[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government response to corrosive substance attacks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I welcome the new Minister to her post. From the little I know of her, I trust that we will have a good and constructive debate today.
Sadly, Newham has been labelled as the acid attack capital of Britain, and the extent of the problem has made headlines not only locally, but nationally and internationally. It is not a reputation that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) or I embrace for our borough. The challenge posed by the attacks is undeniable, and an effective response is urgently needed. There have been 82 attacks using corrosive substances in Newham in the past year; in the whole of London, there were 449 attacks. Since January 2012, the number of acid attacks in London has gone up by a horrifying 550%.
The police have flagged 14% of the attacks this year as being gang-related, 22% as robberies and 4% as being related to domestic abuse, but even my maths tells me that the data is therefore incomplete and we do not have a full picture. We need a clear picture of what is going on and the motivations behind the attacks if we are to create an effective remedy to them.
Members will not need to be reminded of the horrifying damage that corrosive substances can do to the human body or the psychological trauma that inevitably follows. We should not forget the fear of attacks, which can be corrosive within communities. Throughout this year, I have heard from constituents whose lives have been blighted by fear. Some have told me that they are afraid to leave their homes. They tell me stories about home invasions or carjackings where corrosive substances have been used to terrible effect. Whether such stories are an accurate reflection of events or simply urban myths is almost irrelevant; people are living in fear, and that is utterly destructive.
I want to start today by talking about victims. Katie Piper was attacked in 2008 by an accomplice of her then boyfriend Daniel Lynch. He was driven by misogyny, narcissism and a dangerous need for control. He had previously raped, assaulted and imprisoned Katie in a hotel room for more than eight hours. Lynch conspired with his accomplice to attack Katie with acid in the street. She was approached and high-strength acid was thrown directly over her head. Katie’s face had to be completely rebuilt by cosmetic surgeons. How she felt is encapsulated in this quote:
“When I held the mirror up I thought someone had given me a broken one or put a silly face on it as a joke. I knew that they’d taken my face away and that it was put somewhere in a bin in the hospital, but in my head I assumed I’d look like the old Katie, just with a few red blotches…I wanted to tear the whole thing off and make it go away. There was nothing about me that I recognised. My identity as I knew it had gone.”
Katie’s courage and her will to survive and thrive are simply amazing. She has had to undergo more than 250 surgeries since the attack. Understandably, she still has bad days, but she has transformed her life. She now dedicates herself to improving the lives of other acid attack survivors, partly by telling her own story of survival and partly by funding groundbreaking cosmetic procedures through her charitable foundation. I wanted to start by revisiting Katie’s story, because victims like her need the Government’s help. It is important that the policy response to the issue should be comprehensive and effective. I ask the Minister to remember Katie’s story, because the use of acid as a tool of the misogynist could be forgotten as we talk about access to corrosives, the concentrations they can be sold at and the legal responses to this crime. Our policy responses have to be broad and preventive, but we also need a victim-focused strategy.
The Government have made a number of policy announcements in the months since we last had the opportunity to discuss corrosive substance attacks in this place. Consultation has just finished on several proposed new offences, all of which are designed to bring the law around the possession and use of corrosive substances into line with the law on knives. That is exactly the right principle; I and other colleagues have been calling for that, and victims want to see it put into place quickly. I strongly welcome the announcements, and I hope the Minister will be able to tell us when the new offences will be brought on to the statute book.
An area where more action is necessary is the sentencing of those found guilty of these horrific crimes. In late July, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would be seeking much tougher sentences for offenders who use corrosive substances across every category of the existing law, and that is welcome. As we know, sentencing is a matter for judges, based on Sentencing Council guidelines. Campaigners have argued for years that the sentences handed down are inconsistent and often far too light. Will the Minister clarify what is happening in that area? I know it is not in her brief, but unless the Sentencing Council takes action, the welcome shift by the CPS may not have the intended effect.
The first steps that the Government have taken have been promising, but they are playing catch-up. A number of changes to the law were made in 2015 as part of the Deregulation Act 2015—the red tape bonfire. The Act scrapped the obligation on sellers of dangerous substances, including acids, to be registered with their local council. That was despite opposing advice from the medical experts and the Government’s own advisory board on dangerous substances. I fear that those changes are partly responsible for the rise in acid attacks. Removing the licensing system allowed the big online retailers and a wider range of small shops to sell these dangerous products, making it easier for corrosive chemicals to be accessed by criminals and children alike. It would be appropriate for the Minister to comment on that abolition of regulation. Does the Home Office stand by it, or does it now accept that there perhaps were unintended consequences?
Let me help with the thinking. The Minister must be aware that it is currently extremely easy to buy the corrosive chemicals, such as concentrated sulphuric acid, that have done so much damage. They can now be bought by anyone from any kind of retailer, subject only to a standard labelling instruction and a requirement to report “suspicious transactions”. There are a number of practical problems with that requirement. It is unlikely that it has any success at all in preventing attacks. The responsibility to report suspicious purchases exists for all retailers, including massive and impersonal online retailers. As a matter of practicality, how are such companies going to assess whether a purchase is suspicious?
The guidance that the Home Office has produced does not contain any specific recommendations for online retailers that would solve the problem. The general recommendations it offers are not realistic for online sellers. The current guidance is in the “Selling chemical products responsibly” leaflet, but that was published in 2014, so it does not reflect the changes made in the 2015 Act. It contains a list entitled “How to recognise suspicious transactions”. The signs listed include noticing that the customer
“Appears nervous, avoids communication, or is not a regular type of customer”,
“Is not familiar with the regular use(s) of the product(s), nor with the handling instructions”.
How is an online retailer supposed to use that guidance? They do not have access to face-to-face communication and do not ask detailed questions before accepting an order.
It is equally unclear how the Home Office checks that the reporting requirements are being complied with, even by local retailers. I asked the Home Office about that previously, and the Minister’s predecessor said that test purchases are a tactic sometimes used by the Home Office. The Government are vague about whether any test purchases have actually taken place; I think they should have done some to monitor compliance with the regulations after two years. There is also no evidence that the law has ever been enforced by the taking of a retailer to court for failing to put procedures in place to stop suspicious transactions.
The Government implied that answering my written questions properly would jeopardise operational security. Really? I honestly cannot see how that can be true. I do not want names and dates. I just want an indication of whether there is a programme of test purchases to monitor the suspicious purchases requirement. I do not expect that information this afternoon, but I hope the Minister will provide more information about it soon.
Thankfully, Newham Council is taking steps to address this issue in the absence of legislation. It is working with the Met and local retailers, and recently launched a scheme encouraging shops voluntarily to restrict the sale of acid and other noxious liquids to young people by challenging their age. Some 126 retailers are participating in the scheme thus far, and I hope it will provide an effective stopgap to prevent easy local access to corrosive chemicals. The Minister will be aware that such schemes have limits—they are voluntary, they are restricted to a relatively small geographic area, and we cannot rely on the force of the law to enforce them—so I fear that stronger regulations are needed quickly.
The Poisons Act 1972, as amended following the bonfire of 2015, creates a category of substances known as “regulated poisons”, which require a licence for purchase. Sales must be restricted to those presenting a photo ID. The simplest and most effective way to limit access to dangerous corrosive chemicals is to move them into the regulated poisons category. I am sure that can be done simply through a non-contentious statutory instrument. The Government say that they plan to move concentrated forms of sulphuric acid into the regulated poisons list. I welcome that, but when will it be done?
Furthermore, as the Minister will know, sulphuric acid is far from the only corrosive substance that can inflict serious trauma. The British Burn Association advised me that the strongest-level restriction should apply, at a minimum, to phosphoric and hydrochloric acids and to the alkalis sodium hydroxide and ammonia. The Met performed forensic testing on 28 samples from corrosive incidents between October 2016 and March this year, and 20 contained ammonia, which is not regulated. Hydrofluoric acid is also extremely dangerous. Exposure to it on as little as 2% of a person’s skin can kill. It, too, is currently not subject to licensing.
All the chemicals I mentioned can currently be bought without a licence and from unlicensed retailers. The evidence about exactly which chemicals are being used in corrosive attacks is not fully clear. Even if most recent attacks have involved a smaller range of chemicals, such as sulphuric acid or ammonia, a broad approach is obviously needed. The regulations need to cover every corrosive substance that poses a threat to our communities; otherwise, those wishing to use corrosives as a weapon will simply switch from one chemical to another. I accept that there might be a problem with definitions—we faced that problem in relation to the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016—but we need to look at this issue properly and in the round.
Campaigners have suggested a number of promising reforms to the regulations. For example, purchasers of poisons could be restricted to those willing to use a bank card, which would link purchases to individuals and aid criminal justice professionals with investigations and prosecutions. Raising the chance of being caught after committing an attack would hopefully increase the deterrent effect. I would like to hear from the Minister whether that is one of the changes that the Home Office is considering. Given the extent of the increase in attacks and their impact, we cannot be content with token changes to the rules that make no difference to the availability of dangerous chemicals to perpetrators. Any new restrictions have to be effective in practice.
I am sure hon. Members know that there is no age restriction on purchases of dangerous chemicals. As news reports and Met briefings have indicated, many of the suspects identified in connection with corrosive attacks in recent months have been under the age of 18. I am pleased that the Home Office is now consulting on a new offence of supplying people under 18 with certain corrosive substances, but sadly it has been unclear about three essential elements. We have not heard yet which substances the Government have in mind in connection with under-18 sales or what the process will be for putting that list in place, and as with other issues I have raised today, we have no timescale.
These decisions need to be made clearly, transparently and in a way that allows for parliamentary scrutiny. The system we use for implementing and amending the schedules for illegal drugs might be a good model, because it allows for scrutiny on the basis of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ expert advice. Before the 2015 deregulation, there was a permanent advisory body on toxic chemicals called the Poisons Board. If it had not been bonfired, it could have played a similar role to that of the drugs advisory council.
I hope the Minister will reflect on the need to maintain scientific expertise and links with victims’ advocates to ensure policy keeps apace with the situation on our streets. If the Government do not want to re-establish the Poisons Board, they need to ensure they have a team within the Home Office that has the resources, time and expertise necessary to keep track of the situation and do this important work.
We also need to consider the effectiveness of our first responders—our police officers, ambulance crews and fire fighters. Thanks to changes made by the Met earlier this year, rapid-response cars are now more likely to carry bottles of water, and the fire service is more likely to be called on to help with corrosive injuries in London. Quickly applying water to a corrosive injury can make a big difference, but specialist rinses, such as Diphoterine, are designed to do that job better than water alone. I want that option to be fully considered. Victims of such attacks deserve the best possible chance of a full recovery from their ordeal. Just to be clear, Diphoterine is not cheap, so that change would cost money.
Before I finish, I want to return to my point about the impact of the changes made in 2015. I genuinely cannot see any reason not to have licensing on both sides of the transaction—for sellers as well as buyers. That seems a straightforward way to maximise public safety. I believe that a comprehensive review of the regulations is needed to answer the questions I have raised, so that future changes are timely, realistic and effective, and to ensure that every aspect of the problem is considered.
As Katie Piper’s case should remind us, corrosive substances have long been used as a tool of misogyny against women and girls. Although stronger regulation and improved criminal laws should help with such crimes, unfortunately they will not solve the problem on their own. We need a longer-term strategy to deal with the root causes of the recent upsurge in youth and gang violence. We also need a strategy to deal with the violence within relationships, primarily against women and girls, which has long been a common feature of corrosive substance attacks in the UK and around the world. Survivors of such attacks deserve to know that the problem will be understood, that the Government will see it resolved and that people in my community will no longer live in fear.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister about her plans to make changes and her timescales for them. I commit to working with her to ensure that effective improvements to policy can be made quickly and in a way that works for our communities. I accept that she might not yet have considered some of the things I have raised this afternoon and so might not have a note in front of her, but I am happy to receive something in writing at a later date.
For your guidance, I intend to call the first Front-Bench spokesperson at 3.30 pm, subject to any interruption from votes in the main Chamber. That should give ample time for Back Benchers who wish to contribute to do so, but take more than 12 or 13 minutes and I might start to get a little fidgety because that would take time from subsequent speakers. Bear that in mind.
It is a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall at any time, but especially so after the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). She compassionately, directly and consistently puts forward her point of view. We have had Adjournment debates in the main Chamber and we have discussed the matter with Government in the past. We all feel very strongly, which is why I want to add my contribution.
It is nice to see the new Minister in her place—I wish her well—and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), in hers. I hope we can look forward to a contribution from us all that is of one mind and one voice, and I hope that the Minister’s reply will be of that one voice. We look forward to that.
The issue of corrosive substance attacks is one that seems foreign to me, to be honest, and I cannot understand for a minute the things described by the hon. Member for West Ham. She has had direct experience through her constituents, but it seems a bit like “The Twilight Zone”, happening somewhere else and not real—but it is real. That is what the hon. Lady has described.
I cannot begin to understand how anyone might think of going out with acid, intending to throw it at someone. I cannot fathom that evil or understand how anyone can feel in any way that that is what they should do when the after effects are so gross. I do not understand the hatred that someone must feel to consider taking an action that will so horribly disfigure someone for life—I am thinking here of the lady whose story was told by the hon. Member for West Ham, because that story is very real for me, on paper if not in reality, after she told us about it. I cannot fathom how on earth someone could be so despicable as to want to burn through other people’s flesh with acid and watch them suffer. Just because I cannot fathom it, that does not mean it does not happen. It does happen, it is happening more and we need to do our part to legislate against it.
The hon. Lady clearly outlined a number of issues that the Government should respond to, and I suggest they would be good ways to take the legislation forward and are what we might wish to see. I will mention some of my thoughts as the debate proceeds.
In the past, before acid attacks became more prevalent in London and parts of the UK, my knowledge of them came through my position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I have had occasion to have direct contact with some of the groups in Iran that were, unfortunately, able to supply some very graphic evidence—pictorial and video—of attacks on people there. Those people were subject to acid attacks simply because they had a different religious opinion, simply because they were women and simply because they spoke on behalf of other women for equality and human rights. How can anyone feel justified in attacking those ladies, disfiguring them for life, with some of them losing their eyesight as well? I just cannot come to terms with the horribleness and brutality of it all.
I want to have this on the record, although again it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but through her good offices she will make my comments known, and perhaps those of other Members, that we are very concerned about Iran and what is happening there. The attacks are brutal and painful.
I recently highlighted the acid attacks in Iran and was appalled at the damage caused. Then to learn that acid attacks in England and Wales have more than doubled since 2012 certainly reminded me that evil is restricted to no postcode and that those attacks are happening worldwide. We need to address them in whatever way is necessary.
Figures from the Metropolitan police, which the hon. Member for West Ham referred to in her introduction, show that men are twice as likely to be victims of acid attacks in London as women. The attacks have been linked to gang crimes—there is a gang culture that sees acid purchased as a weapon. People do not need to have a gun or a knife; they can use acid, which will leave lasting physical and visual effects, which are another way of scoring, so to speak, but the others respond as well.
The vast majority of cases, however, never reach trial. Again, this is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I pose the question: why is that the case? Is it down to evidence? The evidence may be very clear, but perhaps it is down to those who wish to make complaints, or it is the response of the police. We need to ask ourselves why such cases are not reaching trial and what we must do to facilitate the successful trial of someone who makes the decision to carry out that heinous act. Today, at long last—thank the Lord for it—we had a sentence that equals the crime, with 20 years for a person who blatantly, directly and without any recognition of the people, attacked a number of them in a nightclub in London. The sentence gave me, and I suspect all of us, heart.
In the news, Dr Simon Harding, a criminologist and expert on gangs at Middlesex University, commented that acid is fast becoming a “weapon of first choice” and:
“Acid throwing is a way of showing dominance, power and control, building enormous fear among gang peer groups”—
the hon. Member for West Ham referred to that in her speech. When I read that, I was horrified, but even more horrified to realise that to use acid is becoming a calculated move. The debate today is therefore very timely, and it is appropriate to discuss the subject. We look to the Minister and to the Government for how best to respond.
Many people have the idea that there are advantages to using acid to hurt someone rather than a knife: they will not kill someone, but disfigure them for life, disadvantaging them in what they can cope with and leaving women especially with a disfigurement, which means vastly more to them—I mean no disrespect to men. We must look at the fact that the charges are more serious for someone caught with a knife and the tariff for prison sentences much higher. As I said earlier, we are very pleased about the sentence from the courts we read about today—perhaps that is the start of something. Will the Minister respond to that?
I also put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing this very important debate. The hon. Gentleman was talking about such cases and the courts, and I have some concerns. First, the CPS has new powers to produce community impact statements. Fear goes through the community whenever this sort of attack happens, so it is important to get such assessment reports before the courts so that when they sentence, they take them into account. Secondly, the figures from the London boroughs show a large number of incidents in areas that are ethnically very diverse. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the CPS and the police should pay attention to that and consider whether they are therefore aggravated offences, pressing charges that will take that into account?
I agree with hon. Gentleman. I asked the Minister in an earlier comment where we are with the trial process, and why it seems that many cases do not get to trial. Is there a problem with the police, or with the CPS? Whatever it is, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and we need to put that on record.
Dr Harding added that,
“acid is likely to attract a ‘GBH with intent’ charge”—
in other words, not the same seriousness—
“while using a knife is more likely to lead to the attacker being charged with attempted murder”.
We need to have hard court action and the sentencing that is necessary. We perhaps need a new vigour from the police and from the CPS. The fact that that could be case—that an acid attack would be grievous bodily harm with intent, and would not be equalised to using a knife and attempted murder—disgusts me. It is clear that we need to legislate for that.
Times have changed, and in the same way as we are legislating for online offences, we need to move with the times and legislate accordingly for the sort of crime we are discussing. Online offences were never on the books, but unfortunately, the way of hurting people is changing. We need to legislate so that no gang member thinks, “I will use acid so that it will be easier on me if I end up getting caught”. We need to make changes and make sure that he or she understands that what they are doing will have repercussions.
I was greatly touched by the courageous tale of Katie Piper, as I am sure all hon. Members were. I know her story from having read about it in the press. I could not read that story and not be touched by it. She showed intensely personal and private images in order to highlight the sheer horror of an attack and the length of time that it takes to even begin the healing process physically and emotionally. It has shown that we need to change the legislation and we need to represent those people who are attacked.
I sincerely urge the Government to take all the arguments into consideration and put acid attacks on a par with knife violence crimes, to ensure that the sentence fits the crime. This crime leaves a life destroyed and a person undergoing perhaps 20 operations or more and still unable to breathe or walk without horrific pain. I applaud Katie Piper and others like her for putting their face to this crime and I stand with all victims who say that the attitude towards this crime must change. That must begin as a matter of urgency in this House.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey, and to see the Minister in her place. Most importantly, I congratulate the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on bringing this important and timely debate to the House, and on her comprehensive and passionate analysis of where we are and where we need to get to.
On a Saturday night back in October, three men in Abronhill in my constituency suffered life-changing burns during an attack with corrosive liquid, after the front door to their flat was kicked in and they were confronted by two men in dark clothing with their faces covered. It was a shocking reminder that this type of appalling attack can happen anywhere. Until then, I was probably in the same twilight zone as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in thinking that this happens somewhere else. Although, as we have heard, this new phenomenon so far has wreaked its tragic consequences most significantly on the good people of London, it is only a matter of time before we see those consequences more widely spread, unless urgent action is taken to stamp it out now.
Hon. Members have set out the scale and the nature of the issue we must address, with 454 crimes related to noxious or corrosive fluids in London alone during 2016. The UK now has one of the highest rates of acid attacks in the world. As has been said, these attacks very often appear to be gang-related, which is a distinct feature of the challenge we face in the UK. What needs to be done? I very much welcome the steps that the Home Office has already taken to try to combat the recent increase in acid attacks in the UK. A proposed ban on the sale of the most corrosive substances to under-18s is certainly a step in the right direction, considering that the majority of acid attack suspects in the last couple of years have been aged between 10 and 19, if I am correct. The hon. Member for West Ham raised some very sensible questions in that respect.
The Government review on corrosive substance attacks and associated punishments is welcome. That review explains that, given the mixture of devolved and reserved competencies potentially involved here, the UK Government are working closely with the Scottish Government on this issue. Indeed, as Annabelle Ewing, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs in the Scottish Government, has said, it makes sense to adopt a
“consistent approach across the UK”
with regards to corrosive substance attacks.
I believe that the immediate priority must be to further clamp down on access to these substances. The hon. Member for West Ham said that that could be done in a fairly straightforward manner, by identifying the most harmful corrosive substances that are currently considered only reportable substances, such as sulphuric acid, and reclassifying them as regulated substances. That means that members of the public would require a licence to purchase such substances. Other options have been highlighted that would allow purchases of substances to be more easily traced, such as requiring the use of a bank card. We need research to be conducted to establish whether those corrosive substances that are found in everyday household items can be deconcentrated but maintain effectiveness. That could be an important contribution to what we are trying to achieve. We also need to think about online sales, perhaps requiring a collection point where age and licensing requirements can be enforced.
We need to examine the criminal law on possession and I look forward to seeing what evidence has been submitted to the Government review. Ultimately, there is a persuasive case for changing the criminal law so that the onus for proving the reason for carrying a corrosive substance lies on the carrier to provide an innocent explanation, rather than on the prosecution to have to uncover criminal intent, thus bringing the offence into line with knife crime legislation. The precise changes that should be made, and the range of responses that are required, should be informed by what comes out of the consultation.
As the hon. Lady highlighted, the final word must be with the victims, such as Katie Piper. Action to ensure appropriate support, including the immediate medical response and the long-term recovery plan, is necessary and absolutely is the right thing to do. Let us act quickly to ensure that the number of future victims is as close to zero as we can get. Ultimately, prevention is the best response and must be our priority. Obtaining a dangerous corrosive substance should not be as easy as it currently is, when one can just walk into a shop and select it from a shelf. Let us change that as quickly as we can.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), on securing this debate and I agree with every word of her informative and wide-ranging speech. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who made the rather startling claim that we now have one of the highest per capita rates of corrosive substance attacks in the world. I think that he is right about that—I noticed that Rachel Kearton, the assistant chief constable of Suffolk police and the National Police Chiefs Council lead on corrosive attacks made exactly that point just a couple of weeks ago:
“The UK now has one of the highest rates of recorded acid and corrosive substance attacks per capita in the world and this number appears to be rising”.
That highlights the need for a rapid and effective response to this growing problem.
I have had a number of discussions with representatives of moped delivery drivers. They say that there are now parts of London where their drivers are not willing to go, because of the danger of attacks. I think that we would all regard it as unacceptable that there are no-go areas in parts of London and the UK. Significant action will be required to deal with the problem, as others have said.
On 17 July, we had an Adjournment debate on this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham contributed to that debate, as did the Minister’s predecessor—I welcome the new Minister to her post. I called for three specific actions: first, a review of sentencing for tougher, more consistent sentences when people are convicted of acid attacks. Secondly, I called for sulphuric acid—others have made this point already in this debate—to be reclassified under the Control of Explosives Precursors Regulations 2015, which amended the Poisons Act 1972, so that it would be a regulated rather than a reportable substance in the two lists that those regulations identify. That would mean that people who wanted to buy sulphuric acid would have to have a licence for that purpose. Thirdly, the possession of acid should in itself be an offence in exactly the same way that possession of a knife is an offence.
I was pleased by the Minister’s response in the previous debate on this subject. In fact, by the time we got to that debate the Government had already committed to a review of sentencing for acid attack convictions. At the Conservative party conference in October, the Home Secretary committed to act on the other two measures and to take some other actions as well. I welcome those responses but, like others in this debate, I am starting to get a little anxious about when these things are actually going to happen. Perhaps the Minister can reassure us about that when she winds up the debate.
On the review of sentencing guidelines—my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham referred to this—we have had new guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecutors, but not, as far as I know, any new guidance on sentencing. As my hon. Friend said, it is sentencing guidelines that determine or influence the decisions that judges make about sentencing. As far as I have been able to tell, we have not heard anything on that front since the Government made their commitment before our summer break. Will the Minister tell us when new sentencing guidelines will be issued, hopefully to enable more consistent and indeed tougher sentences for these offences when people are convicted of carrying them out?
On the other two measures, as my hon. Friend has said, reclassifying sulphuric acid would be a fairly straightforward thing to do with a statutory instrument in secondary legislation. I hope we can look forward to that coming forward quickly. Can the Minister indicate when that will happen? A new offence that made possession of acid an offence would, I think, require primary legislation. I do not know when a vehicle for that is likely to become available. I was under the impression that we were expecting a criminal justice Bill at some point quite soon. If there is a Bill, I hope this measure will be in it. Any information the Minister can give us about when we will get that much-needed change in the law would be of great interest to the House. In responding to the previous debate in July, the Minister’s predecessor said she would
“seek the earliest possible legislative opportunity.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 688.]
I am keen to know when that will be.
In her speech, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham referred to our local borough’s acid sales scheme. As she said, 126 Newham retailers have participated in the scheme, which underlines the fact that retailers are very concerned about what might be done with the acid products that they sell. They are eager to take part in a scheme such as Newham’s or in other arrangements to limit the damage from the acid products that they sell. Under the Newham scheme, shopkeepers are asked to sign up to an agreement to challenge any customer who is under 25 and to refuse to sell to anyone under 21. I think the Home Secretary suggested that people could not be sold acid if they were under 18, but I think there is a strong case for making that 21. Might the Minister consider that in taking that proposal forward?
The Newham scheme involves retailers committing to challenge people under 25. It is not a ban on sales to under-25s, but a Challenge 25. Would the Minister consider such an arrangement being introduced nationally in line with the Newham scheme, which is proving a useful mechanism for starting to tackle the problems we are considering in this debate?
I have one final point to make. In opening the debate, my hon. Friend referred to Diphoterine. I have certainly seen evidence in recent months that if we can treat an acid wound with Diphoterine within literally a few minutes—a very small number of minutes—we can potentially completely eradicate the damage. If someone can get treatment with that substance within 24 hours, it can significantly reduce the damage. As my hon. Friend said, it is a costly chemical, but the benefits of its being available perhaps in police cars and certainly in hospitals would be considerable. I hope we see that initiative taken forward in response to the worrying and troubling increase in attacks that we have seen over the past two or three years.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey, and I welcome the Minister to her place. I also welcome the opportunity to take part today and I give credit to the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing a debate on a subject that is obviously so important to her constituency.
It has been a good debate during which we have heard many powerful points. The hon. Lady started by speaking about the impact of these outrageous attacks on families right across the borough. She really brought that home by telling us about the experience of Katie Piper and of the inspiring work that she has done since her attack to highlight the issue. The hon. Lady made a strong case for how the abolition of licensing has led to it actually becoming easier to obtain corrosive substances.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), a Westminster Hall season ticket holder, made an excellent contribution. He said something that we can all emphasise with: how he failed to understand the motivation to carry out these sick and vile attacks. He also mentioned that evil was restricted to no postcode. The immediate priority of my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), was to clamp down on access to the most corrosive and dangerous substances. I agree with him entirely that the burden of proving a good reason for carrying a corrosive substance should lie with the person in possession; it should not lie with the prosecution to prove intent.
The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who has spoken on this subject before, told us, rather shockingly, that moped delivery riders and others now feel that there are no-go areas in London, and he had three key asks of the Minister, which I wholeheartedly support. He also said that some of the action required might need primary legislation and he inquired when the time for that might be available.
Some of the stark statistics bear repeating. The Metropolitan Police confirmed that the number of acid attacks in London has risen sharply in recent years. Noxious or corrosive fluids were used in 454 crimes in 2016: an increase from 166 in 2014. Figures also suggest that violent acid attacks increased by more than 500% between 2012 and 2016. It is deeply concerning that Newham in East London, which has been mentioned, had three times more acid attacks than the next highest borough. As the hon. Member for West Ham stated, it is known as the acid capital of the UK. It is vital that local police services and politicians understand why this crime is more common in Newham than in other parts of London.
I am aware that the right hon. Member for East Ham has spoken about the “cracks of austerity” and how reducing police numbers could be key influencers in the rise of acid attacks. I think there is a lot of sense in what he says. Yesterday’s announcement that the police service in England and Wales, which is already stretched—at times beyond capacity—will be financed with a flat cash core settlement from central Government will do nothing to help in the fight against such abhorrent crimes.
As we have heard, the UK has one of the highest rates of recorded acid attacks in the world and, disappointingly, of the more than 2,000 acid attacks recorded for the years 2011 to 2016, only 414 resulted in charges being brought. I hope the Minister can explain, as others have asked her to, why so few cases end up in court. We should remember that acid attacks are not limited to Newham—or even London for that matter, although they may be more prevalent there: there have been reports of those horrendous crimes taking place throughout the UK.
However, the issues in this country are different from those faced by countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. The reporting of the crimes highlights a lack of understanding about what is really happening. The BBC published an article last month, which it says provides the most comprehensive data to date on acid attacks in London. It suggests that three fifths of the suspects and more than two thirds of the victims were male. That is an important distinction in relation to other countries. Another point to note from the findings is that those who commit such horrendous acts are not confined to one religion or ethnicity. We should therefore reject the notion, often cited, that acid attacks involve only the Asian community. That bears no relationship to the evidence and our efforts to tackle acid attacks will be undermined if we follow that prejudiced approach.
A feature common to acid attacks committed here and elsewhere is that all too often those violent offences go unreported; the majority of those that are reported will never reach trial. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Strangford about attacks overseas. The Acid Survivors Trust International correctly points out that acid attacks are a worldwide problem. Although the UK may be a slightly different case, those grotesque crimes disproportionally affect women—80% of attacks are on women.
The United Nations has also recognised the gender aspect of attacks. UN Women supports the efforts of female parliamentarians in Pakistan who back new legislation to put a stop to a horrendous crime. I am keen to learn what discussions the Minister is aware of the Government having with the United Nations about efforts to eliminate acid attacks overseas, and what lessons that we can learn from that.
Like most gender-based violent acts, the crimes in question go largely unreported; as many as 60% of acid attacks do. In addition to taking action to punish the perpetrators, we must listen to the experiences of those who have survived attacks. We need to know what they think can be done to eliminate the problem and how can we help them to overcome the barriers that prevent so many victims from reporting the crimes.
Although the gendered nature of the attacks is more prevalent in other parts of the world, we cannot, as the hon. Member for West Ham said, ignore the fact that a proportion of attacks that happen here continue the violence that far too many women experience at the hands of a male perpetrator. One effort that would help to deal with the problem would be tackling the inequality and discrimination that women still face on a daily basis. A report by the Avon Global Centre for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School states that Governments must do the following to eradicate acid violence:
“(1) enact laws that adequately punish perpetrators of attacks and limit the easy availability of acid, (2) enforce and implement those laws, and (3) provide redress to victims”.
I believe those basic, simple recommendations would be a good starting point for the UK Government.
For their part, the Scottish Government welcome further steps to limit the harm from crimes involving corrosive materials. In October, the Scottish Justice Secretary Michael Matheson pledged that views on tackling the corrosive substance attacks will be carefully considered by the Scottish Government. That is in the context of a consultation announced by the UK Government in October on an approach to tackling the issue effectively. The Scottish Government have been in dialogue with the UK Government since an action plan to tackle the use of corrosive substances in attacks was announced in July. The two Governments are committed to working together on those important issues, and part of the work will include considering whether, following the consultation, there should be a UK-wide approach to legislation. A consistent approach across the UK would be better, so that there will be no loopholes to take advantage of.
Owing to the increasing frequency of acid attacks, there have rightly been calls for the Government to introduce further restrictions on the sale of acid—particularly sulphuric acid—and to criminalise the possession of acid without good reason. That would be somewhat akin to the current law on knives, as has been mentioned. It is an undeniable fact that it is still far too easy for the wrong people to get their hands on those dangerous substances, which cause life-changing harm to people. Of course, restricting access to dangerous acids will in many cases simply force the perpetrator to find a different method of continuing their violence, so in addition to a commitment to efforts to end acid violence, we must pay equal attention to preventing the violence from occurring in the first place.
I trust that the Government will analyse the responses with the attention that they deserve. However, I hope that the UK Government will deliver on previous commitments and take action to restrict the availability of acid for sale. I urge them to introduce a new offence applicable to those who look to cause harm through the possession of a corrosive substance. Acid attacks are instant attacks with life-changing consequences for the victims, and there is a need for drastic and urgent action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I shall not detain the House for long, as the Minister has been asked many questions and I want to leave plenty of time for her to reply. There has been unified support from right hon. and hon. Members for regulation and licencing, and for acid possession offences. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) made a compelling case for restrictions on and licensing of acid, including what she said about the implications of the bonfire of the quangos in 2015, and the consequences of that deregulation. She also spoke compellingly about Katie Piper and her bravery—it was a powerful contribution—and about the importance of putting victims at the heart of all we do in response to such horrific crimes. I should be grateful if the Minister updated us on what has happened to the victims law promised by David Cameron in 2015, of which we have since seen nothing.
There has been strong support for tougher sentencing and the sending of a message from the courts and from this place about the abhorrence of the crime in question. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham on keeping the issue firmly on the agenda. She and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) have led the way and are largely responsible for the good progress that has been made by the Government so far. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have taken part in with the Minister in her present role, and I congratulate her again and welcome her. I look forward to working constructively with her, particularly in the area that we are considering.
I pay tribute to the brave victims who gave evidence in the most recent trial, which resulted in a man being sentenced to more than 20 years for an attack in a London nightclub, in which he indiscriminately sprayed acid over a dance floor packed with people on an Easter bank holiday. He injured 22 people and 16 of them suffered serious burns. Their courage in facing up to their despicable attacker ensured that justice was done. It is encouraging that he was charged under section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and received a significant sentence. However, sentencing in acid attack cases is inconsistent, which is probably because there is an array of selectable charges for prosecutors to consider. Acid is not explicitly considered an offensive weapon, so I echo the request for clarification on the updates and on progress at the Sentencing Council. Will the Minister’s Department work with the Crown Prosecution Service to gather data on what charges are successfully prosecuted, so that the public can have clarity as to how offenders are being punished? As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, the data is incredibly incomplete, so it would be helpful to have an update on the progress of research about the motivation for attacks, and, indeed, on test purchases.
Emerging evidence is clear; individuals are making use of corrosive substances because of the difficulty of tracing them back to the perpetrator, and the looser laws on possession. The proposed offences mirroring existing knife laws, on which the Government have consulted, will have our full support, and I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends for putting the issue firmly on the Government’s agenda. I would also welcome clarification on timings.
On the matter of sales, there is not the same harmony between the Government and the Opposition. The Government’s proposal to restrict the sale of acid to over-18s is of course welcome and will gain our support, but it is nowhere near enough. I am equally interested in the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham with respect to sales to under-21s, and what is happening in Newham at the moment. First, the data return from 39 forces showed that only one in five offences was committed by someone under 18. How many of those people bought the substances for themselves is up for debate. That is a critical point, because until now the Government’s response on the restriction of sale has, I regret to say, been weak. We need a comprehensive approach to restrictions on sale, and a focus on under-18s entirely ignores the evidence and fails to consider the issue in the round. The Government need to put that right because the changes made under the Deregulation Act 2015 were clearly a mistake.
Previously, the most dangerous substances could only be sold by a pharmacist in a retail pharmacy business, and sales had to be recorded on a register. Substances in part II of the poisons list could only be sold by retailers that had registered with their local authority. Under the previous system, acids could be purchased only from registered retailers, usually hardware or garden stores. According to the Government’s explanatory notes, the Deregulation Act 2015 intended to
“reduce the burdens on business. The Poisons Act 1972 and the Poison Rules 1982 were highlighted as adding burdens to businesses”.
The Minister at the time, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), referred to retailers being unable to sell “perfectly innocuous” substances because of red tape.
We also know that the Government rejected the views of the now abolished Poisons Board during the 2012 review, which suggested tighter controls on the sale of corrosive substances. Those changes mean that “reportable substances” such as sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid and ammonia can be bought by any person in any retailer, and that that retailer does not even need to register. Answers to my parliamentary questions have shown that at least 69 attacks have been from ammonia and therefore from “reportable substances”.
We would like the Government to go much further in this area. We would like the reform of individual licences, so that where there is clear evidence that an acid is causing harm, it is designated as a regulated substance that will require retailers to enter the details of any sale. That would include substances such as sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid and ammonia, which have no place on general sale.
Some have said that such a measure would be excessive, but it has been proposed by the British Retail Consortium, whose members have agreed voluntarily to stop selling sulphuric acid products. It points out that under the Control of Poisons and Explosives Precursors Regulations 2015, which are intended to restrict the supply of items that could be used to cause an explosion, sulphuric acid is covered but it is found under the lesser “reportable substance” category. The consortium proposes that sulphuric acid be promoted to the “regulated substance” category. Regulated substances require an explosives precursors and poisons licence, and a member of the public needs to show a valid licence and associated photo identification before making a purchase. That proposal is also supported by the Association of Convenience Stores.
I was extremely concerned to read in an update letter from the Minister’s predecessor that the limit of the Government’s action for retailers was to consider a series of “voluntary commitments”. Will the Minister update Members on what those voluntary commitments will be, and what use they will be?
I have been out with Operation Venice, which is a team in Islington and Camden that tackles moped crime. It is a real credit to the Metropolitan Police. One issue that the police and the Police Federation raise with us consistently is the current law on pursuits. I know that the Home Office is looking into that, and the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) made a compelling case yesterday in a ten-minute rule Bill. I would appreciate an update on that review.
Finally, the Opposition will take a constructive approach to this issue. Where the Government warrant our support, they will have it, and where we feel they should go further we have been clear about what changes we would like to see.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and I thank hon. Members for their kind comments about my new position. It has been a pleasure to listen to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who has run a concerted campaign on this issue, together with the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). Sadly, that campaign has been through necessity: we heard today about the terrible incidence of acid and corrosive substance attacks in the borough of Newham. I put on the record my appreciation of the efforts to which they have gone to represent their constituents and try to ensure that we address this issue as quickly and effectively as possible. I am grateful to all other Members who have contributed to the debate. Its tone has been one of agreement, which I hope will continue through our dealings on this matter.
Sadly, there is increasing evidence of a growth in the number of corrosive attacks, many of which are in London. It was also interesting to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the international perspective. We are not the only country to experience this issue, but we must recognise that a particular problem is emerging in parts of London. These appalling crimes can result in huge distress and life-changing injuries for victims and survivors—and, of course, their families; if a loved one suffers those injuries, that impacts on their family members as well.
No one can have failed to be moved by the experience of Katie Piper. The hon. Member for West Ham cited Katie as saying that she felt as though her face had been taken away and was in a bin in hospital, and that those people had taken her identity away. That is heartbreaking, and sums up the issue in just two sentences.
The Government are determined to work with the police, retailers and local authorities to stop such things from happening, but we cannot pretend that that will happen overnight, or that there is just one solution. That is why in July the Home Secretary announced an action plan based on four key strands: ensuring effective support for victims and survivors; effective policing; ensuring that relevant legislation is understood and consistently applied; and working to restrict access to acids and other harmful products. The Home Office, police, retailers, local authorities and the NHS have been working hard since the launch of that action plan to bring those four strands into action.
Let me consider the last of those four strands, which is restricting access to these substances in the first place. By definition, if we make it as hard as possible for young people to get hold of acid and other substances before they go out on the street or into a night club, that will prevent the harm that follows. We have reviewed the Poisons Act 1972, and on 3 October the Home Secretary announced the intention to include sulphuric acid on the list of regulated substances. That will mean that above a certain concentration, it will be available for purchase only with a licence held by a member of the public.
Colleagues have pressed me about when that will happen. I am told that it will be as soon as possible, subject to parliamentary time, but I am conscious of the need to move this matter forward as quickly as possible. I am grateful that this debate will show that there is the will in the House for that to happen. We will continue to review the Poisons Act 1972 to ensure that the right substances are controlled in the right way. We have also developed a set of voluntary commitments for individual retailers.
I am pleased to hear what the Minister is saying, but I ask her to commit to look again through my speech after today—on Christmas day, obviously!—and note down some responses to my more detailed questions. I genuinely welcome her commitment on sulphuric acid, but in reality, if we restrict only sulphuric acid, those who are using and weaponising corrosive substances will find a different poison of choice with which to continue their campaign. Acid can be carried through a knife arch or in an innocuous water bottle. Just restricting sulphuric acid will not be enough.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I will move on to the more detailed points of her speech. My speech is a bit of a patchwork, and I am conscious of time. I want to allow her to respond formally to the debate, but I hope that she will glean from parts of my speech the intention of the Home Office at this stage.
We hope to announce a set of voluntary commitments shortly. They have been developed with the British Retail Consortium and tested with the Association of Convenience Stores and the British Independent Retailers Association to ensure that they are proportionate and workable for any size of retailer: large, medium and small. I encourage all retailers to sign up to those commitments once they are in place—indeed, I would be grateful if hon. Members would encourage retailers in their constituencies to sign up to them.
I also commend those retailers who have created their own voluntary initiatives. The right hon. Member for East Ham mentioned 126 in Newham, and I commend and thank them for taking such steps. But we know this has to be co-ordinated, which is why we have not only voluntary commitments but other plans further down the line. We hope that that will make a real difference on the street.
Let me put it this way: I listened to the right hon. Gentleman with great interest, and I will certainly go back and discuss that with my officials. I will leave it there. We will work our way through that. However, I take his points, particularly about gang membership. Last week, I visited an amazing organisation called Safer London, which does a lot of work with gangs and their victims. The age profile of the people it works with is striking. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point.
I also thank the hon. Member for West Ham for her point about online sales. The voluntary commitment we are developing will apply to both over-the-counter and online sales. We are also in discussions with online marketplaces about what action they can take to support our action plan and restrict access to the most harmful corrosive products.
The hon. Lady and several other hon. Members asked about the licensing system. In 2015, the Home Office introduced a cohesive licensing regime for explosive precursors and poisons, including substances such as hydrochloric acid, nitric acid and sulphuric acid. We continue to review whether the restrictions in the Poisons Act 1972 need to be extended to cover other substances and, as I said, we are developing a set of voluntary commitments for individual retailers in relation to access to those products. I listened with care to the hon. Lady’s points about licensing.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) concentrated on the Deregulation Act 2015. The Government did not remove controls on sulphuric acid through that Act. Prior to the 2015 amendments to the Poisons Act 1972, no checks were required when a business was registered with its local authority to sell sulphuric acid and other poisons. The 2015 changes placed a mandatory requirement on retailers and suppliers to report any suspicious transactions involving the listed poisons and other substances, and introduced a requirement for members of the public to obtain a licence to purchase higher-risk regulated substances. Restrictions on who could sell the most dangerous poisons, and requirements for details to be registered when they were sold, were retained. However, we understand why hon. Members posed those questions. We are all talking about trying to restrict access to these terrible substances.
We are also looking at what manufacturers can do to help, which includes looking at packaging. We have spoken to the UK Cleaning Products Industry Association and the Chemical Business Association to see how they can support the action plan. We fully recognise that we need the help of manufacturers and retailers to stop these substances from getting into the wrong hands. However, we must ensure that there is effective support for victims and survivors in the event that they do, and the action plan puts them at the heart of our response.
It is vital that appropriate support is available to victims, both through the initial medical response and beyond. In the critical moments after an attack, victims must be treated quickly and correctly. The hon. Member for West Ham made interesting suggestions about various substances that may help. We have tried to ensure that the emergency services’ response is co-ordinated. The police, fire and rescue and ambulance services have developed a tri-service agreement on responding to this sort of attack. That means that the control room has an agreed checklist to provide advice, which ensures a consistent response from all three emergency services. That agreement has been trialled in London and will be rolled out nationally. The National Police Chiefs Council has also developed training and advice for first responders and police officers about how to treat victims at the scene. The situation is very dynamic in those vital first minutes, so the more we can do to help them, the better.
We also want to try to help the public to understand what they should do if they are on the scene of this sort of incident. NHS England, along with the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, has launched advice to the public about what to do in the event that they are caught up in an acid or corrosive substance attack. That advice is three words: report, remove and rinse. People should report an attack to the emergency services as soon as they can, remove any garments that may be storing or have soaked up corrosive substances, and then rinse, rinse, rinse with water. Obviously, the emergency services can do more when they arrive.
This is, of course, not just about the few minutes after an attack—it is also about aftercare. The Department of Health and NHS England have mapped the specialist burns services that acid attack victims can access for treatment, which helps to ensure that there is consistent national provision for victims and their families. NHS England is also working with the British Burn Association to review all national burn care standards and outcomes to try to ensure that people are treated consistently and properly. However, as hon. Members explained, such attacks have a psychological impact as well as a physical effect. The Department of Health is engaging with NHS England’s lead commissioner to ensure that psychological support is provided to victims through all referral routes, including hospital emergency departments, GPs and ophthalmic services. We are conscious that we need to help people not just in the short term but in the longer term.
Putting the difficult medical aspects to one side, we need victims’ help to bring criminals to justice, so we want to try to ensure that victims feel as confident as possible about coming forward to report crimes and to support prosecutions. Hon. Members mentioned the disappointingly low prosecution rate. It is incredibly difficult for victims in such circumstances to find the wherewithal to stand up in court and give evidence. That is why my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the National Police Chiefs Council lead, Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton, about the importance that police and prosecutors should place on identifying the potential need for special measures in court, to try to make victims as comfortable as possible so that they give the best evidence they can. The National Police Chiefs Council has also produced a strategy, which has been disseminated to all forces.
I was asked about Crown Prosecution Service guidance. The service has issued new interim guidance, which helps prosecutors to assess which charges to bring and how to manage such cases, and emphasises the importance of victim personal statements in all cases involving attacks with acid and other corrosive substances. I have a background in prosecuting. Although I did not prosecute this type of case, I cannot stress enough how effective a victim personal statement can be in ensuring that the victim’s voice is heard in court in the moments before a judge delivers their sentence.
We are told that the final CPS guidance will be issued in the new year. The police are also being encouraged to prepare community impact statements, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who is no longer in his place, mentioned, to ensure that courts are fully aware of the impact of these offences on individuals and communities.
Finally on justice, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley asked me about the victims law. I am told that that is a matter for the Ministry of Justice. That is not a terribly satisfactory answer, so I will write to her after I learn the status of that from the Ministry of Justice.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. One issue I do not think she has touched on so far is the possible timing for the new offence of possession of acid. The Government made the welcome commitment to introduce that, but when can we look forward to it coming forward?
We have committed to a consultation, which has just closed, and we are reviewing its results. This debate is helpful in showing the concern Members have about the need for such an offence and getting it on to the statute book as quickly as possible, but at the moment we must concentrate on reviewing the results of the consultation.
Justice cannot be secured without effective policing. The Home Office is working closely with the National Police Chiefs Council lead, Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton, and the Metropolitan Police Service to ensure that the policing response is effective in preventing these crimes from happening in the first place, but, if they do happen, to ensure we provide a strong and robust response and appropriate support to victims.
In addition to the policing strategy and medical training I have already mentioned, specialist investigative guidance has been developed for officers regarding conducting the forensic search. We want to help officers understand how to recover substances and any exhibits safely and to handle them in a way that helps provide the evidence to build a case for prosecution.
The National Police Chiefs Council lead has also commissioned data from all forces to develop our understanding of the scale and extent of attacks. I know data collection has concerned hon. Members. In addition to that, the Home Office has commissioned academic research to develop our understanding of the motivations of those who carry and use acid and corrosives in violent attacks and other criminal acts. We want to use the findings from that research to help inform our prevention and enforcement responses. We very much hope to have the findings available in the middle of next year.
The last category in the four-point action plan is that of ensuring that legislation is understood and consistently applied. We have reviewed the current legislation to ensure that everyone working within the criminal justice system, from police officers to prosecutors, has the powers they need to punish severely those who commit these appalling crimes.
Hon. Members will be aware that, as we have discussed, this autumn we launched a consultation on new laws on offensive and dangerous weapons, which included proposals to prohibit sales to under-18s and to make it an offence to possess a corrosive substance in a public place without good reason. I can tell from the contributions of those present that that offence would meet with a lot of agreement in the House of Commons.
We also looked into the proposal of introducing minimum custodial sentences for those caught carrying corrosive substances repeatedly. Of course, we hope that an offender would receive a custodial sentence on the first offence anyway, but we want to make it clear that the continued carrying of such substances is not acceptable. The consultation closed on 9 December and officials are working on it carefully and quickly. We will consider the responses to that consultation in the proposals.
We have also been clear that the life sentences should be not just for the victims of these horrendous attacks. Anyone using acid or other corrosive substances in an attack has committed a very serious offence of assault and, depending on the severity of the injuries, can be prosecuted with offences attracting substantial custodial sentences on conviction, including life imprisonment for a section 18 assault—grievous bodily harm. Indeed, mention has been made of the sentence delivered yesterday to Arthur Collins of 20 years’ imprisonment and five years on licence for his appalling attack in a nightclub. May that sentence ring loud across the streets of London—the judiciary will not accept that sort of conduct in their courts.
I was asked about the Sentencing Council. It is currently developing a new guideline on possession of dangerous weapons and threats to use them. The guidelines will also take into account offences involving acid, which would be categorised as a highly dangerous weapon, given the significant harm that it is likely to cause victims. Possession of, and threats to use, a highly dangerous weapon would place the offender in the highest category of culpability. We hope to have those guidelines soon, but in the meantime the Sentencing Council has confirmed that the use of corrosive substances shows high culpability and should attract higher sentences.
I thank hon. Members again for their contributions and want to make it clear that the Government are committed to tackling the use of acid and other corrosives in violent attacks. It is vital that we work together to protect the public and prevent attacks, which is why we are working so closely with a range of partners including the police, the CPS and retailers. We will continue to review and monitor the implementation of the action plan. In addition to the action plan, the Government are committed to tackling serious violence, and that is why the Home Secretary has announced a new serious violence strategy, which will be published in early 2018. I very much see acid attacks being included as part of that strategy.
I hope that hon. Members are reassured about the progress being made with the action plan and about our continued commitment to tackle and prevent these terrible crimes. The words of Katie Piper and other victims ring loud in our ears. We will not allow these people to take victims’ identities away.
I am grateful for what has been a really good debate. I thank all hon. Members who came and contributed. The substantive contributions by everybody to a person were valuable, so I thank everyone, especially on effectively our last day of term. That goes to show the commitment and work ethic of hon. Members.
I say gently to the Minister that I am not currently reassured that we are making sufficient progress in a timely manner. I am not reassured that the voluntary processes she outlined will have the kind of impact I would like to see for my constituents. What Newham Council—this little red dot in the east of London—is doing is wonderful, but as she will know we have massively good transport links in London. If other local authorities will not take their responsibilities as seriously, it will not be hard for some little tyke in Newham to access those corrosive substances from elsewhere.
The Minister has made a good fist of it, given that this is her first time out. I gently ask that she reviews the content of the contributions. We heard a number of questions that have remained unanswered and I would be so grateful to her if she looked at those. I thought I dealt with the weaknesses around suspicious substances reports with irony and gentle humour. Perhaps next time I will be a little more direct and say, “It’s rubbish, and frankly it needs to be properly looked at.” Frankly, one can buy anything one wants online without having to be asked by anybody what one’s intentions are or having good eye contact and so on. I must admit that the leaflet reminded me a little of the ones put out about a nuclear explosion.
Nevertheless, I wish everybody here a merry Christmas and a happy new year. I look forward to hearing in due course a substantive comment on my speech from the Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Government response to corrosive substance attacks.