Debate: Assaults

17 May 2017 15:15 - 15:45

Location To Be Confirmed


Matter for discussion, submitted by the RCN UK Safety Reps Committee

That this meeting of RCN Congress asks Council to lobby the government to amend existing legislation regarding the assault of health care workers.

In December 2016 NHS Protect released figures showing that physical attacks on NHS staff in England have risen by 4% over the previous twelve months. In Northern Ireland alone 4,382 assaults on nurses were recorded in the health and social care sector in the 12 months leading up to 30 September 2016. The RCN has highlighted this issue over many years, most recently during an evidence session with the Northern Ireland Assembly Health Committee.

Comparison figures need to be available from Wales, but we also need evidence of the number of assaults in the independent sector and the pursuance of prosecution against the perpetrators.

It is not currently a specific offence to attack nursing staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Attacks would be prosecuted using the general criminal offences against the person including common assault, actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm. The Crown Prosecution Service advises that assaults on public servants and emergency workers must be treated seriously by the courts. In England and Wales, there are specific offences of attacking on duty police officers, prison officers and immigration officers. Each of these offences carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 ensure that any assault on an officer whilst they are carrying out ‘their duty’ will be deemed as a criminal offence.

However, in 2008 in Scotland, following the modification of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 it became an offence to assault medical practitioners, nurses and midwives. The NHS Scotland staff survey in 2015 found that the proportion of NHS staff who had experienced a physical attack had decreased by 10% since the extension of the Act in 2008.

There is a great lack of consistency in the independent sector; this is concerning because some small independent companies fear ‘bad press’ when they prosecute ‘clients’ for assaulting staff this encourages them to not seek prosecution.

With staff already working under difficult conditions, it is not acceptable to expect them to go to work with threats of violence and aggression. Why are we excluded in the current legislation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Should staff be expected to work with the knowledge that both legislation and their organisations will not advocate or support the prosecution of the perpetrators; but that members or staff are often expected to pursue private prosecutions, with little or no support?

The RCN supports the introduction of tougher criminal sanctions to send out a strong deterrent message to those who willfully assault nursing and other health care workers in the pursuit of their work. Any new law would need to be inclusive of all nursing staff working in a variety of environments. The RCN in Wales has recently met with the Police Federation and other public service unions to discuss raising the profile of this significant issue.

The Proposer, Alison Upton, began this highly emotive matter for discussion by arguing that if a member of the public assaults a police officer, it is a specific offence, unlike an assault on a health care worker.

She reminded Congress that in 2008 in Scotland, the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 was modified so that it became an offence to assault medical practitioners, nurses and midwives. The NHS Scotland staff survey in 2015 found that NHS staff who’d experienced a physical attack had decreased by 10% since the act was put into place. The proposer asked Congress whether this should be extended to the four countries.

During the debate there were many moving accounts of physical and verbal assault from delegates who shared their experiences with Congress, emphasising how common these assaults had become.

Alice Smith felt that these assaults were often seen as part of the job, but that no health care worker should expect to be a victim of abuse.  Minerva Klepacz felt that health care workers are ‘entitled to be treated with the care and respect that we show to patients every day.’

A common theme was the lack of support felt by delegates from managers and organisations when considering reporting an assault and that they were often left to pursue private prosecution with no support whatsoever.  Leslie Green felt that the NHS should send a strong message to society that this is unacceptable in their advertising.

However, Ed Freshwater felt that creating a new law wouldn’t make much of a difference and that organisations should be supporting staff in making claims and standing up to assault.

The Proposer, in her right of reply, thanked members for their personal disclosures and highlighted that the RCN council was working on this item and hoped to update members shortly.


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