Unions urge zero tolerance approach to abuse of government staff as more get body cameras

Written by Richard Johnstone on 12 September 2017 in News
News

Prospect union warns that spending cuts have increased risk faced by frontline government staff

DVSA officer with body-worn camera Photo: DVSA

Civil service trade unions have called on the government to take a “zero tolerance approach” to abuse of government employees after “a worrying increase” in instances of threats and assaults faced by frontline workers.

Following announcements last month that two Whitehall agencies were to provide staff with body cameras due to a growing threat to their safety, both Prospect and Public and Commercial Services trade unions urged government departments to take the rising threat seriously.

The Environment Agency is trialling the use of body cameras in a bid to tackle the anti-social behaviour and assaults faced by staff after an employee was threatened while attending an illegal waste site. Initially being tested in the north east of England, officers will use the cameras when visiting poor performing or illegal waste sites, as well as during fisheries and navigation patrols or responses to incidents such as floods.


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The decision by the EA came after the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency announced its staff, including driving examiners, vehicle testers and roadside enforcement staff, would also trial body-worn cameras to capture evidence of abuse. The executive agency of the Department for Transport said that more than 300 staff were subject to verbal and physical abuse between April 2016 and March 2017, an increase of more than 50% on the year before. Incidents included lorry drivers attempting to run DVSA enforcement cars off the road and failed driving test candidates driving off with their examiners still in the car against their will.

Speaking to CSW, Ben Pye, a Prospect union representative in public services, said the decisions to provide body cameras were in response to an increase in abuse of frontline staff involved in enforcement work, and where penalties or payments are involved.

“Whilst there are still only a small number of physical assaults, the number of verbal assaults has noticeably increased both in number and severity,” he said.

“Prospect is looking for departments to take the issue seriously and to ensure adequate consideration is given to the impact of cuts and policy changes on staff. We are seeing increased demand for services, a reduction in staff numbers and the greater transfer of services online or to call centres with inadequate resourcing.”

In particular, Pye warned that the government’s cost-cutting drive as part of its deficit reduction programme has led to both “reduced expertise at point of first contact and greater frustration from people trying to use services”, which have increased the threat level.

“We need a zero tolerance approach to abuse backed up by better resources for staff,” he added.

Justin Thomas, a PCS industrial officer representing members in the DVSA, told CSW the union “cautiously welcomed” the use of bodycams to collect evidence of vehicle faults and abuse of its members, and to prosecute offenders in these cases.

“The PCS union condemns the use of physical and verbal abuse against our members carrying out operational duties for DVSA. Those operational members inspect vehicles on the highway, examine and test vehicles at testing centres and examine drivers taking their driving test. This is important work that keeps our roads safe,” he said.

Early responses from Environment Agency officers wearing cameras indicate that they have prevented threatening situations from escalating. If the scheme is successful, the body cameras could be rolled out across the country.

Rachael Caldwell from the agency’s waste and enforcement department said staff safety is paramount and officers will only switch the cameras on if and when they enter a hostile situation.

Gareth Llewellyn, DVSA chief executive, praised his agency colleagues, and warned the public that threats and abuse will not be tolerated.

“Our message is clear: whatever has happened, don’t take it out on our staff,” he said. “If you do, we’ll press for the strongest possible penalties.”

Additional reporting by Tamsin Rutter

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