Watered down 'Assaults Bill' passes

28 April 2018

MPs and supporters of the 'Assaults Bill' outside parliament

MPs and supporters of the Bill outside parliament

A Bill making it an aggravated offence to assault the emergency services has been passed by MPs – but police are disappointed that key provisions have been “watered down”.

Rhondda MP Chris Bryant’s Assaults on Emergency Services (Offences) Bill successfully navigated its Report Stage and Third Reading on Friday (27 April) and will progress through the House of Lords* - but the draft legislation does not provide the level of protection that the Police Federation of England and Wales has been campaigning for.

The Bill does give police added protection when it comes to sexual assault and that is welcome news for our members.

But the deterrents are not strong enough. PFEW had been lobbying for an assault on an emergency worker to carry a maximum sentence of 24 months in prison. This proposal was not accepted, with the Government maintaining its original proposal of a 12 months maximum sentence for this new offence.

As it stands however, Magistrates are unable to impose this increased tariff as their sentencing powers are limited to six months. In order to change that the government would need to enact another piece of legislation which has been sitting dormant on the statute books since 2003. If that does not happen the 12 month maximum would only be available for those offenders sentenced at a Crown Court.

Assurances were given by the government that the degrading act of spitting, which is already considered a common assault, be made clearer to the authorities.  Minister for Justice, Rory Stewart gave his assurance that this will be made more specific and that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is clearly instructed. It is therefore essential that officers report all incidents where they are spat at, and that these are taken seriously and prosecuted as common assault. In West Yorkshire alone there were 362 cases of assaults by spitting at police in the last year.

Calum Macleod, Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales said: “Recognition was given by all parties in the House of Commons of the incredible work of the police and other emergency services. All wanted to send a clear signal that assaults on those we rely on should not be tolerated.  But sadly we were left under-whelmed.

“We are incredibly grateful for the ongoing support of Chris Bryant, Holly Lynch, Philip Davies and other MPs, but the Bill as it stands still leaves police vulnerable with the likelihood that offenders will face little or no additional consequences for their actions when it comes to common assault.

“Unless magistrates and the criminal justice system take the issue of assaults seriously, offenders will still face no deterrent.

“Magistrates do not have 12 months sentencing powers, therefore six months is the maximum we can expect at the moment. We need to end the practice of offenders being under-charged and prosecuted for less serious offences. I know of cases where officers have been seriously injured as a result of an attack but the offender was only charged with common assault. This is the reality and this is why police officers will continue to feel under-valued with criminals laughing in the face of justice.”

The debate in Parliament saw MPs acknowledge that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) too often bargains away assaults on emergency services in order to secure a guilty plea – and it routinely fails to charge offenders in proper accordance with the severity of their crimes. It was also acknowledged that offenders routinely serve only half of their sentences.

Speaking after the debate, Chris Bryant MP, said he hoped the Bill would pass through the Lords and would ensure there is better legislation on the statute books protecting emergency services by the autumn. He added: “The bottom line is – an attack on anyone is wrong but attacks on police and the emergency services is in effect an attack on all of us, so of course the law should be brought to bear on them and that is exactly what we are going to do.”

A Hampshire officer was savagely bitten on the arm – leaving gaping wounds.  The offender received two years and four months in prison.  He was released after serving only seven months. A West Yorkshire officer’s teeth were damaged and her confidence shattered when a man head-butted her in the face. He was released back into the community. A Gloucestershire officer was knocked unconscious and left with a serious head wound – the offender received a 12 month sentence, suspended for 18 months.  This is why the Federation will continue to Protect the Protectors and campaign for horrific assaults like these to be taken seriously.

* Since this article was originally published the Bill has had its first reading in the House of Lords and has progressed unopposed to its second reading - the date of which is yet to be confirmed.