Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Victoria AtkinsMain Page: Victoria Atkins (Conservative - Louth and Horncastle)
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Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I will try to lead by example in that regard.
Part 1 of the Bill increases the penalty for assault on an emergency worker from 12 months to two years. Many other key workers are on the frontline, too. Indeed, shopworkers have borne the brunt of much of the abuse about mask wearing and social distancing in stores, on top of the existing problems associated with age verification for the purpose of alcoholic drinks purchases, drunken abusive behaviour, and of course shoplifting. Late-night shops are often run single-handedly, so the distress and trauma associated with assaults or threatening behaviour should not be underestimated. I am due to meet shortly with in-store workers from my local Tesco to see at first hand how this problem has affected staff in that setting. I hope the Minister can reassure me—either now or when she sums up at the end—that she is aware of the issue’s importance and that amendments may not be necessary to deliver the action we all believe is needed.
I thank the Minister for that reassurance. The other two items I want to discuss were underlined by the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) about lining up with wokeism rather than with the hard-working people who find their lives disrupted in the workplace, when travelling to work or, indeed, in their communities. I commend the Government for the public order measures in part 3 and despair at amendments 1 to 7 tabled by several Lib Dem and Labour colleagues, which would completely remove that aspect of the Bill.
It is of course, a basic human right to be allowed to demonstrate one’s strongly held feelings. Indeed, I have been on demonstrations myself. I went on the countryside march, and I marched at the head of an opposition demonstration in Minsk, which had a slightly less jolly atmosphere. However, the Government must take action to prevent deliberate acts of vandalism or obstruction such as those associated with Extinction Rebellion and, I am sorry to say, Black Lives Matter. Yes, people have the right to demonstrate, but not in a way that prevents people from going about their lawful business: travelling to work, being taken to hospital by ambulance or, indeed, Members of Parliament being able to access this building to exercise our democratic mandate.
I am particularly pleased that we are taking action on single-personal protests. Over the spring bank holiday in May, local Labour councillor Theresa Norton sat in the middle of the street in the middle of Scarborough on the first weekend on which many of our hard-pressed tourism businesses were keen to make up some of the money they had lost during the pandemic. She caused a massive traffic jam, supposedly demonstrating in the cause of Extinction Rebellion. That sort of behaviour should not be allowed because it disrupts people’s lives and, I believe, actually antagonises people against such issues.
Finally, I am disappointed that the Labour and SNP Front-Bench teams are so out of touch with the genuine distress and disruption caused by illegal Traveller encampments. They seem to have some kind of rose-tinted view of traditional Romany lifestyles, but that is not the reality on the ground and the Government are right to take action. Communities have asked us to take action, and there is a clear choice to be made between supporting those communities or supporting people who lawlessly occupy land and cause havoc and destruction.
I rise to speak to new clause 91 and amendment 117.
Amendment 117 simply says that the Scottish Government reserve the right to amend the code of conduct governing data extraction if the UK code of conduct is not suitable for our distinct policing service. I cannot imagine why the Government would not just accept that amendment, so I look forward to hearing that they have.
New clause 91 will instruct the Secretary of State to conduct a review of the criminal offences set out in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Let us face it: after 50 years, it is high time. That argument is gaining traction across party and with good reason. One of my colleagues will be saying more about that later in the debate, so I will simply say that my support for it is wholehearted. Our approach to drug misuse and addiction should be a public health approach, because that is what saves lives.
Mr Speaker, I understand that I have unlimited time, but I can reassure you that I will talk as briefly as I can to allow other speakers to make their contribution. I will look at three areas of the Bill.
I have said before that the curbs on the right to protest are draconian and contrary to international law—it is not just me saying that, of course—and I know colleagues will say more on that shortly, but people out there need to be aware of how the provisions will impact on them. I always use the example of the WASPI women, the Women Against State Pension Inequality. I do that because, whether it is anti-war protesters, the Black Lives Matter movement or those who are desperately worried about the environment, there is always a cohort in here ready to tell us what is wrong with those protesters: how “dangerous” they are and how we need to clamp down on them.
Now, nobody is going to tell me that the Women Against State Pension Inequality are a threat to any of us. The opposite is true. These are older women who should be retired by now, but they have had their retirement stolen from them by the UK Government. So many times we have all gone across the road to join thousands of WASPI women and their supporters from all across the UK, but because of the exclusion zone to be thrown up around Parliament they will be prevented from ever doing that again. We are to hear and see nobody unless they agree with us. That is just one tiny part of the curbs on the right to protest. It is not what we expect from the so-called bastion of democracy.
I want to turn briefly to serious violence reduction orders. Members might ask why, given that they apply only to England and Wales, but here is why. I was quite shocked to hear the Home Office attempt to make a comparison between serious violence reduction orders and the work of the hugely successful Scottish Government-backed Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. The Scottish VRU adopts a public health approach to violence. I urge hon. Members not to be fooled by attempted comparisons. The underlying principle—
The underlying principle of the Violence Reduction Unit is that the causes of violence are deep-rooted and that we need a public health approach. These orders do not take a public health approach. In order to make a lasting improvement, numerous agencies have a role to play, including education, social services, health, justice and the third sector. Rather than creating barriers to education, housing and employment, the multiagency approach in Scotland actively removes them. The focus in Scotland has been on listening to the community, not dividing it. SVROs conform to outdated reactive practices. By the time one is issued, the damage has been done. The Government say they represent a public health approach, but a public health approach emphasises prevention. It is glaringly obvious when we think about it: fewer crimes create fewer victims, and that reduces demand on public services. Crime prevention is the public health model in action and that is not what these orders represent.
Finally, I support the amendments to delete part 4 of the Bill, on Travelling communities. That part of the Bill sickens me to my core. The Conservative hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) has been allowed by his party to get away with claiming that Travellers today are
“more likely to be seen leaving your garden shed at 3 o’clock in the morning…with your lawnmower”.––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee, 8 June 2021; c. 410.]
In other words, he is saying they are thieves. There can be no hiding from the fact that this is anything other than a full-on attack on the way of life of Gypsy Travellers. The Travelling community in Scotland are deeply concerned, as are all others across the UK.
The Home Affairs Committee has considered many different aspects of this Bill and these amendments at different times and in different ways, but given the time I will focus on just a small number of areas.
I particularly want to address new clause 69, in my name. Its purpose is to get justice for victims of domestic abuse who are being timed out and take action against perpetrators who are being let off the hook. Many domestic abuse cases are prosecuted as common assault in a magistrates court where police and prosecutors may say that the threshold for the Crown court is not met. In these cases, there is a time limit on justice—most victims are not aware of this—of six months from the offence, even though in domestic abuse cases it may take many months, for good reason, for victims to feel able to go to the police. They may still be in an abusive relationship. They may be afraid. They may not be safe. They may have children and be worried about how to leave or where they will go. It may take them time to get the support that they feel they need to be able to talk to the police. There are so many reasons that are, in themselves, the essence of continuing crimes of domestic abuse. That is why the new clause increases the time limit so that there can be six months for the police to deal with the case from the point of reporting, rather than from the point of the offence itself.
Somebody I have talked to told me her story. She was assaulted while she was pregnant. She went to A&E but did not, at that stage, want to talk about what had happened. However, when the abuse continued after the baby was born, she left and gathered her courage to talk to the police, who started an investigation but before long told her that she had passed a time limit she never even knew existed and her ex would not be charged. There are many more such victims of domestic abuse who, for serious and obvious reasons, do not report it immediately, and the perpetrators go on to be free to commit more crimes.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. I am keen to pursue this and to work with her on it, as we have cross-party support. I really do want to see progress and I hope we can achieve that in the House of Lords.
This is, once again, about the blind spot where the legal system does not recognise the reality of violence against women and girls. There may be many reasons why a six-month time limit is appropriate for summary offences about altercations between acquaintances in the pub or tussles in the street, but it is not appropriate for domestic abuse—for the experience of violence against women and girls that is, too often, being missed out in the criminal justice system, where thousands of cases a year may be affected in this way. We have support for changes in this area from the domestic abuse commissioner of Refuge, Women’s Aid, the Centre for Women’s Justice, and West Yorkshire police.
On new clause 31, the Select Committee has conducted a detailed inquiry into violent abuse against shop workers. We have recommended a stand-alone offence because we need to strengthen the focus on this escalating offence and to have the police take it much more seriously. It is simply unacceptable that shop workers should face this escalating abuse over very many years. The new offence of assault against emergency workers has made a difference and increased prosecutions, and we need to increase prosecutions in other areas as well.