Wednesday 6 February 2019
Offensive Weapons Bill
Committee (3rd Day)
My Lords, we have started a little late for the obvious reason that people cannot be in two places at once. I must make the normal announcement that if there is a Division in the House, the Committee will immediately adjourn for 10 minutes.
Clause 26: Surrender of prohibited offensive weapons
Amendment 70A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clause 26 agreed.
Clause 27 agreed.
Clause 28: Offence of threatening with offensive weapon etc in a public place etc
Debate on whether Clause 28 should stand part of the Bill.
Member’s explanatory statement
This, along with amendments to Clause 29, would retain the current definition of risk for the existing offences in section 1A of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 and Section 139AA of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, and for the new offence in Clause 29.
My Lords, I have given notice of our intention to oppose the question that this clause should stand part of the Bill. I will also speak to Amendments 71 and 72. Clause 28 would change current legislation in terms of the risk that must be present for an offence of threatening someone with an offensive weapon to be proved. Currently, the person threatening must do so in such a way that there is an immediate threat of serious physical harm. The Bill changes this level of risk to what a reasonable person would think was an immediate threat of physical harm, not serious physical harm—it is only a perceived threat and not an actual threat.
In their joint briefing, the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and the Prison Reform Trust point out that the new definition is a much lower threshold for conviction. The person being threatened does not have to be present or at actual risk of harm. Previously, there had to be an immediate threat of occasioning grievous bodily harm; now, it is an undefined level of physical harm, and the “reasonable person” test is vague.
Clause 28 relates to offences in public places and Clause 29 to offences on further education premises. I question why these offences are needed at all. Section 3 of the Public Order Act 1986 states that a person is guilty of an offence,
“if he uses or threatens … violence towards another and his conduct is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety”.
An affray may be committed in private as well as in public, and a person guilty of affray is liable to a maximum sentence of three years in prison or a fine, or both. Can the Minister explain which parts of these new offences are not covered by the offence under Section 3 of the 1986 Act?
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for affording the Committee the opportunity to debate the provisions in the Bill updating the offences of threatening with an offensive weapon. It may assist the Committee if I briefly explain the provisions in Section 1A of the Protection of Crime Act 1953 and Section 139AA of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, and then explain why we have brought forward changes to these provisions. I will also cover Section 3.
Section 1A of the 1953 Act provides for an aggravated possession offence where the person in possession of the weapon threatens another person with the weapon in a public place. Section 139AA of the 1988 Act similarly provides for an aggravated possession offence where the person in possession of an article with a blade or point threatens another person with the article in a public place or on school premises.
Unlike the offences in Section 1 of the 1953 Act and Section 139 of the 1988 Act, which are simple possession offences, where a person is convicted of an offence under Section 1A of the 1953 Act or Section 139AA of the 1988 Act, the court must, in the case of an adult, impose a custodial sentence of at least six months’ imprisonment, unless it would be unjust to do so. The power to make a community order is not available in circumstances where the mandatory minimum sentence condition is met.
It is an essential element of these aggravated offences that the defendant threatened the victim with the weapon,
“in such a way that there is an immediate risk of serious physical harm to the victim”,
as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, explained. However, the view of the Crown Prosecution Service is that the requirement that the defendant threatens with the weapon or article,
“in such a way that there is an immediate risk of serious physical harm to that other person”,
sets too high a bar to prosecution and does not take proper account of the effect of the threat on the victim.
The noble Lord will be aware that in the 12 months to September 2018 there were just under 13,500 offences resulting in a caution or conviction for possession of an article with a blade or point and just under 7,000 for possession of an offensive weapon, but only 958 for threatening with a knife or offensive weapon. I hope the noble Lord will agree that fewer than 1,000 offences of threatening compared with more than 20,000 possession offences does not appear to be an accurate reflection of what is happening on our streets, where we are seeing one homicide a week in London as a result of knife crime. The noble Lord will be aware that this point was made by the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the north-east, Andrew Penhale, when giving evidence in another place.
The penalty for the offence of affray, which the noble Lord referred to, is three years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. The penalty for threatening with an offensive weapon is four years. The Government consider that that reflects the seriousness of using an offensive weapon to threaten an individual. Importantly, the Government also believe that it is fairer to the victim that the test be based on how a reasonable person in the victim’s place would respond to such a threat, not on whether the victim was objectively at risk of immediate harm. The reference in Clause 28 to the effect on a reasonable person removes the element of subjectivity on the part of the person threatened. We believe that the replacement objective test is more appropriate in the context of these aggravated offences.
Striking out Clause 28 and amending Clause 29, as the noble Lord seeks to do, would maintain the current test of what constitutes risk of physical harm for these aggravated possession offences. However, I put it to the noble Lord that these offences were introduced to protect victims threatened with offensive weapons and ensure that offenders are appropriately punished. Clauses 28 and 29 will ensure that the victim’s point of view is put at the heart of these offences. I hope that I have been able to persuade the noble Lord of the case for the new test and that he will support Clause 28 standing part of the Bill.
My Lords, can my noble friend say how many offences are committed annually on further education premises, which are the subject of Clause 29? Further education premises are a place where perhaps a majority of the people have an offensive weapon, as defined in the Bill, as part of what they need to do their training. If someone is spending their day with a screwdriver because they are on an electronics course and someone comes up and kicks them in the butt, and they turn round with the screwdriver in their hand, under the amended provision, they will be in chokey for it. We do not seem to have incorporated in it any defence which says that the person had the weapon for perfectly good reasons and was using it for perfectly good reasons when somebody else did something which caused the threatening situation. In public, one does not come across this often, but in an FE college it is a routine occurrence. I cannot see that we should criminalise arguments in FE colleges without there being some reasonable defence.
I thank my noble friend for his question. As we are including FE colleges for the first time in the legislation, we do not have the data as yet, but that will be captured in future. We have the data on schools and public places, which I am happy to share with my noble friend. On his last comment, there is no intention of criminalising arguments. We are talking about people in possession of an offensive weapon and threatening someone else with it in such a way that any one of us—assuming that we are all reasonable people—would assume that there was a risk of physical harm.
My Lords, if you are waving a screwdriver about, there is a risk of physical harm, which is the point of the old wording of “serious physical harm”: to rule out such a random occurrence. In public places, in schools, by and large people do not handle physical, offensive weapons openly. In a further education college, a lot of people will be, because it will be part of what they are required to do. Nobody doing anything serious with a knife uses a blade that does not lock. Anybody using a screwdriver or other pointed implement will be using something that will be classified, or is capable of being classified, as an offensive weapon. We should make sure that somebody reasonably having in their hands an offensive weapon because they are using it at the moment when the flash of an argument starts does not become the cause for a mandatory prison sentence. There has to be the scope for a court to take a sensible view of what is going on. It is not like a school; it is an environment where offensive weapons are routine and where a lot effort goes into making sure that people use them safely. Common sense needs to be applied when considering whether it is an offence with a bladed weapon or just an argument taking place when one or both of the parties happen to be holding an offensive weapon, because that is what they were supposed to be doing at the time the argument started.
I hope that I can reassure my noble friend on two points: first, the spirit of the legislation is not to criminalise people in the way that he has described; secondly, the sentencing guidelines were updated relatively recently, in June last year, and give multiple scenarios for the courts to consider in sentencing—which I think would allay my noble friend’s fears.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation, most of which does not seem to hold water. She said that under the existing offence, someone can only get six months in prison, so they are unable to get a community sentence. However, an offence of affray carries a three-year sentence; therefore, you can give a community sentence to somebody convicted of affray.
The Minister also said that existing offences under the Prevention of Crime Act and the Criminal Justice Act set the bar too high, evidenced by only 958 offences of threatening and almost one homicide per week. If a knife makes contact with somebody, that is a substantive offence, probably of grievous bodily harm or wounding, possibly with intent. Inflicting grievous bodily harm with intent carries a maximum life sentence, so the number of instances where somebody threatens but does not make contact is likely to be small, but the number of offences where somebody is found in possession of a weapon—perhaps in their pocket—and is not threatening another person is likely to be high. The number of offences of GBH or, regrettably, homicide is likely to be high. That is the plausible explanation for why the number of offences of threatening is low, rather than the evidential bar being set too high for the existing offences.
However, the only reason why the offence of affray does not provide a legitimate and reasonable alternative to the Government’s proposals here is that one carries a sentence of three years and the other a sentence of four years. Of course, that could easily be amended by increasing the maximum sentence for the offence of affray. An objective test is included in the offence of affray under the Public Order Act. I am afraid that apart from the difference in the length of sentences, all the reasoning seems to fall away, bearing in mind that an offence of affray can be committed in private as well as in public so the offence would apply in FE colleges, schools and public places. However, I will not pursue the matter any further at this stage.
Clause 28 agreed.
Clause 29: Offence of threatening with offensive weapon etc on further education premises
Amendments 71 and 72 not moved.
Clause 29 agreed.
Clause 30 agreed.
73: After Clause 30, insert the following new Clause—
“Offence of threatening with a non-corrosive substance
(1) A person commits an offence if they threaten a person with a substance they claim or imply is corrosive.(2) It is not a defence for a person to prove that the substance used to threaten a person was not corrosive or listed under Schedule 1 to this Act.(3) In this section, “threaten a person” means that the person—(a) unlawfully and intentionally threatens another person (“A”) with the substance, and(b) does so in such a way that a reasonable person (“B”) who was exposed to the same threat as A would think that there was an immediate risk of physical harm to B.(4) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would create a new offence for those threatening with a non-corrosive substance that they claim or imply is corrosive.
My Lords, Amendment 73 seeks to add a new clause to the Bill concerning threatening someone with a non-corrosive substance; as we have heard, it is known as a fake acid attack. My noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe first raised this matter at Second Reading in your Lordships’ House.
We all know that acid attacks are horrific. They give the victim a life sentence of disfigurement, pain and mental anguish, and they need great courage and resilience to overcome that and rebuild their lives. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, who was in the Room earlier, knows a lot about victims of acid attacks, particularly through the charity work he does.
The threat of an acid attack strikes absolute fear into a person. The person being threatened has no idea that the substance in the bottle in front of them is not real and not corrosive—that it could just be water. They feel the same distress, anguish and fear that the victim of a real attack would feel at that point. This amendment would create a new offence to deal with these fake acid attacks. While the substance itself is not dangerous, it is the fear we seek to address here. We can draw parallels with people pulling out fake guns. Most people would not know whether a gun was real—you would still be very scared if someone was pointing a gun at you. We need to look at that issue.
The offence in question would be a summary offence, and at this stage the amendment is a probing amendment, as I am very keen to hear the Government’s attitude to this issue and how they think it can be dealt with. This is a real issue; fake attacks do happen. I look forward to the debate and the Government’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, I fully appreciate the intention behind the noble Lord’s proposed new clause. Personally, I have a concern about filling up our statute book with more and more criminal offences, particularly when they replicate existing crimes. It is already an offence to threaten violence. I take the point he makes about replica, fake or toy guns, but might not his better route be to invite the Government to amend the law to increase the penalties for this sort of behaviour or to allow this sort of offence to be dealt with—if it is not already—in the Crown Court, where the sentencing powers are greater, rather than as a summary offence? To fill up—for no doubt worthy purposes—the criminal law with more and more offences that just replicate existing offences strikes me as unfortunate. There may be a better route than the one the noble Lord is advocating.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, for supporting what I said in the last group of amendments—albeit he has saved his comments for this group. My argument is that perfectly good legislation is on the statute book, and the additional offence concerning further education premises that the Government are creating in this Bill is unnecessary. To coin a phrase, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Would the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, not agree that Section 3 of the Public Order Act, which states that a person is guilty of an offence,
“if he uses or threatens … violence towards another and his conduct is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety”,
completely encapsulates the circumstances he is talking about in his proposed new offence? That offence, as I have said before, carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison, a fine, or both.
I thank the noble Lord for explaining his amendment, which he went through at Second Reading. I cannot say that I disagree with the sentiment behind it, because we all know of cases where people have been threatened with fake acid. I also remember the spate of fake gun attacks a few years ago. When the person states that the substance is corrosive and it is not, that adds to the victim’s distress—there is absolutely no doubt about it—and such things cannot be tolerated. But as my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, pointed out, criminal offences are already available that allow such fake acid attacks to be dealt with. Perhaps I should outline some of them.
There is the offence of common assault, which is defined as any conduct by which a person causes another to apprehend immediate and unlawful personal violence. As a result, this offence could be used where a person threatens another with a substance which that person claims or implies is corrosive. There are also the offences, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, under the Public Order Act 1986. He mentioned Section 3, but Section 4 could also be used. Section 4 makes it an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards another person with the intent of causing that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another. Section 5 of the 1986 Act makes it an offence for a person to use threatening or abusive words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
When noble Lords consider the distress and alarm that a fake attack could cause—whether with a fake gun or a fake corrosive substance—it is likely that such acts could be prosecuted under one of these 1986 Act offences. We should at this stage also bear in mind the motivation for some fake acid attacks. If the crime is of a racially or religiously motivated nature, the courts can impose stronger sentences. With that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord feels happy to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for her response. I also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for their contributions to this short debate; both made reasonable points. I am not in favour of filling up the statute book with lots of laws; I have often thought that we should be consolidating more legislation. Legislation is sometimes confusing for ourselves, let alone members of the public. However, I tabled the amendment to highlight this offence. Young people in particular can often get involved in these situations without realising that they are guilty of an offence, and we must find a way of ensuring that they understand that. I will leave it at that at this stage, but I may come back to the issue on Report. I am grateful to everyone who spoke in the debate, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 73 withdrawn.
Clause 31 agreed.
73A: After Clause 31, insert the following new Clause—
“PART 5KNIFE CRIME PREVENTION ORDERSKnife crime prevention orders made otherwise than on convictionKnife crime prevention order made otherwise than on conviction
(1) A court may make a knife crime prevention order under this section in respect of a person aged 12 or over (the “defendant”) if the following conditions are met.(2) The first condition is that a person has, by complaint to the court, applied for a knife crime prevention order under this section in accordance with section (Requirements for application for order under section (Knife crime prevention order made otherwise than on conviction)).(3) The second condition is that the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that, on at least two occasions in the relevant period, the defendant had a bladed article with them without good reason or lawful authority—(a) in a public place in England and Wales,(b) on school premises, or(c) on further education premises.(4) In subsection (3) “the relevant period” means the period of two years ending with the day on which the order is made; but an event may be taken into account for the purposes of that subsection only if it occurred after the coming into force of this section.(5) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (3), a person has good reason for having a bladed article with them in a place mentioned in that subsection if the person has the article with them in that place—(a) for use at work,(b) for educational purposes,(c) for religious reasons, or(d) as part of any national costume.(6) The third condition is that the court thinks that it is necessary to make the order—(a) to protect the public in England and Wales from the risk of harm involving a bladed article,(b) to protect any particular members of the public in England and Wales (including the defendant) from such risk, or(c) to prevent the defendant from committing an offence involving a bladed article.(7) A knife crime prevention order under this section is an order which, for a purpose mentioned in subsection (6)—(a) requires the defendant to do anything described in the order;(b) prohibits the defendant from doing anything described in the order.(8) See also—(a) section (Provisions of knife crime prevention order) (which makes further provision about the requirements and prohibitions which may be imposed by a knife crime prevention order under this section),(b) section (Requirements included in knife crime prevention order etc) (which makes further provision about the inclusion of requirements in a knife crime prevention order under this section), and(c) section (Duration of knife crime prevention order etc) (which makes provision about the duration of a knife crime prevention order under this section).(9) Section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (time limits) does not apply to a complaint under this section. (10) In this section—“court”—(a) in the case of a defendant who is under the age of 18, means a magistrates’ court which is a youth court, and(b) in any other case, means a magistrates’ court which is not a youth court;“further education premises” means land used solely for the purposes of—(a) an institution within the further education sector (within the meaning of section 91 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992), or(b) a 16 to 19 Academy (within the meaning of section 1B of the Academies Act 2010),excluding any land occupied solely as a dwelling by a person employed at the institution or the 16 to 19 Academy;“public place” includes any place to which, at the time in question, the public have or are permitted access, whether on payment or otherwise;“school premises” means any land used for the purposes of a school, excluding any land occupied solely as a dwelling by a person employed at the school; and “school” has the meaning given by section 4 of the Education Act 1996.”Member’s explanatory statement
This Clause and the other amendments of the Minister to insert new Clauses after Clause 31 would make provision for knife crime prevention orders and interim knife crime prevention orders imposing requirements and prohibitions on defendants and subjecting them to certain notification requirements. The proposal is that the Clauses should become Part 5 of the Bill and the Bill should be divided into Parts when it is reprinted.
My Lords, the new clauses to be inserted into the Bill by Amendments 73A to 73U introduce knife crime prevention orders. These new civil preventative orders will provide the police with the powers they need to more effectively manage people engaged, or at risk of engaging, in knife crime and help steer them away from crime.
As noble Lords in the Committee will agree, knife crime is devastating for victims, their families and for our communities. We must do all that we can to combat this epidemic. The latest police recorded crime figures, published by the Office for National Statistics in January for the year ending September 2018, show that there were 39,818 knife-related offences—an 8% increase compared with the previous year. Noble Lords will not have failed to notice the headlines in the Evening Standard on Monday.
The number of homicides where a knife or sharp instrument was used has increased by 10% in the last year to 276 offences. Of all recorded homicides in the latest data, over four in 10 involved a knife or sharp instrument. That proportion is higher than the previous year when the figure was 37%. Police-recorded offences involving the,
“possession of an article with a blade or point” ,
rose by 18% to 19,644 in the year ending September 2018. That rise is consistent with increases seen over the last five years and is the highest figure since the series began in the year ending March 2009.
The total number of homicides in London in 2018 was 134. The Metropolitan Police had the largest volume increase, accounting for 35% of the total increase. In 2017, there were a total of 116 homicides.
It is vital that the police have the powers they need to prevent knife crime and protect the public from the devastating effects of violent crime on our streets. It is already too late when we prosecute young people for knife crime. The police have asked for a new order which will help them to manage those at risk of knife crime in their communities.
Knife crime prevention orders will provide the police with the powers they need to steer people away from knife crime, where there is evidence that they carry a knife. The orders are aimed at those young people most at risk of engaging in knife crime, people the police call “habitual knife carriers” of any age, and those who have been convicted of a violent offence involving knives. Their simple purpose is to help protect the public, and to help respondents leave a dangerous lifestyle involving knife-related crime. In the case of young people, the police may have intelligence that a young person routinely carries a knife but, for a variety of reasons, they have been unable to charge them with a possession offence. Before risky behaviour escalates, a KCPO could be in place to divert a person away from a life of prolific offending.
People whom the police deem to be habitual knife carriers could also benefit from KCPOs. These are people who may have previous convictions for knife crime, or on whom the police have intelligence that they regularly carry knives. The KCPO would enable the police to manage the risk of future offending. This is the cohort that the police see as their main target for these orders. It is estimated that there are some 3,000 habitual knife carriers across England and Wales. The orders will enable the courts to place restrictions on individuals such as curfews and geographical restrictions, but also requirements such as engaging in positive interventions. KCPOs are not a punishment, but a means to support the individual who is subject to an order to stay away from crime.
It may be helpful if I explain how the order will work. KCPOs are available on application and on conviction. An application for a KCPO can be made by a relevant chief police officer to a magistrates’ court or, in the case of young people, the youth court. A court dealing with an application may make a KCPO only if two conditions are met. The first is that the court is satisfied to the civil standard—on the balance of probabilities—that the defendant had a bladed article, without good reason, in a public place or education premises, on at least two occasions in the preceding two years. The second condition is that the court considers the order necessary to protect the public or prevent the defendant committing an offence. An application can be made with or without notice, but it will be made without notice only on an exceptional basis. If an application is made without notice to the defendant, the court may only make an interim order, which will take effect on service and will last until a full hearing takes place.
A KCPO is also available on conviction following an application from the prosecution, and where two conditions are met. The first condition is that the defendant is convicted of a relevant offence. This means a violent offence, or an offence where a bladed article was used by the defendant or another in the commission of the offence, or the defendant or another had a bladed article with them when the offence was committed. The second condition is, again, that the court considers the order necessary to protect the public or prevent the defendant committing an offence.
A KCPO may require a defendant to do anything described in the order, and/or prohibit the defendant from doing anything described in the order. The KCPO can include any reasonable prohibition or requirement which the court is satisfied is necessary, proportionate and enforceable. A KCPO which imposes a requirement must specify a person who is responsible for supervising compliance with the requirement. For instance, if the requirement is attendance of a knife awareness intervention, the person designated to supervise compliance may be the youth worker providing the intervention.
KCPOs will have a maximum duration of two years and must be reviewed by the courts after 12 months. KCPOs issued to under-18s are expected to be subject to more regular reviews. There are provisions for variation, renewal or discharge of KCPOs on application by the defendant or the police. There are also provisions for appeal against the making of the order. A breach of the order without reasonable excuse is a criminal offence subject to a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment.
KCPOs are closing a gap in the law that has hindered the police in taking an active rather than a reactive approach to diverting people away from knife crime and managing the risk of knife crime offending. They provide an opportunity to take a proactive and preventive approach, re-engaging with them at an early stage and helping to protect those most at risk of using knives and, of course, of falling victim to them.
There are other civil orders available, such as gang injunctions and criminal behaviour orders, but not all individuals in the targeted cohort are gang members. Criminal behaviour orders could be used in some cases, but such orders are available only when a court is sentencing a person for an offence. It is important that the police have the right tools for the right situations and can make use of them.
Of course, the police have a range of powers to deal with knife crime, including the existing offence of possessing a bladed article in public without good reason, and stop and search powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. However, given the unacceptable scale of knife crime, it is important that the police have a broad sweep of possible powers to use as circumstances dictate. KCPOs will be a valuable addition to the tools available to the police to disrupt harmful behaviours, while avoiding the premature criminalisation of individuals. We expect them to be targeted at a relatively small but high-risk cohort.
This Government are determined to do all that we can to protect the public and keep people safe. This is why we are redoubling our efforts to end this senseless crime. The introduction of KCPOs has been welcomed by the National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. On behalf of the NPCC, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Bell said:
“The introduction of knife crime prevention orders will provide us with further means to help deter young people from becoming involved in knife possession and knife crime”,
while West Yorkshire’s Labour PCC has said that he fully supports the new knife crime prevention orders.
I commend the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, who is not in his place, for his prescience in tabling Amendment 77, which also calls for the introduction of KCPOs. I hope one of the noble Lords on the Labour Front Bench will agree that we should grasp the opportunity provided by the Bill to legislate now for KCPOs, so that we can do everything in our power to stop the tragic loss of life and serious injury caused by knife crime that is all too evident on our streets. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me to discuss these amendments before today’s debate. It will come as no surprise to her that we vehemently oppose them and will object, should she insist on them at this stage.
Noble Lords will recall ASBOs, anti-social behaviour orders, introduced by the then Labour Government in the face of an epidemic of anti-social behaviour. They were opposed for many reasons. They were an order that could be made on the basis of the balance of probabilities against very young children with no previous convictions, yet the breach of one of those orders was a criminal offence with a custodial sentence attached. In effect, the criminal burden of proof—beyond reasonable doubt—was circumvented by making the order subject only to the civil burden of proof, while a breach of the order resulted in a criminal conviction. As a result, hundreds of young people acquired a criminal record through that unfair and unreasonable route. This was rightly seen as disproportionate, and the subsequent coalition Government—in a move championed by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May—removed ASBOs from the statute book.
Other reasons for scrapping ASBOs included their ineffectiveness in curbing anti-social behaviour, the high rate of breach of the conditions of the orders, the difficulty in monitoring compliance and the resources required to ensure their enforcement. In some communities, having an ASBO was seen as a badge of honour, and peers looked up to someone if he had acquired one.
Young people tend to live less structured, more chaotic lives, which meant that many young people subject to ASBOs accidentally breached the restrictions placed on them, making breach of an ASBO more prevalent among younger people. At the time, there were far more community policy officers, youth workers and people working in youth offending teams, yet monitoring and compliance stretched resources.
Some of the government amendments replicate ASBOs. No conviction is required, the case for a knife crime prevention order is made on the balance of probabilities and breach is a criminal offence with a maximum term of two years’ imprisonment. The orders replicate all the wrongs of ASBOs, which this Government, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, quite rightly did away with. Will the Minister explain the lack of corporate memory in the Government? ASBOs were in part replaced by anti-social behaviour injunctions, a civil injunction where breach is a contempt of court but the mechanism is a civil matter and there is no criminal record. Someone can be fined or even sent to prison for contempt of court, but young people’s futures are not ruined by a criminal record. Why can we not have knife crime prevention injunctions?
As the Minister explained, some of the proposed knife crime prevention orders are post-conviction—an addition to sentence—orders, similar to criminal behaviour orders, which were in part a replacement for ASBOs. A post-conviction order is imposed by the court in addition to sentence or criminal sanction, such as a fine. The important distinction is that the defendant already has a criminal record, having just been convicted of a criminal offence. We do not object in principle to this type of order, as we do to orders made in the absence of conviction on the balance of probabilities. However, there remain concerns about the kind of restrictions that can be imposed, the high likelihood of young offenders accidentally breaching the orders because young people make more mistakes, the lack of resources to provide positive activity that might be mandated for them to engage in, the lack of youth workers, the lack of resources to monitor and enforce the orders, the lack of community police officers and the lack of resources in youth offending teams, which have a statutory role to play in managing these orders. Knife crime prevention orders must specify a person who is to be responsible for supervising compliance with the requirement. The Minister gave as an example a youth worker, but presumably it could be a police officer. The question then has to be about where the resources are going to come from.
Among the restrictions that can applied in a knife crime prevention order is notifying the police within three days if the subject,
“uses a name which has not previously been notified”.
Let us imagine that a 14 year-old who is subject to an order is stopped by the police. He panics and gives a false name and does not confess to the police within three days that he has given a false name. He would be liable to two years’ imprisonment for breaching the order. Or let us imagine that he sees the officer the next day and says, “Actually, that’s the name I’m using now, and I haven’t told you before”, but the officer forgets to update the records. In the Government’s proposals, a defendant can give,
“a notification … by … giving an oral notification to a police officer”.
Seriously? Or let us imagine that a 13-year-old is sent to stay with a relative during the summer holidays, as his parents work full time and they forget to tell the police. He would be liable to two years’ imprisonment for breaching the order.
The order can require the defendant to be in a particular place between particular times to participate in particular activities. What happens if he is ordered to play football but does not want to? Two years in prison? It can prohibit the defendant from being in a particular place, being with particular people, participating in particular activities, using particular articles or having them with him. What happens if the people who he is banned from associating with follow him around? Two years in prison? These could be young teenagers, 12 year-olds even. This is a route to criminalising scores of young people.
The orders are complex—they take up 17 pages of amendments—yet the Government have tabled them in Grand Committee, after the Bill has passed through the Commons and where we cannot divide. This is not the way that we should be dealing with highly contentious legislation that the other place has not had any opportunity to debate or comment on.
The Magistrates Association has now commented on knife crime prevention orders. It says:
“We do not believe there is a clearly defined gap in existing police and court powers currently used to respond to possession of knives that would show that these orders are needed. It is unclear what situations these orders would be expected to cover, where out of court disposals, Criminal Behaviour Orders or court sentences are not currently available. Neither youth nor adult magistrates have called for additional powers, and especially in relation to Youth Court, courts already have numerous approaches that can be used in response to knife crime. We are also concerned about how these proposals will be implemented and used in practice”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence of Clarendon, who lost her son, Stephen Lawrence, to knife crime, told the Home Affairs Select Committee only yesterday that she opposes these orders. If the Government will not listen to me, perhaps they should listen to her.
We need a long and detailed look at these amendments. I appreciate that the police may have asked for knife crime prevention orders and there may be a need for some form of order, but not these, with this scope. I ask the Minister to withdraw the amendments at this stage to allow further discussion.
My Lords, I entirely understand why the Government feel that they have an obligation to take meaningful and effective steps to protect the public from those who use offensive weapons. Even before today’s letter in the Times, though, I already had five reasons for being extremely concerned about their proposal to introduce knife crime prevention orders, as set out in Amendments 73A to 73U. Like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I am concerned that the proposal should have been rushed through at such a late stage in the passage of the Bill, meaning that the proposed orders were not subject to scrutiny in the other place.
I am interested that all my reasons are shared by the Magistrates Association. First, there is no evidence that orders like these are effective at tackling harmful behaviour or will address the root causes of knife carrying, which, as many noble Lords have said at various stages during the passage of the Bill, is a symptom of wider social issues. Secondly, the orders can be imposed, on the balance of probability rather than a criminal standard of proof, on children as young as 12, which will result in the criminalisation of people who have not committed a criminal offence. Thirdly, I share the belief of the Prison Reform Trust and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice that a criminal sanction of up to two years in prison is a disproportionate sanction for a breach of a civil order. I also question the lack of any distinction between the penalty for breach by a child and by an adult, believing that a sentence of imprisonment for breach is not appropriate for children.
Fourthly, there is no detail about how much the proposed orders will cost or how they are to be resourced. Neither is there an explanation of how the very wide-ranging requirements that will be placed on individuals made subject to orders are linked to offences with bladed articles, or how courts could know what requirements are going to be effective in reducing the risk of knife crime. The already inadequate impact assessment contains no details of cost, nor has the cost of the likely increase in custody numbers due to order breaches been factored in. The Police Federation of England and Wales has questioned the capacity of the police to enforce the orders, given the impact of cuts to police budgets and resources. Its chair commented:
“How the Home Secretary thinks we have the officers available to monitor teenagers’ social media use, or check that they are at home at 10 pm, when we are struggling to answer 999 calls, is beyond me”.
Fifthly, the proposed orders seem to be the very antithesis of the public health approach to the problem—the essence of the serious violence strategy advocated by Ministers both in this House and in the other place during the passage of the Bill. Furthermore, the orders are bound to increase the already alarmingly disproportionate outcomes for black and ethnic minority young people, which many noble Lords mentioned in connection with their relationship with the criminal justice system. If we could vote in Grand Committee, I would certainly vote against the amendments and I look forward to doing so on Report.
My Lords, I support the amendment although I note that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in objecting to it, said that he would support some form of order if not this particular one, which seems in principle to suggest that something needs to be done. My reasons for supporting it are the ones laid out by the Minister. First, there is clearly a problem. Even last night, a young man was murdered in London— a 19 year-old—and it continues to be a problem. The problem has not gone away.
I do not have the same recollection of ASBOs as the noble Lord. They were a response to a moral panic. There was an issue about anti-social behaviour and for a time they provided a solution. I do not think that they were such a grave intervention in young people’s lives, unless they chose to ignore the civil order that had been made by the courts. They were not criminalised by the order that gave them the ASBO, nor will this knife crime prevention order criminalise them. They will be criminalised only if they breach the order. That is an important distinction. It is then up to the court, which is unlikely always to award two years’ imprisonment. There is no minimum sentence so I believe it is up to the judge to decide in each case what to award. But as part of changing the culture it is necessary.
We have sadly seen through various generations that young men in particular have used different types of weapons. The 1953 Act, for those who remember, was intended to address Teddy boys and greasers. It is a sad reality that gangs have used weapons and sometimes we have to change the law to change that culture.
The point about resources was a fair challenge— I have only just recently made the point that the police could certainly do with far more—but the police have asked for this measure. I checked before making my comments and certainly, the Metropolitan Police feel that they could police these things. Given the numbers involved and the seriousness of the offence, they think it is manageable. Of course, nobody would deny that it is an extra burden. But if the numbers are true—3,000 people in the UK, broadly—not all of them will get these orders and clearly not all of them will breach them so the measure is not entirely unmanageable.
The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about age was fair. Nobody wants to criminalise very young people, but the sad reality is that people as young as 12 are joining gangs and they are attracted by the drugs and money that go with it. I am not sure that they make a conscious, adult, mature decision to begin that process, but it is true that they can be threatening and that should be considered. In that context, I am trying to make sure that the orders are effective, rather than claiming that they are not necessary
A knife crime protection order is a non-conviction order for someone who is found carrying a bladed item on two occasions during the relevant period. What concerns me is that they could have been carrying an offensive weapon such as acid on one occasion, which presumably contributes to this concern that they may be involved in violence. If this order is intended to reduce that risk, that should be taken into account. I know why this provision tries to keep things simple—it is a bladed item, and we are all worried about knives. Sadly, they are not the only offensive weapons that young people use.
On the prohibitions and requirements granted by this order, a notable exception is the power to search. At the moment, police search powers are limited by Section 1, which is a conditional power—there has to be a reason—or Section 60, which applies to a geographical area, in which case the police can search without cause. It seems odd that in this case, where someone has shown a predilection for carrying a knife—and given that the very reason for providing this order is to reduce serious violence—the police are not given an unconditional power to search. They still have to fall back on their Section 1 power, even though the person in question has been to a court, an order has been made and they have accepted that they are a risk or a threat. It seems odd that there is no search power linked to that. There is also the question whether certain minorities may feel challenged by this measure. The court has decided that that is a condition of the order. We should at least consider whether that should be available; you may decide it is not a mandatory issue.
My other points are relatively minor, but interesting. Subsection (7), introduced by Amendment 73F, sets out clearly when these orders may be given—a sentence of a court or a conditional discharge. What is omitted is breach of the peace. I am a bit obsessed by breach of the peace, an old common-law power which is still around. A breach of the peace usually indicates that there has been a threat of or actual violence. I wonder whether that might be considered as this amendment goes through.
Subsection (7), introduced by Amendment 73K, addresses when these orders start, and specifically whether someone has been sentenced to imprisonment, is serving a period of imprisonment or is on remand. Broadly, they start when the person is released. It does not refer to cases where someone is released on day or weekend release; presumably, they would not be covered. I realise this is not straightforward but it should be thought about, because some releases can be longer as someone prepares for re-entering society. Presumably, when they are eventually released, this order will apply, so there would be no lesser risk during an interim release.
Where an order lasts for one year or more, an annual review is mandated, and everyone involved will have to go back to court to make that review. In statute, that is an unnecessary burden. The person the order applies to may make that application—there is nothing to stop them at any point within the six months. As the process is annual, everyone will have to start getting ready for it—including the police and the youth offending teams—around nine months in, and I am not sure it is necessary. It is a bureaucratic burden, and the issue can be addressed through the accused’s right to exercise their power to review their case.
The police continue to use stop and search. There are consequences to it which none of us like, but it is a human process. We have not invested in the technology that would help the police find knives without needing to ask people whether they have one, to check their behaviour, or to find out whether they have carried knives before. Technology is getting better, but one thing that worries me is that the scientific department, CAST, which used to help the Home Office create this type of solution, has been moved to the Ministry of Defence. I do not understand why, given that there is DSTL, and I worry that priorities for law enforcement may drop down the list. I have not heard any clarity on what technological solutions may help officers and others intervene where someone is carrying any kind of weapon other than a simple knife arch. We have had those for years and although they are not effective in mass areas, there is now cleverer software indicating where officers should target their search. I encourage the Government to look again at where those resources are being prioritised.
My Lords, I rise to speak against this group of amendments. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, said that he supported the amendments but then went through a number of reasonable concerns. That shows that the process has not been consulted on adequately; indeed, it has been consulted on only with police forces directly and not on a wider scale with the large community of people concerned about youth crime.
Previous speakers have made the same point as the many people who have approached me, and other noble Lords, no doubt, about the possible unwanted effect—some people say that it is a certain unwanted effect—of criminalising young children who breach the order. Of course, many other forms of both statutory and non-statutory intervention are available to the courts, the police and YOTs.
I speak as a London youth magistrate who regularly sits at Highbury Corner Youth Court. I see the effects of knife crime very regularly. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Sater—she is a friend but I will refer to her as “the noble Baroness” for today’s purposes—who sits in the same court as me. I know that she has true expertise in this matter. It would be easy for me to give a long, bloodcurdling list of the sort of offences I have had to consider in Highbury but I will make two simple points.
First, in the youth court, we deal with children. The court’s primary purpose is to prevent reoffending. The offenders are still children, even when they are well over six foot tall and have committed knife offences. Secondly, a large proportion of the young knife offenders I see are also victims on multiple occasions. They are frightened, as are their families. In court, they tell me that they carry knives for self-protection. They are more frightened of being attacked with a knife than they are of the possible consequences of a court intervention of one sort or another. I understand that the Bill’s purpose is to be preventive in order to break this deadly cycle of knife offences.
As I am sure most Members of the Committee have done, I read the Lammy report. Its central theme was a breakdown in trust, particularly between the BAME community and the police. I want to make a slightly different observation to that made by David Lammy. My observation of young people is that they tell adults when they feel in danger. Sometimes, but not often, they tell their parents. They tell youth workers, YOT officers and social workers. They tell people they come across in the street. If they are in school, they may tell teachers. In my experience, they even tell police officers because the officers are often—always, in fact—embedded in YOTs and tend to be very good at building good relationships with the young people who come into the YOT offices. Those officers are told when young people feel vulnerable.
This is a political forum, so it is fair to make the party-political point that the number of police officers, YOT officers, youth workers and street workers has been cut. Fewer of them are available to young people in their day-to-day lives. It is fair to say that the party opposite bears responsibility for that reduction in support for young people in Britain.
I have three questions for the Minister. In fact, she answered the first in her opening remarks, so I understand that these orders are appealable and reviewable. Secondly, are there any identifiable benefits of this order over the multitude of other orders available to us? There is no shortage of legislation. Thirdly, if this order got on to the statute book, would it be appropriate for it to be applied for after a failed criminal prosecution? We do this in other scenarios. If a domestic abuse prosecution fails, the CPS often applies for a restraining order, often against the man, and often that order is put in place. Is it possible—as far as I know, nothing prevents it—to apply these orders when there is a failed criminal prosecution?
I have received the same briefings as other noble Lords, but I thought that the one that summed up the position most succinctly and persuasively was that from the Association of YOT Managers, which made two points. First, these orders could fast-track children into having a criminal record—it will not necessarily be a sentence of two years, but a breach of the civil order will still lead to a criminal record. Secondly—all the briefing that I received says this—there may well be disproportionate effects on BAME youngsters.
Before becoming Bishop of Newcastle, I was an archdeacon in south-east London. In my archdeaconry, sadly, was Eltham, where Stephen Lawrence died. I do not, therefore, underestimate the sheer heartbreak and devastation of knife crime, particularly when young people are involved. This crime is growing and growing. I have sat with families whose children have been victims of knife crime. I have officiated at a funeral where that has been the case. The circles of devastation and heartbreak just go on and on. I do not underestimate the seriousness of this problem; nevertheless, I object to this amendment and hope that it will be withdrawn, so that there is more time to reflect on it.
I wish to make two points. First, a legal process that treats children and adults in exactly the same way cannot be right. We have learned a lot as we have come to see how we were blind to what was happening in cases of the sexual exploitation of children. The girls who were involved—it is not always girls, but it often is—were just seen as bad girls, who had absconded from care and were drinking and taking drugs. These children were not seen as children in desperate need of our protection and were not seen as victims. I think about the situation in which a child of 12 is carrying a knife, probably because they are terrified, and then I look at the purpose of this measure, which is to protect the general public. Of course we need to protect the general public, but we, the general public, have a duty of care to the children in our society. We owe a duty to protect some of the children who might be caught by this legislation. We need to see what is happening when young teenagers are in this situation, where they are being seen as perpetrators but they are, as has been said, at least as much victims. I hope that we will look at the age-blind element of this proposal, as it cannot be right.
My second point is more general, although it still applies to children more than to adults. Up in the north-east, I have been seriously engaged in meeting governors and chaplains in our local prisons— HMP Durham, HMP Northumberland and HMP Low Newton, the women’s prison. One thing that I have been told again and again is that sentences under 12 months are disruptive to people’s lives in a completely dreadful way but serve no rehabilitative purpose. All the evidence shows that to be the case. The proposed sentences go up to two years, but that maximum may not often be applied and, as I said, a sentence of 12 months or less has no positive effect. If that is true for adults, it is even truer for young people. I hope that the sentencing structure can also be looked at again.
My Lords, I support the amendments from the Government, because we have to send a message out there for young people. While I respect all noble Lords who talk about criminalising young people, I stand with several hats on here. I have worked with young people in prisons and with a YOT, and have gone around to find out evidence. The main thing that worries me in all this is that we can put prevention orders up—we have to send a message; we owe that to the rest of society, who do not feel safe—but I want to prevent the young people I have spoken about having to carry a knife to feel safe. We need to stop them early, saying that it is not really right for them. Some young people in gangs have said they do not want to do it but have no choice.
There are several messages here about young children. I have three young daughters who saw their father murdered by hands and feet; they have suffered and could have gone down the criminal route. It would have been justified to put them in that box and to say that there is a reason why they do it. It is the same for a knife. These young people will carry knives to protect themselves, but do not want to. So we have to have something there—a message for communities and young children to feel safe. I am very grateful for the Centre for Social Justice briefing on this. It welcomes the process of the order, but is concerned about the mechanisms of how it will be carried out.
The whole point here is protecting the child. We are hearing much about criminalising a child but not about looking after the child’s welfare. I ask my noble friend the Minister, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, whether we could make it a weapon-neutral offence that sends a message to all those carrying blades, knives and everything. Making it specific to a knife or blade does not really have the effect we want. We need to send a generalised message to help protect young people. I am concerned that we are not standing up here and protecting young people in the first place. We are looking at criminalising young people when they have been caught with something on them. We have to protect the people I have been speaking to, because they are really scared to come out of the school grounds. They go home to protect themselves. We are not looking at that niche of young children.
My Lords, I support many of the comments made by other noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham and in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle. There are many problems with these prevention orders. We may need orders of some sort, but surely not these. I hope we have a really serious discussion about how to protect children. In subsection (5) of the proposed new clause in Amendment 73A, the reasons accepted as good reasons for carrying a knife do not include a fear of harm. Yet, as other noble Lords have said, this is probably the most common reason. I regard it as utterly right and proper; we do not want kids carrying knives, but if you are terrified of being attacked you should not be criminalised for carrying a knife in your pocket to protect yourself. I hope that before Report the Minister will give serious thought to including at least that—that is just one tiny bit—in the reasons accepted as good reasons.
A second problem is that, according to subsection (1) of the proposed new clause in Amendment 73C:
“An application for a knife crime prevention order … may be made without the applicant giving notice to the defendant”.
The police can impose an interim knife crime prevention order, and the same requirements may be made under that interim order as under a full knife crime prevention order. Yet the defendant does not even know this is happening and has not put their side of the story or explained, for example, that they were carrying the knife only because they were petrified of the three boys who live down the road who were trying to get them involved in a gang. What is going on? I am terribly worried about that bit of it.
Others have mentioned the standard of proof— the balance of probability—when these kids go into criminality. Surely that cannot be right. However, there are many more general concerns about the imposition of yet more criminal deterrents on children as young as 12. I have read some briefings carefully and I want to refer to the one from the Children’s Society. According to its Good Childhood Report 2017, an estimated 950,000 children aged between 10 and 17 had experienced crime. No wonder crime is often cited as the reason children carry weapons. This problem is rife and of course we all want something done about it, but are we really tackling it in the right way here? I do not think so.
We know that for two decades the Government have attempted to deter violent crime and anti-social behaviour through the imposition of criminal and punitive civil deterrents. So far, such deterrents have not had a substantial impact on reducing the level of youth crime and youth violence, but that is what we all want—we certainly do not want knife crime. Of course we want violence to be reduced, but these approaches have been shown not to work. As we know, the level of knife crime has risen sharply. There is a body of evidence to show that criminalised interventions do not lower crime rates. I referred in an earlier debate to the meeting in which we listened to Neil Woods. After years of working as an undercover officer and catching people involved in criminal gangs and so on, he realised that he was making not a jot of difference to criminality and violence. He threw it all up and has now written books on the subject. He knows that he has not made any difference, having put his whole life on the line and having been in considerable danger for many years. We need to listen to people like him.
Does the Minister accept that the Home Office needs to make targeting the adults who coerce, control and threaten these kids a much greater priority? Surely Ministers should not target these children with these orders. It just does not feel right and, to be perfectly frank, I do not understand it. Therefore, can we amend these proposed new clauses before Report to ensure that, if we are to have prevention orders—and I think that we probably need them—they focus on positive inputs for children under the age of 18 with the provision of support, treatment in the case of kids addicted to alcohol or drugs, educational guidance and help to secure the safety of the child.
When a child is considered for an order, surely they should be referred to children’s social care for an assessment under the Children Act 1989 or to the national referral mechanism as appropriate. If the child is found to be at risk of exploitation, the police response surely needs to be entirely different from that envisaged in these amendments. I am not saying that there should not be a response but it should be different. As I said in relation to another amendment, we know that short-term prison sentences have very poor results in terms of reoffending. Why would we have more of them? In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will be willing to discuss how the emphasis of the amendments can be shifted from punitive, unsuccessful, short-term incarceration to something that will work. We have quite a lot of knowledge about what might work.
It is difficult to debate these proposals without reference to the huge cuts to youth services in this country. I know that it could be said that this is a political point but I do not mean it to be that at all. It is pretty desperate when £400 million is taken off those services at a time when we want these children to be referred to them for support, and £51 million has been put into the Serious Violence Strategy. That is one-eighth of the cuts—it is a peanut; it is nothing. Local authorities are facing a deficit in their budgets for children’s and young people’s services of £3 billion over the next five years. It seems that spending on police, courts and prisons is fine but spending on real prevention and turning young people around is something that we can dispense with. I say that because it is obvious that we should put money there rather than elsewhere. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said that because I had made a suggestion about how the amendment might be improved, it indicated a lack of consultation. In fact, one of the amendments was a police proposal which has not found its way into the Bill, so I am re-presenting it. It was not that it not been asked for or shared; for whatever reason, it was not there, which I found odd.
More fundamentally, we have to keep an eye on what the Bill is trying to do. Good parents of young people will either try to stop them mixing with the wrong people or stop them going to certain places where they would get into harm or cause it. That is broadly what the Bill tries to do where a parent cannot or will not: it tries to restrict where people can meet and whom they meet if they are causing a problem.
The right reverend Prelate said that she hoped the law would acknowledge the difference in age. The sad reality is that the criminal law makes no distinction about age other than by criminal responsibility. Murder is murder. Whether you are 16 or 33, it is murder. From 14 onwards, it is absolute liability; from 10 to 14, one has to prove a certain intent. We have to accept that that is true. The thing that concerns me in some of the contributions is that we seem almost to be giving a defence to someone who is terrified—which I accept—that it is therefore okay to carry a knife. That means that the offensive weapon law is useless. I understand that it is a sincere belief—I do not challenge that—but that is what everyone says. Sometimes it is true, and sometimes they are the aggressor. However, even if it is true, unless we are going to agree to people carrying guns and any offensive weapon justified by their fear about defending themselves, it is a real difficulty. It may be something on sentencing, or it may be that you can show reasonable cause—I do not think you can ever show reasonable cause for carrying an offensive weapon—the definition of an offensive weapon is something intended, made or adapted to hurt people. It is important that we keep an eye on that because if we put a defence of that type in, it will be abused.
The noble Lord suggests that some of us are saying, “It’s okay to carry a knife”. I want to make it clear that I am not saying that. I have a feeling that noble Lords around us are not saying it either. It is not okay for kids to carry knives. The only issue is what we do to help them not to have to carry a knife.
If I may go back to the noble Baroness’s speech, I am drawn to my feet simply to endorse her view of the inappropriateness of a short prison sentence and, with juveniles, of any prison sentence. For a time, I was Minister responsible for the welfare of young people, other than their health, at the DHSS, which simply meant juvenile offenders in secure accommodation and keeping them out of it. I then had three years being responsible for prisons in the Home Office. I therefore dedicated the next chunk of my life to stopping young people going to prison. You cannot do it when they are into crime; you have to do it before. You have to see that they are not frightened. They must feel safe at home, at school and on the streets, and you must see that they are not bored. The two spurs are fear—“To protect myself I must be armed”—and, “What on earth am I going to do? Let’s go and make trouble. Let’s take a car that does not belong to us and drive it very, very fast around Blackbird Leys in Oxford”. It is the buzz they have to get. We have to provide that by means other than punitive, by pre-emptive means before the event. We have to engage them. When they are on the edge of the event, we have to try even harder. One good way is to find a group of young adults with enthusiasm for almost anything, but preferably a team sport or team activity; for example, white-water rafting, jazz playing, football, canoeing or rock climbing, give them the small amount of money necessary to set up a group to do that and the bored young and the frightened young will come there in clusters. When we did that when I was in what one might call civilian life, the people concerned learned to get £5 of funding from elsewhere for every pound that my people were able to give them.
What I am trying to preach here is outside the terms of this Bill, and I apologise for that, but we are putting the money, as the noble Baroness says, in the wrong place, too late. If only we had enough cash to do a sensible job for our young people. Many of them have no male adult role model, and it is almost impossible to get male teachers into primary education now because the dangers of being sussed as having improper relations with pupils are so great. It is a risk to cuddle a child if they fall and hurt themselves, and we have the new phenomenon of mobile phones which are distracting young adults so that they do not pay attention to children at all. All of that has got to be remedied by the community acting together to give young people things to do which excite them, in safe places with secure adult supervision. That cannot go into this Bill, but I hope nothing which puts juveniles in danger of short prison sentences will go into this Bill, because that is wholly counterproductive.
My Lords, I share many noble Lords’ concerns about the way in which these clauses have been drafted. I hope we will get a decent opportunity to review them, and chew through them, in a way which would have been better afforded if these amendments had been laid earlier. I received scant briefing, but they need serious attention and application of time to find out how to make this idea work.
I will raise a few detailed points. If under subsection (5) of the new clause inserted by Amendment 73A we are to expand on the definition of good reason, we are opening ourselves up to dangers, as we always do when we start doing these sorts of things. In paragraph (a) of subsection (5) we ought to say “in work”, because a lot of uses are in work and not “at work”. We also ought to include those reasonable uses of a bladed article which are associated with hobbies. If you are a carver, a fisherman, a sailor, let alone someone doing anything with ropes, you are going to need a knife. That that is excluded from paragraph (a) somehow downgrades those reasons for possessing a knife. We should be satisfied with the old test of good reason. Paragraph (a) introduces the danger that a lot of good reasons for having a knife are going to be downgraded.
The scope of the order is very wide, and we should be conscious that similar orders are being used quite actively. Last month, we passed a nine-month jail sentence on a rap group for singing a song in contravention of an order, so you do not have to do much to get a criminal record under these sorts of orders. Therefore, we ought to be conscious of how this lot apply to children, particularly the disruption to their already chaotic lives that can be caused by what we order them to do or not to do and the way that interferes with their education, or the beginning of their work. Indeed, who is allowed to know that they have one of these orders, and what is a school supposed to do if is knows that one of its children has one of these orders? That children’s aspect needs to be more clearly worked out.
I entirely agree with the Government’s sentiments in wanting to do something effective. As always, it is the role of this House to make sure that what is proposed is effective, and to not let the Government get away with it if it is not.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. As I was sitting here listening to so many excellent and knowledgeable speakers, I thought that this debate should have been in the Chamber, but that is for another day. I fully accept that knife crime prevention orders put forward by the Government today are, as the noble Baroness says, to deal with habitual carriers of knives. In that sense, we can support them in principle but there need to be some changes.
I am also clear that the present Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, as well as the previous commissioner and the Mayor of London, support the idea of a prevention order as it could be a valuable tool in dealing with the epidemic of knife crime. It is always heart-breaking to see families destroyed when they have lost a loved one, but of course the perpetrator’s life is destroyed as well. There is a huge issue with young people carrying knives and so on. I have met one or two gang members; they can be very challenging individuals to meet. Some of the younger ones are certainly very frightened.
I was on the Wyndham estate some time ago, near where I went to school, to meet some of these young people and they offered me an escort off the estate. I said, “It’s all right, I don’t need an escort—I’ve lived round here”. I was fine. I walked off with no problem at all because I am a fairly big 56 year-old bloke; I am not a 15 or 16 year-old, and I am not black. If I had walked out of there in other circumstances, I would have had a problem getting to the bus stop but, in my situation, there was no problem at all. The young people thought that I would not be safe walking on the estate, which was not the case.
The noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Ramsbotham, made the point, as I think other noble Lords did, that it is a shame the way these amendments have arrived in this House. They have been tabled in Grand Committee and, as has been said, have not gone through the procedures in the House of Commons. My understanding of that House is that if these provisions had been in the Bill from the start there would have been an evidence session in the Commons with experts coming in to look at them. That has been lost and cannot happen now, which is a shame. I support the idea that they have come into the Bill very late. They were announced to the media, and here we are in Grand Committee, not the main Chamber. We will come back to them, or something like them, on Report. Having that at the end of the passage of the Bill is regrettable.
That is why we have tabled Amendment 77 in this group, which was put forward by my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe. It attempts to insert a new clause which would require the Government within three months of the Bill becoming an Act to publish a draft Bill to bring in knife crime prevention orders. It would mean there would have to be a Bill, which I hope would start in the Commons so that it could have evidence sessions. As it would be a draft Bill, even before that there would be a Joint Committee of both Houses to look at the stuff in detail. We want to get this right. On each side of the House, we can give examples of where we have passed measures and have got them right or wrong, but most of the things that were done wrong were done in haste. If we want to sort out an issue, we all charge off and do something, and months or years later, we find that we did not quite get it right. Amendment 77 in my noble friend’s name would ensure that we could do that and look at it in detail.
I am a big fan of draft Bills. When my noble kinsman Lady Kennedy of Cradley—I suppose I should refer to her as that—was on the Committee on the draft Modern Slavery Bill, I saw the work that she and other Members did. I remember the phone calls from the Home Office when the Minister talked to her—it was Karen Bradley—and a lot of detailed work went on to get that Bill right. I think we all accept that it is very good legislation. There were one or two issues—the noble Lord, Lord McColl, made efforts to improve some of the aftercare—but generally it is very good legislation. I would contrast that, as I often do, with the Housing and Planning Act, which is terrible legislation done on the back of a fag packet. It is absolute rubbish and most of the Government have quietly forgotten about it. It has been pushed to one side, so that no one ever mentions it again. I am a big fan of draft legislation, especially when it concerns sorting big issues out. The intention behind the amendment from my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe is to do that.
This might seem a bit over the top, but we have had reports of these poor people being killed and their families destroyed. Why is COBRA not meeting to discuss this? We have COBRA meetings when we have a flood or a problem with the trains. This is about young people dying, so why is the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary not convening COBRA and getting the right people in the room to ask them, “What’s going on here?”
There is an issue about youth workers, social workers and cuts to services because if we are going to have penalties to deal with the issue we need to deal with the causes as well. Why is COBRA not meeting? People are losing their lives, so I want a response on that. As I said, these are very important issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, made some excellent points as did my noble friend Lord Ponsonby with his experience as a magistrate in youth courts. He has experience of dealing with these people when they get to court. A lot of them have form. That is an important point. The right reverend Prelate also made some good points about the work that she has done in Newcastle and in south-east London. I used to go to a youth club—the Crossed Swords youth club—which was run by St Paul’s, a Church of England church. Reverend Shaw used to run it. I am a Catholic, but I used to go there because it was a very good club. All the kids from the estate went there. It is important that we have those things. In many parts the country they have disappeared. Whether voluntary or local authority, they have all been lost, and the people are lost there. We need to get those things right.
The shame with this Bill is that it seeks to deal with the punishment of offenders but does not address any of the causes, which is one of the losses in this Bill. Generally speaking, I am not against the orders. They need to be looked at, refined and changed but in principle I am not against them. Noble Lords made valuable points and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.
My Lords, before the Minister responds, I did not address Amendment 77 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, which we totally support. I did not want to stifle the debate, but it might be helpful for the Committee to be aware of the advice that I have been given, which is that if the Government insist on moving these amendments in Grand Committee and there is an objection to that taking place, the amendments will be lost and cannot be brought back on Report. I am sure that the Minister will bear that in mind in her response.
My Lords, following what the noble Lord just said, I wonder whether my noble friend would consider this. If the amendment is likely to be defeated, she could withdraw it and return to Committee as the first part of Report—I remember doing that with a Home Office Bill—so that given the concerns around the Committee, we could have a proper Committee stage and then very soon after that, come back on Report. In Committee, we can talk twice, and that should give the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, a chance to put down something constructive rather than the constant destructive arguments.
My Lords, I have not found the comments destructive, although I thank my noble friend for the points that he made. I will not press the government amendments today. I take on board completely the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, about the timing of the amendments. We will bring the amendments back on Report when again we will have a full chance to discuss them. The practice of noble Lords speaking only once on Report has fallen slightly by the wayside because noble Lords seem to speak several times in Committee and on Report.
To sum up today’s debate, we all seek the same end, but the means by which we would get there differ. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, at the outset for clarifying a number of points that I did not know the answer to. He has saved me having to write to the Committee. I also thank my noble friend Lady Newlove for the very real-life experience with which she speaks and which we never fail to be moved by.
It is clear from the debate that some of the support for KCPOs is qualified. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick—and the theme was carried on by other noble Lords—said that KCPOs seek to criminalise children. As the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, said, their aim is quite the reverse. They are to prevent young people getting into criminality.
My words were that the noble Lord said the orders risk criminalising children, rather than having the aim of criminalising children. The aim is to prevent that. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle said, young people are often the victims. Other noble Lords made the same point. We have a Catch-22 situation where they are both victims and perpetrators.
The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, questioned the benefits of KCPOs, given his experience. Their aim is to have a preventive effect. Far from fast-tracking young people into a criminal record, the aim is quite the reverse. The orders are an alternative to prosecution. The imposition of restrictions aims to divert young people away from the criminal justice system. Of course, where a defendant is found not guilty of a violent offence, the option to give a KCPO remains open to the police, further keeping the young person out of the criminal justice system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked a very good question: what about the adults? Adults can be part and parcel of the problem, but can also be part of the solution. She is absolutely right that we must not forget the role of adults in all this.
At the outset, I reiterate that KCPOs are not punitive in nature. They are an additional tool for the police to help steer those subject to the orders away from knife crime. They are aimed at young people at risk of engaging in knife crime, at habitual knife carriers of any age and at those who have been convicted of a violent or knife-related offence. The Government are very concerned by the increase in knife crime, as other noble Lords have articulated. We are determined to do all we can to address it. We have set out a comprehensive programme of action in our Serious Violence Strategy to tackle knife crime and prevent young people being drawn into crime and violence, but we know that we need to do more. That is why we listened when the police—those on the front line of such activity, who are best-placed to know the nature of the problem and the profile of the people who carry knives—told us that they need additional powers to deal more effectively with people being drawn into knife crime.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about the approach that the police might take when responding to a breach of a KCPO. Clearly, it would be for the police to decide what action to take where such a breach occurs. Similarly, it would be for the CPS to consider whether there is enough evidence against the defendant for a realistic prospect of conviction and whether it is in the public interest to prosecute them. The public interest will likely vary from case to case, taking into account factors such as the seriousness of the offence, the harm caused and the proportionality of prosecution in response. It has never been the rule that a prosecution will automatically take place where the evidential test is met, so prosecutors may advise on or authorise out-of-court disposals as an alternative to prosecution, which is not necessarily the end result. In addition, a person commits an offence and can be convicted only if a breach occurs without reasonable excuse. The maximum sentence is two years’ imprisonment. It would be for the courts to determine the appropriate sentence in the usual way in any given case, so two years is not necessarily the end result and a community sentence is an option, too.
Unfortunately, as we have seen from the press so often recently, an increasing number of young people carry knives. Some are as young as eight. Many come to the attention of the police after teachers or youth workers have already tried to deal with the problem without reporting the incident to the police, for fear that a young person would be criminalised. However, as we have all said today, by the time that young person is prosecuted it is too late. Furthermore, I am sure noble Lords will agree that prosecution of young children is not always the most appropriate response if they are found with a knife. We have had those discussions today. KCPOs will enable the police and others to address the underlying issues and steer those young people away from knife crime through positive interventions.
The amendments contain important safeguards to ensure that KCPOs are not used inappropriately against young people under 18. In particular, the amendments require the police to consult the relevant youth offending team before an order is made. Once made, an order must be reviewed by the courts after 12 months. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, asked why 12 months was put in place. That is as a safeguard to ensure that a review is carried out. We fully expect the statutory guidance to provide for more regular reviews where a KCPO is issued to a person under the age of 18.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked why on orders made on application we have not adopted the approach applied to anti-social behaviour injunctions, where a breach is dealt with as a contempt of court rather than a criminal offence. In developing the KCPO, we considered that approach, but it is important to remember that we are dealing with individuals at risk of engaging in serious criminality, not simply those involved in anti-social behaviour, as debilitating as that can be for victims and communities. KCPOs will be used for individuals with a history of carrying a knife. Many will be habitual knife carriers, and we are clear that these orders will not be effective if those subject to a KCPO do not see that breaching the order would have serious consequences. They must include the possibility, at least, of a criminal prosecution and a custodial sentence on conviction. Other civil orders of this kind adopt the same approach, including sexual risk orders and serious crime prevention orders.
I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, for his invaluable contribution, which highlighted the operational need for these new orders. The noble Lord made a couple of very interesting suggestions: first, that the scope of KCPOs be extended to help tackle gun crime and the use of corrosives, and, secondly, on the use of electronic monitoring. Given the prevalence of knife crime, it is right that it should be the initial focus of the new orders but as we evaluate their effectiveness over time, we most certainly can explore whether they might have wider application. We can explore the possibility of adding an electronic monitoring requirement to these orders once they have bedded in.
The noble Lord asked about stop-and-search powers in relation to someone subject to a KCPO. We believe that the police already have adequate stop-and-search powers under PACE to monitor whether someone is carrying a knife. As he knows, if a police officer has reasonable suspicion that someone subject to a KCPO is carrying a knife, the officer can stop and search the individual under those existing powers. He also asked when the orders might start. The court may provide discretion that the order takes effect from release, when the defendant ceases to be subject to a custodial sentence, or if the defendant ceases to be on licence. It may take effect earlier while a defendant is on day release and subject to stringent conditions.
A number of noble Lords asked me about funding and tackling the issue locally. They will know, from statements I have made, of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary’s intention to make up to £970 million available to the police next year. On a more local level, we are providing £1.5 million in 2018-19 for the community fund, which has funded 68 projects, and £1 million in 2019-20 to help communities to tackle knife crime. The Committee will have heard earlier today about the youth endowment fund, which has £200 million over 10 years to build evidence for early intervention. It will focus on those most at risk of youth violence, including those displaying signs such as truancy, aggression and involvement in anti-social behaviour.
We can take into account many of the issues raised today when preparing the statutory guidance provided for under Amendment 73S, and as part of the pilot we intend to run in the Metropolitan Police district before implementing these orders across England and Wales. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has signalled that he cannot support these amendments today I will of course withdraw them, with regret. However, the Committee can be assured that I will return to them at Report.
Amendment 73A withdrawn.
Amendments 73B to 73U not moved.
74: After Clause 31, insert the following new Clause—
“Increased security measures for certain firearms
(1) The Firearms Act 1968 is amended as follows.(2) Before section 5 insert—“4B Increased security measures for certain firearms(1) A person commits an offence if, other than at times when he or she has a weapon specified in this section on or about his or her person, it is not secured in accordance with Home Office Level 3 Security.(2) The weapons specified in this section are—(a) any rifle with a calibre greater than .45 inches, or(b) any rifle with a chamber from which empty cartridge cases are extracted using—(i) energy from propellant gas, or(ii) energy imparted to a spring or other energy storage device by propellant gas.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is intended to enable discussion of security measures for firearms generally.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 74 I shall at the same time speak to Amendment 78 in this group.
This Bill is about where we set boundaries to protect the public from the misuse of dangerous objects. This amendment gives us an opportunity to discuss where that boundary should be set in the case of rifles. In other bits of the Bill we quite clearly take the decision to ban dangerous objects for which there is no legitimate use and to control those for which there is a legitimate use. There is no perfect or absolute formula that I have been able to discover, in any country, for where that boundary should be set. Different countries come to different conclusions at different times. The use of weapons in sports is widely allowed—for example, archery, fencing, shooting, jousting, javelin and discus. It is commonplace, up to the highest level, that sports derived from martial arts—including those using our own bodies—should be allowed, and I support that. Given that, we then have to consider what restrictions we put in place. In doing that, I believe we should consider what restrictions are necessary. What evidence is there that a restriction is required? We should start from a principle of allowing and then work to look for evidence that allows us to restrict.
When it comes to making firearms safe—meaning rifles rather than shotguns, for which you would have a firearms certificate—the issuing of a certificate to a holder is the principal means of protecting the public from the misuse of firearms.
As has been said, we hope that the Government will get a move on in making the necessary changes and improvements to that system but, that said, it appears to work pretty well. I have not been able to find a recent record of a crime being committed with a legally held firearm that involved someone getting hurt. Obviously, there are historic examples, which have resulted in us making changes to legislation, but since then nothing has happened, as far as I can find out, to indicate that the current system is in need of improvement. Even if it were, our attention should first be focused on how we improve that system. What can we do? Can we convince ourselves that we are unable to take further measures to make the processes for deciding who should be allowed to hold firearms better? As I said, those processes seem to be working pretty well, although we absolutely need to keep them under review, up to date and effective.
The second layer of ways in which we protect the public is the requirement that firearms be kept safely. We have options to strengthen that. Level 3 security, which is that used by public servants who hold extremely dangerous weapons in private places, is generally accepted to be more effective than the level commonly required for rifles held by members of the public. We have an option, if we are concerned about particular firearms, to say that those firearms must be held using a safer method. That should be considered before we move to banning.
Then we should ask, in relation to the particular weapons that we are considering, what the actual danger is of those weapons falling into the hands of the public. The two weapons that are considered in the Bill have, as far as I can find out, never been used in a crime of any description. That is for the fairly obvious reason that they are entirely unsuited for use in crime. If you want to be a criminal and to use a weapon, you want something that you can conceal and that is easy to get out; if you want something with power, you want something that is truly automatic and not fiddly. These are not the sort of weapons that someone would go looking for if they wanted a weapon to use in crime, which is why nobody has.
We need to spend more intelligence and effort than we do on stemming the flow into this country of illegal handguns, in particular. There are things that we could do better. We are not as good as we might be in dealing with the standard flow of packets into this country. I would like us to concentrate on that, because that route allows a significant flow of dangerous weapons into the hands of dangerous people. By and large, private individuals who hold firearms for sporting purposes do not let them get stolen and, when they are stolen, they are not what the criminals want to use. The level of public danger from these weapons is very low.
We need to keep this under review. Things change from time to time. Fashions change. Ways in which people choose to commit crime change. At the moment, on the evidence that I have, and I have done my best to ask the Government to show us their evidence, although I have not got much from them, which I suspect is because they do not have much evidence—
I am listening to what the noble Lord is saying and the assumptions he is making about the guns that are being talked about—or in this case, not talked about—and them not falling into the wrong hands. Why does he think the Home Secretary of this country said in the House of Commons that,
“according to intelligence provided by police and security services”,
these .50 calibre guns,
“have been possessed by criminals who have clearly intended to use them”?—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/18; col. 919.]
Does the noble Lord have better information and intelligence than the Home Secretary?
My Lords, if I might help my noble friend, it is possible that Ministers and Members in another House have been slightly inaccurately briefed. For instance, they were told that the effective range of a .50 calibre round is 6,800 metres, whereas in actual fact, it is only about 1,800 metres.
My Lords, I was talking about the two forms of rifle which are specifically addressed in the Bill. These are not .50 calibre rifles, but lighter ones, which are adapted for use by disabled people and make it easier to reload the round using power derived from the previous shot. That is a .50 calibre, but again, the calibre alone does not tell you all you need to know about the rifle; you need to know whether a particular weapon is dangerous. The weapons used in target shooting tend to be heavy and cumbersome and the ammunition is not the same as that used in military operations.
I have asked for evidence. There may be evidence out there, but it has not made its way to me. My particular arguments are about the guns addressed in the Bill, as there is no evidence of misuse of those guns or available evidence showing that these are fundamentally more dangerous than other rifles. There is also no evidence that they cannot be properly secured through a mixture of physical security and the systems we have to ensure that firearms are only held by the people who ought to hold them.
Before Hungerford and Dunblane, there had not been evidence of legally held handguns being used to massacre people. However, Hungerford and Dunblane happened, and after that, we passed legislation and the country is much safer as a result.
Absolutely. We need to keep these things under consideration. However, if one took the noble Lord’s argument to its logical conclusion, we would ban cars because they have been used deliberately to kill people. Any kind of weapon, including knives, presents a danger to the public. Because there is a legitimate use for these objects, we choose to look at how to balance the potential danger with the potential good. I hope that we will choose to do it on the basis of evidence, which says, yes, these things are dangerous, but we have systems in place which negate that danger. Rules on the weapons the public may hold legitimately, plus the safeguards we take, mean this is not the route through which weapons reach the people who will misuse them. In society as a whole, we have adopted a system which is safe and which allows us to live with the existence of those weapons. It seems to me that the evidence says that is the case at the moment. We do not have a recent history of misuse—of any degree at all—of the weapons which are currently allowed.
It is important to keep these things under review, but it is also important to be sensible. A lot of what is in our lives is dangerous. It is the business of legislators to balance that danger with utility and reach a conclusion; there are lots of different conclusions that can be reached. If we say that people are to have weapons of any description, it seems to me that the current arrangements for allowing people to have firearms are working very well. There is no evidence that incremental banning of particular types of firearm will produce any benefit at all and, as a matter of principle, we ought to take those sorts of decisions based on evidence, rather than because someone feels like it somewhere and no one quite knows why because it is buried in the decision-making processes that created this Bill.
My appeal to my noble friend is that we ought to be looking at where this process is going in the long term, at what we should be doing to make sure that firearms can be legally held, and at the security we want around that. Then, when we arrive at that conclusion, we can show that the weapons which fit within that are not a source of danger to the public, by their nature, because they are not what people who wish to commit crimes will go for.
A lot of guns are being recovered by the police, and by and large they are illegal guns because the guns that are being brought in are much more suitable for use in crime. People will not go for a hunting rifle to commit crime with. We are not talking about hunting rifles in the Bill, but the same considerations apply. If hunting rifles were being widely used in crime, we would be fussed about it, but they are not. The rifles that are the subject of this Bill are not used in crime. There is no instance of them being used in crime. There is nothing obvious about them which makes them more dangerous than other firearms in the context of the controls that we have. As a result of the deliberations in another place, our concerns about .50 calibre are under review. We ought to do the same with the other rifles that are mentioned here and come to a coherent, evidenced conclusion about where in this society we now choose to draw the line on the firearms that people may legally hold and on the purposes for which they may legally hold them. I am not saying that there is an absolute value to any particular place to draw the line; I am saying that we ought to do this on the basis of evidence, and nothing that my noble friends have been able to provide me with at the moment offers evidence that the rifles we are discussing pose any greater danger than the many other rifles that we permit people to hold. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend’s amendment and to speak to my Amendments 78B, 79A and 79B. Additionally, I want to refer to an earlier comment about the Dunblane massacre and the handguns that were banned afterwards. I was chairman of the FCC at that time and remember it very well indeed. The only effect of the ban on handguns at that stage and of the incoming Government’s Bill to ban other handguns below .32 calibre was to drive those handguns underground. Since then, it is fair to say that there are many fewer legally held handguns because it is illegal to hold them, but nine out 10 of the guns used in crime are illegal, and the number of illegally held handguns has ballooned over the years since Dunblane.
I wish to address lever-release and MARS rifles which are the subject also of my noble friend’s amendment. They are used in general by disabled shooters who find it extremely difficult to use a standard rifle. These disabled shooters normally have big problems, such as arthritis in their fingers and hands, or mobility problems so they have to shoot from a sitting position. Prohibition of these two types of guns would cause those shooters considerable hardship and probably leave them unable to take part in their chosen target disciplines and competitions. I am certainly not aware of any evidence that MARS or LR weapons have ever been used in crime, and I feel strongly that they could easily be held on Section 1 certificates with level 3 enhanced security, which comes in guidance to the police. I have no problems with that provision whatever. These people look after their guns incredibly safely in any case. I look forward to my noble friend’s views on those matters.
I object to some parts of the amendment. There are two or three areas where there is insufficient attention to detail for it to supersede the original Bill. For a start, there is a question about MARS and lever action which, as has just been raised, is used by target shooters in international competition. This is an important aspect of Paralympic competition and normal shooting competitions, so we do not want to catch those weapons in the amendment. Another item left out from the amendment, I suspect by mistake, relates to a prohibition on the use of .22 rimfire semi-automatic rifles, which are widely used for vermin control and the like. That certainly should be in the amendment. Another point is that although the amendment refers to,
“a calibre greater than .45 inches”,
there are quite large numbers of rifles out there—
Typographic error or no, it is not in there. Going back to large-calibre rifles, quite a lot of people get much fun out of remarkable things such as black-powder, muzzle-loader and Snider .577 rifles, which are far larger but have very low effects. Again, more detail is required to ensure that these sort of things can be legally held.
My Lords, I have tabled Amendments 80A to 80D in this group. If the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, had not tabled his Amendment 79 concerning .50 calibre rifles, he would have been best described as asleep at the wheel. I think the Committee will be grateful for the opportunity to discuss this matter and, hopefully, identify a solution. Other noble Lords have discussed the genesis of this matter. A .50 calibre rifle is clearly in a class of its own. However, I have some concerns about the quality of briefings given to Ministers and to Members of the House of Commons. It is therefore not surprising that the Government had to drop their provisions on .50 calibre rifles in the House of Commons.
While .50 calibre target rifles have some extraordinary characteristics, they are entirely dependent on the skill of the user. It is tempting to believe that all one has to do to hit the V-bull centre of the target is to line up the cross-hairs of a telescopic sight and squeeze the trigger. The reality is rather more complex. It is a great sport simply because it is so difficult, and therefore not surprising that target shooting is an Olympic sport. First, the rifle has to be held correctly and in exactly the same way for every shot. The shooter’s breathing has to be controlled perfectly. If I was trying to shoot at 1,000 yards I doubt that I could keep the cross-hairs on the target, let alone the bull. Trigger action is also all-important. For instance, snatching the trigger is the cause of a lot of inaccuracy. Frankly, due to the recoil, if I tried to fire a .50 calibre target rifle I would be terrified—a 7.62 target rifle is bad enough. For all these reasons, an applicant for a firearms certificate for a .50 calibre target rifle will not be successful unless considerable skill can be demonstrated with lighter but full-bore target rifles.
It is of course exceptionally unlikely that a terrorist would have the necessary skill to use a .50 calibre rifle in the way feared by some. My noble friend Lord Lucas said that these rifles had never been used in crime.
I do not have a philosophical objection to private ownership of a .50 calibre target rifle. However, two mischiefs remain. The first is that if one was stolen it could for a while give rise to major security concerns. This might result in certain events being cancelled. The second is this. I do not have the skill to use a .50 calibre rifle effectively. However, I have the skill to incorporate one into a remote-controlled weapon system and it would have none of the marksmanship weaknesses that I have. The good news is that it is very unusual for someone with this level of engineering skill to use it for such evil and illegal purposes. It is even less likely in the case of today’s radicalised terrorists, who usually have very limited skills.
In the UK, we suffer mercifully few disasters with legally held firearms. This is because we get the balance right. Ministers generally make the right decisions, taking into account advice from Home Office officials. There is one particular official who has done sterling work over many years and has briefed or worked with many of us in this Committee. I am sure that noble Lords know who I am talking about and we should be grateful for his efforts.
My Amendment 80A would build on my noble friend Lord Lucas’s Amendment 74 and provide that special storage and transport conditions on a firearms certificate were mandatory in the case of a high muzzle energy rifle; that is, one with more than 13,600 joules of energy.
My Amendment 80B would give the Secretary of State an order-making power to specify the special storage and transport conditions to be included on the certificate. Of course, we could go for guidance rather than an order. I have made no provision for parliamentary scrutiny because I do not believe it to be sensible to make the security details public.
So far as I can see, the current standard gun cabinets are designed to prevent unauthorised access or opportunistic theft and they appear to do so. However, they are not designed to resist a determined attack using specialist equipment. My noble friend Lord Lucas proposes a much higher level of security and I support this. While my noble friend’s amendment is clear on what is proposed, I think that there are drafting issues and I suspect that the same applies to my amendment.
I understand that some owners of .50 calibre target rifles already have the requisite secure facilities. However, some might not be so lucky and there is also a vulnerability when these guns are in transit. Currently, it is illegal to possess any of the key components of a firearm without a certificate and this includes the bolt. My Amendment 80C would allow another person to be in possession of a bolt if this was in connection with a special storage and transport condition. I would expect there to be documentary conditions involved. This provision could be useful in allowing club officials to hold the bolts for the owners of a .50 calibre rifle. It could also allow the rifle to be transported without the bolt being present with the rifle. Therefore, if a rifle is stolen but the bolt can still be accounted for, there is no security problem and no risk.
I have made no special provision about the ammunition because I do not believe that it is necessary or beneficial. This is because dealing with the rifle solves the problem and it is not particularly difficult to acquire or reload a few rounds of .50 calibre ammunition for some terrible purpose.
I am not fixed on whether we solve this problem by storage conditions or by disassembling the rifle, thus rendering it harmless except when in use on a range, or a combination of the two. It may be best to have a range of options available to suit the circumstances, and this could be provided for in the proposed order or guidance. If we want to have a disassembly option available, we need my Amendment 80C, or something similar on the face of the Bill.
If the sense of the Grand Committee is that something along the lines of my suggestion is acceptable, the Minister may be more tempted to take the opportunity to come up with a properly drafted government amendment. The consultation could then go forward as planned and, with benefit of the consultation, the Government could implement the necessary changes by whatever means is provided in the Bill.
My final amendment in this group is Amendment 80D. The Firearms Act 1968 does not define a rifle, other than to say that the term includes a carbine. This is because there was no need. I was concerned that the prohibition of high muzzle energy rifles might catch preserved artillery and tank guns, which are currently licensed by an ordinary firearms certificate if they have not already been deactivated. I have been assured by officials that the term “rifle” would exclude artillery pieces, and this makes sense. However, if we do make the changes regarding HME rifles, an individual police officer might want to make a name for himself by claiming that an artillery piece is caught by any legislation we eventually pass. He could claim that the term “rifle” means a firearm that has been rifled. Indeed, one noble and gallant Lord has asked me to look at and raise this point. I have previously been involved with a problem arising in this way, concerning the Vehicle Excise Act, concrete pumping machines and mobile cranes— don’t ask.
It would be best to define a rifle in the 1968 Act, but I would be happy if the Minister gave a categorical “Pepper v Hart” assurance that the term “rifle” does not include larger pieces of ordnance.
My Lords, I want to make a couple of general comments about these amendments. I never think it is worth passing legislation just because it looks good. Is it going to be effective, or not? Sometimes, where there is a problem, one hits something that looks like an easy target; it sounds good, and will keep the papers and the public happy. It may not change anything in the real world, which is about trying to protect people.
Some of this legislation could be held to be against the Disability Discrimination Act, in that some people who have problems can shoot with modified rifles, take part in international competition and get a huge sense of pride and success from doing well in it. However, the rifles do need to be modified and without these amendments, it looks as if they will be excluded from competition. It would be very sad if people who cannot run, jump or do other things have the one thing they are good at taken away from them. We should think quite hard about that.
Purely defining something by its muzzle size catches a lot of things that are not dangerous at all—muzzle loaders, for example. We have not really dealt with .50 calibre properly. Although a .50 has a good range, it is not going to pierce armour and cause huge destruction unless you have a military-grade armour-piercing round for it. You are not going to get one of those very easily, and you certainly are not going to load it yourself.
I stand corrected, but there are many other things that do too. I do wonder whether we are just homing in on one particular device, when you can make yourself a mortar that can blow up a lot of people. Why would you want to choose that particular weapon? I am very sad when I see us unable to take part in international competitions on a global stage, because we are worrying about something that has not been a problem yet.
I appreciate what the Minister is saying but this is a critical part of the legislation, where some strong views are held on both sides. Having sat through the debate so far, I also appreciate that we want to finish the business. I am not an expert in this field but I know that there are many experts around, who will undoubtedly contribute. This matter has excited a lot of interest outside the House.
First, I am not anti-target shooting. I was a member of the House of Commons rifle club, when it existed, and went target shooting in the subterranean depths of this building. Of course, I was Defence Secretary and then Secretary-General of NATO so I must have ordered huge quantities of guns of every description. As I said at Second Reading, I am a resident of Dunblane and became deeply engaged in the debate that took place after that shooting. I would contradict what was said about the banning of the private ownership of handguns leading to an increase in the amount of crime involving them. My colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, who has now left, also disagreed with that.
I am here to probe the issue of .50 calibre guns. In other contexts, they would be known colloquially as sniper rifles; they certainly have a destructive power over very long distances. I want to pray in aid what was said by the Home Secretary. I am not normally a great disciple of his—I think that he is running for Prime Minister at the moment, or at least leader of the Conservative Party when the vacancy eventually and inevitably occurs—but, as the Home Secretary, he has access to a lot of information that the rest of us do not. So, when he comes to the House of Commons and makes Statements, we should listen carefully.
We should also listen to what the Home Office had to say in preparation for the Bill. The department produces impact assessments—a very good innovation, whenever they were brought in, to describe the impact of legislation on costs, society and provisions on law and order. An impact assessment was done on .50 calibre rifles but, oddly enough, it is not in the Printed Paper Office. An impact assessment on the knife aspect of the Bill is available, but not one on the part about guns. If I can read its very small writing, the impact assessment which I found on the internet states:
“There is concern about the availability of .50 calibre and rapid-fire Manually Actuated Release System (MARS) rifles”—
as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—
“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 Home Office impact assessment was delivered to the Government in preparation for the legislation.
In the House of Commons, the Home Secretary said when he presented the Bill:
“We based those measures on evidence that we received from intelligence sources, police and other security experts … 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.]
These are not my words or an exaggeration by anti-gun campaigners, but the words of the Home Secretary. He did not resile from these comments when he withdrew the clause from the Bill, under pressure from a large number of Back-Bench Conservative MPs. All he has said is that the matter would be subject to further consultation. The danger between now and the end of the consultation is represented precisely by the Home Secretary’s warning. I hope the Minister will be able to explain why the Committee should listen to outside experts when the Home Secretary of this country has given such a graphic description of the dangers presented by these weapons.
They are certainly not infallible—I speak from great experience on that— but the Home Secretary clearly did not come to the House of Commons unprepared and without checking thoroughly in advance. His statements are clearly there. His predecessor was misled and she resigned. I do not think that the present Home Secretary is likely to make that mistake again or that he has been misled; he said what he believed and what he had been told.
My Lords, I will make a brief intervention in this debate. I declare an interest as a holder of a firearms certificate and the owner of a number of rifles, none of which would come anywhere near the type of muzzle energy we are talking about.
I support the description of our firearms licensing regime given by my noble friend Lord Lucas. It is generally accepted internationally that the UK has one of the most rigorous and best informed firearms licensing regimes in the world. It is also generally accepted that the shooting community respects and understands that the holding of a firearms certificate is a privilege that can be removed. Because of that, they are a very law-abiding section of the community. They are acutely aware that their sport and activity can be curtailed should they be involved in criminal activity entirely unrelated to the use of their firearms.
With that in mind, we have to be a bit careful of banning things because they are an easy target—forgive the pun. It is easy to work out where a particular category of firearm is and remove it from circulation. I hold no particular candle for the .50 calibre rifle and I am open to arguments about where the line should be drawn, because one indeed has to be drawn somewhere. We have acted in the past regarding handguns, fully automatic weapons and a number of other eventualities, but I very much support my noble friend Lord Lucas’s contention that before we ban something we have to have a closely argued, coherent case that is evidence based. Just banning something because we feel like it or because it is easy to do should not be a proper course of action.
Debate on the Bill has, on the one hand, largely been about very large numbers of people carrying knives, often using them and being closely tied up with the criminal fraternity, particularly drug dealers. On the other hand, the Bill talks about banning the use of a piece of equipment that is legally held when no recorded crime has ever been committed using a legally held rifle of such high-muzzle energy, as far as I understand it. I am open to correction by my noble friend and other Members of the Committee. We have to be very careful about that. Where do we draw the line?
I quite accept what the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said: these are weapons of very high power and very high destructive capability. That is absolutely correct. On the other hand, their utility for criminals is much lower than that of many other sniper rifles. He described them as sniper rifles, and indeed they are. But they are not the typical sniper rifles used by the British Army, which are in calibres much closer to sporting rifles and are much smaller pieces of equipment. We have to put this in perspective and look at the actual threat.
When the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, referred to what was worrying the Home Secretary about these rifles, it occurred to me to question whether he was worried about the theft of these 130 or so rifles, a tiny number, or about one of those firearm certificate holders turning bad. Or was it really about someone purchasing one of these—in America, for example—and turning it into a small number of machinery components, putting them in a container and smuggling them in, as a vast number of illegally held pistols arrive in this country. The real danger faced on the streets is from illegally held weapons, not legally held weapons.
My Lords, I will add a couple of points. It is very instructive to look up “sniper rifles” on Google because you get a huge list of them, the vast majority at 7.62 calibre not .50 calibre. It is also interesting to see that three of the most popular .50 calibre rifles are made in this country and well known globally as some of the most popular sniper rifles. There are currently believed to be 200 large- calibre rifles in the UK, which is not a very substantial number. The cost of acquiring one of these .50 calibre target rifles is also not cheap—about £20,000 for the whole package, so there are never going to be very many of them.
Another point, which has already been made, is that only one of these rifles has ever been stolen in this country and it was found shortly afterwards, dumped by the opportunist thief, who realised that there was absolutely nothing he could do with it. They weigh about 36 pounds, which means they are not exactly the easiest things to carry around, and are very substantial in length—a length from here to the end of the desk. So we are talking about a rare beast indeed.
My Lords, I hate guns, so I have no interest in promoting any cause. I do not want to trivialise firearms offences because they can be very serious, but they are relatively small in number compared with the number of knife crime offences, for example. Only 1% of non-air weapon firearms offences involve rifles. Bearing in mind the very low number of offences committed using rifles, can the Minister tell the Committee why the Government have set these hares running?
My Lords, I have Amendments 79 and 80 in this group. They are word-for-word what was in the Bill when it was first published in the House of Commons. I am attempting to put back into the Bill the clauses put forward by the Government originally—not my usual role here as opposition spokesperson; I am usually trying to take out government clauses or change them, but here we are today trying to put them back in.
My noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen set out clearly at Second Reading and again today why these weapons should be banned. They are more dangerous in terms of their penetrative power and range. My noble friend quoted the Home Secretary’s comments; I shall not quote them again. The Home Secretary was very clear why these weapons had to be banned; he had had intelligence about why it was important to do that. Then we had a complete about turn and the clause was taken out between Second Reading and Third Reading. I am sure we will find out at some point what happened and why that was done. My honourable friend Louise Haigh, the shadow Policing Minister, was very clear that the Opposition backed the Government’s original position and that the provision would pass through the House of Commons without any problems.
It is interesting that the Government have gone much further than what people on the Government Benches wanted. The Member for The Cotswolds, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, suggested level 3 security, but that is not here. They were not looking for the weapon to be banned but wanted enhanced security, very much along the lines of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but there is nothing here. That security level means that the gun, the bolt and the ammunition are kept in three separate safes. At the moment the Government are proposing not to do that. They are going to leave the security as it is. That is regrettable.
I am not an expert on guns. I do not particularly like guns, but I have fired some weapons, including a sniper rifle and a few shotguns. I fired them on ranges, and when I was in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme I did some stuff. I have shot only at targets and clay pigeons. I am very pleased that we live in a country where we have tough laws on weapons. I am very proud that we have them, and they are good.
My noble friend Lord Robertson was right to point out in respect of evidence that, before Hungerford and Dunblane, handguns were not generally seen as an issue. It was only after the two tragedies that Government had to act to ban them. We can never say what is going to happen in the future.
The Government were right in their original proposals, and it is shame we are here today. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has tabled an amendment to improve the position today. I am very pleased to see it because it is better than the Government’s suggestion. It at least gives level 3 security. That will make it more difficult for weapons to be obtained illegally, and although it is not an absolute guarantee it is certainly progress. I shall not press my amendment, but I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s comments in response to the debate, because these are serious issues. As my noble friend Lord Robertson said, although the Government removed the two clauses, at no point has the Home Secretary withdrawn the remarks he made. My worry is that after we have had this review, the Government will decide that we need to ban these weapons and then will say that we have no legislation to ban them and we will have to wait until something comes along. That is the often the case with many things which we suggest in opposition. The Government aim to do things and say they will do them at some point when they find a Bill they can put them in. My worry is that we may end up there. I raised that point at Second Reading with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. If the Government are going to do a consultation and then decide to ban these weapons, they should take a power to enable them to do that through secondary legislation. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lucas began by quite rightly pointing out that this is a Bill about setting boundaries. As we have heard, this group of amendments deals with what is the appropriate form of regulation for high muzzle energy rifles. We have heard a variety of views from all sides of the Committee. Some noble Lords are seeking to restore the prohibition of these rifles removed from the Bill in the Commons. Other noble Lords are seeking to go further than the amendments made in the Commons by also removing the prohibition on so-called MARS rifles, while yet other noble Lords seek to find a middle way by introducing mandatory security requirements. I will endeavour to disentangle these competing approaches by setting out the Government’s considered view on the various amendments.
I begin with what is, in effect, the middle-way option, if only because my noble friend Lord Lucas’s Amendment 74 is the first one in this group, but I will address my noble friend Earl Attlee’s Amendments 80A to 80C as they cover similar ground, albeit from a different perspective. Amendment 74 provides us with an opportunity to test whether a requirement to apply the highest standards of security for the storage of specific firearm types when not in use might be an alternative to prohibition. The Government are not seeking to prohibit ownership of high muzzle energy rifles through this Bill, so it is relevant for us to discuss the merits of applying enhanced security to the storage of such firearms while they continue to be available to civilians under our firearms licensing arrangements. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, takes the contrary view, and I will come on to his amendments shortly.
The Bill will prohibit civilian access to more rapid-firing rifles, which makes any discussion of secure storage in respect of these weapons otiose, although we will come to Amendments 78A and 79A, which would have the effect of removing that prohibition from the Bill, and Amendments 78B and 79B, which seek to make changes to the prohibition.
The Government are concerned about the potential public safety risks that more powerful and more rapid-firing rifles pose, should they fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists. It is therefore right that where any such firearms remain available for civilian use and ownership on a firearms certificate issued by the police they should be subject to the highest standards of security to prevent theft and misuse. I therefore understand the reference in my noble friend Lord Lucas’s amendment to the requirements of level 3 security. This relates to different levels of security arrangements that are set out in the Home Office’s Firearms Security Handbook, with level 3 being the highest level of security measures set out in the handbook.
The first point I want to make in respect of this amendment is that it would be something of an anomaly to specify particular security conditions in this way in the Bill. It is currently an operational matter for police forces to satisfy themselves that the security in place for any firearm held by a civilian is proportionate to the risk that the specific firearm poses, taking all relevant factors into account. The issue of the relevant firearms certificate can be made contingent on the required levels of security being in place. While it is right that we should ask the police to have due regard to the requirements of the handbook, it would, as I have said, be an anomaly to set out in primary legislation the level of security required for one specific rifle type.
While I fully understand the point behind the amendment, it is important to be aware that the Firearms Security Handbook is a joint Home Office and policing document, intended to guide forces. The document has no specific legal weight and can be amended administratively. In such circumstances, I contend to my noble friend, it would not be appropriate to specify level 3 security in this Bill.
Amendments 80A to 80C in the name of my noble friend Earl Atlee address the same issue, but in a different way. These amendments in turn seek to amend the Firearms Act 1968 in order to provide the Secretary of State with an order-making power to specify the conditions relating to the secure storage and transportation of high muzzle energy rifles, which must be attached to the relevant firearms certificates issued by the police. The point behind the amendments is important. Dangerous firearms held in the community must be kept and stored as securely as possible.
The Government have given a commitment that we will consult on the issue of whether high muzzle energy rifles should be subject to a general prohibition, along with a number of other issues relating to firearms safety, after the Bill has completed its passage through Parliament. But the Government recognise the strength of feeling on this issue, on all sides. I know that some, including the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, have concerns about waiting for a further public consultation to run its course, particularly if this leads to a call for further legislation. We therefore take the point that there is a case for action in this area at this time. The Government will therefore give further consideration to the amendments tabled by my noble friends Lord Lucas and Earl Atlee ahead of Report. I cannot at this juncture give a commitment beyond that, but I assure both my noble friends that the case they put forward has landed and will be looked at seriously.
Amendments 78, 78B, 79A and 79B provide us with an opportunity to consider potential alternatives to the prohibition of the rifle types specified in Clause 32. Clauses 32 and 33 will strengthen the controls in respect of rapid-firing rifles, as defined by these clauses. As I explained earlier, these are currently available for civilian use or ownership under general licensing arrangements administered by the police under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 or Article 45 of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004. This means that at present they can be owned only by somebody who has a firearms certificate for which they have been vetted by the police. Following advice from experts in the law enforcement agencies, we consider that these rifles should be brought under stricter controls. That will be achieved by adding them to the list of prohibited firearms provided for by Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 and Article 45 of the Northern Ireland order. Weapons that are so prohibited are subject to more rigorous controls than other firearms and may be possessed only with the authority of the Secretary of State.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, argued that the proposed ban of rapid-fire rifles could discriminate against disabled shooters. That point was raised during discussion of the Bill in the other place. I have to say straight out that I am not impressed by that argument. If the prohibition has an impact on disabled shooters, those who provide shooting facilities should see what alternative assistance might be provided to disabled shooters by shooting clubs, whether by adapting other types of rifle or adapting the places where disabled people shoot. So I am afraid that I do not find my noble friend’s and the noble Earl’s argument particularly powerful on that issue.
It is not our intention to restrict unnecessarily or arbitrarily the lawful use of firearms by licence holders for legitimate sporting purposes, for example. The vast majority of people in lawful possession of firearms use them responsibly and it is right that any controls need to be proportionate. But at the same time, the Government are concerned about the recent rises in gun crime and the changing threats and heightened risk to public safety. All firearms are by their very nature potentially dangerous and, indeed, lethal, but the rifles specified in Clauses 32 and 33 are considered to be more dangerous than other firearms permitted for civilian ownership under the firearms legislation. These rifles can discharge rounds at a much faster rate than conventional bolt-action rifles, which are permitted under licence and are normally operated manually with an up-and-back, forward-and-down motion.
The definition as set out in the Bill refers to the use of the energy from the propellant gas to extract the empty cartridge cases. This brings them much closer to self-loading rifles, which are already prohibited for civilian ownership under our firearms laws. The Government are therefore concerned about their potential for serious misuse and loss of life if they were to fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists.
If I understand my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury correctly—he will correct me if I am mistaken—his Amendments 78B and 79B are intended to alter and narrow the definition of rapid-fire rifle, as set out in Clauses 32 and 33. The definition currently includes rifles that employ the manually actuated release firing system, which uses propellant gas to assist in swifter reloading through a second pull of the trigger, and those that employ the lever-release system, which makes use of a lever operated by the user’s thumb allowing the bolt to be released, thereby chambering a fresh round. I take it that my noble friend’s amendments seek to exclude the latter from the prohibition. It is the Government’s view that both these rifle types can discharge rounds at a much faster rate than other rifles and, for the reasons I have already set out, we believe that both types should be captured by the intended prohibition.
I turn to Amendments 79 and 80 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. The effect of these amendments would be to re-insert measures in the Bill to strengthen the controls on particularly powerful high muzzle energy rifles. These rifles are currently available for civilian use or ownership under general licensing arrangements administered by the police. The Government’s reasons for seeking to prohibit civilian access to these rifles received much scrutiny during the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons. We heard arguments to the effect that the weight and cumbersome nature of these rifles means that they would not be the weapon of choice for criminals. We also heard that there are currently limited numbers of these weapons in private ownership and, as I have already touched on, we heard arguments to suggest that heightened security to ensure the safe storage of these weapons could lessen law enforcement agencies’ concerns about the availability of these rifles on licence.
The Government continue to have concerns about the potential for serious misuse and loss of life if these rifles were to fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists, for exactly the reasons articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, when he cited the words used by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked why we have set hares running, as he put it, on this subject. That makes the Government’s position sound a little capricious, which I assure him it is not. The UK’s law enforcement authorities have flagged their concerns to us about the risks that these rifles would pose to public safety if they were to get into the hands of criminals or terrorists, as I have described. The action that we sought to take originally in the other place was pre-emptive and preventive in its intent. However, we are now in a different place.
We recognise that there are a range of views on this issue and that the debate is a complex one. My noble friend Lord Goschen expressed powerful views in arguing against a ban on high muzzle energy rifles, as did the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery.
My Lords, I said that I was open to hearing the arguments. I was saying that we should have a powerful case before we move to such a ban, if that is the direction that Her Majesty’s Government seek to take. The airing of these issues in this House and in another place are very helpful, but we need to follow the spirit of evidence before any action.
That is extremely helpful. I agree with my noble friend. That is exactly why the Government felt that a longer public debate about this issue was appropriate.
In the light of representations made by representative firearms bodies and others during the passage of the Bill, the Government sought advice from the National Crime Agency on whether heightened security standards governing the safe storage of these rifles would be sufficient to reduce the concerns expressed to us. In the light of the advice received, we took the view that we should look again at options for enhancing the security requirements associated with these particular rifles, rather than push for their prohibition under the firearms legislation at the present time. That is why the provisions to prohibit high muzzle energy rifles were removed from the Bill on Report in the Commons.
It is the Government’s view that we should not proceed with prohibition without considering further the views of the police, relevant shooting organisations and members of the public. As was announced in the Commons, it is the Government’s intention to launch a full public consultation on this and on the firearms safety issues that have arisen during the Bill’s progress. That will provide an opportunity fully to consider the views of all those involved or with an interest and to make a better assessment of whether enhanced security, as proposed by my noble friends, would be sufficient to address the risks set out by the police and the NCA.
Finally, Amendment 80D in the name of my noble friend Lord Attlee seeks to make a change to the definition of “rifle” in Section 57 of the Firearms Act 1968. The purpose of that definition is to make it clear that the ordinary definition of “rifle” includes carbines, a particular type of long gun firearm with a shorter barrel than a normal rifle, which is classified as a rifle for the purposes of firearms controls. As he helpfully set out, my noble friend’s purpose in tabling the amendment is to make it clear that when we talk about rifles, including for the purposes of Clauses 32 and 33, we are talking about hand-held rifles, specifically those that are fired from the shoulder. My noble friend is clear that he wants there to be no confusion with artillery or guns fitted to tanks. The Government are not persuaded that this change to the Firearms Act is necessary. “Rifle” will continue to carry its normal meaning. I understand that this might have been a concern had we been talking about rifled weapons, but we are not.
In the light of the explanations I have provided and my commitment to consider further Amendments 74 and 80A to 80C, I hope that my noble friend Lord Lucas will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
In my contribution, I made a point about the Government taking out amendments then putting them back in. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, at Second Reading, the Minister referred to consultation. Today, the Minister told us that the Government remain very concerned about these weapons and their power. I worry that we will have the same problem as with the rogue landlords database. We wanted to make the database public through the Housing and Planning Act. We won the votes in the Lords, but they were overturned in the Commons. A year later, the Government changed their mind. Now, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, is saying, “The Government want to make the database available. We need primary legislation but we cannot find anything to tag it on to”. I worry that the Government will decide in the end that they want to ban these weapons but will say that they cannot find the legislation. Will the Government consider a precautionary power so that if they decide to, they could do that very quickly through secondary legislation?
It was in an endeavour to address the general concern put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that I undertook for the Government to consider seriously my noble friend Lord Attlee’s amendment and my noble friend Lord Lucas’s arguments. However, I take his point. I am sure that it will not be lost on Home Office Ministers or officials. Of course, we will give that further consideration.
My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s calm and consideration, as ever. He would make an excellent target shooter. I will try to persuade him to join the Lords’ team for our battle against the Commons in July. I am grateful for what he said about Amendment 74, but when it comes to what my noble friend referred to as rapid-firing rifles, I would be grateful if he could share with us the evidence on which the Government have based the conclusion that the lever release rifle, in particular, is in practice a rapid-firing rifle.
I am not trying to pose as an expert in these things, but in terms of the evidence I have seen from people outside government, that matter is in question, and that is what lies behind my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury’s amendment. If my noble friend felt able to share the information or opinions on which that conclusion was based before Report, I would be immensely grateful.
Amendment 74 withdrawn.
75: After Clause 31, insert the following new Clause—
“Implementation of firearms licensing guidance
(1) The Secretary of State must, within the period of six months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, publish a report on how the Government’s Guide on Firearms Licensing Law (April 2016) is being implemented. (2) A report under subsection (1) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.(3) The Secretary of State must include in a report under this section—(a) an assessment of the number of encoded reminders that have been placed on the patient records of firearms licence applicants following the grant or renewal of a firearms licence,(b) an assessment of the fees charged by General Practitioners to provide medical information to support a firearms licence application, and(c) an assessment of the number of General Practitioners who have refused to provide medical information to support a firearms licence application, and the reasons for those refusals.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State to report within six months of the passing of this Act on how the Government’s Guide on Firearms Licensing Law is being implemented, particularly in relation to medical information.
My Lords, in Amendment 75 I address the medical information that is requested by police forces when someone applies for a firearms certificate or a shotgun licence, both on original grant and on renewal. This issue affects every firearm and shotgun certificate holder in England and Wales. I mentioned all this in my speech at Second Reading.
Paragraph 2 of Article 5 of the EU firearms directive mandates 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 in the fee charged to the applicant by his or her GP for a medical assessment. By way of an example, I was looking on the internet the other day and I saw—no names, no pack drill—a GPs’ practice that stated quite plainly that they were conscientious objectors and that they would not take anyone on who was applying for a shotgun or coterminous or firearms certificate or had any interest in shooting—I find that strange, but there it is. I suppose if you were told that by your GP you would go elsewhere—but their charges were slightly different as well. The conscientious objectors said on the next page, “But we will charge you £200”, and on the next page it was £360, so that does not quite make sense.
What is required is: first, a compulsory and once-only medical records check by the general practitioner in response to a police inquiry about the physical and mental health of the applicant; secondly, an enduring marker should be placed by the GP on the patient’s medical records noting that he or she may be in possession of firearms or shotguns in order to ensure that thereafter the GP is reminded to draw to the police’s attention any future adverse change in the patient’s health, including mental health, which may have a bearing on their abilities safely to possess a firearm or shotgun; thirdly, there should be an agreed, reasonable fee for the GP’s original medical records check and the placing of the enduring marker; fourthly, there should be an extension of the life of firearm or shotgun certificates from five to 10 years, which would reduce pressure on licensing departments and police forces; and finally, there should be protection of the confidentiality of applicants and certificate holders’ data.
To shooting sports bodies, the APPG on Shooting and Conservation, the police and, I hope, the Home Office, that should all make perfect sense. It serves to secure and enhance the safety of the public. It is high time that the Home Office moved forward on this. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for raising this issue. I agree with everything he said. My noble friend Lady Barran suggested that we ought to be economical with the time, but we are discussing primary legislation and will take as long as we need.
I am increasingly disappointed by the attitude of the BMA, and the medical profession generally, in respect of statutory medicals necessary to protect the public. I need a regular medical to keep my HGV driving entitlement. Of course, I can afford the fee, but for a poorly paid lorry driver, it can be a problem. The cost may also discourage experienced drivers from maintaining their entitlement when they no longer use it. It seems blindingly obvious that the doctor best placed to determine if an individual is safe to hold an HGV licence or a firearms certificate is the applicant’s general practitioner. The GP is paid by the state to look after the health of all their patients; they are also the person most likely to be aware of any problems at home.
We are rightly proud of our firearms licensing system, which we have got about right. However, I would make one observation about some police forces deliberately making the process as difficult as possible to deter applicants. For a few months in early 2003, I was running around in the Middle East on Her Majesty’s Service with a loaded Browning Hi-Power pistol in my holster, so someone must have thought that I was a reliable person. When I returned to the UK in June that year, I realised that the land around my house in the middle of Lincolnshire was infested with rabbits, which were no doubt having an adverse effect on agricultural output. I could have done with a bolt-action .22 sporting rifle, but I did not bother applying for a firearms certificate as I was deterred by the deliberate difficulties I knew I would encounter. It was not important to me. Nevertheless, someone with an unhealthy interest in firearms will do whatever is necessary to secure a firearms certificate, so we are having precisely the opposite effect to the one we desire. An unco-operative medical professional would have been just one more difficulty to deter me. I therefore wish my noble friend success with the points he made.
My Lords, I put my name to this amendment and support it. As my noble friend Lord Lucas said on the previous amendment, the safety of the public is of paramount importance when we talk about shooting; the way we ensure that is by licensing rifles and shotguns.
I have no interests to declare. I do not have a firearms certificate and I do not own shotguns, but this is of great importance to me. It is sad that my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and I had to table the amendment. It would not have been necessary if the Home Office had got on and dealt with the problem earlier. It has known about it and promised consultation in this area, but it has dragged its feet continuously. The consultation should be well under way by now and the results known so that we could debate it.
Returning to the Minister’s old department, what action is the Department of Health taking to encourage GPs to obey the guidance agreed in 2016? Clearly, as demonstrated by my noble friend Lord Attlee, both GPs and the police are not following the guidance. They want to charge fees when it was agreed that no fees would be charged on initial application.
On another point, in declaring something of an interest, can the Minister confirm that the mental health check will apply to everybody with access to the gun cabinet? It is hugely important for not just the person who owns the rifle or shotgun but for anybody with access to the cabinet as well. People often store other things in those cabinets. In my personal experience, we stored my wife’s jewellery in the shotgun cabinet. It was the safe lock-up. She therefore had access to it and to a gun to commit suicide—she was not going to kill anybody else. I do not believe that her suicide could ever have been prevented, but it would not have happened with a shotgun if she had had to undergo a medical test. Can my noble friend confirm that point for me?
My Lords, I apologise for not having been present for Second Reading and for speaking from the wrong side of the Room.
I will give you a medical perspective, as medicine has been mentioned and is very much part of this. I am holding a letter I got from the Hampshire Constabulary when I applied for my firearm renewal. It says:
“Thank you for your application for the renewal of a firearm and shotgun certificate. In your application you have disclosed that you have glaucoma.
To suffer from a medical condition of any kind does not preclude you from possessing a firearm. When considering application for Firearm or Shotgun Certificates the Chief Officer of Police has a statutory responsibility to ensure that people wishing to possess firearms can do so without being a danger to public safety or to the peace.
To enable the application to progress we require a medical report from your General Practitioner … detailing the background to your condition, the effects it may have and a description of the medication or treatment you received and are currently receiving”.
That is pretty clear on what the police require. It goes on to say:
“Any physical or mental condition that may affect your ability to possess and use firearms safely should be declared”.
Here it diverges slightly from the nine conditions listed in the 2016 Act, in that it includes,
“mental health disorder, epilepsy, stroke, stress related illness, depression, alcoholism, substance use or dependency”,
which are all in the nine conditions, but it then mysteriously adds heart disease and cancer. I could not really see the relevance of that. It goes on to say:
“This list is not definitive”.
I read that out because we already have a pretty stringent process with the police.
In answer to the question about the cabinets, I remember that when I had my cabinet inspected by the police, they came to the house, had a look and asked, “Who has responsibility for and possession of the key? Does anybody else have access to this key? Yes, you can put your wife’s jewellery in there”—I do from time to time—“but technically she should not know where the key is”. That addresses that point.
I have permission from my GP to give noble Lords some idea of the process that GPs go through in doing this. First, the GP will see you—my GP is a senior practitioner in her practice. All the requests are initially screened by the administrative staff, who then pass them on to the GP. The GP makes time to review the patient’s records and checks the history and the paper records—increasingly, these are electronic—for any relevant correspondence or letters that come through and any prescribed medication. The GP then has to make a judgment as to whether there is a risk. If no risk is identified, a relevant code is added to the notes. Administration then takes over the case. It is filed away and an invoice is made—in my case, for £15; we have heard the variations in the cost. If a risk is identified, a report is produced and sent to the police. GPs inevitably get the blame if the application fails. The patient’s record is flagged with an encoded reminder or marker. Should a relevant medical condition occur over the five years of the licence’s term, there is a visible reminder that the patient has a firearm or shotgun certificate.
My GP notes that although this should be straightforward, many reminders relating to other data collections come into their systems and must be dealt with, and that GPs must cope with an element of reminder fatigue. From time to time, an alert may go unnoticed; that is human error but it does happen. I know that the BMA is reported as being against flagging notices, citing a lack of clear protocol for their removal, but the 2016 firearms licensing law requires GPs to place that reminder code in the patient’s notes. That is a very clear statement and GPs should be doing it.
My GP also noted that in the context of extending the period to 10 years for those with mental illnesses, which is being mooted at the moment, GPs would like much more prominent markers so that they can associate a developing mental illness with the person holding a firearm or shotgun certificate. Mental illness is the one real area of concern for general practitioners here. GPs want a much more prominent marker to be flagged up on their screens when this situation arises.
The firearms licences and medical evidence factsheet being produced identifies who should pay fees and when that payment should be made. Where the applicant has declared a medical condition on the application form, as I did, a fee would be expected. If a further medical report is required, the police must pay. During the normal course of validating a certificate, the GP initially checks the patient’s records. There is no current expectation of a fee being submitted, but as noble Lords will know, there has been variability in the amount of fees charged. In some cases, the charging of fees as high as £200 for just an initial check has been reported in Scotland. We must address that lack of conformity now. We should suggest a standard fee equivalent to the charge for a heavy goods vehicle licence, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, right across England and Wales.
Providing firearms reports for the police is part of a GP’s job but not of their core general medical services, so they have freedom to charge if they wish to. GPs are under considerable pressure to get this right. The system is in place and is effective. We need clear systems for flagging up critical medical problems to which GPs can respond. I support the amendment.
My Lords, I will speak very briefly. The amendment is clearly a good addition. We certainly want consistency on medical checks, police checks and how people look at this issue. Without that, we will have problems. That cannot be right. We want to ensure that people’s suitability to have a weapon is assessed, and to know that this is done to the highest possible standards. We are all clear on that. Where we have inconsistency, we have problems. I support the amendment and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the issues raised.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for raising this issue. His amendment would place a duty on the Secretary of State to,
“within the period of six months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, publish a report on how the Government’s Guide on Firearms Licensing Law (April 2016) is being implemented”.
The Home Office has published guidance on firearms licensing law for many years. The latest edition was published in 2016 and is currently undergoing revision to take account of recent legislative changes. It is an important document as it assists police forces in applying firearms law.
The Government want to ensure consistency of approach and high standards for police firearms licensing, and for this reason, we introduced the power to issue statutory firearms guidance in the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The new statutory guidance will apply to issues such as background checks, medical suitability and other criteria aimed at protecting public safety. We will be holding a public consultation shortly on the introduction of the new statutory guidance.
The amendment moved by my noble friend indicates a particular interest in the medical aspects of the firearms guidance, and in the engagement by GPs with the information-sharing arrangements which were agreed and introduced in 2016. These arrangements were brought in to help ensure that police would have sight of relevant medical information about certificate holders and applicants, to safeguard both licensed gun holders and other members of the public.
My noble friend would like to see an assessment of the response from GPs, specifically in relation to those who refuse to provide medical information, together with an assessment of the fees being charged and of the number of encoded reminders, or firearms markers, placed on the patient record. The statutory guidance which is being introduced, and which will set out the medical arrangements for firearms, will apply to the police, but not to GPs. In answer to my noble friend Lord Caithness’s question, the Home Office cannot, for example, direct GPs to charge a particular fee for medical information being supplied. Whether a charge is levied by a GP, and the level of any fee, is ultimately a matter between the firearms applicant and their GP, as GPs are, as we are all aware, independent practitioners.
Nevertheless, we recognise that there is variation in how GPs respond to police requests for information, in the fees they charge for such information and in the approach they take to the placing of the firearms marker on patient records. When the 2016 voluntary arrangements were introduced, it was recognised that these would need to be reviewed and that further measures might be necessary. Therefore, the Government are continuing to engage with representatives of the medical profession about how to improve the information- sharing arrangements between GPs and the police so that they operate as effectively as possible.
In his speech at Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Caithness referred to proposals made by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Shooting and Conservation about the medical arrangements. I can reassure him that those proposals will be considered, together with the views from the police, medical professionals and others. The Government will be holding a consultation shortly on the draft statutory guidance, including the medical content, and we will take into account the evidence received about the engagement of GPs in the information-sharing arrangements. I encourage my noble friend, and indeed all other noble Lords who have an interest in this issue, to respond to the consultation.
My noble friend Lord Caithness also proposed that the police should request medical information not only about the applicant, but about anyone who has access to the relevant gun cabinet. The current position is that firearms and shotguns must be held securely so that only the certificate holder has access. However, I understand the point made by my noble friend, and we will consider whether it is an appropriate issue to include in the consultation. In view of this forthcoming consultation, I hope my noble friend will agree that his amendment is unnecessary in practice, and that he will therefore be content to withdraw it.
I thank my noble friend for what he said, particularly on the point I raised. I want to press him on the consultation. We have been told “soon”, “shortly” and “in the near future”. Can he give a specific date? It would be helpful if a date could be announced before Report.
I am most grateful to my noble friend for his response. I am somewhat disappointed because this has been hanging around for a long while and action needs to be taken. I find it incredible that, in a modern country such as ours, the Home Office and general practitioners cannot come to some sort of agreement for a level playing field on fees. It seems such a simple thing to do. Most people in commerce and industry would try to agree this sort of thing every day. I will read my noble friend’s words and I reserve the right to talk to him again about this, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 75 withdrawn
76: After Clause 31, insert the following new Clause—
“Impact assessment of section 31
(1) Section 31 may only come into force if a Minister of the Crown has laid before Parliament an assessment of its impact on different racial groups as defined in section 9 of the Equality Act 2010 (race).(2) The impact assessment must be conducted by a body independent of the Government following consultation with representatives of different racial groups.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require an independent assessment of the impact of searches in schools and further education premises on different racial groups.
My Lords, Amendment 76 would add a new clause to the Bill which would require a Minister of the Crown to lay before Parliament an assessment of the impact of Clause 31 before it comes into force. This is important because Clause 31 gives the police powers to search schools or further education premises for corrosive substances. That is an additional power for the police.
The worry is that this will disproportionately affect BAME children and young people who we know are already more likely to be stopped and searched, and that is something we must be aware of before the measure comes into force.
The equality statement on the policy does not appear to contain any specific analysis of the likely equality impact of the extension of the investigative and enforcement powers. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that in her response. This is about getting the balance right. We must get things in proportion and take care not to damage relations between the black community and the police. I beg to move.
My Lords, we need to ensure that the police have appropriate powers to deal with threats on school or further education premises involving corrosive substances. Given the significant harm that corrosive attacks can cause and the fear that they can instil, it is important that we ensure that the police have sufficient powers to be able to take swift and preventive action.
We know that there are around 800 attacks per year in England and Wales, and we need to ensure that action can be taken not just to deal with actual attacks but with threats to use a corrosive substance. Clause 31 is designed to ensure that the police can effectively enforce the offence of threatening with a corrosive substance in a private place as it applies to schools and further education establishments.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has explained his concerns that this new power will be disproportionately used against black, Asian and minority ethnic pupils and students. I appreciate and understand the noble Lord’s concern, which should be taken seriously. It is, however, important to recognise that this power can be used only in circumstances where a police officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting that someone has been threatened by another person with a corrosive substance. Reasonable grounds might include a report from a teacher, a parent or a pupil.
It is also important that we ensure there are sufficient protections in place for our schools and further education premises to deal with any situations where a pupil or student may threaten to throw or squirt a corrosive substance over another student or a teacher. The police need to be able to enter and search a school or further education premises and any person on them to prevent an actual attack. That said, I have indicated that the noble Lord has raised a perfectly proper concern.
While I do not consider this amendment to be necessary, I can give your Lordships an undertaking that we will consult relevant school and further education bodies, including teaching unions, local authorities and other associations, on the implementation of this power before we bring the clause into force. With that assurance, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, I had read this clause as primarily directed to the power to enter and search premises—in fact you have to do that—as well as a person. Can the Minister assure the Committee that, as well as the consultation she has mentioned, information and statistics will be kept that show the BAME profiles? I should not use the word “profile”, but the Minister will understand what I am saying. This is an issue we have brought up at other points in the Bill.
Amendment 76 withdrawn.
Amendment 77 not moved.
Clause 32: Prohibition of certain firearms etc: England and Wales and Scotland
Amendment 78 not moved.
Amendment 78A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Amendments 78B and 79 not moved.
Clause 32 agreed.
Clause 33: Prohibition of certain firearms etc: Northern Ireland
Amendments 79A to 80 not moved.
Clause 33 agreed.
Amendments 80A to 80D not moved.
Clause 34 agreed.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Clause 35: Surrender of prohibited firearms etc
Amendments 80E to 80J not moved.
Clause 35 agreed.
80K: After Clause 35, insert the following new Clause—
“Payments in respect of converted or deactivated firearms other than bump stocks
(1) This section applies to firearms of the kind referred to in—(a) the paragraph to be inserted into section 5(1) of the Firearms Act 1968 by section 32(2), or(b) the sub-paragraph to be inserted into Article 45(1) of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 (SI 2004/702 (NI 3)) by section 33(2).(2) A person making a claim and who was entitled to have in their possession on or immediately before 20 June 2018, by virtue of a firearm certificate held by them or by virtue of being a registered firearms dealer, a firearm described at subsection (1) above and who—(a) opts to retain it after either modification into bolt action form or deactivation, and(b) provides documentary evidence within one month of the start of the surrender period to the Chief Officer of Police who issued his or her firearm certificate of the transfer of the rifle to a registered firearms dealer with an appropriately conditioned section 5 authority, and(c) on completion of the modification or deactivation, provides documentary evidence thereof to the Chief Officer of Police who issued his or her firearm certificate,shall receive payment from the Secretary of State equivalent to the cost of modification or deactivation.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is intended to provide compensation to those who opt to have modified to straight-pull bolt action form, or to have deactivated, MARS and Lever-Release rifles prohibited under this Bill.
My Lords, Amendment 80K deals with compensation. My intention with this amendment is to ask my noble friend the Minister two things. First, will he confirm that in the event of MARS and lever-release rifles becoming prohibited compensation will be paid, as stated in the Government’s policy statement? Secondly, will compensation will be provided to cover the cost of modifications for those who modify to straight-pull bolt action or deactivate? I beg to move.
My Lords, if I may make an observation, if we still had the Firearms Consultative Committee, which was so well-chaired by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, and before that by Lord Kimball, we would have identified that we had a problem with the MARS and lever-action release system. The problem could have been snuffed out fairly early on by the committee advising the Home Secretary to ban them. The Home Secretary could then have made a Written Ministerial Statement saying that they were to be banned, and that compensation would no longer be payable for anything bought after that Statement was made. Will my noble friend the Minister consider reinstating the Firearms Consultative Committee, or something similar, so that we do not have a similar problem? Officials are shaking their heads, so I suspect that I will get a negative answer.
My Lords, it is fair and right that owners of previously legally-held firearms, who voluntarily hand these weapons over to the police for safe disposal, should be properly compensated. The purpose of the surrender and payment provisions in the Bill are directed to that end.
Amendment 80K seeks to extend these compensation arrangements such that compensation would be payable to owners who choose to modify their rifles, or indeed deactivate them, so that they may lawfully retain them. The reason for the payment scheme in the Bill is to rightfully compensate owners for the value they lose when surrendering these rifles to the police. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury has suggested that owners may look to modify their rifle to a straight-pull bolt action function and therefore retain it on a section 1 certificate. We are not against this; individuals are perfectly within their right to do so. However, it is one thing to compensate owners of these weapons where they are deprived of their property, and quite a different proposition to expect the state to pay for their conversion or deactivation. We are seeking to remove these potentially dangerous rifles from our streets, and it is right that the Government should use public money to compensate only those individuals who surrender their prohibited rifles.
The arrangements covering compensation payments for firearms made unlawful by the Bill will be set out in regulations. I hope noble Lords will have had an opportunity to read the draft regulations which my noble friend Lady Williams circulated late last week. These regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so in due course they will have to be debated and approved by both Houses before they can take effect.
There is clearly a balance to be struck here, taking into account the proper use of public funds. It is the Government’s view that compensation should only be paid to those who surrender firearms prohibited by the Bill. If an owner instead chooses to modify or decommission one of these firearms, such that it may continue to be lawfully held, that is a matter for them, but it would not be right for such modifications or decommissioning to take place at taxpayers’ expense. Given that explanation, which I am sure will come as a disappointment to my noble friend—I am sorry about that—I ask him to withdraw his amendment and support Clause 36 standing part of the Bill.
My Lords, at least I get 10 points for trying. I am most grateful to my noble friend the Minister for what he said, and I understand it all. Having been around at the time of Dunblane, and through other guns being prohibited and compensation being given, I understand where he is coming from. If I may ask one further question, with compensation being paid for the guns which are to be handed in—if the Government go ahead and ban them—does this include compensation on manufacturing equipment for the businesses that manufacture these guns? I know that it does not include ammunition, but does it include manufacturing and the stock held?
Amendment 80K withdrawn.
Clauses 36 to 38 agreed.
Clause 39: Interpretation of sections 32 to 38
Amendments 80L and 80M not moved.
Clause 39 agreed.
Amendments 81 and 82
81: After Clause 39, insert the following new Clause—
“Enforcement of offences relating to sale etc of offensive weapons
(1) A local weights and measures authority may enforce within its area a provision listed in subsection (2).(2) The provisions mentioned in subsection (1) are—(a) section 1(1) of the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 (penalties for offences in connection with dangerous weapons),(b) section 1 of the Crossbows Act 1987 (sale etc of crossbows to persons under 18),(c) section 141(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (offensive weapons),(d) section 141A of that Act (sale etc of bladed articles to persons under 18), (e) section 1 of the Knives Act 1997 (unlawful marketing of knives),(f) section 2 of that Act (publication of unlawful marketing material relating to knives),(g) section 1 of this Act (sale of corrosive products to persons under 18),(h) section 3 of this Act (delivery of corrosive products to residential premises etc),(i) section 4 of this Act (delivery of corrosive products to persons under 18),(j) section 17 of this Act (delivery of bladed products to residential premises etc), and(k) section 20 of this Act (delivery of bladed articles to persons under 18).(3) For the investigatory powers available to a local weights and measures authority for the purposes of enforcing a provision listed in subsection (2), see Schedule 5 to the Consumer Rights Act 2015.(4) Nothing in this section is to be construed as authorising a local weights and measures authority to bring proceedings in Scotland for an offence.(5) In paragraph 10 of Schedule 5 to the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (duties and powers to which Schedule 5 applies), at the appropriate place insert “section (Enforcement of offences relating to sale etc of offensive weapons) of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would confer the investigatory powers in Schedule 5 to the Consumer Rights Act 2015 on Trading Standards for the purposes of enforcing various existing and new offences relating to offensive weapons.
82: After Clause 39, insert the following new Clause—
“Application of Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008
In Schedule 3 to the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008 (relevant enactments for the purposes of relevant functions to which Parts 1 and 2 of that Act apply) at the appropriate places insert— “Criminal Justice Act 1988, sections 141(1) and 141A”;“Offensive Weapons Act 2019, sections 1, 3, 4, 17 and 20”;“Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959, section 1(1)”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would apply Parts 1 and 2 of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008 to enforcement of the provisions listed in subsection (2) of the first new Clause to be inserted after Clause 39, to the extent that Part 1 or 2 of that Act does not otherwise apply in relation to those provisions.
Amendments 81 and 82 agreed.
83: After Clause 39, insert the following new Clause—
“Advertising offensive weapons online
(1) A person or company commits an offence when a website registered in their name is used to advertise, list or otherwise facilitate the sale of any weapon listed in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order (SI 1988/2019) or any offensive weapon capable of being disguised as something else.(2) No offence is committed under this section if the website removes the advertisement or list within 24 hours of the registered owner of the website being informed that the advertisement or list includes a weapon listed in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order (SI 1988/2019) or an offensive weapon capable of being disguised as something else. (3) A registered owner of a website who is guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable—(a) on summary conviction in England and Wales, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks, to a fine or to both;(b) on summary conviction in Scotland or Northern Ireland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would place responsibility on website owners to prevent the sale of weapons.
My Lords, Amendment 83 would insert a new clause into the Bill to make the owner of a website, be that an individual or a company, responsible for ensuring that weapons listed in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Justice Act are not advertised on their site. The Bill places responsibilities on shop workers, delivery people and others; making website owners responsible for their content should be welcomed by the Government. I asked a similar Question today about anonymous accounts and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, made the point that when people are made responsible, things happen. If they are not responsible, they will do nothing. There should be consequences. In some ways, this is in a similar area.
Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause would provide for the owner to have committed no offence if, within 24 hours of being notified of the advertisement, they arrange for it to be removed. Then there would be no problems whatever. In some cases, there is a defence under Section 19 of the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002, but that depends on the facts of the case. I accept entirely that there can be jurisdictional issues if the provider is based overseas.
This is only a probing amendment to highlight an issue that is part of a much wider problem, which I asked a Question about today: how we control what is on the internet and how we deal with such issues. These are serious matters. I hope that the government White Paper will deal with some of them, but I seek to include a clause in the Bill to make owners responsible for the content on their site and the adverts they place. I beg to move.
My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, is trying to do with the amendment. It raises again the issue of websites that are hosted overseas and the lack of territorial reach to apply the suggested offence to overseas website owners. That creates an imbalance, as we discussed on previous elements of the Bill, between UK and overseas sellers of knives and corrosive substances, for example. I see some practical difficulties with this but I understand what the noble Lord is trying to achieve.
I am grateful for the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, which seeks to make it a criminal offence when,
“a website … is used to advertise, list or otherwise facilitate the sale of any weapon listed in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Justice Act 1988 … or any offensive weapon capable of being disguised as something else”.
We can all agree on the spirit of the amendment. Indeed, in preparing my remarks, I spent five minutes googling what I could buy online. The noble Lord makes a good point: some very shocking weapons are easily accessible online. However, I hope to persuade him that his amendment is not needed.
We are satisfied that there is no gap in the law and that legislation addressing the criminal behaviour outlined in the amendment already exists. Indeed, the noble Lord alluded to that in his remarks. The Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability wrote to the Public Bill Committee in the other place to set out the legal position on online platforms that advertise or sell offensive weapons in contravention of Section 141 or Section 141A of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. It may assist your Lordships if I set out the position.
Section 141 of the Act states that,
“any person who manufactures, sells or hires or offers for sale or hire, exposes or has in his possession for the purpose of sale or hire, or lends or gives to any other person, a weapon to which this section applies shall be guilty of an offence”.
A list of such weapons is set out in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988. Section 141A of the 1988 Act makes it an offence to sell certain articles with a blade or point to anyone aged under 18. Clause 1 of the Bill will make it an offence also to sell corrosive products to a person aged under 18. As is clear from these provisions, anyone who sells, hires, offers for sale or hire, exposes or has in their possession for the purpose of sale or hire any of the weapons to which the 1988 order applies—whether online or otherwise—is guilty of an offence. This would apply to individuals, but “a person” can include a body corporate or unincorporated, such as a company.
Where the user of a website places advertisements or listings for anything contained in the 1988 order on that website, the service provider may rely on the defence in relation to hosting under Regulation 19 of the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Whether Regulation 19 applies will depend on the facts of the case. As the noble Lord mentioned, there may also be jurisdictional issues if the service provider is based overseas. I assure noble Lords that the sites I found were all based overseas. Regulation 19 will not apply where the provider of the website is offering the items for sale directly and where the provider had actual knowledge of the unlawful activity and upon obtaining that knowledge did not act expeditiously to remove or disable access to the information.
We therefore consider that the provider of a website who sells items on it directly would likely be caught under the wording of the legislation. Where the provider of the website is enabling advertisements to be placed by others, the defence under Regulation 19 may be available. We have discussed the matter with the Crown Prosecution Service, which is of the view that these provisions can be used to prosecute where appropriate. In the light of this explanation of the existing law, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for her helpful response. I tabled the amendment to highlight the problems in this area. It was good to hear that there are already provisions in place to deal with these matters. I look forward in due course to the Government’s White Paper on the wider debate on the internet, the good that it does and how we deal with its bad side. At this stage, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 83 withdrawn.
Committee adjourned at 7.45 pm.