30 September 2004

S2M-1079 Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1079, in the name of Andy Kerr, on the general principles of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill.
… … …

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Bruce McFee and I are very much looking forward to serving on the Justice 1 Committee during stage 2 of the bill. I have been allowed a bit over a year of time off from the committee for good behaviour; Bruce McFee, being the novice that he is, is a first offender. Please be gentle with him during stage 2.

From my reading of the bill—I have, of course, not had the opportunity of studying it to the same depth as other Justice 1 Committee members—the question that goes to the heart of the matter is this: why do we wish to protect emergency workers? The question why is key to understanding whether we should do something, and what it is that we should do. The answer in this case is straightforward: it is because emergency workers protect those whom they assist. The existence of emergency workers, and the work that they do, serves a broader public purpose, which is of broader benefit.

The bill seeks to protect a relatively small number of people for the benefit of a very large number of people—the public as a whole. That goes to the nub of the matter, in that we are seeking to deliver a benefit to a large number of people. We are seeking to help the general population—all of us—when we are in extremis. The aim is to save life and to mitigate the effects of emergencies.

The partnership agreement says:

"We will protect emergency workers from assault and obstruction."

I contend that achieving that, and serving the purpose that we all share in this respect, does not require us to define who emergency workers are, but rather to define what an emergency situation is and what an individual, whatever their qualification, rank or employment—indeed, it could be a volunteer—is doing. If the bill were to be amended at stage 2 so as to delete subsections (1), (2) and (3) of section 1, which deal with the definition of "emergency worker" and so as to open with what is currently subsection (5), which defines emergency circumstances—that is the nub of the bill, as nothing matters unless emergency circumstances exist—we could move on to identifying whether a person is responding to an emergency, but without having to specify that person.

Margaret Mitchell: Does the member appreciate that that is the nub of the problem?

Just as it is difficult to define, by second-guessing any situation, who could potentially be an emergency worker, it is even more difficult to define and second-guess what circumstances could arise to constitute an emergency. That is why we must consider the individual circumstances of each case and use the common law, with all the increased powers of the Lord Advocate under the aggravated—

Stewart Stevenson: I think that we have got it. Curiously enough, I do not necessarily disagree with Margaret Mitchell's analysis, but I disagree with her conclusion.

There is scope for improving the law in this regard. After all, we are talking about relatively low-end offences. However, before talking about the law—I do not have much time—there are practical things that we should consider doing. For example, how much would it contribute to the safe operation of accident and emergency departments if we excluded non-patients where drink had been taken? Should we breathalyse people as they come into the department on a Friday or Saturday night? Funnily enough, that might deliver a huge benefit.

The minister responded to a question about the Loch Lomond Rescue Boat—a voluntary organisation, of which there are many. I am concerned that if we keep focusing on defining the people, we will exclude many of those whom we would wish to include.

Tommy Sheridan led us into slightly murky waters by talking about public service workers. I argue that that would include us—at least that is the way in which I seek to discharge my duties—so there would be difficulties with that.

The present definitions create problems. Let us envisage a situation in which somebody comes into an accident and emergency department with a double-barrelled shotgun and a doctor and his secretary are at reception, standing back to back. The secretary is there from another department to talk about the Christmas party with some of the people in the department. The double-barrelled shotgun injures both the doctor and the secretary, but one of them comes under the bill's remit and the other does not. If, on the other hand, they were standing face to face discussing an issue relating to the work of the department, the bill would apply to both. That is because at present the bill defines the people rather than the actions to which it applies.

There has been discussion about solemn procedure versus summary procedure.

Tommy Sheridan: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I am in my last minute. I am summing up.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: You can take an intervention if you wish.

Stewart Stevenson: In that case, I will.

Tommy Sheridan: It will be short. Surely the example that Stewart Stevenson gave is not that helpful, because in the circumstances that he described, the person would be charged with attempted murder. We are talking about extra protection, so I am not sure that the example was illuminating.

Stewart Stevenson: Let us suppose, instead, that the person in the example throws paint over the doctor and secretary. The general point is illustrated in broad terms—the bill makes distinctions between people that are not related to their actions in emergency situations, which I think is unhelpful.

I say to Annabel Goldie that in considering the bill we are not, as she appeared to suggest, required to agree with it as it is presently framed.

Miss Goldie: That is the difficulty. The question is whether the bill is in a form in which it can be made good. Our submission is that it cannot be made good; it is fundamentally flawed.

Stewart Stevenson: It will be for the convener of the Justice 1 Committee at stage 2 and the Presiding Officer at stage 3 to determine whether amendments will enable us to maintain and sustain the general principles of the bill. The long title of the bill allows us to see what they are likely to conclude. It is:

"An Act of the Scottish Parliament to make it an offence to assault or impede persons who are providing emergency services; and for connected purposes."

That does not require us to define those people as medically qualified, nurses or doctors. All sorts of issues of definition might cause us real difficulties. One of the curious issues relates to my personal life. Paragraph 165 of the Justice 1 Committee's stage 1 report suggests that only police constables have powers of arrest. That of course is not true. Nearly 40 years ago, I spent an enjoyable summer with a warrant card in my pocket when I was a water bailiff under the salmon fisheries acts. I do not imagine that we would want to respond to that fact by extending the definitions to cover my summer job as a water bailiff. By the way, I admit that purely on the basis that it will be excluded from the Official Report, in case people get to know about it.

We are, I hope, all seeking to solve a problem of which we have a common understanding. I suspect that that is the case. The bill—imperfect as it is—is our best opportunity to do so. I hope that all members will find it possible to accept the general principles so that we can move forward to an improved act derived from the bill at stage 2.


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