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we will introduce tougher sentences for carrying replica guns, for those involved in serious knife crimes and for those convicted of assaulting workers serving the public.
They have accepted legislative changes to deal with those carrying replica guns and with serious knife crimes, but when it comes to protecting workers who serve the public, they do not want legislation and say instead that the Sentencing Guidelines Council will do our work for us. We all remember that in recent weeks some of the decisions taken in court by judges acting in accordance with the Sentencing Guidelines Council have earned the criticism of Home Office Ministers. How can it be that judges who are operating according to the Sentencing Guidelines Council were excoriated by the Home Secretary two weeks ago but are now, according to what Home Office Ministers have said, to be the agents of the protection that we all feel that is required?
The onus is on the Minister to explain precisely how the Sentencing Guidelines Council will give effect to the feeling of the House to ensure that emergency workers get the protection they deserve. He must also explain why legislative action is not specifically required in this case. What is it about emergency workers that means that they do not deserve the same legislative protection that he has extended to other categories of potential victims in the range of legislation that he is introducing?
I look forward to hearing from the Minister as he provides enlightenment on this and many other topics. It remains only for me to say that we congratulate the
Father of the House on introducing this much needed legislation. Our only regret is that his original intent was blunted by the Home Office.
As a member of the 1997 intake and a London MP, let me start in the same place as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) did. At that time, we sat for perhaps half the Fridays available instead of 13. That was an interesting way to get more and more practice in this place. None of us can ever get enough of that. We had all-day Adjournment debates as well as debates on private Members Bills. I remember with great fondness duelling constantly, but mostly failing in the attempt, with my right hon. FriendI hope that he would not have minded me calling him thatthe former Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. As this is the first time that I have participated on a Friday since his sad demise, I want to put on record how much I learned from him. He was much maligned, misunderstood and excoriatednot least by Labour Members who did not know any betterbut he will be sadly missed, not least by the 1997 intake of Friday boys, some of whom have been mentioned in dispatches today and some not.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) on securing cross-party support for the Bill. I also congratulate him on selecting, from among the plethora of choice of legal advice in this House, my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) rather than certain other learned colleagues. I can furnish him with a list of those on both sides of the House from whom he should never seek legal advice.
It is importantthis has underscored many of todays speechesto say what precisely the Bill is supposed to do. It is not an attempt to reinvent assault legislation. It is not an attempt to establish a legislative framework for other things such as education awareness, antisocial behaviour, respect and all the other relevant considerations that hon. Members have mentioned. The Bill does not seek to achieve all that. Nor does it seek to afford aggravated status to the offence of obstructing emergency workersa point to which I shall return.
As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) suggests, the Bill seeks to fill a serious gap. Many of the concerns that he and my hon. Friends expressed would be more relevant if we wanted the Bill to be an overall comprehensive measure like the Scottish Act, but the Bill does not profess to be such a measure. There is no need for that, not least because, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath well knows, the Scottish Act sought to fill considerably more gaps in the Scottish legislative framework, and those gaps simply are not there in English legislation.
I had to check my notes on this point, but I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West, for saying that a Bill that the Home Office had anything to do with was short and clear. That has not entirely been my experience, either as a Back Bencher
or as a Minister, particularly in the Home Office, so I am grateful for those comments. The Bill is short and clearrightly so, because these are extraordinarily serious matters, and filling the gap is hugely important.
I must confess that although hon. Friends and colleagues have tried to explain such behaviour, I do not entirely understand why people think it a clever, smart or positive use of spare time to throw rocks at ambulances, or why they regard people in uniform who seek to help the public, and who invariably save lives, as invading their turf, or think that they are just uniforms, like the police. Some colleagues were even more generous, saying that the blue lights sparked off adrenaline, everyone became terribly excited, and testosterone levels went through the roof, but none of those are excuses for impeding, obstructing or doing something worse to prevent our emergency workers from going about their business. That simply is not right in any way, shape or form. Whether it is just a kick-out at authority, or whatever the excuse is, those concerned must desist, and we must introduce legislation that addresses the issuesand the Bill is a necessary part of that.
I knowall the more because, happily, there is a cross-party approach to the Billthat the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) would tell us that the perpetrators simply need a bit more love and affection. He would say that they are much misunderstood, and if only we understood them more, everything would be so different, and that we should hug them or whateverbut I do not agree with that approach, either. However, to take one step back, I agree with the opening sentence of the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)her point was repeated by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)that we have to go a long way back along the chain and consider issues such as parenting, family breakdown and other factors that are the antecedents of antisocial behaviour, to try to address such matters. That is part of the Governments comprehensive approach.
Many of my hon. Friends mentioned the respect agenda and what we are trying to do to tackle antisocial behaviour. That very much fits in with trying to take preventive measures, but we have heard some horrendous stories this morning about the ways in which people seek to impede and obstruct emergency workers. Some of the points that colleagues have made are entirely fair and were dealt with in Committee. Some have been answered, but some perhaps will need to be revisited. It was right and proper to try to define an emergency worker as narrowly as possible, but also to include the escape clause so that we can consider adding to the categories, if experience dictates that the list is not adequate. I understand what was said by many colleagues about social workers and people who, in the course of their routine day-to-day work, may not necessarily be construed as emergency workers, but who are often put in positions in which they solve or help to solve an emergency. Those people deserve to be covered by the Bill so that they are not obstructed while carrying out their work. Those matters can and should be considered.
As I said, the Bill was not intended to reinvent assault legislation in the context of public workers. We are doing that in many other ways. It has been pointed out
that unlike Scotland, we have the Sentencing Guidelines Council. It already almost imposes a tariff for impeding people in the execution of public service, and we are considering in detail, with the council, other ways in which sentences can reflect the spirit and sentiment of the Bill. It is appropriate that many colleagues have put the wider issues of assault of public sector workers generally, and emergency workers specifically, in the context of the Bill, but the Bill does not try to do everything. Its narrow focus is appropriate.
It probably was inappropriate that the original Bill almost exactly reflected the Scottish provision, given that we do not start from the same legislative base. I shall say very carefullyand I shall not, as I was invited to, tease the House about what the Sentencing Guidelines Council may or may not saythat that is a matter that the Government should keep under review. Having set up the Sentencing Guidelines Council, we should let it do its work. If that achieves what we want with respect to the legislative base, that is more appropriately done in that way, although I reserve our right to return to the matter.
Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister used the words may and if with reference to the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Will he give a commitment that if there is not an increase in sentences over time, the Home Office will review the matter and consider whether assaults on emergency workers should be deemed to be aggravated?
Mr. McNulty: That sounded terribly like one of those elephant traps that Liberal Democrats are always trying to get Ministers to fall into by giving cast-iron assurances. None the less, unusually, that is a fair paraphrase of what I said, and I will take it back to the Home Office. I think that means yes, in a convoluted way.
we will introduce tougher sentences . . . for those convicted of assaulting workers serving the public.
Mr. McNulty: I thank the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect very much, for conceding the last election. That is terribly generous. He is being tedious. We already have people looking at how we can carry out that manifesto commitment. It is not a matter of whether we will do thatwe will; it is a matter of how. We have established the Sentencing Guidelines Council, so it is appropriate in the first instance that it does the job with which it is charged. Then, as I tried to say to the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross)in a convoluted way, I fully acceptwe will examine the matter further if the Sentencing Guidelines Council route is not the appropriate one.
With the Sentencing Guidelines Council, there is already an implied tariff in place for those who obstruct public service workers. We need to build on that. We are considering, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge rightly
suggests, other aspects such as sentencing for firearms and knife offences, and the wider context of assaults on public sector workers, rather than the narrow confines of obstruction of emergency workers. That commitment remains absolute.
When the hon. Member for Surrey Heath speaks of retreats of this sort or that sort, both of which are fiction, he is introducing an unnecessary and poisonous veneer of partisanship into our deliberations, which he should be ashamed of. I agree with his starting point. We need to fill the gap and add a deterrent or exhortatory value to the law. I agree with his point about the double impact of interference in the discharge of emergency workers duty and the potential damage done by that obstructionfor example, when the pipes used by firemen are cut.
I absolutely commend what the Father of the House has done with regard to the Bill. To hon. Members who have criticised the extent of the Bill, I say that it elegantly fills a gap that needs filling. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have discussed the wider issues, and we will examine those points and report back to the House. The House is about to give the Bill a fair wind, and I hope that it receives a fair wind in the other place too, in which case the Father of the House will be able to add it to his many other significant contributions in his long and enduring time in this place.
Mr. Alan Williams: With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate. It has gone on longer than I anticipated, and there is another important debate to come. I therefore hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I do not go through all the excellent speeches that have been made. All the speeches have been positive, and there has been unanimity on both sides of the House in our support not for the Bill, but for the work done by emergency workers, which should be satisfying for those workers.
I want to make two points about the debate. First, it has emerged that hon. Members are deeply afraid that with increasing attacks on emergency workers, as well as interference in their work, we may end up with no-go areas in parts of some towns. Secondly, hon. Members are deeply conscious that sanctions alone are not enough, and that education, training and understanding must form part of the programme.
It would be invidious to pick out one speech, but I shall pick out one comment, which I commend to the House as the quote of the day: my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) intervened to suggest, Hug a firefighter. I am not sure whether that would create a sense of neglect among the other servicesbut I do worry that our poor firemen will be afraid to go out in daylight.
It is a great privilege to open this Second Reading debate on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), in whose name the Bill stands. Sadly, he cannot be in the House today, because of commitments to fight for the interests of his constituents in Sussex, but that should not take away from the importance of the issue or lead anybody to conclude that the Bill is not widely supported by hon. Members, and, in particular, by those in the south-east and other parts of country that face excessive housing development.
The purpose of the Bill could not be clearer. The south-east faces unprecedented and unwanted pressure for new houses. The infrastructure is already creaking, and there is grave concern about the implications if many new houses are built before the infrastructure is improved to accommodate them. That is one of a number of issues that concern hon. Members. In particular, I draw attention to the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) will introduce to change the designation of gardens from brownfield sites, which is currently causing extreme problems in many parts of the country and particularly in the south-east.
The Bill requires a full audit of existing or planned infrastructure in areas in which significant housing development is planned. It has been introduced because there is growing concern that the Government plan for massive house building in the south-east will lead to a substantial deficit in the regions infrastructure. Local authorities in the south-east earmarked by Government for significant amounts of new house building estimate their individual infrastructure deficits to be about £1 billion each. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) will be familiar with that figure, as it was calculated by his district council. The cost of providing adequate infrastructure for the Governments house building targets for the south-east has been more formally estimated at £45 billion at least.
In March 2006, the South East England regional assembly submitted the south-east plan to Government, recommending an additional 28,900 new dwellings a year as sustainable housing growth for the south-east. For many of us, that figure was already much higher than we believed the region could sustain. However, as the consultation period on the south-east plan closed, the Government published a report examining the impact of building up to 60 per cent. more houses than was suggested in the already controversial SEERA plans. Typically of the Government, the report was published on the Government office for the south-east website without adequate attention being drawn to its presence there.
There is therefore a real concern that the Government are determined to impose even higher levels of house building in the south-east than SEERA had itself suggested, which, as I have said, many of us
felt was already too high, especially given that recent legislative changes mean that the Secretary of State now has a veto over all stages of the planning process, from regional strategy to local plans, even after examination in public. That brings even greater focus to our concerns in these matters.
Government spending on our infrastructure is already woefully inadequate. The community infrastructure fund is a mere £295 million for London and the wider south-east. Compare that figure with the figure I gave earlier of a £45 billion infrastructure deficit across the south-east in general. If that is not bad enough, there is also the worry that the current system of section 106 agreements will soon be replaced by the Governments new system of planning gain supplement. This new system will siphon off the majority of development gains into a central fund for strategic infrastructure. That is new Labour-speak for the Treasury, and yet another example of funds being taken away from the south-east to be distributed to other parts of the country.
Last year, the south-east county councils commissioned ICM to carry out the largest-ever survey of public opinion on the south-east plan. The headline result is stark indeed. The survey revealed that 60 per cent. of people in the south-east are not confident that the supply of infrastructure in the region will keep pace with new house building. The percentages of people saying which types of infrastructure should be given priority come as no surprise: 48 per cent. said that NHS hospitals should be given priority; 48 per cent. also said that priority should be given to public transport; 31 per cent. said that it should be given to major road projects.
The Bill would force a serious rethink about where the infrastructure is weakest and it would require a full audit of existing or planned infrastructure in areas where significant housing development is being proposed.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman genuinely suggesting that the Government in perhaps the Lee valley or the Thames Gateway are not doing what is necessary by laying down the foundations of good community projects and infrastructure, including housing, parks and libraries, to create the new communities that are desperately needed in my area of London?
Charles Hendry: Of course there will be some parts of the country that the hon. Lady may be more familiar with than I am where the Government are investing in that infrastructure. I am saying that, more generally across the south-east, that infrastructure is already lacking and that unless steps are taken now to address the problem, with hundreds of thousands of houses being proposed, the situation will become catastrophically worse.
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