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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 20 October 2017

100 public service workers assaulted every day in Scotland

42,400 recorded incidents of violence towards public sector workers in Scotland last year is a shocking figure – over 100 incidents every day. What's even more shocking is that this is just the tip of the iceberg with huge levels of under reporting.

I was at UNISON Scotland's annual safety conference in Stirling today, presenting the findings of our annual survey on violence at work. We ask employers for the total number of assaults which have been reported in the latest year for which they have information. The aggregated returns for 2017 show 42,421 assaults - an increase of 1,255 compared with 41,166 in our 2016 survey.

Local Government assaults have risen to 22,006 - an increase of 4,401 over the previous total 17,605. In Health Boards there has been an increase of 2,054 from 17,116 in 2016 to 19,170 in the 2017 survey.

Our first survey of public sector employers in 2006 reported just over 20,000 violent incidents in the NHS and local government - so the total had already more than doubled in the decade to last year - and it continues to increase. This increase is partially due to greater awareness and better reporting, but we still have significant under reporting.

Astonishingly, the two services that consistently fail to provide proper data is police and fire. They don't have proper systems and therefore can't easily produce data. If you are not monitoring violence, you can't be doing anything about it.

A big concern articulated by safety representatives today, is the failure to record incidents. Sometimes that's because members are reluctant to report incidents involving cared for persons. In other cases managers are not recording incidents, a particular problem in schools. The absence of near miss reports is particularly telling.

The numbers also show inconsistencies between similar employers that can only be explained by inadequate systems or management culture. There is a particular problem with education and social care. In education, it's more about culture. In social care it's also about lone working and the absence of work bases for staff. There is a real concern that so called 'agile working' is adding to the problem.

While the statutory sector has made significant progress in recent years, the same is not true of the voluntary sector where you all too often hear the refrain, 'it's just part of the job'.  We have therefore recently published an action toolkit called ‘Not Part of the Job’ to help community and voluntary sector employers who want to address this issue. There are some deep seated attitudes in the sector at a senior level, which will take some time to tackle.

One of the reasons we do an annual survey is to raise awareness on this issue, but that is only part of the solution. The next stage is to put adequate reporting and monitoring systems in place. There has been good progress on systems, with a growth in on-line processes that make it easier to analyse data, although there are challenges for some groups of staff. Finally, employers should be introducing measures to minimise the risk of violence, including better training.

In addition to the common law we have the Emergency Workers (S) Act that gives some additional legal protection for a limited group of workers. A Labour MP is introducing similar legislation at Westminster for England and Wales. Useful though this legislation is, typically 300 convictions a year in Scotland, it has limited scope. Most victims of violence are not covered by this legislation and the Crown Office has very limited data on how they use the common law to protect workers.

The massive scale of the problem of violence against public sector workers, including those in the community and voluntary sector, has slowly begun to emerge over the last decade. It is now time for action by employers and stronger legislation, regulation and oversight by government to end the epidemic.

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