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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 07 November 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Emergency Workers


Emergency Workers

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-14497, in the name of Liam Kerr, on emergency service workers. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament commends the bravery and dedication of emergency service workers in the north east and across the country; recognises what it sees as their extraordinary efforts to keep everyone safe, working long hours in often difficult circumstances; acknowledges that this can include heading towards danger when others are running away; understands that, in 2016-17, over 3,000 offences were committed against these workers, with attacks often carried out by the very people that they were trying to help; condemns such assaults; regards an attack on any emergency worker as an attack on society itself, and thanks all emergency workers with the police, fire, ambulance, search and rescue, prison and other services for all the work that they do.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank all the members who signed my motion and have allowed the debate to take place.

It is important to commend the emergency services for the work that they do in the north-east and throughout Scotland. It is particularly fitting that this evening’s debate takes place so soon after bonfire night, which is one of the busiest and most challenging nights of the year for fire crews, paramedics and police officers.

I learned a great deal on 5 November. First, I joined north-east division police in Aberdeen to see at first hand their work in tackling a range of issues, including cybercrime, roads policing and motorbike and pushbike crime, as well as its partnership working in communities including Northfield and Mastrick. That evening, I was delighted also to be given the opportunity to see Dundee fire control room in action, as it dealt with bonfire night.

I record my apologies to the Scottish Ambulance Service for not being able to make it three emergency services on the same day, but members should not fear because, just this week, I accepted an invitation to visit the Scottish Ambulance Service regional headquarters in Aberdeen early next month.

A few things struck me from what I saw on the 5th. First, I was struck by the courage of officers on the ground. They go out there every day on our behalf, and often put themselves in difficult and dangerous situations. When a call comes in, out they go. That is the job.

Secondly, I was struck by the professionalism of officers and staff. In the control room, for example, I learned that staff there have shifts of up to 14 hours that mirror those of officers. That is 14 hours of high pressure and extreme intensity—especially on bonfire night.

As was made clear to me, at times of crisis, we require cool heads and a steady voice on the end of the line. That was, unfailingly, what I saw. I also picked up a willingness to stand together and send one single message—that those people are there to help us and that any attack on them must not be tolerated.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has been running a campaign called #DoNotAttackMe, which aims to deter attacks on emergency personnel. Is not it shocking that there has to be a campaign to stop attacks on emergency personnel? I am afraid to report that the campaign is needed. I can reveal today new figures that the Lord Advocate provided in a written answer to me. Nearly 6,000 attacks on emergency workers were reported in 2017-18, which is an increase on the previous year. That is just the tip of the iceberg, because many assaults go unrecorded.

Perhaps of more concern is that while the number of reports has risen, the number of convictions has fallen. There were more than 3,300 convictions in 2016-17, but the figure fell to fewer than 2,800 in 2017-18. We must sustain the message beyond bonfire night. I know that members will stand together to condemn all violence that is directed at emergency workers.

We need to make sure that the people who attack and abuse our emergency workers—for the avoidance of doubt, I make it clear that those workers include the likes of prison officers and national health service professionals—face the full force of the law. As I make clear in my motion, an attack on them is “an attack on society”, on all of us and on the values that we hold.

For that reason, the Scottish Conservatives have outlined measures that we can take to protect our dedicated public servants. I will be pleased to hear other members’ thoughts on those measures and, in particular, whether the minister is on board.

There are two strands to our thinking. First, we must reduce the risk of violence in the first place. Prevention is always better than cure. I know that one of the best ways of reducing risk is through community engagement by the emergency services. Anecdotally, it seems that young people are the people who are most likely to get involved in such behaviour. If we talk to them before they start such conduct, there is a chance that we can prevent it altogether.

On Monday, I heard lots from both services about the good work that is being done. It happens in classrooms, in challenging neighbourhoods and even over a game of five-a-side through the likes of the streetsport programme in Aberdeen.

Another key to stopping the violence is intelligent use of stop and search. The review of the appalling attacks that took place against emergency crews on bonfire night last year identified a gap in police powers in respect of searching over-18s for fireworks. Unfortunately, again a number of serious incidents occurred this year, including youths firing fireworks directly at the police. The Scottish National Party must close the gap and stop such incidents happening again.

We must equip our services with the tools that they need to de-escalate situations. That means training, but it also means equipment. Body-worn cameras are worth serious consideration. We must be alive to their potential privacy implications, but their wider use could make attackers think twice and have the added benefit of capturing evidence that could be crucial to securing convictions.

When I mention kit and equipment, it almost goes without saying that all our emergency services should have what they need to protect themselves. I suggest proactive engagement with the services and the unions in order to establish deficiencies and needs.

I said that there are two strands to my party’s thinking. The second is that we should come down like a ton of bricks on individuals who think that it is acceptable to assault our emergency workers. We must make sure that every instance of violence is comprehensively reported and investigated, and that every perpetrator is charged and convicted. The sentence must mirror society’s disgust for such acts. The Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 must be used, but we must also ensure that other offences attract tougher sentences, too.

Sexual assaults, assaults to severe injury and death threats are all real risks for emergency personnel. A statutory aggravator would guarantee that when such crimes were having sentence passed, the fact would be taken into account that they had been perpetrated against someone who works on society’s behalf. In the extreme case that a police officer is murdered in the course of their duty, there should be only one answer—a whole-life sentence.

Emergency workers are there when we most need help, when we find ourselves in danger, when time is critical and when accidents happen—and they are there when nobody else answers. It is not enough simply to thank them; we must protect them.


Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Liam Kerr for bringing this important matter to the chamber and apologise that I have to leave early for a meeting, as I notified to the Deputy Presiding Officer earlier today.

I echo the commendations given to our emergency service workers, who often work in very challenging circumstances right across Scotland.

Emergency service workers, the vast majority of whom are directly employed in the public sector, are essential to our society. As such, their safety and security is our responsibility. The rise in the number of assaults against emergency workers is unacceptable.

Emergency service workers live and work in our communities—they are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and grandparents. Injuries that are sustained at work affect the whole family, and such injuries can and must be reduced.

As Liam Kerr noted, bonfire night, on 5 November, unfortunately highlights the pressure on emergency services. The Fire Brigades Union Scotland confirmed that there were several attacks on firefighters on Monday night. Operational fire control handled more than 720 calls that night and crews responded to more than 330 bonfires across the country. We can all commend their bravery and dedication—and we should do so—but we must also take account of the concerns that have been raised by the people who work in those essential services.

In evidence submitted to the Justice Committee for its post-legislative scrutiny of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 in May, the FBU highlighted the loss of more than 1,000 jobs since the creation of the single service. That has consequences for the remaining workforce.

Proposals to reduce crewing levels on appliances have been challenged by the FBU. Concerns about low morale, increased stress and higher sickness levels were also identified in the Scottish Government’s evaluation of police and fire reform in its year 2 report. As well as commending our fire service workers, the minister could perhaps give an indication of how the concerns that were raised earlier in the year are being addressed.

I also welcome the opportunity to highlight the important and skilled work that is done by members of staff in the Scottish Prison Service—again, however, fine words are not enough. I am sure that members will share my concerns about statistics from the Scottish Prison Service that show that the number of staff assaults increased by a third over the past year. That follows on from the point that Liam Kerr made at the end of his speech.

In 2016-17, 189 assaults on prison staff were recorded. In the following year, 2017-18, 261 assaults on prison staff were recorded. That needs much closer examination. Could there be unintended consequences of other policy decisions, such as changes in the way in which the NHS services interact with the Prison Service? I hope that the minister will give the chamber an assurance that the significant rise in assaults on prison staff will be thoroughly investigated.

Finally, I ask members to reflect on the risks and pressures that many of those who work in the emergency services face. A number of trade unions that represent those workers have supported the 68 is too late campaign on the state pension age because of those risks and pressures. The more that we hear about the challenges faced in those jobs and the commitment given by the workforce to delivering such a high standard of service, the more we should question the steady increases in the retirement age. That is not in the hands of the Scottish Government but, as well as recognising the skills of emergency service workers and condemning assaults, we should add our voice to the representations that are being made on the retirement age—which, in my opinion, is too high and should be reviewed, as Labour has committed to do.

Once again, I thank Liam Kerr for bringing this important motion for debate and I apologise to members for leaving early.


Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in this timely debate and I congratulate Liam Kerr on securing it as we move into the festive season, which is the most challenging time of year for our emergency services.

For many people, Guy Fawkes night marks the beginning of the festive period of celebration and revelry. This time last year, Police Scotland officers and Scottish Fire and Rescue Service crew members were injured by projectile fireworks as they responded to 330 bonfires across Scotland between 5pm and 10pm on bonfire night.

The Scottish Government worked in partnership with Police Scotland, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and two of Her Majesty’s inspectorates to ensure that services were well prepared and could respond robustly to any antisocial behaviour this year. The launch of the #DoNotAttackMe campaign ahead of bonfire night shone a spotlight on the impact that attacks can have on the people behind the uniform who respond to emergencies.

On each of the three busiest days of the year—23 and 31 December and 1 January—our emergency services receive, on average, about 15,000 calls. Particularly over Christmas, all emergency services report an increase in calls as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. Some calls can be especially difficult to deal with when, for example, the caller is heavily intoxicated and their speech is unclear. That can lead to staff in control centres being verbally abused—and those on the streets even being physically abused—by people who are under the influence.

The emergency services convey messages to ensure that everyone stays safe during that time of year and that resources are used efficiently. For example, revellers are encouraged to plan for their Christmas night out by charging their mobile phone and remembering to take it with them, drinking responsibly and not leaving drinks unattended, sticking with friends, planning journeys home and letting people know where they are. Those seemingly small steps help to keep us all safe and ultimately relieve some of the strain on our hard-pressed emergency services.

Liam Kerr’s motion highlights some of the struggles that our emergency service workers face year round. The figures on common and serious assaults on police, fire and ambulance workers for 2016-17 are, indeed, shocking. For most of us, the assault of, or the threatening behaviour towards, any emergency service worker would be unconscionable, but the problem is very real. Given that there are as many as 17 assaults each day, violence is a tangible risk that such workers confront routinely, often when they arrive specifically to help the very people who end up assaulting them.

The protection of workers who do so much for us all should be paramount, and there are specific punishments for those who carry out such assaults. The Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 includes a penalty of up to 12 months’ imprisonment, a £10,000 fine or both. Such provision was extended in 2008 to include general practitioners, doctors, nurses and midwives who work in the community and also provide vital services. The act also extends protection to social workers who enforce child protection orders or carry out mental health assessments, which makes Scotland the only United Kingdom nation to include protections for workers who are on the front line, protecting the most vulnerable people in our society. Social workers intervene in the most intimate and sensitive aspects of people’s lives, and their contribution to our safety and wellbeing cannot be overstated.

Of course, the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 was opposed tooth and nail by the Tories, who now pose as the saviours of our emergency workers. I welcome their Damascene conversion.

Our focus must be on improving working conditions and reducing risk. Investing in our emergency services and ensuring that they have the staff, training and resources that are needed to carry out their work is essential.

The successful lobbying by SNP MPs and MSPs for VAT exemption since the merger of Scotland’s fire services and regional constabularies has allowed more money to go directly into front-line services. We continue to pursue a rebate of the £175 million that was charged by the UK Tory Government up to March 2018, so that more money can be invested in Scotland’s emergency services.

Liam Kerr

Will the member take an intervention?

Kenneth Gibson

I am in my last minute, but I will take an intervention if the Presiding Officer allows me to do so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am feeling quite relaxed.

Kenneth Gibson

Good. I am 10 seconds away from finishing my speech, but I am happy to take an intervention from Liam Kerr, given that it is his debate.

Liam Kerr

I am very grateful to the member for taking the intervention. I have called for a statutory aggravator, as there is in England and Wales, to be attached to the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, so that there would be the 2005 act and an aggravator. Does the member agree with that approach?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will give you your time back, Mr Gibson.

Kenneth Gibson

We should do all that we can to protect Scotland’s emergency workers. I am absolutely delighted that the Tories have now realised that such workers need protecting, many years after they decided that workers did not need such protection. Their hypocrisy on the issue is, frankly, breathtaking.

The message that I wish to end on is that emergency service workers are someone’s father, mother, brother, sister or friend. They deserve our gratitude and respect, never the physical or verbal abuse that prevents crews from bringing emergencies to a swift and safe conclusion and which delays crews from attending other people who are in need.


Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

I was hoping to be able to stand here and welcome reports of a peaceful bonfire night on Monday that was enjoyed by families and friends and overseen in a spirit of goodwill by the very emergency service workers whose job it is to put themselves in danger in order to keep everyone else safe. Instead, reports once again point to an evening of relative chaos, with members of the public describing scenes apparently akin to what they thought a war zone would look like. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service even sent a tweet warning people not to attack firefighters.

Almost all of us, directly or indirectly through a family member or friend, have been assisted by at least one of the emergency services at some point in our lives, which makes attacks against those workers, particularly on nights such as bonfire night, all the more mindless. Yesterday, there were reports of incidents in which emergency workers had been targeted, including firefighters being verbally abused and having objects thrown at them in Colinton Mains park in Edinburgh. That is a reminder of events last year, when a female police officer suffered serious burns after she was hit by a rocket. In the wider context, figures shows that 61 firefighters in 2016-17 were involved in incidents in which they were verbally or physically abused, or had objects thrown at their engines.

Firefighters—indeed, all emergency service workers—do incredible work to protect us all from harm. I had the pleasure of visiting volunteer firefighters at the Scottish Emergency Rescue Association in Granton. The professionalism, expertise and commitment of SERA’s members to what they do is such that they help to train firefighters from other parts of the world.

This year’s unruly scenes have taken place against a backdrop of police utilising unprecedented additional powers on bonfire night, including dispersal zones across parts of Edinburgh. The Scottish Conservatives believe that our emergency workers need further protection in these circumstances. My colleague Liam Kerr has already set out a package of additional measures, so I will not repeat what he said in that regard. I hope that the minister will today commit to working with us in a spirit of co-operation on those serious suggestions so that we can end this phenomenon and allow emergency workers to do their jobs in peace.

I finish by sending a message to those committing such senseless acts: cut it out. It is those people who need the Damascene conversion that Kenny Gibson referred to—in their attitudes, their actions and their behaviour towards our emergency service workers. They need to recognise that bonfire night or not, emergency service workers have a job to do, which is keeping people safe and looking after us all. They need to understand that, one day, they may have to call on the help of some of those services in their greatest hour of need. It is time to end attacks against emergency service workers.


Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I, too, thank Liam Kerr for bringing this debate to the chamber, and not just because of its timely nature or because of the recent issues that the fire service, among others, has raised about bonfire night. I thank him for bringing the debate because a consequence of having a national fire service and a national police service is that, all too often, those of us who speak on justice issues have to critique those services. At least, it might sound like criticism, but it is not. The work that our emergency service workers do is invaluable, and we must all thank them in all sincerity for their work. This debate gives us the opportunity to thank them for having the courage to run towards, not from, danger; for keeping us safe; and, above all, for their strong ethos. That ethos is best exemplified by the police’s commitment to policing by consent. That strong sense of working with the public to keep them safe, but not by instruction or decree, is very important.

This is also a time when our emergency services are under huge pressure. I know from talking to and spending time with the police that they spend a lot of time dealing with mental health issues, missing persons and, often, older people who have locked themselves out of their house. At times, our emergency services become the public services of last resort. When all other options have failed, people dial 999. I pay tribute to the commitment of the emergency services to step in when there are shortcomings.

The debate is timely. As Elaine Smith said, the Fire and Rescue Service responded to 723 calls and 338 fires on bonfire night. That number of call-outs must be overwhelming when compared with the normal workload, so I pay tribute to and thank the service for responding so diligently.

It is in that context that we must consider the dreadful attacks that seem to happen year after year. To a degree, I am encouraged by the minister’s confirmation on Tuesday that early reports suggest that the number of such incidents is down. However, they still happen. The reports from Monday night included one of 40 masked youths firing fireworks at the police in Glasgow; riot police had to respond to that incident. That is no way to celebrate bonfire night, which should be an evening of fun.

To abuse the commitment of our police and firefighters to doing their duty and responding when called on by luring emergency workers into a trap in which they are attacked is abhorrent. Let us be clear about that.

The very fact that the Fire and Rescue Service needed to launch its #DoNotAttackMe campaign is appalling. The service has my absolute support. I commit to working with it and the other emergency services. We will listen to what they say and make the changes that they need if emergency workers are to stay safe.

That brings me to the law. I am proud of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which the Labour-Lib Dem coalition introduced when we were in power. It is important in principle, in detail and in effect. The principle that those who uphold the law should be protected by the law is fundamental and should be communicated to the people who seek to abuse it. The detail of the 2005 act is also important, because it protects emergency workers not just from assault but from obstruction. The effect is important, because we have had more than 8,000 convictions under the law—around 800 per year. The law works and is used, and I am pleased to hear members of parties across the chamber support it.

We must thank the emergency services. We must think about all people in public-facing roles, from retail workers to firefighters, who are asked to uphold the law. Everyone whom we ask to uphold the law to keep the public safe should be protected by the law.


Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

I thank Liam Kerr for lodging the motion and securing the debate.

As members rightly said, in Scotland we should consider ourselves lucky to have the wealth of dedication and professionalism that exists in our emergency services. Attacks on emergency workers are not merely unacceptable; they are criminal matters, which we all rightly condemn.

Whether we are talking about the paramedics who save countless lives every day, the fire personnel who rush towards blazing buildings while others run to safety, or the police officers who often face down dangerous and difficult situations, the people who enter the emergency services in Scotland do an incredibly challenging job. It is worth recording that it takes a special kind of person to work in such a role.

As the MSP for the constituency that has the second-lowest rate of recorded crime in Scotland, I thank Police Scotland and its officers in the islands. The low crime rate in the islands does not happen by itself but is a result of sustained and dedicated community-based policing.

The people who work in the Ambulance Service in the Highlands and Islands co-ordinate with Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance to save countless lives a year by bringing people urgently to hospitals on the mainland.

In the islands, the Fire and Rescue Service requires people who are prepared to do the job for very little financial reward, on top of their paid jobs. We often fail fully to see or recognise that commitment of time to public service.

All the emergency services in the islands have to cope with the need to cover vast areas and prioritise resources when incidents happen simultaneously but far apart from one another.

I pay tribute to a branch of the emergency services that has a particularly strong connection with my constituency: the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Given our location and our seafaring tradition, the coastguard does hugely varied work around the islands. It co-ordinates responses to everything from dealing with someone stranded and injured on a cliff, as happened in the past day or two, to coping very memorably with the sudden and unexpected arrival of a massive oil rig on a beach on the west side of Lewis. Moreover, it works closely with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, whose volunteer crews save lives around our coasts throughout the year.

A few years ago, the staff of the coastguard station in Stornoway had to fight long and hard to keep the station open in the face of a concerted effort by the UK Government to close it. Those closure plans were eventually abandoned after it became clear that no possible case could be made for them. Nonetheless, in the face of all that evidence, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency removed the emergency towing vessel that used to be based on the west coast of Scotland. That is a whole other story; suffice it to say that the situation has caused very real anxiety in the community that I represent, and the next time that there is a major incident on the west coast of Scotland—which would not appear unlikely, as such incidents have happened in the past—the nearest tug that might be able to assist could easily be 12 or 15 hours away. These issues have also provoked some debate both locally and nationally about why, of all the emergency services that we are rightly celebrating today, only one of them remains reserved to Westminster.

I very much welcome the emphasis that has been placed in the debate that Mr Kerr has allowed us to have this evening—even if, as Mr Gibson has pointed out, it is somewhat ironic that, although we are all quite rightly condemning attacks on emergency service workers, Mr Kerr’s party voted against the legislation that actually made such offences criminal.

That said, I take this opportunity to add my thanks to all our emergency services not only in my own constituency—which I am conscious of having spoken a great deal about—but across Scotland, and I welcome the chance to put Scotland’s thanks on the parliamentary record.


Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to commend to the Parliament the amazing work of Scotland’s emergency workers, and I thank my colleague Liam Kerr for bringing the debate to the chamber and for giving us the time to pause and to recognise the importance of and the thanks that are owed to those in our emergency services.

Those who work in the emergency services, who include police officers, ambulance workers, firefighters and all the search-and-rescue teams and prison officers, place others first every single day. They are selfless in placing others’ safety above their own, and they carry out their duties with inspiring professionalism in what can be the most traumatic and nerve-wracking situations. Working what are often unenviable shift patterns, emergency service workers show their dedication in the help and support that they provide. Indeed, I recall how, some years ago in my region, military firefighters and police were shot at when green goddesses had to be put into use, and I remember some of the appalling results of that.

We should not forget that many of Scotland’s emergency workers are volunteers serving in charities. One such example is Scottish Mountain Rescue, which comprises more than 800 volunteers working in 24 teams across Scotland and offers a search-and-rescue service that operates every hour of the day, every day of the year, no matter the weather. Given that they cover vast and challenging mountain terrain in dealing with these situations, their service is more than commendable, and their volunteer work is made even more inspiring by the fact that the organisation is funded solely by contributions.

In a similar vein, Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance, which has already been mentioned, offers life-saving flights in response to emergency calls. In its first five years, the charity service has received almost 2,000 calls to deal with medical emergencies in some of the most remote areas of Scotland. Again, it relies on public donations and fundraising efforts to keep its service moving.

Another shining example is the RNLI. Its workers specialise in lifeboat search and rescue and educate others on water safety in the hope of preventing emergency situations from happening in the future, and it, too, is reliant on charitable donations to keep its momentum going. Indeed, I saw evidence of that very momentum on my recent visit to its Troon base. In my region, I am keenly aware of the hours that are put in in answering emergencies by people at my local lifeboat station in Rhu, by Helensburgh. The fundraising team behind that group is certainly not always recognised for the hard work that it puts in to ensure that lives continue to be saved at sea.

My community safety role has renewed my understanding of the lengths that all emergency service workers go to and of how integral their service is to our local communities. If we face a fire in our home or are the victim of a crime, or if we need immediate hospital care, it is massively reassuring to know that those in the emergency services will instantly respond. They will help, however they can, and their dedication is evident across Scotland. An example of that was their dedication at the massive fire last year in Cameron house hotel by Loch Lomond, which is in my area.

How, therefore, can we not be concerned when we hear that those workers are at risk of being assaulted while carrying out their service? As my colleague Liam Kerr has mentioned, those attacks can be caused by the very people whom they are trying to help. The fact that that has been a worsening problem in Scotland is hard to comprehend.

We know that crime in our communities is an on-going problem. Recently, we have seen situations in which firefighters have been targeted yet again with unwarranted abuse for simply answering an emergency call. It goes without saying that emergency service workers should be treated with the same respect that they offer to those whom they help. Ensuring their safety, wellbeing and protection must be our top necessity and requirement. I hope that that can be secured by dealing with the problem and the perpetrators head on.

To conclude, I once again offer my sincere thanks to all those in our emergency services. Their contributions in the greatest times of need are integral to our safety and are certainly worthy of the Parliament’s recognition.


Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

I thank Liam Kerr MSP for lodging the motion on emergency service workers for debate.

The motion commends

“the bravery and dedication of emergency service workers”,

which are required in protecting the public. We all agree that emergency service workers are courageous people who frequently put themselves in dangerous circumstances for the protection of all of us. As has been stated, for firefighters, that is especially true on bonfire night, which is their busiest night of the year. As was mentioned earlier—by Daniel Johnson, I think—this bonfire night, firefighters received 723 calls from members of the public and attended 338 bonfires.

In the midst of emergency services working to protect the public, there have been occasions when front-line workers have been subject to verbal and physical abuse from the very people whom they have been trying to help. That is totally unacceptable. On Monday, the police and fire services in the west service delivery area alone had upwards of eight abusive attacks. That is not what front-line emergency service workers signed up for, and the attacks do not reflect the rest of the general public’s deep appreciation and recognition of the dedicated work that is done by each individual who works in the emergency services. I am very pleased that that topic is to the fore. That means that members can unequivocally condemn abusive behaviour towards emergency service workers.

Although the Parliament has used its legislative capacity to provide legal protections to emergency workers, a wider collaborative effort is needed to ensure that such antisocial behaviour is minimised and called to account.

It was mentioned earlier that, in the lead-up to this year’s bonfire night, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service launched the #DoNotAttackMe Twitter campaign, which showed brave members, such as watch manager Glynn McAffer and firefighter Lyndsay Hopper, speaking out about a rise in attacks from groups of youths. The campaign has movingly shown families asking that their father, mother, husband or wife is not attacked in the line of service. Although 5 November may be the busiest evening of the year for the fire service, that appeal applies to every day of the year.

The workers in the other emergency service providers also suffer from abusive behaviour from members of the public. The Institute of Alcohol Studies has produced a report that showed that, across the UK, three quarters of police respondents and half of ambulance respondents have been injured in alcohol-related incidents and that between a third and a half of all service people have suffered from sexual harassment or abuse at the hands of intoxicated members of the public. The report, which is shocking, evidences that abuse needs to be tackled all year round, with all emergency service workers in mind.

As a community, we need to make a collective effort to ensure that we are following the guidance that has been issued by the emergency services. If people witness harassment or abuse of emergency services workers, they should, as soon as it is safely possible, make a note of what they have seen and the time of the incident and then report it to their local police station. It may well help to bring offenders to account.

Fundamentally, however, there is an individual responsibility that falls on the people in the groups of offenders. Abusive behaviour is always unacceptable and it gets in the way of emergency services attending real emergencies and saving people’s lives. Let us together advocate for the safety of our emergency services workers so that they can continue to do their life-saving work and protect our communities without fear of violence, harassment or abuse.


The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Denham)

I add my thanks to Liam Kerr for bringing this debate to the chamber and providing the Parliament with an opportunity to come together, as we have done this evening, to appreciate and commend our emergency services workforce and front-line staff in our prisons.

This morning, I had the pleasure of attending Marionville fire station in Edinburgh, where I met police, fire and ambulance service personnel to hear directly from them about their experience and to thank them for all their hard work. I have also had an informative debrief by Police Scotland on activities over recent days.

In echoing the comments that members have made this evening, I pass on my gratitude to each and every member of our emergency services as well as those who volunteer their spare time to help those in need, no matter what the circumstances. It is clear that many of us will at some time in our lives rely on their skill and dedication, and I thank them all.

Having recognised the bravery of our emergency services, I find it incomprehensible that a minority of individuals would attack them while they carry out their work. I very much welcome the unanimous condemnation of that behaviour in the debate, and I extend the assurance that the Scottish Government does not and will not tolerate any such attacks on emergency services staff.

Liam Kerr

Will the minister take an intervention?

Ash Denham


The Deputy Presiding Officer

I could see that you were poised, Mr Kerr.

Liam Kerr

I thank the minister for taking the intervention. As I said in my speech, I believe that someone who murders a police officer in the course of their duties should be sentenced to prison for life. Surely the minister agrees.

Ash Denham

I think that it is hypocritical of the Tories to come to the chamber and say that, considering that they voted against the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill in 2005. That legislation has led to many convictions that would not have occurred had the Conservatives had their way on the issue. I am very glad that they have now seen the light on it.

I am happy to discuss the matters that Mr Kerr raised during his speech at any time. My door is open, and if he wants to come and speak to me about any of them, I will be happy to take that meeting and discuss them further.

Scotland’s justice system provides protection to everyone, including emergency workers, under our laws of assault and breach of the peace, and it was this Government that introduced the threatening or abusive behaviour offence in 2010. There are also specific protections in the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005. That act—which, as we have heard this evening, was opposed by the Conservatives—is an important piece of legislation that offers specific criminal law protections for our emergency services. Official statistics show that the conviction rate for offences against emergency workers was 90 per cent in 2016-17.

I move on to the specific matter of fireworks. Those who were involved in the worst offences in Edinburgh on bonfire night last year have been caught and punished, and anyone who offended this year will also be severely dealt with. I am aware that arrests have already been made and Police Scotland has made it clear that others who were involved will be pursued.

The Scottish Government has taken action over the past year to review the legislative position and powers relating to fireworks. As most of the legislation on firework sales is reserved, I wrote to the UK Government on the matter. I received a response that states that the UK Government is not considering legislation to further restrict firework sales at this time. Mr Kerr may wish to reflect on that response with his Westminster colleagues. I will, of course, be happy to meet him to discuss the response from the UK Government and to inform him about any further work that is under way in the area.

As Mr Kerr acknowledges, we have worked with HM inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland and Her Majesty’s fire service inspectorate in Scotland to review changing trends. As a result, both the police service and the fire service have put in place an improved process for recording assaults, to allow the picture to be better understood and to inform any future action that is required.

Of course, prevention is better than cure. The Scottish Government supports the vital education and prevention work of local authorities, Police Scotland, the Fire and Rescue Service and other agencies, to ensure that people can enjoy this time of year responsibly and safely.

When I visited Pilton in north Edinburgh at the beginning of October, I saw an excellent example of national and local agencies working together. In Mr Kerr’s region, operation Fawkes took a holistic, multi-agency approach that was layered and co-ordinated through Aberdeen community safety partnership. In hotspot areas around the country, intelligence-led patrols were carried out over the past weekend, with police and fire officers working together to provide triage services to assist in the early identification of youths involved in any criminal activity.

At the national level, for the first time, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service collated a list of organised events across the country and made that publicly available on its website. I am sure that members across the Parliament have observed the social media activity around firework safety and the safety of our emergency service workers. The level of activity has been very high, including the #DoNotAttackMe campaign, which has already been mentioned this evening.

Of course, fireworks are not the only issue when it comes to violence against our emergency service workers. Unfortunately, they are just another tool for attack. Police Scotland has the experience and the intelligence to make a judgment on what response is required at the time of any incident, always with a focus on keeping officers and our communities safe. Our ambulance staff do an incredible job every day, saving lives throughout the country, and they deserve to be able to carry out their work without any threat to their safety. The Ambulance Service has a range of measures in place to protect staff, which includes flagging certain addresses where there is a history of violence or threatening behaviour, which allows staff to assess whether they require additional support from Police Scotland before attending those addresses.

No one should be the victim of abuse or violence while they are at work, and we continue to encourage all NHS organisations to support criminal proceedings against anyone who assaults our staff.

I thank Mr Kerr again for providing the Parliament with the opportunity to come together to support our emergency services workforce and to firmly condemn the deplorable behaviour of the small minority of people who choose to act violently towards them.

Meeting closed at 17:52.