Second Reading (Continued)
My Lords, returning to the Offensive Weapons Bill, I do not think I have ever had quite so much enthusiasm and encouragement for a speech as I received before the Statement. I hope I do not disappoint.
I start by declaring an interest as a board member for the charity Safer London, which works with young people to prevent entry into crime and assist exit from crime. I agree with much of what has been said this afternoon, including thanks to the Library for its excellent briefing.
A month or so ago, we had a debate in this House on serious violence, which followed seamlessly from a debate on schools: the issue of school exclusions—one of the results of a focus on attainment, one might say—was one of the issues that cropped up again in the serious violence debate. The ideas that we shared during that debate on cross-cutting issues, a cross-sectoral approach and a public health approach are in my view more likely to be fruitful than much of what will come out of the debate over the weeks and months—who knows?—on this legislation. The witnesses to the Public Bill Committee in the Commons also applied the language of health to addressing violence. Rob Owen of the St Giles Trust talked about intensive care and similar points have been made during this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, referred to early intervention; others have made the same point.
I could sum up the position of these Benches, as set out in the speech by my noble friend Lord Paddick, as “underwhelmed”. Yet again, we are in danger of thinking that legislation is the answer, even when we have adequate legislation in place and—as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and my noble friend Lord Storey—of not addressing the symptoms of the problem. I am one of those who has my keys in my hand when feeling insecure at night.
I start, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, did, at the end, as it were—on sentencing, especially the sentencing of children and young people and on short sentences. I say “at the end”, but for many offenders a sentence of imprisonment is actually the end of the beginning; it amounts to an induction course in crime. The House will be well aware of the opposition of these Benches to mandatory sentences—an issue that we addressed during the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill running concurrently with this Bill.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, was one of those who made that point as a witness to the Public Bill Committee. She said:
“I know that when we criminalise children there is one path. We know that over the last two or three years, there has been a doubling of children, under 18, who are in prison because of knife crime. Once they are in there, we know that 68% reoffend, so there is one route. My position is firmly on preventing that from happening, and using that as a trigger”.—[Official Report, Commons, Offensive Weapons Bill Committee, 19/7/18; col. 86.]
We might take a slightly different view if mandatory sentences, as they currently apply and are proposed in the Bill, were not custodial. I do not apologise for repeating the observation of the Chief Inspector of Prisons that there is not a single custodial establishment in England and Wales that is safe to hold children and young people. I had taken heart from the Justice Secretary’s apparent opposition to short prison sentences but, as so often, the quiet, thoughtful approach is drowned out by a more simplistic knee-jerk reaction so that it can be said, “The Government are doing something. They’re sending a message”.
I am grateful for the briefings from the Prison Reform Trust and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice. We are reminded that by removing judicial discretion, the proposals work against the guidelines of the Sentencing Council. They acknowledge the importance of considering the individual child and his circumstances in a way that legislation inevitably cannot.
Does a custodial sentence act as a deterrent? There does not seem to be evidence of that, given the rising numbers of children convicted of relevant offences, many of whom feel the need to provide their own protection—or what they see as protection. I was horrified to read of children now carrying acid for protection as well as knives.
I would have thought that the chances of being caught were more in a potential offender’s mind, so it is inevitable that we should refer to police resources, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, did. I myself would much rather see taxpayers’ money spent on local policing and diverting children—both under-18s and those who are a few years older, a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—away from the formal youth justice system rather than on expensive custody, which is ineffective in terms of diversion from crime but too effective in consolidation towards crime.
The Bill extends the legislation on knives and introduces provisions on corrosive products or substances—we might be debating those terms—although, as my noble friend tells the House, this may not be new after all. I am of an age where my tendency is to hark back to the old days, and I include the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 in that. I am sure we will be reminded that the police and the CPS will apply both common sense and the well-known tests to, “My mum asked me to take the drain cleaner down to my auntie because she’s desperate and she’s got a houseful for Christmas”, but we should not be having to think about going there.
I have to say that there is much more to consider in these clauses than I had expected. The psychology of the choice of a weapon is interesting: we learn that there are more male victims of acid attacks in London than female. However, what is not in the Bill? How do we take advantage of the teachable or reachable moment that is at the heart of the public health approach? On corrosive substances, the House will benefit from the experience of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton.
Retailers are central to the Bill, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the progress of the discussions to which USDAW has alerted us. It tells us that it has met the Minister and described that as a major step towards dealing with outstanding issues, but I am not clear quite what progress has been made. Perhaps she can assist the House.
Local authorities too are central, as are trading standards, which are a part of local authorities, although more needs to be done. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Couttie, in that connection. That raises issues of resources and specific investigatory powers for trading standards officers.
At this point I have one simple question. As I read it, there has been quite a discussion in the House of Commons of barcodes. Has there been any consideration of labelling of the products in question? That would give information to the purchaser as well as to the seller. Has the Home Office actually met local authorities and trading standards to discuss their practice and the day-to-day issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who I suspect is going to have a lot of amendments at the next stage of the Bill? I would also be interested to know what the position is in the development of roadside test kits, which have been mentioned.
My noble friend Lord Paddick raised the issue of whether the reasonable excuse should be a defence or whether it should preclude an offence in the first place—I think few of us had heard of Section 118 until recently, but it has become a sort of go-to provision. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, has had correspondence with the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability about the use of persuasive and evidential burdens, and I suspect we will want to follow that up in Committee. The explanation by the Minister that acids are simply being put on all fours with knives as a weapon is not one that I find wholly persuasive.
On firearms, I admit to having to resist bias in myself against anything that in any way normalises guns and does not tighten gun control. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, will not be surprised at that rather urban outlook. I have to say that I have often found it quite hard to square the Government’s support for rights defenders when the issues are the ownership or use of firearms; it is not quite the same when the rights in question are those of privacy.
In connection with rights, the noble Lord, Lord Singh, rightly reminded us of the cultural and religious issues that are in play here.
The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, asked what to me were rather necessary and important questions about the paradox at the heart of the removal of provisions advised by the services without including the safeguards suggested by those who have an interest in shooting. I too could not get Dunblane, Hungerford and other events out of my mind in thinking about this.
What is the timetable for the consultation about firearms safety? Why can we not do something now that could be rescinded—I do not know whether there would be a disproportionate cost to individuals and the Government—given the shortage of parliamentary time, of which we are all aware? As urged by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, we must be objective; I will certainly keep on telling myself that.
Lastly, I turn to victims. However, I am uncomfortable about referring to them in my last paragraph, as it were. I do not want to indicate that support for victims is of the least importance—not only in the context of offensive weapons, of course. One lens through which we should keep looking at the Bill is how it will be perceived by individuals who have been victims. Concern for perpetrators, as mentioned at the start of the debate, and for victims, and sometimes for individuals who are both, are not matters that are mutually exclusive.
My Lords, I will first put on record that the Opposition support the general aims of the Bill. In that sense, we will support its passage through this House. That is not to say that there are not areas where we think it can be significantly improved. It is my intention, along with my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe and others on the opposition Benches, to probe, to seek to persuade and, if necessary, to vote on amendments on Report to make much-needed improvements to the Bill.
Knife crime is all too prevalent at the moment. Only on Friday we learned of the horrific murder of Mr Lee Pomeroy on a train in Surrey in front of his son. As others have done, I offer my condolences to the poor man’s family and friends.
As we have heard, it is the first duty of government to protect the public: we can all agree on that. That, though, is made all the more difficult by spending reductions to police forces and the refusal by the Government to accept that that is what they are doing—and the ludicrous suggestion that there is no connection between the number of police officers and the level of crime, which we have heard far too often.
The noble Lord, Lord Blair, who is not in his place at the moment, made it crystal clear a few months ago that there was a difference between the level of resources he had at his disposal when he was the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the level of resources available to Cressida Dick. The noble Lord stepped down in December 2008 and Cressida Dick is the third person to hold the position since then. The current level is around 20% less than what the noble Lord had at his disposal. Those are shocking figures.
When he spoke earlier, my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe spoke of the 21,000 police officers, over 18,000 police staff and over 6,800 community support officers that have been lost since 2010; these roles were all axed, despite the Government’s pledge to protect the front line. This, along with the hundreds of millions of pounds cut from local authority youth service budgets and the loss of social and youth workers, has contributed to the terrible situation we find ourselves in at present.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made important points about mental health and the problems of young people leaving care at 18 and going to totally unacceptable and unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation. Social and youth workers work under real pressure and are struggling to cope, as the noble Earl told us.
There are some excellent voluntary projects, delivering support for young people on council estates and in youth clubs. During my time as a councillor in the London Borough of Southwark in the 1980s, I recall the excellent work in my ward of the Crossed Swords youth club at St Paul’s Church Lorrimore Square in Southwark, or more recently, the work taking place on the Wyndham Estate in Camberwell to get young people away from violence. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made an important point about young people, their circumstances, and thinking through the consequences of their actions. These issues deserve proper consideration, both in Grand Committee and on the Floor of the House. My noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen made an important contribution about the seriousness of the problems we are facing in many towns and communities across the UK. In making reference to reductions in spending in local authorities, I should of course draw the attention of the House to the fact that I am a vice president of the Local Government Association.
While the Bill has the support of the Opposition for what it does, it does nothing to tackle the root causes of crime, and early intervention work has been further undermined through the cuts I have outlined. The Bill does nothing to tackle the bad side of social media, which fuels abuse and can incite violence. In so many ways, social media has been a source of good and has revolutionised how we operate our lives, but it has a vicious, nasty, wild-west side and it is disappointing that the Government are again choosing to do nothing to bring this under control, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, mentioned.
Gang violence is a serious problem which needs real, focused attention from the Government. It is shocking to hear there are estimated to be around 70,000 people under the age of 25 involved with gangs. The full extent of the county lines problem is beginning to be fully understood. While out with the police in south London recently, I heard from police officers that young people were being picked up in seaside towns in Kent and Essex and were being used to transport illegal substances. Again, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove: the Bill is a missed opportunity and more needs to be done to protect young people and deal with those who benefit from these crimes, as well as to support the families who are left with unbearable grief after the loss of a loved one. When she responds, will the Minister tell the House why we are still waiting for the Government to deliver on the 2015 and 2017 manifesto pledges to legislate for the rights of victims? There is nothing about that in this Bill, or any other proposed legislation I am aware of, despite the pledge being made in two Conservative Party manifestos.
I will now move on to look at the provisions of the Bill itself. The first part of the Bill deals with the sale and delivery of corrosive substances, including banning their sale to persons under the age of 18 and their delivery to residential premises. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, gave some stark figures about acid attacks, and I agree with him about the reasons for these attacks and the solutions to deal with this horrendous crime; the measures in the Bill, though welcome, are not the whole solution to the problem we face today. I will look further at the proposals in the Bill and see if they can be strengthened.
The next section makes it an offence to be in possession of a corrosive substance in a public place, and this is very welcome, because of not only the horrific injuries that have been caused but the fear that this type of violent attack brings to people and communities. My noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe made reference to the spate of fake acid attacks, and this is one area where I think we could possibly look to table an amendment to deal with the fear factor that attacks of this kind bring to people and communities.
The proposals contained in the Bill regarding the sale and delivery of knives and other bladed weapons to individuals under the age of 18 are welcome. The loss of life through stabbings is truly tragic, and anything that can be done to get weapons out of the hands of people who would do wrong with them must be supported. I welcome the proposals in the Bill for an orderly surrender of the weapons that will become prohibited under this legislation. However, I wonder whether it is time for a more general weapons amnesty to get as many weapons off the street and disposed of as soon as possible.
The clause on prohibiting offensive weapons in further education premises is welcome, although I learned from the police that there is a tendency for individuals to hide these weapons outside schools and colleges. They hide them in bushes, walls and trees and they bury them, so the weapons never come into the premises in the first place. Again, I will probe this in Grand Committee to see what more can be done to protect people in this regard. However, it would be helpful if the Minister could explain why higher education establishments are not included in this extension. In particular, I will want to probe what more can be done to ensure that the sellers of bladed articles are taking all reasonable precautions to comply with the law, and also what further actions could be taken to deal with those people who break the law in this regard, either intentionally or recklessly.
I welcome the further prohibitions of certain offensive weapons. I must confess that I had never heard of some of these weapons before I started looking at this Bill—I did not know what they were—but, now I know about them, I am very pleased they will be banned. Moving onto the question of firearms, I agree we have some of the toughest firearms regulations in the world and I am very pleased with that. I am strongly in favour of it, and the additional restrictions in this Bill are most welcome. However, it is always the case that, when you put a restriction in place, people will seek ways of getting around it; we must always be alert to that and ready to take further action. Will the Minister tell the House whether she is satisfied with the provisions and protections presently in place on bringing deactivated or obsolete weapons back into use?
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, was right when he said that the problem was not with law-abiding citizens but criminals. I strongly agree, but, unlike him, I was disappointed that the Government, under pressure in the House of Commons, removed sections of the Bill that would ban firearms with a muzzle velocity of more than 13,600 joules, including .50 calibre weapons. I do not think that the argument that these weapons are very large, slow to load and expensive, that there are only about 150 of them in the UK today and that they have not been used in a crime in the UK are acceptable reasons for having agreed these amendments. I will come back to that in Committee and on Report.
My noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen made a very powerful contribution. He quoted the Home Secretary’s comments at Second Reading in the other place and highlighted the complete U-turn that took place as a result of pressure from his own Back Benches, which was disturbing and unjustified. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, made some interesting points concerning inconsistences between police forces and also medical certificates. I agree that we need consistency on these matters and I look forward to exploring that further in Grand Committee.
I know very little about weapons. I have fired one or two in my time. I fired a sniper weapon on an Army range. I accept that that is a very heavy weapon, but these things are serious and I want to make sure that we have the best possible protections in place.
The last issue I will come on to is the protection of shop workers. I used to work in a shop a very long time ago when I was very young and had ginger hair. While it can be enjoyable, it involves very long hours, it is not paid very well and it is not without its risks from people attempting to shoplift or to use stolen credit or debit cards. The risk of assault is always there when individuals are challenged. I used to be a member of USDAW. It is a great trade union representing shop workers. I very much support the aims it has put forward for the Bill.
I should also say that many employers also understand those risks. I know that the Co-op does, and the British Retail Consortium is certainly very concerned about the risk to employees—to name just two organisations. I was shocked to learn that approximately 230 people are assaulted in shops every day while trying to do the job that they are paid to do. We should show some solidarity with shop workers and some support for these people who are treated in such a dreadful way and assaulted. I very much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in that regard.
I am aware that colleagues in the other place and USDAW representatives met with the Government, and we hope for some good news from the Government during the Bill’s passage to improve protections for shop workers, because we expect shop workers in effect to police and enforce the law. That will include the new proposals we are debating, but we are not presently adding new protections for them. The issue has rightly been raised that shop workers can be prosecuted for selling these products—I have no problem with that; it is absolutely right if they sell these things illegally—but there is no corresponding offence of buying them. Again, that needs to be looked at. I think the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made that very point in his contribution. I hope we can come back to that in Committee and on Report.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, rightly brought to the attention of the House important issues of cultural and religious significance. We again need to look at that in Committee and on Report.
In conclusion, I generally welcome the Bill. It makes a great step forward. However, there are issues that we need to address and I look forward to engaging constructively with the noble Baroness and with the rest of the House.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what has been quite a wide-ranging debate on an extremely serious subject, certainly in the shadow of the death of Mr Pomeroy only the other day. Of course, noble Lords have mentioned Dunblane and Hungerford. All noble Lords will never forget those times.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made a very important point during her speech that this is not just about legislation, which goes to the heart of some of the frustration felt by noble Lords when they think that this or that should be in the Bill. As she said, we cannot solve this just by legislation. There has been work on county lines and the serious violence strategy, which I will mention shortly, on prevention, early intervention, and of course the all-important multiagency work that my noble friend Lady Couttie mentioned.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about the consultation on the public health duty. That is at the heart of the Home Secretary’s approach. We have already started working with Scottish officials to develop learning from their public health approach. The Home Secretary chairs the cross-party, cross-stakeholder serious violence task force, together with the Mayor of London. There will be a consultation on the new legal duty that will underpin the public health approach to tackling serious violence. The Government will launch that consultation shortly. This approach is not before time, as many noble Lords mentioned.
A number of noble Lords questioned the legal certainty around the terms of the new offences provided for in the Bill, a point also raised by the JCHR, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is a member. Possession of corrosives in a public place requires a different approach from the sale of corrosives to under-18s. For the sale of corrosives, we have taken the approach of listing the specific chemicals in Schedule 1. However, for possession of corrosives in a public place an approach is needed that can be used operationally by the police. That is why Clause 6(9) defines a corrosive as,
“capable of burning human skin by corrosion”.
This definition would not capture most household cleaning products, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, posits, but it would cover some stronger drain cleaners and industrial cleaning agents.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham asked about the Schedule 1 list and the difference of approach we have taken to defining a corrosive product for prohibiting the sale of corrosives to under-18s and a corrosive substance for the purposes of possessing a corrosive. For the sale offence, manufacturers and retailers need absolute clarity over what they can and cannot sell, so we have listed the specific chemicals and concentration levels in Schedule 1. The relevant products will be barcoded—I hope that that answers the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—to help retailers avoid selling them to children. For the possession offence, we need a simpler definition that police can use on the ground because, of course, they are not chemists. We have used a definition based on the burning of human skin that can be tested by the police using a simple kit that is currently being developed, which I hope goes to the point made by my noble friend Lord Lucas.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, asked about car batteries. We are aware of the potential issue relating to sealed batteries used in cars and mobility scooters. We are looking at this further. I am sure we will return to it in further stages. Our intention is certainly not to cause unintended problems from the measures in the Bill on legitimate activities. The Bill is aimed at tackling violent crime, not restricting legitimate business.
My noble friend Lord Lucas asked why we have not provided a full list of banned corrosives. The corrosive products in Schedule 1 reflect the advice of the police and the government scientists. They are substances that are most likely to be used in acid attacks. The concentration levels reflect those that are likely to cause permanent damage if used in an attack. There is a delegated power to add further substances to Schedule 1 if further evidence shows that it is required.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about raising the age to 21, rather than 18, for age-restricted products such as corrosives and knives. The current universal age of a child is someone until the age of 18. Placing the age restriction on measures on corrosives in the Bill would set a precedent for other age-restricted products such as knives and alcohol. We need to consider proportionality. Knives and corrosives are not in themselves weapons. They have many legitimate uses. It would be wrong to say that an adult cannot buy drain cleaner or, indeed, a bread knife. A better approach is to challenge those who might look under the age of 21. This is something that responsible retailers already do.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about the good reason defence for the purposes of Clause 6. The good reason defence has existed for some time for bladed and pointed articles and has been operated by the police with no issues. A good reason would include taking the corrosive home for its intended purpose, or use in the course of employment or academic study. As I said before, we do not expect the police to challenge shoppers as they leave supermarkets. It is intended to tackle those who have serious violent intent, acting on intelligence and reasonable suspicion.
The noble Lord also raised the issue of stop-and-search powers. As he will be aware, if an officer has reasonable grounds to suspect someone of carrying a prohibited article, such as a corrosive substance, with the intent to cause injury, the police already have the power to conduct a stop and search under PACE 1984. We have been consulting on extending stop and search to ensure that there are no gaps in police powers. Police officers will still need reasonable grounds to justify the use of these powers for the new offence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and another noble Lord asked about acid testing kits. We have jointly commissioned the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, along with the NPCC, to develop an effective and robust testing regime which will allow police officers to be able to safely test suspect containers and bottles for corrosive substances. It is our intention to have a viable testing kit available to the police before the provisions on the new possession offence are commenced. My noble friend Lady Eaton made the very sensible point that the testing kit needs to be cost effective. Of course it does.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about labelling, alongside the issue of barcoding. We considered labelling of corrosive products but chemical manufacturers were opposed to this. Their products are sold internationally and having specific labelling for the UK market would have been expensive. However, I know from personal experience that certain products are already labelled, particularly those that contain substances which can prove to be corrosive in their more concentrated form.
There was a lot of discussion on .50 calibre rifles. The noble Lords, Lord Paddick, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Ramsbotham, all questioned the removal from the Bill of the prohibition of high-power rifles, although this change to the Bill was welcomed by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury. I assure all noble Lords on both sides of the argument that we have looked into these issues in great detail. It is apparent that they are more complex than they at first appeared, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and my noble friend Lord Caithness pointed out. This issue requires further careful consideration before deciding how best to proceed. We therefore feel that it is only right to consider the issue further in consultation with interested parties. In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that will be in the next few months and probably after the passage of the Bill. In the interim, it would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of that work by including a ban on these weapons in the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Caithness talked about taking up the APPG suggestions. I shall certainly look at those before Committee. My noble friend Lord Attlee has put forward a helpful proposal. We welcome all these ideas and will consider this further as part of the wider consultation.
The noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, and my noble friend Lord Robathan talked about Northern Ireland and the fact that some of the firearms used there are still not banned. We did consult fully, but the consultation options were limited to whether or not to prohibit them, not whether enhanced security, as has been suggested for the .50 calibre rifles, would be a factor in mitigating any threats raised by law enforcement. Public safety is our number one priority. In response to the points made on the security of such weapons, I can say that we expect owners to continue to take all reasonable security measures and ensure that the relevant level of security is in place, under existing firearm certificates.
There was a lot of support for shop workers and I totally understand where that point is coming from. The noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Kennedy, and my noble friend Lord Lucas pointed out that shop workers are not only under strain but are intimidated by some customers. They asked how we can afford greater protection to those workers. The Government continue to consider the case for a bespoke offence relating to assaults on retail staff. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I can say that last month my ministerial colleague the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Crime hosted a round-table meeting attended by David Hanson MP, Richard Graham MP and representatives from the British Retail Consortium, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. It was a very productive meeting and we are currently considering how best to proceed.
My noble friends Lord Shrewsbury and Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, talked about manually activated release system rifles, or MARS as they are more commonly known. The firing systems in these weapons means that they can discharge rounds at a much faster rate than conventional bolt-action rifles. There are, no doubt, some shooters who can manipulate a bolt-action rifle very quickly, but we cannot ignore the fact that these MARS and lever release rifles are closer to self-loading rifles, which are already prohibited in civilian ownership. We have sought to point out, in the public consultation and subsequently, that potential misuse of these rifles presents an unacceptable risk. It is therefore appropriate that they should be subject to the most stringent controls. If individual owners wish to convert their rifles to a straight-pull action or to have them deactivated before the Bill passes into law, as my noble friend suggested, they will have that choice. If not, I can confirm that we will make arrangements for compensation to be paid to owners who choose to surrender their rifles instead. We will return to the subject of an amnesty and discuss it further in Committee.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and other noble Lords raised the issue of air weapons and the need for consultation ahead of any action in relation to them. The Minister for Policing and the Fire Service announced a review of the regulation of air weapons in October 2017, following the coroner’s report into the tragic death of Benjamin Wragge, a 13 year-old boy who was shot accidentally with an air weapon in 2016. The Government recognise that there are very strong views on the regulation of air weapons. As the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability said in Committee in another place, it is our intention to announce the outcome of that review shortly.
My noble friend also made a number of valuable points in relation to the medical suitability of firearms certificate holders. My noble friend Lord Bethell talked about modernising the processes for obtaining firearms licences, so that we can continue to command the public’s trust in the efficacy of the system. I assure my noble friend that the Government and the police, who administer firearms licensing, see the need to make progress in modernising the existing arrangements. As a step towards this, legislation was introduced at the end of 2017 to allow for the electronic submission of firearms and shotgun applications to the police. These changes were introduced to help pave the way for online processes and they mean that individual police forces can now accept applications electronically if they wish to do so. This is very much a first step, but it will help both the police and individual licence holders to begin to benefit from the efficiencies that digitisation will bring.
My noble friend also raised the issue of prosecution in relation to offences involving corrosive substances. I take his point about the need to do more to ensure that all offenders who use a corrosive substance are brought to justice: that is why the NPCC has been working hard to ensure that the policing response is effective and that training is developed for officers dealing with these attacks, including new first responder training and advice. Special investigative guidance has also been developed to help officers understand how to safely recover and handle any evidence at the scene, and the evidence required to build a case for prosecution. A number of high-profile court cases over the course of 2018 resulted in successful convictions and lengthy custodial sentences. That has sent a clear message that these horrendous attacks will not be tolerated. We think that sentences act as a deterrent.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about sentences. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about minimum mandatory sentences. The minimum mandatory sentence that applies in England and Wales for the offence of possessing a corrosive substance in a public place mirrors that which already exists for possession of a bladed article in public. We believe that corrosives should be treated as seriously as knives as a weapon, particularly for repeat offences. Under Clause 8 the court will have the flexibility not to impose a minimum sentence where it would be unjust to do so.
My noble friend Lord Bethell asked how measures in the Bill on corrosives will lead to successful convictions. We will be working closely with police and trading standards on the implementation of measures prohibiting the sale and delivery of corrosive products to under-18s and prohibiting the delivery of corrosive products to residential premises. This will include developing guidance to ensure that the new offences can be effectively enforced. In addition, we will look to work with retailers, through relevant trade associations, on the implementation of these measures, to ensure that retailers know which corrosive products are caught by this and that they will need to apply their Challenge 21 and Challenge 25 policies where appropriate. We have already put in place a set of voluntary commitments on the responsible sale of corrosive substances. These prohibit sales to under-18s, and a number of major retailers have signed up to them.
My noble friend also spoke about the need for prevention and early intervention, as did I. This goes to the heart of our efforts to tackle this terrible problem. I reassure my noble friend that we will use the research findings that we have commissioned to help us shape effective prevention and early intervention programmes that can be delivered in various settings, whether that is in schools, pupil referral units or youth projects. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked why the Bill does not cover the threat of fake acid attacks. Actually, threatening with an inert substance such as water which the person claims is acid is already an offence that can be prosecuted as common assault or as a public order offence.
I know I am running out of time, but I will address the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, about kirpans. What is now Clause 25 provides for a defence for the purpose of “religious reasons”, as opposed to the original wording, “religious ceremonies”. This ensures that the possession in private of large kirpans for religious reasons can continue, even when not in the context of a ceremony such as a wedding. It does not extend to the gifting of ceremonial swords with a blade of more than 50 centimetres in length, but I would be happy to meet the noble Lord, Lord Singh, ahead of Committee.
I shall finish by talking about police numbers, because a lot of questions were asked about this. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, made a point about the noble Lord, Lord Blair, and I am now going to make a point about the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. That points to the fact that the issue is complex: I am not saying that the police are not under strain, but of course other factors, such as the increase in drugs markets, have contributed to the rise in serious violence. Of course, overall public investment in policing will grow from £11.9 billion in 2015-16 to £13 billion in 2018-19.
Finally, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Newlove, not only for all she has done to support victims but for some of the things she has been able to share with us today from her very tragic experience. I know that she is meeting my officials shortly. She has made every articulate point, as has the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about the importance of support for victims. The Government are putting victims and survivors at the heart of our response. We want victims to feel confident in coming forward, so that the perpetrators of these crimes can be brought to justice.
Before the noble Baroness sits down, will she go back to her point about .50 calibre weapons? She said that this is very important and serious and that the Government want to consult properly and do not want to ban things before they have had a consultation. I see that train of thought—but she then said that the consultation will finish after we have considered the Bill. What will happen if the Government then decide to ban the weapons? Do we then need further legislation or is there a power in here that the Government could take? Perhaps she can come back to me on that.
That is a very fair point and I will come back to the noble Lord about just how that process will work.
If the House will indulge me for another minute, the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe, Lord Storey and Lord Paddick, my noble friend Lady Couttie and others all talked about early intervention and prevention, and the balance between prevention and law enforcement. I have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who said we are not funding some of the early interventions. We are providing £17.7 million over the next two years through the Early Intervention Youth Fund, about which I have spoken in this House. We also support early intervention and prevention through the new rounds of the Anti-Knife Crime Community Fund for 2018-19 and 2019-20. The fund for 2018-19 was recently increased to £1.5 million, which has funded 68 projects. Our continued focus on a multiagency approach is absolutely the right one to tackling serious violence. I shall leave it there. I will write to noble Lords about the higher education point, the definition of a bladed product, the points made by my noble friend the Duke of Montrose and of course the Commonwealth Games, which I will take back.
Will the noble Baroness write to me about the future of youth work as a career—one which is stable over time and which does not face huge funding cuts every time there is a financial downturn? I welcome what she said about the large investment in the Early Intervention Youth Fund, but a secure career for youth workers would be such a boon in this area for the future.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.