Dramatic increase in attacks on Scottish public service workers
VIOLENT attacks on public sector workers in Scotland are soaring. A study by the union Unison has found 34,739 staff reported violent assaults in the past year, an increase of almost 7,000 on last year and by 15,000 on 2006.
• Attacks on public service workers up by almost 7,000 from last year
• 8,375 reported attacks on police, 14,274 local government workers attacked
• Unison, who commissioned study, call figures ‘appalling’
The surge has been blamed by union chiefs and some MSPs on controversial cuts to local government services.
However, the survey said a “greater awareness and better reporting” in Scotland’s public sector partly explained the increase in recorded attacks.
One of the most dramatic rises has been in assaults on local council workers, with the number rising in the past year by 2,257 to 14,274.
The figures also show convictions under the Emergency Workers Act, which covers assaults on 999 staff, have increased over the past year by 44 to 324.
Unison wants the act to cover all public sector staff and claims few violent incidents ever result in criminal action.
The number of attacks on staff working in Scotland’s NHS fell by 967 to 10,974 during the past year, but Unison pointed out the two largest health boards, Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Lothian, had been unable to produce figures this year.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay said it was “very obvious” cutbacks were leaving staff isolated and more vulnerable to attack, and he claimed the increase in physical assaults was “one of the very real consequences of austerity”.
Dave Watson, Unison’s Scottish organiser, said public sector job cuts meant many staff were being forced to work on their own, making them more vulnerable to attack.
He said: “The latest figures demonstrate an appalling level of violent incidents faced by staff who are simply doing their job.”
“We’ve seen the number of public sector jobs cut by thousands and the number of violent assaults go up by thousands at the same time.
“One reason for this increase is that people get frustrated about not getting services.
“Another reason is that some staff members had been working with two or three colleagues and now find themselves working alone, with no-one to watch their back.
“We’re not defending people taking it out on our members, but the cuts are part of the cause of all this. It’s a real case of shoot the messenger.”
Mr Watson went on: “Employers must redouble their efforts to protect workers, and the Scottish Government must play its role by strengthening the criminal law.”
He said the violence included assaults by school pupils on classroom assistants, which he said was becoming more of an issue.
But Tory MSP Alex Johnstone dismissed the union’s claim that austerity measures had sparked the increase in attacks.
“It’s nothing to do with government cuts,” he said. “It’s more to do with the fact that some people don’t behave in the appropriate and respectful way that they did in the past.
“Unison appears to be suggesting that there is acceptable aggression. Human nature is the problem, and the union is just giving badly behaved people an excuse to behave badly.”
An attempt by Labour MSP Hugh Henry to introduce a Protection of Workers Bill to extend existing safety measures for staff was blocked in the last parliament.
Justice secretary Kenny Mac-Askill insisted the SNP government was committed to protecting public sector workers from attacks. He said: “Any attack on a public sector worker is entirely unacceptable and it will be dealt with fully by the police and we expect the courts to take appropriate and firm action with them.
“We do have to ram home the message that people who go about their daily business should not be viewed as a punchbag or be subject to assault.
“It is entirely unacceptable and that’s why I can give an absolute insurance that it is viewed very, very seriously by the police and prosecution service.
“Hard-working people doing a difficult job should not be subjected to assault or injury from people who have no right to interfere with them.”
SNP MSP John Wilson said that UK government’s cuts were partly to blame for the increase in violence against public sector workers.
He said: “Clearly, as public sector workers are at the front line of advising people about their rights and entitlements, the frustration with decisions made by the Westminster government may result in that being taken out in verbal and physical attacks on staff.”
Mr Findlay condemned attacks on public sector staff but warned more cuts to services would make workers increasingly vulnerable.
The Labour MSP said: “It’s very obvious that having fewer staff in housing, revenue and other offices, where staff are having to deal with people who are experiencing the harsh realities of cuts to services and benefits, is leaving staff vulnerable to confrontation with exasperated and angry members of the public.
“Attacks on staff who are doing their jobs under very difficult circumstances are unacceptable, but sadly this is one of the very real consequences of austerity.”
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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