MPs support tougher penalties for attacks on emergency workers
Tougher penalties for people who attack emergency workers have moved a step closer after MPs unanimously supported measures designed to "protect the protectors".
Labour former minister Chris Bryant's proposed legislation creates a new offence for assaulting an emergency worker with a maximum penalty of 12 month in jail, which covers more emergency staff and doubles the sentence compared to existing law.
He warned there has been a "very significant rise" in the number of assaults on those working for the blue light services in recent years, arguing a law change would show Parliament is taking the issue seriously.
His Bill was amended with Government support to ensure being an emergency worker is also treated as an aggravating factor in cases of sexual assault.
Mr Bryant, speaking during the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill's third reading, said: "The aim is not primarily to send lots more minor criminals to prison for short periods, but what we do want to do is send out a very clear message that assaulting an emergency worker is not a minor offence, it is a serious offence and we in Parliament take it seriously and we expect the prosecuting authorities to take it equally seriously.
"We want to be able to say to every single police constable, prison officer, custody officer, paramedic, nurse, fire officer, A&E consultant, lifeboat officer, A&E porter, ambulance driver, and Mines Rescue officer for that matter that we stand with you. We will protect our protectors."
On the sexual assault amendment, Mr Bryant said ambulance staff, mental health nurses, doctors and others are among those targeted, although he said there is a lack of data collected on such incidents.
Mr Bryant added trade unions have reported increases in sexual assaults against ambulance service staff, noting: "The percentage change since 2012 in the East of England ambulance service is up 143%, in London 40% up, North West ambulance 133% up, Northern Ireland 1,500% increase, South Central ambulance service up 400% since 2013, South East Coast ambulance service up 100%, Yorkshire ambulance up 400% since 2013, and the West Midlands ambulance service up 500%.
"When you've got 238 cases in the East of England ambulance service of sexual assaults on ambulance workers, I think Parliament has to take cognisance of that and act."
Labour's Holly Lynch (Halifax), who played a key role in developing the Bill, said she had met with paramedics who had been dispatched to the address of someone who had recently sexually assaulted them, pending a court appearance.
She also shared the story of an ambulance worker had to "continue to persevere" with a patient who assaulted her until they arrived at hospital because "first and foremost he needed medical attention and she could not walk away and she could not escape him".
Justice minister Rory Stewart said the Government accepted the amendment, telling MPs: "We are now convinced as the Government that it would be correct to insert sexual assault into the sections dealing with offences for which an offence against an emergency worker would be an aggravating factor, and this is particularly the case given the astonishing increase in sexual assaults on emergency workers."
Shadow policing minister Louise Haigh said the "right to go to work and feel safe is a right that has been too easily cast aside".
She added: "Increasingly our emergency services are finding themselves in vulnerable situations and all too often security at work is far from a reality.
"We ask these dedicated individuals to go out and serve our communities on our behalf: the least we can do is afford them the protection that will make it clear that society views them being assaulted in the course of their duties with the utmost seriousness."
Mr Stewart said: "If we are to work with prisoners, if we are to reduce reoffending, we must make sure that through this legislation for prison officers and other emergency services we show that we respect their honour, their dignity as public servants, that we appreciate the service they do on our behalf, that we express the deep gratitude that we feel for everything that they do, and that we show in every single act that we take and in this very important legislation which will double the maximum sentence for an attack on our emergency service officers that an attack on them is an attack on us."
The Bill passed unanimously at third reading and will now undergo further scrutiny in the Lords.