ONE of the strange things about Parliament is that there’s a significant amount of luck involved in the passing of some of our laws.
At the start of each session, there is a ballot for Private Members’ Bills, a mechanism for backbench MPs to try and get a law of their choice passed.
This is a big opportunity because, for the rest of the time, it is the government of the day writing new legislation.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to come top of the ballot, meaning I was given the best chance possible of taking a Bill through its Parliamentary stages to become law.
Given this opportunity, I wanted to give people in my constituency in the Rhondda and across the UK a say in what law should pass. So I put six important issues to an online vote to see which had most support.
The overwhelming favourite was a Bill to offer stronger protections for emergency workers, which had been championed by Holly Lynch, the Halifax MP, before being stopped by the election.
‘Emergency workers’ is an intentionally broad definition including police, firefighters, nurses, doctors, prison officers and others. Unfortunately, greater protections are necessary because of the scale of the problem.
Despite problems in data collection, Home Office statistics suggest that there were just over 23,000 assaults on police officers alone last year. That is 450 a week, and it equates to an officer being assaulted every 22 minutes.
However, a Police Federation welfare survey undertaken by 17,000 serving police officers revealed there were actually closer to 6,000 assaults every day – an assault every 13 seconds – with the average police officer being assaulted 19 times a year.
In addition to this, there were more than 70,000 recorded assaults on NHS staff in England in 2016 – an increase from nearly 68,000 in 2015 and 60,000 in 2004. And, in 2016, a Freedom of Information request showed that fire crews across the UK faced more than 10 assaults every week on average.
Unfortunately, all these figures are likely to be an under-estimate.
With the support of thousands of people, I developed a new Bill, building on the great work of Holly Lynch, that will create a new aggravated offence of assaulting an emergency worker which can result in up to 12 months in prison.
The Bill will also make various other offences including malicious wounding, grievous or actual bodily harm and common assault aggravated when perpetrated against a constable, firefighter, doctor, paramedic, nurse and others in the execution of their duty.
This is not about giving emergency workers new rights that the rest of us don’t have, but it is about giving greater protections to those people who put themselves in harm’s way to serve our communities each day. They are only having to suffer these assaults because of the jobs they do.
At the first Parliamentary stage last year, the Government, after some initial resistance, backed the Bill. Today it returns for its final Commons stage, and I am keen that we take the opportunity to strengthen it further.
The Bill will already give protections against physical assaults, but, in a strange loophole, it does not offer emergency workers any additional protections against sexual assault.
After the recent overdue focus that the #metoo and #timesup campaigns have given to sexual assaults and abuse in society, it would be wrong to exclude such assaults.
This is a significant and growing problem; research from Alcohol Concern has revealed that between a third and a half of all service people surveyed had suffered sexual harassment or abuse at the hands of intoxicated members of the public.
The effects of this type of attack can be devastating. As one ambulance worker put it: “I am frightened every time I work alone on a vehicle and respond to a lone male patient. I dread the days I am rota’d to work alone.”
Though the Government is yet to reveal if it will step up and protect ambulance crews, paramedics and others from sexual assault, I do have support. Groups like the Police Federation, the Royal College of Nursing, Alcohol Concern, the GMB Union and Yorkshire MPs like Holly Lynch and Philip Davies have been strong supporters of the Bill and are strong supporters of ensuring it includes sexual assault. I’m hoping the Government joins us.
If they do, we can give strong protections to the people who spend their days protecting us in Yorkshire and across the country, and we can send a message loud and clear to the people who would assault them that such attacks will not be tolerated.
Chris Bryant is the Labour MP for Rhondda who is leading the so-called Protect the Protectors Bill in Parliament today.