Unions say the scale of attacks on local authority staff was a direct result of the “chronic underfunding” of the public sector, which has led to “high levels of frustration” being taken out on staff who are simply doing their jobs.
The snapshot survey of 19 Yorkshire authorities, carried out by the Yorkshire Post under the Freedom of Information Act, showed 12,905 incidents of verbal and physical abuse against council staff since 2016. The true scale of the problem, which saw attacks against staff including housing officers, teachers, parking wardens, care workers and others, would be even higher, as not all of the region’s authorities were able to provide full details of attacks.
Unison’s regional organiser, Karen Loughlin, said the number of attacks was “frightening” and a result of public frustrations at cuts to local services.
“It’s through no fault of the staff themselves - they are working at tightly controlled levels where they don’t have the resources they would like to help the public. Frustrations are taken out on out on frontline staff rather than the policy makers who made the decisions.”
Ms Loughlin called on councils to provide greater violence prevention training for staff, rather than “knee-jerk” support after an incident.
“We need a systematic approach to ensure staff remain free from verbal and physical assaults,” she added. “Everybody is entitled to a safe working environment.”
The GMB union’s political officer in Yorkshire, Steve Jennings, said public sector staff and teachers should be given similar protections to emergency workers that were granted after the Protect the Protectors campaign, spearheaded by Halifax MP Holly Lynch, was backed by MPs earlier this year.
He also said the figures are the “tip of the iceberg”, of the pressures facing staff, particularly in our schools.
“A level of harassment is becoming run of the mill and is not being reported,” he said. “Tackling abuse needs to be at the top of the agenda.
In Leeds, 70 per cent of the 5,480 assaults from 2018 to March this year took place in schools. Attacks on academy staff were not included in the figures.
Leeds branch secretary of the National Education Union, Terry Bambrook, said there were a “surprisingly high” number of assaults reported in primary school, that had been linked to social and economic deprivation.
“Leeds City Council has done its best as a council to continue to give childrens' services as full support as they can, but cuts from the Tory Government austerity agenda have meant smaller budgets in real terms for school, and often it has been support staff roles which have been removed to save on costs, with the loss of specialist roles such as behaviour management specialists.”
The council’s deputy leader, Coun James Lewis, said the number of assaults on staff in Leeds had begun to decline. It runs practical training for school staff promoting “de-escalation strategies” and assaults on school staff had plateaued over the past three years.
He added: “In other areas of the council, changes in practice, improvements in training and awareness for staff along with a proactive approach to looking at new technology to further protect our staff - such as body cameras for enforcement officers and improved security measures at public facing buildings - have all helped in reducing the number of assaults and we are committed to continuing work with trade unions to further improve employee health, safety and wellbeing.”
Elsewhere in the region, Kirklees Council reported 1,398 incidents; Rotherham recorded 1,974 assaults, and York had 326.
Hull City Council reported 852 assaults since 2016, including punching, kicking and nipping.
A council spokesperson said it had seen a “significant reduction” in violence and threatening behaviour towards staff in recent years, and provided those who had been attacked with occupational health and counselling services.