HL Deb 17 March 1987 vol 485 cc1400-14

9.6 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of the recent work of the Health and Safety Executive committee on violence and related initiatives, they intend to make available extra resources to help tackle the problem of violent assaults on workers whose jobs bring them into contact with members of the public.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to put the qustion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am aware that the hour is late; but, on the other hand, the issues I am about to raise are of great concern to many thousands of workers and therefore I feel emboldened to make these comments.

We live in violent times. In recent years increasing concern has been voiced about the problem of violent assaults on workers whose jobs bring them into contact with members of the public. This problem is extremely widespread and there are some indications that it is growing both in terms of frequency and seriousness of the injuries sustained. For example, in the period 1979 to 1983 there were nearly 10,000 reported assaults on bus staff, to quote only one industry. There were other industries where there were equally severe problems.

Assaults have varied from sexual and racial harassment through verbal threats and intimidation to attacks with weapons and objects. In some cases women have been sexually assaulted. Many physical attacks have caused serious injury leading to permanent disfigurement or disability. In the worst incidents staff have been murdered. Available evidence suggests that the greater risk of violence is associated with the following factors: first, handling money or valuables, and then, the provision of care, information or advice; inspection and enforcement activities; work with violent people; working in isolation or working in services affected by public expenditure cuts. In a few sectors the incidence of assaults now exceeds the incidence of injury from conventional accidents.

In addition, the effects of assault are not limited merely to physical injury but can also include profound psychological damage. Transport staff get assaulted at night and even by day. National health staff get attacked by patients. Milkmen and postmen are at risk on the streets. Shopworkers and bank staff are all vulnerable. Civil servants are threatened and abused in social security offices. Rent collectors, social workers, maintenance workers, ambulance crews, gas and electricity emergency services and even teachers are at risk. Women's opportunities for advancement are affected as well, because employers are sometimes hesitant to employ women in occupations perceived to be at risk.

In many cases the crime seems sensless. Sometimes money or property is taken. Often the most sinister factor is the almost mindless violence against fellow human beings—ordinary workers going about their duties or even well-known newsreaders, such as the assault on Jan Leeming on the seventh floor of a BBC building.

Many of us can express our horror and concern at this problem, but what is to be done? We must start from the position that just as workers are exposed to other hazards and have the right to have the maximum practical precautions taken, so too with violence we must adopt a practical approach and treat this problem as a major occupational safety issue.

It is quite unreasonable to expect workers who deal with the public to continue to accept the risk of violent assault as a sad but inevitable part of their daily work. Whatever the wider causes of violence in society and whatever the longer-term solutions, such staff, like all other workers, have a right to be protected from foreseeable risks to their safety. This view is recognised by the TUC and the Health and Safety Commission and Executive, which, for a number of years, have done considerable work in this field and have established that employers have a duty under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act to take all reasonable practicable steps to protect staff.

The Health and Safety Commission has established an inter-departmental committee to promote new thinking and new approaches to reduce violence to staff, and it has been widely effective in promoting new work in a number of high-risk sectors.

The committee's first task was to assess the scale of violence to those who work with the public. What is interesting is that in many cases it was able to show that in a number of sectors the risk of injury as a result of a violent attack was equal to the risk of injury from conventional accidents.

A further major report is expected to be published very shortly on the results of a survey of violence in the National Health Service. This has shown violence to be more widely spread in the health service than had been expected, with unusually high incidence rates in certain areas. The research provides the base upon which new guidance can be given to health service managers and unions in order to devise practical solutions.

Other sector studies are in hand or are being planned, including in railways, in education and in local authorities. There has been considerable activity within the DHSS. The Home Office Standing Conference on Crime Prevention has also considered aspects of violence to staff in a number of studies covering prevention of violence on licensed premises and crime prevention in shops as well as prevention of commercial robbery.

However, perhaps the most important piece of work to have come out of the HSE committee has been the new guidance document, Violence to StagA Basis fur Assessment and Prevention.This guidance, which emerges directly from the work of the Tavistock Institute, provides a practical framework to help employers to deal with violence, and it also provides a practical framework to help with the problem.

I believe that we must place primary emphasis on preventing injury to staff, but clearly there are other aspects of the problem to be considered, including policing policy and prosecution, compensation and victim support and the need for expert advice and assistance for victims.

On policing policies and prosecution, where assaults occur, some consideration is required. Too often victims of assault find that the crime against them not only goes unpunished, but in many cases, unsolved. We must demand better results here. We must demand firm action from the courts, which must show more understanding for the victim set alongside those who act in this way.

However, I must emphasise that this is not a call for blind retribution. On the contrary, it is a plea that the courts should play their part in ensuring that no one who commits such crimes can expect to get off lightly. Of course, as is well known, there had been much criticism of widely inconsistent sentencing policy. The victim must have the first priority and must be provided with real help.

Nor must we forget to improve compensation in such cases. Sometimes it is easy to push the question of compensation to the back of our minds by postulating that we should concern ourselves with prevention. We must encourage employers to operate compensation schemes. We must continue our efforts to improve the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

That is a very good scheme and I welcome the fact that it is to be placed on a statutory basis, but it seems to me that we must ensure that the board has the necessary resources and the staff to deal with the backlog of cases and to see that cases are dealt with as expeditiously as possible.

We all have a responsibility for making jobs safe and for generating a new awareness and a new approach to violence. In doing this we need to go wider than the workplace and start to examine some of the underlying factors associated with crimes of violence in our society. Why has there been the increase in violent crime in recent years? Is it unreasonable to suggest, for example, that there is some connection between mindless brutality and the promotion of selfishness and "me-first" attitudes, for which I believe the media is largely responsible? Is it unreasonable to see some connection between deteriorating public services of all kinds and an increase in anger and frustration culminating, on occasions, in attacks on staff? Is it unreasonable to see at least some connection between rising levels of youth unemployment and an increase in the number of young offenders brought before the courts?

As far as concerns the Government, I welcome any steps which may be taken to protect working people, but at the same time I hope that the Government understand the frustration that is felt by working people in these particularly vulnerable sectors at having to deal with such problems. We must be concerned not only with long-term action to tackle the social origins of crime but also with effective short-term action to deal with the effects of violence on workers. We need firm action for those found guilty of assault. However, victims of violent crime need to be cared for and supported. Above all, we want to generate a sense of hope and confidence that we can tackle this issue and that we can fight back against the corrosive effects of demoralisation and despair which the threat of violence can create in so many workplaces.

I return to the Question that I tabled for debate tonight. We need to address ourselves to further resources in this area and we need to demonstrate to the workers who are in these vulnerable situations that we care about their plight and that we are concerned to ensure that they have the necessary support.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, as my noble friend said, it is getting rather late and so I intend to make only a short intervention in this debate. I wanted to take the opportunity given to us by my noble friend to make a small contribution to an extremely important subject. It is a great pity that due to the length of the preceding debate not more Members of your Lordships' House have presented themselves to speak this evening. My noble friend made the overriding point that it is a cruel irony that the very people who in the course of their work are carrying out a service to others should suffer from the risk of violence and brutality. This can only be a major source of concern and anxiety to us all.

My noble friend pointed out the problem and outlined the span of different workforces which are particularly suffering. She spoke of the growing dangers to both men and women who are occupied in certain parts of the labour force. I should like to comment specifically upon the position of women and say something about the efforts of a particular trust in attempting to help to shield women from the risks in which they are trapped through being more physically vulnerable as they enter ever-widening employment fields. Some of the ideas of the trust may give a lead to the thinking which the Government may well wish to follow.

The trust is called the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. It was set up in memory of the young estate agent who disappeared last year and who has never been heard of since. It has been set up by her family and I am a trustee. Its aim is to promote awareness and self-protection of and for women in the workplace. The trust's determination to achieve that has been reaffirmed by the realisation not only of the growing dangers for women as they enter different areas of the workforce, but, following the disappearance of this young girl and the publicity which arose as a result, employers have begun to regard women employees as a vulnerable liability. That will become a discrimination against women candidates in the job market. My noble friend made that point and it is quite true.

The first aim of the trust is to continue to heighten public awareness of that reality; secondly, it is to try to instruct employers on how best to ensure the safety of their female employers; and thirdly, to heighten awareness among women and make them recognise the risks. I think that the raising of awareness is half the battle. Women are so taken up with finding and obtaining a job, establishing themselves in that job and proving that they can do it as well or better than men, that perhaps at the present moment they are unable to pay attention to the fact that they suffer from certain disadvantages: namely, that they are the more vulnerable and weaker sex.

There is vulnerability at work and the fact that a woman is also at risk on her way to work and on her way from work, so the trust plans to use videos which will target working women and their employers. This video film is an excellent educational tool, and it will cover the dangers that women face when they meet members of the public on their own, and the risks in travelling to and from work, especially if they are shift workers. The video will explain the precautions that women can take in potentially dangerous situations and encourage them to respect those situations and observe those precautions. This is part of the way that they will be spending their funds.

They will also be producing teaching and learning packs which again will be given to women and to their employers to try to teach them how to heighten their awareness of vulnerability. This is another way in which they will be using some of their funds. It will benefit not only the women themselves but also the employers, who again at the moment as women enter more and more into different areas of employment are really ignorant of how best to deal with that vulnerability.

Then, what can be done to help them when they are at work? I think I could perhaps give just one example, that of the Ashford Borough Council, who are aware of the risks that their female employees run. In conjunction with a small private security company they have developed for their employees a course in what they call personal awareness and self-protection. The authority is already inundated with requests for places on the course. This is a good example of what other local authorities might do, and which might get the encouragement of the Government.

This would also apply to health authorities. There have been some frightening examples—again my noble friend touched on this—concerning nurses. I read in a recent Royal College of Nursing survey about nursing environments that it was reported that four out of five respondents had met a violent attack in the last 12 months, and one-third of those had incurred personal injury through violence. Secondly, adequate protection was not provided by employers, and, thirdly, assailants were both male and female. Therefore, if the attack came from such an unexpected source the nurses were totally unprepared and untrained to deal with it and often suffered a great deal of injury.

One specific way that women travelling could be helped—and I want to give this particular example—is by means of the vexed question of the registration of minicabs. There are women who think that they would be taking a great precaution if, instead of walking home or going out to look for a cab or public transport, they rang up and got a minicab. They feel that this may be the safest thing to do. But now there is evidence that there are numbers—it is not known exactly how many—of crimes and rapes associated with private hire cars.

There is also, as I am sure the Minister knows, the anomaly that a black cab has to be licensed, both the vehicle and the driver, but the minicab, or private hire car as it is called, does not have to register in any way. I should like specifically to ask the Minister to look into the whole question of the registration of minicabs. It would be one risk that might be removed from women if minicabs were registered in the same way as the black taxis. At the moment in London they do not have to register at all. Outside London, local authorities have an option to license or to ask for the registration of private car hire, but in London there is no need for authorities to do so.

The trust is hoping to act as a channel for a great deal of work which is currently in the pipeline among the police—who are alarmed and horrified about the rise in violence against people in these particular trades—and also the work at the London School of Economics on research into the issues that confront women at work and the techniques for promoting women's awareness. This is very important. Very little research has been put into this aspect. There is hardly any monitoring of how serious the situation is. Any support that can be given to current research, but which at the moment does not have any outlet, is of enormous importance. The trust hopes to fund some of this research. The crime prevention unit of the Home Office, recognising the importance, is also willing to associate itself with this research

My noble friend's Question is about further resources. In this case I should like to point out that although the trust has had a great appeal from the generous public, as is so often the case, and the Home Office has shown interest in its work—not only in pointing out ways that can be followed by the Government and by local authorities and also carrying out much of the work—the trust has not been offered any funding. I should be grateful if the Minister would look at the possibility of the trust being given a matching grant for every pound that it raises. The Home Office might match it pound for pound.

This would give great encouragement to the whole movement. I have only spoken about women who are the most vulnerable. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at these few points I have made and see whether there is anything he can do to support them.

9.27 p.m.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, at this moment I should like to thank the noble Baroness for initiating this debate. There is widespread agreement in the House upon the nature of the problem. The answer we are trying to discover and the question which is behind it does not just relate to the nature of the problem but to what the Government are prepared to do about it. In this respect I should like to remind the noble Viscount who is to wind up for the Government what the Question says: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of the recent work of the Health and Safety Executive Committee on violence and related initiatives, they intend to make available extra resources to help tackle the problem of violent assaults on workers whose jobs bring them into contact with members of the public. The central thrust of what the noble Baroness is asking the Government tonight and the central question which I hope the noble Minister will answer is whether the Government are prepared to make available resources over and above the resources which the Government now make available for dealing with this problem.

I say that there is no disagreement, that there is widespread agreement about the nature of the problem. It has been calculated that about 50 per cent. of the working population are now at risk in their daily lives from violent assault at the place of work: whether they are workers on the buses, on the trains, in the shops, in pubs, in schools, in banks, in various forms of social work and in other public and private services. They are at risk of some form of violent assault while simply carrying out their daily tasks.

Of course it can be said, and nobody would deny it, that this risk of assault is of varying degrees. It may he nothing more than mild harassment or mild discomfort. But it might be more than that: it can he a physical attack, and not merely a threat, carrying with it the possibility of injury, disfigurement and even of death.

I do not think there is much debate about the fact that the problem of violent assault at work is increasing. I do not think the Government would wish to deny—and if the noble Viscount wishes to deny it no doubt he will tell us—that this is a problem which is increasing more or less in line with the general increase in the risk of crime in any case. If there is a general rise in the crime rate then there will he a significant rise in crimes of this kind.

On the other hand, there may be disagreement—I daresay there is—on the precise rate at which risk exists and on the precise rate at which it is increasing. For example, we know that a working group of the Department of Transport has calculated that there were something like 10,000 assaults on transport staff last year: that is, bus transport, rail transport, and so on. We know that various inquiries have been conducted as a result of the committee which was set up partly as a direct result of an initiative of the Trades Union Congress and as a result of inquiries to the employers of transport, the DHSS, the Department of Employment, and so on. We know they have estimated that in the firms they know about there were something like 2,300 assaults last year involving something like 1,200 absences from work.

We also know that these figures greatly under-emphasise the extent of the problem. It is reasonable to suggest that a very large number of people who are subjected to assaults at work do not make any report of the fact or make any overt reference to it. Therefore any figures we might have which are based upon reported cases severely under-estimate the nature of the problem.

There is also a considerable amount of agreement over much of what can be done. We know at least what can be done to eliminate or reduce the opportunities for assault and to mitigate the consequences of an assault if it takes place. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, said, there are many things which informed opinion knows can be done. We know that it helps to eliminate payment by cash; we know it helps to improve communications; we know it helps to improve the quality of warning systems; we know that it helps to train the staff who are in these exposed positions in various ways of defending themselves. We know that it helps to provide certain screens and other protective devices which can assist them in dealing with a problem when a problem arises. Therefore we know what the problem is and how to mitigate the consequences.

Nevertheless, there are—and I believe this is one of the reasons why this Question has been put down tonight—a number of possible disagreements. There are a number of areas which are rather more controversial. There are a number of things which we could suggest to the Government with which the Government might disagree. It is in this area that I should like to say a few words at this moment, and ask the Minister to comment.

The first point I would make in terms of what is controversial—and I do not know whether the Government agree—is that we need far more accurate, across-the-board information than we have at the moment about the distribution of the problem, about the absolute size of the problem and, most important of all, about trends of violence at work. From time to time the Government initiate and even pay for a number of macro-questionnaires, some of which are answered by working people. It seems reasonable to suggest to the Government that at least a few of the questions which they load into these questionnaires might be related to this question of violence at work.

For example, every year we have an annual household survey conducted by the official census. Why can we not have a few questions on violence at work which might give us a base line, a trend line or some overall evidence to suggest whether the problem is rising faster than the general increase in crime.

Then from time to time the Government engage and even fund through the ESRC a number of macro-surveys about workshop relations. In 1984 there was a PSI/ESRC survey on workshop relations. Why can we not have in the next survey a number of questions about the rate of increase of violence at work and the forms and types of assault? This would give us a much more accurate oversight of the nature of the problem.

But it may not be—and the Government may say this to me—that these are appropriate ways of looking at the problem. It may be that the household survey and the PSI/ESRC surveys are not appropriate ways of finding out about these problems, in which case there is a need for a specialised survey to complement the work at the Tavistock Institute, which the noble Baroness mentioned, at a macro level, so that we have some objective estimate of the size, nature and distribution of the problem and of whether it is increasing. I fully appreciate that this might require certain extra resources, but that is what the Unstarred Question is about.

Secondly, there is surely a case for making more generally available the kind of clear, precise and specific proposals for dealing with the problem that one finds in the Health and Safety Executive publication Violence to Staff A Basis for Assessment and Prevention.I do not know how many people have read it, but it would do most employers a great deal of good to read it. It has been produced by two researchers at the Tavistock Institute but it has not had generous circulation. There is a significant argument for giving it a much more general distribution, perhaps as a code of practice issued by ACAS or the Department of Employment. Of course, I shall be told that this would require extra resources, which seems to be the thrust of the Unstarred Question.

There is also a case. to take a more controversial and radical proposal, for laying rather more specific liabilities upon employers in this field. The argument—and it is an argument which the Health and Safety Executive has made with great force—has always been that Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act makes clear the need for the employer to take all reasonably practical steps to safeguard the worker and, in particular, to safeguard the worker against assault.

However, it must be doubtful whether most employers know if Section 2 does that. That has not actually been tested in the courts. Those are the views of the Health and Safety Executive. There is a case for making it clear, if necessary by legislation or by an amendment of Section 2 of the Act. that the Government take the view that employers have a positive responsibility to take all reasonable, practical steps to safeguard their workers against assault.

In addition, it seems to me that there is a case to be made for review of the present levels of compensation. I believe that the thrust of the Unstarred Question tonight is that we should seek the prevention of such incidents. But we cannot expect 100 per cent. prevention. There are bound to be assaults and there are bound to be serious assaults. Therefore, we must turn to the present levels of compensation, both under the criminal injuries compensation scheme and in magistrates' courts.

The TUC. in its 1987 report on the prevention of violence at work, voices a number of criticisms. I do not know whether they are justified, and that is part of the answer which I seek from the Minister tonight. The report outlines a number of criticisms of the way in which the existing provisions work. For example, there are delays in getting decisions from the compensation board. There are a number of harsh rules, admittedly deriving from the compensation board, in the calculation in levels of compensation. There are questions as to whether the victim helped to bring an offender to justice. Those questions do not seem to me to be legitimately related to the level of compensation.

There are also questions as to whether the victim took necessary precautions and whether the assault was in any way the fault of the victim. That does not seem to me to be something which should be considered in the calculations of compensation. Without being able to validate those allegations one way or the other, it seems to me that the Government ought to be prepared to investigate the validity of the criticisms.

It is also said that the scheme allows and in fact instructs the compensation board to deduct from the allowable compensation virtually everything else which the victim receives. All social security payments in full, all pension payments, all insurance payments and so on are to be deducted. Anything which the victim obtains is a net payment. That seems to me to be a very harsh approach to the question of compensation. The Government ought to be prepared to investigate those matters. It may be that the Government will find that the provisions are rather harsh and that they wish to alleviate some of the harshness of the criteria. If so, more generous payments could be made and extra resources would need to be made available.

We are asking the Government to tell us how far they accept that this is a problem of such size and significance that it requires extra resources to be made available to tackle it. We believe that it requires such extra resources and we wait for the answer of the Government.

9.45 p.m.

Viscount Long

My Lords, let me first say how grateful we are to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, for the Question which she has raised. It lies in a vital, sensitive and very difficult area where we have a great deal to learn. I take the opportunity of thanking her and of saying that I wish that far more noble Lords had spoken on this Unstarred Question.

The problem of violent assault on staff is obviously an aspect of the wider problem of crime in society. As such, the police and other law enforcement agencies have a central role to play. But I shall, in line with the approach taken in the Question and the debate so far, concentrate in my response on the role of employers and employees.

At the workplace, employers have a prime responsibility to protect staff from the threat of violent attacks. As the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, have mentioned already, they have a duty under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure that their workforce is protected. This includes taking adequate precautions where there is a reasonably foreseeable risk of violence to their staff.

Indeed, such action is likely to be very much in the interests of employers themselves. Much has been said, rightly, in this debate about the profoundly damaging effects on the morale of staff which arise from working in an atmosphere of continuing threat—quite apart from attacks actually suffered. But for the employer, too, violence if a serious problem. It involves costs, in terms of reduced efficiency, sickness absence and a "bad image" which may make it difficult to recruit staff in the future. Customers are aware that continuing violence problems in any organisation means a poor service, and they may withdraw their custom. Attacks on employees are frequently associated with vandalism, and often the measures introduced to combat violence will lead to a decrease in vandalism. All in all, measures to prevent violence are likely to make good business sense for the employer.

The Government have committed significant resources to tackling the problem of violence at the workplace, both by encouraging suitable action by employers, and as an employer themselves. This point was raised both by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, in their speeches. I shall he giving some examples of the resources we are putting into this battle.

The Health and Safety Executive Steering Committee on Violence was set up in 1984. It brought together representatives from the major government departments, the Trade Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry and the Local Authorities Conditions of Service Advisory Board. The first action of the committee was to assess the nature of the problem which we know has been going on for many years. By collecting information from member departments the committee found that there was evidence of violence in many sectors of industry.

Public transport has been mentioned by both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy. Staff on buses, tube trains and railways were at risk. Assaults on staff were also reported in the National Health Service, local social services departments, social security offices, which have been mentioned tonight, unemployment benefit offices, Inland Revenue offices and some parts of the private sector, notably licensed premises. This violence was going on right across the spectrum.

The figures indicated that the problem was worst in public transport, particularly in London, where the incidence rate was of the same order as that for conventional industrial accidents. High rates of assault were also recorded in the National Health Service. Incidence rates appear to be lower in other sectors but it has been kept in mind that a significant proportion of accidents may well go unreported. At the same time, the problems must be kept in perspective. For example, the unemployment benefit offices recorded fewer than 100 incidents in a year, in an organisation of 28,000 handling 1.5 million claimants a week.

Having made this broad initial assessment of the problem, the HSE committee went on to consider how remedial action could be best promoted. It found that in general there was no lack of commitment from employers to combat the problem. However, many did not know how to get to the root of the problem and take effective measures. This led the HSE Committee to commission the Tavistock Institute on Human Relations to undertake research in that area.

Based on that research, HSE published guidance last October under the title Violence to Staff A Basis for Assessment and Prevention.I commend that report, which sets out a framework to help management and their employees to examine the problem in their own organisations and devise appropriate measures. Since then, the HSE Committee has commissioned the Tavistock Institute to conduct further research at a cost of £70,000. This consists of a series of case studies of measures which have been found to be effective in particular circumstances. The HSE intends to publish further guidance, based on those case studies, around the end of 1987.

Another important task of the committee has been to encourage sectors with particular problems to study them in detail. A working group comprising the bus industry (which was mentioned earlier), the transport unions and government departments, chaired by the Department of Transport, commissioned the Cranfield Institute of Technology to undertake research. In April 1986 the working group published guidance for the benefit of bus operators. A new study panel will continue to monitor progress in implementing measures to deal with assaults on bus staff.

Early in 1986 the Government and London Underground Limited commissioned a major report on crime on the Underground. The study's terms of reference were wide, covering all aspects of crime on the system, but there was a particular emphasis on the problem of violent crime, whether directed against passengers or against staff. The excellent report, published in November, made some 50 recommendations for action to help tackle crime, many of which are relevant to the problem of violence against staff.

The Health and Safety Commission will shortly publish the report of its Health Services Advisory Committee on the problem of violence to staff in the National Health Service, which was mentioned earlier. Furthermore, in December last year the Department of Health and Social Security, under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Social Services, organised a one-day conference to consider the problem in the social services, social security and the National Health Service. Since then a committee has been set up, chaired by my noble friend Lady Trumpington, to co-ordinate the approach to the problem in all areas for which the DHSS has responsibility—the National Health Service, social security and social services. Among its tasks, this group will consider the need for central guidance, so that lessons learnt in one area can be passed on to others.

As regards the social services sector, we must all be appalled by the murder of Miss Isobel Schwarz, a social worker, which has been referred to in this debate. I can tell the House that DHSS Ministers have appointed an inquiry, under Mr. John Spokes QC, to consider the adequacy of the arrangements made in that particular case, and also to identify any wider lessons both for the care of mentally disordered people and for the support of staff working with them. I can now tell the House that the inquiry's preliminary public meeting will be on 27th March. The main hearings of evidence are expected to begin in May.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister held a major crime prevention seminar in January 1986. As a result, the Home Office Standing Conference on Crime Prevention was commissioned to produce reports on the prevention of violence associated with licensed premises, shop theft and commercial robbery. These reports were published in November and include guidance on measures to protect staff from attack. In particular, the commercial robbery report includes best practice notes on steps employees can take to avert attacks by robbers.

Following the seminar, the Home Secretary established the Ministerial Group on Crime Prevention, to take forward and co-ordinate the crime prevention programmes of government departments. As I have already indicated, the prevention of attacks against staff is a major element in these programmes, especially those of the Department of Employment, the Health and Safety Executive and the DHSS, who are included in the membership of the group. The group has also recently approached the CBI and TUC to encourage further work on a wide variety of crime prevention issues.

So much for studies of the problem. I now turn to areas where, following study, effective measures are being introduced. Starting with the transport industry where the problem—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, and others—is most acute, many steps have been and are being introduced. For example, one-man operated buses of London Transport are progressively being fitted with screens. Several bus companies in and outside London are fitting video cameras and two-way radios. Assault avoidance techniques are now increasingly included in training as part of customer relations. The fitting of screens to London buses alone cost more than £500,000 and gives an idea of resources being devoted to the problem.

I should mention en passantthat the HSE guidance stressed the need to monitor the effectiveness of the measures adopted. Many operators are now finding that such measures have been highly effective. Since screens were introduced in London Transport, assaults have dropped by more than 27 per cent. Companies which have introduced video cameras report that the measure is highly cost-effective because of the accompanying reduction in vandalism.

On the London Underground, the recommendations made in the report published last November are being vigorously implemented by London Underground Ltd. This is backed by an additional £15 million being provided by the Government over the next three years.

Pilot schemes are being set up at some railway stations with more serious problems to try out new ideas for tackling crime and particularly violent crime. Staff at the selected stations have been closely involved in the design of these projects, which will be implemented during the course of this year. If they prove successful, the lessons learnt will be applied elsewhere on the system.

Work has already started on the provision of a new radio system for the police which will allow them for the first time to keep in touch with each other even in the deep tube stations where radios do not usually work. This will enable them to spend much more time actually patrolling the stations and to respond much more quickly to calls from staff in need of assistance. The effectiveness of these measures will be closely monitored.

British Rail, in addition to the £44 million allocated to the British Transport Police for regular enforcement, have provided substantial resources to combat the problem of violence. This forms part of station refurbishment programmes such as improved booths for ticket collectors and new booking offices. In addition, British Rail is providing improved training and counselling for staff. A comprehensive system has been set up for monitoring assaults.

Measures have also been introduced by government departments whose staff deal extensively with the public. The Department of Employment, for example, has arrangements for considering systematically, according to local conditions, preventive measures which may be needed in unemployment benefit offices. Measures in use include the fitting of screens, turnstiles, remote control electronic doors and personal panic buttons. The use of video recording equipment is being considered. In addition, since 1983, £1 million a year has been spent to improve public working areas. This is over and above the £40 million programme which was started a few years ago in order to improve 500 benefit offices. Finally, the provision of better training and counselling for staff is being examined and statistical monitoring of assaults is being reviewed.

Many similar measures are under consideration in other government departments. I have emphasised the key responsibilities of employers in identifying and finding solutions to the problem of assaults on staff. In this connection the work of the HSE's committee has had the full support both of the CBI and of public sector employers represented on the committee.

However, the employees too have a responsibility. A most disturbing finding from the HSE's work and from a study of particular sectors is the reluctance of many staff to come forward and report their experience of being threatened or actually attacked. Of course it is well understood, especially for groups such as nurses, social workers or teachers, that building effective relationships with their various "clients" is central to their working professional skills. But I cannot emphasise too strongly that all available evidence confirms that causes of attacks may be complex and deep-seated and very often are beyond the capacity of individual staff to control. Only if such problems are properly brought out into the open so that common patterns can be identified are effective solutions likely to be found. Staff must never feel, and certainly must never be made to feel they cannot divulge what is happening or that any attack is a reflection on their professional competence and therefore they must have something to hide.

There have been a number of questions raised during this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, mentioned the dreadful tragedy of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh. That poor lady has still not been found. Let us hope that she will be found alive and well. It is a tragic case. However, there are many women today in professional jobs who are at risk. We must try to prevent attacks from people who are dangerous to society and to women in particular.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, we do not know for certain whether violent assaults on staff are increasing. In the last few years greater efforts have been made to report assaults. The figures are much too high, I know. It is important to ensure better monitoring of such assaults and many efforts have been made to reduce their incidence. We hope that over the next three years we shall eventually get the situation under control. There is much money being spent on action toward that end.

I have tried to inform your Lordships of what is happening. The Government are not blind to the present situation; none of us can be blind to it. I have given examples of cases where substantial resources are being devoted to tackling the problem. In the light of what has been said today, there is clearly no room for complacency. However, it is increasingly clear that the strategy proposed in the. HSE guidance can lead to effective solutions where employers together with their staff address the issues systematically. I commend this approach to your Lordships.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down perhaps I may say that he has given us many details of steps that other people are taking, but, apart from mentioning the programme of monitoring these assaults, he has not replied to the questions that we asked about further action on the part of the Government. Can he reply to those questions? First, is there any possibility that the Government will finance macro-studies to find out the size of the problem? Secondly, is there any possibility that the Government will finance some more general handbook dealing with ways in which one might mitigate the problems? Thirdly, what about the compensation provisions? Have the Government any proposals to make in that regard? Those were specific questions that we asked the Minister.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I am most grateful, and I really will bring this matter to the attention of my right honourable friend. This point is interesting and we have to go a long way further to try and get these assaults under control. I shall let the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, know about this.