15 January 2004

Subject Debate: Emergency Workers (Protection)

Scottish Parliament
Thursday 15 January 2004
[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]
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Emergency Workers (Protection)
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on protection of emergency workers. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Many interesting and thoughtful speeches have been made, which build usefully on the work that Paul Martin did during the passage of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill. If I remember correctly, Karen Gillon secured a members' business debate on the subject, although I am prepared to be corrected on that if I have got the wrong member.
I turn to David Davidson's speech. It is welcome that the Tories have got out the piggy-bank and found enough money to increase the number of people who would staff the accident and emergency departments across Scotland. That was an unexpected bonus from the Tories.
Johann Lamont and I sit together on her committee—the Communities Committee—where we are presently considering antisocial behaviour. We will continue to debate whether the dispersal powers will solve the problem. One of the difficulties that Johann Lamont and others face lies in deciding how to deal with situations such as Christine May's useful red watch example. Such examples show that existing powers and resources can be used to solve the problem in many of the circumstances that we are discussing. Indeed, our committee heard evidence from a Labour councillor in Edinburgh who described how she co-ordinated resources and agencies in her ward to tackle severe problems. I apologise to the councillor concerned; I cannot recall her name.
I will address directly the topic that is in front of us. Unison Scotland says that it believes that
"attacks on any staff delivering public services should be treated under the law as serious assaults, not just attacks on emergency workers".
I find it easy to agree with that. On 2 June last year, Malcolm Chisholm launched a zero-tolerance campaign in the health service. I agree absolutely that zero tolerance is the right way forward.
I want to introduce a slightly different angle in order to illuminate the debate. I hope that court sentences will reflect the risks that are taken by all who meet the public as part of their normal jobs. The consultation document gives a number of useful examples of good practice in the courts. I hope that the Executive will provide further statistical information that will show the extent to which the courts are responding to the guidance that they have been given.
Mr Brian Monteith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): Will the member clarify whether, in his sympathy towards public sector workers, he believes that they should have specific statutory protection?
Stewart Stevenson: I will develop that point later. If I do not, I invite Brian Monteith to stand up again.
Police drivers are trained in defensive driving. By the same token, all of us have to take some level of personal responsibility for safety, identify the risks in our lives and manage them. One example of that is that we cannot step in front of a speeding bus and blame the driver for the consequences. An important point to recognise, however, is that, once we are employed or we have committed ourselves as volunteers to assisting others in peril—I am thinking of lifeboat people and mountain rescue and search-dog teams—we surrender some of our ability to manage personally the peril into which we are put by the irrational behaviour of others. Indeed, when I was a psychiatric nurse 40 years ago, I was subject to attack by my patients on two occasions. I understand the issues very clearly.
Those who provide public services in shops, restaurants and employment offices, for example, and especially those who staff accident and emergency departments on Friday and Saturday nights, are at very real risk, not all of which they as individuals can manage themselves. If those workers are trained to act defensively, like police drivers, it can help them. However, the unmanaged element remains significant and the consequences of such risks running out of control can be severe, even to the point of death.
I want the courts to deal with assaults, including verbal, written and electronic assaults, with due regard to the surrender of control that is implicit in the situations in which people provide a public service. I also want the courts to punish in a way that genuinely reflects the alarm and distress of the victim.
Of course, sentencing takes place after the event, but we should judge the Executive on whether workers are adequately protected when they are exposed to risk. We know that fire service personnel are likely to be at serious risk—Christine May talked about the experiences of red watch in Glenrothes, which are repeated throughout Scotland. Are police resources on hand and co-ordinated with the fire services to protect fire service workers before attacks happen or other problems arise? Are accident and emergency departments in Scotland equipped not merely to respond post hoc, but to prevent harm from coming to their staff from the people whom they seek to serve? David Davidson raised that issue, but I formulate the question slightly differently.
If the consultation shows that legislation is required, by all means let us have that legislation. We will support it. However, let it apply to everyone who is at risk and let us not get into a position in which the legislation is a cover for the failure to leverage resources to where the need is greatest. A failure to protect those who provide emergency services increases the risk and damages the quality of life for everyone in our communities. A failure to support those in the broader community who provide a service directly to the public, such as shop workers, inevitably leads to poorer services and poorer communities. I include in that category of workers the overworked and under-rewarded staff who work in our constituency offices—there have been tragic consequences of the failure to support such people.
The matter is close to home for all members and for people throughout Scotland. Let us hope that there continues to be a degree of consensus in the debate, as it is important.

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