I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
For the past two years, we have seen an unacceptable increase in recorded knife and gun crime. We have also seen a rise in acid attacks. Sadly, there was a vivid example just this week, with the fatal stabbing of Jordan Douherty, a young man of only 15 who had a great future ahead of him, but whose life was tragically cut short. The Bill will strengthen powers available to the police to deal with acid attacks and knife crime. Its measures will make it more difficult for young people to use acid as a weapon and to purchase knives online.
Craftsmen such as carpenters rely on mail order for the provision of their specialist tools because that can no longer be maintained locally. Will the Home Secretary ensure that this excellent Bill does not intrude on the provision of lawful trade?
I am glad that my right hon. Friend, like me, thinks that the Bill is excellent. I can give him that assurance. As I talk a bit more about the Bill, it will become clear that the right types of reasonable defence will absolutely be in place. For example, knife sales to businesses and for other legitimate use will remain unaffected.
There have sadly been 77 homicides in London alone this year, but violent crime affects all parts of our country, not just our big cities. Violent crime destroys lives and devastates communities, and it has to stop.
The murder of the young man to whom the Home Secretary referred at the beginning of his remarks took place in the Collier Row part of my constituency. My right hon. Friend will know that we are not used to that kind of crime and people in my area are living in fear. Yesterday we had another incident, this time involving a machete-wielding individual near the town centre. Last month, we had the murder of an elderly lady with a hammer. Crime is spreading out to areas such as Essex, and I have to say that we need more than what is in the Bill. Measures need to be much tougher and the punishment has to fit the crime. Most people want the Conservatives to be a party that really gets to grips with this issue, because people in my area and many other parts of the country are really frightened at the moment.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I know that soon after the terrible crime in his constituency this weekend, he was on the scene with others. I look forward, if I have the opportunity, to discussing the incident with him in more detail and listening to his ideas. He is right that more is needed than just this Bill, and I assure him that these measures are part of a much larger sweep of action the Government are taking, which I will talk about in a moment. I also want to listen to colleagues such as him about what more we can do. I would be happy to do that and to discuss how we can prevent such crimes taking place on our streets.
As a west midlands MP, I was surprised and shocked by the latest figures on gun and knife crime, because we have more gun crime per head of population than London. Will the Home Secretary elucidate how he thinks these new strategies will deal particularly with urban knife and gun crime?
I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with what I say about the Bill’s provisions on the sale of knives and on the possession of knives and acid—I will come on to certain firearms later. Taken together, these measures will help. However, as I said to our hon. Friend the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), other measures in the serious violence strategy will also help to make a big difference.
A young man in my constituency was tragically murdered in an incident in Liverpool recently, and unfortunately we in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan have also seen a rise in incidents involving knives. I am deeply worried about material glorifying violence that is shared online in closed social media groups and other forums. What is being done to tackle the sharing of such material online?
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about how, in some cases, social media contributes to the rise of such crime. That was the main topic of conversation at the last meeting of the serious violence taskforce, and soon afterwards we unveiled the new social media hub on serious violence, which will work with internet companies to track down that kind of material. In some cases, that material will be taken offline and, in others, an alternative message will be put out. We are very alive to this and are responding with fresh funding, but I want to see what more we can do in that space.
I have seen at first hand the fantastic job that our police do to protect the public and to help to keep this country safe, but they cannot tackle serious and violent crime alone. We must all work together. I am committed to taking strong action to end this blight on our communities. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), published the comprehensive new serious violence strategy to which I just referred on 9 April. This marks a major shift in our approach to violent crime and is supported by an extra £40 million of new funding. It shows that the increase in violent crime is due to a number of factors, so this debate should not just be about police numbers, as is so often the case when we discuss such issues. I remind the House that this Government have increased police funding in England and Wales by over £460 million this year, and I have been clear that police funding will be a priority for me in the next spending review.
As the strategy makes clear, the rise in violent crime is due to many factors, including changes in the drugs market. A crucial part of the strategy is also about focusing on early intervention and prevention, which is why we are investing £11 million in an early intervention youth fund, running a national campaign to tell young people about the risks of carrying a knife, and taking action against online videos that glorify and encourage violence. To oversee this important work, we have set up a taskforce that includes hon. Members from both sides of the House, the police, the Mayor of London, community groups and other Departments. I hope that this is just the first stage of us all working together across parties and sectors.
The Bill covers three main areas: acid attacks, knife crime and the risks posed by firearms.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s commitment to tackling serious and violent crime, which we know has such devastating consequences for families. I also agree about the importance of prevention, as well as the legislative measures. Given that some of the measures announced in the serious and violent crime strategy were concentrated around London, Birmingham and Nottingham, and that we have had awful stabbings in Leeds, Wolverhampton and Ipswich, what more will he do to make sure that the prevention work is done right across the country?
I welcome the right hon. Lady’s support and the work she does on the Home Affairs Select Committee, which she chairs, to scrutinise this type of work. She is right that some of the announcements on the community fund to help with early intervention have focused on big cities, but this is just the start. We have more funding to allocate and are already talking to community groups well spread throughout the country. As I said right at the start, although there has been much debate about London and other big cities—we just heard about Birmingham—that suffer from these crimes, they are widespread and extend to our smaller towns and, in some cases, villages, so we have to look at all parts of the country.
As my right hon. Friend will know, there is some concern among Conservative Members about the proposal in the Bill to ban .5 calibre weapons, because it would criminalise otherwise law-abiding users of a weapon which, as far as I know, has never been used in a murder. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to enter into full discussions with his Ministers before the Committee stage?
I will say a bit more about that in a moment, but my hon. Friend has raised an important issue, and I am glad that he has focused on it. The Bill does make some changes in relation to high-energy rifles and other such weapons. We based those measures on evidence that we received from intelligence sources, police and other security experts. That said, I know that my hon. Friend and other colleagues have expertise, and evidence that they too wish to provide. I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that I am ready to listen to him and others, and to set their evidence against the evidence that we have received.
I generally welcome the Bill, but I should point out that the measures he is talking about mean banning the weapons. They relate to about 200 bulky, expensive and very loud rifles which, as far as I know, have never been used for a single crime in this country. It is probably the gun least likely ever to be used in a crime. Is the Secretary of State aware that in pursuing this policy without good evidence, he is losing the confidence of the entire sport-shooting community for no good reason?
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. That said, I know that my hon. Friend speaks with significant knowledge of this issue, and I would be happy to listen to his views and those of others.
If we follow my right hon. Friend’s logic, we must conclude that literally every single weapon should be banned. Having served in Northern Ireland myself, I know that there is no end to saying that everything should be banned. If we accept that these weapons are not likely to be used if they are properly secured and controlled, we should think carefully about banning them. If we just go on banning weapons, we will not achieve what we want. In Waltham Forest where I live, handguns are available to any criminal who wants to use them, but those are banned as well. The right people cannot use weapons, but the wrong people certainly carry on using them.
My right hon. Friend makes the point that our response must be proportionate, and we must ensure that banning firearms leads to the right outcome. He has alluded to his own experience in this regard, and I hope he is reassured by my indication that I am happy to talk to colleagues about the issue. He has also mentioned the need for control and proper possession of any type of weapon that could be used in the wrong way. The Bill contains clear measures based on the evidence that has been brought to us thus far, but I am happy to listen to what others have to say.
The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) referred to the pervasive nature of the culture that is leading to violent crime. Will my right hon. Friend work with other Departments on some of the drivers of that culture? Some people are driven by the internet and social media, but there may be other malevolent sources of information that lead people into the business of crime. This will require a great deal of lateral thinking, and I know my former apprentice is capable of that.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that important point. He speaks with experience of the Home Office, and my predecessor as Home Secretary established the Serious Violence Taskforce for precisely this reason. I have already held my own first meeting of the taskforce. Each meeting leads to action, and, as I mentioned earlier, the last one led to action on social mobility and online activity. However, there are also roles for the Department for Education, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and other Departments. They will need to do their bit, because, as my right hon. Friend says, this will require cross-governmental action.
My right hon. Friend has spoken of the drivers of this type of crime, and the changing nature of the drugs market. I wrote to him this week about the “zombie” drugs, such as mamba, which are affecting my town centre. Is the Bill likely to lead to crackdowns on those new drugs?
The Bill does not focus on drugs, but my hon. Friend has made an important point. It is clear from the evidence that we have seen at the Home Office that changes in the drugs market are a major factor in the rise in serious violence, not just in the UK but in other European countries and the United States. We want to take a closer look at the issue to establish whether more work can be done on it.
The Bill covers three main areas: acid attacks, knife crime, and the risks posed by firearms. We have consulted widely on these measures, and have worked closely with the police and others to ensure that we are giving them the powers that they need. The measures on corrosives will stop young people getting hold of particularly dangerous acids, the measures on online knife sales will stop young people getting hold of knives online, and the measures on the possession of offensive weapons will give the police the powers that they need to act when people are in possession of flick knives, zombie knives, and other particularly dangerous knives that have absolutely no place in our homes and communities. I believe that the Bill strengthens the law where that is most needed, and gives the police the tools that they need to protect the public.
I support the Bill—I do not want the Home Secretary to think otherwise—but may I make a point about clause 1? When it comes to refusing to sell goods to individuals, it is shop staff who will be on the front line, and it is shop staff who may be attacked or threatened as a result. Would the Home Secretary consider introducing, in Committee, an aggravated offence of attacks on shop staff? They, like everyone else, deserve freedom from fear.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the Bill. As he will understand, we want to restrict sales of these items in order to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands, but he has made an interesting point about those who may feel that they are under some threat, particularly from the kind of people who would try to buy knives of this type in the first place. If he will allow me, I will go away and think a bit more about what he has said.
Sheffield, like other cities, is deeply affected by a rise in knife crime, and I strongly support the Bill’s objectives in that regard. However, our city is also famous for knife manufacturing, and a number of local companies have expressed concern to me about the blanket prohibition of sales to residential addresses, which they fear could have unintended consequences. As the Bill progresses, will the Home Secretary consider alternative ways of achieving its objectives—for example, an online knife dealers’ scheme that would be mandatory for all distance selling, with age verification standards set by the International Organisation for Standardisation?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but, as he will know, before we settled on any of these measures—particularly the one dealing with knives—there was an extensive consultation involving many people, including manufacturers from the great city of Sheffield and other parts of the UK. I hope it is of some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman that, while it is true that deliveries to solely residential addresses will be prohibited, deliveries to businesses operating from residences will not. There are some other defences which I think will help with the issue that he has raised. For example, the prohibition will not apply to table knives, knives to be used for sporting purposes, knives to be used for re-enactment purposes, or hand-made knives. I hope that that indicates to the hon. Gentleman that we have thought carefully about the issue, but if he has any other suggestions, he should write to me and I will consider them.
The UK already has a reputation for having the strongest and best firearms legislation across Europe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the intention of this Bill is to make sure dangerous knives and toxic chemicals are equally strongly legislated against, but it is not the intention to take action against law-abiding citizens?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I could not have put it better myself. She will know that there are already some restrictions on knives; for example, there are restrictions on buying the so-called zombie knives, but there is no restriction on possessing them at present. Part of the Bill’s intention is to fill in some of those obvious gaps, as members of the public have asked why the Government have not addressed them before.
I think the point my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) was making is that it is the law-abiding holders of .50 calibre guns who are being made criminals yet these are target rifles. Sometimes the law of unintended consequences in Bills catches us out, such as in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and we should not be making these people criminals when no crime has been committed in Great Britain by using this calibre of rifle.
All of us on both sides of the House wish to see action taken to combat the scourge of violent crime, but a great many of my constituents have written to me expressing concerns about the inadvertent impact of the Bill particularly on rural sports, and the Home Secretary has heard those today. Will he meet me and groups of others so we can make sure those concerns are heard and rural communities’ views are taken into account?
The Secretary of State has explained that clause 1 bans the sale of corrosive products to under-18s. I support that, but some of us think the age limit should be at 21 rather than 18. Would he be open to an amendment along those lines? What is the reason for setting the limit at 18, rather than a higher age?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, this was consulted on during the preparation of the Bill. We settled at 18 and I do not think we are interested in moving from that, but he does deserve an explanation: 18 is used as the legal age between child and adult for a number of things, and it felt to us to be the right age. It is also an age that is consistent with other Acts of Parliament. We think it is the appropriate age to set the limit on some of the measures in the Bill.
It was clear from the consultation on high-calibre rifles that their owners were prepared to look at measures to make sure that those rifles were made as safe as possible so they did not fall into the wrong hands, yet the Government now intend to ban them. Will the Secretary of State look at the consultation again and at the assurances people were prepared to give, and make sure those law-abiding citizens are not adversely affected?
I hope the hon. Gentleman has heard some of the comments made around this issue over the past 20 minutes or so. I do understand the arguments around the issue, and of course he would expect the Home Office to listen to arguments on the other side as well, which as he says have had an input into the Bill. I am more than happy to listen to colleagues on both sides of the House on that issue and any other issues around the Bill.
The Secretary of State will have received correspondence from the Countryside Alliance and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. One of the issues my constituents have asked me about is the compensation clause for weapons that might be taken back or retrieved. How will the value of the firearms be calculated, and where will the money for the compensation come from? Will it come from Northern Ireland or the UK centrally? Will people who surrender firearms face questioning or checks that might dissuade them from surrendering their firearms? We must have good communication with those who hold firearms and will be impacted greatly by this.
The hon. Gentleman will know that these measures in the Bill are devolved in the case of Northern Ireland, and some of the issues he raised about compensation and how it is calculated may well be decisions that eventually the Northern Ireland Government, once in place, will reach. In England and in Scotland if it consents, we have set out how compensation can work, and our intention is to make sure it is reasonable and it works, and that is not just in the case of firearms—there is a general compensation clause. It is harder for me to answer that question in respect of Northern Ireland as ultimately that decision will not be made by the Home Office; it will be a decision that the Northern Ireland Government will have to settle on.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the way in which he is approaching Second Reading; it demonstrates that Second Readings of Bills are extremely important and should happen with great regularity. May I commend to him the work in Hertfordshire and Broxbourne council to bring together agencies across the county and boroughs to deal with knife crime? There is a role for local politicians and local agencies in addressing this really complicated issue.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: ultimately, only so much can be done by the centre. The centre can set the laws and provide funding in certain cases, but much of the work being done, as we have seen with the serious violence taskforce, is community and locally led, and I join him in commending the work in Hertfordshire. We are very much aware of that in the Department, and it sets an example for many other parts of the country.
Building on the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), there is an important leadership role for police and crime commissioners working alongside the local constabulary and the other partners that have been mentioned. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or his colleague, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, share with us, if not today, at a later date, what they consider to be best practice in terms of real leadership on the ground and partnership building to help tackle the problems that we all face?
In the serious violence strategy published in April there were some examples of good practice, but my hon. Friend makes the point that since then, because of the use of some of the funds for example that were in that strategy, we have seen other good examples. We will be very happy to share them with my hon. Friend.
As a doctor who has treated children with both stab and gunshot wounds, I commend my right hon. Friend on what he is doing to try to reduce the violence on our streets but, equally, as a Conservative I am not keen to ban things that do not need to be banned. In the past, we banned handguns; what effect has that had on gun crimes committed with handguns in this country?
I share some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend: when a Government ban anything that must be led by the evidence. In doing that we must also listen to the experts on the frontline of fighting crime. As my hon. Friend said, she has in a way been on the frontline dealing with the consequences of this crime. She asked about handguns and the impact of the ban; I do not have to hand any particular numbers or statistics, but I will be happy to share them with her. My hon. Friend’s central point is appropriate: when any Government act to ban anything we must be very careful and make sure it is proportionate and led by the evidence.
The Home Secretary has acknowledged that justice and policing are devolved matters, and has he recognised that we do not have a functioning Assembly at present; we have not had one for 18 months. I was therefore delighted that this Bill extends many provisions to Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Assembly. I am particularly pleased to see that there will be restrictions on offensive products being sold to persons aged 18 or under. I am also pleased to see the restrictions on knives. However, I must reflect to the Home Secretary the extremely troubling evidence that was given to us in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee this morning by the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who has requested an increase in police personnel and who has taken off the market three unused border police stations that were for sale. The issue, I have to say, is Brexit. Without infrastructure, there will be movement across the border of offensive weapons, including knives and corrosive products. How will the PSNI deal with those movements under this legislation, which I am pleased to welcome?
I thank the hon. Lady for her support for the measures in the Bill. She has raised particular questions about Northern Ireland. She will know that, because these matters are devolved and the police have operational independence, how they deal with the issues presented by the Bill and other cross-border issues will be a matter for them. She referred to evidence given to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee this morning, which unfortunately I did not listen to. If she wants to provide me with more information on that, and on how she thinks the Bill might fit in with it, I would be happy to look at that.
I must go on, as a number of colleagues want to contribute to the debate.
Turning to acid attacks, of course it is wrong that young people can buy substances that can be used to cause severe pain and to radically alter someone’s face, body and life. There is no reason why industrial-strength acids should be sold to young people, and the Bill will stop that happening. We will ban the sale of the most dangerous corrosives to under-18s, both online and offline. We want to stop acid being used as a weapon. At the moment, the police are limited in what they can do if they think a gang on the street might be carrying acid. The Bill will provide them with the power to stop and search and to confiscate any acid.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend is saying about acid. Will he give further thought in Committee to the question of the private purchase of these fantastically corrosive acids? Does he agree that there is little point in restricting their sale to those below the age of 18, because those over that age can also get very annoyed and use those substances to the devastating effect that he has set out?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but the evidence that we have seen shows that the real issue is about young people getting their hands on this acid. We have seen examples of them getting hold of it and separating it into two mineral water bottles, then carrying it around and using it to devastating effect. The measures that we have here, alongside the measures on possession of acid in a public place, will combine to make a big difference to the situation we find ourselves in today.
Yes. The Home Secretary is absolutely right to legislate for this offence. Will he tell the House how he and his colleagues will ensure that local authorities, trading standards, the police and others will be supported in enforcing this offence, to ensure that the new powers are actually used?
I must point out that when I said to the right hon. Gentleman, “On acid?” I was not asking him if he was on acid. It was a more general question, although I noticed that he readily jumped up and said yes. He makes an important point about ensuring that once the changes are made, all those who need to be aware of them will get training in the process of bringing them about. As he knows, this will involve trading standards and local authorities, and we are in touch with those groups. By the time the Bill has progressed and hopefully achieved Royal Assent, we will have worked quite intensively with the groups that have an interest in this to ensure that the measures in the Bill are well understood.
If I may turn to knives, it is already against the law to sell knives to under-18s, but some online sellers effectively ignore this. Sadly, such knives can get into the hands of young people and this has led to tragic deaths. We will stop that by ensuring that proper age checks are in place at the point of sale. We will stop the delivery to a home address of knives that can cause serious injury. We will also crack down on the overseas sales of knives by making it an offence to deliver them to a person under 18 in this country. I find it appalling that vicious weapons are on open sale and easily available. It shocks me that flick knives are still available despite being banned as long ago as 1959, and that zombie knives, knuckledusters and other dreadful weapons are still in wide circulation. The Bill will therefore make it an offence to possess such weapons, whether in private or on the streets, and it will go further and extend the current ban on offensive weapons in schools to further education premises.
A young man was murdered with a knife in terrible circumstances in Romford on Saturday evening. We can ban these weapons if we like, but the Home Secretary needs to be aware that if someone with criminal intent wants to get hold of one, they will find a way. I commend the Bill and I will support it, but surely we should also be looking at how young people are being brought up. We should look at what is happening in the home and in schools and at whether young people are being taught the values of right and wrong and behaving in a decent way. They can learn this from early childhood, and schools have a role to play in enforcing discipline. Parental guidance and strong support from families are also important. The family unit is important if young people are to grow up in a society where they can live freely without committing these kinds of crimes. Should we not be looking at the whole thing in a rounded way, not just banning things? Should we not be looking at how we can ensure that young people grow up to be good citizens of this country?
My hon. Friend has raised the death of Jordan Douherty, which tragically occurred this weekend following a knife attack, and I am glad that he has made that important point. While the Bill can achieve a few things—we have talked about acid and knives falling into the wrong hands, for example—no Bill can by itself stop someone who is intent on taking this kind of vicious action. As he says, that requires a much more holistic approach to ensure that all aspects of government and non-Government bodies, charities and others are involved. Education is also a vital part of that, as is parenting. In some cases, there is better parenting, but there are no easy answers to any of this. He is absolutely right to suggest that we need to have a much more holistic approach. I can assure him that this is exactly why the serious violence taskforce has been created, and this is exactly the kind of work that we are trying to achieve.
The Home Secretary will know that, tragically, we have had nine deaths related to youth violence in my constituency over the past year. I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has just said, but these things can happen to any family. The groomers out there find children from all kinds of families, and I do not want anyone watching this debate to believe that it cannot happen to them or to their children. We all need to be vigilant, and I am looking forward to the progress that the Home Secretary’s working party will make.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She has made a vital point. Sadly, anyone can be on the receiving end of this violence. Tragically, we see that in the UK every year, but we all recognise that there has been a significant increase this year, and we need to work together to combat that. Anyone can be a victim.
Finally, I want to turn to an issue that we seem to have discussed in some detail already: the measure on firearms. The Bill will prohibit certain powerful firearms including high-energy rifles and rapid-firing rifles. As we have heard, hon. Members on both sides of the House have different views on this. While preparing the Bill, we have listened to evidence from security, police and other experts, but I am more than happy to listen to hon. Members from both sides, to take their views into account and to work with them to ensure that we do much more to bring about increased public safety.
I am very grateful to the Home Secretary for allowing me to intervene again. He will be well aware that, yesterday, the Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland was appointed as the Garda commissioner, which is a brilliant appointment. One of the means by which the Home Office should try to ensure that the dangerous corrosive substances and knives banned under the legislation will not come across the border from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland—we will not have physical infrastructure on the border after Brexit—is to call the new Garda commissioner and his new team when he is in post. I make that warm recommendation following that excellent appointment to the Garda Siochana in the Republic of Ireland.
I commend the Garda on their appointment. The Minister for Policing and the Fire Service will be in touch with the new head of the Garda in his new role. I am sure it is an opportunity to discuss such cross-border issues and see how we can co-operate even more.
hope the measures in the Bill will attract widespread support on both sides of the House. They fill an important gap in the law, and they give the police, prosecutors and others the tools they need to fight these terrible crimes. The Bill will help to make all our communities safer by helping to get dangerous weapons off our streets. As Home Secretary, I will be relentless in ensuring that our streets remain safe. I commend the Bill to the House.
It is important to begin on a note of agreement. The Opposition pledged in this House that the Government would have our support if they came forward with measures on acid sale and possession and further measures to combat knife crime, so we will support the limited but necessary measures in the Bill. Throughout the Committee stage, we will take a constructive approach in areas in which we believe it needs strengthening.
In and of themselves, the measures cannot bear down on a violent surge that has left communities reeling. That will require a much more comprehensive change. It is as well to look at the context of the Bill. Knife crime offences reached record levels in the year to December 2017. Homicides involving knives increased by 22%, and violent crime overall has more than doubled in the past five years to a record level. The senseless murder of 15-year-old Jordan Douherty, who was stabbed after a birthday party in Romford community centre over the weekend, brought the number of murder investigations to over 80 in London alone this year.
As we have heard, the problem is far from being just a London one. In my home city of Sheffield, which historically and until very recently was considered to be one of the safest cities in the UK, there was a 51% increase in violent crime last year on a 62% increase the year before. That is not a spike or a blip, but a trend enveloping a generation of young people and it requires immediate national action.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that what is omitted is of far greater consequence than what has made it into the Government’s serious violence strategy and their legislative response today. First, it must be said that unveiling a strategy that made no mention of police numbers was a serious mistake that reinforced the perception that tiptoeing around the Prime Minister’s legacy at the Home Office matters more than community safety. The Home Secretary might not want today’s debate to be about police numbers, because a dangerous delusion took hold of his predecessors that police numbers do not make the blindest bit of difference to the rise in serious violence, but that view is not widely shared. The Met Commissioner Cressida Dick has said she is “certain” that police cuts have contributed to serious violence. Home Office experts have said it is likely that police cuts have contributed too. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary said in March that the police were under such strain that the lives of vulnerable people were being put at risk, with forces so stretched that they cannot respond to emergency calls.
Charge rates for serious violence have fallen as the detective crisis continues, undermining the deterrent effect, but still Ministers pretend that a staggering reduction of more than 21,000 police officers since 2010 has had no impact whatsoever.
In the west midlands, the Labour police and crime commissioner has been able to raise additional funds through an increase in the precept, yet he has chosen to put no extra police on the beat, particularly in my constituency. Regardless of how much money is available, we have to get over the obstacle that police and crime commissioners might decide to spend it differently.
Recruitment is a matter for chief constables. My understanding is that West Midlands police are undergoing a recruitment drive. Obviously, I cannot speak to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but how chief constables spend the money the precept raises is up to them. The issue we have with using the precept to raise funds for the police—the House has rehearsed this time and again—is that a 2% increase in council tax in areas such as the west midlands will raise significantly less than in other areas of the country such as Surrey or Suffolk. That is why we opposed that fundamentally unfair way to increase funding for our police forces.
The reduction in the number of officers has reduced the ability of the police to perform hotspot proactive policing and targeted interventions that gather intelligence and build relationships with communities, These not only help the police to respond to crime but help them to prevent it from happening in the first place. That is the bedrock of policing in our country. Community policing enables policing by consent, but has been decimated over the past eight years. That has contributed not only to the rise in serious violence but to the corresponding fall in successful prosecutions. Not only are more people committing serious violent offences, but more are getting away with it.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. She will be aware that I have long campaigned for Cardiff to get additional resources because of the challenges it has as a capital city. I am glad that the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service has agreed to meet me, the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner in south Wales to discuss these very real concerns. Does my hon. Friend agree that community policing resources are absolutely crucial? Community police can deal with the grooming that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) described, whether it is to do with knives and violence, drugs or extremism.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who is a committed campaigner for Cardiff to receive the police resources it needs. That is why the Labour manifesto put neighbourhood policing at its heart. Neighbourhood policing not only enables the police to respond better to crime, but it is an important intelligence-gathering tool for tackling terrorism, more serious crime and organised criminal activity.
The proposals in the Bill to strengthen the law to meet the changing climate are welcome, but, without adequate enforcement, they cannot have the effect we need them to have. The Government must drop their dangerous delusion that cutting the police by more than any other developed country over the past eight years bar Iceland, Lithuania and Bulgaria has not affected community safety. They must make a cast-iron commitment that in the spending review they will give the police the resources they need to restore the strength of neighbourhood policing so recklessly eroded over the past eight years.
One problem in my constituency following the murder on Saturday evening is the feeling that the police do not have enough resources. I agree with the hon. Lady. We cannot keep reducing resources for policing and say it will not have an effect on crime; clearly it will. However, Havering in my area, for example, is part of Greater London, so the resources are allocated by the Mayor of London. Our area gets far less than other parts of London. Yes, let us have more resources, but does the hon. Lady agree that areas like mine need a fairer slice of the cake? If crime is moving out to areas such as Essex, we need resources. We are not inner London—we are completely different—and therefore need a different style of policing and adequate resources to make our communities safe.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that resources should follow demand. That is why it is a crying shame that the Government have kicked the can down the road on the police funding formula, which has denied resources to areas of the country that are in serious need of police resources. That funding formula should be based on demand.
It is welcome when any police force recruits additional police officers. I do not have to hand the number of officers that Essex has lost since 2010, but I imagine that it is significantly more than 150.
Let us look at the Home Office research on the drivers of trends in violent crime. Neighbourhood policing was certainly mentioned; social media was acknowledged to have played a role, as were changes to the drug market, as the Home Secretary mentioned, particularly in respect of the purity of crack cocaine. They are all factors in the spate of recent murders, but one of the most important factors that the analysis showed was that a larger cohort of young people are now particularly vulnerable to involvement in violent crime because of significant increases in the numbers of homeless children, children in care and children excluded from school. Just 2% of the general population have been excluded from school, compared with 49% of the prison population. As much as this Bill is, and should be, about taking offensive weapons off our streets, the issues around serious violent crime are also a story of vulnerability.
The Children’s Commissioner has shown that 70,000 under-25-year-olds are currently feared to be part of gang networks. The unavoidable conclusion is that, for a growing, precarious and highly vulnerable cohort of children, the structures and safety nets that are there to protect them are failing.
Behind this tragic spate of violence is a story of missed opportunities to intervene as services retreat; of children without a place to call home shunted between temporary accommodation, with their parents at the mercy of private landlords; of patterns of truancy and expulsions; and of troubled families ignored until the moment of crisis hits. The most despicable criminals are exploiting the space where well-run and effective early intervention, prevention and diversion strategies once existed.
As the Children’s Commissioner notes, the pursuit of young children is now
“a systematic and well-rehearsed business model.”
The Home Secretary himself highlighted the importance of early intervention in tackling violence when he told “The Andrew Marr Show” that we must deal with the root causes, but the £20 million a year we spend on early intervention and prevention has to be seen in the context of the £387 million cut from youth services, the £1 billion cut from children’s services, and the £2.7 billion cut from school budgets since 2015. For most communities, the funding provided by the serious violence strategy will not make any difference at all. How can it even begin to plug the gap?
We know what happens when early intervention disappears. A groundbreaking report 18 years ago by the Audit Commission described the path of a young boy called James who found himself at the hard end of the criminal justice system before the last Labour Government’s progressive efforts to address the root causes of crime through early intervention:
“Starting at the age of five, his mother persistently requested help in managing his behaviour and addressing his learning difficulties. Despite formal assessments at an early age for special educational needs, no educational help was forthcoming until he reached the age of eight and even then no efforts were made to address his behaviour problems in the home. By the age of ten, he had his first brush with the law but several requests for a learning mentor came to nothing and his attendance at school began to suffer. By now he was falling behind his peers and getting into trouble at school, at home and in his…neighbourhood…
Within a year James was serving an intensive community supervision order and…only then did the authorities acknowledge that the family had multiple problems and needed a full assessment. A meeting of professionals was arranged but no one directly involved with James, other than his Head Teacher, attended, no social worker was allocated and none of the plans that were drawn up to help James were implemented. Within a short space of time, he was sent to a Secure Training Centre and on release…no services were received by James or his family. He was back in custody within a few months.”
How many Jameses have we come across in our constituencies? How many mothers like James’s have we met in our surgeries? The pattern described here could just as well be attributed to a young man I had been seeking to help over the past year but whose life was tragically ended just last month. He was stabbed to death in my constituency, and another 15-year-old charged with his murder.
It very much feels as though we have learned these lessons before and are now repeating the same mistakes.
The Mayor of London has put £150 million into recruiting additional police officers. I appreciate the serious concerns in London but this is a national problem, as I have made clear and as the Home Secretary has acknowledged. This is not a London-only problem. Indeed, the increase in violence in London is actually lower than in other parts of the country, which is why a national solution is required. It is politically easy to pass the blame on to the Mayor of London, but it simply is not the case that that is the only solution.
The hon. Lady is speaking huge common sense, as everyone in this House knows. Anyone who looks at our prison population knows that people in prison are suffering from mental health problems and learning disabilities, all of which could have been dealt with through early intervention. I ask her not to be put off by completely irrelevant interventions.
The hon. Lady mentions that this is not only a London problem, but a lot of it does emanate from London. The county line operations and many other things start in our big cities, so will she join me in encouraging the Metropolitan police to work far more closely with other forces to make sure we break these county lines? The county lines are now heading across the country, but they largely start in London.
I completely agree that the county lines emanate from many metropolitan areas, and certainly not just London—they originate with organised criminal gangs in Birmingham and on Merseyside, too. I commend the Government’s approach through the national county lines co-ordination centre. Working between police forces is a nut that we really have to crack, because the county lines business model has been developed to exploit the challenges that police forces and other agencies experience in working together.
I agree with much of what the hon. Lady says, but can she envisage how local people in Havering feel? We are part of Essex, yet we are lumped into Greater London. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) proudly speaks of 150 new policemen for Essex, but people who come to Romford will realise that we are Essex, rather than London. However, we get so few resources from the Mayor of London—we really are left out. We are getting no extra policemen and far fewer resources than we need.
Will the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) please speak to Sadiq Khan and see whether he will prioritise the London Borough of Havering and give us the resources we need, or whether he will give us the chance to be a unitary authority outside of the Greater London area so we can manage our own resources and keep our communities safe?
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points, and she will recognise that in Wales the Welsh Labour Government have invested in keeping police community support officers in our communities, which has made a huge difference in my own community. Will she also pay tribute to the many voluntary organisations that are working with young people in particular? Tiger Bay and Llanrumney Phoenix amateur boxing clubs in my patch are working with young people who are very much at risk of being groomed or caught up in such things, and they are making a huge impact on those individuals’ lives.
I am grateful for that intervention. Across the country, such community organisations are filling a vacuum that has been created by Government cuts over the past eight years. They are doing sterling work with at-risk young people, and preventing many of them from falling into exploitation and violence.
I take this opportunity to commend the work of the Scottish Government not just through the violence reduction unit, which I am sure we will hear much of in today’s debate, but in their commitment to long-term research on the patterns of youth offending and violence. The last major national study of youth crime in England and Wales was 10 years ago, which means we do not know the impact of social media or, indeed, of austerity. We urge the Government to repeat that survey, to commission research on why young people carry weapons and on the risk factors that lead to violent offending, and to commission an evidence-based analysis of the success of various interventions. That could build on the excellent work led by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), who pioneered the Youth Violence Commission.
In Scotland, the Edinburgh study of youth transitions and crime found that violent offenders are significantly more likely than non-violent young people to be victims of crime and adult harassment, to be engaged in self-harm and para-suicidal behaviour, to be drug users or regular alcohol users and, for girls in particular, to be from a socially deprived background.
Although, of course, I accept wholeheartedly the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) that any young person can be at risk of exploitation, it is in the public good for such vulnerable young people to receive targeted interventions at a young age, rather than to see them fall into the costly criminal justice system and their lives wasted. We hope to see significantly more action from the Government on that.
I am a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and we have been looking at the evidence on early intervention. As has been highlighted, there are areas of excellent practice, including Manchester and, I am glad to say, Essex. Will the hon. Lady look at those areas of excellent practice? I reject the suggestion that, somehow, this is linked to cuts. Our good practice in delivering early intervention helps to make the difference.
I heartily recommend that the hon. Lady reads the Home Office’s own analysis, which suggests that cuts to neighbourhood policing and early intervention have played a part in the rise of serious violence, but of course I accept that some excellent work is going on throughout the country. That is exactly the point I am making: we need a proper evidence-based analysis of that work to make sure that we roll out the successful pilots.
Let me turn to the possession and sale of corrosives. We welcome the move to clarify the law. In March, the Sentencing Council explicitly listed acid as a potentially dangerous weapon, but it is welcome that that is made clear in the legislation. Nevertheless, concerns remain about the lack of controls on reportable substances. We welcome the passing of secondary legislation to designate sulphuric acid as a reportable substance, but the time has come for a broader look at the two classes of poisons to determine which are causing harm and should therefore be subject to stricter controls.
The purpose of the legislation prior to the Deregulation Act 2015 was to allow the sale of commonly used products while protecting the individual from their inherent dangers. The sale of such poisons as hydrochloric, ammonia, hydrofluoric, nitric and phosphoric acids was restricted to retail pharmacies and to businesses whose premises were on local authorities’ lists of sellers. That situation was not perfect, but in considering reform we should note that the Poisons Board preferred a third option, between the previous system and what we have today, which would have designated as regulated all poisons listed as reportable substances, meaning that they could be sold only in registered pharmacies, with buyers required to enter their details.
The Government have conceded the point that some acids that are currently on open sale are dangerous and so should not be sold to under-18s. Schedule 1 lists hydrochloric acid and ammonia as two such examples, but we know that only one in five acid attacks are conducted by under-18s. That means that four in five attackers will be free to purchase reportable substances despite the clear evidence of harm. Of the 408 reported acid attacks, ammonia was used in 69 incidents. In the light of that, will the Government conduct a full review of the designation of reportable substances and bring forward regulations to re-designate those causing clear harm?
We note that the Government have failed to extend to corrosive substances the specific provisions on the possession of knives in schools. There can surely be no justification, beyond a reasonable defence, for the possession of corrosive substances on a school premises. If we are to send a message that the possession of corrosive substances will be treated with the same seriousness as the possession of knives, it should follow that the provisions that apply in respect of knives in schools are extended to acid.
On knife possession, the measures on remote sales and residential premises are important, but a cursory internet search demonstrates the easy availability of a wide range of weapons that are terrifying in their familiarity: knives disguised as credit cards and as bracelets; weapons designed with the explicit purpose to harm and to conceal. With the increasing use of such weapons and the widespread use of machetes in certain parts of the country, we wish to explore with the Government what further action can be taken to bear down on such pernicious weapons, and how apps and platforms on which such weapons are made readily available can be held to account.
As the Bill is considered in Committee, we wish to explore the concerns, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) earlier, of retailers and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers about the offences imposed on retailers.
As the chair of the USDAW group of MPs—I declare that interest—I welcome that commitment. I was greatly encouraged by the fact that the Home Secretary said that he will look into this issue. I hope that we can consider it on a cross-party basis to ensure that shop workers are free from fear and that regulations can be put in place to make sure that we defend those who will have to defend the Bill’s provisions on the frontline, in shops.
My right hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner for the rights of shop workers and I echo his point about hoping that we can do this on a cross-party basis.
Concerns remain about the open sale of knives in smaller retail stores, which is an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft). Many of the larger stores have taken steps to secure knives in cabinets, but the fact that it is far too easy to steal knives from smaller stores renders much of the control of knife sales ineffective.
It was surprising to see that higher education institutions have been omitted from the extension of possession offences, given that they were considered in the consultation earlier this year. The justification that the Government gave for the proposal then was, I think, right, so I am interested to hear why higher education institutions have been omitted from the Bill.
On firearms, the laws in the UK are among the toughest in the world, but there is concern that restricted supply might be leading to the repurposing of obsolete firearms, meaning that law enforcement must be alive to the changing nature of firearms use. There has been a significant rise in the use of antique guns that have been repurposed to commit serious crime: 30% of the guns used in crime in 2015-16 were of obsolete calibre. The repurposing of handguns designed to fire gas canisters, and of imitation weapons, has grown in the past 10 years. We intend to press the Government on whether the laws surrounding decommissioned firearms, which are not subject to the Firearms Act 1968, need to be strengthened. The availability of firearms has been shown to be increasing through the legal-to-illegal route, so we very much support the Government’s proposals.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, but as someone who has recently renewed their shotgun licence, I should say that that is a very thorough process. I would not want the wrong impression to be given of people who shoot for sport—I shoot only clays; I do not shoot animals—because it is a very responsible sport.
My hon. Friend brings his own personal experience to the debate and makes an important point. I am sure that will be heard in Committee.
Finally, we believe that the Bill is a missed opportunity for victims. The Conservative party manifestos in 2015 and 2017 promised to enshrine in law the rights of victims, a group too often neglected by the criminal justice system. With crime surging and the perpetrators of crime more likely than ever to escape justice, the Bill should have gone further and looked to strengthen the rights of victims of crime.
Yes, and I was not trying to suggest otherwise, but, as I have laid out, the number of crimes using repurposed weapons has increased significantly over the past 10 years, so it is clear that in considering the Bill we should look into how we can restrict the availability of decommissioned weapons.
On the subject of a victims law, Sharon Fearon is the mother of Shaquan, a young boy who was murdered in my constituency, and there was never a conviction in that case. Sharon and I met Minister after Minister, including the Attorney General, and the one thing we were promised was that there would be a victims law and that their voices would be heard.
My hon. Friend has done sterling work over the past three years on youth violence, and particularly on the rights of victims, and her work is one of the reasons we think it is so important to strengthen the rights of victims through this Bill. I hope that we can do that on a cross-party basis, given the promises that were made in the 2015 and 2017 Conservative manifestos.
We would like to see a recognition that the rights of victims should be paramount, so we want consideration to be given to the introduction of an independent advocate, in line with the recommendations of the Victims’ Commissioner, to help victims of serious crime to navigate the range of services in the aftermath of a serious crime. With fewer than one in five violent crimes resulting in a charge, we will seek to legally entrench a victim’s right to a review of a decision by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service not to bring criminal charges or to discontinue a case. With homicide rates surging, Labour will also seek to provide national standards for the periodic review of homicide cases, because many families are deeply concerned at how cases can often be left to gather dust, with nobody brought to justice.
In the debate around serious violence, it is vital that the rights of victims are not forgotten. The aftermath of such an incident is traumatic and disorienting, with victims who are struggling to deal with their own personal trauma forced to navigate the at times baffling criminal justice system. As the number of victims of serious incidents is growing, now is the time to strengthen their rights.
I confirm again that we support the measures before us and will seek to be as constructive as possible in enhancing them. I hope that as deliberations on the Bill continue, we can have a full debate about adverse childhood experiences and the consequent policy considerations, such as trauma-informed policing and schooling, and about the implications of school exclusions and the increasing number of homeless children and children in care. As a result, I hope that we can improve on the measures in the Bill to begin to tackle the root causes of this growing epidemic. Violent crime is a contagious disease that is infecting communities across our nation. Without concerted political will and sustained Government investment, we will continue to see many more unnecessary tragedies.
This is a substantial Bill that has been published only relatively recently. After today’s debate, I shall continue to look into some of the points that have been raised with me about the Bill, as clearly some need further investigation, particularly those in relation to guns, as we have heard from some of my hon. Friends.
There is clearly a problem with violent crime, knife crime and the horrific acid attacks that we have all heard about. There are many things that I would like to see us do to curb those terrible crimes. The shadow Minister knows that I totally agree with her about police numbers. That would be a good place to start. We could also stop releasing prisoners automatically halfway through their sentences, and then giving them scandalous 28-day fixed-term recalls when they reoffend. We could stop faffing around and interfering with the police on stop and search and let the police get on with their job. We could also ensure that much tougher sentences are handed down by our courts in the first place to persistent and serious offenders.
This Bill is clearly the Government’s attempt to do something. I just hope, as I do with all Bills, that there are no unintended consequences. One thing that strikes me as a possible example of that is the intention to prevent online and remote retailers being able to deliver knives to residential premises. That means that people will have to pick up knives themselves, and in an age of increased internet shopping, this will reverse that trend, forcing the general public to collect their own knives and somehow get them home. I sincerely hope that ordinary, decent, law-abiding people do not get caught up in any possession charges for, for example, forgetting to remove the knife for a few days after purchase, and finding that they have no legal, lawful authority to be in possession of the blade.
The present situation is that if the knife is being delivered, it goes from the shop or warehouse straight to someone’s home, so this is currently not an issue in these circumstances. Conversely, it also seems to me to be a very handy possible excuse for someone caught in possession of a blade: a person just needs to buy a knife every day, and if they ever get stopped they can say that they have just bought it, as they could not buy it online, and then, presumably, they have a legal defence for carrying it.
Knives are very difficult to control, because they are everywhere. How many knives are in each and every household? That will not change. Knives will always be very accessible indeed. There is not really any need for anyone under the age of 18 to buy an average knife, as they will already easily be able to get hold of one if they so wish. What we can and must do is crack down on those who think that it is a good idea to carry them around with a view to using them in an attack, or defending themselves from an attack. On this point, I have some rare praise for the knife crime sentencing guidelines, which, as I understand it, have been amended recently and will increase the starting point for possession of a blade to about six months’ custody.
Bearing that in mind, the sentences proposed in the Bill for actions that are currently perfectly legal—in relation to traders for non-compliance after this Bill becomes law—also range up to 51 weeks. Although I appreciate that that is a maximum, I am not sure that these offences are in anything like the same league. Perhaps more pertinently, we were told, just the other day when we were discussing the sentences for those who attack emergency service workers, that it was right that the maximum should be set at a year. Therefore, giving 51 weeks to a trader for posting a knife to a residential address and also to someone for attacking an emergency service worker does not necessarily sit well with me.
Let me turn now to threatening offences with knives and offensive weapons. I should say in passing that the House should realise that, in terms of sentencing on knives, 40% of knife possession offences attracted a prison sentence—therefore 60% did not—and 62% of offences of threatening with a knife resulted in custody. Again, many offences of threatening someone with a knife—38%—do not result in a custodial sentence. In 2016, somebody with 14 previous knife offences was still not sent to prison for committing a further knife offence.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I know that he will hear me when I tell him that, in my constituency and in other similar constituencies, some young people carry, unfortunately, because they are afraid. Simply brandishing a knife does not necessarily mean that that person wants to use it, or that they are anything other than terrified by the situation in which they find themselves. I am pleased that our courts are showing some discretion. I urge him to consider carefully where he is going with this.
Where I am going is to make this point: somebody who had 14 previous knife offences and who was then convicted of another knife offence should be sent to prison. The hon. Lady might not agree with that—that is her prerogative—but she will find herself in a minority on that particular view.
I hope the Minister will listen carefully to my next point. Serious offences with knives and offensive weapons, not necessarily trading offensive weapons, should come within the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Perhaps that is something that could be addressed in this Bill. I also wish to support an extension of the principle that committing a subsequent similar offence means a mandatory sentence. I would like to see a sentencing escalator, which means that every time a person is recommitted for the same offence they get a higher sentence than they received the previous time.
Very quickly, I wholeheartedly endorse everything that my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that there must be a deterrent? If there is no deterrent, the crimes will carry on being committed and there will be no end to this. The punishment must fit the crime, and people must be deterred from committing these acts of violence.
In the same spirit as my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), I say that the key thing is that the criminal justice system must be retributive. This is not about treating people who are sick, but about punishing people who are guilty. Until we send out that signal from this place, the general public will believe, with cause, that we do not understand what they know to be happening in their communities.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We hear very little in this place about people being punished for committing crimes, but there is nothing wrong with it. Again, on these kinds of issue, this House is completely out of touch with the general public in their views on law and order, sentencing and the criminal justice system, but my right hon. Friend, as usual, is not.
I think that there is a quite an important drafting mistake in the Bill, and the House of Commons Library seems to agree with me. Clause 26 amends the two Acts dealing with the offence of threatening with a knife and changes the test regarding the level of physical harm likely to result from the knife. I welcome that. I certainly welcome the thrust of what this clause seeks to do. As the clause is worded, it will still leave in law the definition of violence as being the original higher test. This is what the Library says on this point, and hopefully the Minister will take note of it.
“Section 139AA (4) and section 1A (2) both define the term ‘serious physical harm’, which forms part of the current wording of the offences set out in section 139AA and section 1A. However, the term ‘serious physical harm’ is not used in the proposed new wording for the offence as set out in clause 26, and would instead be replaced by the term ‘physical harm’. Clause 26 does not set out any particular definition for the term ‘physical harm’, nor does it amend or remove the existing definition of ‘serious physical harm’ in sections 139AA (4) and section 1A (2).”
I do not know what the Government’s intention is here. If they want to define the new term “physical harm”, the existing wording in sections 1139AA (4) and 1A (2) would need to be amended to set out a suitable definition. If they want to leave the new term undefined for the courts to interpret, the existing wording in those measures that I mentioned should be removed altogether.
I hope that the Minister will go away and look at this, because I think that there has been a genuine mistake. I think I know what the Government are trying to do, and they have half done it, but they have not squared the circle.
I want to see a rare outbreak of common sense with regard to criminal justice legislation. Clause 27 will extend the “threatening with a knife” offence to further educational establishments. Although that is a welcome step, it does not go nearly far enough as far as I am concerned. I will be tabling amendments to replace this clause to make it an offence to threaten somebody with a knife anywhere.
I cannot for the life of me see why someone who threatens somebody with a knife should not be prosecuted for this offence, regardless of where the offence takes place. Currently, it has to be in a public place or on school premises, and the Bill will extend that to further education premises. But why should it not apply to all premises? Why is threatening somebody with a knife an offence only if it is in a public place, school premises or a further education establishment? Threatening somebody with a knife should be an offence wherever it happens—surely that is common sense—but the law is not being extended in that way.
I am afraid that I am firmly of the belief that the Ministry of Justice has needlessly tied itself in knots over this issue for years. When the offence of threatening with a knife was introduced, it included a defence of lawful possession of the knife. This was clearly ludicrous and would have seriously affected convictions. Would anyone at the Ministry of Justice listen? No. How can the possession of a knife be a defence for threatening somebody with that knife? But the Ministry of Justice would not listen. I am not a lawyer—I say that with some pride—yet, even with a House full of legal eagles, the Bill would have gone through with this glaring drafting error, which seems to have arisen because the legislation on possession of a knife has simply been copied and pasted, with the “threatening” bit added instead. Clearly, lawfully carrying the knife is a defence in the case of possession, but it should never have been a defence for threatening with that knife.
In desperation, I went to see the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. It was only when he agreed, weighed in and overruled the Ministry of Justice that the Bill was thankfully changed before it was too late. People can check the record; it is absolutely true. That is why I have a very keen interest in this particular area of legislation.
The other glaring omission, which is quite possibly a throwback to the same original bad drafting, is that the offence is not committed in private premises. Possessing a knife in the home is clearly perfectly fine and legal—naturally. But why should it not be an offence to threaten with a knife in a domestic context? In a written question last November, I asked the then Secretary of State for the Home Department
“if she will extend the offence of threatening with a knife to incidents taking place on private property.”
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is in her place today, responded:
“It is already an offence to threaten someone with a knife whether in public or on private property.”
Well, if we read this provision literally, it clearly is not.
I followed up with a letter. As the Government seemed to think that that was already an offence, I hoped that when they realised that it was not, they would be keen to make it one. Alas, it was not so simple. The latest line seems to be to say that there are other offences that can be charged. Well, I know that. Thanks to the Public Order Act 1986 there are actually more offences that can be charged in a public place. Yet this was not a reason to stop the offence of threatening with a knife in a public place becoming law, so why should it stop the offence of threatening somebody with a knife in a private place becoming law?
The trouble is that the various departmental bubbles do not always appreciate the real world. I know of real-life, actual cases where people should have been charged with threatening with a knife, but they could not be charged because it did not happen in a public place. The alternative charges to which we are referred do not attract the same sentence as threatening with a knife, and therefore do not reflect the seriousness of the offence.
Just one example was of a man in a hostel who threatened a female member of staff with a knife and had to be dealt with by an armed response unit. That must have been particularly terrifying, given that the member of staff concerned knew only too well of the man’s previous violent record, as the hostel was housing him on release from a prison sentence for violence. As the hostel was not a public place or a school, the offence of threatening with a knife could not be used by the Crown Prosecution Service. I understand that this was specifically confirmed by the prosecutor when the case came to court. An offence with a six-month maximum penalty was substituted and, with the man’s guilty plea, the maximum sentence available to the court was four months. This would have been avoided if the law had applied to all places equally, as it quite clearly should.
I really hope that I will get some cross-party support for this amendment so that we can make a positive change to the Bill. I am not, perhaps, always known as someone who unites the House—at least, not with me, but sometimes against me—but on this occasion there is not actually a great deal for people to disagree about. There may be some resistance from civil servants, who do not like any ideas other than the ones that they have come up with themselves, but I would like to hear, in the real world, just one good argument for not taking this opportunity to change the Bill in this small way, but in a way that would make the law much better and safer for many of our constituents.
Threatening somebody with a knife is a serious offence that we should crack down on. It should not make any difference where the act of threatening with a knife takes place, so I hope that my amendment will be accepted in due course.
The Minister and I have spoken. I very much appreciate the time that she has spent with me on this issue, but I would welcome a commitment on the Floor of the House that she will look seriously at this again. I hope that she will think twice before peddling a civil service standard reply, which I am sure that she would never do, but which I am sure the civil servants would always encourage her to do. She must look at this matter herself. If she does, I am sure that she will see that this is a very sensible amendment, which would make a big difference to the Bill.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, let me welcome the Bill. We certainly support the broad principles behind it and fully support its Second Reading. The Bill will help to reduce the possession and use of weapons, including corrosive substances, so we look forward to engaging with the Secretary of State and his team as it progresses through the House. As is evident from the Bill, there has already been extensive and constructive engagement between the Government here and the Scottish Government, reflecting the fact that these issues are a mixture of devolved and reserved matters.
The dramatic rise in crimes related to noxious or corrosive substances is appalling, with 454 occurring in London alone during 2016. But while London is currently the epicentre of this horrendous new form of crime, gruesome incidents involving the use of such substances have ruined lives right across the UK, including through an attack in my constituency that left three men with life-changing burns. It is extraordinary to think that the UK now has one of the highest rates of acid attacks in the world, and a distinct feature of the issue in the UK seems to be its close connection to gang culture.
We welcome moves to clamp down on how these substances are obtained and used, especially the ban on sales to under-18s of the most concentrated and dangerous corrosive substances, and restrictions on how such substances can be delivered. We particularly welcome the offence of possession in a public place, given concerns that corrosive substances may be becoming more widely used in attacks because they represent a so-called “safe” weapon to carry for those who are looking to commit a violent crime, as opposed to carrying a weapon that already attracts a custodial sentence.
When we debated corrosive substances in Westminster Hall in December last year, I welcomed the interim measures that the Government had implemented while their consultation was under way. During that debate, we also explored the options open to the Government on how best to tackle corrosive substances. As well as the measures that the Government have outlined in the Bill, other possibilities included identifying the most harmful corrosive substances that are currently only considered reportable under the Poisons Act 1972 and reclassifying them as regulated substances. That would mean that members of the public would require a licence to purchase some substances. Assuming that the Bill receives its Second Reading, it would be worth returning to that issue in Committee so that we can explore what role that alternative scheme might still have.
There are other detailed issues that we want to explore, such as whether the Bill properly covers all situations that we would want it to, including the supply of substances that does not involve payment. The Bill currently seems focused on the sale of substances, so I am not sure whether the offence would cover cases in which there is no financial consideration. None the less, the Bill’s broad thrust is certainly welcome.
We also welcome the broad thrust of the changes that are being introduced in relation to knives. Members do not need me to rehearse the tragic consequences that knife crimes are all too often inflicting on our citizens. We particularly welcome moves to put in place further safeguards regarding the purchase of knives remotely so that existing laws against sales to young people can no longer be circumvented. The requirement for adequate age verification checks for online sales could be particularly important. Indeed, the then Justice Secretary in Scotland wrote to the UK Government back in January 2017 to raise concerns about the online sale of knives and the need for a joined-up approach, and that is what is happening through the Bill.
As the Secretary of State said, it is already an offence to sell knives to anyone under the age of 18, including online. The maximum penalty in Scotland for possession of a knife was increased in March 2016 from four years’ imprisonment to five years’ imprisonment. People who are convicted of a crime of violence in Scottish courts are now more likely to receive a custodial sentence than they were 10 years ago. The average length of custodial sentences imposed for knife crimes has more than doubled over the last decade. Ultimately, though, we cannot arrest and imprison our way out of these problems.
The Secretary of State explained some of the new work that the UK Government are undertaking to prevent knife crime and to stop people carrying knives in the first place. We welcome any emphasis on prevention. As the shadow Minister said, evidence-based investment in violence reduction programmes, especially for young people, has long been a key focus for the Scottish Government. They include the No Knives, Better Lives youth engagement programme, the national violence reduction unit, the Mentors in Violence Prevention programme, and the use of community-based officers who engage with and support students and staff in schools as part of the community policing service. That work has thankfully seen the number of young people under 18 in Scotland who are convicted of handling an offensive weapon fall from 430 in 2007-08 all the way down to 91 in 2016-17. But every young person carrying a knife, and every person who is a victim of a knife crime, is one too many; that is why we will support and engage constructively with this Bill.
On firearms, I have listened with interest to the reasoning behind the Government’s proposals to extend the ban on certain firearms and firearms accessories. I am sympathetic to what they say, but we will reserve final judgment until we hear evidence in Committee.
The final word must be with the victims, as ultimately they are who the Bill is all about. Every MP will have known constituents who have been affected by the tragedy of corrosive substance crimes or knife crimes. Clearly, we all want to do everything we can so that the number of victims becomes as close to zero as we can get. Prevention is the best response and it must be our priority. Making it more difficult to obtain these substances and weapons is an important part of that, and we are therefore happy to give our support to the Bill.
I rise to support the Bill and its proposed legislative changes. I shall focus particularly on knife crime and preventive measures, notwithstanding the concerns raised by colleagues about the possible unintended consequences of some of the firearms measures. I am particularly pleased that action is being taken on zombie knives and corrosive substances. I pay tribute to the work of the Express & Star newspaper in the west midlands, which has been relentless in its campaign for action on knife crime, and particularly on zombie knives.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I am also especially pleased about the Government’s proposals in clause 26 which, as he outlined, change the definition of what we mean by the threat posed by somebody with an offensive weapon. I proposed such a measure at Prime Minister’s questions almost five years ago following the killing of a schoolgirl on the No. 9 bus coming out of Birmingham to a school in my constituency. In principle, tightening up that definition, notwithstanding some of the concerns that my hon. Friend raised about the wording of the clause, is a significant change that will help to ensure that people are properly sentenced for threatening behaviour while using offensive weapons like knives. I very much welcome the insertion of clause 26 and the changes that that makes to the Prevention of Crime Act 1953.
The Bill has emerged out of the Government’s serious violence strategy, which was published in April. That is a very interesting document, because it sets out that the Government are clear that the violent crime that we see in certain parts of our communities will not be solved just by law enforcement. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, I am an advocate of tough sentencing and people being punished for their crimes. However, I think all Members would agree that that will not solve the underlying problems in some of our communities. That approach is necessary, but it is not sufficient to deal with this problem.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. As I said earlier, the drivers—the causes—of crime are complex, as he suggests, but the way in which we deal with and respond to crime is not incompatible with taking the kind of lines that he has recommended. Both need to be addressed—the causes and the response.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I totally agree—those things are not incompatible.
What we are seeing in some of our communities is not confined just to London. My constituency is just on the fringe of Birmingham, and we have seen examples of the increasing use of offensive weapons in Birmingham and other areas throughout the country. We need to be careful about exaggerating the problem. The issue has certainly arisen, but we must not exaggerate its consequences. However, we must ask some difficult questions about what leads young people, in particular, towards gangs, and what I would call the fetishisation of weapons. What is leading to that, and to this outbreak of serious violent crime, in certain parts of our communities? The Government’s serious violence strategy is quite clear that one of the drivers is drugs. It says, in particular, that increases in the dealing of crack cocaine and its supply chains are leading to gang violence. We need to be serious about addressing some of the issues of organised drug crime.
The reason why young people are turning to weapons and violence is a complex picture, and we need to face up to that complexity, notwithstanding the need for stronger sentencing. We need to look at issues around unstable family backgrounds. A lot of the kids who end up being part of gangs come from extremely unstable backgrounds.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but may I warn him about the idea that unstable family backgrounds are what leads to young people being groomed? I know of a police officer who is one of two parents and has a problem with his child being groomed and taken into the county lines orbit. I really do not want parents to believe that their children will be safe because they have two parents and even go to a Catholic church on a Sunday afternoon. That does not make them safe. It does not mean that they will not be involved in gang culture at some point in the future.
I accept what the hon. Lady says up to a point, although all the evidence, including the strong evidence that we see in the Government’s serious violence strategy, is that a lot of the kids—girls and boys—who end up in the sorts of situations that may lead to serious violence have come from family situations in which they have been considerably traumatised, and trauma of that nature has led to various other consequences. We cannot shy away from that.
When I was involved in a Select Committee inquiry into online issues, we were given evidence that the online recruitment of children from quite stable backgrounds is now being used to bring such children into gangs. We need to realise that no child is immune.
I will come on to the point about social media. I am emphasising the point about kids who come from traumatised backgrounds because we need to examine what that leads to and what its drivers are. Often it leads to such things as social exclusion, school exclusion, and a cycle of behaviour that leads to violence. This is about young people not having a stake in civilised society, as we would call it, with their values, their sense of structure and the way in which they think about the world being derived from the gang, which is where the violence and fetishisation of violence comes from.
I do not want us to get stuck on this part of the debate—my hon. Friend is obviously keen to move on—but it is important. My understanding of data from Brent Council is that a typical gang member is 24 years old and was arrested for the first time at 14. Given that profile, it is likely that they will have had a troubled childhood, leading to a troubled adolescence.
My hon. Friend is right. The evidence—again, this is from the Government’s serious violence strategy—is that 40% of gang members have been identified with a severe behavioural problem by the age of 12. That significant number allows us to understand how we might address some of the underlying behaviours that lead to violence and the targeted approaches that are necessary to deal with that.
As Members will know, I have been a long-term campaigner for improving mental health care in this country. The Government have made significant progress on improving mental health care for children and adolescents, but we need to do more, specifically by focusing on this cohort of vulnerable children, especially those who have faced trauma and come from looked-after backgrounds.
My hon. Friend mentions vulnerable children. In so many cases, they are 12, 13 or 14 years old. Does he think the answer is to label them criminals or actually to see them for the victims they are? If we do not criminalise them, they will have life chances that do not lead to just a continuation of criminality.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is a balance to be struck. As I said at the beginning of my speech, we need a very tough law enforcement framework in this area. The evidence from the police is that they want that, because it provides a deterrent. However, he is exactly right that the balancing item in the argument, as expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), is that we need to understand the underlying drivers. That is why, as the Government recognise in their strategy, we need to focus on prevention and diversion strategies that take young people away from the criminal justice system. One weakness of the criminal justice system, for historical reasons, is that it can lead to a self-reinforcing cycle whereby young people get trapped in the system and cannot escape it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. This dilemma has bedevilled youth justice in particular since the 1960s. The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 which, broadly speaking, took a treatmentist approach to juvenile criminals, led to all kinds of favourable treatment for them, with intermediate treatment orders being the classic example. That essentially meant that victims were devalued in the system, and we emphasised the individual criminal, rather than the event—the crime. The victim of a violent crime is more interested in what has been done to them than who has done it.
My right hon. Friend makes some fair points, but we have to get the balance right in our approach because, as he will recognise, there are a lot of complex drivers.
I am conscious that other Members want to speak and I have taken a number of interventions, so I will draw my remarks to a conclusion. I support the measures in the Bill to tighten up the law enforcement regime for offensive weapons. However, we must reflect on the Government’s serious violence strategy, which recognises that the only way we will solve this problem is by taking a multifaceted approach. Law enforcement, in and of itself, is not going to solve the problem. Too many young people are dying in this country, and that is a waste of potential and human life. We have to take the right measures to get to the bottom of why this is happening, and do it soon.
I have now to announce the result of today’s deferred Division. In respect of the question relating to healthcare and associated professions, the Ayes were 467 and the Noes were 2, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
Today I am going to address the corrosive substances provisions of the Bill and welcome the progress that has been made. Had I realised the direction that the debate was going to take, I would have sought to speak for longer and to discuss the wider concerns that have been raised today. I have been seeking a Westminster Hall debate on those wider issues, and if any other Members wanted to join me in trying to secure a debate in the dying days of this term, I would be delighted.
Last year, there were 85 attacks using corrosive substances in Newham and 468 in the whole of London. In the five years since the start of 2012, the number of acid attacks in London has increased by some 600%, and my constituency is something of a hotspot. This time last year, the fear in my constituency about acid attacks was palpable. I heard about constituents of all ages and backgrounds who were afraid to leave their homes because the perception was that these acid attacks were random. It was a crisis, and it needed a strong response from Government. I called for that, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and I am happy to see that many of the specific measures I called for are in the Bill.
Most importantly, the Bill takes a step forward in recognising that corrosives are just as dangerous as knives. They can do just as much harm physically and emotionally, so they should receive the same kind of legal and police response. The introduction of a clear and specific offence of possession of a corrosive substance in public should make the job of the police and the courts easier in catching and prosecuting those who carry acid as a weapon.
The ban on the sale of corrosive products to children is also very welcome. Although I accept the arguments for the age restriction of 18, I join colleagues in asking whether a higher age restriction might be appropriate. I also think that the Bill Committee should look closely at the broader issue of supply, and not just sale. Would it be better to introduce an offence of supplying a child with acid in an unsafe way, not just selling in exchange for money, which I suggested last year? It is important to get this right because some acid attacks, I am told, are revenge, punishments or even initiation rites for junior members of criminally run gangs. If an older man gives acid to a child and tells them to commit an offence or an attack, will the act of giving be covered by an offence in the Bill? Can we prosecute the man who has given the acid to the child as effectively as we would if he had taken money for it? Personally, I think that that is a higher offence than those of unwitting sale or of not taking a salesperson’s responsibilities as seriously as the law demands.
Over the past year, I have raised several concerns about online sales of corrosive products. At this time last year, people could buy 96%—I stress, 96%—concentrated sulphuric acid in large bottles from Amazon for about five quid each, with no checks. There is still a requirement for online sellers, like all sellers, to monitor suspicious purchases under the Poisons Act 1972, but the Government have failed to convince me that they can implement or enforce this online, so I welcome the ban on home deliveries of corrosive products. I think that that will take us where we need to be. I hope that it will indirectly ban these sales, because if we cannot make online sales safe, they simply have to be stopped to protect communities.
This Bill is a step forward. It will help to ensure that sellers of these products have face-to-face contact with buyers and can ask them questions. There is really no other way that the law could work. It was always a bit of a joke to suggest that online sellers could monitor suspicious purchases, and I think we got that message across in our debate before Christmas.
I hope this change will make suspicious transaction reporting more workable, but putting a greater emphasis on reporting by retailers only increases the need for proper guidance and for the Home Office to monitor and enforce the legal requirement. Retailers have to understand that there is a real chance that the Government will take action against them if they fail. In written questions, I have asked Home Office Ministers whether the Department has a programme of test purchases, but—bless them—I keep being given vague answers to my questions. I would like to hear about this issue from the Minister today, or if she wants, she could write to me about it.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. She has done a lot of campaigning on this issue, and I congratulate her on it. The point she is making is absolutely crucial to ensure that the legislation is absolutely effective. Trading standards departments in local authorities up and down the country have been the butt of quite a lot of cuts because councils can get away with it. Unless we support trading standards departments and officers, and back the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, we will not be able to detect such crimes. We will not have the scale of test purchasing that we need to make sure that retailers are acting responsibly.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As so many others have gone outwith the Bill, I suggest that the Government could at the same time look at the minimum wage legislation, because that would give my constituents an awful lot of help.
The Government could have taken a different approach to the Bill. In my speech before Christmas, I argued that several corrosive substances need to be brought under greater control, including ammonia, sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, as well as sulphuric acid. I am reassured that all those substances have been included in schedule 1 as corrosive products. The list in schedule 1 is new, and does not match the lists in parts 1 to 4 of schedule 1A to the Poisons Act. The Minister could use this Bill or a statutory instrument to move more poisons or chemicals into parts 1 or 2 of schedule 1A to the Poisons Act, meaning that they would require people to have an official licence and photo ID before purchase. That would prevent us having to rely so heavily on retail staff to spot suspicious purchases, and it would restrict these chemicals to the hands of trained professionals who, I presume, will use them safely.
Sulphuric acid has now been moved into part 1 of schedule 1A to the Poisons Act, as I and others have called for. It will require people to have a licence from the end of this week, which is very welcome. My question, however, for the Minister is: why was that decision made for sulphuric acid only, not for the other chemicals I have highlighted? Why not move hydrofluoric acid into part 2 as a regulated poison? It is highly dangerous: as I said in the debate before Christmas, exposure on just 2% of the skin can kill. Why not move ammonia into part 2 as well, given that ammonia was found at 20 out of 28 crime scenes tested by the Met? Perhaps the Department has better evidence about which chemicals are being used in crimes or about those that pose a risk, but if so, I would argue that such a case needs to be made, and made transparently, during the passage of the Bill. That only leaves me to welcome the progress that this Bill represents, although I hope the Minister will agree with me that there are still some serious issues to be addressed.
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, in this important and welcome Second Reading, although I am sorry that I have to be here. I say that because I have had extensive discussions with the Minister on a contentious clause, which proposes the banning of weapons with a muzzle energy of more than 13,600 joules or 10,000 foot-pounds. In this country, there are about a million firearms and shotgun certificate holders, who legally hold about 2 million weapons. They are some of the most law-abiding people in this country; only 0.2% of all recorded crime is committed with legally held firearms. I seek to persuade the House and the Ministers on the Front Bench that the proposal is wholly disproportionate, lacks an evidence base and penalises a group of very law-abiding citizens.
My hon. Friend is right about this. It is clear from listening to a few words from him and to the previous speaker that the Bill needs a lot of work in Committee. Properly evidenced crimes are clearly being missed by the Bill, yet we are taking out legal protection against a group of people who have never done anything wrong and never will, and who have weapons that are absolutely impractical for any sort of criminal activity. This is just badly thought-out legislation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, as he has made some of the points I wanted to make in my speech. When he examines the record, he will see that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has, at the Dispatch Box, given me a pledge that he will undertake extensive discussions with any right hon. or hon. colleague, or any stakeholder in this matter, who wishes to involve themselves in those discussions to see whether we can find a more sensible way forward between now and Committee.
I do. Of course we want shooting to be used by every group in society; no group should in any way be excluded. I was not intending to talk about bump stocks and the VZ58 MARS—manually actuated release system—proposals in the Bill. I know that representations have been made that those semi-automatic additions to rifles help disabled groups, but I take the view, having received representations from the groups I represent, that such adaptations of otherwise bolt-action single-shot rifles, converting them into, in effect, semi-automatic rifles should be banned. After the horrific shootings in the United States, even President Trump was minded to say that they should be banned. On that basis, I think Ministers are doing the right thing, although I accept that it might well disadvantage some disabled people. We have to find other ways of helping those groups, perhaps by adapting rifles or the places where these people shoot.
I am chairman of the all-party group on shooting and conservation, and I work closely with all the professional shooting bodies, including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Countryside Alliance and the British Shooting Sports Council. They have made lots of very professional representations to the Minister on this subject. I have also been working closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who represents the BSSC but could not be here for our debate because, unfortunately, he has had to attend a family funeral today. We are seeking to persuade the Minister to consider modifying the proposals.
In clause 28(2), the Government propose to ban all weapons that have a muzzle energy greater than 13,600 joules. The Bill would put them into section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968—in other words, it would make them a prohibited weapon. There are about 200 of those weapons—a small number—and just over 200 people, probably, have a licence to use them. I will discuss where the weapons should be stored, but I want to give the House a sense of the sort of people who are disadvantaged by the Bill by quoting paragraph 7 of the British Shooting Sports Council brief:
“In fact, the Fifty Calibre Shooters Association…which is dedicated to target shooting with this calibre has its origins in the early 1980s in the USA and has over 2,500 members internationally. It is affiliated with .50 calibre target rifle shooting groups in Australia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom and, in addition to regular competitions, hosts the annual World Championship in which UK FCSA target shooters compete. The UK FCSA is a Home Office Approved Club, has existed as a well-respected target shooting club since 1991 and has grown to a membership of over 400.”
These are the sorts of people whom we are disadvantaging. As I have already said, and as I stress again to the Minister, these are some of the most law-abiding people in the country.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government’s latest impact assessment for the Bill suggests that the measure could cost them up to £6 million—not only in compensation for loss of weapons, but through the loss of revenue at Government Ministry of Defence rifle ranges?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that this is going to be expensive. Nobody would mind the expense if it was rooted in public safety—that is beyond question—but, as I will seek to explain in a minute, I do not think that it is.
In case anybody gets the impression that I am a mad rifle-wielding individual, I should say that, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation, I have been working closely on making the licensing of firearms and shotguns more effective. There is a serious health and safety issue at the moment because some doctors are refusing to co-operate with the police in the granting of certificates. That is completely unacceptable: the Firearms Act 1968 is predicated on the basis that somebody can be licensed to have a shotgun or firearm only if they are a fit and proper person. If they have certain medical conditions, they should not hold a shotgun or firearms certificate. I believe, at this moment, that people out there have firearms certificates who should not have.
My hon. Friend has pulled me up: words are important in this place. What I meant to say was medical conditions which might include a mental health condition—but there are medical conditions that might mean that someone was not granted a shotgun or firearms certificate.
I want to move on to the .50 calibre weapons themselves, and why they are not likely to be used in a crime—and never have been, as far as we know.
A moment ago, my hon. Friend said he did not want to be caricatured, and that is absolutely right. It is important for everybody to understand that this is not a rampant, American, NRA-type debate, but one based on evidence, fact, practical experience and trying to make good law.
My hon. Friend makes a really potent and timely point; I was about to demonstrate why these weapons have never been implicated in any crime. There was one incident when one was stolen; the barrel was chopped down but the gun was quickly recovered and never implicated in a crime. There has been only one other incident: more than 20 years ago, a .50 calibre weapon was stolen in Northern Ireland and used in the troubles and then, again, recovered.
Instances of such weapons being likely to fall into the wrong hands are incredibly rare. Even if they did, they are most unlikely ever to be used by a criminal, as I shall try to persuade the House. They are as long as the span of my arms and incredibly heavy and bulky. They demand a great deal of effort between shots. They are simply not the criminal’s weapon of choice. The weapon of choice of a criminal is likely to be something gained from the dark web or the underground. It is likely to be a sawn-off shotgun, or a revolver or pistol of some sort. These really heavy, clunky weapons are simply not the weapon of choice of the criminal. In the one instance I suspect my hon. Friend the Minister will cite in her summing up, a criminal stole it, realised what they had got hold of and that it was not suitable to be used in a crime, and chucked it over a hedge.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and it is very sad, when people gain pleasure from using these rifles, that the Government want to effectively ban them. The muzzle energy will effectively mean a ban on the .5 calibre. The only reason the Government are banning them is that they happen to be one of the largest calibres. The police and the other authorities are saying that because they are so large they must be dangerous. I have to tell the House that any rifle is dangerous in the wrong hands and used in the wrong way. A .22, the very smallest rifle, is lethal at over a mile if it is fired straight at somebody. All rifles need to be handled with great care and held in very secure conditions.
In summing up, the Government will, I think, cite some evidence as to why these rifles need to be banned. They will cite the one that was stolen and chucked over the hedge with the barrel chopped off, they will cite the fact that one was used in the troubles in Northern Ireland, and they will cite the fact that more high-powered weapons are being seized by customs at our borders. But this has nothing to do with .5 calibre weapons. It has everything to do with illegal weapons, the sort of weapons of choice that, sadly, the criminal and the terrorist will use, but not these particular weapons.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the three examples he cites are actually applicable to pretty much any weapon, and that, if we concede on that point, perfectly legitimate rifles and shotguns would be at risk of being removed from society all together?
That is precisely the point I am making. This whole thing would set a precedent: .5 weapons today, then .60—where do we go next? Just because people think they might get into the wrong hands and be used by the wrong people. That is the wrong way to govern. We should not prohibit things unless there is really good evidence for doing so.
I have been having discussions with Ministers. I have said that instead of banning these weapons, as there are so few of them and they are able to be fired legally at so few ranges by so few people, why not toughen up the rules on storage to make it absolutely impossible for them ever to be stolen? If they had to be stored in an armoury, at a gun club by arrangement with the police or in a military storage by arrangement with the military, storage would have to be approved by the police. There could be alarms and CCTV in the storage and weapons would not be licensed unless the police approved places of secure storage. That would be a much more effective and useful way of going forward if we want to stop weapons falling into the wrong hands, and would make it much safer for us all.
I agree with my hon. Friend 100% on the point he is making. One of the ranges used is in my constituency. In a bizarre way, I would say that when the club is shooting there it is one of the safest places to be, because people are trained and know what they are doing. We should be looking at the security and storage element, not banning these weapons.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look at this again. The proposals in the Bill are disproportionate. They are unworkable, because they are very easy to get around. They target some of the most law-abiding people in the country and they will not make this country any safer, because the criminal will use a different weapon of choice.
I want to express rather more support for the Bill than the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) did, but I will comment just on the elements that deal with corrosive substances. I particularly welcome clause 5, as others have, which creates the new offence of having a corrosive substance in a public place.
A year ago on 21 June, in our borough of Newham, Jameel Muhktar and his cousin, Resham Khan, were sprayed with acid while they were sitting in a car on the way to a party celebrating her 21st birthday. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) said in her excellent speech, after that event there was a wave of revulsion and fear across the borough. Mr Speaker was good enough to grant an Adjournment debate on 17 July, the intention of which was to bring forward proposals in response to that wave of fear. However, by the time we got to that debate, there had been the series of incidents on 13 July, when there were six acid attacks from the back of a moped in the space of 90 minutes across Hackney and Islington, and there was a lot of public interest in this whole issue. One of the two perpetrators involved in the attacks in Hackney and Islington was, we know now, aged 16 at the time, and he pleaded guilty to carrying them out.
In that Adjournment debate, at which my hon. Friend was present, we called for two specific changes to the law. The first was that the purchase of sulphuric acid should require a licence, and, as she pointed out, that has been done through a statutory instrument that will take effect from Sunday. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), in opening this debate for the Opposition, argued that there should be a review of the list of substances in that category under the explosive precursor regulations that require a licence to be purchased. I agree with her and I am very pleased that sulphuric acid has been added to that list, but we need to look at what else should be there as well.
The second change that we called for was that carrying acid should be an offence, just as carrying a knife is, and I am very pleased that that is included in clause 5. I thank the Minister for successfully delivering that change. She and I would probably both have been pleased had the legislation been introduced a bit faster, but I am very pleased that it is before the House today. I am also grateful to her for keeping me and other Members informed about the progress in working up the legislation.
I have some detailed questions, however. Clause 1 bans the sale of corrosive products to persons under 18. As we have been told, the products are listed in schedule 1. Would it not be better to do that in regulations rather than having a schedule to the Bill, so that the list can be added to or amended? It is unlikely that that list and the particular concentrations that are set out in the schedule will be the last word. I am interested to know how the particular list of concentrations was come up with, for example. It looks a bit arbitrary. There may be some reason for choosing those concentrations, and if so I would like to know what it is. This looks like the kind of thing we sometimes chide Ministers for wanting to put in regulations, but in this case I think there could be a good case for doing it through regulations so that it can be changed at a later date. It seems a bit odd that as things stand, any change to the list of substances or concentrations would require another Act of Parliament, so I wonder why it has been done in that way and whether it ought to be done in regulations instead.
Clause 5 bans having corrosive substances—not corrosive products—in a public place and it tells us that a corrosive substance is a substance capable of harming human skin by corrosion. I presume that means that it covers substances not on the list in schedule 1. It seems a bit odd to have two different definitions of “corrosive substance” in two different parts of the Bill, one in schedule 1 and one defined as causing corrosive harm to human skin. Clause 5 does not refer to schedule 1. Does the Minister expect the police in practice to use schedule 1 to work out which products are covered by clause 5, or does she expect them to come up with a different list? It seems a little untidy to have two definitions.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham and others, I think it would be better to ban sales to under-21s, rather than under-18s. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley rightly suggested that the current restrictions, which the Bills extends, on knives in schools and further education colleges ought to apply to corrosive substances. What we already do for knives should apply as well to acid. I would hope that that extension could be made.
Acid Survivors Trust International has rightly made the case that more needs to be done to address the impact of acid attacks, which, as we all recognise, can be horrifying. The number of attacks in London nearly trebled between 2014 and 2017. I tabled a series of parliamentary questions last month to try to understand the economic impact of acid attacks—the cost to the police, the cost to the health service and the cost of imprisoning people who carry them out—and all received the answer: Ministers do not know what the impacts are. The Home Office does not collect national statistics on acid attacks. I think it should. We ought to make that addition to the statistics collected. In April, the Department asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to undertake a data-collection exercise on acid attacks. Will the Minister tell us what came out of that exercise and whether she will consider adding these figures to those routinely collected by her Department? We should have a more systematic way of knowing the scale of this crime.
I pay tribute to Jabed Hussain, whom I believe the Minister has met. He is a moped delivery driver in London who was the victim of an acid attack and subsequently organised other drivers into what he calls the Workers Union London. He argues, correctly I think, that changes to the law, while very welcome—and I certainly welcome what is proposed in the Bill—will not solve the problem on their own. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley made this point powerfully. As Jabed Hussain points out, the scale of police cuts in London has made the problem significantly worse. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner herself has acknowledged that the cuts to police numbers have undoubtedly contributed to the surge in violent crime, and those cuts need to be reversed. Jabed Hussain also makes the point that we are nowhere near addressing the scale of the physical and psychological damage suffered by acid attack victims and their families, and that the children of victims need help, too, yet there is nothing available for them at the moment.
There is a correlation between gang membership and the use of acid as a weapon, as others have suggested. The Government’s efforts to step up their response to gangs will be crucial. I welcome the establishment of the centre in London to deal with the county lines issue around the country.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister, but I think that, alongside the Bill, an enormous amount more needs to be done.
I am glad to follow the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who I know has very personal experience of these issues.
As a London MP, I welcome the Bill as a vital tool in the fight against the kinds of violent crime that are sadly increasing across the capital. While overall crime continues to fall, knife crime, gun crime and homicide are unfortunately on the rise, and we are seeing lives torn apart by utterly senseless violence, as the age profile of both victims and perpetrators shifts lower. Although some of that increase can be attributed to improvements in police recording, changes in the illegal drugs trade seem to be driving the other part of the trend. Criminal gangs have been adapting their business model to exploit previously untapped markets beyond inner London, using vulnerable young people as distributors, and upping their violence and intimidation to break into new territory. Meanwhile, there was a record number of acid attacks in London last year. I therefore welcome the fact that the Bill bans the sale of the most dangerous corrosive products to under-18s, and criminalises the possession of corrosive substances in a public place.
As the fear of crime rises in tandem with those trends, too many young people are choosing to arm themselves, which is why the Bill introduces tough new restrictions on the online sales of knives. It will also become illegal to possess certain offensive weapons in private, including zombie knives and knuckle-dusters. To assist prosecutions, clause 26 amends the legal test regarding threats made with an illegal weapon.
As many Members have pointed out, the Bill is not a panacea, and the Government recognise that. Legislation and policing must be complemented by cross-agency working that involves schools, social services and communities. Such a partnership lies at the heart of the Government’s serious violence strategy, whereby Home Office funding will knit together a cohesive, cross-departmental approach to violent crime. I hope that that approach will include consideration of the worrying rise in school exclusions. Criminals are feeding on vulnerable young people who are falling out of the system. With the number of secondary permanent exclusions climbing for the fourth consecutive year, too many students are being taught in pupil referral units. We need new core schools to sit between mainstream schools and those units, working hand in glove with social services to support vulnerable pupils.
I am also concerned about the fact that local authorities are overstretched owing to outdated assumptions about need. My borough of Havering is dealing with the fastest-growing number of children of any London authority. In fulfilling statutory duties towards vulnerable youngsters, the council is left with little cash proactively to address other problems affecting that group and their families, such as addiction. Meanwhile, the pressures on social workers are leading to additional demand on police. One of my local officers says that he is now being called more regularly to tackle matters that are best handled by trained social workers.
The Mayor of London’s first reaction to rising violence on his watch seems always to be to blame the Government for his funding settlement, but money cannot be a substitute for strategy. The Mayor must turn urgently to a review of performance, operations and tactics, and the building of better collaborative partnerships across London to mimic the success of our mayoral team in halving teen knife deaths between 2008 and 2011 at a time of budgetary constraint. None the less, I am not so naive as to discount resourcing as a problem. More money has been provided by the Home Office for counter-terrorism duties, and the Mayor is now able to increase his precept substantially. There are more efficiencies to be found from the new technologies that are finally being deployed. The Government must, however, acknowledge that the demand on police in London is increasing rapidly.
As my hon. Friend rightly notes, resourcing is an issue, but it is equally important to ensure that we get enough bang for our buck. In that context, does she agree that putting more police officers on bikes, which enables them to be visible but also to cover a great deal of ground—particularly in a constituency that is flat, such as Cheltenham—is basically a good idea?
That does indeed sound like, basically, a good idea. I think everyone agrees that police visibility is vital to maintaining the trust of the community, and to the sharing of intelligence.
The variety of issues that the police are being asked to tackle is becoming ever broader, and rapid demographic and technological changes are spreading the challenges across more boroughs. To put it simply, we need more resources, whether that means officers on the ground or analysts who can track and understand trends. My policing team has said that one of the big problems across the Met is the reduction in the number of analysts at Scotland Yard who can spot where crimes are happening and deploy resources accordingly.
We must also give officers the confidence that they will be backed in using the powers available to them. I have raised these issues at a high level within Government and encourage the Met and Home Office together to take a firm grip and disrupt the criminal gang networks relentlessly. Recent media reports suggest that the takeover of the crack cocaine market by Albanian mafia is partly responsible for a new wave of violence, so how are we working with authorities in Albania and other countries to ensure the swift deportation of violent criminals from these shores?
On a parochial level, I am concerned that the Mayor’s policing assumptions are not keeping up with the change under way in London’s suburbs. It is not surprising that the fear of crime in my constituency is high, even if violent crime levels are comparatively low. In neighbouring Romford, where many teenagers from my constituency shop and socialise, we saw at the weekend the needless stabbing to death of a 15-year-old schoolboy, and knives have recently been wielded openly in the local shopping centre.
The trust of a community in the responsiveness of police is vital to ensuring local intelligence is shared and crime kept low. That trust is being lost due to problems in reporting, particularly through the 101 service. The initial problems in police response times following the Mayor’s tri-borough policing restructure seemed to have been resolved, but the community distrust was then compounded by the planned closure of Hornchurch police station.
Without that physical presence, residents are understandably concerned that town centres in my constituency will be neglected so as to tackle the growing problems in Romford, Barking, East Ham and elsewhere. In the meantime, our borough is attempting to purchase the police station from the Mayor and provide community space for police elsewhere, and the Mayor ought to be encouraging more of this kind of community partnership work.
Finally, I offered to raise concerns put to me by constituents about the provisions in the Bill on rifles, as eloquently expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). One resident, a retired police officer and someone who represented our country in shooting, is concerned that the prohibition of certain firearms is a tokenistic response disproportionate to the risk. Other constituents advise that no legally owned rifle of the types this Bill prohibits has ever been used in criminal activity despite being used by target shooters for many decades. They are unconvinced by the Home Office’s evidential base for this move and feel therefore that this proposed legislation amounts to an abuse of process. I hope some of these issues will be ironed out in Committee.
Those concerns aside, however, I broadly welcome the Bill in providing us with another tool to tackle violent crime. But we must all be mindful not ever to see legislation as a cure-all. This urgent task requires the right laws, the right policing tactics, the right resource, the right punishment and the right partnership work to drive this scourge from our communities.
I begin by thanking the Minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability for taking time out of a very busy diary to meet me recently to discuss the Bill in greater detail. The opportunity to raise some matters of specific concern to my constituents was much appreciated.
I, along with Plaid Cymru, welcome the Bill and support the Government’s desire to control the purchase and possession of offensive weapons by those who, frankly, have no legitimate reason to have them. The Minister will be aware, however, of some of my concerns, particularly about the unintended consequences this legislation might have for legitimate uses of some knives and firearms by responsible citizens, and I shall focus my remarks on those points.
Like the Minister, I represent a rural constituency in which many small businesses and tradesmen use knives to carry out their professions. Some of them have contacted me recently to express their concerns about the impact that these new restrictions, particularly on the online sale of some knives, might have on them.
In a rural constituency such as Ceredigion, it is often not practical, and certainly not always easy, for people to travel to a designated location to verify their identity, as opposed to receiving a delivery of tools at a home address, for example. This would pose specific difficulties for some smaller businesses as well.
It is important that, in combating knife crime, legislation targets specific blades and offenders, and that its impact on responsible users is mitigated as much as possible, be they woodsmen and farmers, Scout group leaders and outdoor educators, chefs or even those participating in historical re-enactments, all of whom have contacted me to express concerns. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister elaborated on how the Bill will mitigate the impact of these changes on responsible users, to provide reassurance that it will target the unjustifiable use of offensive blades, but still allow others to be used responsibly for justifiable work or leisure-related purposes.
I also want to echo some of the arguments made about the need to take a proportionate approach to changes to firearms regulations. It is appropriate that those who hold firearms certificates are rigorously assessed by the police and subjected to medical assessments, background checks and continuous monitoring. Firearms of any calibre and description are dangerous if they fall into the wrong hands. Concerns have already been expressed—I will not go into them again in too much detail—that some of the proposed changes, including those to muzzle velocity regulations, will unfairly impact legitimate law-abiding firearms holders such as target shooters without achieving greater public safety or reducing gun crime. Will the Minister reconsider those concerns in Committee and provide greater detail on the justification for those changes?
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has, like me, received representations from legitimate sportspeople saying that they would be open to considering further proposals such as additional storage security measures to allay any lingering concerns that may remain.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have indeed received many representations from responsible sportsmen, and from target shooters in particular, who are very open to looking again at the conditions connected to the licensing arrangements, particularly with regard to the storage of firearms. It would be both proportionate and reasonable to pursue the matter further in Committee.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. As well as being neighbours, we also share a police force. Does he agree that if the extra restrictions were put in, our police force, and indeed all the police forces around the country, would easily manage to ensure that they were enforced?
I concur wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I am aware that Dyfed-Powys police already enforce the licensing arrangements thoroughly. It would be a reasonable and logical step to add some additional requirements with regard to the security of storage, and I am sure that the police will be fully able to ensure that the law is complied with. It is incumbent on us to ensure that any changes to the regulations are effective in reducing gun crime while not punishing responsible firearms certificate holders unnecessarily. The aim must be to enhance public safety by reducing gun crime, so it is important that any assessments suggesting that such changes will realise that aim should be published in full detail for scrutiny.
I would like to conclude by referring to the horrific incidents we have seen all too often in recent years that have made the corrosive substances aspect of the Bill so vital. The rise in the number of instances in which acids or corrosive products have been weaponised is frankly frightening. The availability of those products has made them a weapon of choice for those of wicked intent, with devastating consequences. It saddens me that, in the 21st century, we find ourselves having to discuss ways to prevent such acts of barbarity and of stopping individuals using otherwise legitimate products to inflict devastating harm on others, but we are where we are. It is entirely appropriate—and indeed, incumbent on the Government—to legislate to try to prevent such hideous crimes from taking place.
I have asked for assurances from the Government on the proportionality of the proposed measures on knives and firearms, but let me be clear that I welcome their efforts to control the number of knives, firearms and corrosive substances on our streets. There is absolutely no reason for an individual to have a zombie knife, a flick-knife or a knuckleduster, or for them to carry acid on our streets. Those items have no purpose other than to inflict as much damage as possible, and I therefore welcome the Bill’s move to tighten the law in relation to their possession.
More must be done to tackle the root causes of such crimes, with greater support being given to those who feel the need to carry a weapon in the first place, and to tackle the decline in police numbers. Those matters are perhaps beyond the scope of the Bill, but we as legislators have a duty to consider them, and I hope that the Government give the House that opportunity in the near future.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). I agree with him wholeheartedly that it is sad that we are debating these issues and that the Government have had to introduce the Bill. It should not be necessary—people should not throw acid in people’s faces, which has a life-changing impact, and they should not use knives on our streets.
However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we are where we are. This is a hugely important Bill because the scourge of knife and acid crime touches not only a number of constituencies within London and our inner cities, but all our constituencies up and down the country. I am sorry to say that its intensity is growing outside the major cities, and it is finding its way into towns such as mine and rural communities. It devastates communities, including mine, where we have had horrific knife attacks. I agree that one victim of an acid or knife attack is one too many. The tragedy is that, in many cases, young people’s lives are taken at an early age when they have so much promise ahead of them, which devastates not only the families but the wider community.
We know that the victims and perpetrators of such offences are often from outside the towns in which those offences are committed. I have referenced one incident in the House previously. There were six knife attacks in Colchester in one evening, and in all six cases, the victims and perpetrators were from outside Colchester—they came from London. This is not just a city issue anymore. County lines are bought and sold like franchises. The perpetrators use children—they know that they are less likely to be stopped and searched on the train or other public transport—to carry drugs, bringing with them fear, intimidation and violence to towns up and down the country. As I said, in the case I mentioned, the victims and perpetrators were all from London. There is an increase in county lines activity and the barbaric activity known as cuckooing. Much of this is, sadly, drug-related.
I welcome the Government’s serious crime strategy and the £40 million that comes with it. I was pleased to speak in the debate just a few weeks ago about that very subject. I have my own views about what we need to do to tackle serious crime, and especially on prevention and diversion. The Government’s strategy includes a number of measures that I wholeheartedly support but, as the Minister knows, because we have had this conversation, the question is how we treat children who have been involved in county lines operations. In many cases we are talking about 12 to 15-year-olds who are groomed by drug gangs in a similar way to how sexual predators groom young people. It can start with the purchase of trainers or a financial gift of some description, or it can start with violence and intimidation of either the young person or a family member. Do we treat those children like criminals, bearing in mind their life chances from that moment on, or do we treat them like the victims they are, and put them back on the right track to a fulfilling life in which they contribute fully to society?
I broadly agree with my right hon. Friend. When we criminalise a child at a young age, the problem is that their life chances are impaired to such an extent that a life continuing along the route of criminality is sadly almost inevitable. We should break that cycle when we have the opportunity to intervene—such opportunities are often rare—and ensure that we put them back on the right path. One way to do that is to ensure that a criminal record does not stay with a child forever. For example, someone might commit an offence at a young age after they have been groomed or forced into that action due to violence and intimidation. They could then completely turn their lives around and think, 10 years later, “I want to contribute by becoming a police officer and serving my community.” Currently—I stand to be corrected by the Minister—that would not be possible, because their criminal record continues. I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend.
I welcome the Bill and will support its Second Reading. It has huge merits but, as a number of right hon. and hon. Members have said, it is not without issue. By its nature, it is reactive legislation that deals with weapons that gangs and criminals have moved on to. Some of those weapons—knives and corrosives—can probably never truly be banned, as we all know that they are available in households across the country. I could probably find several in my kitchen. We need to ensure that we have a multifaceted approach to tackling this issue, and the serious violence strategy has a significant role to play.
First, we need to make sure that our legislation gives the police the powers they need to deal with offenders, which is one thing that the Bill does. Secondly, we need to make sure that, when we intervene, we do so as early as possible. We need to turn children away from gangs and, indeed, when they are the victims of gangs or grooming, we need to give them the protection and support they need.
As I have said previously in the Chamber, we need education in schools to ensure that children know the dangers of carrying a weapon. There are some fantastic charities across the country—many have been set up by parents who have lost a child to knife crime—that go into schools to educate children about the danger of carrying knives. The charities teach children that they are far more likely to be the victim of a knife attack if they carry a knife themselves, and they show them in a graphic way the devastation caused by a knife attack. They show the awful wounds, and they also show what it feels like to be a family member whose child is in hospital or, even worse, has been fatally wounded or murdered.
Thirdly, judges need a full range of sentencing powers so that a person who is repeatedly caught carrying a knife, or who is caught harming an individual, can be given a custodial sentence. I agree with Members who have said that we need to come down very hard on those who are repeatedly caught carrying a knife or weapon, and on those who harm another individual, but there need to be other solutions, such as educational and non-custodial approaches, so that we do not fill our prisons with young people who have lost their future.
At the moment, an individual who is caught carrying a knife may get just a caution. In my view, they should also be sent on a weapons awareness course. A person who is caught speeding, for example—I am not conflating carrying a knife and speeding but, to some extent, it is a useful comparison—has the option of paying a fine or going on a course. It should be mandatory that a person who is given a caution for any kind of weapon-related offence is sent on a course. They should have to see the devastation caused by such weapons, which hopefully would go some way towards breaking their attitude towards carrying a weapon and knife crime. That would not work for everyone, but for some individuals, especially those who are particularly young and have made a mistake—for many first-time offenders it will be just a mistake—it might just break the cycle, and at very small cost. Such courses are, in many cases, run by charities across the country.
Fourthly, we need to identify and address the root causes of this criminality. Why do people carry weapons? How has our society got to this position? It could be social breakdown, regional inequality, family breakdown, absent father figures or a lack of male role models. It could be school exclusion, which has been mentioned, or social isolation—gang culture can provide a sense of belonging. It could be county line activity or prostitution. It could actually be education and the messaging we send out about drugs and drug use.
I find it bizarre that we have middle-class people in this country who drive around in their electric vehicles, drinking their Rainforest Alliance coffee and eating their Fairtrade chocolate, but who have no qualms whatsoever about going out at the weekend and having a few lines of coke, because that does not harm anyone, does it? If only those people saw the devastation that that causes both in the country where the cocaine is sourced from and through the county line activity in this country that takes the drugs from the point of entry to the point at which they are sold. If only they saw, in so many cases, the children whose lives have been devastated as a result. We need to send a clear message that drug taking is not acceptable and that, through the damage it does, it is not a victimless crime.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point that deserves amplification. The gated-lived, middle-class liberals who take drugs have little or no care because they have little or no contact with the kind of people he describes. It is the people on the frontline who suffer, and they deserve to be treated as a priority.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. It is important to note, though, that although in the past people have thought, “This isn’t a problem for us—this isn’t something that our children would be involved in,” the reality is that it is now quite the opposite. These grooming gangs are looking for people who are not stereotypical. They are looking for children who are particularly vulnerable, and that is not just children from socially deprived backgrounds or from council housing estates—the people one would perhaps automatically associate with being easy prey for some of these grooming gangs—but the young people who are easiest to groom and are less likely to be stopped and searched by a police officer. The enemy is at the gate, and to think that our own children and the children of middle-class families are not as affected as anybody else is a myth. It is a dangerous assumption not to think that every single part of our society and every town in our country is affected, and even rural areas. We should absolutely send out the message loud and clear that this affects everybody’s children, not just somebody else’s.
On root causes, we need to take a much tougher stance on antisocial behaviour. If we do not take a tougher stance on very low-level crime, it will be easier for people to think that other crimes are acceptable. A policing focus on drugs would be particularly helpful. To tackle the issues, we really need to understand the root causes. The strategy goes some way towards achieving that, but there is more work to do.
Let me turn to the specifics of the Bill. There is no reason whatsoever for under-18s to be able to buy these weapons, nor for them to carry them in public, so I very much welcome the Government’s position. There is also no reason to possess certain weapons in private properties. There is no justification for having zombie knives, knuckle dusters and death stars, even in private possession.
Successive Governments have failed to tackle the knife culture in this country, so in a way this is not really a political thing. We have had instances in Coventry, going back around 20-odd years, of people giving evidence in court and the individual being given a sentence, but then visiting them as a punishment. That is one part of the whole argument about witness protection schemes.
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. There is no easy answer to this issue; if there was, successive Governments would have addressed it. That was why I was making the point that to really address knife crime and why people carry weapons, we need to understand the root causes and then put in place interventions at numerous points on the journey towards criminality. Even when someone has entered criminality, we should intervene at the earliest possible opportunity to try to break the cycle and turn someone’s life around.
On the online sale of weapons, I very much welcome the banning of the delivery of knives and corrosives brought online, and especially the fact that they will no longer be deliverable to residential addresses. I agree with the position in the Bill: there is no reason why such items cannot be purchased in person. The Bill goes some way to addressing the move towards online purchases, but I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Have we looked into age verification on delivery, which is an option that already exists for a number of products? I appreciate that there are some flaws with that approach, but I think there is something in it to be teased out in Committee. Have we assessed the possibility of individuals getting these weapons delivered to workplaces instead? So many people have even private parcels delivered to their workplaces, so we must ensure that there is no loophole for people to purchase corrosives or knives using that route.
On retailers, have we done any liaison with retailers on theft? If we are to make knives more difficult to come across—I refer back to what I said about these items being in most of our kitchens up and down the country—what work has been done on theft? I can walk into any Sainsbury’s or Tesco store—other supermarkets are, of course, available—and notice that in the kitchen aisle it is only the high-value knives that have any kind of security tag. Some of the very sharp, low-priced knives are just there on the shelves for anybody to pick up. I should also point out that they are not even always above the height that children can reach, which is perhaps another point that needs to be considered. I am not sure whether we need to go as far as having all knives behind a counter so we have to request one, as we do with cigarettes. Perhaps we should look at some kind of security tagging of knives, especially sharp knives. I do not know whether we have looked at having cabinets in shops. I am conscious that that is not the panacea; it will not fix the issue, but it might go some way towards making it harder for individuals to get hold of a knife.
As has been said by many hon. Members, constituents have raised firearms as an issue. Although I represent a wholly urban constituency, I have a number of people who are interested in firearms for sporting purposes. I have some sympathy with the Government’s view on the banning of .50 calibre rifles for civilian ownership. These are very high-powered rifles that can punch through armour. I know that they have been banned in California under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Inevitably, with any such policy, we must make sure that it is evidence based. I understand that there is a case of one of these weapons being stolen, but it was recovered very quickly by the police. We need to make sure that our policy is evidence based. We are talking about a very small number of these weapons. As far as I understand it, we do not have any evidence of these weapons having been used in crimes.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As for what the Government have tried to achieve, this Bill is, in every other respect, almost a perfect Bill. However, what they run the risk of doing with a ban on .50 calibre rifles is demonising people in the community who are incredibly law abiding. What we do not want to do is to fall into the trap, which we did with the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the handgun ban, of creating bad law when, actually, this Bill in every other respect is very good law.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I could understand it if there was a compelling case that these particular weapons had been used in extensive criminality, or indeed if there was a very strong evidence-based case against them because there was a threat that they would be used in some form of criminality. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) put it very well: there are a very small number of individuals who use these weapons. If the Government believe that there is case to do something, then absolutely, yes, let us do so. Let us look at the security of these firearms. Let us perhaps look, in extremis, at allowing them to be kept only at ranges, and secured with equipment that is not usually found domestically. However, there is concern among the sporting firearms fraternity that this might be the thin end of the wedge and that it would lead to further such banning of weapons.
All I am saying to the Minister is: can we take a look at this matter in Committee to make sure that any approach that we take is indeed evidence based? That also goes for the case in relation to manually actuated release system rifles. I agree with the Government’s fundamental position that these are, in theory, dangerous weapons, but I also appreciate the views of those constituents who have contacted me who have a disability. One in particular has contacted me and said that this is the only weapon that he can fire, and the measure would mean that he could not partake in his sport. We need to consider whether we argue for an exemption, whether we tighten up the measures to ensure that these rifles are more secure than most other firearms have to be, or indeed whether they have to be kept at a registered range. I hope that the Minister will take that away and look at it, along with a number of points that have been made by colleagues, in Committee. Let me reiterate the point that any change that we make must absolutely be evidence based.
To conclude, this is a good Bill. Its intentions are indeed very good and sound, but there is work to do in Committee, and there is certainly further work to do on the serious crime strategy. I just hope that we can be pragmatic and look at any and all measures in the future that will go some way towards addressing the scourge that is knife crime—or indeed any crime involving weapons of this nature.
I broadly welcome this legislation to crack down on crimes involving knives, firearms and corrosives. Valid concerns have been raised in this debate, and I urge Ministers to think carefully about whether changes can be made to the Bill to reflect some of them.
Although overall levels of crime have fallen using the established measurements, the recent uplift in serious violent crime is hugely worrying to me and everyone else in the House, particularly in our capital city, where my constituency is located. Even my constituency of Chipping Barnet has not been immune from this problem, with a fatal shooting in Cockfosters in February. The Bill will assist the fight against this type of brutal crime.
At the summit held in April, which was attended by the Home Secretary, the Mayor of London and a broad range of elected representatives across London from different parties, there was widespread agreement on the need for a robust policing and criminal justice response, and this legislation will assist on that score, because it will help to keep dangerous weapons off our streets. I attended the summit, where we also agreed that we needed to go beyond a policing and justice response to tackle this problem. We agreed that a renewed focus was needed on early intervention to try to prevent young people from becoming involved in gangs. I welcome the fact that many Members have made similar points this afternoon, and that this point is a key part of the Government’s serious violence strategy. I very much hope that the early intervention youth fund, which is part of the Government’s strategy, can play a valuable role in bringing to an end this totally unacceptable spike upwards in the murder rate—including, sadly, crimes involving the sorts of offensive weapons targeted in the Bill.
It is important to deliver on the commitments in the Government’s strategy on county lines, which, as others have said, are bringing the blight of drug-related serious violence to many towns, cities and, indeed, rural areas across the country. In London we need the Government, the Mayor, the police, and local groups and communities to work together to combat this new menace to children and young people. I therefore welcome the commitment in the Government’s strategy to support local groups and partnerships, which need to be at the heart of an effective response to these problems.
We should be in no doubt that it is possible to bring down levels of this type of serious violent crime because that has been done before in this city. In the closing years of Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty, there was a similar jump in the murder rate, but this was brought down by determined action by his successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), and his deputy Mayor for policing, Stephen Greenhalgh. I appeal to the Government and the current Mayor to learn from what the former Mayor was able to achieve. In particular, the current Mayor needs to hold the police to account regarding their delivery of the objectives that he sets them in this important area.
The role of the Mayor in holding the police to account is an important part of an effective criminal justice response to serious crime. I also believe that the Mayor should reconsider his decision to close Barnet police station. The station came under threat in 2012, but I was one of a number of people who helped to persuade the previous Mayor to keep it open, so it was saved then, but its closure by the current Mayor has caused considerable anxiety.
I accept that front-desk services in police stations are not as heavily used as they once were, and that there are now many different ways in which to report crimes to the police. This issue is not just about front desk closures. Once the Mayor’s closure plans go ahead in full, the police in Barnet will be left with no base at all in my constituency of Chipping Barnet. I am concerned that a visible police presence in my constituency will inevitably be greatly reduced when all officers are based several miles away in Colindale.
Is my constituency neighbour aware that the London Borough of Barnet is one of the largest London boroughs and one of the largest net contributors to the Metropolitan police budget? This means that we do not get the police officers that we pay for. There are 736 people in Barnet per officer, whereas the rest of London—excluding the City of Westminster—has just 529 residents per police officer. Does my right hon. Friend think that that is fair?
I do not. I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s highlighting of that problem. I am going to come on to it, because we need a fairer system for the allocation of resources in our capital city—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell).
I am concerned about the impact of the police station closure on visible police presence. Only today, I received a report of retailers being robbed in High Barnet, with a recent incident of men in balaclavas who were wielding weapons robbing a shop in broad daylight in front of frightened children. Over recent months, during the regular doorstep calls that I undertake in my constituency, many people have highlighted their anxiety about burglary. I appreciate that budgets are constrained, but I have appealed to the Mayor to give Barnet a fairer allocation of police resources to help provide concerted action on burglary and other crimes, including those involving the offensive weapons targeted in this Bill. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), Barnet has fewer police per head than many other boroughs, although, sadly, we face a number of problems very similar to those of inner-London boroughs.
What my right hon. Friend is saying is very resonant for me, because our police and crime commissioner closed our police station in Solihull. Burglars, in particular, often use fear-inducing weapons such zombie knives and death stars to commit violence. Does she agree that this Bill is very welcome in that respect?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Burglary is a deeply distressing crime for its victims, but unfortunately it can be made very much worse by threats of violence and the use of weapons of the type targeted by this Bill.
The Mayor of London does have choices with regard to resources. He has, for example, about half a billion pounds in reserves. He is proudly allocating £150 million a year to cycling measures. He had earmarked £60 million to pedestrianise Oxford Street. This is not the occasion to debate the merits of those funding choices, but it shows that even with a small switch from those priorities to policing, the Mayor could keep our police station in Barnet open. It is not enough for him to seek to blame the resources he is given by Government. He has choices and he should make them in a responsible way that gives the suburbs their fair share of police resources.
Finally, I want to share with the House some very depressing news on a crime committed in my constituency at the weekend. On Sunday, thieves broke into the site of the Summer Soulstice festival in Mays Lane in Arkley. They used acetylene cutting gear and hammers to break into a safe and made off with over £45,000 in takings from the event that was awaiting transfer to the bank the next day. It seems that they may have deliberately planned the break-in to coincide with the England World cup game, when those clearing up after the festival had gone home to watch the football.
This crime is made all the more repellent by the fact that the Soulstice festival is entirely run by volunteers and all its proceeds go to a local charity, Cherry Lodge Cancer Care. The event was established in memory of Andy Weekes, who was sadly lost to cancer in 2006, and it has raised over a quarter of a million pounds for Cherry Lodge over the course of 11 years. The family of the late Andy Weekes and the whole team behind Soulstice are apparently devastated by what has happened. I am sure that the whole House will share my dismay about this crime. I do not imagine that the perpetrators are likely to read Hansard, but they should feel a deep sense of shame about what they have done. I very much hope that the police will catch them swiftly and that they will be locked up for a very long time indeed.
It is a pleasure, if that is the right word, to speak in this important debate. From the outset, may I say how much I associate myself with the comments made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)? The speeches by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) were strong and compelling, particularly in their urging the Government to include a wider range of acidic substances in the list of those that we seek to prohibit the carrying of, particularly by those who are 18 or under.
I hope I will not be accused of making an overtly party political point. However, I have served for a short period as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, and I have listened to a huge number of speeches and oral questions at Home Office questions. Given that very often, though not exclusively, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester said, this is seen as a London-centric and urban daily threat, I am surprised by the lack of representation on the Opposition Benches today, with the exception of the fine speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and the right hon. Member for East Ham and the hon. Member for West Ham. I am slightly surprised that those who have often spoken most loudly about the need for this legislation and what underpins the imperatives that drove it are conspicuous by their absence this afternoon. Sunshine, I know, can be a rather seductive entity, but I thought they might have forgone that for just a few hours on an issue of this importance.
The key thing to bear in mind is that, while the debate is often painted within the confines of an urban narrative, this affects all our towns and cities across the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester said. On 7 January 2016, a hairdresser in my constituency, Katrina O’Hara, was putting the rubbish out at the end of the working day in the little courtyard behind the barbershop in which she worked in Blandford Forum. Blandford Forum is a jewel in the North Dorset crown. It is a small Georgian market town; it is not one of the fleshpots of metropolitan England by any stretch of the imagination. Katrina was attacked by a former partner with a knife that he had taken from the kitchen drawer in his house. He stabbed her. She died of her injuries. He attempted then to take his own life, but was apprehended and resuscitated by Dorset police. He was put on trial and found guilty.
I relate that story because, as one can imagine, it had the most huge and profound effects on a market town community like Blandford Forum. The ramifications of it still reverberate in conversations just over two years later. It was not a crime perpetrated by drug users or by minors, and it was not a crime in which somebody had to go out and buy a knife to use as a weapon, either directly from retail or on the internet; the knife was just taken out of a kitchen drawer. That is the scale of the issue that this sort of legislation is trying to grapple with.
There is much to commend in the Bill. The Home Office and the relevant Ministers are to be saluted for their clear care and dedication in the consultation process and in talking to Members. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave a commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds that that conversation would continue, and that is important.
As I say, there is much to commend in this legislation and the foundations of it are clear, but I would echo the comments made by a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and indeed by right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition, about how, although the foundations may be very secure, the edifice emerging through the Committee process will require some work. On the eve of my 49th birthday, I may be able to claim some similarity with that. My foundations are fine—
I’ll give you something in a minute.
There is a clear and compelling narrative that some changes to the Bill are needed as it moves forward. What does the Bill seek to achieve? If anybody thinks that by the stroke of a legislative pen and the creation of new statutes these crimes will be eliminated—I am not suggesting for a moment that Ministers on the Treasury Bench believe this—they will find that that is not going to be the case, although the Bill will clearly act as a deterrent.
As so often, however, when putting in place deterrents, we have to be careful. We know who we are seeking to deter, but very often the legislative deterrent has no impact at all on their daily modus operandi of criminality, gangland behaviour, drug dealing and so on. However, as an unforeseen consequence, it may be the most terrible burden and nuisance to law-abiding citizens trying to go about their daily business or to pursue their hobby. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds mentioned, we quite rightly have one of the most, if not the most, rigorous firearm licensing regimes in the world, but, notwithstanding that, we still have gun crime. Previous legislation has made certain pistols and handguns illegal, but they are very often the preferred weapon of those in gangs and the weapon of choice of others engaged in criminal activity.
I am sure my hon. Friend needs to take the weight off his feet for a moment or two during his magnificent speech. The important point he makes about gun crime is that it is committed not with legally owned guns, but with illegally owned guns. In keeping guns away from criminals, the law is probably not working as well as it should do, and that is what should be addressed.
My hon. Friend is right. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), was a prosecuting barrister in a previous life. She will know, as lots of other people do—[Interruption.] Ah, here she is; she arrives. As if by magic, my hon. Friend is summoned up. I was just saying that, in a previous existence, she was a prosecuting barrister, and I know—not least because she has told me this on so many occasions—that she will appreciate the importance of evidence. We are making law, and as important as the issues are that we are seeking to address, the law has to be based on evidence.
It may well be that there are certain things that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench cannot tell the House: there may be evidence from the National Crime Agency and others that it would be entirely inappropriate to share with those who are not Privy Counsellors, or whatever. However, I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier). Like colleagues, I have yet to find any canon of persuasive evidence that does not lead me, for what that is worth, to the conclusion that if we harry and pursue the softest targets—those who have a licence, those obeying the law to the letter and those who have clearly indicated, in response to consultation, their willingness to go the extra mile in terms of security, vetting, referencing and so on and so forth—they will be the ones most affected, without the concomitant benefit of increasing safety on our streets.
If there is evidence telling us that a whole cadre of crimes is committed on our streets by people who are licensed to have a shotgun or other firearm, clearly the House will need to recalibrate its message on that point.
My hon. Friend is right about that. Those who see these things as the opening of a Pandora’s box are often right to see proposals in that way, and I am inclined to think that we are not necessarily looking at this from the right end of the telescope. I would much prefer a far more rigorous approach to sentencing, so that it actually acts as a deterrent, and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester and others have intimated the same. I am not convinced that the criminal minds, the modern-day Fagins who recruit these often vulnerable youngsters to commit these crimes to aggrandise the Fagins of, particularly but not exclusively, the drug world, will give tuppence ha’penny about what statute law says. If they want to get hold of a shotgun or something else, they will jolly well do it. We need to be focusing a lot more attention on sentencing than we have hitherto.
Obviously, we have do this as part of a legislative mosaic, which, as others have said, calls for even greater intergovernmental and cross-departmental working. The Times has been running an interesting series of articles this week. It has alluded to all the things that we know about gang culture—family breakdown, the lack of feeling of belonging, a lack of aspiration, poor educational attainment, and that self-breeding fear and anxiety that says, “I live in an unsafe area so I must tool up to protect myself.” In that way, the cycle just continues and continues. A lot of additional work needs to be done and other Departments need to be involved in it.
I wish to say a few words about the impact on small businesses. I do not understand the logic of a lot of these proposals on where and how one can sell, and on not delivering to a residential address. I am sure the Minister will be able to fill, to the point of overflowing, the lacuna in my knowledge of this, but I cannot understand the differential in respect of being able to have something delivered to a business premises or a post office, but not being able to have it delivered to one’s own personal address—likewise, where the Bill says that even if someone has ordered something online, they have to collect it from the branch. That is fine for national operators, but I have received a number of representations on this. Some have come from Mr Duncan Chandler, an artisan manufacturer of woodland and survival knives in my constituency, who is anxious about this matter and the impact it has on his business. Others have come from Mr Philip Hart, who runs the excellent Harts of Stur, 80% of whose kitchenware, which includes knives, is sold online across the country—the company has only one branch and it is in North Dorset. I ask the Minister to think in Committee about the definition of “knife”. I am talking about rather peculiar things here and am flicking through my notes to try to find the reference point I was looking for but I cannot. I shall say merely refer to a constituent of mine who manufactures and sells straight razors for wet shaving. Are they to be included in the definition of “knife” or not? Will they fall within the new requirements?
In conclusion, I support this legislation. If it is pressed to a Division, I shall certainly vote in favour of its Second Reading, but with a presumption that there will be some fairly dramatic changes in Committee: a greater understanding of the needs and difficulties of small businesses in particular, and an element of rural proofing. We are trying to address a national issue, but as it stands the Bill does not reflect some of the differentials between urban and rural living. I draw comfort from the fact that the Minister understands rural issues to her fingertips, representing, as she does, the second most beautiful part of the country after North Dorset.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare). I am sorry to have missed a few of the earlier speeches; I had to be at a sitting of the Home Affairs Committee. The quality of the debate has been excellent and I am happy to support the Bill. It is a pity that it has been made necessary in the light of a recent uptick in violent crime, and not only in London. As my hon. Friend just said, the devil will be in the detail when it comes to practical implementation. We all know that acid and knives are not in themselves offensive weapons; the person using them makes them so.
I do, however, have some reservations, which I share with a number of hon. Friends, about the proposals on .50 calibre rifles. Shooting is a legitimate pursuit for sport or countryside activities. As Members have said on numerous occasions, it is weapons held without a licence by criminals that cause the crimes. Legitimately held, licensed weapons are very rarely involved.
Our gun control laws are rightly among the tightest in the world. I do not want to do anything that would weaken that, and I would certainly not go down the absurd lines of President Trump’s recent statement that the reason for our upsurge in knife crime is that we do not have gun ownership to combat it. That is a very slippery slope, and I do not think anybody has taken it seriously in this country, but we need to make sure that the restrictions are evidence based and properly risk assessed.
We are talking about fewer than 1,000 of the 2.25 million rifles and guns held legitimately on certificate—just 700 rapid-fire rifles and 132 .50 calibre rifles are involved. I have had more representations on that element of the Bill than on any other, particularly from disabled constituents who have used these rifles as part of their recreational activity.
The shooting community views these prohibitions as a gross breach of natural justice. Despite repeated requests, the Home Office has failed to provide any evidence that the rifles pose a risk to public safety. As it stands, applicants must provide clear and evidenced good reason for each and every rifle they wish to acquire and use. The very few who apply for and use high-muzzle-energy rifles have well documented and good reasons, and are limited to using them on specific ranges. Various shooting associations have suggested enhancing suitability assessments if that would help to prevent an outright ban, which seems disproportionate.
It is also reasonable to ask the Government what reductions in firearms crimes are expected as a result of the prohibitions in the Bill. It is difficult to see what problem we are trying to solve.
I have had representations from members of legitimate rifle clubs, such as the Aldershot Rifle and Pistol club. My constituent Martin runs the local disability forum. He shoots from a wheelchair using one of these guns. He started target shooting as an Air Training Corps cadet back in 1959. Prohibition would end his participation in the sport, because his disability means that it is not easy for him to use the alternatives. It is notable that of the 10,712 responses to the Government consultation, over 60% related to these firearms proposals.
I want to talk briefly about acid. I am pleased with the inclusion in the Bill of measures to deal with acid. This is a particularly cruel and vicious form of attack. People can recover from a gunshot or knife wound, with minimal scars in some cases, but the effects of acid are a life sentence of disfigurement, especially when acid has been used on the face. If anything, acid attacks deserve harsher sentences than attacks using some of the more conventional weapons we have been describing. The problem is that there are no official statistics on the extent of acid attacks. Voluntary data across 39 police forces found that there were some 408 acid attacks between November 2016 and April 2017, which represented a large increase on estimates that had gone before. It is also interesting that such attacks are prevalent in certain cultures, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, and among jilted partners. Globally, on the figures we have, 80% of the victims are women, but in this country the majority of victims are white men.
I pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). He is not in his place, but he spoke earlier. When I looked at this issue, I was astonished to find that acid is freely available online to anybody of any age, including children. Incredibly, certain forms of acid needed in the making, as my wife does, of jams and cordials are restricted to registered pharmacies, but this stuff can be bought online without any problem. It has to be right to restrict the sale, at least to under-18s. It has to be right to beef up the penalties for possessing harmful corrosive substances where they are intended to cause injury.
The devil will be in the detail. The evidence shows that only one offence in five involving acid is committed by a child under the age of 18. We need qualifications in the Bill on substances that are capable of causing permanent harm. There is also a worry about the number of people coming forward: according to the St Andrews Centre for Plastic Surgery and Burns, fewer than half of acid attack victims in this country pursue criminal charges against their attacker.
On knife crime, again we need make to the tools of violence as difficult to procure as possible. I see absolutely no legitimate reason for possession of zombie knives and so on. There are all sorts of problems: age-verification online, as trading standards has stated; what we do about weapons imported from overseas; and what the duty of care will be on Royal Mail and other carriers. The rise in knife crime in London has been particularly horrendous. What has been more worrying since 2014 is that the age of both victims and perpetrators has been getting younger and younger. That is, of course, drug related.
We have to look at the complicity of social media. The major social media companies have been in front of the Home Affairs Committee with regard to radicalisation, access to hardcore imagery and hate crime. Increasingly, we are seeing easy accessibility to gang rap songs, with gangs brandishing and glorifying knives on social media platforms. That needs to be prevented in the first place and taken down immediately when spotted. Social media companies need to be much more responsible and proactive.
I query why the Bill does not, as far as I can see, extend the existing offence of having a knife or offensive weapon on school premises to cover other types of educational institution, as was covered in the consultation, but the problem is bigger than just the availability of offensive weapons, and bigger than just having stiffer sentences.
The measures in the Bill will increase the use of mandatory minimum custodial sentences for children, yet evidence shows that custody is failing in being rehabilitative. Last year, 69% of children released from custody reoffended within a year. That is a considerably higher figure than for those who were given community sentences, so we need to think much smarter about the criminal justice system and how we keep people out of jail and sustainably out of trouble.
Working in partnerships, we need to understand why gang culture in this country is increasingly using these weapons. I filmed a documentary back in 2009 called “Tower Block of Commons” in which I spent time with youth gangs in Newtown in inner-city Birmingham. Through the help of former gang members who then set up a charity to try to rehabilitate some of these people and bring them back in from the dark side, I began to understand some of the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of people who turn to gangs. This is about not just the penalties and the availability, but understanding the mindsets of the people who think it is good to use these weapons.
Finally, the Bill is just one part of a jigsaw, but we need to be smarter and take a much more holistic approach to violent youth crime.
It is a prevalent liberal misassumption that things can only get better. Their mindset is that progress is inevitable and that whatever we do, society will advance. It is true that, as Disraeli said:
“Change is inevitable…change is constant”,
but things can simultaneously deteriorate as well as improve. In my lifetime, there is no question but that that is exactly what has happened.
In the 60 years of my life—I know you are thinking, Mr Deputy Speaker, “How can that possibly be true? How can that callow youth standing before me possibly have been born in 1958?”, but it is true—civil society has been weakened, respect for authority has dwindled and many of the once routine civilities and courtesies that mitigate the inevitable pitfalls of human existence have been derided, eroded or abandoned. Consequently, life is less gentle than it was when I was a boy. Many have been brutalised and some are brutal. It is very difficult for the liberal establishment to come to terms with that, because the unhappy reality of increasing disorder and criminality contrasts with the myth of progress. It is therefore either disguised or ignored by those who cannot bear to face the facts.
I thought I would offer the Chamber some of those facts this afternoon. They are so extraordinary that when I researched them, I could barely believe them, but they are based on information available from the Library. In the year of my birth, 1958, the total number of violent criminal incidents was 31,522. At the end of 2014—a year for which the figures are available—the total number of violent incidents was 1,245,000. This is an extraordinary change. Even allowing for the change in population, which is significant, and for the changes in the definition of crime, which are not irrelevant, the truth is that there has been an explosion in the amount of serious and violent crime in our country. Most Members in this Chamber will know someone in their circle, family or beyond who has been a victim of some kind of serious or violent crime. Of course, we know that our constituents have been, but many of us will have encountered it in a much more familiar way than that.
It is true that in criminal statistics there is the well-established principle of the dark figure—the number of crimes never discovered because they are never reported—and that this also needs to be taken into account in any comparative analysis, which is why I qualified mine heavily before I offered it.
None the less, in the year of my birth there were 1,194 recorded robberies; the number now, extraordinarily enough, is 74,130. We have had roughly a seventyfold increase in the number of robberies during the 60 years of my life. This is indeed an extraordinary change. As parliamentarians, our recognition and acceptance of this is an important part of reconnecting ourselves with the lives and assumptions of the people who suffer these kinds of crimes. The more we detach ourselves from this reality and bury our heads in the sand, the more people believe we either do not know or, worse, do not care. I know that people across the Chamber do care, but denial is not good enough.
That is why I welcome the Bill. It is an important acceptance that action is needed, that further measures are required. It is not, of course, the whole solution—the Government would not claim it was, as right hon. and hon. Members have said—but it is a step in the right direction, although it will need to be refined in Committee. I will not go into why and how, because that has been amply rehearsed already, but it is important to consider some of the issues the Bill deals with: the availability of weapons; how easy or difficult it is for the police to deal with prosecutions; and the culture associated with this increase in violence, particularly among the young and in urban areas.
Our preoccupation with the here and now does not help. We have a culture dominated by the immediate at the expense of measured contemplation. We no longer think about what was or might be; we think of now, and we do not want people to feel that now is worse than it once was. Yet, having that long-term view and more contemplative approach to public policy is an important way to deal with some of the things I have described.
The idea that things are not getting better is unpalatable, which is why the Bill is pertinent and welcome. Crime has many causes, and some have been rehearsed in the debate. They include communal disintegration, family breakdown and the absence of opportunity, but fundamentally criminal behaviour is about the absence of values—values that the law-abiding take as read: care for others, personal responsibility, respect for the rule of law. In the absence of those values, the gulf is filled by altogether less desirable things—greed, anger, sloth, lust, gluttony, envy, pride. They are not, after all, new sins; they have been common to the human condition since man was made—and the results can be deadly.
Crime is not an illness to be treated, and the perpetrators of crime are not patients. Crime is the product of choices that people make. Those choices might have been affected by their circumstances, but it is pretty insulting to working-class people of the kind I was brought up among to tell them they are more likely to be criminals because they live on a council estate, work in a factory or never had a formal education of the kind I and many here enjoyed. Let us be clear: we have to identify malevolent behaviour and deal with it appropriately in the interests of public respect for the fairness of the justice system. Every time we do not, we undermine the regard for the rule of law among less well-off people—those hard-working decent people who do the right thing and do not choose the course of crime but go about their lives in a peaceable, decent and honourable way.
Let us now think about what more needs to be done. Certainly we need to tackle some of the “drivers” of crime, as they have been described by other Members. I have mentioned a few, in the context of health and the life of civil society, but I think that the internet is, or can be, a malevolent influence in this regard. We need to get tough with the social media platforms that glamorise violence, and, in particular, glamorise the use of the weapons of violence.
As I suggested earlier to the Home Secretary, we also need to adopt a cross-departmental approach to deal with support for the family and support for communities. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh)—who I thought spoke extremely well, as I told her privately—mentioned early intervention. Early intervention does matter, and there is no better early intervention than a strong and stable family. My early intervention was my mum and dad, who taught me the difference between what was right and what was wrong. You can fudge these things, and you can have a high-flown debate in fancy terms about sociology, but in the end it comes back to that: people having a very fundamental sense of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and what is good and what is bad behaviour. Families really matter in that respect.
We know that there is an association—if I may get sociological for a moment—between certain kinds of young people and crime. They tend to be young people whose families have broken down, and who have not had the role model of a strong father. We need to take a lateral approach in considering some of those causal factors.
As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, generosity is not merely my middle name; it is my every name. None the less, my dear friend will have to wait, because I am about to conclude my remarks.
The real risk with the Bill is not going too far, but not going far enough; not taking more steps than are necessary, but not taking the necessary steps. I will leave the House with Proust. Proust said, “You must never be afraid to go too far, because the truth lies beyond.” There is no Minister in this Government more committed to the pursuit of the truth than the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who will sum up the debate.
It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for the rather evocative-sounding South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). I thought that his speech was superb in its evocation and exploration of the rise in crime over such a long timescale. It was very informative indeed.
I agree with my right hon. Friend him about the glorification of knife culture in social media, which was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). We need to get a grip on social media companies, because they have a wide responsibility. They are not above and beyond society; they are part of society. We should not treat them in a way that makes them publishers, as it were, but they must be reminded of their responsibility to invest the necessary resources to ensure that such things are kept off their platforms, as quickly as possible.
This Bill represents a much-needed update in the law governing offensive weapons. It is an unfortunate fact that criminals are wont to adapt to new conditions when the law changes, so it is important for the Government to move swiftly to close loopholes when they arise.
I wanted to speak in the debate because of the almost silent gun and knife epidemic in the west midlands. It may surprise Members to know that the level of gun crime is higher there than it is in London: over 25 gun crimes per 100,000 people. In fact, the region is the only part of the country in which that level is reached. We also unfortunately have the third highest rate of knife crime of all areas of the country; only the Metropolitan police area and West Yorkshire are above us. To give a bit of context, Warwickshire abuts Birmingham and the West Midlands Police area, and knife crime in that area is about half the level that it is in the west midlands.
I see evidence of this on a regular basis in Solihull. We do not experience incidences of shootings and stabbings, thank goodness, at this time, and I hope this Bill will help to prevent any such incidences, but we are seeing a growth in aggravated acquisitive crime involving knives, particularly terror-inducing knives such as death star and zombie knives. I think of death stars as planet-killing weapons from “Star Wars”. Death star knives are absolutely shocking and there is no need for that knife to be in production at all, and there is no need for any individual to purchase such a knife. As acquisitive crime, particularly car crime, has increased, I have heard reports that criminals have sometimes brandished those knives. At present, because London gets a lot of focus there is not sufficient focus to ensure that we crack down as hard as possible. That is one of the reasons why I support the Bill; it will help indirectly to keep my residents safe.
The response of the police and crime commissioner has not helped the situation at all. Despite a massive rise in acquisitive crime—over 29% over the past year in Solihull borough—he has chosen to close, without any proper consultation, Solihull police station, effectively leaving 209,000 people without a police station. We have been promised that at some unspecified date in future there will be a new front desk effectively; that could be in a shopping centre or in Chelmsley Wood in the north of the borough. As a resident of the south of the borough, I can say that it is easier for me to get to Warwick than to get to Chelmsley Wood in the north of the borough. What message does that send out to the public when we are seeing an increase in violent acquisitive crime? Residents are saying, “We are paying our council taxes; Solihull residents are paying for an increase in precept, yet the police station is being closed.”
That will lead to longer response times. The police station is located at the centre of the constituency and of Solihull borough. If it is located at some unspecified date in the future in the north, there will be longer response times, or officers might have to come out of area from Coventry or parts of Birmingham. My residents are extremely concerned about that.
Turning to the mechanics of the Bill, the main policy concern is about balancing the Government’s aims against the rights and liberties of individual citizens. I take on board the point that many hon. Friends have mentioned about .50 calibre rifles, and I am glad that those concerns are being listened to by the Government and there is active engagement. I, too, have been approached by the law-abiding shooting community, which is very cognisant of the need for gun control and very supportive of it. It has said to me that there is always a possibility that people could end up not being able to pursue their sport because of this change. I am pleased that we are at least looking at that and addressing it.
More generally, criminalising the possession of these articles will make it much easier for the police to intervene before they are used against the public—my constituents. The Bill introduces sensible requirements for online vendors to ensure that they are not selling restricted articles to under-age buyers; this is another example of how technology and evolving consumer habits can leave the law behind.
While these specific measures will no doubt help to reduce the presence of dangerous weapons in our public spaces, I am glad that the Government recognise that the problem of violent crime cannot be tackled in isolation. In the foreword to the “Serious Violence Strategy” published in April the then Home Secretary made it clear that she intended to wage a comprehensive campaign that included not only law enforcement but charities, communities and the private sector, as well as health and education partners. That is commendable, and I hope that the Government will maintain that commitment, tackling not only violent crime but the driving forces behind it. That is something that has been reflected by the societal issues that have been raised in the debate today.
It is the first duty of the Government to protect the public, and it is right that the recent spate of vicious acid attacks has drawn a prompt legislative response. I have no doubt that the Bill will help to protect the public. This is the vilest crime that I can imagine. The horror of an individual splashing acid on to someone’s face would keep many of us awake at night. These crimes follow people throughout their lives, and we have seen instances in which people have taken their lives as a result of such acid attacks.
In conclusion, I support the Bill. In almost every respect, it is a fit and good Bill, and I look forward to supporting it. More generally, I want to send a loud and clear message to the West Midlands police and crime commissioner that the Government are doing their job and that he now needs to do his by ensuring that my community is properly protected and that we have a working police station in a town of 209,000 people.
I want to begin by welcoming the nature of this debate. I am a relatively new Member in this place, and this is unfortunately one of only a handful of times when I have sat through a debate where there has been genuinely measured and constructive comment from both sides and where Members have made new, interesting and constructive criticism of the Bill in question. I hope that the criticisms we have heard today will improve this one. I would single out the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who is no longer in her place, for her measured and positive contribution. I have actually gone through my speech and crossed out the passages that slagged off the Labour party, because it did not feel wholly appropriate to use them in this environment. This is not normally in my nature, but I have done it—[Interruption.] Disappointing, I know.
I welcome the Bill. It is an important step forward in keeping our communities safe. We have talked about the rise in crime. Broadly, it has come down over the past decade, but the changing nature of crime is all-important to the way in which we police it, and violent crime in particular has been on the rise. It is crucial that the police have the powers that they need to target the criminals effectively in relation to knife crime and a range of other issues that can contribute to it, including drugs. I mentioned that issue to the Home Secretary earlier, and I wrote to the Home Office about it only this week. The Bill aims to achieve exactly that, with new tough provisions to tackle knife crime and acid attacks.
In Mansfield and Warsop, we have had some issues with violent crime and the use of weapons. In April, there were 10 arrests for possessing a weapon. The majority of those were made around the town centre, which is becoming an increasingly unwelcoming place because of the growing problems of very public drug use, antisocial behaviour and violent crime. This is putting people off visiting our town centre, so this is not just about the safety of our local people; it is about the local economy and our town and our shops as well.
I hope that the Bill will enable the police to prosecute a greater number of offenders and keep my constituents in Mansfield safe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) said, drugs are a huge driver of violent crime, and I hope that the Government will also build a strategy around the changing nature of the drugs market, which is having a huge impact in my constituency. I met Nick Butler, the neighbourhood policing inspector in Mansfield, earlier this month, and it was good to talk to him about his work and his priorities locally. It was clear from our conversation that, while police officers are working hard and are keen to catch criminals, they need the powers to do that and the ability to charge offenders robustly. I believe that the Bill will enable the police to do that more easily and to target this particular brand of criminals more effectively.
Legislation that creates extra controls on knives and corrosive substances that are bought online is important. Our laws need to keep up with technological change and the changing nature of violent crime. The Bill will make it harder for young people to buy knives and acid online, with sellers requiring rigorous age verification to prove that those purchasing knives or corrosives are over the age of 18. That is a huge step forward in tackling the changing way in which people get hold of those weapons. It is good news that crime has fallen by more than a third since 2010, but the increase in violent crime in particular is worrying, and I am glad that the Government are taking decisive action to tackle this issue.
The first serious violence strategy, which was commissioned by the Home Secretary and which is backed by £40 million of funding, marks an important step in our response to knife and gun crime. It strikes a balance between prevention and law enforcement, and crucially targets violent behaviours at an early age. As Members on both sides of the House have said, education, intervention and support are huge factors to go along with taking action against such weapons. Early intervention is incredibly important—the early intervention youth fund for community projects is another example of helping people to live lives free of violent crime. Other Government legislation can have an impact. Hon. Members have mentioned the impact of social media regulation on the lives of young people and their access to things that might radicalise them or promote violent behaviour.
I have come to a passage in my notes that I have crossed out—it was particularly mean about Labour—so I will move on to the clever things that other hon. Members have mentioned. I would have said them first had I been called earlier. If my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is correct on the detail, what he says makes perfect sense. There is no reason why threats with a knife made in the home should be any less of a priority than threats made in public areas. I am sure that the Minister more than recognises the impact of domestic violence, which is in her brief. She has been to Mansfield to meet domestic violence charities in my constituency and has seen the impact first hand—my constituency has the highest level of domestic violence in Nottinghamshire. I hope that the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley can be improved at a later stage.