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12.12.18

An attack on them is an attack on us all

Source: NHE Nov/Dec 2018

Chris Bryant MP discusses the new law he championed that came into effect in September, which doubles jail time for anyone who assaults emergency workers.

Every job has its ‘moments,’ doesn’t it? Those things that ruin an otherwise fulfilling career, or even just make an otherwise tolerable Tuesday nearly unbearable. The difficult managers, the hard-to-work-with colleagues... Unfortunately it’s a feature of every job I’ve ever known, but when I started talking to emergency workers last year I was distressed to hear how many were increasingly regarding abuse and assault as just another one of these moments; another everyday occurrence to expect as part of the job.

So when I came top of the Private Members’ Bill ballot last year, guaranteeing me time on the floor of the House of Commons to try and get a Bill of my choosing to become law, I wanted to put something on the statute book that would help protect our emergency workers. In part, that’s just a practical matter. What sense is there in the fire service having to take police officers with them just so they can do their job in peace? And how crazy is it that there are postcodes where the ambulance service will not visit without a police escort?

It’s also a moral point, though. Yes, an assault on anyone is wrong, but emergency workers are only being attacked because they are emergency workers serving the rest of us. An attack on them is an attack on all of us, and we should use the full force of the law to bear down on this. Otherwise, lives will be lost – and eventually, from my conversations with emergency workers, if assault is seen as just part the job, then many simply won’t want to do the job anymore. 

Having talked to hundreds of emergency workers, they feel as if the courts and prosecuting authorities just don’t take attacks on them seriously. I’ve heard magistrates say: ‘Well, you’re in the police, you should expect a bit of rough and tumble.’ In my own patch in the Rhondda, I have been told of occasions when the CPS has refused to charge a patient after a vicious attack on a mental health nurse, even though there was no doubt that the attack had happened and two doctors had certified that the patient was perfectly aware of the difference been right and wrong and suffered from no cognitive impairment. And virtually every MP has an instance of a police officer or A&E worker suffering terrible injuries only to hear that the perpetrator has got off with a ludicrously minimal sentence which seems to make no acknowledgement that the victim was only doing their job.

So my Bill – which I consulted the public on through an online poll – will do two things: it will introduce a new offence of common assault on an emergency worker, which can attract a maximum sentence of 12 months. That means you could get 12 months for spitting at a police officer or a nurse. But the Bill also makes a series of other offences, including ABH, aggravated when committed against an emergency worker. That means the court will have to acknowledge in open court that the sentence is higher because the attack was on an emergency worker.

After some debate and persuasion with the government, I’m delighted to say that we have added sexual assault to the list of aggravated offences too. This is a crucial point because we’ve seen a vast increase in the number of sexual assaults on ambulance workers, nurses and doctors in particular, and it just wouldn’t make sense to try and prevent physical but not sexual harm from coming to them. 

Government ministers, after a bit of traditional ‘is this really necessary’ ministerial twaddle, eventually agreed to support the Bill and, just under a year since it started its passage in Parliament, put it on the statute book to become law.

The best possible outcome of this new law would be that prosecutions stop because the assaults stop when people realise they will not get away with it any longer. But while emergency workers continue to be assaulted, this law will mean significantly tougher sentences, and will send a clear message to the perpetrators that it is because they attacked an emergency worker that they face this penalty. 

The effects of assault can be devastating, and no one should ever feel it’s something that comes with the territory of their job. I’m proud that Parliament has sent a strong message to our frontline emergency workers that we respect and value the work you do, and stand by you to end the scourge of assaults. 

 

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