13 Jun 2010

Speech on Protection for Workers 20 May 2010

It is hard to imagine that in 21st century Scotland workers are still being assaulted simply for doing their job. Unlike MSPs who, in this Parliament building, have security measures built in almost at every step, the ordinary worker is often left vulnerable to attack and assault. Of course, the recent stabbing of Stephen Timms MP is a reminder that, outside the confines of Parliament, politicians can also be vulnerable.

I recognise that some people in the legal profession would say that the law already takes seriously the issue of assault. Equally, however, I point to the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which all parties in the Parliament, except the Conservatives, supported, because legislation was required. The act recognised that something more than the existing law was worthy of support to demonstrate to the violent minority that attacks on emergency workers are unacceptable. It also demonstrated to emergency workers that members of the Parliament were prepared to act to give vulnerable workers that bit extra in legal protection.

We were told at the time that the 2005 act was not necessary and yet, by the second year of its existence, 200 charges were proved under it in Scottish courts. If further legislation was not necessary or useful, why were those cases taken to court under that legislation?

Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD): Is the answer not fairly obvious: that the act replaced the previous common- law aggravation? To that extent, there was a transfer of the figures to the new category of offence.

Hugh Henry: No. It is still the case that prosecutions can be made under the common law. The act is an addition, which is there to be considered as appropriate. I know that the Liberal Democrats accepted that argument and voted for the act at the time.

The new Administration, which was elected in 2007, reflected on the need for such legislation to protect workers who serve the public. The Official Report of the Justice Committee meeting of 15 January 2008 shows that Shona Robison said:

"Okay. Enough time has passed since the legislation came into force to allow us to consider its success and the potential benefits of extending its scope to cover other staff. That is an important point.

I will share some information on the success that has been achieved so far. According to the most recent figures, 1,256 charges have been laid under the 2005 act, of which 1,008 have led to prosecution and, thus far, 594 convictions. A further 218 cases are on-going. Seventy-five per cent of cases that have led to prosecution have resulted in convictions, which is a very high number indeed. I suggest that that shows the success of the act."—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 15 January 2008; c 469.]

As a result of that analysis, ministers extended the 2005 act. They decided to cover other health workers who work in the community, not necessarily always in emergency circumstances. I applaud ministers for taking that decision not to rely on the common law but to use the additional strength that is delivered by the act. Ministers were right at that point to reject the arguments of those who said that existing legislation was enough and that no new powers were needed.

I turn to other workers who serve the public and in doing so render themselves vulnerable to assault. Are they any less worthy of our support? Do the services that they provide mean that they deserve any less protection from the law than those who are covered by the 2005 act?

When a bus driver or a train driver is assaulted, the passengers are put at risk. When services are withdrawn because of violent incidents, whole communities are affected. Those who rely on public transport can be left isolated and vulnerable as a result.

When a postal worker is assaulted and the mail is stolen, scattered or not delivered, there can be significant implications. Families who rely on authorisation for financial payments can be left struggling, businesses can be affected and deadlines can be missed.

When a shop worker has to bear the brunt of an enraged customer's anger, that worker often has no back-up or support readily available. If local stores have to close for security reasons, as has happened, whole communities bear the brunt as a consequence. Often, it is poorer communities and more vulnerable people who are worst affected, because they have no alternatives.

If a shop worker does the right thing and carries out the will of the Parliament in relation to alcohol or tobacco sales, should they not expect the Parliament's support if they are assaulted as a result?

Are child care workers, elderly care workers and social workers any less important than the nurses or midwives who work in the community? It is right to give added protection to a nurse who serves patients in the community, but why not give protection to the child care worker who deals with sensitive cases of child abuse allegations or those who are there to help the frail elderly and are assaulted by whomsoever when doing so? Should they not be given that added legal backing if they are assaulted when carrying out their duties?

The number of assaults against many of those workers is staggeringly high. In 2007-08, the total number of physical assaults against public sector workers was 32,263. That number included 9,121 assaults on local government workers, which represents an increase of 3,000 on the previous year's figures. In 2007, the British retail crime survey report detailed a 50 per cent increase in physical assaults against shop workers compared to 2006. A Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers survey showed that nearly a third of shops reported at least one physical assault against staff in 2007.

Contrast that with the simultaneous reduction in the number of assaults perpetrated against health workers. According to figures produced by Unison in 2007-08, the number of assaults on health workers fell by more than 1,000 from the previous year. It could be suggested that the decline can be attributed to the threat of tougher penalties contained in the 2005 act. The increase in the number of convictions under that act, which I mentioned earlier, has underpinned the tough message that has arguably led to the reductions in assaults.

The success of the act has been recognised not only by ministers of the present Administration but by the trade union movement. The Scottish Trades Union Congress has spoken out clearly about the need for further legislation. I am grateful for the support received from a range of unions: Unite, which represents bus drivers; the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, which represents train drivers but also speaks up for other staff in the train industry and for the travelling public; USDAW, which has been relentless in its campaign for freedom from fear for shop workers and is determined to protect its members; the Communication Workers Union, which worries about postal workers being assaulted in the course of their duties; Unison, which represents care workers, who often work in extremely isolated and vulnerable situations; and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the building workers union, whose members often have to carry out emergency repairs and can be assaulted as a result. The unions are determined to do what is right for their members, which is why many union members have taken the opportunity to come to the Scottish Parliament today to demonstrate their support for more legislation.

We sometimes get hung up on statistics, which do not tell the human side of the story. When union officials and shop stewards speak to me about the need for legislation to protect workers, they are talking about protecting ordinary people who have a sense of duty to those whom they serve, and who are not asking for much. A member of USDAW, who works in a store in Portobello, approached someone whom they suspected of shoplifting but never got a chance to speak to the person before being knocked to the ground and rendered unconscious. The worker, who had simply been doing their job, suffered concussion and was off work as a result.

Bus drivers have been assaulted while trying to protect passengers from violent and aggressive passengers. The drivers were trying to protect not the bus or their cash but members of the travelling public. Do such people not deserve additional support? Train drivers and other railway staff constantly have to worry about being approached as they travel through the train. They sometimes have to step in to protect passengers, and there have been a number of cases in which railway staff were assaulted as they sought to protect other people.

Postal workers have been knocked down simply because a person was enraged by the non-arrival of a letter. That is unacceptable. Care workers have to go into frightening situations in which they must deal with people who are enraged by decisions that they have taken. They, too, deserve our support.

There is a compelling imperative to apply the logic of the Parliament's decisions equally and fairly. The Parliament decided that workers who serve the public deserve a level of protection over and above the law as it was in 2005, which is why it passed the 2005 act, whose success has been acknowledged by Shona Robison and which was subsequently extended by ministers.

The time is right to draw on the benefit of our experience and take the next step, by ensuring that all workers who are assaulted while they are serving the public receive the same level of support as we give to emergency workers. That is the least that we can do for the people who work to serve us.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that further measures need to be taken to deter violence against shop workers and other workers delivering a service to the public; notes with concern the finding of the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey 2008-09 that, of those adults who had jobs involving contact with the general public, 35% had experienced either verbal abuse or physical abuse; recognises that
there has been a 78% increase in violence and abuse against Scottish shop workers over the last three years, according to Retailers Against Crime; welcomes the Freedom from Fear campaign organised by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), which seeks to make shops and shopping areas safer for staff and customers; acknowledges the efforts of the trade union movement as a whole to highlight the continuing problems of violence for those workers with direct contact with the public; recognises that there have been year-on-year increases in prosecutions under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, and believes that the Parliament and the Scottish Government should take further action to ensure that workers can carry out their duties without facing violence or intimidation.