Emergency Workers (Protection) Bill

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): It is a pleasure to support this private Member’s Bill under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.
We are having something like a mini-Second Reading debate on a non-stand part debate for clause 1. I wish to deal with the points that hon. Members have made, because they go to the heart of what we are trying to achieve in the Bill. We are trying to get rid of a very particular and serious wrong that often leads to further wrongs—the often wilful obstruction ofblue-light emergency workers in the course of their duty of trying to protect members of the public. Frankly, such activity is unacceptable and outrageous, which is precisely why we made the commitments on these matters set out in our election manifesto. I am glad to have the opportunity to describe how we are delivering on those commitments, and how the Bill will help us to do so.
Opposition Members have referred to provisions for racially aggravated assaults. That mechanism was rightly adduced by the Government before we had a process such as the Sentencing Guidelines Council. The council gives us a tool to be used in any area where an aggravating factor exists in respect of a particular offence. Given that we have such a tool, it is wrong not to use it for the whole range of aggravating factors, including one already acknowledged in an initial guideline involving people who are serving the public. The sentencing guidelines formulation on violent crime that is due to be made available shortly will deal with assault, and I hope that it will not only deal clearly with someone who is serving the public, but specifically highlight emergency workers.
The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) mentioned social workers. They are a precise example that goes beyond the main case that we are dealing with in the Bill and relates not to blue-light type emergencies, as it were, but to situations thatare full of the tension, anger and anxiety of anemergency-type intervention in a family’s life that could put a social worker at risk. Such situations would be covered by the offence of assaulting an individual, which would be aggravated by the fact that the person was serving the public at the time when they were assaulted.
There is a very important difference regarding the advice given to procurators fiscal. That advice sends out a signal of the sort that Opposition Members mentioned, but it does not have the force of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which does much more than send a signal or give advice. Courts are obliged specifically under law to follow the guidelines, and if they do not, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides that they must state publicly in court why they have not. We therefore have a powerful mechanism to ensure that the status of sentencing guidelines is much more significant that anything that exists in Scotland or which has existed previously. That is the appropriate way in which to deal with aggravation and the fact that the person who has been assaulted was serving the public.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) rightly asked how we will make sure that the signal is heard and how it will be publicised. Hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s respect campaign. Such matters are at the heart of that campaign. We shall not just announce Sentencing Guidelines Council matters in the usual way. It is right we have an open, consultative process, but the problem is that the point at which the newspapers will report a matter is when we have a draft guideline and they want to suggest things that we might wish to change. I see hon. Friends nodding their heads. Perhaps they are thinking about the recent proposed draft guidelines.
Such issues do not receive sufficient publicity after they have been through the processes of comment and discussion by the Home Affairs Committee and elsewhere. We need to beef up the publicity. I am happy to give the Committee an absolute commitment not only that we will build such matters into the respect campaign, but that when the guideline is published, we will, probably working with trade unions, other workers in the field and employers, put energy into ensuring proper public awareness.
We shall deliver our manifesto commitment for tougher sentences not only by sending signals, but by putting in place a tough mechanism that courts have a duty to follow. Comments were made in the Chamber earlier today about the Home Office over-legislating. When we can create sensible arrangements in order to deliver the will of the House and the public, as they expect when they vote in a general election, without primary legislation, it is right and proper to do so. That will do more than send a clear signal; it will ensure that things happen.
2.30 pm
I should like to join in the praise bayed by Members on both sides of the Committee of my right hon. Friend not only for his determination—we have had some robust conversations—but for his flexibility. As a consequence, we can fill a lacuna in legislation. People have been able to obstruct workers, including ambulance workers in particular, with impunity, and his Bill gives us an opportunity to provide better public protection. I am grateful to him for co-operating with the Government in order to make the Bill simpler, and more effective and flexible. If it becomes clear that categories of public employees should be added, we will have the capacity to add them in future without further primary legislation.
Nick Herbert: I thank the Minister for her explanation of some of the differences between Scotland, and England and Wales. Will she respond to my point about the Labour party manifesto promises of tougher sentences for certain crimes and about where such sentences were introduced? I mentioned the carrying of replica guns. Clause 37 of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill increases the sentence for that offence from six to 12 months. Why was the Sentencing Guidelines Council not sufficient in relation to that offence?
Fiona Mactaggart: We are talking here about a single offence, not a separate one. The hon. Gentleman is referring to offences that are already on the statute book. The original version of my right hon. Friend’s legislation suggested a separate and new offence, not a heavier sentence for an existing one. We have an existing offence of assault and a mechanism that can produce a heavier sentence. We can obtain that heavier sentence by using the sentencing guidelines tool. In the cases to which the hon. Gentleman is referring, there is a specific offence, such as that of carrying a weapon.
Question put and negatived.
Clause 1 disagreed to.

Clause 2

Assaulting or impeding certain emergency workers responding to emergency circumstances
Mr. Williams: I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 16, after ‘who' insert ‘without reasonable excuse'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendments Nos. 3, 4, 14 to 16, 18, 31 and 34.
Mr. Williams: Amendment No. 2 is quite a useful shorthand amendment in that it deals with the problem of inadvertence far more subtly than did the Scottish drafting. I am assured by the Home Office and legal advisers that the phrase “without reasonable excuse” covers all that is required, and does so singularly succinctly. I commend the amendment to the Committee.
In effect, we have already had the debate on assault, but I shall make one observation: it is one thing to talk about what a Government Bill can do, and another to talk about what is achievable with a private Member’s Bill. I do not wish to tweak the tail of thehon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, but on his Benches sits the scourge of the private Member’s Bill, who delights in sabotaging Bill after Bill, and does so with great ability. He ominously stood up, early on, and made it clear to me that he would not tolerate the inclusion of a new offence of assault. Since I like him very much and admire him enormously—at one time, I had a similar job to his on the Front Bench, giving us a sort of union compatibility—I recognised that his threat was not insignificant. It was more of a threat in some ways than that of my hon. Friend the Minister, I think. As we shall have only one day for Report, I responded not just to the pressures from my own Benches, but to the formidable pressures from the Opposition Benches.
Fiona Mactaggart: We covered the critical issues relevant to this group of amendments in an earlier debate. The provision will create a new offence covering ambulance and lifeboat crews and coastguards and—it will probably help Committee members if I reassure them on this point—it will be an anchor for early interventions using some of the tools that I referred to on Second Reading, such as acceptable behaviour contracts and so on.
Simplifying the clause by means of the phrase “without reasonable excuse” will enable us to get something we all want—success in prosecutions. One of our initial anxieties about the structure of the original Bill was that it was relatively laborious. Unfortunately, we have found that legislation of that kind can be an unintended barrier to success in pursuing prosecutions.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 3, in page 1, line 16, leave out ‘assaults,'.
No. 4, in page 1, line 19, leave out subsection (2).—[Mr. Alan Williams.]
Mr. Williams: I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 4, leave out paragraph (a).
The Chairman: With this we may take the following: Amendments Nos. 6 to 10 and 13.
Clause 7 stand part.
Amendment No. 27.
New clause 1—Repeals.
Mr. Williams: Here again, we benefit from the early general discussion that you permitted, Mr. Benton, because this group of amendments has substantially been discussed, relating as it does to the question of definition. The Minister has given her initial answer to the request for an explanation of the change in the Bill’s content. I am glad that new clause 1 is included; it is what I consider a safeguard clause.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 6, in page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(aa) that of a person employed by a fire and rescue authority in England and Wales;
(ab) in relation to England and Wales, that of a person (other than a person falling within paragraph (aa)) whose duties as an employee or as a servant of the Crown involve—
(i) extinguishing fires; or
(ii) protecting life and property in the event of a fire;'.
No. 7, in page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(ac) that of a person employed by a relevant NHS body in the provision of ambulance services (including air ambulance services), or of a person providing such services pursuant to arrangements made by, or at the request of, a relevant NHS body;
No. 8, in page 2, line 16, leave out
‘on a body of water'.
No. 9, in page 2, line 18, at end insert ‘or recovery'.
No. 10, in page 2, line 19, leave out paragraphs (d)to (h).—[Mr. Alan Williams.]
Mr. Williams: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 2, line 42, leave out from ‘animals' to the end of the line.
The Chairman: With this we may take amendment No. 12.
Mr. Williams: I think that I can move this amendment very briskly because it is a technical amendment to ensure, albeit with a different wording from the original, that risk to property is included in the definition of emergency circumstances.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 12, in page 2, line 42, at end insert—
‘( ) serious harm to any building or other property; or'.
No. 13, in page 2, line 44, at end insert—
‘( ) In subsection (3) above “relevant NHS body” means—
(a) in relation to England and Wales, an NHS foundation trust, National Health Service trust, Special Health Authority, Primary Care Trust or Local Health Board;
(b) in relation to Northern Ireland, a Health and Social Services trust or Health and Social Services Board.'—[Mr. Alan Williams.]
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Nick Herbert: I do not wish to detain the Committee, but I wonder whether the right hon. Member for Swansea, West or the Minister can answer a point that has just occurred to me. We have just agreed amendments relating to protection for people who are employed by a relevant NHS body to provide services. What is the position of St. John Ambulance workers? They might not be employed by the NHS but they provide important ambulance services for the public. I am sure that the Committee would agree that they should be included in the protections accorded by this Bill, and I shall be grateful for clarification as to whether that is the case.
Mr. Williams: Yes. The Bill covers ambulance workers generally, the air ambulance and volunteers and voluntary organisations running ambulances. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
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