Chris Bryant: It's time for politicians to step up and protect the protectors
Members of Parliament have a duty to curb this spiral of violence against emergency service workers, writes Chris Bryant
Every week you read some new horror story of an attack on an emergency worker. In one incident in South Shields this year a man headbutted a community support officer and knocked him out with a bottle of Amaretto before attacking two officers in a patrol car, punching one female officer so hard that he broke her nose.
But it’s not just police officers. So frequent are attacks on staff in A & E units in North London that a special police force has now been set up to protect doctors and nurses from assault. Government figures show that on average there are almost 200 assaults on doctors, nurses and other NHS staff in England every single day, and last year hospital staff in Wales were attacked more than 18,000 times whilst at work.
Even in my own constituency, not long ago a gang of 30 youths attacked fire officers in my own constituency in the Rhondda as they were trying to put out a fire.
This is plain unacceptable and we politicians must do everything in our power to try and curb this spiral of violence against emergency workers. As things stand, the law offers no special protection to many of these workers. An assault on them is viewed in law as just the same as an assault on any other member of the public. Yes, there are specific laws on assaulting prison officers and the police, but these on the whole are unused or bargained down and mean that police officers often see the people who assaulted them given little more than a small fine or have the charges dropped entirely. We can’t allow this lack of justice to go on any longer, we must start to protect those who work so hard to protect us.
So, along with my fellow MP Holly Lynch, I am proposing a new aggravated offence of attacking an emergency worker whilst they are performing their duties. I believe passionately that an attack on any of these staff is an attack on the whole of society – and it should carry a heavier punishment. No more should nurses, police officers or firefighters have to think that being attacked and abused is simply an occupational hazard. It isn’t, and it never should be and attacks on these workers should attract a higher penalty. This protection through tougher sentences already exists in Scotland and so it is unacceptable that emergency workers in England and Wales aren’t given the same safeguards as their colleagues north of the border.
But there is another related problem we need to solve. Thousands of emergency workers, and especially police officers get spat at in the course of their duties. This is not only disgusting but dangerous, and currently these workers have to face months of uncertainty after being spat at because assailants refuse to provide a sample to be checked for the many infectious diseases that can be carried in saliva. So my bill will also make it an offence for an assailant who has spat at an emergency worker to refuse to provide a sample, in the same way that it is an offence for someone to refuse a breathalyser test when pulled over on suspicion of drink-driving.
I sincerely hope my legislation won’t mean lots more people will go to prison, but that instead people will think long and hard before attacking an emergency worker because of the tougher penalties they’d face. We have to stop the violence. We have to protect the protectors. My bill is an opportunity to do that and to help stem a cross-party problem that affects every constituency in every part of the country. So please, write to your MP to tell them to be in Parliament on 20th October to back our bill and send a strong message that we support our emergency workers and will tolerate abuse no longer.
Chris Bryant is Labour MP for Rhondda. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill will have its second reading on 20 October