Our nation only works, our families are only safe, our society is only possible, because of the courage of our police officers, fire officers, prison officers, ambulance workers, and the hundreds of thousands of people who work in emergency services. But they are facing a horrifying rise in violence. And that is why we have backed a bill to protect them.
Emergency workers serve long hours, in the most challenging circumstances out of a sense of public duty. Without their courage, and intelligence and dedication, our society would be far, far worse. They protect us from crime, from fire, from life threatening injuries. And I see in my role as Prisons Minister how our prison officers have to deal every day with violence, with suicides, with drugs, while working to turn around the lives of some of the most difficult people in society – ultimately protecting us all from crime.
But every hour of every day an emergency worker is punched or spat at, and some have become targets of sexual assault. They are often assaulted by the very people they’re trying to help. Prison officers are assaulted by prisoners, firemen have been assaulted simply for trying to put out a fire, nurses have been assaulted by their patients. This is an assault on the precious fabric of society. An assault on an emergency worker is an assault on all of us.
There were over 26,000 assaults on police officers last year. There were 18,000 assaults on NHS staff and more than 9,000 assaults on prison officers, the highest on record.
We must respond. We have already improved training and equipment. For example, in prisons, we’ve introduced body scanners, CCTV cameras and body-worn cameras and trialling the use of pepper spray and we’ve increased staffing in prisons – we had 3,500 more prison officers than we had three years ago. But it’s still not enough.
We have to punish people who assault our emergency workers more severely. By doing so we will acknowledge the disgusting nature of the crime, demonstrate our support for our public servants, and deter future assaults. So we are doubling the sentence for assaults on emergency workers. And we will be working closely with police and CPS to make sure that this new law doesn’t just remain on the statute book but that it helps keep emergency workers safe and free to do their vital job in protecting the public.
We expect that there will be now be 15,000 prosecutions next year for this horrifying behaviour. And we expect these prosecutions to deter anyone who considers assaulting an emergency worker. Because we owe our emergency workers the most profound debt of gratitude. They are – speaking personally – the group I am most proud of in British life. Our message to potential attackers is clear. Being drunk isn’t an excuse. Being in a hurry isn’t an excuse. Being angry isn’t an excuse.
This government will do everything it can to protect the brave people who dedicate their lives to protecting the public.
Rory Stewart is a justice minister and Conservative MP for Penrith