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December 7, 2010

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Committee delivers blow to worker-assaults bill

A Scottish Parliament committee report has concluded that new legislation is not the answer to protecting workers from assault and deterring violence.

Delivering its verdict on the Protection of Workers (Scotland) Bill, introduced in June by Hugh Henry MSP, the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee (EET) said it would not provide any more safeguards for individuals against assault than those currently available under common law.

The Bill sought to create a new offence of assault against a worker whose employment involves dealing with members of the public to any extent. The offence would have covered assaults while such workers are acting in the course of their work, and assaults that take place at other times but which relate to their work.

With its decision, the EET appeared to agree with the written evidence supplied by the Criminal Law Committee of the Law Society of Scotland, which underlined that existing common law provides sufficient protection for workers delivering a service for the public, as it took account of aggravating circumstances.

A dissenting view came from Robert Milligan, of the Scottish Police Federation, who told the committee: “The courts do not place sufficient emphasis on what is reported to them. If they did, the full and proper application of the common law would negate the need for any other aggravator, or any other act.”

Rather than ratify the Bill’s proposal for primary legislation, the committee put forward some alternative proposals to tackle the problem of violence against workers, including the introduction of sentencing and prosecution guidelines for such an offence.

It also suggested that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service collect and publish statistics on aggravating circumstances for common-law assault and breach-of-the-peace prosecutions, so that the impact of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 could be measured.

Providing evidence for the committee, Dave Watson, of Unison Scotland, acknowledged the importance of non-legislative approaches, but reaffirmed the union’s stance that legislation should form part of the solution.

Said Watson: “First, we need campaigns to raise public awareness to try to make abusing people who serve the public unacceptable in the same way as drink driving is no longer acceptable. . . Secondly, workplace measures are important. . . Legislation is the third prong. It is important not just because of the deterrent and punishment elements but because of the public policy message that it sends.”

Convenor of the EET committee, Iain Smith MSP, said: “We share the Bill’s aims of promoting the protection of, and respect for, public-facing workers. We also agree that something has to be done now to bring about a change in culture and tackle unacceptable behaviour towards workers.

“However, the committee agreed that other action to address the issue of assault and abuse of workers should be taken now by the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and employers, including: tougher prosecution and sentencing guidelines; and effective campaigns to show that such behaviour is totally unacceptable, and to ensure that attacks on workers are reported and prosecuted.”

The EET has recommended to the Scottish Parliament that no agreement has been reached on the general principles of the Bill – which centre on the proposal to create a statutory offence of assault against a worker who deals directly with the public. The Bill will now be debated in the Chamber early next year.

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