The Royal College of Nursing has warned of a “dangerous blind spot” that has been created surrounding the scale of assaults on health service staff.
Later today, MPs will debate a private members’ bill designed to strengthen the law against those convicted of assaulting emergency workers. The government is expected to support the proposals.
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If passed into law, it will double the maximum sentence for common assault from six months to a year if committed against an emergency worker while on duty.
But on the eve of the debate, the government confirmed that neither the Department of Health nor the NHS would continue to collect information on NHS staff assaults, said the RCN.
Previously, the data was gathered and published by the body NHS Protect and its predecessors. But it was scrapped in April without ministers detailing where all of its responsibilities would pass to.
But, in a parliamentary question response, ministers have admitted for the first time that the government will now rely on the annual NHS staff survey, said the college.
“This creates a dangerous blind spot for ministers hoping to tackle the increasing number of assaults”
The RCN highlighted that nurses and other staff completed the annual survey on an optional basis and that would not capture the real number of attacks.
As a result, it is warning that using the survey does not provide a “comprehensive” data set and fails to distinguish between intentional assaults and those related to a patient’s medical condition.
For example, past figures from NHS Protect showed that only 10% of physical assaults, unrelated to a medical condition such as a mental health problem or dementia, resulted in criminal sanctions.
Relying on the staff survey would also make it difficult to measure the impact of the private members’ bill, should it become law, noted the college.
The RCN said that the move left the government “blind to the scale of the problem” and risked a further deterioration, following years of increases in assaults on NHS staff.
Before it closed, final figures released by NHS Protect showed a 4% rise in physical assaults against healthcare workers in England, from 67,864 in 2014-15 to 70,555 in 2015-16.
Similar increases had also been recorded since 2010, as previously recorded by Nursing Times.
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Last year, a survey of RCN members found 56% of respondents had experienced physical or verbal abuse from patients and a further 63% from patients’ relatives or other members of the public.
Kim Sunley, senior employment relations advisor at the RCN, said: “It is totally inadequate to rely on optional surveys, especially if the law is being tightened.
“The official body, before it was disbanded, warned ministers the level of assaults was rising,” she said. “It should not have been removed and the government must take their role more seriously.”
Ms Sunley said the bill represented a “vital step”, but added: “Without the ability to fully monitor the figures, it will be difficult to quantify the scale of the problem, or the effectiveness of any new law.”
The Department of Health’s decision on data collection for the health sector “stands in contrast” to the Home Office, which monitors assaults on police officers, stated the college.
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The draft legislation, proposed by Labour MP for Rhondda Chris Bryant, received government backing following a similar pledge in the Conservative Party election manifesto.
The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill was first proposed by Mr Bryant after came top in a ballot of MPs seeking to introduce a private member’s bill over the summer.
The bill had its first reading on 19 July and is due to have its second reading today. But it will still need to get through three more stages in the Commons and then negotiate its way through the Lords before it achieves royal assent and becomes law.
Private members’ bills allow MPs who are not ministers get to create legislation. However, they stand little chance of becoming law unless the government chooses to back them.