked about the Bill’s application to mountain rescue workers, and I think that I agree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) that they do not attract protection under the Bill as drafted. Like him, I examined the provision about air ambulance services, which are provided at the request of a national health service body. That would not extend to mountain rescue services, such as those launched from RAF Stafford in my constituency, which rescue people lost on mountains in Wales. Clause 1(2)(f)(ii) extends protection to

I am pretty sure that that the definition of “vessel” would restrict the protection to ships on the sea, and would not include vessels that carry people through the air. If I am wrong, of course, the provision would be wide enough to protect those engaged in mountain rescue services. If not, although, as my right hon. Friend said in his speech, it is too late now to amend the Bill further, I urge the Minister to consider making use of the power in clause 5 to extend the protection to other groups, to make sure that the crew of aircraft who are engaged in saving and rescuing people are also protected.

I am pleased that protection is extended to fire and rescue service workers. In Staffordshire, horrendous news reports appear from time to time about obstruction and assaults on fire and rescue workers. Happily, such occurrences are few and far between. I hasten to add that the Bill is not intended to deal with hoax calls, which are a much more prevalent nuisance to fire and rescue service workers. In relation to fire and rescue service work, a specific offence already exists for hoax calls, which prevent people from doing their job and saving lives when necessary.

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