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Mr. Ellwood: Well, I am a man, so I would have been a fireman. We now have a generation who do not want to be firefighters, but instead want to cause them harm. That is why we need an emphasis on education.
Mr. Bailey: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, although many areas have long waiting lists for becoming firefighters. Many people still recognise that firefighting is an important, valid and rewarding occupation. However, I agree that it is ironic that a small minority of people appear to be prepared to act in such a profoundly antisocial way for no obvious or logical reason.
Richard Younger-Ross: At the opening of the new fire station in Teignmouth, I was told that there is now a waiting list for the Teign fire crews. The hon. Gentleman mentions the fact that fire brigades are working with young people, but is he aware that some sadly feel constrained in doing so because the new legislation does not contain a duty of well-being for the combined fire services that now stand alone, outside the auspices of local authority control? The Government could consider providing those fire services with a duty of well-being that would allow them to do more of the work to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, although I cannot comment on the details about
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his constituency. In general, we need to take a fresh look at the legislative and regulatory approach so that we can encourage our young people to engage with our public services and understand just how they operate. We need to think outside the box. Changes in legislation that may not appear to have immediate relevance to the issue will in fact have an impact on it and we need to be aware of that.
The Bill will encourage a more proactive engagement of all the public services, especially the police, with the fire brigades and ambulance services, with better co-ordination to ensure that there are more prosecutions. As was pointed out earlier, there is a lack of prosecutions under existing law, so by focusing public attention on the issue the Bill will go some way towards ensuring that all the agencies establish procedures to provide more evidence and an extra incentive for the Crown Prosecution Service to undertake more prosecutions.
The antisocial behaviour order agenda could be a way of restricting the activities of certain antisocial young people who try to perpetrate vicious ambushes and stunts on the emergency services. In a small but significant number of areas, there seems to be a culture in which violence against members of the public services is part of a game designed for kicksa sort of video nasty that is not on video. We must break that culture, and although the legislation cannot deal with all the social and psychological problems that lie behind that pattern of activity, it will undoubtedly be part of our armoury in taking action against it.
I welcome the Bill. It cannot solve the problem alone, but by making it easier to prosecute people who deliberately impede those who carry out vital emergency services it will go some way towards addressing the problem. A secondary impact of the Bill, which may be more profound in the long run, is that it will focus attention on the issue and may stimulate other action to address the problem.
Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) on the Bill and thank him for asking me to be one of its sponsors. I have enjoyed working with him and learned much from his experience, as we negotiated with the Home Office and representatives of the emergency services, who gave us the benefit of their wisdom and experience. I certainly hope that the Bill will become law and that it will protect emergency service personnel who need and deserve our protection.
It is one of the most wicked things that people think it is funny deliberately to try to entice into a trap and set upon people with a sense of public service who attend because it is their job to protect the public. It is a waste of resources. It wastes the time of emergency workers. It is dangerous and it undermines the ethos of public services that we should support and develop. I will support anything that tackles that. The Bill is one step among other measures, including the respect agenda, which is an important aspect.
In my constituency, a gang of boys on the Bemerton estate regularly call out the emergency services, especially the fire brigade. When the firefighters arrive,
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the boys throw stones at them. Things are getting worse and I am concerned that they will get out of hand. The Bill recognises the seriousness of the offence and will cut into criminal behaviour at a certain level, so that it can be dealt with before it spirals out of control.
The Bill is well judged and it has my support. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his wisdom in choosing this matter to bring before the House. It keys in excellently with our respect agenda. The Bill has my full support and I wish it wellas I do the next Bill, so I shall keep my contribution as short as possible so that it, too, can get through.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), first, on securing the opportunity to present a Bill and, secondly, on choosing such an important topic, which is close to all our hearts.
It is important to remember that although 99.9 per cent. of the population, and indeed 99.9 per cent. of our young people, always show the utmost respect to our emergency workersas they sincerely deservea number of people, unfortunately, do not. That small number of individuals takes up a disproportionate amount of the time and attention of the emergency services. Their behaviour is completely reprehensible and we need to send them a clear message: not only is impeding or assaulting emergency workers unacceptable in itself, it also delays them and prevents them from dealing effectively and efficiently with the victims of an emergency, with possibly tragic consequences.
I know only too well from my career as a teacher and schools inspector that we have to spell out the law clearly. We must make it absolutely clear that any form of insulting, impeding or assaulting emergency workers is wholly unacceptable. We must give the highest possible level of protection to our firefighters, our ambulance staff, our coastguards, our prison officers, our social workers and the staff in our hospitals, who frequently deal with extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances.
Whether we like it or not, our young people, and the population in general, are more fearful of, and thus more respectful towards, police officers than they are of emergency workers. The Bill will send a clear message that emergency workers must be given the same respect as the police. It must be backed by continuing efforts in schools to drive home the message that we will not tolerate any attack, whether verbal or physical, on emergency workers. It will be much easier to get that message across if teachers can tell young people that impeding or assaulting an emergency worker is as serious an offence as impeding or assaulting a police officer.
We must also send out a clear message that being under the influence of alcohol is not an excuse to be rude, unco-operative or aggressive towards any emergency worker. Perhaps all bottles and cans of alcohol should carry the warning: "Alcohol can cause people to indulge in behaviour that they subsequently regret. Being under the influence of alcohol is no excuse in law"although another Member may be able phrase it more simply. We might also consider doubling the penalties for any offence committed under the influence of alcohol.
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It is high time that we, the overwhelming, law-abiding majority, showed our support for our emergency workers, and made it absolutely clear to the small despicable minority that we shall tolerate no form of assault, aggression or verbal abuse towards any member of our very valuable emergency services.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I too welcome the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and I congratulate him on his campaign to raise the issues it addresses. These are important issues affecting our emergency workers; we have heard today how they suffer from the modern scourge of unwarranted assaults while they are trying to save lives.
Although the measures in the Bill would evidently attract support from Members on both sides of the House, my support stems from the fact that Greater Manchester has one of the worst records for attacks on firefighters, so I shall focus on that branch of the emergency services. There have, unfortunately, been some 350 attacks on firefighters in Greater Manchester in the past two years. The Manchester Evening News has run an effective campaign to focus attention on the issue, and I commend the paper and its reporter, Neal Keeling, for doing so.
It is clear that within Greater Manchester, Salford, which is one of the two local authorities covered by my Worsley constituency, has a technical problem with assaults and attacks on firefightersa record that Salford's MPs would like to lose as soon as we can. A recent example from Salford highlighted in the Manchester Evening News concerned a fire engine being vandalised and burgled as the fire crew worked to rescue a woman and her 12-year-old son from their burning home. To damage a fire engine while the fire crew is working to save lives is seriously to risk loss of human life.
Hon. Members will have read the articles and briefings cataloguing the increasingly severe nature of attacks on firefighters, involving, as we have heard today, many cases of arson and the setting of deliberate traps for fire crews. Yesterday, Councillor Fred Walker, chair of the Greater Manchester fire authority, told me of the problems encountered by our fire crews. Fires have been deliberately set at the bottom of a terrace in a cul-de-sac. Fire crews raced to the scene and found that they had been corneredbricks and other objects were thrown at them while they tried to put out fires. Also of great concern to Councillor Walker is the trend, described by my right hon. Friend, of causing fires in abandoned buildings after laying traps specifically to hurt firefighters attending the scene.
I find the callous and deliberate nature of those attacks absolutely chilling. It is vital that both our fire services and the police treat each incident of attacks and assaults on firefighters with the seriousness that the incidents deserve.
As I have mentioned, Greater Manchester comes out badly in the statistics compiled by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, as do Merseyside and the west
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midlands. However, other areas such as London record a very low number of incidents, and there seems to be an issue of under-reporting.
The fire service and elected Members serving in fire authorities also want to see attacks and assaults on fire crews treated seriously following prosecutions. There is seen to be a difficulty when a fine is imposed, given that most offenders are juveniles who do not have the means to pay a fine. It is welcome that antisocial behaviour orders are increasingly used to deal with those who attack firefighters; given that most of those concerned are juveniles, parenting orders also have a role to play.
Councillor Walker told me that he would also like the courts to make increasing use of community penalties. There are a number of worthwhile community schemes, jointly run by the fire service and organisations such as the Prince's Trust. Greater Manchester fire service has a young firefighters scheme, which focuses on boys and young men in target areas where there is the most violence against crews. The aim is to work with the type of kids who are non-joinerswho do not engage with these services or with out-of-school activities. If those young people can understand the work of the fire services at a younger age, it can help dissuade them from getting involved in attacks on fire crews as they get older.
The Prince's Trust also has a 13-week scheme for young people, run in conjunction with the fire service and football clubs such as Manchester United. Young people completing the scheme get a certificate of attainment, which can improve their employment prospects as the scheme is highly regarded by employers. I commend the fire service and the Prince's Trust for their community schemes, because those can both help young people and develop better support for the fire service within the community.
Although I have focused on attacks on firefighters, attacks on doctors, nurses, paramedics and ambulance crews are of equal concern and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) for highlighting those concerns.
It is right and timely that we should focus on the issues faced by our emergency workers. The Government's respect agenda gives us an additional framework so that Members of Parliament and councillors can work with the police and emergency workers to deal with the problems in their area; I fully intend to do so in my constituency.
We also need better recording of incidents, and better follow-up of incidents by the police, resulting in prosecutions wherever possible. Finally, we need imaginative and appropriate sentencing to deter future attacks.
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