Thousands of council staff across Yorkshire assaulted as they help us

COUN JAMES LEWIS: 'Leeds Council is fully committed to ensuring the safety of its staff.'
COUN JAMES LEWIS: 'Leeds Council is fully committed to ensuring the safety of its staff.'
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FRONT-LINE council staff across Yorkshire were kicked, punched, bitten, assaulted and verbally abused more than 7,250 times in the last two years, an investigation by The Yorkshire Post has revealed.

Unions have called for greater protection and support for workers after councils across the region revealed thousands of incidents of assaults on staff who were “simply doing their jobs”.

They include the attempted strangling of a worker in Doncaster; a pregnant teacher being forced to go to A&E after being bitten in North Lincolnshire and a school crossing patrol worker being assaulted in Calderdale.

Other incidents include staff receiving breaks, bruising and fractures in assaults, racial abuse, people being spat at and verbally abused at work.

Of the 21 local authorities that responded to a Freedom of Information request by The Yorkshire Post, only Selby and Ryedale district councils were without incident, with even affluent and rural areas such as Craven, Hambleton and Richmondshire recording incidents, including a housing 
support officer being verbally abused at a council house in Richmond. A member of North Yorkshire County Council staff was even assaulted at Harrogate Library.

The largest number of assaults came in Leeds, where there were 1,411 incidents, of which 407 were physical. They took place in departments including adult social care, libraries and museums. Worryingly, of the 1,233 incidents in Rotherham, of which 1,126 were physically violent, 1,127 were in schools. Two incidents recorded by the authority were classed as sexual harassment. Kirklees recorded 1,080 incidents, of which 999 were violent, including staff at primary schools having their hair pulled, being headbutted, slapped, bitten, kicked and punched. In Doncaster, 84 per cent of the 756 incidents were physically violent.

The GMB’s senior organiser for public services for Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, Desiree Wilburn, said: “Nobody should go to work to be abused or attacked. Employers have a duty of care and should have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any form of abuse in the workplace.”

Leeds Council’s executive member for resources and strategy, Coun James Lewis, said it was “fully committed” to ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of its staff and it promoted a culture where any incidences of assault, abuse or aggression were reported. Most incidents, he said, related to staff who work with and support children or adults with challenging behaviour, and specialist training can include dispute resolution and wearing body cameras.

Doncaster Council’s director of regeneration and environment, Peter Dale, said the safety of its employees is “vitally important” and it takes a number of measures to protect those who work in “what can be difficult circumstances”, including training and encouraging all incidents to be reported “big or small”.

At Kirklees Council, procedures are in place to ensure the victims of assault “are given the support they need to recover both mentally and if relevant physically” and it will take further action against the perpetrator, a spokesperson said.

“The council records all incidents of violence against staff, and managers carry out a review of each case in order to learn from the situation and see if anything could be changed to reduce the chance of a similar incident taking place in future,” she added.

Staff attacks ‘likely to get worse’

ATTACKS on front-line council staff are only likely to worsen as austerity continues, unions have warned.

The Yorkshire Post has revealed that there were more than 7,250 incidents of assaults on council employees in 2016 and 2017, ranging from verbal abuse to punching, breaks and even sexual harassment.

Unison regional organiser Robin Symonds said it had seen an increase in incidents of violence and aggression towards local authority employees over recent years, “which correlates to the reduction in central government funding and consequent cuts to employee numbers”.

“Public-sector workers are the public face of all local councils and all too often bear the brunt of frustration and anger of service users whose expectations remain the same even though their council’s budget has been drastically reduced over the last seven years.

“Unison members report that this is a problem affecting all council workers – from refuse collectors receiving abuse because they now empty bins less frequently to teaching assistants whose numbers have been cut whilst class sizes have increased.

“Often incidents go unreported and the true extent of the problem is almost certainly even worse than it appears. The real worry though is that the problem is likely to worsen as austerity is set to continue”.

His thoughts were echoed by the GMB, which said employers have a duty of care to protect staff.

Senior organiser for public services for Yorkshire and North Derbyshire Desiree Wilburn said: “These people are doing the best they can to deliver a service or to help people; however, there are individuals out there with mental health problems or frustrations, and our members seem to be on the receiving end.

“This is not isolated to local authorities; this is happening in the NHS, police, and other organisations too. We are hoping the Protect the Protectors Bill will go through and have an impact. It cannot continue like this.”

That Bill, supported by Halifax MP Holly Lynch, proposes to offer more protection for police, firefighters and NHS workers from assaults. It took a step closer to becoming law in October when it was unanimously supported in Parliament on its second reading.

However, its powers would not be extended to council staff or teachers, who made up a large proportion of the victims of the assaults revealed by The Yorkshire Post. Not all authorities revealed exactly who the assaults on staff were on or where they took place, but five of the 21 that responded – Doncaster, East Riding, Kirklees, North Yorkshire and Rotherham – gave explicit figures on assaults in schools. They revealed 2,380 incidents, just under a third of the total 7,254 incidents.

The National Union of Teachers’ national executive committee member for South Yorkshire Simon Murch said the figure was a “great concern,” and said it was likely to be even higher as incidents were not reported or broken down.

He said: “No teacher should feel unsafe or threatened within their working environment. That impacts on the individual teachers and of course their ability to deliver high-quality education to the rest of the class. A disruption in class, or in the school, due to physical or verbal assault by a pupil is not conducive to a positive education environment.”

He believes a standardised approach to monitoring incidents should also be used, which would also help policies and training to reduce their impact.

In Rotherham, 1,127 incidents took place in school.

Rotherham Council’s strategic director of children and young people’s services, Ian Thomas, said the incidents reflected the “robust reporting procedures” the authority has in place.

He added: “Although the overwhelming majority of reported incidents are minor, we actively encourage schools and all Council colleagues to report any incidents to ensure we continue to monitor, learn from and ensure proper procedures are in place.

“The authority also works closely with all schools to provide advice, training and support to staff to minimise incidents.”