Consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 16.
[Amendments Nos. 23 to 25 not moved.]
Page 15, line 37, at end insert-
“( ) A local authority must consult every person listed in subsection (4)(c) for a further period of 14 days after the period set out in subsection (8)(a) before designating the locality unless the conditions set out in subsection (8)(b) apply.”
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, when I spoke to the large group of amendments that represented questions from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, I made the point that there would be a couple of other amendments covering new aspects that I would need to move today on matters that had been brought to my notice since Committee.
Amendment No. 26 seeks to build consultation into the time frame of creating an alcohol disorder zone. The licensed trade has pointed out that it would be sensible to have a statutory two-week period between the action plan stage and the potential stage of the designation of the zone. That would allow time for the essential consultation between the local authority, the police and all affected businesses. Surely, it would be to the benefit of everyone in the community if there were time built into the process for constructive discussion to take place between all parties on how best to deal with the problems in a locality. I beg to move.
My Lords, it might help if I set out how we see ADZ designation working. An ADZ can be implemented if, after eight weeks following publication of the action plan, steps are not being taken that are sufficient to enable the local authority to consider designation to be necessary, or if before or after eight weeks the local authority is satisfied that the plan will not be implemented or that the steps required are no longer being taken, or if that effect is no longer being given to arrangements made in accordance with the plan.
The amendment seeks to add a further stage to the process at the eight-week point if the local authority does not consider that the steps taken are sufficient to render the designation unnecessary. It would require local authorities—as I understand it, and as the noble Baroness has explained—to consult licensees for a further period of 14 days before designating the ADZ. I understand the noble Baroness’s concern, which, I assume, is intended to ensure that a final warning is issued before the local authority designates an ADZ—the final opportunity to take steps to implement the action plan.
As I stressed in Committee, the action plan is the real prize. That is best illustrated by the constructive work we have undertaken with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, following Committee, on the guidance to local authorities on designation and the flexible approach that we want to see taken towards the action plan.
Throughout the eight-week period, we expect the local authority to engage with licensees to ensure that steps to implement the action plan are under way. It is clear that sitting back and waiting for the eight weeks to expire will not achieve the desired outcome. There will be a need to ensure that licensees are given ample warning before designation. However, I do not believe that we need to introduce an additional step into the process in the Bill or, effectively, to seek to prolong the eight-week period and turn it into a 10-week period.
Guidance will reinforce the need for local authorities to engage with licensees throughout the eight weeks and for local authorities to ensure that, as the eight-week point approaches, licensees have every opportunity to deliver on the plan. It is important to see how that operates on the ground. If we can get the guidance right and ensure that the eight-week period is used actively, whereby there is a continual loop of contact between the local authority, police, licensees and so on, then the issue of concern to the noble Baroness will melt away and the process will be more workable and less bureaucratic, so that the extra period she seeks will become unnecessary.
My Lords, as the Minister stated, the Government see the action plan as the real prize. Responsible traders have already been involved in working out their own action plans and we are concerned that there is not too much bureaucracy or that steps are not taken against people who are trying to ensure that there is no public disorder.
Like the Minister, I do not wish for the period of consultation for the action plan to stretch so much that nothing ever gets done. Equally, I want to ensure that the consultation period is carried out effectively and that those who co-operate in producing the plan do not suddenly find themselves facing the imposition of a plan and an ADZ when they have tried to do all that they can.
I appreciate why the Government are trying to avoid an extra two-week delay in the system, but given that this is a new idea, I will go back to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and find out whether the Minister’s words have reassured it or whether I need to take any further action at Third Reading. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 17 [Procedure for designation of zones]:
Page 16, line 13, at end insert-
“( ) Twelve months after the compulsory charging stage of an alcohol disorder zone is implemented, the locality will cease to be designated as an alcohol disorder zone.
( ) If the local authority and police authority agree that the designation of the locality as an alcohol disorder zone should continue, they may repeat the procedure set out under section 13 for the designation of the locality as an alcohol disorder zone.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I retabled this amendment because I am anxious about whether the Government have had any further thought about terminating the orders made under Clause 15. I have suggested to the Government that there should be a cap on the statutory charge; that has not been successful. Your Lordships have voted down our suggestion that there should be further clarification of the extent of an alcohol disorder zone. The amendment deals with its temporal limits.
I am anxious that the local authority that seeks to designate such zones should not find them an easy way of raising additional revenue and roll them over, which is what the Bill permits. The order can be rolled over without again going through the necessary procedures. The purpose of tabling the amendment is to ask the Minister whether there is any news. Have we advanced? If not, what is his and his colleagues’ thinking on this issue? I beg to move.
My Lords, I am not sure that we have much more to add to what was said in Committee. I can understand where the noble Lord is coming from and is trying to go. The amendment imposes a sunset of a year on an alcohol disorder zone after compulsory charging begins. That is not right, nor is the requirement for the local authority and local police authority, not the local chief police officer, to restart the process if they believe that the ADZ should continue. We can see no merit in the noble Lord’s proposal.
However, a year is a long time and the vast majority of ADZs will probably come to a natural conclusion within a shorter time. We do not expect them to have an extensive life. After all, ADZs will be reviewed at three-monthly intervals. We expect the review to be thorough and to look extensively at whether the problem has been addressed. We intend the guidance to be very clear on that point. Given the intensive enforcement effort involved at the compulsory charging stage, it is unlikely that ADZs will last more than a year.
Perhaps those may turn out to be famous last words, but one can never be precise about these issues. When the ADZ covers an area with intractable problems that may be more deeply rooted than even the development of an alcohol disorder zone can deal with, a lengthier period may be required—but that is unlikely. One would hope that the effort put in by the police, the local authority and others involved in the zone should fairly speedily begin to have an effect and, I hope, wind up the ADZ within a year.
So the amendment is not necessary, nor would the extra effort be required for the local authority to renew an alcohol disorder zone. While I understand what the noble Lord is trying to achieve, we need to set the system in motion, view the imposition of ADZs as a last resort, hope that people are involved at an appropriate level and manner and ensure that we monitor the way that ADZs work and build on experience. Thus a “sunset” of a year would become unnecessary and I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I think that he has said enough in setting out the Government’s policy and thinking behind this legislation to make it open to local licensees who feel that the local authority is abusing the powers given by the Bill to seek redress in the courts if necessary. I am sure that if they did that in the case of abuse, the Minister's statement today would be well employed. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 20 [Supplemental provisions for Chapter 2]:
[Amendment No. 28 not moved.]
Clause 23 [Offence of persistently selling alcohol to children]:
Page 23, line 18, at end insert-
“(6A) Upon an unlawful sale of alcohol taking place, the designated premises supervisor and the premises licence holder of the premises where the unlawful sale was made must be immediately notified of the unlawful sale and provided with evidence of that sale.”
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is another fresh matter that has arisen since Committee.Clause 23 creates a new offence of persistently selling alcohol to children. The offence is committed if on three or more different occasions in three consecutive months alcohol is unlawfully sold on the same premises to a person under the age of 18.
As I made clear in Committee, we on these Benches strongly support the creation of the offence, and the amendment has been tabled to probe the most speedy and effective way of preventing alcohol being sold to children. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association is concerned that, if an unlawful sale takes place, it is imperative that the designated premises supervisor and premises licence holder are immediately informed and can take appropriate action.
I understand that retailers are worried that in exceptional circumstances three test purchases could take place within a short time. For example, one particular sales assistant may be on duty and acting outside instructions during those three narrowly spaced periods of sales. That could mean that the designated premises supervisor or premises licence holder would not have the appropriate knowledge to enable them to take any remedial action until they had been notified that there had been three failed tests, which would prompt the possibility of their licence being suspended for three months. The amendment would therefore ensure that the store manager was aware of the problem and able to take action immediately to rectify the problem. Surely that would also be of benefit to other young people in the neighbourhood who might otherwise slip through the net and be able to buy alcohol while the problem went undiagnosed until there was a third report of an offence. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment and draw your Lordships’ attention to an article which appeared in the Metro newspaper on9 October headed, “Drinkers caught out by a lock-in”. A Mr Ronny Carter, who runs the G-Bar in Oxford, had his suspicions about 23 drinkers inside his public house, so he locked the doors, turned the light on and called the police. The drinkers all provided identification to show that they were over the age of 18 but, in fact, when the police asked everyone who was carrying a fake ID to sit down, only one out of 23 remained standing. That was a piece of self-help on the part of Mr Carter which is highly to be commended. The spirit behind the amendment rather reflects Mr Carter's attitude and we support it.
My Lords, my explanation will be a little longer than most but I hope that it helps the noble Baroness and those who have brought this issue to our attention.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment because, ultimately, it goes to the heart of the responsibilities placed on licensees by the Licensing Act 2003. As I understand it, the amendment would require the designated premises supervisor—the DPS, as he or she is generally referred to—and the premises licence holder to be notified immediately when any unlawful sale of alcohol took place on their premises. It would also require those persons to be provided with evidence of the offences.
The premises licence holder, which will often be a business, is responsible for ensuring that licence conditions are adhered to and that licensing law in general is complied with. We strongly believe that these absolute responsibilities cannot be avoided, even if the business headquarters is some distance away.
The amendment does not set out which person or body should give the required notification or provide the required evidence, but I assume that the intention is that this new requirement would fall on the enforcement officers. In other words, it proposes more work for the police or trading standards officers who detect the offences. Incidentally, it indirectly adds another layer of bureaucracy to the fixed penalty notice arrangements for the police.
We need to consider and understand the deeper significance of the amendment and, in doing so, it is important to look back at the development of the Licensing Act 2003. When the reform of the licensing laws was being considered, the alcohol retail industry successfully lobbied for a split licensing regime under which the premises licence would be held by the business and the personal licence would be held by employees. The intention was that managers could move around freely without the premises licence having to be transferred.
However, in giving businesses this greater flexibility, Parliament also placed on the businesses holding the new premises licences direct responsibility for ensuring that licence conditions were adhered to and that licensing offences did not take place. Large chains involved in retailing alcohol are therefore no longer able to abdicate responsibility to managers, who used to hold the old liquor licences. The new job of the premises licence holder is to prevent breaches of licensing law and licence conditions and not just to react to them. This goes to the heart of the amendment.
I know that the noble Baroness is concerned about fairness and reasonableness, as we all are. She asks what would happen if three offences were committed within 20 minutes and the DPS and premises licence holder did not know. How could they have time to rectify the situation? Let us be clear. If three criminal offences, each potentially punishable by a maximum fine of £5,000, are committed within 20 minutes, each one represents a fundamental failure by the DPS and the premises licence holder to fulfil their responsibilities under the Licensing Act 2003. Their role is to ensure sufficient supervision to prevent such crimes.
These individual crimes must not be trivialised. I am sure that the noble Baroness will recall that the Government and this House began the process of toughening the law on selling to children by supporting the Licensing (Young Persons) Act 2000. That Act began life as a Private Member’s Bill promoted by the Member of Parliament for Pudsey and arose because of the death of one of his14 year-old constituents, David Knowles. The House will recall that David Knowles ran to his death on a major road after drinking alcohol that had been repeatedly sold to him by a store throughout a single afternoon. That is the potential consequence of the criminal act of selling alcohol to young children.
When the Government have met the large chains, they have given assurances that they will work to improve their poor performance on the sale of alcohol to children. Yet the amendment implies that they would not even know, and should have no reason to know, that offences were being committed on their premises if the enforcing authorities did not bother to tell them. That would hardly inspire confidence that they were taking their new responsibilities seriously or that they were ensuring proper supervision of the premises.
The industry cannot have the increased flexibility provided by the Licensing Act but not the attached responsibility. Under the Licensing Act, new rights and flexibilities go hand in hand with new responsibilities and sanctions for failure. Would itbe unfair if three test purchases took place within20 minutes, giving rise to the new offence in the Bill? Ultimately, I think not. Individual test purchases are a well established enforcement mechanism for revealing failures which go much deeper than the individual offence detected.
Before a test purchase occurred, how many unlawful sales could well have taken place outside the knowledge of the enforcement agencies? How many children would already have been harmed? Test purchases are generally targeted on the basis of local intelligence. The likelihood is that a large number of offences will have gone undetected and unpunished.
The threat of test purchasing is intended to create a severe deterrent to these crimes. The Government do not intend to restrict the work of the enforcing agencies by providing guidance that the DPS or premises licence holders should always be told about test purchase failures. I have no doubt that they may sometimes be told, and it is by no means unusual for failures to be discussed with the DPS. However, in our view, insisting on such a practice would send out all the wrong messages. It would imply that there was some kind of acceptable failure rate before further action was taken. There is no excusable failure rate in an area as important as this. The new offence punishes the failure of the premises licence holder to prevent persistent and repeated offences taking place on the premises for which the holder is responsible. If they need a warning, let the message from this House be that a single unlawful sale is unacceptable. There can be no excuses.
However, the House should also remember that if the offending business does not want to accept the prohibition on sales of alcohol for 48 hours, it may elect to go to trial. It would be free to argue the perceived unfairness of the situation. The court would be under no obligation to fine the business or suspend its premises licence at all.
If the new offence causes the industry to invest in better and more effective management supervision and better training for staff selling alcohol, the House should welcome and applaud that. The expenditure on alcohol each year in this country now exceeds£40 billion. The industry can afford to ensure that it complies with its responsibilities to children and their parents and to the wider community.
During the debates on the then Licensing Bill, the protection of children from harm was one of this House’s top concerns. To its credit, the House persuaded the Government to toughen up that Bill to protect young people better. I do not think that the House should now retreat on that. It is not for licensing officers, the police and trading standards officers to meet the responsibilities of supermarkets, pubs or convenience stores by being their eyes and ears.
Of course, as Government, we shall continue to work closely with the alcohol retail industry to reduce sales to young people. While we are making progress in this area, the Government must push for zero tolerance to ensure that children are given the highest level of protection possible. This is not an area where business should be thinking only of minimising its liabilities. That might not be a message that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord wish to hear, but it is a fair one, sets out our position very clearly and makes plain the responsibilities of those in the industry. For those reasons I cannot accept the amendment.
My Lords, the Minister speaks as though all licensees are trying to sell alcohol to young persons and trying to evade their duties. That was the general tenor of his answer. The amendment was tabled as a probing amendment, to try to ensure that those traders who are responsible and co-operating with the Government are able to take remedial action as soon as possible. The Minister says that the three test purchases are now unlikely to take place unless there has been a considerable history of bad behaviour by the licensee. If that were so in each and every case, one would not have sympathy with the retailer who must be failing in his or her duty to train and monitor staff properly. The concern remains that there will be people who are doing all that they can to ensure that there is no bad sale. I repeat what the Minister said—that a single failure rate is unacceptable. I agree, but of course there is the issue of acquiring the evidence to take a person to court. Some of the people who may be caught by this may be trying to take a responsible approach. I agree with the Minister when he says that underlying all this is the fact that there should not be sales to young people.
As a magistrate, I used to sit on a licensing Bench and I used to visit licensed premises, including a particular off-licence where there were reports of difficulties relating to underage people. As soon as that was notified properly to the licence holder, action was taken. The difficulty was that there was much rumour but no one had been prepared to put up and they certainly did not shut up until later on.
I shall take the advice of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association to see whether it wishes to probe further at Third Reading. However, today I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
After Clause 24, insert the following new clause-
“MANDATORY PREMISES LICENCE CONDITION: DOOR SUPERVISION
(1) Section 21 of the Licensing Act 2003 (c. 17) (mandatory condition: door supervision) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1) for “be licensed by the Security Industry Authority” substitute “-
(a) be authorised to carry out that activity by a licence granted under the Private Security Industry Act 2001; or (b) be entitled to carry out that activity by virtue of section 4 of that Act.” (3) In subsection (3) in paragraph (a), at the end insert “and which is licensable conduct for the purposes of that Act (see section 3(2) of that Act)”.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment will correct an unforeseen consequence of Section 21 of the Licensing Act 2003. At present, where a premises licence issued under the Act requires one or more persons to be at the premises at any time to undertake security activities, it must also, subject to several exceptions, require such persons to be licensed by the Security Industry Authority, even if the Private Security Industry Act 2001 does not require them to be licensed. Subject to certain exceptions, Section 21 of the 2003 Act catches all persons performing these activities, whether they are required to be licensed by the SIA or not.
The practical consequences of this have recently come to light. In plain English this means that when the wording of a premises licence requires security staff to be present at an event to carry out a security activity, there are cases where they have to be SIA-licensed, even if they are not required to be licensed by the 2001 Act. That includes volunteers and other groups that have been exempted, including those who are working legally under a licence dispensation notice. The amendment aims to correct that anomaly. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
After Clause 24, insert the following new clause-
“DESIGNATED PUBLIC PLACES
(1) Section 14 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001(c. 16) (places which are not designated public places) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1)-
(a) for paragraph (a) substitute- “(a) premises in respect of which a premises licence has effect which authorises the premises to be used for the sale or supply of alcohol; (aa) premises in respect of which a club premises certificate has effect which certifies that the premises may be used by the club for the sale or supply of alcohol;” (b) in paragraph (b), after “(a)” insert “or (aa)”; (c) in paragraph (c), for “20” substitute “30”. (3) After subsection (1) insert-
“(1A) Subsection (1B) applies to premises falling within subsection (1)(a) if-
(a) the premises licence is held by a local authority in whose area the premises or part of the premises is situated; or (b) the premises licence is held by another person but the premises are occupied by such an authority or are managed by or on behalf of such an authority. (1B) Subsection (1) prevents premises to which this subsection applies from being, or being part of, a designated public place only-
(a) at times when it is being used for the sale or supply of alcohol; and (b) at times falling within 30 minutes after the end of a period during which it has been so used. (1C) In this section ‘premises licence' and ‘club premises certificate' have the same meaning as in the LicensingAct 2003.””
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment resolves an unintended problem associated with the licensing of public spaces under the LicensingAct 2003, and the use of designated public places orders—DPPOs—under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. That Act gave local authorities the power to introduce DPPOs, making it an offence in the designated public area to drink alcohol after being required by a police officer not to do so or to fail to surrender alcohol or alcohol containers when requested to do so by the police. To safeguard the legitimate business of pubs and clubs, the 2001 Act also provides that areas that have a justices’ licence—now premises licence or club premises certificate under the Licensing Act 2003, or a temporary event notice authorising the supply of alcohol—cannot be designated as part of a DPPO.
The Licensing Act 2003 brought the licensing arrangements for a range of activities under the same licensing regime. This means that premises licensed for the sale of alcohol, the provision of regulated entertainment and the provision of late night refreshment now hold the same type of authorisation. The 2003 Act’s statutory guidance encourages local authorities to seek premises licences for public spaces, in order to allow local community events such as farmers’ markets, open-air festivals, concerts and carnivals to take place without the need for each individual event organiser to apply for a separate licence. The local authority would hold the licence and allow the various events to operate within its terms.
The unintended consequence of this is that, where local authorities apply for a premises licence in respect of public spaces in order to hold regulated entertainment, and in some cases allow the sale of alcohol at certain times, those places cannot then be designated as part of a DPPO. Concerns have been raised by a number of local authorities that wish to promote community events by licensing public spaces but also wish to make use of DPPOs in tackling the problems of anti-social drinking. The current position offers no flexibility and needs to be addressed.
The effect of the Government’s amendments is that where a local authority holds a premises licence, occupies a premises subject to a premises licence or has managed on its behalf a premises subject to a premises licence, a DPPO will be excluded from applying to those premises only at times when alcohol is being sold or supplied and for 30 minutes thereafter. At all other times, the premises will be able to be the subject of a DPPO. In other words, the DPPO, if one has been introduced by a local authority, will not apply while alcohol sales are taking place. The DPPO will apply once the alcohol sales cease and after the expiry of a 30-minute grace, or wind-down, period after the last sale has been completed. In effect, there will be a temporary suspension of the DPPO in such situations.
There are two other minor and technical changes related to the amendment. The first clarifies the 2001 Act to the effect that a DPPO is excluded from applying to a premises only where the premises licence under the Licensing Act authorises the sale or supply of alcohol. Other forms of authorisation—for example, licences authorising entertainment only—will not be affected and premises subject only to them can still be within a DPPO. The second ensures consistency with the main amendment by replacing “20 minutes” with “30 minutes” for the length of time after the expiry of a temporary event notice that a premises must remain outside the scope of a DPPO. A temporary event notice is an alternative form of authorisation for alcohol sales under the Licensing Act for occasional events.
The rationale in the 2001 Act for excluding TEN-authorised premises from DPPOs is the same as for licensed premises. Logically, the grace, or wind-down, period before a DPPO can apply should be the same after the end of an event as it is after the end of alcohol sales on local authority occupied or managed premises. The amendment would bring the two grace, or wind-down, periods into line.
I hope that that explanation is clear. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Before Clause 26, insert the following new clause-
“OLYMPIC TARGET PISTOLS
After section 7 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 (firearms of historic interest) (c. 5) there is inserted-
“7A OLYMPIC TARGET PISTOLS
(1) The authority of the Secretary of State or the Scottish Ministers (by virtue of provision made under section 63 of the Scotland Act 1998) is not required by virtue of subsection (1)(aba) of section 5 of the 1968 Act for a person to have in his possession, or to purchase or acquire, or to sell or transfer, an authorised pistol if he is authorised by a firearms certificate to have the pistol in his possession, or to purchase or acquire it, subject to the following conditions-
(a) that it is only for use in connection with training for and competing in the Olympic sport of target pistol shooting, (b) that it is only for use at regional shooting clubs designated by the Secretary of State as a place where such pistols can be used, (c) that it is stored at such designated sites and can only be removed subject to the authorisation of the Secretary of State. (2) For the purposes of this section an authorised pistol is a pistol whose specifications are determined by order made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State.
(3) In determining such specifications, the Secretary of State must consult the International Shooting Sports Federation.
(4) This section shall not come into force before 1st January 2010 and shall expire on 31st December 2012; but this is subject to subsection (5).
(5) Her Majesty may by Order in Council provide that this section shall (instead of expiring on 31st December 2012) expire at the end of a period specified in the Order.
(6) No recommendation may be made to Her Majesty in Council to make an Order under subsection (5) unless a draft of the Order has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.””
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I bring this amendment back on Report because we have no clarification and are nowhere near where I had hoped we would be in discussions with Her Majesty's Government. My objective is to persuade the Government to be clear about their intentions. The objective of the amendment is to persuade the Government to amend the firearms legislation so that it does not disadvantage UK competitors in small-bore/pistol shooting in forthcoming Olympic Games. I am sure that the Minister needs no reminder that training by all athletes for the 2012 Olympic Games has already started and is intense, vital and ongoing. As the law stands, pistol shooters and the like are at a significant disadvantage.
I have two letters in front of me. I hope that I am allowed to have them, but if not, bad luck for the Government. The first was sent to my noble friend Lady Anelay by Simon King, who states:
“The Government is committed to allowing pistol shooting events at the 2012 London Olympics. The Secretary of State already has sufficient powers under section 5 of the 1968 Firearms Act to authorise competitors and officials to possess competition pistols for the duration of the Games, and the special warm-up events. These powers were used successfully for the 2002 Commonwealth Games held in Manchester…The same powers could be used to allow a small number of potential medal winners to practise in Great Britain in advance of 2012”.
That is not what we are after—it really is not. It is a sensitive issue and great care is needed to ensure that public safety is not put at risk.
Let us not go totally crazy—we finished talking about the IRA and so forth only half an hour ago. Legislating for professional people to have specialised weapons under a special regime will not possibly, in anyone’s imagination, endanger anyone’s life anywhere. It is not real thinking. I understand the political sensitivity and I can see that people are frightened. I regret to say that my party started this legislation some years ago. It has carried on, but it should not have done and I ask the Minister to rethink it.
I am more concerned about a letter to Richard Caborn signed “pp Vernon Coaker”. Its earlier paragraphs say more or less the same as the letter to my noble friend Lady Anelay, but the last paragraph says:
“Whether or not we will use our section 5 powers to authorise such a scheme will ultimately be a matter of detail but I agree in principle that this should be explored further”.
I submit that the matter should be explored further and very quickly. A conclusion should be reached and the whole situation clarified. Frankly, as an Olympian and an athlete, and as one who cares about the medal tables in 2012, I think that bureaucratic stupidity is getting in the way of reality. I know that I am using strong words in your Lordships' House, but I feel strongly about the issue. Having talked to the Minister—I thank him for giving me his time—to Richard Caborn and to others, and having been received sympathetically, I think that it is time for the talking to stop and for the Government to come forward with a solution to this issue, which should not be difficult to dream up. I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend. We are not trying to do anything that will in any way imperil public safety—just the reverse, obviously. We want assurances that our sports men and women will be able to practise freely and readily for these particular disciplines in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. We want them to be able to practise in this country at venues convenient to them, and we want permission to be given to all those who reasonably anticipate that they will take part in those disciplines at the Olympics. So far, it is as though they have been treading in treacle, with one department writing to another in occluded language and no one getting round to saying to the potential Olympians, “Okay, here’s your authority. Go ahead and practise”.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for his passion and commitment on this issue. I understand and sympathise with his frustration at treading in treacle, as the noble Baroness put it, and failing to make progress with officials. I want to make it clear that the Government and I are sympathetic to his point of view and I am sure that, when we come to deal with the issue in a practical way, matters will be resolved as we would all wish.
The Government have always made it clear that pistol-shooting events will be able to go ahead in the 2012 London Olympics without the need to change the legislation. Instead, we will use the Home Secretary’s powers under Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 to authorise competitors and officials to possess competition pistols both for the duration of the games and for special warm-up events. As the noble Lord conceded, such arrangements worked well for the Manchester Commonwealth Games and there has never been a great difference of opinion between us on that issue.
However, there is more of a difference between us in determining the arrangements that might be made to allow people to train in the UK ahead of the games, which is at the heart of this amendment and a similar one tabled in Committee. It seeks to meet previous concerns that there was no sunset clause by giving a date of 31 December 2012, but still looks to keep the arrangements in place by providing for the date to be extended by Order in Council.
We are not persuaded that we have to change the legislation as proposed, although I can confirm that we have been working with colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and representatives of the sport to find a way through this sensitive issue. As we have said, this can be resolved using the Secretary of State’s powers under Section 5. These powers are not tightly circumscribed and it is possible to attach such conditions as may be thought necessary to ensure that public safety, or the police, are not endangered.
As with the previous amendment, the proposed new clause is not confined to those with a realistic chance of becoming an Olympian. As drafted, it would leave it open to any shooter to claim that he was training with that as his long-term aim. This amendment goes far too wide and, indeed, might be seen as a weakening of our gun controls.
Furthermore, if we are looking to allow an elite squad to train before the Olympics, I am not convinced that the shooting organisations would be happy with the proposed start date of 1 January 2010. I am sure that the noble Lord knows much more about it than me but, in my amateur thinking, it takes time to develop and maintain a performance pyramid to meet agreed targets, and any chance of success would be severely compromised by the limited time allowed by the proposed new clause.
Although I accept that the amendment is sensitive to the need to ensure that any training allowed takes place in a safe environment, I believe that it lacks the flexibility that can be achieved using Section 5 powers. As promised, we are fully engaged with the sport in trying to establish suitable arrangements, and we understand that it is content that this is a satisfactory way of progressing the matter.
The noble Lord, with his understandable passion and commitment, has made a case, but the amendment does not fit the Bill, as it were, and, because of its inflexibility, could have an adverse effect on the training programme for shooters wishing to compete in the 2012 London Olympics. I give an assurance that we will use the Section 5 powers flexibly to achieve the outcome desired by all sides in this argument; that is, to ensure that competitors and officials are able to possess competition pistols and to practise to perfect their skill for the Olympics. I am sure that they will be successful in the event.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Anelay raised the point that shooters will want to compete in the 2008 games. Will the Government be cognisant of that fact and bring the legislation in early enough to ensure that our teams have good success in 2008, which will give them even greater success in 2012?
My Lords, I do not have eyes in the back of my head, but my colleague tells me that my officials are nodding. Let us take a nod and wink as saying yes on this occasion, as I am sure that that will be the case. I had assumed that it was already the case. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness and the noble Lord.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and his acceptance of my passion. He is right to say that I am driving at the need for athletes to train well in advance. That means today; it means tonight. I put the date of 2010 in my amendment with my fingers crossed because I thought that we would probably be in power by then and we would be able to sort it out. So I was fairly light-hearted when I chose a date to serve the purpose of the original probing amendment in Committee and I left that date in this amendment.
The nub of this matter, which I think everybody understands—I know that the officials do, because I have seen them nodding on different occasions, and I know that the Minister does—is that there is a big bag of medals available in a number of sports for Olympian men and women if they are good enough on the day. I have worked with dear old Richard in the past and we are doing our best to make sure that we get in the top four in that medal table. At the moment, the Home Office is, to put it kindly, not helping by being obdurate in not legislating or amending legislation and by not telling us how it plans quickly to help our star performers and our up-and-coming stars—our second XI—to train and to reach the standard required to win medals. I thank noble Lords for listening, and I hope that I may hear more from the Minister before Third Reading, either in the Chamber or outside it.
My Lords, I heard what the noble Lord said, and I will speak with our officials again to do what I can to ensure that things are put in train to enable what needs to happen to do so and to make sure that flesh is put on the bones of what we intend to do with Section 5 of the 1968 Act and how it would work.
Page 30, line 29, leave out subsection (6).
The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 deal with minimum sentences. I do not understand the rationale behind minimum sentence requirements in Home Office Bills. We have a sentencing council, mostly made up of practitioners, that gives recommendations. The Lord Chief Justice gives practice directions. The Court of Appeal deals with sentences and lays down guidelines for particular offences. These are all people who have spent a lifetime—the practitioners, at least—dealing with these problems. If anybody knows the right sentence in a specific case, it is them. But along comes the Home Office, with nil experience of the courts and how they work or of everything that goes into sentencing, and, through various Home Office Ministers and through the Home Secretary, demands that the court should impose minimum sentences, except when we come to Clause 27(6), where there is a proviso,
“unless it is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or to the offender which justify”,
the court not giving a minimum sentence of three years. So there is a let-out clause for the judiciary if it thinks that the minimum sentence set out in that clause would be unjust.
Then in Clause 28 we come to complicated amendments of the 1968 Act. I find it impossible to trace through the Act to find out what is intended, but minimum sentences for certain firearms offences are again laid down. Why do Home Secretaries interfere with what is essentially a function of the courts in our constitution? One of these days, we will have a written constitution. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, has called for a written constitution that will clearly set out the responsibilities of the various branches of government and its relationship to the judiciary. But the Government cannot resist meddling. Here is a fine example of meddling, with a proviso—a “get out of jail free” card—stuck on to it. It is an excrescence. I hope that the Minister will be persuaded by my mild remarks to remove it from the Bill, not just from Clause 28. I beg to move.
My Lords, I suppose that the words of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, were mildly provocative. I shall try not to rise to the bait too quick or too hard. As the noble Lord knows, in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the Government introduced a minimum sentence for certain firearms offences in response to the rising level of gun crime. The aim was to deter criminals from using guns and to ensure appropriately tough sentences for those who still did. This approach has had some success. In 2004-05, there was a 5 per cent decrease in the number of crimes in which guns were used and handgun offences fell by 15 per cent. Statistics for the year ending 2005 show that firearms offences, excluding air weapons, were down 3 per cent and fatal injuries were down 30 per cent.
That shows that the minimum sentences can work. It is a tough measure, but the courts can still take account of exceptional circumstances—the noble Lord alluded to that—relating to the offence or the offender and can impose a lesser sentence if they consider it justified. The Government think that that is the right balance and are committed to the minimum sentence measures in the Bill.
Amendment No. 33 would prevent the courts from imposing a minimum sentence on 16 to 18 year-olds convicted of the new offence in Clause 26 of using someone to mind a weapon. I regret to say that it is not unknown for 16 to 18 year-olds to use guns and other dangerous weapons and it is therefore important that the minimum sentence applies to that age group, too. However, taking account of the fact that they are juveniles, Clause 27 provides for a different minimum sentence from that for adults. Instead of five years’ imprisonment, the minimum sentence is of three years’ detention.
Amendment No. 34 would remove from the Bill what we consider to be a useful addition to the existing minimum sentence provisions for firearms offences. At present, the minimum sentence applies only to simple possession of a prohibited firearm. Clause 28 applies the minimum sentence to other offences involving the possession of prohibited firearms, such as possession with intent to injure or possession with intent to cause the fear of violence. That will ensure that an offender who commits one of those serious offences does not escape the minimum sentence by inadvertently not also being charged with the simple possession offence. The Government believe that minimum sentences can work. There is rightly the provision for the courts to take account of exceptional circumstances and to impose different sentences on juveniles. The measures in the Bill reflect that and, we believe, are balanced and fair.
I have little expectation that the noble Lord will agree with me, but I invite him to consider those comments before he, I hope, withdraws the amendment.
My Lords, there is not the slightest evidence that the decrease in gun crime is related to the fact that minimum sentences have been included in various Bills. There is not the slightest evidence to show that the sentence passed by a particular judge in court would have been any different with or without the minimum sentences. It is gesture politics. It is a political act; it is sending messages. I am totally opposed to using the criminal law to send messages via the red-top papers. I shall not press this to a vote, but every time the Government propose minimum sentences, I will say something along similar lines. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 28 [Minimum sentences for certain firearms offences]:
[Amendment No. 34 not moved.]
Clause 35 [Specific defences applying to the offence under s.34]:
Page 38, line 30, at end insert-
“( ) the participation in the sport of airsoft organised by persons in such manner as may be specified for the purposes of this section by regulations made by the Secretary of State”
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment would ensure that those engaged in airsoft activities could continue to do so in their current form. It would give them a defence to the offence of using a realistic imitation firearm. It would enable them to continue their sport only following regulations to be set out by the Secretary of State. The Government could thereby ensure that the sport was carried out only under safe and regulated conditions and that those weapons would not be available to those who might want to use them for illegal purposes.
When I spoke to an amendment in Committee on 22 May at col. 623, the Minister said that the Government rejected it and that they believed that there was no compelling reason for airsofters to use realistic imitations. That is the very point at which airsofters and the Government diverge in their understanding of the sport. Airsofters have said to me that it is vital in skirmishing that they should be able to use realistic imitation weapons. In Committee, I put on record a detailed description of what constitutes the activity of airsoft. As this is Report, I shall certainly not go through that detail again, but I am very much aware that the activity is not well known to Members of Parliament in either House, so it took some while for a head of steam to work up and for noble Lords and Members of another place properly to appreciate how important the activity is to a substantial number of people in the United Kingdom.
On 21 May, Mr Ken Elston, chairman of the United Kingdom Airsoft Site Governing Body, wrote a full submission to the Home Secretary, explaining why the exemption was necessary to save the sport. The response to that submission came from Mr Keith Bottomley of the Home Office firearms section, SC1. The letter is undated, but he restated the position set out by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in Committee, as follows:
“In particular, no really convincing argument was put for the need to use such realistic imitation weapons for this purpose”.
The letter states that the Government see no real reason why airsofters cannot,
“use brightly coloured translucent plastic weapons based on existing airsoft actions”.
It is quite a brief letter in response to a very well argued two and a half-page submission to the Home Office. Mr Elston has subsequently written to me to make the following cogent point: it remains a mystery to airsofters that groups who make only a limited use of airsoft equipment, such as historical battleground re-enactors, can qualify for exemption in the Bill, while the very people who are the recognised and legitimate users of airsoft equipment—airsoft players, who are members of registered clubs and who meet on a regular basis on registered, well regulated sites away from the general public under the auspices of a governing body—cannot.
Prior to the Bill, airsofters were led to believethat the exemption clause was there to ensure that legitimate users would not be affected. The idea that translucent, brightly coloured weapons could be acceptable as an alternative or be in any way appropriate is, frankly, ridiculous. Photographs have been presented to me showing what the use of such translucent weapons would look like and it would not make it an activity in which people would want to continue to take part.
Airsofters do not want their sport of skirmishing reduced to a childish game with bright yellow plastic weapons. That is how they put their view. For airsofters, it is and, they hope, will always remain an adult activity for the serious and committed participant. The activity used to be known as airsoft skirmishing, but due to the registration office accepting that the word “skirmishing” is protected and owned by the paintball company, airsoft has tended to alter the title of its game, but it remains an adult activity in which the realism of the equipment and weapons plays an essential part.
There is also concern that the Government's provisions could end up assisting criminals and putting the police in danger. If a criminal were to decide to spray a real firearm fluorescent yellow so that it looked like an airsoft weapon, which the Government will allow to be used, that could place an armed officer in an invidious position. A moment of hesitation could cost the officer his or her life. Airsofters remain convinced that it is important to have clear legislation that provides a simple and workable exemption for genuine airsofters, so that they can carry on with their activity in the same responsible manner as they always have in the past. My amendment is designed to achieve that objective.
I am aware that since I tabled this amendment way back in May, the Minister, Mr McNulty, has had meetings during the summer with the bodies representing airsofters. I am aware from discussion since then and letters written to me that the Government have been prepared to make a significant change in their stance—but not as far as writing something in the Bill, which we always believe is preferable. There may be a way to resolve the impasse between the airsofters and the Government that is acceptable to airsofters. In particular, I am aware of a letter written by Mr Tony McNulty on 19 September to Mr Tim Wyborn of the Association of British Airsoft, setting out just such an offer. If in his response, the Minister is able to indicate where the Government might move their position towards, I may be able to withdraw the amendment later. For the moment, I beg to move.
My Lords, in order to know what we are talking about, I have been trying to ask surreptitiously what airsoft is. Answers range from hairspray to some other thing. Someone has just said that it is a squeezy toy that sells for $109.99. What is it? Is it some sort of paintball game? We cannot really judge this amendment if we do not know what it is.
My Lords, because my noble friend is asking me a question before I sit down—as ever, she is within the rules of Report—I shall, with the leave of the House, briefly explain. I will not repeat the full description that I gave in Committee. My noble friend highlights a difficulty; many people immediately think of paintball when they hear the word “airsoft”. That is what really annoys airsofters because nothing, they say, could be further from paintball. Airsofters engage in skirmishing whereby they enact battle scenes. They are not re-enactors, but dress in fatigues and use black plastic realistic copies of firearms. Those copies can fire a bullet, but at such a low velocity that, if I aimed at the Minister from across the Dispatch Box—of course, I would never consider doing so—he would not feel any great discomfort, if I managed to hit him. Given my only previous attempt to learn how to use a handgun, I am sure that I would miss.
In skirmishing, one deploys great ability in feinting and carrying out battle moves. It is very good training. I am told by airsofters that ex-soldiers, members of the Territorial Army and police officers often participate in it as a way of honing their skills—this is its importance—by taking part in an activity that, if one were in the Army and live ammunition was being used, could result in an unpleasant outcome for one or other of the participants. With airsoft, however, it is a matter of practising skirmishing. I hope that that rather abridged and at times flippant explanation—it was not intended to be flippant—might help my noble friend. I shall also ensure that airsofters send her further and better particulars. You never know—she might take part.
My Lords, I owe a debt of thanks to the noble Baroness; I knew nothing about airsofting before similar amendments were tabled in Committee. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, will know a great deal more as a consequence of this debate. I feel the thud of wodges of paper landing on her doormat as we speak. Indeed, I am sure that we will all be bombarded—perhaps bombarded is the wrong term; rather, advised—by airsofters on what brilliant games can be played with the kit they use.
The amendment has been perfectly explained as a defence for the sport of airsoft against the new offence in Clause 34 of manufacturing, importing or selling realistic imitation firearms. This point was made earlier in our consideration of the Bill. The Association of British Airsoft visited the Minister in the summer, as the noble Baroness said, to press its case in defence of its sport. I can inform the House that, after careful consideration, the Government have agreed to provide such a defence. We will not do so in the Bill, however, but through the regulation-making powers in Clause 34, because I argue, as I often do on these occasions, that that provides greater flexibility in specifying exactly who will benefit from the defence and how it should work. I believe that Home Office officials will meet the association later this month to discuss the important details. Using regulations also enables us to fine-tune the arrangements, which might be necessary given that airsoft is not a long-established pursuit. No doubt it is one of those things that evolves over time.
Amendment No. 35 would provide a defence for airsoft in the Bill, but we believe that it is better to put it into regulation. Furthermore, the amendment refers to airsoft being organised by persons “in such manner” as the Secretary of State may specify. However, the real issue is agreeing arrangements to ensure that only genuine airsoft players can benefit from the defence. It is therefore more a question of “who” than “how”.
I hope the noble Baroness will welcome the Government’s decision to provide a defence for airsoft and that, having heard what I have to say on this subject, she will happily withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. Mr Tim Wyborn said in advance of today that, if the Minister could put those words on record, airsofters could accept his offer of an exemption through regulations, although obviously that was the second-best option. I agree with the association that exemptions are always better in a Bill rather than in secondary legislation, in which one must prove that one is an honest person and a real airsofter.
I am grateful, too, for the indication that the talks towards the end of October will go ahead. As one can imagine, airsofters have not taken part in parliamentary proceedings before, and have got on with their own business relatively quietly and very honestly and legitimately. They have had no reason to be within the ambit of parliamentary affairs and were concerned that if the matters were not put clearly on record, they might not get the exemption later on when the regulations were formed. The Minister has made that offer clearly, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 36 [Meaning of “realistic imitation firearm”]:
Page 39, line 16, leave out “section 34” and insert “sections 34 and 35”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment and those grouped with it are minor and technical amendments to clarify errors in the drafting of Clause 36 and Schedules 2 and 5. It is not necessary for me to trouble the House with precise details of these errors. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Before Clause 40, insert the following new clause-
“INCREASE OF MAXIMUM SENTENCES FOR OFFENCES OF HAVING KNIVES ETC.
(1) In each of the following provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (c. 33), for “two” substitute “four”-
(a) section 139(6)(b) (maximum penalty for offence of having knife etc. in public place); (b) section 139A(5)(a)(ii) (maximum penalty for offence of having knife etc. or offensive weapon on school premises). (2) This section applies only to offences committed after the commencement of this section.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, these amendments are rather more substantial and relate to issues helpfully raised by the Opposition in Committee and before. I should say for the record how much I share the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, about knife crime and how grateful I am to her for tabling her amendments at this stage of the Bill and at an earlier stage. There is a shared commitment and determination to ensure that those carrying a knife in a public place without good reason or good cause or without lawful authority receive appropriate sentences.
Protection of the public is one of the key priorities of this Government. Knife crime is a major cause of public concern and fear. For these reasons, we are proposing an increase in the maximum penalty for this offence from two years’ imprisonment or a fine or both, to four years’ imprisonment or a fine or both. Our amendment goes further and proposes the same increase in the maximum sentence for the offence of having a blade or point in a school without good reason. This is part of our wider package of measures to reduce knife crime in line with our manifesto commitment,
“to introduce tougher sentences for those involved in serious knife crime”.
All noble Lords will be concerned about knife crime, and I hope they will welcome the amendment as evidence of the Government’s commitment to this issue. We must ensure that courts have sufficient powers to deal appropriately with the illegal possession of knives as a way of preventing further offences. Let me explain why the Government propose increasing these maximum sentences to four years. Raising the maximum sentence to four years is consistent with the different, although related, offence of possessing an offensive weapon under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, for which the penalty is four years’ imprisonment. It also ensures that our penalties are as severe as those in Scotland, where the penalty for this offence was recently increased to four years. Maximum penalties generally should be proportionate, indicate the relative seriousness of the crime, and allow for proper punishment of the most serious instances of the offence including repeat offences. As the noble Baroness has herself proposed an amendment to increase the penalty for the offence of possession of a knife in a public place to four years, I trust that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment in favour of the Government’s amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have no objection to this amendment, but the public must be getting increasingly confused. What are the real chances of courts passing these maximum sentences when the Lord Chief Justice is doing his level best to persuade the courts to pass shorter sentences?
My Lords, the system works in this way. There is a generally accepted level for the standard penalty for carrying a knife. If your Lordships double the maximum, the standard penalty will automatically increase. The judges who pass the sentence will look at the fact that Parliament has spoken in this way and will increase the penalty. That is the way to proceed: it is not by passing minimum sentences. The judiciary respond when maximum sentences are increased: I think that we all dislike the imposition of minimum sentences. We support the increase in these penalties. It is an increasing problem, particularly on school premises. Having been involved in the Philip Lawrence case concerning the unhappy death of a headmaster, I am well aware of the nature of the problem.
My Lords, I support government Amendments Nos. 37 and 49 and I shall speak to my Amendment No. 38. It is right that one should increase the maximum sentence for the,
“offence of having article with blade or point in public place”,
without good reason from two to four years. I hope that it may provide a stronger deterrent to those who might consider carrying a knife in a public place. I also hope that it will send a message to the victims of crime that Parliament has expressed its will that such an offence should be treated with the utmost gravity. The need for such an amendment becomes all the more apparent when one considers the sentencing powers of the courts in relation to a similar offence—possession of an offensive weapon—under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. That offence carries a maximum penalty of four years. Given the rise in knife crime, we felt that the time had come to consider whether the offence of carrying a bladed article merited a greater sentence as a maximum than that available under the 1953 Act.
In Committee, the Minister said that he shared my concern about the incidence of knife crime but that the Government’s view was that the best way to deal with sentencing was through the Sentencing Guidelines Council. He indicated that the forthcoming Sentencing Guidelines Council guideline on assaults would,
“reiterate that use of a weapon increases the seriousness of violent crime”,—[Official Report, 22/5/06; col. 631.]
and that the sentence should be increased to reflect that.
At that stage, I had tabled a probing amendment for Committee which would increase the maximum penalty to five years. I reflected on the Minister’s response and, of course, I naturally value the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. But I remained of the view that it was the right time to signal disquiet about the increasing use of knives by increasing the maximum sentence that might be available to the courts. Since then, I am afraid the reports of knife crime have continued to alarm me and other Members of this House. It is on the increase. Recent reports have suggested that in some parts of the country it has risen by as much as 90 per cent inthe past two years. Perhaps the most worrying trend is the increase in the carriage and use of knives by young people, including, from a personal viewpoint, reports that carriage of knives by young girls is as widespread as by young men.
On 25 May, I therefore tabled a series of amendments to give the Government a “pick-and-mix” opportunity to say whether they would raise the maximum sentence to three, four or five years. Of course, I was pleased to read in the newspapers this summer that the Home Secretary was minded to accept my amendment and set it at four years. I thought that perhaps for this one occasion the Government would manage to accept an opposition amendment. But, nae, they found a way of saying, yet again, that they agreed with me, but that my amendment was defective. This Government are so resourceful when it comes to wriggling out of saying that the Conservative Party has got something right. So they found a way of ensuring that their amendment comes forward. However, I agree with them. It is right not only to raise the maximum penalty to four years but also to ensure that penalties—I give way to my noble friend.
My Lords, as ever, my noble friend is 100 per cent right: how could he ever be otherwise? I certainly saw some criticism in the press about the Government’s amendment and, by implication, my amendment, by those who said that increasing the maximum penalty would do no good at all. I agree and there will obviously have to be other measures as well. So it is against the background of other measures that we proposed too that I would agree with this. In addition, I criticised the “red-topping”, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, would say, of the knife amnesty that took place earlier this year. Perhaps the Minister might be able to tell the House how successful that has been. When I tabled Written Questions in the summer, I was told that it was too soon for the Government to have the relevant statistics from the police forces. If the numbers of the great success do not come readily to mind, perhaps he might write to me to let me know what happened. However, in the spirit of ensuring that we have a range of measures to deter people from carrying knives and, possibly, using them, I support the Government’s amendment and will not move mine.
My Lords, we have a measure of agreement on the appropriate maximum sentence. I paid tribute to the noble Baroness at the beginning of this short debate. When she made her case at a previous stage, I thought that I had indicated a degree of personal sympathy and that the Government should reflect on the position. As the noble Baroness said, there was a further review ofthe sentencing provision for possession of knives during the summer, which is why we thought that there was scope to provide a wider range of sentencing powers for courts to address individuals possessing knives in public and in schools.
This is not the first time that the Government have acted. There are a number of legislative and, for that matter, non-legislative government initiatives to combat knife crime. Previously, we had concerns that increasing the maximum penalty for the offence could be disproportionate, but in view of the concerns raised during the passage of the Bill, we further reflected on the situation during the summer and concluded that increasing the maximum penalty would provide a useful tool to tackle knife crime.
We also had a debate earlier today on knife crime. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, took exception to the age at which someone can be sold a knife being changed. Young people, aged 16 and 17, will not be able to buy a knife. A new offence of using someone to mind a knife or a gun is created to ensure that people who hand knives or guns to, for example, younger siblings for them to look after, cannot escape the effect of the law.
The noble Baroness asked whether we thought that the knife amnesty was successful: we do. And it certainly highlighted the importance with which the Government and society generally view the handling of knives and their potential for the commission of life-threatening and fatal crimes. The figures I have suggest that some 90,000 items have been handed in to the police in England and Wales and we continue to follow that up with enforcement and educative work. We have given support to organisations like Be Safe, which provides education on knife crime in schools, demonstrating the dangers and consequences of carrying knives. We also support community organisations through our Connected Fund, which provides grants to local groups working on knife crime, gun crime and gangs. Operations conducted by the Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police also highlight the issues, and I—as I am sure have other noble Lords—have seen the adverts and promotion material on that. I must say that I think that the impact overall of the knife amnesty has been very beneficial. It has certainly raised the issue in my locality in terms of press and news coverage and perhaps has helped people to take the issue more seriously. Clearly more can be done and we shall pursue that.
Because of those actions, we think that the original spirit of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness is valuable in that it helps to raise public concern over this issue. We are glad that we have reached a similar point and I was pleased to hear the noble Baroness acknowledge that our amendment goes somewhat further and wider than her own. For those reasons, it appears that the noble Baroness will support our amendment rather than the amendment in her name.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
[Amendment No. 38 not moved.]
Clause 42 [Power to search school pupils for weapons]:
Page 44, line 18, leave out “believing” and insert “suspecting”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, these amendments on the power to search for weapons relate to school staff only. Clause 42 currently prevents a head teacher requiring a member of staff to carry out a search. In this amendment we allow a head to direct for the purposes of this Bill any authorised member of staff whose work at the school wholly or mainly relates to school security. This includes security guards authorised by the head teacher. While we do not think it is reasonable for a head teacher to have the power to compel a member of the teaching staff to search a pupil, we do think it reasonable that trained security staff can be required to exercise their specific skills. Subsection (4) remains to prevent teachers and other school staff being so compelled.
This does not apply to institutions of further education or attendance centres where the Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document does not prevail. Also in the second group we have an amendment to provide transparent definitions of school staff for the purposes of the Bill, as well as of security staff. It is included for technical reasons and I shall not weary the House with the detail. However, it spells out why that has to be the case. I beg to move.
My Lords, inadvertently I have skipped a group and spoken to Amendment No. 42 when moving Amendment No. 39. I apologise to the House. I must say that I was confused myself because I had thought that my speaking notes were rather longer. I shall now speak to the right amendments.
This group of amendments covers slightly different subject matter, although it is not unrelated to the amendment I have just addressed. I shall move government Amendment No. 39 and speak to Amendments Nos. 44, 46, 48 and 52. In doing so I shall also resist opposition Amendments Nos. 41, 43, 45 and 47. I hope that that clarifies the position.
Amendment No. 41 seeks to remove the proposed power to generally authorise staff to search for weapons in a school. It is important to have a power to authorise generally as it would allow staff, once generally authorised to search, to act immediately when they suspect there is a concealed weapon. Without general authorisation, staff or pupils could be at risk if staff suspected that there was a weapon while the head or deputy head teacher could not be contacted for any reason. Amendments Nos. 43, 45 and 47 require the relevant Secretaries of State to issue guidance and suggest that the guidance may in particular refer to training and information on paying compensation. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills already has plans to issue guidance for schools, while my department will issue guidance for attendance centres. Further education institutions will be able to make use of the guidance for schools. We will consult fully on the draft guidance, which will include advice on staff training and employers’ duties to take reasonable steps to keep staff members safe, as well as having insurance to cover any liability for injury in the course of their employment. It is therefore not necessary to put a duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance, nor is it necessary to suggest the contents of such guidance. In those terms, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press her amendments.
Government Amendments Nos. 39, 44 and 46 relate to the power to search for knives or offensive weapons in schools, colleges and attendance centres respectively at Clauses 42, 43 and 44. By changing the grounds for a search from “reasonable grounds for believing” to “reasonable grounds for suspecting”, we will broaden the scope of searches to include a wider range of people. It is important to do this for two reasons. First, head teachers have told my noble friend the schools Minister that they sometimes suspect that a knife is in the school, but that the information is not strong enough for believing that a particular pupil has it. This amendment would enable a search in those cases where a member of staff has reasonable grounds for suspecting that the particular pupil has the knife.
Secondly, we want to do all we can to counter any possible accusation that staff have performed a search without sufficient grounds. Lowering the grounds from belief to suspicion makes such accusations less likely to arise and less likely to succeed. We also take the view that suspicion of a weapon in the school allows a search to move outwards, starting perhaps with those pupils who are said by other pupils to be carrying a knife, or pupils who have been trying to hide something. If nothing is found on them, the search can move on to those who tend to act as willing minders of illicit items, or are easily bullied into being unwilling minders. Staff often have a clear picture of such dynamics among their pupils. The search can then broaden to pupils in the same class year or in the same neighbourhood. That increases the chances of finding a knife that is suspected to be somewhere and could enable a school to search quite a large proportion of its pupils. However, before searching any pupil, there must always be a reasonable suspicion that the individual may have the knife. While safeguarding the rights of individual pupils being searched, we also want to protect all pupils and staff from the risk of or threat of violence, so we want to give schools and others as much discretion as possible to discover where a knife might be on the premises.
Attendance centres provide group-based sessions for offenders aged between 10 and 25. These offenders have been sent to such centres by the courts for offences which include the use of violence and the possession of knives or offensive weapons. Widening the grounds to search from “reasonable grounds for believing” to “reasonable grounds for suspecting” will ensure that designated attendance centre staff are able to act upon intelligence to search individuals and will ensure that all staff and attendees are afforded the proper protection from knives and offensive weapons. We recognise that few incidents of attendees carrying offensive weapons have been reported over the past two years. However, we believe that this power should be available to staff if they so choose to use it, and that it should offer the most realistic test by which they would be able to initiate a search. The clause offers appropriate safeguards and authorisation of search criteria.
Through government Amendments Nos. 48 and 52, we are seeking to reduce the threshold for a constable to exercise his or her powers of entry and search in Section 139B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. This section currently enables an officer to exercise those powers provided that he or she has reasonable grounds for believing that a person on the school premises has a knife or offensive weapon with them. As indicated above, we consider that this presents a threshold which is not in proportion to the nature of the problem and the potential consequences that might arise from it. Therefore, we propose revising that threshold to one of reasonable grounds for “suspecting” to ensure that the police power to search in schools is consistent with that of school staff. Guidance will be produced by the Department for Education and Skills in consultation with the Home Office, the police and other key stakeholders. This will contain pointers which schools could take into account when considering whether a search is justified on the grounds of reasonable suspicion, together with advice on the way in which the power should be applied.
I also take this opportunity to refer noble Lords to a closely related matter regarding the Written Statement made earlier by my noble friend the schools Minister about the non-contact or minimal- contact screening of pupils and others for weapons. Such screening involves the use of metal detectors contained in walk-through arches or hand-held wands. Screening can be carried out on all pupils provided it is carried out in a way that respects people’s privacy. If screening indicates that a weapon may be present, school staff could then call the police or use the new power included in the Bill to carry out a hands-on search. The guidance I have referred to will include good practice advice on screening. The power to screen pupils, as recently clarified by the DfES legal advisers, is enabled by education law giving head teachers the power to make school rules relating to behaviour and discipline as a condition of entry. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak to my Amendments Nos. 41, 43, 45 and 47. They are all probing amendments and, naturally, I indicate at this stage that I support the government amendments. We had a full debate on these issues in Committee on22 May, at cols. 636 to 642 of the Official Report—which shows how full the discussion was. I return to the fray merely to ask for clarification on two matters.
The first issue concerns the safety of staff in schools. Amendments Nos. 43, 45 and 47 require the Secretary of State to issue guidelines on the carrying out of searches. The Minister has tried to assuage me as to why my amendments are not necessary, but I am trying to find out what happens if a member of staff is injured in the course of his or her duty in carrying out a search. In the real world, it is unlikely that a student who carries a knife for the wrong reason will simply say, when challenged by a member of staff, “Well, yes, fine, Mr Smith”—or Mrs Smith—“here is my knife. Please do take it”. On a day-to-day basis, when implementing the provisions of the Bill, the staff could face serious injury.
The Minister says that regulations will lay out best practice from the point of view of training and that insurance policies should therefore pay up. I want to ensure that there is no reason for anything to be paid in compensation, because there should be no injury in the first place. I am trying to find out what discussions the Government have had with teaching unions and head teachers on this matter and how the provisions will be put into effect in such a way that school life is not disrupted and certainly so that teachers are not put at risk. Although I raised these questions in passing on 22 May, I have not received any response over the summer.
The second issue I addressed was whether a general search was to be implemented or whether it would be a search specific to an individual category. I asked the Government in Committee what their intentions were. I am certainly content that a head teacher should be able to authorise staff in general to carry out searches; in other words, they should be able to say that all staff are trained, competent and able to carry out searches. However, my concern was whether it was right then to give a general power to search; that is, not only that any member of staff can search but that any member of staff can search any person within the school regardless of whether it was reasonably thought that they could be carrying knives.
Amendment No. 41 tries to address that issue. I think the Government, by strengthening the power of search, have clarified the position I was trying to get at in Committee. The Minister said that the term will now be “suspecting” rather than “believing”, and I do not find that substitution objectionable. As I understand it, it is a commonly enough used and understood term in the criminal law and it seems appropriate to use the word “suspecting” rather than “believing” within the context of these clauses. So by a side wind, by tabling Amendment No. 41, the Government have resolved the concerns that I had in the amendments I tabled both in Committee and on Report. For those reasons, I not only support the government amendments but will not be moving my own amendments when we reach them.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her support for our amendments. She raises important issues about school staff searching pupils and being at physical risk or danger because of the search. We cannot be entirely risk-averse—that is a fairly obvious comment—and if the head teacher decides that a search is not safe the school will probably wish to call the police to conduct it. That said, school staff—especially senior managers—these days are highly skilled and experienced in managing the behaviour of young people in their charge. From the feedback that I get from my children as they go through school, I have always been very impressed by how capable teachers are at resolving and avoiding confrontations. I think that the guidance we issue, the training given and the support provided will help raise that performance still higher. In so doing it should minimise the physical risk or danger that otherwise might be present. Staff should search only if they are properly trained and judge it safe to do so, and they must, of course, be authorised to do so by the head teacher. Otherwise we always clearly advise staff that they should involve the police, and that advice which was given in the past still stands.
The noble Baroness asked about the attitudes of staff, the unions and so on. This matter has been the subject of considerable discussion with the unions. Indeed, I understand that there have been discussions with the head teacher and teacher unions both today and previously. The unions are broadly content. Indeed, I have quotes from unions in my brief which state that the NASUWT has welcomed the provisions of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill designed to give more support to teachers and head teachers in maintaining good order and discipline by enabling searches to be conducted for offensive weapons. It is sensible and logical for such powers to apply to groups of pupils and not just individuals. And the ASCL, in the form of John Dunford, has put on record the following:
“There are few more difficult or more serious issues for a head teacher to deal with than pupils carrying knives. I therefore welcome the increased powers for heads to search for knives. This will be helpful to the small number of schools where this is a recurrent problem”.
So there is generally a welcome there.
The noble Baroness herself raised and dealt with the issue of the process to be gone through in conducting searches—the point at which the search should begin and how it should proceed from there—based on the rephrasing of the Bill. We have reached a happy point with regard to these amendments and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her support.
On Question, amendment agreed to.