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Fire and rescue service workers are usually enormously popular, which is why those who obstruct and assault them are such a small minority. At the time of the last national pay strike, however, there was a little ill feeling in some areas of Staffordshire towards fire and rescue service workers. Unchecked, that could have become the kind of behaviour about which we have heard today. Even before that strike began, however, Staffordshire fire and rescue service had embarked on a community fire safety strategy, which, once the strike was out of the
way, applied fully. That involved a widespread campaign to issue householders with smoke alarms and, as other Members have described, of fire and rescue service officers meeting young people and families in schools and more informal settings such as school and garden fetes, to explain their work. That has ensured that fire crews get much earlier notice of a fire, so that they can respond to it more quickly, and that there is less chance of people wanting to obstruct them, as they understand the importance of the job.
The happy ending to the story in Staffordshire is that, as a result of that community fire safety strategy, the number of deaths in fires has dropped dramatically. That fall has been long-lasting, which is a tribute to the workers who have committed themselves to go into communities, meet people and persuade them to protect their property and lives with smoke alarms and to understand the importance of fire workers and not getting in their way.
Having mentioned the national pay strike, I hope that it will be a long time before we see green goddesses back on our streets. The Bill, however, has the foresight to extend to members of the armed forces who carry out the duties of firefighters the same protection from obstruction as fire and rescue service workers. That is important, albeit that none of us wishes to see the provision apply, as we would prefer the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force to continue their normal duties and not have to protect us from fire as well.
I am pleased that the Bill protects crew members of the third of the emergency servicesthe ambulance service. Hon. Members might know that Staffordshire has the best-performing ambulance service in the country. That is no mere puff or boast; anyone who studies the statistics will see that, year after year, Staffordshire ambulance service massively outperforms any other in the country in its response times and the number of lives saved as a result. There is a secret to our success. Our ambulance service has tried desperately for many years to explain it to other services and to persuade them to adopt the same standards, but sadly too few have followed so far, although I know that it has been on the Governments agenda since their policy statement last year to persuade other services to go the same way.
As a footnote I should add, if you will permit me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that during the recent large ambulance service mergers we successfully argued that Staffordshire ambulance service should stay out of a west midlands service precisely because our standards are so much higher than others. There was concern that the standards of a very good ambulance service might in the course of a merger fall, by however small a degree, and that that would harm the public of Staffordshire.
I mention that because, although we have the best-performing service in the country and all residents of Staffordshire know that, we still face the problem of a minority of people obstructing, assaulting and threatening ambulance service crews as they go about their duties. There was a horrendous report last year of an ambulance crew member being badly assaulted and seriously injured.
a robust policy of zero tolerance toward any alleged verbal or violent behaviour
This Ambulance Trust appeal to the Community to help change the apparent attitudes developing in society that seems to say its ok to behave in such a way.
I would add that, if such societal attitudes develop and embed in behaviour, just as the violence and abuse referred to in the release would worsen, so would obstruction of ambulance crews, which would be highly undesirable.
As I mentioned in an intervention, the Bill is important in the education process for which many hon. Members have called as part of the response to the problem. It is important that we send the message that we think that this is such an important issue that we are creating a specific offence of obstructing emergency workers. We do not wish to send mixed messagesthat the matter is important but we are not doing anything to face up to it.
My right hon. Friend gave an assurance that the Bill extends more widely than to employees of ambulance services. There has been some debate about whether that means voluntary workers such as St. John Ambulance, but I want to mention another group of people who are extremely significant in Staffordshire and other rural ambulance services: community first-responders. There is a strong association of community first-responders around the country. They are remarkable people who voluntarily undergo training by paid ambulance service workers and stand ready in their isolated localities and communities to receive calls to attend the scenes of serious incidents. Very often, because they are in isolated locations, they are first on the scene, before the ambulance crew arrives in response to the 999 call. I stress that they are volunteers who attend in their own time and who have the skills to deal with however horrific a situation they find when they reach their destination, where they help of their free will keeping people safe and alive until the professional crew arrives.
I also welcome the fact that the Bill extends to the air ambulance service. I tried to think in what ways people in helicopters might be obstructed in carrying out their duties and saving lives. The most obvious situation is somebody obstructing the landing of a helicopter that is picking up someone who is seriously injured in order to take them to hospital. Therefore, there is a point to that provision.
I shall not take up time dealing with the other groups of people who attract the Bills protection, but I should like to mention the case of staff who are transporting organs from one hospital to another in order to save a live in a transplant operation or delivering much needed blood that is required for a serious operation. They are clearly carrying out highly time-sensitive work, and obstructing them in the course of their duties could have serious consequences. It is right that they attract the protection of the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch mentioned protection for those who are willing to put out to sea to save lives. There is no coast in my constituency; we are a long way from the coast in
every direction, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, people travel to the seaside and might get into danger. Conceivably, that could be any resident of my constituency. It is therefore pleasing to know that the protection of the law extends to people doing such important work.
I said that clause 1(3) is sensibly wide, covering all the emergency operation: the journey to the scene of the incident, the preparatory work at the scene and the time spent giving help at the scene. The entire process is covered by the Bill and protects those doing such work.
Subsection (4) contains a comprehensive definition of emergency circumstances. I am particularly pleased that it extends to cases involving mental illness, which are so easily overlooked. It is interesting to note the protection offered concerning serious harm to the environment. I think instantly of the great expanse of beauty in my constituency in Cannock Chase, where there are numerous sites of special scientific interest and an area of outstanding natural beauty, which during the summer months are at serious risk of an outbreak of fire. Somebody obstructing the fire services on their way to tackling a fire in an open space such as Cannock Chase could be endangering hundreds of square miles of sensitive landscape, and I see the point in the provision.
The same point applies to buildings and premises. If the response is delayed, the extent of damage can be great. Perhaps most obviously, life and death situations are also covered, in subsection (4)(b).
I said that the Bill is surprisingly broad, and clause 2 is certainly a good example of that. Whereas the primary protection is for an emergency worker who is usually an employee of a fire or ambulance service, clause 2 extends to a person assisting such a worker. As I think I heard my right hon. Friend say, such a person could be a good Samaritan among the public who steps forward to help emergency workers at the scene. If that person, anxious and willing to assist, is obstructed on their way to give that assistance, it would be an offence. That is the impressive extent of the coverage that the Bill offers.
Action that amounts to obstruction is also widely defined in clause 3(1). It can consist of action other than physical obstruction, and when trying to think of examples of that, I recalled the incident last summer when someone killed a number of people at a garden barbecue and the police, fire service and ambulance service all stayed away for several hours because they believed that there was a person at the scene who was armed and would be a danger to the emergency workers who attended. I realised that a way in which workers could be obstructed by other than physical means was by someone maliciously and falsely claiming that there was something at the scene that would make it dangerous for them to attendan armed person or explosive device, for examplethus keeping them away from the scene.
The Bill is impressive. It is widely drawn to cover the objectives. Critics of the Bill who complain that it does not deal with aggravated assault have the wrong target, because it is filling a space, albeit not that one, and by so doing it will provide valuable assistance to our emergency workers who, after all, face enough danger in their jobs. They act out of public spiritedness, first and foremost, because they want to serve the public, to
save lives and to prevent suffering and damage. Their jobs are hard enough without a very small minority of irresponsible people getting in their way and preventing them from doing their job, thus putting other people in more serious danger and putting property at greater risk of damage than would otherwise have been the case. The Bill is welcome and I sincerely congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West on his success in bringing it to this point.
Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): Like other hon. Members, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) for introducing the Bill because I, too, have done night shifts and day shifts with police, ambulance and fire services and with accident and emergency services at the hospital in my constituency. I greatly admire people who spend their time in public service and now that I have worked those shifts with the emergency services my admiration for what they do knows no bounds. They go out and work in a difficult environment trying to resolve some substantial problems, and they do so in a way that is kind and friendly and helps people who are in severe distress. Like other hon. Members, I think that it is outrageous that, when doing that, they face the threat of attack and aggression.
I have received a communication from Cheshire fire servicean admirable fire servicetelling me that there were 25 reported incidents in 2005. On 21 occasions, stones, bricks, bottles, iron bars or golf balls were thrown at crew attending incidents. On several of those occasions, the vehicle but not the crew was hit, and on four occasions the appliance was forced to withdraw to ensure the safety of crew and prevent the situation from worsening. Some of the incidents were severe: for example, a firefighter attending a rubbish fire was attacked by two youths who smashed his visor on his helmet, cutting his eye. Other incidents have involved water bombs being thrown that forced the appliance to swerve when it was trying to get to a fire to tackle it. A fire service mechanic was travelling in his marked vehicle when two youths pulled out what appeared to be a firearm and aimed it at the vehicle. A crew member on an appliance that was attending a rubbish fire was hit by a 2-ft iron bar. So far in 2006, stones, bricks, bottles and other debris have been thrown at crews attending incidents on eight occasions, causing crew to consider whether they could get through to deal with the fire. Firefighters attending a fire in June were threatened with knives by a gang of youths and the crew was forced to withdraw from the scene.
All those incidents are taken extremely seriously by Cheshire fire and rescue service, which is working to increase the safety of its personnel. The service has installed closed-circuit television cameras on appliances in a number of the areas it covers, and it intends to introduce them across its whole area as soon as it can. In addition, appliances have high-visibility stickers stating that they are equipped with CCTV recording equipment. The service is determined not only to deter such incidents, but to make it clear to people that offenders who can be identified will be prosecuted.
Not only does our fire service deal with emergency fires, but it tries to prevent them. We have an extremely effective initiative whereby a home safety assessment is
completed every 15 minutes, every day, seven days a week. I particularly admire our fire service personnel for the way in which they constantly seek ways to introduce safety into our local community. As well as going out, risking their own lives and safety in dangerous incidents, they are looking for ways to make our community a better place to live by helping people to make their homes safe and dealing with slip and trip hazards for older people.
The fire service is also involving local young people in such work. At a surgery in a community building that had had problems with fires being lit, I saw fire crews talking to quite young children and explaining to them what a fire does, how dangerous it can be, and their role in helping to make their local community safer. The children were getting very involvedactually, they had a great time. Adults were treating them with respect and the children were learning directly from important role models what respect means in a local community. I was pleased because the community in question has a number of disadvantages and having adults of that typeadmirable role modelscoming in is not just about dealing with current problems, but about giving young people an opportunity to see what they can do in future.
Mr. David Anderson: The experience that my hon. Friend describes is seen in my constituency, too. The community in the old mining village of Chopwell was being destroyed by drugs and lack of investment. The retained service there has a young firefighters club where young people go to work with the fire brigade. They learn how to respect their homes and each other. The service also holds open days and public days, so it is a real community initiative.
Helen Southworth: I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that work. In my community, too, groups of young people are brought along to fire service stations where they can use the equipment, learn about what is happening, and get a sound idea of the future prospects, not only for their community, but for themselves through going into public service. The fire service is an integral and key part of our community, which is why the Bill is so important. The Bill shows that we, too, believe that our emergency services are key, integral, valued and respected parts of our community that we not only respect, but are prepared to defend.
We are talking about one of the things that particularly disconcerts me about the position for fire service personnel, ambulance personnel and people in accident and emergency services at hospitals. I hope that we will be able to look at that to see whether the ability to modify might need to take into account the needs of accident and emergency workers, particularly people who work shifts on a Friday or Saturday night and have to deal with the alcohol-fuelled antisocial behaviour that can kick off in hospitals sometimes.
It is particularly important that we protect people who work in stressful jobs and who should be able to know that they can call on other people when they need help. I am concerned that paramedics who have suffered assaults and attacks on their vehicles when they are working in an extremely stressful environment
feel that they cannot continue to work in the front line. It is shocking that they believe that they are not sufficiently protected to be able to continue to do their valuable job, because we all want them to.
I want to draw attention to Merseyside and Cheshire ambulance services, because the work that is being carried out locally to tackle assaults on crews is drawing together in the most effective way management and trade unions to get across the message not just that we will not tolerate attacks on ambulance crews, but that if someone prevents an emergency service from getting out and doing its job, it could be that person or a member of their family who faces the effect. It is admirable that the management and Unison are working together to get that message across in a poster and public relations campaign. The figures indicate that ambulance crews reported 86 separate incidents involving an assault on them during 2005 in Merseyside and Cheshire. That is completely unacceptable. The Bill sends a clear message that we will not tolerate that sort of thing and I would like to add not just my support and that of the ambulance and fire services in my local area, but that of all my constituents, who want to see our emergency services given the protection and support that they need and deserve.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I congratulate the Father of the House on his success in allowing the Bill to proceed so smoothly and quickly through the House. I repeat the words that were offered on Second Reading and in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert): the Conservatives wish the Bill to proceed as quickly and smoothly as possible to the statute book. I offer my apologies to the House on behalf of my hon. Friend. He cannot be with us today because he is in his constituency seeking to protect the jobs of emergency workers in the NHS and other health workers who are threatened by incipient cuts to the health service in Sussex, and indeed Surrey.
We wish the Bill to proceed because we recognise that it performs three valuable functions and in that respect we are more than happy to give it our full support. First, it plugs a legislative gap. We are aware that, at the moment, legislative protection is afforded to the police as they go about their duties. Everyone knows that if they assault a police officer, it is an aggravated offence for which they will face a tougher sentence. As a result of the Bill being passed, a signal will be sent that to obstruct an emergency worker, whether it is an NHS worker, a fireman or someone who is working for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or the coastguard, will also mean facing a particularly severe punishment. In that respect, we wholeheartedly support the legislation.
As well as plugging a gap, the Bill sends a message. We do not always support legislation that sends a message, because sometimes we believe that legislation should not be used so lightly, simply to communicate censoriousness on the part of the House. However, by sending a message, the Bill can have a welcome deterrent effect. We have heard from a number of hon. Members this morning about the increase in the number of incidents of attacks on, in particular, ambulance workers. There is a clear need for legislative
action to ensure that those tempted to go down that path understand that the House and the Government wish to prevent them from behaving in that way.
The third reason why we want the Bill passed is because we believe that those who obstruct the work of emergency workers are guilty of a double crime: not only are they interfering criminally with the work of public servants, they are endangering the lives of others. As well as interfering in the effective provision of a public service, they are maximising the risk to others, whom those public servants are attempting to assist. In that respect, because those who commit such crimes are guilty of a double assault, we welcome the Bill.
As my hon. Friend said earlier, we wish to enter one note of regret. The original legislation that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) introduced was based on the Bill that was introduced in the Scottish Parliament. For the sake of ease of legislative drafting, he attempted to introduce a Bill that was, in many respects, almost identical to the Scottish legislation. As someone who was born in Edinburgh and raised in Aberdeen, I am well aware that Scottish and English law are distinct from one another, and it may not be the case that Bills introduced in Scotland can have identical application in England. However, in order to introduce his Bill, the right hon. Gentleman had to negotiate with the Home Office, as he did in a spirit of good faith, and it insisted on dropping the aspect of the Bill that dealt specifically with assault. That is a matter of regret because, as has been spelled out by almost all hon. Members who have spoken, the incidence of direct physical assaults on emergency workers has increased in recent years, and legislation to deal with that would be welcome.
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