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Acid Attacks

Volume 627: debated on Monday 17 July 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this, as it turns out, extremely timely debate to discuss our response to the rapid rise in the number of acid attacks. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place.

Last month in Newham, Jameel Mukhtar and his cousin Resham Khan, a student, were attacked with a corrosive liquid while sitting in a car on the way to marking her 21st birthday. They were left with severe burns, and injuries described by the Metropolitan police as life-changing. A 24-year-old suspect has been charged. There was a wave of revulsion across our borough after that attack, with many residents, particularly women, questioning whether it was safe any longer for them to walk down the street. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who is in her place, attended a vigil for the victims organised by Stand Up To Racism, along with the mayor of Newham, attended by more than 200 people. There was strong support for Government action to tackle the rise of acid violence. A petition calling for a licensing scheme for acid sales has attracted more than 360,000 signatures.

I want to press the Minister for two specific changes to the law: first, that carrying acid should be an offence in exactly the same way as carrying a knife is an offence; and secondly, that there should be a requirement to have a licence to purchase sulphuric acid.

I warmly welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement yesterday of a review of the law and criminal justice response to acid attacks. I am pleased that she has undertaken to review the sentencing guidelines, as I called for last week.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, which comes at an extremely appropriate time. My constituent, Adele Bellis, was the subject of a horrific acid attack. She has shown tremendous strength and courage in the way she has rebuilt her life. In Adele’s view, clearer and tougher sentencing guidelines are needed. It must never be forgotten that those who are victims of acid attacks carry a life sentence. Does he agree that it is right that the issue of sentencing is included in the Government’s review?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman and his constituent. Katie Piper, an acid attack survivor and founder of the Katie Piper Foundation, which supports victims, has said:

“Tougher sentencing would surely act as a deterrent to further attacks”,

and I agree with her. We need greater consistency in sentencing as well.

I hope that the review announced by the Home Secretary will be carried out quickly, because we need urgent action, and I hope that in her response to the debate, the Minister will be able to tell us about the envisaged timescale.

I want to say a little more about the two specific points that I raised earlier. First, carrying acid without good reason should be a criminal offence, as carrying a knife is already. Of course, there are wholly legitimate reasons for obtaining acid, as there are for obtaining a knife, but we do not want people carrying them around the streets.

The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 has created a minimum custodial sentence for those aged 16 and over convicted of a second or subsequent offence of possession of a knife or offensive weapon. The sentence for an offender aged 18 or above is at least six months imprisonment when convicted, and that for 16 and 17 year olds is a detention order of at least four months. Comparable sentences for possession of acid could combat the apparently growing idea that it is a safe weapon for gang members and others wanting to commit violent crimes.

Secondly, a licence should be required for the purchase of sulphuric acid. Some have complained that that would be an excessive, knee-jerk response, but actually it has been proposed by the British Retail Consortium, whose members have agreed voluntarily to stop selling sulphuric acid products. It points out that, under the Control of Poisons and Explosive Precursor Regulations 2015—which amended the Poisons Act 1972 and were intended to restrict supply of items that could be used to cause an explosion—sulphuric acid is already covered but under the lesser “reportable substance” category. Its proposal is that sulphuric acid should be promoted to the “regulated substance” category so that a licence would be required to purchase it. Regulated substances require an explosives precursors and poisons licence. A member of the public needs to show a valid licence and associated photo identification before making a purchase.

The proposal is supported not only by members of the British Retail Consortium, but by the Association of Convenience Stores, which says:

“We support legislative action under the Explosive Precursors Regulations 2014; for example, reclassifying sulphuric acid from Reportable Substance to Regulated Substance. This will provide retailers clarity and certainty on their obligations for products which contain sulphuric acid.”

It is significant that the shopkeepers themselves are asking for that chance.

The whole country has rightly been shocked by the recent acid attacks in London and the increased number of such attacks throughout the country. Many constituents have contacted me because they are horrified by what has been happening and feel that action needs to be taken. It is also important that we acknowledge the bravery of Resham Khan and her cousin, Jameel Mukhtar, in coming forward and sharing their experience so that we can discuss it here. I hope that the Minister will listen to both of my right hon. Friend’s suggestions, which I fully support.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and agree with him on both points. I particularly endorse his point about the revulsion and wave of anxiety created by this spate of attacks. As well as shop sales, the issue of online sales will need to be addressed, including of substances other than sulphuric acid.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to control online sales, because if substances cannot be bought at the corner shop sales will move online. Does he agree that, despite the practical difficulties in extending regulations to the online sphere, it is no less important that we tackle that if we are to restrict the supply of corrosive chemicals to illegitimate users?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is clear that part of the problem is online, and it will increasingly be so. That does need to be addressed as part of this initiative.

I have one other request for an outcome to the review that the Home Secretary has announced. In March, I asked a written question about the number of acid attacks in each of the last five years, and I was dismayed to receive this reply from the Minister’s predecessor:

“The Home Office does not collect data on the number of acid attacks.”

Since then, through freedom of information requests, a good deal of data have been published. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that in future, given the increasing concern about the matter, her Department will collect and publish data on acid attacks.

I sought the right hon. Gentleman’s permission to intervene. He has clearly outlined the acid attacks that take place in the United Kingdom. He and I are both members of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, and he will know about the acid attacks perpetrated against people across the world. Is tonight an opportunity to raise awareness of acid attacks on persecuted Christians in Iran, where human rights and equality issues for women are also a concern? I know he has an interest in that issue.

The hon. Gentleman has found the opportunity and raised precisely that issue. He is absolutely right: the use of acid, in all sorts of ways, is quite widespread around the world. As far as I can tell, the incidents that we are increasingly seeing in the UK are not like those to which he refers in Iran or elsewhere in the world. It appears that gangs in the UK have decided that acid offers a less risky way of committing their violent crimes than other weapons. Of course, it is entirely appropriate for him to draw attention to this horrific problem elsewhere in the world.

Acid attacks are an abhorrent form of violence. Acid, or a similarly corrosive substance, is thrown on to the victim’s body—usually their face—in order permanently to disfigure, to maim or sometimes to blind them. Acid causes the skin and flesh to melt, often exposing and dissolving even the bones below. I pay tribute to James Berry, the former Member for Kingston and Surbiton, who talked a good deal about this. He made the point, rightly:

“For the victim, an acid attack is far worse than the life sentence the perpetrator plainly deserves.”

There has been a very worrying increase in acid violence. Last year, there were 451 such crimes in London, up from 261 in the previous year. In 2016, almost a third of them, I am sad to say, were carried out in the borough of Newham, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham and I represent. Since 2010 there have been almost 450 acid attacks in the borough. Constituents have suggested to me that there may well have been others that have not been reported, and so are not included in those statistics.

I have referred to the worry that many feel since the attack on the cousins in Newham. One resident said:

“I live in Newham and residents in the borough are feeling really unsecure and unsafe. My family and kids are so scared that they think twice before going out.”

Another wrote in an email:

“Having lived in Newham for 25 years I find myself considering whether I should move out of the area to ensure safety for my family.”

Metropolitan police statistics show only two attacks in the last year, and they are classified as hate crimes. There was the one on the cousins and another one somewhere else. The much greater worry, contrary to what some people think, is that acid is becoming a preferred weapon of gangs carrying out robberies. It is easy to obtain, cheap and hard to trace back to the perpetrator. While it is relatively hard to obtain a gun and knives are more tightly restricted, criminals seem to have concluded that acid is a less risky weapon when committing violent crimes. What we need to do, as I am sure the Minister will agree, is make acid more risky than it has been seen to be over the past two or three years.

I hope that the review will also look at how to equip the first responders to the victims of acid attacks. A number of people have contacted me ahead of this debate to pass on advice about how to treat victims most effectively at the scene of an attack and how to equip paramedics and first aiders who go to their aid.

A report compiled in 2014 by J. Sagar Associates of India for Acid Survivors Trust International points to what it sees as two main flaws in the UK’s approach to acid violence. The first is that weak restrictions on sales of acid are failing to prevent its acquisition for criminal use. The second is the inconsistent approaches taken by the courts in considering mitigating factors when sentencing those found guilty of acid attacks. Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, advocates an age restriction of 18 on purchases and the prevention of cash sales to aid tracking, so that sales can be made only with a credit card. He suggests research to establish whether substances could be made less concentrated, more viscous or possibly even crystalline so that they are less easy to use to cause harm.

Licensing and restrictions have the support of very many of my constituents and of the local authority. Newham Council has backed tougher licensing conditions and robust codes of practice on the sale of noxious substances, as well as measures to raise awareness of the issue among those who work with young people.

To conclude, I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement over the weekend of a review. I hope that the Minister is able to tell us something about the timescale for completing that work. I urge on her as outcomes of the review those two specific changes to the law: first, that carrying acid should be an offence, just as carrying a knife is; and, secondly, that there should be a requirement on those who purchase sulphuric acid to have a licence permitting them to do so. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I genuinely thank the hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for bringing this very important debate before the House today. How timely it is. I also thank colleagues who have made important contributions this evening. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tone he set for us this evening. I agree with every point he made.

Even before the terrible events of last Thursday, which left five people injured, one with life-changing injuries, it was clear that the use of acids and other corrosives to attack people is a growing threat that must be addressed with urgency. Violence of any kind is unacceptable, but I think there is something particularly troubling about these kinds of attack. Corrosive substances cause severe burns and serious tissue damage. All too frequently, victims’ lives are altered forever. Nobody should have to go through this kind of mental and physical trauma. We have heard from victims who say that the injuries have deeply affected their sense of self. The challenge of returning to a normal life can sometimes feel almost insurmountable.

Sadly, these disturbing acts of violence are not new. The use of acids goes back centuries. However, the increase in incidents in this country is undoubtedly very worrying. In April, there was the attack in a Hackney nightclub, which left a number of people with severe burns and serious eye injuries, and we have heard the hon. Gentleman speak so eloquently and movingly this evening about the two cousins who were attacked in his constituency. It is vital that we do all we can to prevent these horrendous attacks from happening. We must not let those behind such attacks spread fear through society.

The law in this area is already strong, with acid attackers facing up to a life sentence in prison in certain cases. Meanwhile, suspicious transactions involving sulphuric acid must be reported to the police. However, it is vital to ensure that we are doing everything possible to tackle this emerging threat. Earlier this month, the Home Office held a joint event with the National Police Chiefs Council, which I attended. The meeting brought together law enforcement, Government, retailers, the NHS, experts and local policing to discuss the acid attacks and build up a better evidence picture. The hon. Gentleman made the important point that we must have better data on the scale of the threat to help us to understand how we will tackle it. Last October, with the help of the National Police Chiefs Council, we got more information from the police, which we have put into the public domain—it is on the Home Office website. We will be repeating that exercise, so that we collect data more regularly and have a much better understanding of the scale of the threat.

That meeting provided the basis for the action plan to tackle acid attacks that was announced by the Home Secretary on Sunday. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman —[Interruption.] I have been passed a useful note telling me that he has been made a right hon. Gentleman—it is richly deserved—so I apologise for not picking that up earlier. The action plan will include a wide-ranging review of the law enforcement and criminal justice response, existing legislation, access to harmful products and the support offered to victims. I want to reassure the right hon. Gentleman and all colleagues here tonight that the points he has raised are being actively considered as part of that review.

I genuinely thank the Minister for putting the review in motion. I welcome the breadth of the urgent issues that the Government have indicated will be under consideration, but I wonder whether she thinks it is a good time for the review to take a broader look at the safety of the changes made to the sale of substances such as sulphuric acid by the Deregulation Act 2015. I understand that the experts who sat on the former Poisons Board, who had real expertise in this area, had serious concerns and favoured alternative reforms.

As I say, this is a wide-ranging review. We are definitely looking at the Poisons Act 1972, and I will make sure the hon. Lady’s point is taken into careful consideration. We are looking at the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidance to prosecutors, to ensure that acid and other corrosive substances can be classed as dangerous weapons. In addition, we will look again at the Poisons Act and whether more can be done to cover these harmful substances.

We will make sure that those who commit these terrible crimes feel the full force of the law. We will seek to ensure that everyone working in the criminal justice system, from police officers to prosecutors, has the powers they need severely to punish those who commit these appalling crimes. As the Home Secretary has said, life sentences must not be reserved for acid attack survivors. Further work will also take place with retailers, including online, to agree measures to restrict sales of acid and other corrosive substances. Victim support needs to be at the very heart of our response. We need to make sure that victims get the support they need, now and in the years ahead.

We are working on this with great urgency. We are about to go into recess, but I want to reassure the right hon. Member for East Ham that when Parliament gets back in September I will make sure that I update colleagues who are interested and seek an opportunity to update the House on the considerable progress that we expect to be able to make over the summer.

I have probably got a few seconds left, so I want to reassure the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I have obviously misjudged the amount of time I have, so I am happy to give way.

I am grateful to the Minister, and I look forward to the update in September, as, I am sure, do other Members. Is she able to tell us when she expects the review announced by the Home Secretary to conclude? When does she expect the final outcomes to be announced?

As I have said, we have already started work. We put a fair amount of it in motion last year during the build-up to last week’s meeting. I cannot commit myself tonight to a particular time by which we will complete the work. As I think everyone will understand, it is so wide ranging that, while some elements will be relatively easy to bring to fruition, others will require a longer period. Some may require changes in legislation, in which case we will seek the earliest possible legislative opportunity. I can absolutely commit myself, however, to the seriousness with which we are taking this issue, and to the urgency, the vigour, and the resources that we are bringing to bear in the Home Office to co-ordinate a whole-system response. We are working with partners both outside and inside Parliament. Different agencies need to come together.

These are horrendous crimes, and I am very much aware of the fear that is spreading, not only in London but in other parts of the country. There is simply no place in 21st-century Britain for such hate-filled, utterly devastating attacks, and we will do absolutely everything we can to prevent them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.