My Lords, in the last few years we have seen a very concerning rise in the number of serious violent crimes in the UK. This includes an ongoing rise in knife crime, as well as the emergence of acid attacks.
Such horrific crimes seem to be increasing in not only their frequency but their severity, with ever-worse injuries for victims who are increasingly younger and younger. Tragically, the rise in knife crime has contributed to an increasing number of homicides, and the House will be aware of the tragic event last Friday where a father was fatally stabbed on a train from Guildford to London. I am sure the whole House will join me in offering our sympathy to the victim’s family and friends.
Violent crime can have a devastating effect on communities and can blight the lives of young people. In 2018, 134 homicides were recorded in the Metropolitan Police area, 79 of which involved knives. The Offensive Weapons Bill is born out of the necessity to tackle this serious issue. Violent crime must be reduced and its perpetrators brought to justice. Tackling serious violence will require a united approach from the Government, working with key partners on the ground, be they police officers, parents, teachers or charities. That collaborative approach is at the heart of the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy, which was published in April 2018. The strategy sets out a comprehensive programme of action and looks to multiagency working to deliver real results on our streets and in our communities. A crucial part is its focus on early intervention and prevention to stop young people getting involved in violent crime in the first place. We have established a serious violence task force to oversee this work, which consists of members of the police and community groups, the Mayor of London and government departments.
The Bill is a key part of the Government’s response to serious violent crime and will create new offences as well as provide additional powers for the police. Legislation alone can never be the complete answer to such complex problems, but it is an important component of the wider government response to serious violent crime. The Bill covers three main areas: acid attacks, knife crime and the risks posed by firearms. On all of these areas we have engaged widely through consultation and close collaboration with the police and other interested parties, to make sure that we are providing the powers that they need. The measures contained in the Bill aim to stop under-18s getting hold of particularly dangerous acids and purchasing knives online, and will give the police the powers they need to take action when people are in possession of dangerous weapons in private.
Acid attacks have life-altering consequences and there are no reasons why industrial strength corrosives should be sold to under-18s. The Bill will ban the sale of highly corrosive products to under-18s, both in stores and online. It will also make it an offence to possess a corrosive substance in public without a good reason, which will enable the police to directly tackle the issue on the streets, extending their powers to perform stop and search for the confiscation of corrosives.
The sale of knives to under-18s is already illegal, but too often knives are still finding their way into the hands of young people, with tragic consequences. In particular, it is too easy for under-18s to acquire knives from online retailers, including those operating overseas. The Bill will mean that online sellers in the UK need to meet certain conditions when they sell knives online. It will also prohibit the delivery of bladed products to a residential premise or locker. We are making it an offence for a delivery company in the UK to knowingly deliver knives to a person under the age of 18 where these have been bought online from a seller overseas.
The Bill makes it an offence to possess certain offensive weapons in private. This will mean that the police can act on intelligence concerning people possessing shocking weapons such as zombie knives and knuckledusters, designed only for violent purposes. It also extends to further education premises the current ban on possession and threatening with bladed articles and offensive weapons in schools, and makes it an offence to threaten with an offensive weapon in private.
Turning to firearms, the Bill bans the possession of rapid-firing firearms, as well as bump stocks, which have been specifically designed to circumvent existing prohibitions and are often marketed as such. Due to their higher rate of fire, these weapons pose a heightened risk to the public if they were to fall into the wrong hands.
There has been much debate in the progress of this Bill on the prohibition of high-power rifles. This has been shown to be a particularly complex issue requiring further consideration before we proceed with legislation. It is for this reason that the House of Commons removed from the Bill the clause prohibiting such weapons. However, the Government are committed to further public consultation on this issue, including with the law enforcement agencies and the target-shooting community. I am sure that noble Lords will also want to debate this issue and I welcome the contribution that they will bring to our further consideration of the appropriate regulation for these weapons.
The public want violent crime to be dealt with now, and rightly so. This Bill will help to do that—I therefore commend it to the House.
My Lords, after repeated delays in the other place, I am pleased that today we have the opportunity to debate this much-needed legislation at Second Reading. My Front-Bench colleagues in the other place have made it clear that efforts to tackle the sale and possession of acid and the growing knife crime epidemic would be welcomed by these Benches so, although lacking in some areas, the Bill and its limited measures have the support of the Opposition. Needless to say, we will seek to amend the Bill at later stages, but with our support for the legislation assured, I hope the Minister will engage constructively with our efforts to improve it.
We should not underestimate the challenges ahead in making our communities safer. In the 12 months leading to March 2018, England and Wales saw a 16% increase in knife crime. In total, there were 40,000 offences—the highest number since 2011. That rise is backed up by NHS hospitals in England, which recorded a 7% increase in admissions for assault by a sharp object, while the Office for National Statistics confirmed that this represents a “real change” in incident numbers. While some communities have been worse impacted than others, the issue of county lines is seeing gang violence and serious crime find a way into towns across the UK.
The issue is not isolated, nor is it contained. With surging crime and falling charge rates, the Bill is a missed opportunity to address the wider issues leading to this surge. If we are to turn back the tide and guarantee safer communities, we must begin by equipping the police to best offer their protection. Aside from Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland, this Government have cut police numbers more than any other developed country. We have lost 21,000 police officers, over 18,000 police staff, and around 7,000 community support officers. If the Government are to put the police on the front foot to tackle violent crime, they must first build the front line back up.
In addressing the factors behind serious crime, the Government should also consider the need for greater early intervention, which the Bill fails to tackle. Time and again, the precursors to articles in the press about violent crime are the same tragic stories of vulnerability, abandonment and exploitation. The reduction in youth workers, the neglect of children leaving care and the cutting of local government funding used to provide support have only spurred on the problem. As public services are stripped back by cuts, the same patterns emerge of individuals in need of help instead turning to crime. The Government must do more to protect the most vulnerable in society, and it is disappointing that the Bill has not been used to meet calls to tackle these root causes.
In the past, we have heard reassuring comments by the Secretary of State recognising the importance of early intervention, but that has not been reflected in the actions of the Home Office; nor has it been reflected further across Whitehall. The reality is that spending on crime prevention by local authorities has been cut in half since 2010. In real terms, £1 billion has been taken from children’s services since 2012 and £2.7 billion from school budgets since 2015. There can be no doubt that this has contributed to wider societal problems, which have fuelled violence and crime. The Government must commit to greater social cohesion and early intervention, and it is a shame that the Bill has not been used to do so.
The Government also need to make more concerted efforts specifically to overcome gang violence, and the omission of steps to do so in the Bill is disappointing. It has been estimated by the Children’s Commissioner that around 70,000 of those aged under 25 are involved in gang networks, yet the fund for ending gang violence and exploitation has been given only £300,000 as part of the Government’s flagship strategy. We also need to see further efforts to combat county lines—an issue which has seen greater prominence since the introduction of the Bill. I am concerned that the Government do not understand the urgency with which the public want to see this issue sorted. Repeated concerns have been raised over the lack of prosecutions despite significant media attention. In October, I was pleased to see an announcement of the first county lines prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act. I hope this House can explore whether further measures can be introduced at later stages best to equip police forces to put an end to the misery caused.
I am further disappointed that for the victims of crime, again the Bill offers little. In the Conservative Party manifestos of 2015 and 2017, pledges were made to legislate for the rights of victims, who are too often left in the dark by the criminal justice system. There is no sign of this in the Bill or across the Government’s wider agenda. We have heard calls for safer staffing levels in the ambulance service and the NHS to protect those who become victims of the weapons the Bill hopes to tackle, yet there is no sign of provisions to improve the situation, either in the Bill or across the Government’s wider agenda. In legislating for safer communities and to tackle violent crime, the voices of victims must be front and centre, yet those voices have again been ignored by this Government.
Moving on from what is omitted from the Bill to how measures can be strengthened, I am sure noble Lords will recognise that firearms regulations in the UK are among the world’s strongest, and the provisions in the Bill to complement and strengthen them will, I hope, be welcomed across this House. However, as restrictions have developed and extended in recent decades, we must recognise how criminals have adapted to restricted supplies, including by repurposing obsolete firearms and through the increasing trend of legally held firearms being stolen from certificate holders. These loopholes allowing gun ownership are, in the word of some of the most senior counterterror officers in the UK, “glaring”. Of course, we must also be alert to the threat of higher-calibre weapons, and it is greatly disappointing that, despite overwhelming evidence of the danger, supported by the police, the Government have succumbed to their own Back-Benchers and removed these provisions. The police have made clear that they have no known protection against these rifles. There can be no justification for any individual owning one. We will confront this issue in the later stages of the Bill, and I hope the Minister will recognise the strength of feeling across both Houses, not just from a narrow wing of her party.
The measures relating to corrosives are, again, welcome but do not go far enough. The disturbing trend of individuals using these substances to cause harm has created great concern following high-profile incidents across the UK, and it is right that the Government are seeking to restrict their possession. Unfortunately, the Bill falls short of fully recognising the danger they can cause and leaves their restriction on a lesser pedestal than other weapons. The Bill also fails to acknowledge the spate of so-called fake acid attacks where individuals have been threatened with a non-corrosive substance in a manner which gives cause to believe it is indeed a corrosive substance. We cannot allow individuals to capitalise on fear without consequences. We must tackle this threat head on with the severity it deserves.
Finally, I come to knife crime and the Bill’s provisions relating to bladed weapons. The measures relating to remote sales are particularly welcome, as are those for residential premises but, as I mentioned, we must adapt to changing threats and consider the other ways in which weapons are obtained for violent crime. There are different purchasing platforms and different weapons that we must understand, and I look forward to the House considering measures to confront them. There are also questions to be asked about why higher education premises have not been recognised on the same level as further education premises in the prohibition of possession, and there is cause to believe that these have not been fully answered in the other House.
I will touch briefly on an issue that USDAW, the shop workers’ union, has campaigned on extensively. As the House will be aware, the Bill creates a number of statutory duties for shop workers who sell objects that can be used as weapons. We can expect those performing these duties in shops to encounter individuals who choose to threaten or, worse, attack them for acting responsibly. We must ensure that shop workers have the utmost protection under the law, and I hope the House will consider how this can be provided for in the Bill. Unfortunately, efforts to amend the Bill to reflect such protection were resisted by the Government during the Bill’s passage through the Commons, and I hope Ministers will be prepared to engage better on this issue during its passage through this House.
Earlier, I told the House that the Opposition will not stand in the way of the passage of this legislation. Our issues with the Bill are largely to do with what has been omitted rather than what has been included, and I urge the House to look beyond the narrow measures currently contained in the Bill and to consider the greater causes behind serious violent crime. The spike in incidents that we have seen in recent years will not be cancelled out until we look beyond the face of the crime and consider how front-line police cuts, the neglect of youth services and the abandonment of early intervention have contributed to a melting pot that has allowed violent crime to emerge as an epidemic.
In finishing, I briefly remind the House and the Government of the UK’s restrictions on the availability of weapons, which are among the most respected in the world and testify to cross-party efforts under Governments of all colours. Therefore, I sincerely hope that, as the Bill progresses through the House, the Government will take heed of precedent and reflect concerns raised by both sides of this House.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned the tragic stabbing to death of a father on a suburban train last week, and of course our thoughts are with all those affected by such a tragedy. However, the fact is that young people in our inner cities are dying from knife crime almost every day of the week, and that is the real tragedy that the Government should be highlighting.
This Bill has a familiar ring to it. Again, the Government, wanting to be seen to be responding to the crisis of violence on our streets, resort to legislation and imprisonment rather than investing to tackle violent crime, investing to bring about long-term changes in behaviour and taking immediate steps to save young people’s lives by properly investing in policing. And the reason? To avoid raising the taxes of those who can most afford to make a contribution.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. Violence stems from inequality and poverty, from failing to invest in children and young people, from creating a vacuum that used to be occupied by community policing and youth services and has now been filled by criminal gangs. The Government’s serious violence plan—it does not deserve the title “strategy”—is in fact a patchwork of unco-ordinated and underfunded initiatives, however well intentioned, that lack the real money and real leadership that could really make a difference, and this legislation is yet another piece of that inadequate and ineffective patchwork.
A very good piece of legislation that deals with offensive weapons is already on the statute book. The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 states:
“Any person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, the proof whereof shall lie on him, has with him in any public place any offensive weapon shall be guilty of an offence”.
This was the staple of my days as a constable on the beat. There were two types of offensive weapon. There were items such as daggers that were made to cause injury to people—made offensive weapons—but the majority had more than one use; for example, a kitchen knife which, when carried to a fight, was an intended offensive weapon. It was therefore straightforward. The chef on his way to work did not commit an offence when carrying a kitchen knife, whereas the gang member on his way to confront a rival gang did.
In 1988, Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act shifted the burden against the innocent, introducing an offence of having in a public place any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed. From what I can see, this is the origin of the shift that we discussed at some length in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill: a shift away from whether someone commits an offence, subject to whether they have lawful authority or reasonable excuse, to an absolute offence where,
“it shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence to prove that he had good reason or lawful authority”.
This Bill creates new offences of, for example: selling a corrosive product to a person under the age of 18, having a corrosive substance in a public place and delivering a bladed product to residential premises or a locker—no matter whether every precaution has been taken to ensure dangerous items do not get into the hands of children. It is a defence for someone charged with any of these offences to prove that they took all reasonable steps to avoid this happening. However, unlike the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, there is no reference to Section 118 of the Terrorism Act, which noble Lords will recall places the burden of proof on the prosecution and says:
“If the person adduces evidence which is sufficient to raise an issue with respect to the matter, the court or jury shall assume that the defence is satisfied unless the prosecution proves beyond reasonable doubt that it is not”.
Presumably, this means that the man carrying his drain-unblocking fluid home from the supermarket commits an offence, for which he has a defence if charged; it is only then that he will have the opportunity to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he has a blocked drain at home. I do not want to get into arguments at this stage of the Bill around necessity and proportionality when the police use their powers of arrest. Suffice to say that I will again challenge this type of approach, particularly when we are confronted with cases such as that of the couple arrested over the recent drone incident at Gatwick Airport. Legislation should be worded so that, if someone has lawful authority or reasonable excuse, as in the 1953 Act, they do not commit an offence—not that they have a defence once they have been charged.
I understand that Acid Survivors Trust International blames lack of tight controls on acid sales or,
“legislation specific to acid attacks”,
for the rise in the number of attacks, but this needs to be put into perspective. Acid attacks have increased from 228 recorded crimes in 2012 to 601 attacks in 2016. In 2017 there were 39,598 offences involving a knife or pointed instrument; the number of acid-related offences is tiny. Corrosive substances carried with the intention of causing injury, for example in a spray or a squeezable washing-up liquid bottle, are offensive weapons under the 1953 Act and causing an injury using acid is clearly a serious assault. Notwithstanding ASTI’s concerns, one has to ask whether the Government are doing something that will be effective by introducing this legislation, or whether they just want to be seen to be doing something. In many other areas, the Government claim that self-regulation is preferable, that legislation is unnecessary, and one has to ask these questions here.
The Bill potentially puts further strain on an overcrowded and therefore ineffective prison service. Underage selling of corrosive products potentially carries a sentence of 51 weeks in prison, possession in a public place carries up to 12 months on a first offence and a compulsory four-month or six-month sentence for a second offence, removing the discretion of judges once again. There is only one thing worse than unnecessarily adding to an overcrowded prison system and that is short sentences that destroy social ties, take away people’s jobs and are not long enough to allow education, training and rehabilitation.
What happened in the other place? The only change, under pressure from Conservative Back-Benchers, was that the Government went against the advice of the police and caved in to the wealthy and privileged who wanted to keep their high-powered rifles.
We acknowledge that criminalising the sale of corrosive substances, making it a specific offence to carry corrosive substances in public and restricting online sales of knives sends a message, but messaging is the argument that the Government usually use to oppose the creation of new offences, not to create them. We on these Benches need a lot of convincing that this legislation as drafted has a useful part to play in containing the epidemic of violence on our streets. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, has said, the Bill is a missed opportunity.
My Lords, we enter a new year with another firearms Bill. We have had 35 pieces of primary legislation dealing with firearms since the Firearms Act 1968, which I think shows the seriousness of this subject and the continuing need of every Government to take action on a fairly regular basis as criminals adapt to whatever new laws are proposed. As a result of all these pieces of legislation, let alone the secondary legislation, we have some of the toughest firearms laws in the world. I support my Government in their efforts to continue the combat against violent crime. It is good to note that firearms offences last year were actually down by 5%, and I hope my noble friend will be able to continue that trend. The problem is of course not the law-abiding citizen; it is, as noble Lords have already said, the small minority of criminals who abuse firearms, knives and corrosive substances.
Regarding the Bill, I am glad that the Government withdrew the legislation on the .50 calibre rifle and have gone for further consultation, because the position is much more complicated than was originally put forward and the Government believed. For my part, I support what was put forward in the other place by my honourable friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown when he suggested that the bolt and the firing mechanism should be kept separate from the rest of the rifle. That seems to me a totally logical position and, for what it is worth, that will be my little contribution towards the consultation.
Bump stocks, the device used in the Las Vegas shootings in 2017, have absolutely no place in a law-abiding person’s armoury. I therefore totally support the Government in their proposed prohibition of bump stocks.
We all want legislation to work, and we all want to be able to respect the police and the NHS. My noble friend on the Front Bench will guess that I am referring now to the 2016 Act and the question of the medical background checks that are needed. Sadly, that Act is not working. It is leading to dislike of the legislation because it is not working and to resentment of the police and the NHS, who are abusing the situation within the Act. I ask my noble friend whether in order to make that Act work better—if the Act works better then there will naturally be greater control of firearms, which is what we all seek—she will seek to implement, at the earliest opportunity, the suggestion put forward by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Shooting and Conservation and supported by the British Shooting Sports Council.
The package put forward by the APPG to try to make the Act work better consists of five points. The first is a compulsory and once-only medical records check by a GP in response to a police inquiry about the physical and mental health of the applicant. The second suggestion is an enduring marker to be placed by the GP on the patient’s medical record noting that he may be in possession of a firearm or shotgun, to ensure that thereafter the GP is reminded to draw to the police’s attention any future adverse change in the patient’s health that may have a bearing on his ability safely to possess a firearm or shotgun. The third is an agreed reasonable fee for the GP’s initial medical records check and placing the enduring marker. On that, the Home Office has said that there should not be a fee for the initial check but, quite clearly, there is evidence that GPs are already charging a fee. The fourth suggestion is an extension of the life of firearms and shotgun certificates from five to 10 years, which will reduce pressure on licensing departments. The fifth and very important point is that there should be a protection on the confidentiality of applicants and certificate holders’ data.
If my noble friend could encourage her department to take forward a package on those lines, she would find much more support than she has had for some of the bits of legislation. If existing laws worked better, we would all be encouraged to follow new legislation more carefully and in the same spirit.
My Lords, I shall concentrate in my contribution on the possible impact of the Bill on children under the age of 18, an aspect that received less than full attention during its passage through the other place. However, I exclude Sir Ed Davey MP from any criticism for that, a number of whose resisted amendments I shall support if they are tabled by his party. However, before making that contribution, I thank Russell Taylor for his extremely comprehensive and helpful Library Briefing.
I submit to the Minister that, despite the Bill generally receiving cross-party support in the other place, there are two reasons why this House should not be invited to undertake any further stages beyond Second Reading until they have been resolved. First, I have never before come across a Bill about which the two members of the Cabinet most affected appear to be at odds over one of its main provisions. In an interview published in the Times on 26 May 2018, the Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke, expressed his desire for there to be a limitation on the use of short prison sentences of less than 12 months, because of their ineffectiveness in reducing reoffending. As he knows better than anyone, our overcrowded and understaffed prison system finds it difficult enough to occupy longer-term prisoners, let alone being able to do anything with and for short-term ones, and the youth justice system is in particularly dire straits—the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported in 2017 that none of the institutions in which young offenders were held was safe. Yet the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, is proposing mandatory sentences of less than 12 months for a number of additional offences created by his Bill.
Why does this matter? It matters for two separate reasons. First, some argue that harsher punishments such as mandatory minimum custodial sentences will deter people, particularly children, from committing crime. There is no evidence to support this contention. Indeed, in support of the Justice Secretary’s desire, the quarterly criminal justice statistics from the Ministry of Justice, published in June 2018, show that the number of children convicted of possession or threatening offences involving knives or offensive weapons has risen since the introduction of mandatory minimum custodial sentences in 2015. A number also argue that locking up those who carry out crimes will reduce the level of crime on the streets. Home Office research proves the expensive unreality of this argument, showing that a 15% increase in child custody numbers is needed to obtain a 1% decrease in crime.
Secondly, mandatory sentences remove judicial discretion. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that custody should only be used as a last resort. The Sentencing Council’s guidelines emphasise the need to look closely at a child’s particular circumstances when sentencing, taking into consideration their background circumstances, vulnerability and developmental age, as well as their chronological one. Removing judicial discretion works against these guidelines. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that this issue must be sorted out before the House is asked to make further progress on the Bill.
The second reason why further progress should be postponed is that the Government announced on Report in the other place that they had decided that a consultation on firearms proposals was needed. That has not taken place. In her opening statement, the Minister gave us no details of when it will be launched. Like other noble Lords, I have been lobbied by a number of firearms specialists on various points of dispute with the Bill’s terms, but in view of the promised consultation I do not propose to consider the firearms clauses, nor should the House be asked to.
No Government responsible for the protection of the public can afford to ignore the mounting public concern about the rise in knife crime and the recent spate of acid attacks in some inner-city areas, but they should be careful that, in their populist rush to be seen to take a hard line with offenders, they do not create problems by not thinking through the implications of what they are proposing. In this connection, I am reminded of the words of Archbishop William Temple, who said in 1934 that the essence of punishment is that it is the reaction of the community against a constituent member. This community has three interests to consider: the maintenance of its own life and order, upon which the welfare of all its members depends; the interests of individual members generally; and the interests of the offending member. Wrong is done if any of these three is neglected.
In their Serious Violence Strategy, launched in April 2018, the Government emphasised the importance of tackling violent crime through a variety of measures, including law enforcement, but also partnerships across a number of sectors such as education, health, social services, housing, youth and victim services—an approach widely welcomed by those working at the coalface.
Like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and the Prison Reform Trust for their very helpful and relevant briefings, on which I shall, unashamedly, draw. I am also grateful for a detailed briefing from Junior Smart, a former offender and winner of the Longford Prize, who works with gangs in the East End of London for the St Giles Trust. As he did, I shall discuss knives first.
The sad fact, as reported by Junior and his fellow workers, is that the main reason why young people carry weapons is for fear of being killed. Living in areas affected by serious violence can feel like growing up in a conflict zone, and a fact that needs to be appreciated and understood is that many young people freely admit that they would much rather be caught by the police while carrying a weapon than by their rivals or enemies without one. In other words, they feel like victims as well as perpetrators. Criminalising already disadvantaged young people further can have disturbing consequences, among which are: the risk of driving further inequalities and bias, damaging already fragile community relations; and driving a further rift between disadvantaged young people and authority, when many people, such as the Mayor of London and charities such as the St Giles Trust, are focused on building bridges between the two.
Short prison sentences disrupt a young person’s life in terms of housing, employment and family relationships, while not providing them with meaningful access to rehabilitation support, as all the evidence shows. A criminal record will affect a young person’s life prospects. Here I must declare an interest, in that I have been trying, without success, to persuade the Government to amend the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 through a Private Member’s Bill. At present, progress is stalled until the Supreme Court gives a judgment on a government appeal following defeats in the High Court and Appeals Court. Criminal records have been an issue for far too long.
The Mayor of London is leading a public health approach to tackling the complex causes of serious violence in London. In September last year, he announced the setting up of a violence reduction unit, bringing together police, health, criminal justice and local government. His knife crime strategy uses this approach to strengthen and empower communities to help them make a difference, working with schools, Ofsted and mental health providers—including major trauma centres —and making use of social media outlets, to address the root causes of the problem. Junior Smart, welcoming this approach, advocates the use of more individuals like him, with first-hand experience of the problem, in delivering solutions. Young people already entrenched in serious violence need patient, persistent and under- standing help to enable them to overcome barriers and realise positive change. Legislation including mandatory short prison sentences will not help a generation of young people growing up in a culture of fear.
Moving on to corrosive substances, Clause 6 creates a new offence of possessing a corrosive substance in a public place, for which Clause 8 imposes an “appropriate custodial sentence” of less than 12 months—for both adults and children—for two or more possession offences. A corrosive substance is merely defined as a substance,
“capable of burning human skin by corrosion’,
and nowhere is there a comprehensive list of what these substances are. Many household products, such as bleach, contain low levels of harmful corrosive substances. The Bill creates a situation where a child could legally be sent to buy a household product without realising that it is illegal for them to possess it in public. Furthermore, the Federation of Small Businesses, which supports the aims of the legislation, points out that the way in which Schedule 1 is worded leaves small businesses in doubt as to what products are or are not subject to the Bill, including such items as car batteries. The federation has asked the Home Office whether the administrative burdens brought about by age verification requirements can be mitigated. Will the Minister please tell the House what is being done about this?
The impact of the Bill on black and minority ethnic young people cannot be ignored, not least because they are more often subject to stop and search procedures that are already the cause of strained relations between BAME children and the police.
To conclude, violent crime is clearly a serious problem and violent behaviour needs to be prevented and stopped, but as far as children are concerned many are the victims of violence, and the creation of new offences and sanctions is unlikely to alter this view. The law currently mandates minimum sentences of four-month detention and training orders on 16 and 17-year olds who are convicted of two or more possession offences, or one of threatening a person in public. This conviction threshold should remain until there is sufficient evidence that lowering it will be effective in tackling violent crime, or until the public health approach, advocated both by the Government in their Serious Violence Strategy and by the Mayor of London and others, has been properly resourced and tested throughout the country. Until then, I think that further processing of the Bill should be suspended.
My Lords, I first pay my respects to the family of Mr Pomeroy and to his young son, who witnessed his father’s murder. I welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling violent crime, both legislatively, via the Offensive Weapons Bill, and with the preventive measures outlined in the Serious Violence Strategy published in June last year. None the less, while its provisions are to be applauded, I fear that the Bill may be a missed opportunity in focusing so narrowly on the weapons themselves, rather than on the symptoms of why individuals are drawn to carry them in the very first place. For instance, surely this legislation would be an apt vehicle for introducing a specific offence of inducing a child or vulnerable person to carry out such a criminal activity.
I have spoken previously about the scourge of vulnerable children being groomed to carry drugs around the country—“county lines”, as it is known in police language. Sadly, we know all too well that violent gangs’ funds are capitalised by these acts, and the gangs really like the vulnerability of these young people. Children are certainly not doing this off their own bat, yet their vulnerabilities are the enablers for these violent gangs, who use a promise of money beyond their wildest dreams to induce young people to deal these drugs and carry offensive, lethal weapons, in the sadly mistaken belief that this will shield them from any harm. Other than the high bar of evidence set by the Modern Slavery Act, this coercion and intimidation will be considered as an aggravating factor only at the point of sentencing. In my many conversations with police and agencies working in communities up and down our country to divert children from criminal activity, this is pointed to as a very real gap in our statutory provisions. We should surely use the opportunity presented by the Bill to plug that vital gap.
I am also troubled by the lack of action against those who turn a blind eye to the glamorising of serious violence and criminal lifestyles. I include in this the tech companies behind social media, as well as the radio stations that host and play tracks, aimed at teenagers, which speak carelessly about the carrying of these lethal weapons as a status symbol or badge of honour. I have worked with agencies that inform me that their intelligence has to keep constantly on top of this. The weapons are cool and essential accessories; before leaving the house the teenager thinks, “Phone, wallet ... oh, blade”. Yet their weapon may be the one that takes away their life or that of somebody else where they live. It is hard not to think that we are fighting a losing battle if we are trying to ban the carrying of ninja stars on our streets, yet any self-respecting six year-old knows that a ninja star is the weapon of choice of their favourite Lego Ninjago character, Zane. Have we not just had family celebrations for Christmas?
As a mother myself, I know full well what gang violence looks and feels like. I ask noble Lords to type “gravity knife” into Google. The second YouTube video that comes up is entitled “Cool Gravity Knives”. This is not an Xbox or PlayStation game; this is the everyday reality that we face. Offensive weapons are in our homes. Worse, I fear, is that they are being normalised and people are becoming desensitised; they are nothing to be feared. I hold my hands up and am the first to admit that such weapons are not my area of expertise. Yet, sadly, they have an impact on many families up and down the country. As noble Lords would expect, as Victims’ Commissioner it is for me to remind your Lordships that behind the rising numbers in homicides, knife crime, robbery and gun crime are individual people and families, left bereft and taken to the edge by their grief and unbearable loss. This loss also causes rival gangs to go out and get revenge. The reality is that going through our criminal justice system becomes as traumatic as the crime itself.
My noble friend the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe there was an attempt in the other place to introduce an amendment creating an independent advocate for victims of incidents involving offensive weapons. Such a person would be professionally trained and could explain the process, as well as the true meaning of sentencing. The advocate could refer victims to those able to provide practical support and make sure that they have the assistance they need and, what is more, are entitled to expect. More importantly, they could prevent these victims feeling as though they are on a criminal justice conveyor belt, being passed from one agency to another, having to repeat their traumatic story as they meet another usually well-meaning but unacquainted face. Independent advocates can provide a victim-centric service, providing support that will pay vast dividends in helping those bereaved families to rebuild their lives and move forward—to cope and recover.
I want to see the Bill providing for victims. They are not just a crime statistic; they are human beings and families suffering unbearable pain and loss. They must be given better emotional support and guidance to steer them through every step of the justice system so that they can recover from the crime and live their normal lives. Victims constantly tell me that they feel their status in the criminal justice system is not comparable to that of the offender. I look forward to working with the Minister as the Bill progresses. I will continue to push the Government to ensure that victims, whose lives may be devastatingly transformed by the crime committed against them, are afforded the rights they so justly deserve. It saddens me to stand here today knowing that it is 12 years since I lost my husband to gang crime. They had no weapons but hands and feet, yet we are discussing the corrupt and vicious goings-on in communities and it saddens me that we are not helping young people aspire to better things. Money is one thing. Respect is one thing. But taking a life and a family losing a child is hard to bear every day and into the future.
It is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. She speaks with authority and personal passion and we should listen with great care to what she says. I listened to her a few weeks ago at the annual Livia Awards, a remarkable institution created by the parents of a young woman who was killed in a road traffic accident to recognise in the Metropolitan Police those who expend extra effort and trouble to bring perpetrators to justice—but, again, focused on the victims of crime. I did the guest of honour speech last year and the noble Baroness did it this year. It is a remarkable organisation, to which I pay tribute.
It is one of the tragedies of the way in which Brexit has sucked the oxygen and energy out of political discourse that issues such as this, which are of huge importance to people in their daily lives, have been sidelined and have not been given anything like the attention they deserve. Therefore it is right that the Government should expect detailed consideration of this Bill and that we should spend a little time on it. It raises a whole host of major issues, which have come out already, even at this early stage.
There are deep social problems in our society today, some of which are manifesting themselves in the violence that is affecting so many parts of the country. We in this House are a million miles away from a lot of those social problems and find it difficult to understand them, let alone find remedies that will be applicable to the areas which they deeply affect. I took part in a programme recently and the very senior presenter, a prominent person in public life, told me on the sidelines of the interview that his son had been stabbed in an incident in London. He had been an inch away from ending his life—a young man now completely traumatised and whose personality has been changed. The presenter said, “It’s like the wild west out there”. For somebody to say that about our country and our capital city highlights something very serious, which merits our concern.
I come from Scotland. In Glasgow the problem manifested itself a number of years ago. All the agencies came together in the violence reduction unit that was created at that time, and a radical difference has been made in the situation there. I am glad that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has taken on board the lessons of that and that a violence reduction unit has been created in London. I know that Ministers and the Government are also paying attention to the success of something that has worked. Of course, all this is highlighted by the terrible incident that took place on a train last week, and I am sure that all of us here feel profoundly for the Pomeroy family, and especially for their young 14 year-old son.
I will concentrate on only one aspect of the Bill, firearms. I have a degree of knowledge and expertise in this area as I was Defence Secretary of this country and then Secretary-General of NATO, and it was perhaps part of the armoury of military forces to know a lot about these instruments. But I am also a resident of the town of Dunblane. At the time of the 1996 incident, I was the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and I lived in the town. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, was the Secretary of State for Scotland, and although we were political combatants at the time, we were welded together in the wake of the evil perpetrated by a criminal who both of us knew. I played a part in the legislation that was passed when we came to power in 1997 to abolish the private ownership of handguns in this country, legislation which has had a major influence on gun crime in this country as a whole.
That background gives me a deep concern about the progress of the Bill, in particular the fact that .50 calibre high-powered rifles have now been taken out of the legislation after the initial plan to keep them in. The term “.50 calibre rifle” does not mean an awful lot to the ordinary person, but they are colloquially known as “sniper rifles”. That is a technical expression used in the military to describe guns that kill people at long distance, and that is effectively what they are. If you look them up on the internet you will find that .50 calibre rifles are also known as sniper rifles. The Government’s impact assessment—an interesting document on the subject of .50 calibre rifles—states:
“There is concern about the availability of .50 calibre and rapid-fire Manually Actuated Release System (MARS) rifles being available to some civilian firearms licence holders. The range and penetrative power of 0.50 calibre rifles makes them more dangerous than other common firearms and were they to be used in criminal or terrorist activities would present a serious threat to the public and would be uniquely difficult for the police to control. Due to the rate of discharge MARS rifles pose a comparable risk to the public and police as other self-loading weapons already banned in the UK. The Government need to intervene to ensure the purchase, ownership or possession is illegal”.
That was the opening statement of the Government’s own impact assessment, which went on to go through all the other effects. In the Second Reading debate in the Commons, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, said:
“We based those measures on evidence that we received from intelligence sources, police and other security experts”.
He was challenged throughout the whole of that Second Reading debate by a concerted group of Conservative Back-Bench MPs who are part of the All-Party Group on Shooting and Conservation, and he went on to say:
“According to the information that we have, weapons of this type have, sadly, been used in the troubles in Northern Ireland, and, according to intelligence provided by police and security services, have been possessed by criminals who have clearly intended to use them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/18; cols. 918-19.]
Those are not my words or the words of gun campaigners but the words of Her Majesty’s principal Secretary of State for Home Affairs, speaking in the House of Commons.
Why on earth were the Government persuaded to take out the clause in the Bill that would have removed those weapons from legal ownership? I appreciate that the Minister and the Government have said that they are now open to consultation on the matter, but they have not even included some of the safeguards that the gun lobby was recommending, as outlined by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, to separate out these elements. At the moment, there is nothing: there is no restriction on these weapons. These are weapons that can immobilise a truck—or a human being—more than a mile away from the person handling the rifle. We are talking about a serious weapon with enormous potential. If the Home Secretary of this country believes that they are in the hands of those who may use them, the call for action was all the more important. The police, the intelligence authorities and the National Crime Agency have all come to the same conclusion.
As I read the debate in Hansard and the background documents, the echoes came back of the arguments we had after Dunblane from the shooting lobby, who said that these guns were only for recreation and were in the hands of people who were properly licensed, et cetera. But the evil criminal who perpetrated what happened in Dunblane and the one who perpetrated what happened in Hungerford were holding legally obtainable guns at the time. It is right and proper that assessments be made and that we listen to the people who know. As I said, if the Home Secretary of this country believed that there is the potential for these weapons to be used, action should have been taken.
I hope that during the course of the debate in this House, we will return to this subject and perhaps go down the road that the Home Secretary was deliberately on before he was derailed.
My Lords, my objective in participating in debate on the Bill will be to improve what I think is basically a good Bill and a good direction to go in. I declare an interest as the possessor of various forms of caustic liquids and a large number of knives and other blades. I have owned rifles and shotguns and I am captain of the House of Lords target rifle team.
Here we are looking at the balance between the possession of articles which we may all hope or wish to own at one time or another and the danger which those articles can cause our fellow citizens. It is a matter of balance, examining the detail, taking our time, making a fair judgment and looking at the reality of the risks that some claim, the effectiveness of the measures that others propose and dealing with issues at a level of detail that makes the whole outcome fair and effective, not just arbitrary, so that we arrive in this area of interface between ordinary life and danger at a reasonable set of conclusions.
I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said at the instigation of USDAW. In the Bill, we are putting immense obligations on individual shop workers—often not well-paid or trained people. At the moment, they have similar obligations in relation to alcohol and cigarettes but, frankly, if a kid gets away with a bottle of vodka, the chances of serious harm are quite small. You can rely on ordinary, day-to-day systems: “Yes, I saw their ID and believed it”. Will we be satisfied with that level of protection and practice when it comes to knives? If I turn up as a courier at someone’s gate and accept the identification stating that the person I am handing the package over to is 18, will the courts and the police really be happy if I just say, “I saw it”, or will some kind of process and record be required? The Government owe a serious duty to couriers and shop workers to lay out exactly what procedures they expect their bosses to put in place, so that they can know as they go about their perfectly ordinary business what level of protection they will have if they behave in a specified way.
It is merely a case, I hope, of taking our thinking forward a little and making sure that we encourage the Minister to make statements during Committee on what the Government consider proper practice in these cases so that shop workers and others are protected properly. There are also arguments for making attempting to buy a knife while underage an offence. We have such an offence for alcohol; why has it not reappeared for knives? We need to look at the protection of the people we expect to enforce the Bill effectively. During Committee, or in conversations before then, I also hope that we will get a good deal more detail on what kinds of offences are committed with knives, including what knives are used and where they come from.
The same goes for firearms, on which a useful report was produced. Rifles make up less than 1% of firearm crime at the moment. We talk about regulating them further in the Bill but what kinds of rifles are we talking about, and in what circumstances? Are we dealing with sporting rifles used in domestic arguments or with criminals using rifles obtained from communities that hold rifles legally? Are we dealing with people importing rifles of different specifications? Frankly, trying to use a bolt-action rifle in a crime is a pretty daffy thing to do: it is extremely hard to aim them straight and they are hard to manoeuvre in close quarters. If you were going to use a gun of that size, you would use a shotgun, at least for effect if you do not aim straight. We need a real understanding of what is going on out there: where the dangers lie, where they are concentrated and where we should concentrate preventive measures. At the moment, we do not have the data we should to understand whether the Government’s measures will be effective.
We ought to examine the definitions in the Bill too. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, Clause 6 defines a corrosive substance as something,
“capable of burning human skin”.
Ice, fertiliser, cement, laundry detergent—all sorts of things—can burn human skin if you leave them on for long enough. The definition ought to include duration, for example if a substance burns the skin within a minute or some other relatively short timescale. Otherwise, people will not know what they are allowed to carry in public under the extent of the Bill.
Schedule 1 contains a list of corrosives, but it is a very short one. Where are bromic acid, iodic acid, perchloric acid, triflic acid, lime, hydrogen peroxide and the numerous hydroxides, all of which are available caustic chemicals? Why this shortlist, which does not even contain the obvious examples? For example, hydrogen peroxide is easy to come by, even in relatively high concentrations. The list does not seem right to me. It is easy to have a more extensive list. People cannot invent new examples of these chemicals, by and large. It is an established list, mostly of inorganic chemicals. Let us get the full list in the Bill so that we do not have eternally to come back and extend it.
When it comes to knives, the established definition of a “bladed product”—with which I am comfortable, by and large—is used earlier in the Bill. However, a different definition appears in Clause 19. A bladed product means an article that,
“is or has a blade, and … is capable of causing a serious injury to a person which involves cutting that person’s skin”.
That could apply to a safety razor. The established definition of a blade specifically excludes safety razors in a careful sort of way. You are allowed to wander about with a safety razor as long as it falls within certain specifications, but this definition includes safety razors. It also includes lawnmowers, food processors, scissors and an awful lot of other things that you would expect to have such as steak knives and saws. It covers any kind of steel blade for which there are innumerable reasons for people to want to order over the internet. You are producing quite a wide and undefined definition that will require many people to think carefully about where the boundaries of the law actually lie in terms of labelling their products and the processes they use to get them out to the public. We ought to be clear about where the boundaries are in this area.
Why is a stiletto not included in this definition, although it is under the existing definition? That talks explicitly about pointed objects that are designed to stick into people but here the Bill talks just about bladed objects. It is not clear to my mind that we have got the definition right. This is something that a lot of people are going to have to interact with, so it should be absolutely clear and fair.
I am quite comforted by what is set out but I would like to go into further detail about how we are going to deal with knives ordered from foreign websites and what mechanisms will be put in place to deal with something that appears in a brown paper parcel saying that the contents are worth less than £19.95. It can simply wander in. How are we going to pick these packages up? I can see that we can catch Amazon and eBay—or at least Amazon—but are we really dealing with the myriad suppliers who on the internet or are we just taking the online trade in knives and shoving it offshore to no benefit to ourselves?
I turn to rifles—again, this is a matter of going into the detail. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, has a great deal of experience in this area while my experience is merely practical. It is very hard to use a lever-action rifle to achieve rapid fire and you would have to practise a lot. I am not referring to MARS rifles. If you are practising a lot, presumably you will be part of a registered gun club and thus within the controls over ownership, so that becomes important. Suggestions have been made about storing these things separately and there are concerns about whether we are implementing properly the 2016 Act. All of these issues need to be looked at over the course of the Bill’s passage so that we draw the right line between firearms that we are happy for people to possess under particular circumstances and those which we think no one should possess. There is no absolute line on these things so it has to be drawn with care and consideration. More time and more information would be welcome. My personal suggestion is that since we are considering what to do with high-powered rifles, we should include MARS and lever-action rifles and take one consistent decision across the whole of the blurred line we have at the moment for what is acceptable.
I look forward very much to the debates on this Bill and I hope that we will end up improving it. I am absolutely delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has shown such liberal principles in his defence of the rights of people when faced with charges under this legislation. I shall be behind him if he presses amendments on that theme. We are criminalising people who we have no business criminalising and there is no justification for pushing the burden of proof that far in so many circumstances—and certainly not when it amounts, as the noble Lord illustrates, to children carrying a can of detergent home. That is not the sort of thing where the burden of proof should be tilted against the citizen.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for emphasising, in her presentation of the Bill, that this is just one small part of a whole gamut of approaches that the Government are taking to this huge problem of violence in our society. Listening to this debate, I think of a recent visit to Feltham young offender institution. I heard from the director the huge problem it faced with gangs, with maybe 15 young men attacking two or three others. When I used to visit 15 or 17 years ago, it would be two or three young men attacking another boy. This is a sea-change in our society. It is a huge challenge.
Knife crime is perhaps the most important of the many important elements to this Bill. I know it has touched several Members of your Lordships’ House, and there was a terrible recent incident. It is terrible to think of loved ones being removed from this life prematurely in such an awful way. I think about 30 years ago when I worked with young people on housing estates in this country, in London. I thank heaven that at that time there was not this issue of knives or gangs; it was challenging enough as it was. I am grateful to the Minister for emphasising that this is just one part of a larger strategy.
Referring back to visiting prisons, which I do fairly often, I share the concern about criminalising more young people when that might be avoided and introducing short sentences, which are ineffective and put a greater burden on prisons. Our prisons are already vastly over- burdened. I am grateful for the new money injected into prisons. At the last prison I visited, an officer had been attacked during the night. It was very demoralising for the whole workforce, but more demoralising still was the sense that over several years their funding had been cut. The promise of new money gave them some hope. I will listen with great interest and I expect I will want to support those concerns about criminalisation and short sentences.
I will try, as several of your Lordships have done, to look at the Bill from the perspective of the welfare of young people. I will emphasise how crucial it is to secure a long-term and robust government commitment to youth work. Can measures in the Bill be extended to the age of 21? This seems much more developmentally appropriate than cutting them off at the age of 18. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Brent Centre for Young People, a mental health service for adolescents, and of the child welfare charity the Michael Sieff Foundation, both of which are in the register.
While the factors contributing to the use of dangerous weapons by young people are complicated, it is always useful to first consider the need for security in young people’s lives—security of relationships to people, places and institutions. Young people carrying knives because they are fearful was mentioned earlier. If you are fearful of walking to school because a gang of boys might attack you, it does not seem too far-fetched to think of carrying a knife—as unwise and risky as that is. It is no surprise that young people who have experienced local authority care are so overrepresented in the criminal justice system when one considers the multiple losses that many of them have experienced. Many will have had their relationship with their parents, their family home and their school broken. Within local authority care, they may face changes in foster carers, further changes in school and then early removal into independent living. It was very troubling to read this weekend of the increasing numbers of young people leaving care at the ages of 16 and 17 and being placed in bed and breakfast and hostel accommodation. Many years ago, I talked to a young woman who had been placed in hostel accommodation. She had no proper lock for her door and was the only woman among several men, some of whom were dealing with drug addiction.
I understand that local authorities do not have sufficient funding to deliver the services that they should, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for referring to that. It is particularly sad because there has been good progress in improving the quality of condition for care leavers. However, while thinking of young people who are frightened, we should remember that care leavers are the most isolated, and possibly the most frightened, young people.
The purpose of this Bill is to protect the public from dangerous weapons, but what goes on outwith the Bill is also important. I therefore welcome the Government’s serious violence strategy, the additional investment in youth support and the recruitment of the Redthread agency to intervene when young people are most likely to be amenable to change. However, I hope the Government recognise that, strategically, it is immensely important to secure a sound base for the future of youth work. The Minister will be aware of the sad history of youth work in this country. It is a story of boom and bust: investment is made and then removed. What parent would encourage their child to enter a profession that is guaranteed to have the plug pulled in the next financial downturn? Youth work is a challenging profession, as has been highlighted on the front page of newspapers for the past two years. Think of Damilola Taylor, the growth of youth gangs and the ever-growing availability of hard drugs. We have to give our firmest commitments to the profession of youth work.
Will the Minister therefore tell us what progress has been made in strengthening the duty on local authorities to provide youth services? Does she recognise that the weakness of this duty has contributed to the dearth of youth services and the impoverishment of youth work? What timetable is there for improvement in the regulation? Does she accept that the new duty must be fully funded by central government? The Minister has indicated in the past that some progress is being made in this area, so I would very much appreciate an update. High-quality youth work is just part of the response to the current crisis but it is, surely, a crucial part. After all the broken relationships that many of the young people who might choose to acquire dangerous weapons have experienced, it is vital to offer them a steady and long-term relationship with a caring, thoughtful and effective youth worker. My noble friend Lord Ramsbotham helpfully highlighted this when he spoke of Junior Smart, the youth worker.
I see that in Committee in the other place attempts were made to raise the age at which suppliers could be sanctioned for supplying young people with dangerous weapons from 18 to 21. Such a move would be wholly developmentally appropriate. The science points to adolescence drawing to a close at about 21. During adolescence, a young person can often be in turmoil; in particular, she or he may have great difficulty in managing their impulses. I hope the Minister and the House will support a raising of the age, and I was glad to hear it mentioned by noble Lords who spoke previously.
In implementing this Bill, we will of course want to think about stop and search, which will have to be made use of to make it work. However, there is a risk of alienating young people if it is done injudiciously, particularly those from a BAME background. I know that the police give very careful thought to how this is used, and clearly they need to be adequately resourced. It is crucial that we have enough community support officers and beat officers with relationships with these young people, so that they do not feel intimidated and so that, when stop and search has to be used, it is used sensitively.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and to working on the details of the Bill with her and your Lordships in Committee and on Report.
My Lords, I broadly welcome this Bill, and we have already heard about some of the ways in which it could perhaps be improved. I welcome it on the ground that, apart from anything else, it is the Government’s responsibility to protect the public, and the Bill is about improving public safety—and who would not wish to see that happen?
I am not an expert on the rise in knife crime. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, raised the issue. I have not seen much of it, but in some communities in this country there has been a huge rise in knife crime. If we read the Evening Standard, which I try not to do, we discover that there appears to be an explosion in some kinds of knife crime, especially in the capital. That must worry us all. We have all heard about the ghastly murder on the train at Clandon at the weekend. I had never really heard about acid attacks until the last few years and they seem to be on the rise as well—so I commend the Government and certainly support moves, which I hope will be successful, to combat those crimes.
I will focus on firearms alone. I absolutely agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, who said that our firearms legislation UK is “among the world’s strongest”—and quite rightly so. We have very little firearms crime in this country compared with, for instance, somewhere such as the USA. Frankly, the USA’s record on gun crime is abominable. Even as someone who owns a shotgun, I say that the way in which people can get hold of weapons and firearms in the USA is a grave worry. The gun lobby seems to be ill judged in that which it is protecting. I declare an interest in that I own a shotgun. I go game shooting and have used, and occasionally still use, a rifle. I was in the Army for many years and used a great many weapons, for obvious reasons. Before we ban something that perhaps we do not wish to do, we should look at the evidence to see what the impact would be. Noble Lords mentioned .50 calibre rifles in particular, so I will home in on that issue.
A long time ago I used a .50 calibre machine-gun. I understand that there are only 137 .50 calibre rifles licensed in this country. For those who do not know, it is a big, unwieldy heavy piece of kit—so it is pretty difficult to use in a hold-up, for instance, as my noble friend Lord Lucas just mentioned. A terrorist in Northern Ireland used to snipe at security forces with a .50 calibre rifle. I do not know whether he is on one of those letters of comfort that were issued after the Good Friday agreement. I do not know whether he was ever caught. I do not know whether he is alive or dead. But the point about the rifle is that it was illegally imported, and of course its use was illegal. I think that it was part of the three or four shipments that Gaddafi sent from Libya to the IRA. The last one was seized by the French Navy in 1987. The MV Eksund had 120 tonnes of armaments—weapons and ammunition—on board. That is the sort of scale that one is looking at. So if we are talking about banning illegally held .50 rifles, there are 137 in this country. So we should bring this into perspective.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, is no longer in his place. As he said, he was closely involved in the Dunblane massacre—the appalling incident when Thomas Hamilton murdered 17 children and teachers in a classroom. Noble Lords may remember the Cullen report that followed, in which Lord Justice Cullen—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen—found failings in the police’s registering of the weapons that Hamilton had, and also failings in general public services such as mental health services, because issues were raised back in 1991 about Hamilton’s mental suitability to have firearms. Those were not taken up.
Cullen did not recommend the banning of pistols. Now I am not a pistol shooter, so the ban did not affect me in any way. I am not arguing on my own behalf. But one has to ask what effect it had on crime using handguns or pistols. I dug out the statistics. Of course, Hamilton had legally held pistols. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who I thought argued very well—so I am not criticising him. But in 1996, the year before the legislation came in, there were 3,347 handgun-linked instances of crime reported. In 2001-02 that had gone up to 5,874. It has since come down again. In the last year for which we have statistics it was 2,675. Almost all these weapons—and I would say now all these weapons—have never been legally held. So by banning people spending their weekends firing pistols, which I did not and most people did not, we have not particularly contributed to a reduction in firearms crime because you can buy pistols. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, will stop me if I am wrong, but I suspect that there are pubs in London where you can buy a pistol—if you know the right pub, which I do not.
While I support the Bill, we should not go into the business of interfering with people’s lives where it is not necessary. If it is necessary, we should. On that note, I commend the Bill to the House in general terms.
My Lords, this is, quite rightly, a sombre Second Reading debate. I followed the passage of the Bill through the other place with interest and I share the sadness of many speakers so far that we need this legislation.
Sometimes we need to take a step back and understand why things happen and the causes of actions. Sometimes a knee-jerk reaction saying “We need to ban something” is not always the right approach. Let us be quite clear: today in our country many women, particularly young women, walk out at night with their car keys acting as knuckle-dusters in case they are attacked. It is a natural reaction to be fearful. If our communities were safer, if there were more police on the beat and if there were community policing, perhaps people would feel safer and would not feel the necessity to arm themselves. That is not to say that stabbing somebody to death or throwing acid in somebody’s face is acceptable. In my view, in most cases it is downright evil.
I cannot imagine anything worse than a police officer appearing at the door and telling you that your son or daughter has been stabbed or shot to death or being told that your daughter or son had been charged with a stabbing or shooting offence. It is sad that legislation is needed, but we must keep our communities safe and protect the most vulnerable. Only a few days ago in my city a knife-wielding gang ran amok in daytime in the city centre terrifying tourists and residents alike. I was shocked when my noble friend Lord Paddick said that every day in the UK somebody is stabbed to death. Many of us have mentioned Mr Pomeroy, who was stabbed nine times. Our hearts and thoughts go out to all the people who have been caught up in these awful events
In the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy, published in April 2018, we learned that:
“We want to make clear that our approach is not solely focused on law enforcement, very important as that is, but depends on partnerships across a number of sectors such as education, health, social services, housing, youth services, and victim services”.
The four strands of that strategy are,
“tackling county lines and misuse of drugs, early intervention and prevention, supporting communities and partnerships, and an effective law enforcement and criminal justice response”.
When I read the strategy, I was very pleased that the second strand was early intervention and prevention. I have an interest in children and young people. While the Bill is focused on the fourth of these strands—the effective law enforcement and criminal justice response—I think that in this debate we need to place on the record the importance of early intervention and prevention, which is a much more significant and positive approach than those which the Bill proposes.
Chapter 4 of the Serious Violence Strategy, published in April 2018, deals with early intervention and prevention, and there is a list of what the Government call “Key actions and commitments”. The chapter opens with the following:
“We must prevent people from committing serious violence by developing resilience, and supporting positive alternatives and timely interventions. Prevention and early intervention are at the heart of our approach to tackling serious violence”.
It goes on to say:
“A universal intervention builds resilience in young people through supporting positive choices, improving critical thinking skills, providing healthy, stable and supportive frameworks whether in the home or school”.
The strategy talks about further work to support schools and,
“plans to deliver face-to-face support for parents of children with mental health problems and improve early interventions with young people with mental health issues”.
I am tired of hearing about intentions to improve mental health provision for children and young people. We all know which road is paved with good intentions. The record of recent Governments on mental health in general and child mental health in particular is, quite frankly, not good enough.
Today, the Prime Minister launched the NHS Long Term Plan, with yet more promises about child mental health. The Government seem proud of the fact that,
“in 2017/18, around 30.5% of children and young people then estimated to have a mental health condition were able to benefit from treatment and support, up from an estimated 25% two years earlier”,
and they seem satisfied that:
“Over the next five years the NHS will fund new Mental Health Support Teams working in schools and colleges, building on the support already available, which will be rolled out to between one-fifth and a quarter of the country by the end of 2023”.
The intention to roll out support to 25% of schools and colleges by 2023 will be of no comfort to the 18,000 schools that do not make the cut. And to read that:
“The NHS work with schools, parents and local councils will reveal whether more upstream preventative support, including better information sharing and the use of digital interventions, helps moderate the need for specialist child and adolescent mental health services”,
is, quite simply, ridiculous.
Developing resilience is another major element of the preventive strategy. I am all in favour of developing resilience and promoting character-building in children and young people, but the Government still cannot agree to make PSHE a statutory part of the national curriculum or agree on what would be included in that provision. This is surely the subject in which resilience can be developed. Our children and young people are tested endlessly on a content-based curriculum, with school leaders and teachers’ futures dependent on performance tables. This focus on SATs and EBacc results has squeezed out many of the curricular and extra-curricular activities that help children and young people develop resilience and build character.
I was not going to mention social media, but the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, in her quite emotional speech, did. I do not think that we have understood the significant impact that social media can have on the minds of young people. To see teenage gangs glorifying knives and other weapons and being allowed to run these things on social media for days and sometimes weeks on end is, quite frankly, not good enough. Similarly, we have not completely understood the whole issue of video games. I think that they have a serious effect on young people. When children can get hold of video games that glorify violence, that must be something for us to think about, and perhaps this will be an opportunity for us to do so.
I shall give another example. In our rush to get better results, we now “off-roll” pupils. To get rid of difficult pupils and difficult problems, many schools will off-roll pupils to the street corner, where they become easy prey for violent teenage gangs and, in some cases, drug dealers. In terms of diverting young people away from violent activities, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly said, we have seen youth services cut to the bone, with the voluntary sector often the only providers of these services. Detached youth workers would seek out disaffected young people, whether they gathered near the bus shelter, on the street corner or in the park, and would talk to them, help and advise them. They no longer exist. There is no longer any support for those young people.
I am sure that we do not want to adopt the American response to violence which, with the full support of the President, is to give more people guns. The commission investigating the high-school massacre in Parkland, Florida, unanimously approved a report which included the recommendation that teachers should be able to carry guns—my goodness. Fighting fire with fire is not a solution for the UK. The answer is building up young people’s resilience, dealing with mental health problems immediately and effectively, and providing support in communities.
I support this Bill while regretting the necessity for it; however, I deplore the fact that austerity has been used an excuse to deprive young people of so many positive alternatives to carrying a knife or worse. Let us reflect on the fact that it costs £40,000 per year to keep a young person in prison—twice the cost of a youth worker.
My Lords, I begin by reminding the House of my interest as a deputy chairman of the Local Government Association.
No local authority leader will ever forget the first death from a knife attack on their patch, while they were in charge. Early in my leadership of Westminster City Council, I was deeply affected by the murder of a 16 year-old boy who was hacked to death with machetes by a gang of youths on a busy Pimlico street at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. This horrific crime was part of a dispute relating to drug-dealing territories; the police swiftly found the perpetrators and brought them to justice along with those who attempted to hide them. This was about seven years ago; as we all know in this Chamber, knife crime, along with serious violence involving guns and corrosive substances, has continued to rise and it is our young people, often from deprived areas, who are in the front line. For this reason, I welcome the Bill and its approach to tackling violence on our streets.
The Offensive Weapons Bill will give police greater powers to tackle the growing problems we face but, more importantly, it is part of the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy launched in April last year. This strategy advocates a partnership approach between the police, local government, charities and local people; in my experience, it sets out the collaborative working needed not only to deter potential offenders, through swift and strong justice, but to divert those at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators from becoming part of the culture—often linked to gangs—that is so prevalent in some of our most deprived areas.
In the interests of time, and basing my words on my own experience, I will speak about the work that London Councils has undertaken to combat this growing problem in our capital and to illustrate how the Serious Violence Strategy can work in practice. All 32 boroughs plus the City of London work collaboratively across London; they do so not only as boroughs, but by bringing in many other relevant providers in sectors such as health, schools, the voluntary sector, the GLA and local residents, as well as, of course, co-ordinating with the police. Within London boroughs many, such as Westminster, take a cross-departmental approach, bringing in expertise from housing, social services, planning, culture and children’s services.
London is a very diverse city; it is therefore important that each borough develops approaches that suit its local needs and can be co-ordinated across boroughs. Boroughs have developed different approaches to best fit their circumstances, and this allows cross-borough experimentation and learning. London Councils has established a repository of practice on serious youth violence, which has useful links to data sources and other resources and makes available to boroughs the knife crime action plans of community safety partnerships. These set out the core elements that would appear effective in a local knife crime plan so that boroughs developing plans do not have to reinvent approaches.
In order to facilitate this collaborative approach, some boroughs have established integrated gangs or anti-violence units. Some have collocated staff from different departments and other bodies while others use virtual collocation; both strategies seem to be working well. Westminster has one of the highest volumes of weapon-enabled crime in London, as a result of the concentration seen predominantly in the West End area and linked to the night-time economy. The council has used the multiagency approach to tackling this issue to great effect. It begins with a grass-roots approach, which challenges the belief that carrying a knife keeps you safe and that selling drugs has no victims. It is an online platform that uses a series of films to portray the full impact of drug dealing and carrying knives. The films are made by young people from Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham.
Westminster’s integrated gangs unit is a multiagency team launched in 2011 in response to the rising rates of gang violence and aims to intervene and divert young people away from gangs and criminality. In 2018 Westminster established a task group to look at the changing nature of violence and weapons use and ways that council departments and other agencies can further work together to greater effect. The youth offending team not only works with those who have committed a crime but delivers a range of preventive interventions targeted at young people and parents. Community weapons sweeps aid the removal of offensive weapons from our streets, while anonymous reporting gives the council and local police valuable intelligence to help the fight against violence. The Westminster trading standards team is also working with local businesses to create a partnership to stop the sale of corrosive substances to young people.
Several boroughs have taken a public health approach, focusing on harm reduction, primary prevention and early years. This approach is focused on analysing the underlying causes of serious youth violence and tackling those issues before they develop into a serious problem. Similarly, other boroughs such as Lewisham use a trauma-informed health approach, the key principles of which are to develop a local understanding of the adverse impact of childhood experiences on the prevalence of violent crime. They endeavour to ensure that schools are a place of safety for young and vulnerable people and offer a space to address adverse childhood experience early, aiming to develop resilience and emotional intelligence in children so that they understand how to live a safe and healthy life.
One particularly effective technique used by many schools and youth groups is talks by ex-gang members about the dangers of the lifestyle that they have left behind them. The speakers are usually young men who the children can relate to, who look cool and could be seen as role models. But it is not just about trying to put young people off involvement; alternative activities need to be available as well, which is where youth clubs and programmes have such an important role to play. Boxing clubs, football clubs and centres that offer facilities with teachers for young people to compose or play music, or for other creative activities, are vital for ensuring that young people are engaged in positive activities in a social environment instead of on the streets with little to do, where they are easy prey for those wishing to pull them into the gang lifestyle.
There is still much to learn and much to do to reverse the frightening trend of increasing serious youth violence and its use of offensive weapons. The Bill will help the police to target and punish those who are already intent on inflicting or threatening injury and those who assist them, and I support it. It is clear, however, that to really have an impact, prevention needs to be at the heart of any approach. Diverting those who are at risk of being sucked into gangs or feel vulnerable if they are not armed must be at the centre of what we do, and I sincerely hope that the Government’s serious violence strategy is backed up with sufficient resources, not just for the police but for those other bodies on the front line of dealing with this problem.
My Lords, I was brought up in India with my late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, who served as an army officer and rose to become commander-in-chief of the central army. From a young age we were exposed to firearms. I was exposed to live shelling at a very young age. Throughout this, my father always imposed on my brother and me how dangerous firearms are. In fact, when he gave me my first airgun he said, “Son, even an airgun can be lethal”. When he gave me my first Swiss army knife, he said, “This is a dangerous weapon”, and sure enough, a few days later, I cut my hand when closing the knife. All guns and knives can be offensive weapons.
The Bill concerns the increasing number of violent offences that we see coming out every day. The statistics show that this is the case, and I thank the House of Lords Library briefing team and Russell Taylor for their excellent briefing. The intention of the Bill is to strengthen the law to help to tackle violent crimes, particularly those involving knives, firearms and corrosive substances such as acid. The statistics show that the number of police-recorded offences involving knives and sharp instruments are going up, as is the number of admissions to hospitals in England for assaults involving sharp instruments. The number of homicides has increased, following a long decline.
I commend a lot of the measures in the Bill, including the area dealing with the sale and delivery of corrosive products and the possession of corrosive substances. It talks about the sale and delivery of bladed weapons. The Minister spoke about the online sale of knives. Clauses 17 to 19 would make a remote sale an offence in certain circumstances. The Explanatory Notes to the Bill state that, for the purposes of this offence, a bladed product is defined as,
“articles which have a blade and which are capable of causing serious injury to a person’s skin by cutting”—
like my penknife. There are 400 million knives in the UK; virtually every one of them is capable of causing injury. Where does one draw the line between knives used violently and knives for everyday use in kitchens and by chefs for cooking? Of course, the Bill talks about the prohibition of certain firearms; when it was first introduced, rifles,
“from which a shot, bullet or other missile, with kinetic energy of more than 13,600 joules at the muzzle of the weapon, can be discharged”,
were to be prohibited—this included .50 calibre rifles. This has now been removed because of a government amendment.
On Second Reading, Sajid Javid said:
“The Bill will help to make all our communities safer by helping to get dangerous weapons off our streets. As Home Secretary, I will be relentless in ensuring that our streets remain safe”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/18; col. 927.]
As Home Secretary, he is rightly making the security of the country’s citizens the Government’s number one priority. In the Labour response, the shadow Minister for Policing, Louise Haigh, brought up the issue of police numbers and the cuts in spending, believing these issues were significantly contributing factors in the growth of violent crime—I will come to that later.
Then, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Conservative MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Shooting and Conservation, argued that, instead of focusing on banning such firearms, rules should be tightened regarding their storage, with licence decisions potentially contingent on police approval of secure storage arrangements. He stressed that this would be better for public safety than the “disproportionate” measures set out in the Bill, and said:
“They target some of the most law-abiding people in the country and they will not make this country any safer, because the criminal will use a different weapon of choice”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/18; cols. 951-52.]
Of course, the government amendment means that these weapons have been taken out of the prohibited list.
In his excellent speech, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, spoke from his great experience as a former Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary-General of NATO, and as somebody who lived in Dunblane. He spoke about the use of .50 calibre weapons as sniper rifles, and gave his view. The other view was given by Jonathan Djanogly, the Conservative MP who is chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council or BSSC. He thanked the Government for listening, and stressed that he wants to engage with them. He explained:
“The proposal in the Bill to ban firearms with a muzzle velocity of more than 13,600 J, including .50 calibre guns, was not, under any interpretation of the facts, going to help the fight against crime. The guns are very expensive, costing around £20,000 each. There are therefore very few in number, with only 150 or so in private hands. They are extremely bulky, heavy at 30 lb and slow to load, with large, hand-loaded ammunition. In fact, one could hardly find a firearm less likely to be used in a crime. They are simply too big. That is probably why they have never been used in a crime in this jurisdiction”,
with the exception that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, spoke about. Other firearms are equally dangerous and, as Jonathan Djanogly said, .50 calibre rifles could be adapted to avoid the prohibition. He said:
“The irony is that .50 calibre firearms could have their barrels shortened, thus taking them beneath the maximum velocity. The 13,600 J limit is entirely arbitrary, and many owners and manufacturers could simply adapt their guns down to the new limit. The NCA refers to recent seizures of guns, including fully automatic weapons, as showing that crime groups are seeking more powerful weapons, but the .50 calibre is not automatic and there is no evidence of crime gangs ever having wanted to use it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/11/18; cols. 283-84.]
He also said that people should have the right to engage in shooting sports.
The Minister spoke of the risks posed by firearms and target shooting. In its briefing, the BASC talks about the confusion in advice to Ministers; there is confusion about calibre, and machine guns are confused with rifles. It talks about maximum range versus effective range. It cites an example:
“There is no relationship between .50 calibre rifles and the 2017 shootings in Las Vegas. The rifles used in the Las Vegas shootings were .223 and .308, smaller than .50 calibre and not covered by the Offensive Weapons Bill. They were semi-automatics, illegal in the UK, turned into virtually automatic rifles by the use of a ‘bump stock’”,
which we are banning. The BASC continues:
“There is no evidence that bump stocks have been used in the UK and the Offensive Weapons Bill seeks to ban them—with the support of the shooting associations”.
Then there is the issue of lever release rifles and manually actuated release systems—LR and MARS. One has to bear in mind the effect that the proposed ban on this type of rifle will have on sports shooters who have disabilities and injuries, who are unable to operate the other rifle actions, such as bolt action or straight pull. Lever release rifles are very inclusive and enable disabled and injured shooters to carry on with their sport and hobby. Statistically, firearm owners are the most law-abiding citizens in the UK. No crime has ever been committed with a lever release rifle. The criminals’ weapon of choice is an illegally obtained shotgun or handgun. Handgun crime has risen to the point that the Bill has come forward, even though handguns are already illegal.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is my captain as captain of the House of Lords shooting team, of which I have been a member for years. We shoot in the Vizianagram trophy at Bisley. What Wimbledon is to tennis and Lord’s is to cricket, Bisley is the headquarters of world shooting. When we have our match against the other place, the Oxford and Cambridge annual varsity match also takes place.
There has been concern from the shooting community about this Bill. Shooting is a global, Olympic sport. As things stand, shooting has not been included in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. Is the Minister aware of this? I brought this up with Matt Hancock, the current Health Secretary, who was at that time Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He assured me that the Government were very supportive of shooting being included in the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. I have had representations from the president of the National Rifle Association of India, who is now also vice-president of the International Shooting Sport Federation, His Highness Raninder Singh, expressing his concerns. India and Britain win many medals in shooting in the Commonwealth Games. It is an inclusive sport for all ages—people shoot over the age of 50—competed by small countries in the Commonwealth. The Falkland Islands put forward a big shooting team. Will the Minister assure us that the Government are making every effort to include shooting in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022?
At Third Reading the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, acknowledged that the Bill had raised some difficult issues regarding proportionality, but stressed his belief that the right balance had been struck. He said:
“We recognise, for instance, that knives, corrosives and firearms are not in themselves offensive weapons, and that they have many lawful and legitimate uses in people’s everyday lives. That means that a balance needs to be struck between protecting the public and ensuring that legitimate activities are in no way unduly affected. I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/18; col. 367.]
That is what we will debate in Committee.
I want to conclude by going to the most important issue in all this: the rise of violent crime. We had a debate on violent crime in November. I started my contribution then by telling the House about my older daughter, who was so scared by stories of things happening to her friends that she became scared to walk home from the tube station to our house. I said:
“What is our country coming to?”—[Official Report, 29/11/18; col. 793.]
Now, sadly, just few days ago, in broad daylight in the middle of the day on a train, what happened to the Pomeroy family in front of a 14 year-old boy?
This Bill is necessary, but on its own it is useless. The number of police in London has fallen below 30,000 for the first time in 15 years. Cressida Dick, who is a very capable Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said that a lack of resources was a factor in homicides reaching a 10-year high. Does the Minister agree? The police are defending a new initiative of moped ramming, a tactical contact initiative they are now using to try to tackle the situation. There are more and more accusations that the Government are losing control in the fight against crime. Offences have risen by 14% while the numbers of officers have plummeted to record lows. I spoke earlier about the surge in knife crime.
The big issue is that the number of police officers has fallen to 121,929, the lowest figure since records began 22 years ago. On top of that, there has been a drop in neighbourhood policing. I do not see neighbourhood police officers any more, but I used to see them walking or cycling around every day. Overall funding has fallen by 18%, taking inflation into account, compared with an increase in funding of 31% between 2000-01 and 2010-11. Of course, we know who became Home Secretary then: our current Prime Minister. Direct government funding has fallen by 25% over the same period. There were 40,000 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument—a 16% increase. These figures are corroborated by records of National Health Service hospital admissions resulting from the crimes which I have spoken about. With 1.1 million violent crimes recorded—an increase of 21%—the rising trend has simply continued. The police are under so much pressure.
This has to be looked at in another context as well. Is our criminal justice system good enough to cope with this? Rory Stewart, the Justice Minister, said that:
“Knife crime is horrifying—it causes catastrophic damage to families with tragic consequences”.
Noble Lords have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, about her own tragic personal experience.
The situation is awful. Scotland Yard is a global brand and has historically been respected around the world. The Bill is crucial, but it can be effective only if we increase our police officers and neighbourhood policing, double our number of armed police officers, and continue to make the nation’s security the number one priority of any Government.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill and will talk about the provisions relating to corrosive substances and acid attacks. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Scar Free Foundation, a medical research charity that seeks to find a cure for scarring. Through this work, I have had first-hand experience of talking to victims of acid attacks, the effects of which are utterly devastating and very often a severe, lifelong sentence. Victims may suffer blinding, permanent scarring of the body and face, and acute social and psychological difficulties from the disfigurement and pain. It is worthwhile that the Bill puts such a significant focus on dealing with this issue. It is absolutely shocking that the UK has one of the world’s highest rates of recorded acid attacks per capita. According to Acid Survivors Trust International, there were 228 attacks in 2012, rising to 941 in 2017.
This issue deserves our attention and I pay tribute to the Home Secretary and the Home Office for moving quickly. However, there is a fear that simply toughening sentences and strengthening legal definitions is not enough to make a change on this issue, and could be distracting. Acid attacks happen all over the world, and there is a pattern of behaviour by Governments in different countries. Parliaments instinctively reach for the rulebook to address these horrendous crimes, but the story of legislation on acid attacks around the world is not encouraging. In the national and regional legislatures of the countries that are most affected, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Cambodia, you will see passionate politicians trying to make a difference by introducing frightening-sounding new laws. But these have little effect on the cultural and social causes of the problem. The police and the judges seem incapable of stopping this crime, and the suffering continues.
I do not deny that there is a huge amount of support for the measures in the Bill, and they certainly have my support. However, there is a concern that we could make the same mistakes as Parliaments in other countries. If noble Lords think that Britain is in some way exceptional, I will give a couple of examples of what I mean. A recent FOI request to the Civil Nuclear Constabulary revealed that, to date, not one individual had been caught in possession of a corrosive substance as a suspected offensive weapon.
Of the 2,078 acid attacks recorded in the UK between 2011 and 2016, only 414 resulted in a charge being brought. The Bill will do much to close loopholes, but if we are to have any chance of reducing these horrible crimes, we cannot stop at legislation. We need to see acid attacks in the context of street theft, gang retribution, hate crime, domestic abuse and so-called honour-based violence. Each of these has complex causes and solutions. Having a more sophisticated approach to dealing with them was the subject of the excellent crime debate led by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in November, which supported the use of a sophisticated, multiagency, public health-style approach to crime prevention. I recommend that these be applied here.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, how can we be sure that that the charges and measures introduced by the Bill are anything more than virtue signalling and will actually generate prosecutions? For instance, there are the costs of implementing an inspection regime or the forensic challenges of establishing a provable audit trail back to the retailer. How does the Minister envisage measuring how the selling of corrosive substances will actually lead to convictions? I appeal to the Minister not to allow the Home Office and all the relevant agencies of the state to be distracted by this useful legislation from the bigger battle to reduce this horrific crime wave.
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to contribute to today’s Second Reading debate on this welcome and very necessary Bill. Violence in all forms is unacceptable, particularly when dangerous and offensive weapons are involved. Such violence gives rise to serious harm and has a traumatic impact on individuals and their families. There is a serious likelihood that in an environment where individuals carry and use weapons, this will contribute to an increase in weapons carried by others, who will feel the need to defend themselves from unlawful violence or to protect a criminal enterprise and the proceeds of that enterprise.
The Bill has been widely welcomed as being overdue and very necessary. In a changing environment the Bill provides a set of norms and makes it very clear what is not acceptable in a civilised society. I was most interested to hear the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Bethell, as I share his interest in crimes associated with acid attacks. The Centre for Social Justice has collected evidence in relation to corrosive substances, to identify current attitudes and evolving norms and codes of behaviour. Its work involved networks of victims and self-identified at-risk groups. It received 236 responses to a short survey, some of the highlights of which showed some very surprising and concerning information. Some 78% were in fear of being subject to an acid attack; 78% said there were areas where they would not go for fear of being attacked with acid or a knife; 89% felt that the Government were not taking the issue seriously; 75% believed that the police were not taking the issue seriously; 89% believed that police should routinely test substances being carried by suspects; 94% wanted to see tougher penalties for those carrying acid; 73% believed that carrying acid should be treated more severely than carrying a knife; and 90% believed that we should tackle the root causes behind such crimes. As many speakers today have recognised, behind these crimes are things that we need seriously to address.
Additionally, a charity working with the CSJ provided information that some of those at greatest risk of being involved in serious youth violence—as an offender or a victim—reported that acid is easier to conceal than a knife; for example, by transporting it in a water bottle. Acid can be used at a greater distance than knives or other points or blades. Acid causes serious and potentially lifelong injuries but is unlikely to result in death. An individual can use acid more effectively than a knife against a group of individuals at once. Acid is often readily accessible. Corrosive substances can often be found under the kitchen sink, or equally easily as bleach on a supermarket shelf.
It is welcome that the Bill makes it an offence to sell a corrosive product to persons under 18 or for a seller to deliver to a residential premises when the sale is made remotely. However, I do not believe that all violent attacks involving corrosive products have been committed by someone under 18. Extending the age to 21 is something we should consider. The Bill provides law enforcement officers with appropriate investigative and enforcement powers in relation to the offence of possessing a corrosive substance in a public place. It will be vital for the Home Office to give appropriate support to police forces most affected by the rise in acid attacks, and to equip front-line officers with testing kits. The kit will need to allow for the routine testing of substances carried by suspected offenders or those who might be at risk of carrying acid in preference to other weapons. The Bill should send a clear signal and curtail the growth in this offence, and sentencing should be more severe. The sale of corrosive substances should be subject to the same standards of checks as those for the sale of knives. To change behaviour, there needs to be an increased risk of detection. The testing equipment needs to be low-cost and available to the majority of front-line police officers.
The Bill is an important strand of the Government’s serious violent crime strategy. The strategy is being led by the Home Office, but there needs to be work across all government departments and agencies. Tackling serious violent crime requires multiagency partnerships across education, health, social services, housing, law enforcement and local government. Most importantly, it requires a strong emphasis on and investment in early intervention. For the Bill and the serious violence strategy to be successful, sufficient resources for all agencies with an essential role must be made available.
My Lords, I too believe that the Bill is both timely and necessary. As a Sikh, I would like to voice my appreciation of the sensitivity shown by the protection of the existing right of Sikhs to wear a short kirpan for religious reasons. However, it appears that the common Sikh practice of presenting a full-length kirpan, or sword, as a token of esteem or appreciation to those who have made a significant contribution to Sikh ideals, such as tolerance and respect for other faiths, has been overlooked and is not currently protected.
The recipients of this honour do not have to be Sikhs. I have made presentations on behalf of the Sikh community to His Royal Highness Prince Charles, when he joined us as the main guest at a major function at the Royal Albert Hall, and to the late Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, for his work with the Sikh community in India and Britain. Years earlier, the Sikh community in Leicester honoured Sir John Templeton, founder of the Templeton Prize, after he awarded me the UK equivalent for furthering religious understanding.
For Sikhs, this custom is no less important than the protection given in the Bill to the use of a sword for theatrical performances or for its keeping for historical reasons. Unfortunately, the presentation and keeping of this token of esteem is not protected in the proposed legislation. It is important that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, so eloquently put it, we do not criminalise people unintendedly. On behalf of the UK Sikh community, I will seek a small amendment to the existing wording to ensure that the presentation and receipt of this traditional ceremonial Sikh honour remains protected.
My Lords, I broadly welcome the Bill. My interest in it stems from my record as an enthusiastic supporter of the shooting sports. I am a former president of the Gun Trade Association and a former president and chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council, and a former chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee at the Home Office, appointed about four weeks before Dunblane happened. I am a member of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers and a member of both the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance. From that, your Lordships will probably realise that I am quite keen on my chosen sport and, I hope, moderately knowledgeable.
Every shooting organisation to which I have ever belonged has had one common goal: the responsible promotion and enjoyment of its chosen discipline while ensuring that safety, especially the safety of the public, should always remain paramount. Indeed, I recall that during the passage of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, Her Majesty’s Government wished to ban and remove from circulation entirely and without compensation the Brocock air pistol. This weapon, which was easily capable of conversion—probably in a garden shed—into a deadly little weapon using basic tools, had become popular as the weapon of choice of criminals. It had been used in a number of fatal shootings, and there were very many of these guns in circulation. The Gun Trade Association and the other shooting organisations actively supported the Government’s view that these guns should become a prohibited weapon under Section 5(1)(af). However, under the Act, and as a consequence of the Government’s unwillingness to compensate owners and the manufacturers, some people were permitted to hold such a gun under a Section 1 certificate. Today, around 60,000 Brococks are still in existence somewhere out there—nobody really knows where—and the manufacturers have still not been compensated for the loss of their expensive tooling and equipment. The support of the Government’s actions by the various shooting bodies bears testament to a responsible shooting community.
In that light, I will offer a few comments on the Bill, specifically with regard to guns. First, the question of so-called bump stocks was raised in the Government’s policy paper, in their overarching fact sheet. That document states that the Bill will prohibit,
“high energy and rapid firing rifles and a device known as a ‘bump stock’ which increases the rate of fire of rifles and provides for compensation of owners”,
of such weapons. Compensation is not normally the case.
I take this opportunity to remind your Lordships of just what is a bump stock. It is, in simple terms, a piece of equipment which, when fitted to the stock of a self-loading rifle, enables it to fire missiles much faster, and exponentially turns that firearm into an automatic weapon. Incidentally, although a legal definition of a self-loading rifle is yet to be decided, a useful one could well be: “a weapon where, after the weapon is fired, it is reloaded without the intervention of the operator”. The perpetrator of the massacre in Las Vegas used guns fitted with bump stocks. So far as I am aware, such stocks are made only in the United States, and they were subject to a ban on importation into the UK in 2017 through the Notice to Importers 2896 of 4 December 2017. In any case, self-loading rifles are already prohibited firearms under Section 5(1)(ab) of the Firearms Act 1968 as amended.
Briefly, on .50 calibre rifles, it is my understanding that these weapons came under the scrutiny of the police when one was stolen from a car and recovered, having not been used in a crime but with its barrel sawn off. Anyone who is stupid enough to do that to a .50 calibre and fire it is ensured of a very brief life expectancy.
In addition, I understand that the police misguidedly believe that such weapons are used for material destruction. The ones used by the military most definitely are, as they are used as snipers’ rifles. There are only about 130 civilian versions of these rifles held privately in the United Kingdom. They are used by target shooting enthusiasts with Section 1 target ammunition only. Owing to their barrel length, their weight of about 20 pounds and the fact that they are single-shot or bolt action, it is extremely unlikely that they would or could be used in criminal activities. They are target-shooting guns for very specialist marksmen and are used in a very small number of specialist licensed ranges, many of which are military ranges.
A far more sensible way of legislating for those rifles would be to keep them as Section 1 with a few modest security requirements—for example, the bolt having to be kept at a licensed club, separate to the rifle, the ammunition being secured at a club with usage being signed for in and out and being on the owner’s firearms certificate.
I am delighted that, following debate in the other place, Her Majesty’s Government have thought again and will have further consultation. My concern is, first, that this round of consultation must be a vast improvement on the last one, which was universally regarded as heavily flawed, and that Her Majesty’s Government do not try to slip a quiet little clause into the Bill during its passage through your Lordships’ House. I am certainly not intimating that the Home Office might be disingenuous; I am simply rather an old hand on gun legislation.
It is my belief that, as my noble friend Lord Robathan said—he served for a long while in Northern Ireland—that was a one-off case of an imported, illegal .50 calibre used. That is the only time, to my knowledge and to the knowledge of the shooting sports associations, that a .50 calibre has been used in criminal activity. That was for material use as well as human destruction.
Surely if the police have issued certificates which also control the amount of ammunition that can be possessed, they have done so because the good reason test for possession has been justified. Therefore, the Government must review the original consultation and bring forward a proposal which is better worded to meet the needs of public safety. If this were done and further evidence offered to support the need for a ban, in the event of MARS and lever release becoming subject to Section 5 prohibition, I would strongly support the view of the British Shooting Sports Council and support an amendment by which the possessor of such rifles could have them converted to a straight-pull or bolt action function and thus retain them on a Section 1 certificate. In the view of the BSSC experts, which I wholeheartedly support, surrender and the cost involved in either conversion or deactivation would attract compensation. This compensation was mentioned in the policy statement, as I said. I should be happy to table such an amendment in due course, unless HMG wish to table their own.
I turn to air rifles and air weapons in general. I am aware that the Government have stated that they will consider what action or actions might be appropriate with regard to air weapons. That is fair enough, but there must be a thorough consultative process—a process which would have the support of the BSSC. A while back, on a Starred Question concerning air weapons, a noble Lord opposite from Scotland mentioned that we should follow the Scottish Parliament’s lead in legislating for the licensing of air rifles. Heaven forbid. That process north of the border has been an unmitigated disaster which has achieved absolutely zero benefit to the safety of the public.
I turn to medical issues relating to firearms licensing. I can do no better than quote the BSSC’s view on this matter. This issue affects every firearms certificate and shotgun certificate holder in England and Wales. The EU firearms directive mandates in Article 5.2 a medical assessment of every applicant for a certificate. In England and Wales, there is no consistency of practice between police forces, nor is there any consistency of the fee charged to the applicant by his or her GP for a medical assessment.
What is required is, first, a compulsory and once-only medical records check by the GP in response to a police inquiry about the physical and mental health of the applicant; secondly, an enduring marker to be placed by the GP on the patient’s medical record, noting that he or she may be in possession of firearms or shotguns, to ensure that thereafter the GP is reminded to draw to police attention any future adverse change in the patient’s health which may have a bearing on their abilities safely to possess a firearm or shotgun; thirdly, an agreed reasonable fee for the GP’s original medical records check and placing of the enduring marker; fourthly, an extension of the life of firearm and shotgun certificates from five to 10 years, which would reduce pressure on licensing departments and police forces; and, finally, protection of the confidentiality of applicants’ and certificate holders’ data. Despite warm words from my honourable friend Nick Hurd, there appears to be inaction by the Government to bring that forward, although it has the backing of both the BSSC and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Shooting and Conservation.
In conclusion, I agree with suggestions that a firearms advisory committee should be established, provided that it is statutory. My experience as a former chairman of the then FCC was first class. On that committee, we had representatives at most senior levels of the police, forensic scientists, shooting organisations and those who supported gun control. That committee demonstrated a true ability to work well to address complex technical and legal issues. Further, we developed a rapport and an excellent working relationship with the police, instead of the usual perceived combative attitude so often held by some elements of both sides.
I rest my case and look forward to hearing my noble friend’s comment on the issues I have raised when she winds up.
My Lords, as the last listed Back-Bench speaker, it has been encouraging to hear the great support all around the House for the purposes of the Bill and to listen to all the experience and wealth of statistics being brought forward.
I shall talk about some of the peripheral effects of the Bill. It has a simple title but, as we see from its 48 pages, it is far from easy to have workable legislation on this topic. It is endlessly complicated by having to allow for three devolution settlements, with special sections peppering the text. I am most encouraged to read in the accompanying notes that the Scottish Parliament has passed a legislative consent Motion. I should be interested to know whether, if amendments are passed in this House, we will have to go back to legislative Assemblies around the country to see whether they approve.
The rural life that I have led, rather in parallel to that of my noble friend Lord Lucas, has been full of what are described as corrosive substances, offensive weapons and firearms. In all of these, one was given instruction in their use and the dangers that they could pose. One is conscious that is not available to those who live in urban areas and the use to which they tend to put the weapons which fall into their hands.
I declare an interest as an office-bearer of the National Sheep Association and of the National Farmers Union of Scotland. In that context, I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the rural scene has changed radically since the main legislation in this area was framed. Many of the rules which will apply refer to “a public place”. As we see in Clause 6(9), a public place is no longer confined to what one normally thinks of—a road, a highway or a building—but includes anywhere where the public are permitted access. This now includes large sections of the countryside.
Another element that has changed is that, in many parts, traditional farmhouses, which used to be the focus and constantly manned part of the business, have been sold off, and farmers are managing their business from a house somewhere else. A lot of the time, there may be no one on the site of the farming activity. That begins to bear some relevance when we talk about the supply of corrosive substances or weapons to the farming community. There may be a question, too, whether your supplier is prepared to regard your house as of a sufficient size to be your place of business. Problems will arise for those taking delivery of the substances required by the business. The Bill rules out delivery to a locker, but will that mean that deliveries will have to be received by somebody in person? Who knows what time of day a delivery man or courier will appear? We have all experienced waiting for their non-appearance.
I have similar concerns to those of my noble friend Lord Lucas on corrosive substances. I hope that the Minister can give the House more of an indication of how wide the interpretation of the given definition is envisaged to go. Clause 6(9) defines them as anything capable of “burning human skin”, but Schedule 1 goes on to list specific compounds, mainly of an inorganic nature, and says that they might give rise to chemical abstracts. Is that definition considered fairly wide, or is the schedule designed to limit the products to which the ruling can be applied? Formic acid is one of the things listed; I am aware that it is used in farming to preserve silage. I have also had experience of another extremely aggressive organic acid—propionic acid—used to preserve moist grain. It gives rise to a product known as Propcorn, which is not at all the sort of thing you might buy in the cinema. Will these organic acids be covered by some definition?
On a slightly lighter note, but in a similar vein to the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, I notice that for some reason only in Scotland is there a focus on bladed weapons when they come into your possession if the defence is used that they were required for theatrical performances, films or television programmes. Of course, those also occur in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I happen to be a member of the Royal Company of Archers, which parades around the country with swords and arrows. I wonder where this regulation will leave it and other bodies, such as one known as the Atholl Highlanders—the private army of the Duke of Atholl—which are given to producing weapons that would certainly be considered dangerous.
My Lords, I apologise for not putting my name down to speak. The debate has been excellent and bodes well for later stages.
I have three points to make. First, I agree that high muzzle energy rifles are a real problem and that we need to do something about them. It is about not just their range and hitting power, but their accuracy. I do not think that we need to ban them; we just need to provide separate storage for the bolt. I am confident that we can achieve that with the Bill. Secondly, I am content with Clause 32, which prohibits certain types of firearms. Let us be honest, they are self-loading rifles, made legal by means of a loophole; it may be possible to modify them. Since they represent a loophole, I am not happy with the compensation provisions in Clauses 36 to 38.
Finally, I have taken a close look at the UK prison system. I share the concerns of many noble Lords regarding the custodial sentence provisions in the Bill, not because I am a fluffy bunny—I am not—but because our current prison system is not fit for purpose, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, told us. Until we have an effective system where we can be confident that we will improve the character and capability of youngsters both significantly and obviously, we should be very cautious about using increased prison sentences.
Motion to Adjourn
Let us hear from Baroness Hamwee.
My Lords, I join the Opposition Front Bench in asking the House to respect the tradition that the Government Chief Whip controls the business. The adjournment is appropriate; it is a matter of the business of the other House starting on time. The delay will not be a couple of hours, but exactly the delay advertised in today’s business.