Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Biting the Helping Hand - Assaults on Public Sector Workers

The recent horrific murder of Anne Maguire has shocked a lot of people in Britain - including me. I knew that teaching was becoming more hazardous in many ways, but I never thought that there would be any lethal attacks. Perhaps I was just being too naïve. My own limited research shows that the killing of Anne Maguire is symptomatic of a wave of violence against public sector workers.In fact, it is a miracle that there have not been more deaths and serious injuries. In presenting my case, I have looked (albeit too briefly) at education, NHS staff (hospital and paramedic), the police and the Civil Service. It is not a happy picture, but it must not be ignored or swept under the carpet.
In education, assaults and abuse of teaching staff have been on the rise for years. In 2013, Anna Davis of the London Evening Standard quoted recent figures for assaults on staff in 2011:
"Latest national figures show there were 8,030 assaults on school staff in England by pupils aged between four and 11 in 2011". As the Standard is a London paper, she goes on to say:
"Information obtained by the Evening Standard exposes the shocking scale of violence in the classroom, including the case of a woman teacher in Kingston who was knocked unconscious after being headbutted by a pupil of 15."
In London alone there were over 4000 attacks on teachers in the period 2009 - 2013, including one case of rape. In 2012, the BBC reported:
"The number of attacks against teachers in Bristol has risen by more than 40% in three years."
Figures do not convey the horror of these attacks. Teachers can claim compensation, but no amount of money compensates for ruined health. As Helene Mulholland said in The Guardian in 2012:
 "Among the highest compensation payouts secured by the NUT was £222,215 for a teacher working in a school for pupils with learning and behavioural problems who suffered a brain injury after being hit on the head with a bus door by a pupil. Another was handed almost £175,000 after being punched in the head by a parent."
There are more incidents such as these, which I do not have space for here.
I have insufficient space also for describing attacks on NHS staff. Rebecca Smith, in 2012, spelt out the scale of the problem:
"Overall assaults on NHS staff in England reached almost 60,000 last year, an increase of more than three per cent on the previous year." This incredible figure of attacks on people who only have the best interests of ill and injured patients at heart shows no sign of decreasing.
NHS Protect has released the 2012-13 figures for reported physical assaults against NHS staff in England.
The statistics were collated from 341 health bodies across the country.
The number of criminal sanctions following reported assaults has risen by 201, from 1,257 to 1,458 – a rise of 15.9 per cent.
Overall, there was a rise of 5.8 per cent in total reported assaults from 59,744 in 2011/12 to 63,199 in 2012/13. Some of the most vicious attacks happen on paramedics trying to do their vital jobs in emergency situations. In Sussex alone, "The Argus" reports:
"Crews have reported being punched and kicked as they try to do their job, leaving them with cuts, bruises and concussion.
Others have found themselves subjected to verbal abuse, aggression and intimidating behaviour from patients, relatives and sometimes passers-by.
Unions said they were aware of the increase in cases and believe the real number could be higher because not every incident is reported."
In Southern England, there have been cases of paramedics being shot at in the course of their duty.
As for the police, one is left wondering why anyone does the job, when assault figures are taken into account. Recently released figures show that 54 police officers in Britain are attacked every day. The Daily Express quoted the figures:

"A Freedom of Information request to all police forces found that last year a total of 19,670 officers were assaulted on duty, one every 27 minutes.
The Met had the largest number of officer assaults in the past year with 1,493. Greater Manchester Police suffered 802 attacks and Thames Valley 560."
As for the Civil Service, the brunt of attacks tends to fall upon Department of Works and Pensions (DWP)staff, who deal with the public in Job Centres and Benefit Claims. Here also, there is a worrying increase in violence against DWP staff.
The DWP's own stats showed staff reported 476 assaults in 2012/13 - up from 228 in 2009/10, before the coalition took power and began changing the benefits system.
PCS union leader Mark Serwotka has said: "Alongside a wider assault on public services and those who provide them, the government has launched the most disgusting campaign of vilification against the sick, disabled and unemployed in a bid to justify cutting the benefits to which they are entitled.
It is shocking but unsurprising that we are seeing an increase in attacks on jobcentre staff in the wake of this".
Of the 476 assaults reported last year, 80 resulted in cuts and bruises and 23 in an injury greater than a cut or a bruise.
In the first six months of this financial year, 248 assaults were recorded at a rate of more than one a day.
Why is this happening? I do not have a comprehensive answer to that question, as the violence I have discussed here is different in kind in different cases. Mark Serwotka is surely right in blaming economic factors for the increase in aggression shown against DWP staff, who are only implementing this government's punitive benefits policies, but it does not explain why children attack teachers, or why people shoot at paramedics. It is simply too complacent to say that "only a minority" are involved in the violence. The inescapable fact is that there is a growing wave of hostility towards the caring agencies, and I hope I have demonstrated the fact. I have not included attacks on fire crews, who frequently come under attack from yobs when attending fires in our towns and cities. Nor have I had space to talk of shop and catering workers, bus and train employees and many others who face abuse from members of the public. In conclusion, I would say that if you bite the hand that tries to help you, it might not be there when you want it one day.

1 comment:

  1. It is true that it is a minority of people who attack public sector workers - the vast majority do not resort to aggression - but it is wrong to say only a minority as that diminishes the impact that violent people can have. Threats alone (and I had a few when I worked for the DSS) can be alarming enough, but actual assaults can devastate people, destroy confidence and seriously affect their lives.

    I blame in part the culture of entitlement that exists, and I believe we can heap some of the blame for that on John Major with all his ludicrous citizens' charters that prominently informed people of their rights without spelling out their responsibilities.

    Organisations that deal with the public prefer to keep violent and aggressive incidents out of the news. As a union rep in the DSS, I was told by our counter staff that management had told them that they couldn't call the police without getting approval first. I told them that, as citizens, they had every right to call the police without seeking permission if they thought there was a real risk to life, limb or property, but I think they were understandably reluctant to take my word for it.