Victims Commissioner Dame Vera Baird has written a powerful letter to the Lord Chancellor about the Chronicle's Justice for Heroes campaign.
The former Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner is urging Robert Buckland to take action on our calls for a review of the lack of prison sentences handed to those convicted of assaulting emergency service workers.
And Dame Vera has also suggested that Mr Buckland, who is also the Justice Secretary, look into adding the offence of 'assaulting an emergency worker' to the Attorney General's Unduly Lenient Sentence (ULS) scheme, which would mean soft sentences could be challenged at the court of appeal for the first time.
Here is her letter in full:
Dear Lord Chancellor
I am writing to you to draw to your attention the campaign ‘Justice for Heroes’ established by the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle Upon Tyne, where there has been what has been referred to as an increasing spate of assaults on emergency workers.
The principal victims are ambulance workers, upon whom we rely ever more during the pandemic. Their safeguarding and protection are central to the public interest and they are, clearly, worthy professionals entitled to an assurance that they can do their vital work in safety and not under the shadow of random violence.
I have set out below brief details of the concerns and attach the newspaper’s campaign articles.
I also attach a link to an article setting out the outcome of a public survey which you will see demonstrates, unsurprisingly, very solid support for better protection for these workers. The survey reflects dissatisfaction, perhaps tending in some cases towards outrage or despair, that of 171 people reported for assaulting ambulance workers on duty, 40 have been successfully prosecuted, none of whom received an immediate custodial sentence.
Clearly, the local public feel that only such a sentence can flag the gravity of this violent behaviour and can send out a deterrent signal to others.
Obviously, I am aware the maximum sentence for such assaults has recently been doubled to 2 years imprisonment and I am confident the general public in the North East public support this move.
However, increasing the maximum sentence cannot be a deterrent when immediate custody has yet to be used. I accept it is possible that increasing the maximum might move the whole sentencing matrix to a higher level, but immediate custody has always been an option available to the court.
Some of the unprovoked and savage attacks listed by the Chronicle appear to suggest high levels of culpability and, in some cases, the infliction of considerable physical harm, as well as harm to the confidence of ambulance worker victims, one of whom is quoted as saying: ‘We now have to go to work fearing that we might not come back’.
Such severe assaults appear to be offending at the upper level of gravity.
The figures on the numbers of attacks and prosecutions do not include attacks on police, fire or other emergency workers. It is likely that they suffer similarly but the focus has been in a spate of cases, on ambulance workers.
I should add that the campaign on their behalf is supported by Unison the trade union.
I understand only too well that sentencing is for the judiciary and not for yourself or your ministerial colleagues. Nevertheless, it is rare for there to be such a clear and concerted local voice calling for better protection for a highly valued and much needed cohort of workers. The Chronicle’s campaign is for new guidelines to be issued to meet what is seen as this deficit in sentencing practice.
It further asks for consideration to be given to adding offences against emergency workers to the schedule of offences where an unduly lenient sentence can be challenged.
Rather than be prescriptive, I am writing to draw this serious issue to your attention. Clearly the doubling of the sentence by you indicates that you agree with the sense of this campaign and it may be that you are able to request guidelines or join the offence into the schedule with a view to a subsequent sentence being referred to the court of appeal by the Attorney General.
As always, I am ready to meet to discuss this issue and to bring some of the ambulance worker victims to describe their experiences, if that is a proposal you would welcome.
Dame Vera Baird QC
Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales