House of Commons
|Session 2005 - 06|
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Standing Committee Debates
Emergency Workers (Protection) Bill
Emergency Workers (Protection) Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
John Benger, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Standing Committee C
Wednesday 26 April 2006
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
The Chairman: I understand that it is hoped that the Committee will conclude consideration of the Bill within this sitting. If that does not prove possible, I shall invite the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) to move a sittings motion before we adjourn, specifying the date and time of our next sitting. In the event of a second sitting, I do not intend to call starred amendments.
Assaulting or impeding certain providers of emergency services
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): I shall be opposing clause 1, because I have tabled an amendment proposing its deletion. Before I speak to that proposal, however, it may be helpful in expediting our discussion of the individual amendments to come if I provide an update on what has happened since Second Reading.
I anticipated that there would be a considerable number of amendments, partly because, as I said on Second Reading, in my laziness I picked up an Act from Scotland that had already been passed to save me the tedium of drafting. That Act was geared to Scottish law, however, so some of the amendments are technical amendments, reflecting the fact that the legal background to the Bill that I originally proposed is different in England and Wales from in Scotland.
The second factor contributing to the number of amendments is that, in order to achieve passage of this important Bill, which is much wanted by the fire services especially, I have agreed with the Government to make certain changes. Discussions have enabled us to agree that, as was mentioned on Second Reading, the Bill will focus not on the whole range of assault and impeding offences, as in Scotland, but on the offence of impeding emergency workers who are going about their duties. That has meant that the parts of the Bill dealing with assault have been dropped.
In that respect, the Government anticipated the mood of the House better than I did when I proposed the Bill. The mood of the House is that existing legislation and law can be used, and that the shortcomings are not in the law, but in enforcement. That was the clear mood on both sides of the House on Second Reading, so I had no problem in dropping
There has been one important development since Second Reading. At that stage the Minister indicated that it might be appropriate for the fine level to be set at a maximum of £1,000, whereas I had suggested a fine up to level 5, which is £5,000. I am glad to say that she has since agreed to come into line with the original proposal, so we have made an advance on sentencing since Second Reading, and I thank her for that positive response.
Another part of the deal that I suspect will require discussion is a restriction on coverage, because the Scottish Bill was very wide-ranging, and the Government believe that it is more wide-ranging than is appropriate. I am sure that the Minister will understand my asking her to expand on their thinking.
Before we complain about what we have not got, it is important to remember what the Bill will still cover if we agree to the amendments today. It will cover firefighters, ambulance workers, coastguards, lifeboat crews, air ambulances, people transporting blood, organs and medical equipment in an emergency, and volunteers and voluntary organisations running ambulance services. Even in its reduced form, the Billis a measure that we should all be proud to be associated with.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend downplays his achievement in introducing the Bill. I see the amendments not as a downgrading, but as an expansion of the original Bill to deal with a much wider problem than it countenanced. We know from Second Reading that the original Bill dealt with a narrow but important issue that can be dealt with by other means. The matters now contained in my right hon. Friends Bill cannot be dealt with by other means, and he is to be congratulated on what he has achieved so far in bringing forward a measure that will be of great importance to all those engaged in emergency services. I am very pleased to be part of the Committee in order to give the Bill my support, as I did on Second Reading, and to welcome what he has achieved.
Mr. Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for his kindness. I have survived for 41 years in this House of Commons by possessing a surfeit of humility, but I am thankful for his kind comments. Since I am now ready to accept his plaudits, I shall add that an important safeguard has been built in to the Bill. Through new clause 1, the Minister will have time to think again in the light of experience and of whatever happens, which is important in our current troubled environment. The new clause will give her order-making powers that will allow her to add to or remove from the list of persons covered.
I am pleased to say that our endeavours have even come to the attention of our colleagues in Northern Ireland. I understand from a Minister that Northern Ireland, whose fire services are already protected, would like its ambulance services to be included in the Bill. I think that we have done a wider service than we at first anticipated. I believe that we can deliver a worthwhile Act, and I appreciate finding out that I am not the only one who thinks so.
In opposing clause 1, I can provide a counterbalance of succinctness. I do not support the clause because it is just not needed. The amendments will in effect merge clauses 1 and 2 and tidy up and shorten the Bill considerably.
I shall divert for a minute to another amendmentin the group. Amendment No. 21 applies to false information, and it may have been tabled because the situation is different in Scotland; I do not know. In any case, the Department has assured me that the amendment is not strictly necessary, because hoax calls are already an offence in their own right, and deliberate misinformation on the site or during the course of an emergency falls within the impeding terms of the Bill. On that basis, I urge my colleagues not to support the clause.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I repeat to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West the congratulations on introducing the Bill that the official Opposition extended when we supported it on Second Reading. We very much hope that it reaches the statute book.
We understand why it is necessary for the right hon. Gentleman to reach an agreement with the Government about the parts of the Bill that they do not like. Legislation is the art of the possible, and it is better to have a measure on the statute book than no measure at all. Nevertheless, I expressed on Second Reading some scepticism about the Governments arguments for dropping the assault provisions from the Bill, which is the effect of the amendments.
The Governments arguments fell into a number of categories. The first and most substantial was that they preferred to rely on the operation of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. They believed that that would enable a signal to be sent to offenders, and, importantly, to the courts, that there should be stiffer sentences for assaults on emergency workers. We will of course support the sending of that signal. Will the Minister clarify what arrangements she will make for publicity, so that the same type of signal that would be sent by the creation of a specific offence can be sent by the Home Office in publishing the revised sentencing guidelines?
The Government said that a specific offence was unnecessary because of the existence of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and on Second Reading the Minister stated that the situation was different in Scotland because the sentencing guidelines mechanism does not exist there. That is not an entirely fair representation of the situation. The Law Society of Scotland listened to the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill, and in a news release that it published on 26 May 2004, it made this observation:
Some time ago, the Lord Advocate issued guidance for procurators fiscal on the prosecution of emergency workers. The Society understands that the guidelines are working well in practice.
It appears that in Scotland, guidelines similar to those that the Government have suggested requesting from the Sentencing Guidelines Council already existed, urging courts to give stiffer sentences for assaults on emergency workers. Despite that fact, Members of the Scottish Parliament took the view that it was a good
Secondly, as I pointed out on Second Reading, the Government said in their manifesto at the last election that
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.
That manifesto was issued just a year ago. I am sure that the Minister will say, Well, what we meant was that tougher sentences will take the form of a different arrangement with the Sentencing Guidelines Council. But that was not what the Government meant in relation to the other crimes for which they promised to introduce tougher sentences.
The penalty for carrying replica guns is being increased under clause 37 of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which has been through its stages in this House and begins its Committee stage in the other place today. In relation to that offence, the Government meant that increased sentences would be introduced, but on the offence of assaulting workers serving the public, they say that tougher sentences mean different sentencing guidelines. They therefore cannot rely on the argument that reference to the Sentencing Guidelines Council was what they meant in their manifesto just a year ago. If the Government make a manifesto promise that they will introduce tougher sentences, they should stick by it.
The third argument adduced by the Government is that a specific offence would be difficult to prove. That is an odd argument to make. It does not seem remotely problematic to add to an offence the additional burden of proving that the victim was an emergency worker. Surely it would take a competent prosecutor a matter of minutes to establish that. I cannot see why it should present a real impediment to proving such an offence.
The fourth justification on which the Government relied is that racially aggravated offences are different. The Minister explained on Second Reading that that is the case because the purpose of those offences is to deal with situations in which people other than the victim might be caused fear. That argument could apply equally to emergency service workers, and it ignores the real reason for the introduction of racially motivated offences: Parliament wished to send a clear signal that that type of assault was particularly egregious and was unacceptable.
In conclusion, I return to the point with which I began my remarks. Hon. Members of all parties felt on Second Reading that a particularly important reason for the legislation was that Parliament needed to send a signal that assaults on emergency service workers, which have increased substantially, are totally unacceptable. That is why the Scottish Parliament introduced similar legislation. We have not had the opportunity to study its impact, but I have no reason to believe that it is not working perfectly adequately. I am concerned that by removing the specified provisions from the Bill, we are weakening that signal. By relying on the Sentencing Guidelines Council, we are not sending the tough signal that we would send by
The Minister will no doubt respond to my points. We shall not press the matter, because we wish the Bill to pass and we respect the reasons of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West for tabling his amendments, but it is a pity that just one year after the Government made their manifesto commitment to deal with the problem, they have effectively reneged on it.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Swansea, West on promoting the Bill and on his success in getting this far. His previous ministerial experience has obviously stood him well in negotiating with the Government to get us where we are todaya point at which, we hope, the Bill will become legislation.
I will not repeat everything that the Conservative spokesman has said. I agree entirely with his points and I echo the regrets that he has expressed. It is a great shame that the Bill is only half the Bill that it could bebut half a Bill is better than no Bill, so we are happy to support it. Out of respect to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, who has negotiated us to where we are now, we shall not press any of the clauses to a vote.
Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will tell us why we are losing what should be a clear signal about the protection of emergency workers. During the last Parliament, I tabled an early-day motion that received broad support across the House proposing that assault on an emergency worker should be a summary conviction. That was different from what is now proposed. The offence, which under sentencing guidelines is just an assault, would have been put on par with assault on a police officer. A nurse, doctor or fireman, or any other emergency worker going about their duty, deserves the protection of the law in the same way that police officers do in going about their duty. Recent times have seen an increase not only in hindrance to fire and other emergency services, but in assaults on them.
In the national health service, there has been progress in prosecuting for assaults on medical staff, but I feel strongly that the likelihood of assaults will be reduced only if the Government send a clear signal to the people who offend to make it clear that such action is not acceptable. Those in the emergency services are trying to protect and save the lives of others. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the points that have been made. If she has conceded on the penalties, as the right hon. Gentleman said, she could talk to her Department about whether it would really be a problem for assault on an emergency worker to become a summary conviction.
The other sadness is the categories of emergency worker that have been taken out of the Bill. As I understand it, the amendments will mean that social workers no longer receive the protection that other workers do. If I am wrong, I hope that the Minister will intervene. She has not intervened, so I take it my interpretation is correct. I should be grateful if she could clarify that.
The clause on social workers was inserted as an amendment to the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005. The Labour party in Scotland accepted the amendment on the grounds that it felt that emergency workers included social workers who undertook certain categories of work, because there were times, especially when dealing with child orders, that stresses and the risk of assault were high in that role. If social workers are doing child intervention work, emotions can run very high in the affected families. Indications point to an increasing number of assaults on people doing such work. It would be a great shame if they were singled out and did not receive the same sort of protection as other emergency workers will receive under the Bill. Will the Minister explain why those exceptions and deletions are being made in the Bill?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman again on getting this far. I wish him every success with the Bill, and I look forward to its receiving Royal Assent within this Parliament, as I hope it will. We will not oppose it, but we would like further explanation from the Government as to why they are cutting it in half.
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