§ Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it an offence to assault, intimidate or otherwise interfere with emergency services personnel in the execution of their duties; and for connected purposes.
I thank the Government Whips Office for enabling me to have this slot this afternoon, the more so because I was originally supposed to speak on the issue in June, but the date was put back until today. I am extremely grateful to the individual concerned and I have let them know accordingly.
The matter begins with a letter dated 21 December last year that I received from Richard Bull, who is the chief fire officer of the Tyne and Wear fire brigade. Following an increasing number of assaults both on his staff and on fire engines, he asked for parity along the lines of part IV of the Police Act 1964, the miscellaneous and general sections of which deal with, among other things, offences against the police. I subsequently met the chief fire officer during the Christmas recess, and he gave me a lot of detail that I found alarming. I then applied for this ten-minute Bill. When we look at the details involved in the chief fire officer's request, we see that, in 2001, there were 58 attacks on fire brigade staff, 15 of which occurred in Sunderland, where my constituency is situated. Since April this year, over three months, there was a total of 15 attacks, which is approximately in line with last year's total, but 12 of them occurred in Sunderland. That is alarming; if that level is projected forward, there will be almost a threefold increase on last year.
The north-east ambulance service has also contacted me about the same problem. In May alone, there were 11 incidents of violence and aggression towards ambulance staff. I have also received representations from the Royal College of Nursing, which has been most supportive of the Bill. It is very concerned about attacks on its people in hospitals. Unfortunately, patients are responsible for most of those attacks, although not all of them. I would also like to place on record my thanks to the Sunderland Echo, the local newspaper in the north-east, which has mounted a vigorous campaign with which I fully agree.
The situation is well known to everyone concerned—it is not a north-eastern phenomenon. As recently as earlier today, I was informed that the ambulance service in London is to start providing protective armoured clothing for its ambulance personnel, so it is clear that everyone is well aware of the problem. For many years, violence towards public service workers has been escalating. We all know that, despite the fact that crime in general has reduced in recent years, violent crime has taken the opposite course and is increasing.
That raises a problem and also the issue of the philosophy of how we deal with such problems. It has always been my understanding that it was the Government's job to try to deal with such problems until such time—if ever—as they found an answer, but they must always seek an answer. It surprises me that, for many years, not only the current Administration, but the previous one, have never seen fit to give the same protection to the firefighters, ambulance drivers and medical staff who are involved in the sector that is given 763 to the police. Of course, the police should have that protection, but they should not be alone in that respect. The proposal is also very popular with the public, who want the emergency services to be able to attend to their wants when they need them and to be unfettered in doing so.
All that I am seeking in the Bill is to ensure that we give out two messages. First, we must make it clear to public service workers that we not only say many fine words in Parliament about the wonderful work that they do, but are prepared to try to legislate to carry those good words into effect. Until now, we have failed to do so. Secondly—this is perhaps even more important—we must try to get the message to the public that such attacks will not be tolerated. We do not need a very vivid imagination to envisage the scenario that we are talking about, in which a fire engine going to a fire in which children might be trapped gets a brick heaved through its windscreen and is put out of operation. That could lead to people dying. We are talking not only about the simple assaults that we all know occur all the time, but about people's lives being endangered by antisocial and criminal behaviour.
It seems to me that someone who assaults a person who is engaged in providing an emergency service is in a rather different category from that of someone who is involved in everyday football ground violence or an altercation outside a public house or working men's club. Yet the law does not make any provision for that. I do not want to hear the argument that we can leave this to the courts. The courts are not the social conscience of this country—Parliament is supposed to be that. We are supposed to make legislation that the courts carry out, but in this case we have not done so.
764 I hope that there is no opposition to the Bill and that it is such a common-sense issue that everyone appreciates its seriousness. Perhaps more importantly, I hope that the Government, if they are not willing to bring in legislation of their own, will give my Bill a fair wind and, indeed, assist it, because it is what the public want. We hear a great deal about the public's disenchantment with parliamentary procedures. They do not think that Members of Parliament are doing their jobs properly or that Ministers are doing a good job, and see no relationship between themselves and this place. It is not too difficult to understand why, given that when there is a big public outcry about an issue, no action is taken to put it right.
I hope that at some time in the near future legislation will be introduced that deals with transgressors in a robust and rigorous manner, and lets people in the front line of emergency services see that we really do care about them. That is a fairly straightforward request, and I hope that all hon. Members agree with it and give it their support.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bill Etherington, Mr. David Atkinson, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. John Cummings, Mr. Tony Lloyd, Mr. Khalid Mahmood, Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. George Mudie, Syd Rapson, Mr. Gerry Steinberg, Dr. Rudi Vis and Mr. James Wray.