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Surrender of Offensive Weapons (Compensation) Regulations 2020

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2020

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 9 June be approved.

Relevant document: 19th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 received Royal Assent on 16 May 2019 following full and detailed scrutiny in both Houses. The Act is an important part of the Government’s strategy to tackle recent rises in serious violence, including violence involving the use of knives. Measures in the Act will help to take dangerous weapons off the streets. They will make it more difficult for young people to access knives in the first place, including those knives which are particularly prevalent in violent incidents.

The regulations will help to give effect to the prohibitions set out in the Act that cover certain offensive weapons, knives and firearms. Noble Lords will recall the detailed scrutiny given to these prohibitions during the then Bill’s passage through this House. Since these are now a matter of statute, we should not seek to reopen the discussion of their merits. Rather, our focus should be on the arrangements for surrendering these weapons to the police and for the payment of compensation.

The regulations reflect the principle recognised during the passage of the legislation that prohibiting items that are currently lawfully owned impacts on the individual’s right to property. It was agreed by both Houses that it would be right and fair that the owners of these weapons who surrender them to the police in accordance with the arrangements we are making should be fairly compensated.

The arrangements for surrender and compensation will apply to England and Wales and extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland with respect to firearms and ancillary equipment only. The regulations provide for a three-month surrender period, during which the owners of these weapons will be able to surrender their property to the police. If they wish to claim compensation, they will need to do so at the same time as surrender, using a form that we will make available before the scheme commences.

We shall also make available a “values list” that sets out the standard levels of compensation for all of the weapons that come within the scheme. A claimant can indicate on the claim form whether they accept the standard level of compensation or claim a higher amount, which they can do providing they can support this with a credible valuation. The regulations give some examples of the type of valuations that will be acceptable, but we have sought to avoid undue prescription.

Our overarching objective is to fairly compensate those giving up their lawful property so that we can take these dangerous weapons out of circulation. The claims for compensation will be processed by the Home Office, and we will look to do so as quickly as we practicably can following the launch of the scheme.

We have shared the draft guidance on how to surrender and make a claim for compensation, and the accompanying form, with noble Lords to inform this debate. They will be developed further in the light of today’s discussion and in our ongoing discussions with experts and interested parties.

The regulations deliver the full intent of the measures set out in the Offensive Weapons Act to allow for surrender and compensation. I commend them to the House.

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for her lucid explanation of the instrument. I have one question and one comment. My question concerns Regulation 6(2), which says that no amount will be payable of less than £30. I am not an expert on the knives in question, but for young people in particular, sums less than £30 are still appreciable. I assume that some of the knives in question would be valued at less than £30, or would all the knives covered by the Offensive Weapons Act be valued at more than £30? Could the Minister clarify whether £30 would cover all the knives in question, or whether some would not be covered? If some would not, it seems sensible simply to cover them all, because we want the maximum number to be surrendered.

My comment is to invite the Minister to tell us the incidence of knife crime and what has been happening during the pandemic. Something that I know concerns the House at large is that, because of the necessary attention we have been giving to the pandemic, we have not been paying attention to other big social issues. My perception is that we have seen a dramatic fall in knife crime and gang violence because people have been in lockdown. I hope that that is true, but it would be helpful if the Minister could update the House on the situation.

My Lords, these regulations have been a long time in the making, particularly given the importance of the issue they address. Knife crime especially is a terrifying and terrible offence and the incidence of these crimes continues to cast a black cloud over so many communities in our country. The 2019 Act brought in the sections to which these regulations now seek to give effect. I hope that the Minister can explain why this has taken so long, given the urgent need. How many other regulations under the Act still need to be produced? There is no purpose whatever, of course, in having a hollow shell of an Act.

We are missing supporting documents for these regulations—because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are told—so we have to ask questions to flesh out the details. As the Explanatory Memorandum admits, the Secretary of State is to “introduce arrangements” to allow these regulations to be carried out, but we are not told what these arrangements will be. In her Written Statement to the House on 11 June, the Minister said:

“We will finalise and publicise full details on the surrender and compensation arrangements before they commence.”

Those are these regulations. Can the Minister tell the House whether a full catalogue of the weapons listed—the knives and guns—yet exists? If so, how many items are in the catalogue? Have compensation values been assigned to the knives and guns? How many bladed items have a value of more than £30? Is it proving difficult to develop a catalogue of knives, given the wide variety available designed for work use that can be and have been used offensively?

Many more questions arise from these shell regulations, including the obvious one of the timetable for their implementation. I very much hope the Minister can answer them all.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee at the Home Office. My noble friend will recall that she and I had many a conversation regarding firearms during the passage of the Offensive Weapons Bill last year. I put on record how grateful I and the shooting sports bodies were for the constructive way in which we held those conversations and the assistance and advice we were given by the Home Office.

I am certain that, in the course of those conversations, the Minister and I discussed compensation for some firearms that were to be banned by the Bill. I have received correspondence relating to compensation for flick-knives and gravity knives of historical value from the Second World War, which I believe will attract compensation on surrender. I guess that my noble friend Lord Lucas will touch on this when he speaks.

Can the Minister say how many firearms, and of what type, will qualify for compensation and at what cost? My understanding is that antique flick-knives and gravity knives are of considerable value to collectors and could take up the majority of the compensation fund. Is my noble friend confident that adequate funds for compensation have been or will be allocated?

It is more important than ever to keep dangerous weapons off the streets. Dealing with serious violence is paramount in the public consciousness and these dreadful crimes have a devastating impact on the victims, their families and their communities. The Offensive Weapons Act 2019 provided arrangements for the surrender and these items will become prohibited under it. Today, we are talking about the payment of compensation to those who surrender them.

I learned a lot in researching for this intervention. I had never heard of zombie knives and death star knives, but I had certainly heard of knuckle dusters. It will become a criminal offence to dispatch bladed products that are sold online without verification that the buyer is over 18. The regulations will come into force when it is safe to do so, but I would urge the Minister to ensure that this happens as soon as possible, so that owners can go to police stations to surrender their items.

Knife crime prevention orders will provide police with a further means to help deter young people from becoming involved in knife possession and knife crime. We hope that they will make them stop and think about the choices and consequences of carrying a knife. Of course, early intervention is the best way to prevent knife crime, as I saw so many times in my teaching career. If we had intervened with a child at the age of four, five or six, we would not have been dealing with problems at 14, 15 and 16. As a society, we must continue to work alongside schools, charities and community groups, with a range of tactics. We need to discourage young people from carrying knives in a positive rather than a punitive format. We must give them support and pathways away from potential crime, so this statutory instrument is very welcome, and I would ask the Minister when it is likely to be implemented, because speed really is of the essence.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, has withdrawn, so I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb.

My Lords, the Minister was quite strict that noble Lords should stick to arrangements for surrender and not ask any broader questions, so I will be very compliant and ask about that. I have seen several very successful schemes of this kind. A lot of them need a certain amount of good publicity, by which I mean not just good publicity but publicity that is well written and well phrased. So I have a few questions.

What form will the publicity take and how will the Government publicise it? Is the Minister confident that the message will actually reach the right people, because that is also part of it being successful? How will the Government ensure that the message is understood and believed, because you have to convince people to turn up at a police station with a weapon. To do that, they have to believe that they will be safe and that they will be believed.

There would seem to be an opportunity here to have a wider amnesty on offensive weapons, but I am not sure from what the Minister said whether that would be happening—other than for those weapons that are becoming newly illegal. The Government will be publicising a scheme to persuade people to do the right thing, so it would seem to be a good time to encourage them to hand in other weapons that are currently illegal at the same time. I hope that this is a very successful project.

The noble Lord, Lord Wei, has withdrawn, so I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley.

My Lords, I support the regulations before the House today, because they will get dangerous weapons off our streets. Some may ask why anyone would need weapons such as these in the first place and why the Government are paying compensation to the owners to hand them in. They are illegal and should just be surrendered. However, I can see the point. This will provide an incentive to get these weapons off the streets, which of course is something that we all want to see.

Knife crime has had a devastating effect in London and elsewhere across the UK, with many young lives lost in senseless killings. Like my noble friend Lord Adonis, I say that, if the noble Baroness has the figures, it would be good to remind the House of the number of incidents of gun and knife crime over the past 12 months, as this in itself will illustrate why the scheme before us today is worth supporting.

We are lucky to live in a country that has tough laws to deal with gun and knife crime, but it is important always to keep these measures under review and to be open to adding different types of weapons to the banned list, because criminals will always find ways to circumvent the rules. Perhaps the noble Baroness, in her closing remarks, can say more about how the regulations will be kept up to date and about the work that the department is doing to keep on top of this ever-present threat.

My Lords, I too welcome this measure and I have some questions. How do the Government intend to communicate with the owners? I see from paragraph 10(2) that we are at least showing some realism where weapons or knives are particularly valuable. Secondly, I note that on monitoring there is talk of a five-year review. Given the seriousness particularly of knife crime, I wonder whether three years would not be a better length.

As someone who has followed this problem in the past, particularly as regards firearms, I would say that it is possible that there are people out there who own a firearm illegally, are dead scared to hand it in, but know in their heart of hearts that they should hand it in. In that case, I wonder whether some sort of amnesty could be given to them for doing the right thing—after a period of time, clearly. The sum of £30 does not seem to be a lot of money for certain knives, where people went to great trouble to obtain them—so, again, I think that there might need to be some flexibility in this area.

My Lords, let me say straight away that I am generally supportive of the Act and these regulations, which will make it harder to carry dangerous weapons. The thought of any move that might take us down the path to an armed society is total anathema to me. The base rock on which our society is founded is that of being policed by the consent of the people. As Peel said,

“The police are the public and the public are the police.”

Who in their right mind would want to trundle around a town towing a heavy-duty machine gun or, better still, an artillery piece, for sport, as is the case in some countries? Similarly, bladed weapons such as Rambo knives, death star knives and the like have never had a legitimate place on our streets; their mere ownership must imply criminal intent, and of course that may well be the crux of the problem.

The draft regulations are intended to compensate the owners of some kinds of rapid-firing and self-loading rifles for surrendering their weapons—those that were made illegal under the terms of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 with a value of £30 or more. We need more clarity on the process of surrendering the weapons and how the financial transactions will be conducted. For example, will there be a track and trace system covering both the act of purchase and surrender? Is this another case of requiring social media providers to take a legal responsibility for denying the sellers of prohibited or simply dangerous weapons and knives access to their platforms?

With more than 22,000 crimes involving knives and other offensive weapons in England and Wales last year, we must look at ways to deter the selling and carrying of them on our streets. We must address the reasons why the young carry them for perceived protection.

My Lords, this instrument is to be welcomed and I hope that it will be supported unanimously. It comes on the back of what the National Crime Agency described as

“the UK’s biggest ever law enforcement operation”.

When it was reported five days ago, it was claimed that, among many other successes, 77 firearms had been recovered. I appreciate that it would be pre-emptive of the Minister to comment on what will be an ongoing operation in terms of attempting to successfully prosecute, but I am sure that, at some stage, this huge success should be outlined to Parliament in detail and the department, along with the NCA, should be congratulated on it.

I have two questions for the Minister. One is in relation to online trade that originates from overseas and whether we have an effective policy in place with the United States and Europe in terms of potential prosecutions where something such as a knife has been bought illegally from abroad.

Secondly, the College of Policing What Works Centre for Crime Reduction wrote a report in this field in 2019. It is clear from that report that there are areas of research where it was drawing a blank. That is, not enough research had been done; for example, in relation to the success or otherwise of knife amnesties. Will further resource and priority be given to the College of Policing for additional research, on the basis that learning from what works within policing can only help to inform Parliament in allocating sufficient resources?

My Lords, it is a continuing sadness to me that the Government chose not to follow their memorandum of 26 June 2018 and allow defences of nature and purpose, as is the case with many other dangerous weapons, and decided instead that we must destroy a chunk of our World War II heritage. Gravity knives, for example, which were used by parachutists to escape from tangled lines, have never been used in crime since the last war because they are far too expensive to use in crime—the better ones cost several thousand pounds—and are far too fragile. So it saddens me greatly that we have this order in front of us.

However, given that we have this order, I am puzzled that the Home Office thinks it can get away with a couple of hundred thousand pounds in compensation for these knives. The ministry need only turn to the internet to see how these knives have been traded—the most recent trade that I can find was in May this year—openly, without any interference from the authorities and, as I say, often for several thousand pounds apiece. Are the Government really expecting that people who have paid that sort of money for a knife will turn it in if they are to be denied compensation because they cannot prove that they received it as a gift or an inheritance? In what other way does the ministry reconcile the total figure of compensation expected with the value of the knives concerned?

My Lords, I do not need to take up the House’s time in reiterating concerns about knife crime and the use of weapons; nor am I going to reopen the discussion about merits. However, since the Home Office’s own press notice regarding these regulations refers to the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers, I think I can ask: how is that going?

I do not recall spending much time on the compensation provisions regarding knives during the passage of the Bill—except for antique knives, as two of today’s speakers have referred to—but we spent quite a lot of time on the justification for the Bill covering certain firearms. I am certainly not opposing the regulations, although of course I have questions about them.

The first is, as my noble friend Lord German asked: why has it taken a while for not just the regulations but the underlying provisions of the Act to be commenced? The press notice gave no clues about that. I assume that the Government were waiting for the scheme but perhaps the Minister can flesh that out. It is a pity, given the seriousness of the issue, that there has not been more urgency. As far as I can see, the provisions on knife crime prevention orders have not been commenced either, which I have to say causes me less grief because we had a lot of concerns about those, but the Minister might quite properly say that I am straying beyond the instrument in referring to those.

When will the compensation scheme launch? Can the Minister give the House a bit more information about the consultation that has taken place on the standard levels of compensation and other aspects of the scheme? She has talked about stakeholders. Who are they? What publicity and information will there be to prompt the owners of the knives to come forward? I imagine that the identity of the owners of the firearms can be established without them responding to adverts.

My second set of questions is about the expected outcome of the scheme. Is there an estimate of the number of weapons likely to be surrendered in what is really rather a short period? I am struck by the question that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked about the value of some of the weapons, given that the impact assessment of the cost of the amnesty is £200,000 to £300,000. Who is bearing that cost? Will it be the Home Office or individual police forces?

I do not know the price of the weapons that are subject to the regulations—I too had never heard of any of these weapons until we started work on the Bill—but I know that a lot of damage can be done by knives worth less than £30. Can the threshold be explained? The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, had a very proper and important point about this.

The rationale for the order is the deprivation of ownership. I agree with what has been implied by other speakers: the point should be wider and the rationale really should be the prevention of crime.

A big question in my mind is whether someone who has bought one of these ferocious weapons is likely to surrender it. I assume that we are talking just about surrender, not the amnesty mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, or about immunity. Certainly, there will be no immunity for others such as, for instance, gang members. In my mind, it could be that the very act of surrender would put an individual in a dangerous position. Will the police refer individuals for support on gang exit in appropriate cases? Like the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox—indeed, no doubt like all noble Lords—I am all for early intervention.

Will the purchasers of knives—I think it may be different for firearms—have bank accounts and be willing to disclose details of them and their own details to police? In other words, how realistic is this? I hope I am not being too pessimistic because I too wish this scheme success.

My Lords, I am happy to support the regulations before the House and endorse many of the comments made by noble Lords in this short debate. Like my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley, I sometimes think that these weapons are illegal so should just be handed in. I see no reason why anyone would need to own a zombie knife. Equally, I can see the point about compensation, particularly the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about people who own antique weapons, but that is almost a different case. I certainly do not know why anyone would ever want to buy a zombie knife or what you would need one for.

As we heard in our debates on the Offensive Weapons Bill, my fear is that when we quite rightly ban these weapons, I suspect you will still be able to buy them over the internet. You can probably log on, buy these weapons abroad and have them posted to you. That was one of the issues we discussed many times during the passage of the Bill. What will we do about that? This is again a question of the internet companies that host these sites. What are they doing? Why are weapons that can do huge damage to people allowed to be sent into our country?

My noble friend Lord Mann mentioned the excellent work of the National Crime Agency in shutting down that illegal communication system last week. I think we were all very pleased and pass on our thanks for the work done by the Metropolitan Police. I hope that by that being shut down, the trading of the illegal weapons mentioned here will be reduced, so that was very good.

I also endorse the comments of my noble friend Lady Wilcox of Newport about working with young people. A couple of years ago I was very lucky and did the parliamentary police scheme. I spent many days out with the Met in different parts of London. One day I had an excellent day out with the Met in Greenwich, with some of the teams that work with young people. They showed me in a container the knives they had collected. It was like a huge sweet jar of all sorts of weapons they had collected. They were doing lots of really good work with children in schools. They also used to do searches around schools. As they were going into the schools, some of the children involved in knife crime were burying the knives in their local council estate and would dig them up on the way home. We went around digging on the council estate, collecting all the knives. They were ingenious. It was really good work, getting these knives off the street but also talking to the children and trying to get them away from using knives.

As we know, knife crime destroys lives when people lose their lives, but it also destroys the life of the person using the weapon. As many other noble Lords have said, it is important that we try to ensure we deal with it. I will leave my comments there. As I said, I very much support the regulations and look forward to the Minister’s comments.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their constructive comments. I will start with those of the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Mann, about the NCA operation only a few days ago, which took so many dangerous weapons and drugs off our streets.

There has been a bit of a debate about amnesty versus compensation. An amnesty is generally for weapons that were already illegal, whereas the compensation scheme we have laid out today is for weapons that were legal and are now illegal. I understand that it might stick in the craw of some noble Lords for us to pay compensation for weapons that are now illegal.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, also talked about the importance of internet importation, and he is quite right. We discussed this at length—buyers, sellers and all that stuff we talked about in the Bill—and worked together on a good remedy for that.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, questioned why we were paying only for stuff worth over £30. We have to start at a base compensation payment, or I foresee things such as children going through their parents’ knife drawers to hand things in. We have to start somewhere, and £30 is the starting point. He also asked whether knife crime incidents were down during the pandemic. The answer is that they absolutely were, because of course there were fewer people on the streets and less gang activity.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, and other noble Lords asked about the general crime figures over the last year. The latest police-recorded crime figures published by the ONS on 23 April, for the year ending December 2019, showed that the police recorded 45,627 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument. That is a lot of knife incidents and a 7% increase. It was of particular concern when we passed the Bill; knife crime seemed to be going up.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury asked what types of firearms will qualify for compensation, how many there are and what the costs will be. The firearms concerned are those that meet the definition in the relevant provisions of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. Sections 54 and 55 cover any rifle with a chamber from which empty cartridge cases are extracted using energy from propellant gas or energy imparted to a spring or other storage device by propellant gas, other than a rifle chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges, such as MARS—manually activated release system—rifles and lever-release rifles. To answer my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord German, we understand that five such rifle types have been listed on the draft compensation claims form. It allows a claim to be made for an item not listed within it, if the weapon in question meets the definition in the Act when the relevant details are provided. It is not a definitive list.

We must wait to see how many of these items are surrendered to the police. The impact assessment published alongside the Offensive Weapons Act puts the number of MARS rifles at 700, and we assess that there are up to 1,500 more lever-release rifles that could be surrendered, but component parts could also be included. Ancillary equipment may be claimed for under the scheme, and for these purposes that means equipment, other than prohibited ammunition, designed or adapted for use in connection with this type of rifle and which has no practical use in connection with any firearm that is not a prohibited weapon.

We have set out a list of ancillary equipment in the draft supporting documents, and we will consider representations from stakeholder groups and affected parties on this matter, and on the relevant component parts of the firearms, as the arrangements are finalised.

My noble friend and other noble Lords asked whether adequate funding is being allocated to the scheme. The short answer is yes, and to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, funding for the compensation will come from Home Office budgets. To answer another of her questions, we are making great strides with the 20,000 police officers. The figure I last saw was 6,000 so far, but I will update that if it is wrong. The total cost of the compensation scheme is not yet known. It will depend on the number of weapons and the value of the items surrendered, but we will ensure that the funding required to pay fair compensation to those who surrender their lawfully held weapons is available.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, my noble friend Lord Naseby and the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, asked about the communications campaign. We are very keen to publicise the surrender and compensation scheme arrangements, including through the issuing of national press releases, deploying force level communications, the use of social media and providing full details of the scheme on the government website in the run-up to commencement of the arrangements. We will continue to talk to our partners outside of government, and any steps noble Lords can take in helping to spread the word to those who might be affected would be welcome.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, who asked about contacting registered gun owners. We have a list of registered gun owners and I imagine that we will be contacting them, but I do not know for certain, so I will double-check.

The noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Hamwee, asked why this has taken so long. We are learning lessons from the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the handgun surrender and compensation scheme. We are engaging further with weapons specialists and those with expertise in this area in the lead-up to the scheme to make our response as robust as it can be. To answer the question from the noble Baronesses on the timescale of the scheme, it will be in late autumn.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and others asked about a wider amnesty. In fact, through answering a Written Question from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, today, I know that the last amnesty was in 2019, and the one before that was in 2011. The point here is that if there are people who are scared to hand in weapons that are no longer legal, amnesties are a good time at which to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, asked about online sales. These will be restricted through wider measures in the Act; that also goes also to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. As we discussed during consideration of the Bill, we cannot prevent sellers from abroad selling their wares on the internet. Some of these will of course be legal in other countries, and Border Force will intercept others. The Act will focus on restricting sale and delivery, as the noble Lord will well remember.

I think I have answered all noble Lords’ questions. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.