Offensive Weapons Bill (First sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Mike Gapes, James Gray
† Atkins, Victoria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Foster, Kevin (Torbay) (Con)
† Foxcroft, Vicky (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
† Haigh, Louise (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab)
† Huddleston, Nigel (Mid Worcestershire) (Con)
† Jones, Sarah (Croydon Central) (Lab)
† McDonald, Stuart C. (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
† Maclean, Rachel (Redditch) (Con)
† Maynard, Paul (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Morgan, Stephen (Portsmouth South) (Lab)
† Morris, James (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con)
† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)
† Robinson, Mary (Cheadle) (Con)
† Scully, Paul (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)
† Siddiq, Tulip (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
† Smyth, Karin (Bristol South) (Lab)
† Timms, Stephen (East Ham) (Lab)
Mike Everett, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
John Poynton, Chief Executive, Redthread
Patrick Green, Chief Executive Officer, Ben Kinsella Trust
Rob Owen OBE, Chief Executive, St Giles Trust
Jaf Shah, Executive Director, Acid Survivors Trust International
Andrew Penhale, Chief Crown Prosecutor, CPS North-East, Crown Prosecution Service
Trish Burls, Trading Standards Manager, London Borough of Croydon
Ben Richards, Campaigns and Policy Executive, Chartered Institute of Trading Standards
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 17 July 2018
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Offensive Weapons Bill
Before we begin, let me say that Members can take your jackets off if they wish; I am certainly going to take off mine. Please switch all electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings, but you can finish the ones that you have—I am feeling lenient.
We will first consider the programme motion on the amendment paper, then the motion to enable the reporting of written evidence for publication, and then the motion to allow us to deliberate in private about our questions before the oral evidence sessions. In view of the limited time available, I hope that we can take those matters formally without debate.
I call the Minister to move the programme motion in her name, which was discussed yesterday by the Programming Sub-Committee for the Bill.
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 17 July) meet—
(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 17 July;
(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 19 July;
(c) at 4.30 pm and 7.00 pm on Tuesday 4 September;
(d) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 6 September;
(e) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 11 September;
(f) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 13 September;
(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following table:
Date Time Witness Tuesday 17 July Until no later than 10.55 am Redthread; The Ben Kinsella Trust; St Giles Trust; Acid Survivors Trust International Tuesday 17 July Until no later than 11.25 am The Crown Prosecution Service; London Borough of Croydon; The Chartered Trading Standards Institute Tuesday 17 July Until no later than 3.15 pm The National Crime Agency; The National Ballistics Intelligence Service; National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on firearms and explosive licensing; The Metropolitan Police Tuesday 17 July Until no later than 4.00 pm National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on corrosive attacks; National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on knife enabled crime Tuesday 17 July Until no later than 4.30 pm The British Retail Consortium; British Independent Retailers Association Thursday 19 July Until no later than 12.00 pm The British Association for Shooting and Conservation Thursday 19 July Until no later than 1.00 pm The Children’s Commissioner; The Victims’ Commissioner Thursday 19 July Until no later than 2.30 pm The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers Thursday 19 July Until no later than 3.00 pm Thames Valley Police
Tuesday 17 July
Until no later than 10.55 am
Redthread; The Ben Kinsella Trust; St Giles Trust; Acid Survivors Trust International
Tuesday 17 July
Until no later than 11.25 am
The Crown Prosecution Service; London Borough of Croydon; The Chartered Trading Standards Institute
Tuesday 17 July
Until no later than 3.15 pm
The National Crime Agency; The National Ballistics Intelligence Service; National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on firearms and explosive licensing; The Metropolitan Police
Tuesday 17 July
Until no later than 4.00 pm
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on corrosive attacks; National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on knife enabled crime
Tuesday 17 July
Until no later than 4.30 pm
The British Retail Consortium; British Independent Retailers Association
Thursday 19 July
Until no later than 12.00 pm
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation
Thursday 19 July
Until no later than 1.00 pm
The Children’s Commissioner; The Victims’ Commissioner
Thursday 19 July
Until no later than 2.30 pm
The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers
Thursday 19 July
Until no later than 3.00 pm
Thames Valley Police
(3) proceedings on consideration of the Bill in Committee shall be taken in the following order: Clause 1; Schedule 1; Clauses 2 to 30; Schedule 2; Clauses 31 to 40; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(4) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Thursday 13 September.—(Victoria Atkins.)
The deadline for amendments to be considered at the first line-by-line sitting of the Committee is Thursday 30 August.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Victoria Atkins.)
I am grateful for the publication of written evidence, but the responses to the consultation that was the forerunner to the Bill have not yet been published. A summary of the responses is on the Home Office website, but several of the witnesses who will give evidence today reference their consultation responses in their biographies, and we have not had access to them. Could we at least have the consultation responses from the witnesses who are giving evidence today and on Thursday, if not all the responses?
Perhaps we will come back to that, if necessary.
Question put and agreed to.
Copies of written evidence will be made available in the Committee room.
That, at this and any subsequent meeting at which oral evidence is to be heard, the Committee shall sit in private until the witnesses are admitted.—(Victoria Atkins.)
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of witnesses
John Poynton, Patrick Green, Rob Owen and Jaf Shah gave evidence.
Good morning. We are now in the public part of our sitting. We will hear evidence from Redthread, the Ben Kinsella Trust, St Giles Trust and Acid Survivors Trust International.
I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has already agreed. For this session with the four witnesses here, we have until 10.55 am. Before we start, do any Members of the Committee wish to declare any relevant interests in connection with the Bill?
Thank you very much. Any others? No.
I ask the witnesses that when you answer a question for the first time, please introduce yourselves and tell us about your background. We will do it that way rather than any other way round, to save time.
John Poynton: My name is John Poynton. I am chief executive of Redthread, a youth work charity that works in partnership with health, particularly emergency departments at major trauma centre hospitals. The charity meets young people when they are victims of violence and attends the emergency departments. It uses that window of opportunity or teachable moment to help with wrap-around support and to encourage and empower young people to help to break their cycle of violence.
There is a recognition in working with the London major trauma centres and other local emergency departments and the major trauma centres across the midlands that by the time a young person attends a major trauma centre with a major trauma stabbing or shooting injury, they have often already attended on average four to five times with lower-level injuries. The idea is that violence breeds more violence. Some victims will go on to become perpetrators if there is not an opportunity to interrupt the cycle of violence, and others will go on to become victims time and time again.
There is an amazing opportunity in that clinical setting for Redthread youth workers—I am sure Rob will talk about the St Giles team on the trauma ward at the Royal London—to be embedded and to work shoulder to shoulder alongside the doctors and nurses, so that they meet the victims of violence in the department and follow the patient to give them support and really use that teachable moment.
Rob Owen: I am Rob Owen from the St Giles Trust. I suppose we are best known for the fact that I probably employ more former armed robbers and drug dealers than any other organisation in the UK. They like the fact that I am a reformed ex-investment banker, so that probably fits well.
Our model is that we want to use people with lived experience, who have had similar life experiences, to help our client group. In this field in London we want to focus predominantly on the preventive side. We run a very effective project called SOS+, using people who have had those lived experiences, who have been trafficked, sometimes exploited and certainly involved in gangs, to go into, now, predominantly primary schools and secondary schools to explain to kids the realities of getting into a gang—the realities of having a drug debt; the realities of someone forcing you to take drugs out of your backside at point of violence. They demystify the allure that a lot of people feel about county lines, getting involved in drugs and carrying weapons. The spread of county lines in market towns and coastal areas is something that I am sure you guys are aware of and something that is going to become an increasingly big problem in the UK.
That is the preventive side. On the doing side in London, we run one of the largest gang-exit services, again called SOS, which was founded 10 years ago by an amazing man called Junior Smart. It uses people who have very credible life skills to work with those who are in gangs and are at the point when they probably feel they can exit. We want to get them out safely, so sometimes we work intensively with the police to get them relocated, but getting a young child out of a gang is often much simpler.
Finally, to go back to John’s point, we were very fortunate in being approached by Martin Griffiths who is the most amazing trauma surgeon in Britain and was celebrated by the NHS 70-year awards. He was fed up with the fact that 46% of young people on his slab had been there before—it was very interesting what John was saying. Martin was upset by the fact that these kids now have on average seven puncture wounds. They are not being attacked, as in the old days, by one kid on one kid; they are being attacked by multiple kids, so you get one person with very traumatic injuries. He was fed up with the fact that these same kids were coming back again and again. He brought in, through Redthread, our ability to come in and have those SOS caseworkers at the hospital, at the point of most need—a point of reachability, I suppose is the answer—to try to de-escalate violence that could occur because that young child has been attacked with their peer group, but also to take that kid and give them a much better chance of not getting involved again in the cycle of gangs. That percentage has gone from 46% to 1%, which we are obviously quite pleased with and which I think Martin is very relieved about.
The people we are dealing with are multi-disadvantaged and very hard to engage. They feel they have no role or stake in society. The only way to help them is to put in place intensive support that encompasses their family and their siblings as well. That is the scope of what we are doing.
Patrick Green: My name is Patrick Green, CEO of the Ben Kinsella Trust, which was set up 10 years ago following the murder of Ben Kinsella in Islington in north London. We work with children who generally display really good behaviours and values and go to school. A lot of the children we speak to would not normally be those whom we feel are concerned with knife crime, but our ethos is that it is important that all young people should have a conversation around knife crime. We believe there is a teachable moment much earlier in the process, and our job is to stop young people going to John’s and Rob’s services. We hope to lower that number.
Many young people learn about knife crime from other young people or via social media, which are never the most reliable sources. We give young people the opportunity to talk to a credible adult and have an experience that helps them to embed good values. No young person is born with a knife in their hands. It is a learned behaviour. If you can help them to unlearn those behaviours or value the good behaviours and values that they have, at a point in the future when they might be tested, they can go back to a point that they have a reference on, and it makes a big difference in making more positive decisions. We have worked with about 10,000 young people since 2012.
Jaf Shah: Good morning. My name is Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International. Interestingly, we have always historically had an international focus, but the rise in attacks in the UK, particularly over the last five years or so, led a number of our partners and Government organisations with whom we have worked overseas to say, “Look, you are advising us. Why aren’t you doing anything in the UK?” In order to not appear hypocritical, we decided to take on a largely advocacy role here in the UK to bring about some of the changes that we have brought about in other countries with a great deal of success. Our focus over the past few years has been about trying to raise awareness of acid attacks in the UK, to place them within the context of how it happened—why it happens, who are the victims, who are the perpetrators—and to use some of the methodologies that we have acquired to tackle those issues in other countries—with, as I said, some success. It is a new journey for us here in the UK because we are dealing with a quite different demographic than we would be dealing with in terms of perpetrators.
Our latest research is based on a Freedom of Information Act request, having approached all the police forces in the UK. I was of the view two years ago that the vast majority of attacks were committed by young men on young men, but our latest Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that that figure is distorted by the figures from London, where it is true to say that two thirds of victims are young men and a third of victims are female. If you take the Met figures out of the equation, you realise that at least 52% of victims are women, which then starts to follow more closely the global pattern.
Here in the UK, we are looking to bring a change in legislation, and we are working with local partners to start to engage with the communities most affected. Our offices are based in Tower Hamlets, which has probably the third highest number of attacks in the whole of London. We particularly want to engage with survivors to begin engagement with young people around education programmes, and many survivors with whom we are working closely are very interested in pursuing that goal, with the desired outcome of reducing attacks in the UK.
John Poynton: I do not have the precise statistics on what is coming in, but there is no question that there is no place for zombie knives, machetes and large weapons like that. My concern is that a number of young people will come to hospital with all sorts of improvised weapon injuries from screwdrivers and the like. Clearly it is important to make weapons less easy for young people to get hold of, but there will always be a need for education and earlier intervention, to look at how we get young people to understand that certain weapons are tools, and that there are ways to use them. This should not be about finding any sharp implement, be it a screwdriver or something else that has been sharpened, to use. When young people come to hospitals, it is not as clearcut as saying that it is just about zombie knives or kitchen knives.
With regard to availability, a lot of young people talk about the traditional method of ensuring that the public feel safer that weapons are being taken off the streets: we see the traditional use of photos of weapons that have been found or taken, and that helps us to feel that those weapons have been removed. The broader picture—the public health approach to looking at this issue—is that lots of young people will see those same pictures that make us feel safer, but they will perhaps not read all the copy that goes with the picture and they will see those pictures as showing the weapons that are available, and they are somewhat traumatised by the idea that those weapons are available. The availability or lack of availability of certain weapons needs to sit alongside a clear and simple narrative to ensure that the entire community—including young people and us—understands that the community needs to be safe. We all need to have the same perception that the community is safe, and not have this misunderstanding of what they need to do to feel safe.
It was interesting for the police to recognise last year that only 25% of knife crime could be attributed to gangs. My question is about what we do with the 75% of “normal”—for want of a better phrase—non-gang members. How do we really educate them to understand that they do not need to pick up a knife to feel safe on the streets?
Rob Owen: Picking up on John’s point about escalation, it is almost like an arms race. What is happening with county lines in particular is that London gangs are looked up to as the grandfathers of gangs, and regional areas aspire to be more like London gangs, often because of social media. They are saying, “We now need to have weapons, because we need to up our game.” In the old days the drug market in a market or coastal town was safer. Nowadays the kids who are involved in county lines or local drug dealing groups are thinking, “We need to have the next big thing.”
There is definitely an escalation in violence, and there is definitely an escalation outside London of the use or ability to use a weapon. The really sad thing is that a screwdriver is more deadly than a knife. If you talk to a surgeon, they will say that it is more complicated to sort out a stab wound from a screwdriver than from a knife, which I was surprised by. In primary schools, it is about demystifying. On social media, people see that there are safe places to stab each other—this is well documented. Actually, there is no safe place to stab someone, because if you hit an artery, it is pretty much game over.
A public health approach has to be taken. When the police catch a kid with a knife, one of the things that has to happen is that has to be seen as a beacon of need—that that kid needs some support to try to break that cycle. The kid is carrying that knife for a multitude of factors, but we are not going to solve things by taking that knife away or taking the drugs off them—then they would have a drug debt, too—and throwing them in prison. They will come out and have the same problems. It is about putting in that intensive care, even if they are caught with a knife, however unpalatable that is to the Daily Mail or whatever it is. It is about a beacon of need. All these kids who are being targeted by gangs are either in pupil referral units or have been excluded from schools. So 100% of the clients we are working with on county lines who are carrying weapons have been excluded from school. If you ever want a beacon of need for where resources should go, it is kids who have been excluded from school.
Patrick Green: Clear, unambiguous messaging around knives is important in the preventive world. If you are working with young people and there is any ambiguity, you get the “but” argument—“but I know somebody who this didn’t happen to”. You can lose the group. We are working with peer groups in schools, and that is so important.
I believe that it is important that the online world is brought into line with the retail world in terms of sales and the restrictions on sales. I have no figures for you, but from the conversations we have with the young people we deal with—particularly those who admit to carrying a knife or having carried a knife—knives will mostly be got from domestic settings, but shoplifting comes very high up in where they get knives from.
I feel that the voluntary code for e-tailing is not delivering as it should be. That possibly relates to the second part of your sitting today. The open display of knives gives young people an opportunity to take knives that they might use in other places. They are less likely to buy a knife and are more likely to shoplift it. That is why I think the legislation is important. It will help the preventive agenda and our conversations with young people. It will make it clearer to them what they can and cannot do, and that is important at this time.
Jaf Shah: I would echo much of what has been said, particularly around deploying a public health approach to addressing the root causes of this escalation not only in acid attacks, but in violent crime. In the case of acid and the availability of corrosive fluids, many complications clearly arise from the availability of lots of household products that contain high levels of corrosive content. How you regulate access to those types of products is a challenge. What the Bill proposes around licensing for sulphuric acid is an important step, because sulphuric acid at a concentration of 98% causes enormous physical and psychological damage to survivors. That licensing is a vital step, but the passing of legislation in itself is insufficient.
We need to ensure that we deploy a long-term approach to dealing with the root causes. We know that once you reduce the availability of one type of weapon, another weapon becomes available, and I think that is what has happened with the rise of acid attacks. It came at a time when there were greater attempts by law enforcement agencies to control other weapons. Many would-be perpetrators saw loopholes in the existing system that are now being addressed, so they chose to use acid, because it is a lot easier and cheaper to purchase and causes an enormous amount of physical and psychological scarring.
Rob Owen: I think it is very varied. We do work on prevention. Through SOS+ we go into quite a few PRUs. They have been fantastically helpful and welcoming. It is really mixed. A lot of schools do not like to admit that there is a gang problem—some primary schools particularly are very worried about admitting that they are becoming targeted.
The gangs are becoming much more sophisticated in the way they recruit. They often do it through siblings. It is not simple. The different county lines are not uniform; they all have their own style and tolerance to violence. They all do it slightly differently, but there is a theme emerging that any child excluded from school becomes a target, because they have become alienated, and are the sort of material that the gangs are looking for.
Sadly, the people we are looking at are 10, 11 and 12-year-olds. It is no longer 16 or 17-year-olds. County lines have been going forever, but it was always older kids doing it. Now the real problems are the level of sophistication in almost brainwashing them into the gang, the levels of violence that are associated with those gangs, and the targeting of kids who have been excluded from school.
Patrick Green: I would echo that. It is really sad. We work with a lot of young people who have been excluded from school. There is no question that they are in a particularly difficult place in terms of the level of intervention and support that they need. I feel that some schools, as you would expect, do that a lot better than others.
I do not think that there is universal engagement at the moment. Things have definitely changed. Certainly, schools listen to Ofsted. We could get far more co-operation from Ofsted in terms of safeguarding, not just in the school itself but in the surrounding area and on the journey that young people make to and from school.
I just think that far too many young people are being excluded from school in the first place. We can probably tell when primary schools come to us and highlight young people whom we are already concerned about, purely from the attitude that we can see in a short two-hour workshop. Far more could be done in terms of safety nets and checks and balances on young people. When they get to being excluded from school, it is really difficult and a tough road back.
John Poynton: There is a real need to not make the schools and the young people feel as if they just have to focus on a lesson on gangs and knife crime. We have all mentioned that knife crime, gangs and county lines are symptoms of much deeper, longer-term root causes. Schools will probably not have any problem recognising that they have children who have had adverse childhood experiences throughout their lives. They have parents who perhaps are not able to support their children in quite the way they need. I suppose I really want to look at how schools are supported to engage the families and the children on those root-cause issues, rather than at trying to talk a headteacher into just having a gangs, knives or county lines lesson plan in their personal, social, health and economic education. I think you need to do both but, again, this is similar to my point about showing weapons that have been taken off the street. In going into schools, my colleagues here obviously do a very good job of ensuring that children are not traumatised. For children who perhaps are not engaging or listening in quite the same way as those who are going to stay on in mainstream education and do well, they might hear that this is normal. There is an element of re-traumatising, or possibly triggering a previous childhood trauma.
For me, it is again about ensuring that schools are better supported to work as early as possible around adverse childhood experience and support the parents through primary school, so that, as Rob pointed out, we are not having to bring the personal, social and health education lessons around county lines and gangs lower and lower, because we should be meeting it at the very beginning.
It is less threatening to teachers and to heads to talk about how we support all children with adverse childhood experience from reception, rather than to try to go backwards in talking about the more worrying subjects. I am not saying it is either/or; it is both.
“Children carry weapons for a multitude of…reasons”
and criminal justice measures are unlikely to be effective in tackling this. It also says:
“There is no evidence that the threat of custody deters children.”
Is that a concern that you share?
Rob Owen: I broadly do. I do not think that, for many of our clients that we are working with, that is a factor that stops them carrying a weapon, sadly. A lot of it is to do with the glamorisation on social media, which has been mentioned before. Social media is now explaining to kids the most effective place to stab someone in the heart. How is that possible? Failure rates of surgery are very sensitive, but kids are now being shown on videos the two places if you are going to kill someone.
It is not a simple solution about saying, “You’ll have a mandatory sentence if you get caught with a knife.” It is completely about educating kids to understand the effects it will have longer term and the effects it will have on families. The longer term solution has got to be much more about education than sentences. That is not working; it is not putting people off.
Rob Owen: There have got to be two things. One is that there have to be regulations and laws, and I completely get that. At the same time, there has also got to be some form of common sense and humanisation about that situation and about what the best thing is for that person to ensure that they do not create another victim.
My experience of parents of victims, sadly, is that what they are most obsessed about is ensuring that no other child suffers and no other parent has to go through what they have gone through. What we are trying to achieve is that the best environment for that to happen is available. But that is often not just about sentencing; that has got to be about a package of support that is put in place.
Patrick Green: It is a difficult one. Certainly, from the victim’s perspective, many of the young people who have been victims of knife crime are often concerned that the perpetrator is back on the streets very quickly, and that heightens their feeling of insecurity. Our view in terms of first-time offences is, yes. Young people carry knives for a range of reasons; some of them may be around protection, and people are just making a mistake. Certainly, when it comes to second offences, there is due concern there about the young person falling into a trend and sentencing really playing a part in helping take that young person off the street.
The key issue is the support from the first offence to the second offence. I am not entirely sure that young people who are caught with a knife are getting the right level of support to help them and deter them from coming back on to the street the second time. The “two strikes and you’re out” should absolutely be the final option, but there should be a range of support. This is about rehabilitation and helping—as somebody said earlier on, if you are carrying a knife, it is almost a cry for help, and we should be doing far more around that.
John Poynton: Earlier this year, with Sarah Jones, we had young people from all around the country attend the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime to talk about their experiences. One of the overriding messages from them was that their experience of prison or the threat of prison was not a clear deterrent to being involved in risky or criminal behaviours. As Rob says, there needs to be a clear package of support. I think it is really important that that strategy is recognised. It is about vulnerability and safeguarding, and we need to look at how we support the young people.
The comment was made that young people are very clever at finding loopholes. We had a number of young women who talked about the fact that they are coerced into carrying weapons so that the young men are not caught carrying them. I am just making the point that the young people carrying the weapons are very possibly not the young people likely to be using them. That is a statement—just to recognise that young women and very vulnerable young children are coerced into behaviours that they would not otherwise deem normal on their own.
You cannot have a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I am very aware that the strategy is not saying that—it is putting a raft of support in to look at how we work with these young people—but my concern would be the classic “cry wolf” issue or the “but what about” point that Patrick made. Young people will always know of someone else who has been stopped twice holding a weapon, who, perhaps quite rightly for a number of reasons, may not have been given a mandatory sentence. The issue is that that will always become the narrative, “In that case, it is not going to happen to me.”
I would push for a really broad package of support for young people and a very simple narrative around the issue, so that young people recognise that they should not be carrying weapons. We also need to look at why these young people are being coerced into carrying weapons or drugs or other things that they would not normally do on their own.
Jaf Shah: May I flip back briefly to an earlier question around engagement with schools? As I mentioned, our engagement in the UK at a programmatic level is embryonic, but what we know from our work overseas in terms of engaging with schools, schoolchildren, teachers and so on, and engaging from a very young age, is that it is a very effective way of engaging with children about the repercussions of a violent act—in particular acid violence. By the very nature of acid attacks, the face is targeted, so you have a very visible form of violence. When survivors go into schools and talk with children, the impact is very strong. They certainly realise that there is a human beyond the facial disfigurement and that they have their own narrative, and that story carries a very strong message.
I was very interested when I visited Scotland and met Dr Christine Goodall from Medics Against Violence. I thought that their work was absolutely brilliant. It is a strand of work that could work particularly well with survivors of acid attacks engaging with school children.
To fast-forward to the most recent question, it is enormously difficult around the mandatory sentencing of under-18s, because there are many complicating factors. I have been hearing locally that young children are actually carrying acid in schools—but as protection, because it has become so commonplace. I think it is a very difficult subject in terms of having an absolute answer. It requires, as everyone else has mentioned, a far more sophisticated package of engagement with groups who might be affected.
Rob Owen: Same age.
Jaf Shah: The demographics vary between London and outside London. Within London, particularly in the three boroughs that are most affected in east London, the average age might be late teens, but there have certainly been some high-profile cases where 16 or 17-year-olds have engaged in what might be described as a spree of attacks in a very short space of time.
Rob Owen: There is obviously higher usage among men, but the focus now for a lot of these gangs is to recruit people who do not stand out, so women or young girls are more likely to get targeted to become members, because they are less likely to be stopped and searched, and so on. The interesting thing for us, particularly in the county lines world, where gangs are looking to export the drugs out of London, is that they are now recruiting locally. The old model was to use London kids to go out to Dover, Ramsgate, Margate or wherever, but now they are recruiting locally, and they are recruiting lots of girls—obviously less, but an increasing amount. The worry is that there is starting to be an overlap between not only transporting drugs and weapons but being used in the sex trade. So there is an increasingly nasty element of exploitation—modern slavery, effectively—that is happening, and that is happening with lots of young girls, sadly.
Jaf Shah: A combination of interventions is required to deal with a pretty complicated scenario. Obviously, in understanding acid violence, we know that, effectively, 50% of acid attacks occur in London. Within London, the three boroughs most affected constitute probably in the region of about 35% of attacks. It is no coincidence that those three boroughs are the three poorest boroughs in London, so you have to think about the issues of disadvantage of many young men—it is predominantly young men.
From 2017, in our data, 75% of perpetrators were men, 10% women and the rest unknown. What we are seeing is, again, the gap in what those young men aspire to and what they can realistically achieve through legitimate means. The aspiration thing is a key element. Every young person aspires to achieve something, and that might mean material goods, but what happens if you are not going to achieve that aspirational goal?
Not only do we have to ensure that there is a very strong educational programme that works around issues of respect and anti-violence, but we have to create opportunities for those young men, in particular, to find alternatives. That might be further education; it might be university. Clearly, most young people want to have some money in their pockets, so the issues around employment opportunities also come into play. If you take a trauma approach to dealing with the problem, you have to understand that many young men who commit these crimes have probably been victims of violence themselves. You have to engage with them at that level as well.
It is a very complicated scenario—hence the fact that I think you need to have an integrated approach in dealing with the problem, because it requires engagement with so many different stakeholders. That is not going to happen very easily; it will take at least two years—maybe a year if you are lucky—to embed the infrastructure, align all the stakeholders to a clear objective and then deliver a programme of work.
Patrick Green: It is all the things you mention. If I can borrow from public health language, in a health setting, in preventative work, we send out positive help messages to everybody to eat well, exercise well, not drink too much and so on. We have those positive, preventative messages. If there is then early intervention in terms of screening, we screen people and hope that everything is positive. For those that are negative, we move in very quickly and intervene. We do whatever is necessary to stop it going to the next stage.
It is a similar approach to tackling youth violence and knife crime. We need to do far more in terms of the preventative work. The early intervention work can be all the things you mention plus 100 things more. It comes down to really good youth work. You have to really understand what is happening for the young person involved, both for them and in their environment. If you put the right measures around them and allow them to fail once or twice along the way, then, generally, you can pull young people back from that setting. Sadly, it is not just about doing a prescribed number of seven or eight different things, and I think the serious violence strategy captures a lot of this; it is about doing a large number of interventions in a strategic manner.
Jaf Shah: No, but the Home Office last year commissioned the University of Leicester to look into the motivations behind the attacks. Some of the critical data and understanding of what types of corrosive fluids are being used in attacks could be produced through the forensic work conducted within hospitals and the investigation process when attacks are reported. There is a lack of data because it is a relatively new crime; well, it is not a new crime, as we all know—it is an old crime—but the numbers are so much higher than they have ever been in the past. Suddenly we are addressing a relatively new crime, and we are at those early stages where more data needs to be accumulated to better understand the problem, the motivations and the environment in which perpetrators are committing those attacks—to understand the real motivations behind those acts.
I commission a lot of research on the subject because it is a relatively new phenomenon here in the UK. I have commissioned law studies to understand what laws are in place in other countries, how we can learn from those laws and how they are being implemented.
I would be interested in your views about something that puzzles me about the Bill—no doubt at some point we will have the opportunity to ask the Minister about this. There are two main offences in the Bill relating to corrosive substances: selling them to people under 18—the Bill bans that—and having them in a public place. However, the definition of “corrosive substance” differs for those two offences. For the first, there is a reference to a schedule: you must not sell the products in schedule 1 to people under 18. For the second, there is a different definition, in clause 5(9), which states that
“‘corrosive substance’ means a substance which is capable of burning human skin by corrosion”.
From your point of view, which of those two approaches is preferable? Should we have a list setting out the problem substances, or would a more general definition work better?
Jaf Shah: I would be interested in having a list. The reason I would prefer that method is that once you start to collect data after an attack has been committed and you have the forensics, you can understand which substance is most likely to have been used. If you can compare it with an existing list, that helps in terms of accumulating hard data, and then we can actually target the particular fluids that were used. It makes sense to have a list and to report against that list.
Jaf Shah: I would certainly be open to extending the ban to people under 21. I put forward 18 initially, really to tie it in with existing controls for other weapons so that there was consistency, but I can certainly see the value of increasing the age to 21.
Jaf Shah: I certainly think so. Part of the issue we have is a lack of data. If we keep our options open, we may prevent attacks from occurring in the future. Limiting the range may be detrimental in the long term, I suspect.
Rob Owen: I think there is generally a very low level of awareness. If we twist this slightly, to stop this happening and effectively break the cycle of offending, in our view, you need to inject into that person’s life a credible caseworker who they can relate to and who will go that extra mile to start sorting out pragmatic issues. Often they revolve around the family situation. We are not talking about nuclear families here; we are talking about multiple siblings—many of them failing at school and being failed by school—who are very well known to social services and to nine-plus Government agencies, but there is no one in that person’s life who they actually want to engage with.
I suppose the great trick with these individuals is to put someone into their very complicated lives who they actually believe in and can see is on their side, and who is enabled to do something about it. We always talk about going the extra mile, but if you are trying to help someone with a housing situation and you go down to the homeless persons unit, it will take you five or six hours to advocate through that glass. Several times you will get back a piece of paper saying, “You brought the wrong form. Come back again tomorrow.” If you leave that to the client, it is never going to happen. You often need someone there with the right skills and the right determination, and who that client believes in, to start changing their attitude from, “I’m not going to engage in school.”
You need to get in place someone who is the right role model who will actually start changing their perceptions. The point about aspirations is interesting. Lots of young people who are very vulnerable want the trainers and so on, and they think the easy way to get them is by dealing drugs. The reality is that they earn less than they would do at McDonald’s, and they have a threat to their life. Education is about having someone in their life who they believe in and can engage with. A lot of people are put into their life but they do not want to engage with them, so it is a complete waste of time and makes things worse. That is the reality.
Rob Owen: The reality is that if you are a youngster who has been offered a couple hundred quid to do county lines, going off to poor old Margate, they know where you are going and that you have drugs on you. Someone will come and take the drugs off you, often at knife point. You now have a drug debt. The cost of a life is about £800, so if you have a debt bigger than £800 and you cannot pay that back, your family is threatened. They threaten to rape mums or sisters as well, so there is a drug debt and threats of violence. They are effectively in bonded labour.
The glamour of going “out county”, or whatever it is called, disappears when they have to spend time in a crack den as a 10 or 11-year-old, with people vomiting and needles everywhere. They look down on the junkies. It is not as though there is a relationship there. They are cuckolding vulnerable people out in the sticks to use their premises, and trafficking young kids to deal the drugs from there. They are not making any money out of it because often they have a drug debt. They are being forced to carry packages of drugs internally. If they cannot get them out at the right time, they are sometimes pinned down and people will use spoons to force it out of their backside—girls and boys. The reality is not that you are earning lots of easy money. The reality is sadly very different. They do not believe that from someone who is a well-meaning probation officer, youth worker or whoever it is; they need to hear it from someone who has actually been there and done it.
John Poynton: That was a Metropolitan police figure. I do not think that we have got to the bottom of why 75% of young people who are not known gang members, and are not on the gangs matrix, are carrying. I think it alludes to the fact that young people do not feel safe. We know from research that young people do not have the cognitive ability to make clear adult decisions and recognise the consequences of their actions until they are 23 or 24.
For us, putting ourselves at risk of being caught with a weapon just does not make sense, but it does not work like that for young people who are very much in their development phase. That is why we, as adults, cannot have clearcut ideas about what should put someone off. There is definitely an element of young people not feeling safe and then potentially carrying weapons in order to feel safe, or vulnerable young people are being coerced into carrying weapons for others who are more ready to perpetrate or deal and use them.
It is about looking at how we get to the bottom of this. For want of a better analogy, there is no one silver bullet answer; it has to be about a really clear package of support for these young people. As Rob has clearly said, they are known to so many agencies, but often they are not engaging with them. Key workers, youth workers and case workers are often very good at working with all those agencies and advocating on behalf of those young people. If a young person does not have the ability to put two and two together, and work out what the consequences are, we need to look at their network, both professional and family, and all the underlying issues to make sure that we help and support them to make those decisions.
This cannot be about telling young people, “Do not carry weapons.” We know that telling a young person not to do something will not work when they feel or know that their peers are doing it anyway. We have to work with the whole network, the whole peer group and the families, and we have to do so much earlier. We must not look at this simply as an offensive weapons issue, a knife crime issue, a corrosive substance issue, a gangs issue or just a county lines issue; all violence is joined up.
I think we need a health approach to tackling violence, because then we would be getting early intervention and helping parents to teach their children at the earliest age how to make good decisions and how to develop good decision-making skills. It is too little too late to wait until my team is working with them when they have been stabbed. That is an incredibly powerful, reflective, teachable moment when a young person is on a bed in a resus bay in a hospital A&E department. I would be very happy for Redthread to be put out of a job by a much earlier, broad public health approach work that educates parents, peer groups and professionals.
Patrick Green: I do not—that is the honest answer. Domestic knives seem to be more popular because of ease of access. Lower-level knife carriers tend to talk about carrying domestic knives. As young people drift into more offending, they tend to get bigger knives, for want of a better expression, because they are now competing with somebody else who has a knife, so they need to have something that provokes a level of fear. So yes, there is that runaway train, and that is why there is the attraction towards zombie knives.
Patrick Green: They have a fear factor. If you have got a bigger knife than the other guy, you have a higher standing. We should be aware that the funnel is getting quite tight at that point. Very few young people who carry zombie knives are those who St Giles and Redthread engage with right at the end. They are probably involved in some level of criminal activity such as drugs. They carry them more to protect their occupation than for perceived safety.
Rob Owen: What I am hearing is that it is an arms race. As I said before, London gangs are looked up to by more regional gangs, so they now want to upgrade their arsenal. There is not at the moment a great use of firearms, but I am sure it will increase and start to ratchet up. Sadly, the people who are caught with the weapons, particularly pistols and so on, are not the people who will use them; there will be a young girl who has been asked to look after it and it is found under her bed. There is a lot of coercion with weapons. It is complicated.
Jaf Shah: This is largely anecdotal, because we do not have a lot of hard data, but my understanding is that many young men literally just walk into hardware stores, the local shops, where they can buy drain cleaner. That seems to be the most common type of product—there are fairly well known brands—that will do some damage. Some of those products contain pretty high levels of corrosive content. I have proposed that the manufacturers think about reducing the concentration of some of the more dangerous products and think about the viscosity of the liquid itself so that it is less easy to fling at someone. There are a range of other potential measures that can be examined by the industry and by the guys who produce and sell the products.
On the education side, everything you said chimes with what I have seen. In Croydon we had 60 serious case reviews of youth violence, and in every single case each of the 60 kids was outside mainstream school, so there is clearly a pattern there. What specifically do we need in terms of resources in schools? We have not touched on policing in schools, which is one aspect that may or may not be worth mentioning. What engagement is there from the Department for Education on this, and indeed from Ofsted? We talked about Ofsted potentially having a greater role. The question is about what traction you are getting from other Government Departments.
John Poynton: Shall I jump in and answer the first part? Redthread hosted a symposium of all of the hospital-based violence intervention programmes in the country—Victoria kindly opened the conference for us last week. That is a conference of only about eight existing hospitals, but there is a growing number of emerging interested hospitals. We had colleagues come from Glasgow and Edinburgh, from across Nottingham and Birmingham, and also from London, who are delivering hospital-based programmes, such as those at Redthread, St Giles and the Royal London.
There are 23 major trauma centres in England and Wales, four of them in London. The four in London have hospital-based violence intervention programmes embedded within them, between Redthread and St Giles. Redthread is working in Nottingham and is launching this month in Birmingham, so there are a number—I will let you do the maths. A number of other major trauma centres are interested, but it comes down to the resource question.
There is brilliant and innovative commissioning from police and crime commissioners, from the Home Office’s tackling crime team and the Mayor’s office for policing and crime in London, where commissioners are recognising, from the policing and criminal justice side, that we cannot arrest or enforce our way out of this problem. They are looking at where they can innovate and spend their money. But there is not match funding coming from other Government Departments—from the Department of Health and Social Care, from NHS England, from Public Health England or from the Department for Education.
The only way for us to be able to have hospital-based violence intervention programmes, where we know that we will be able to wrap around a comprehensive package of support in this teachable and reachable moment for young people, when they are victims of violence and they are most reflective and open to breaking their cycle of violence, is to have a clear cross-Government match-funding approach. We know that the Department for Education needs to be on board with this because, as we have talked about, perpetrators and victims of violence are very likely to have dropped out of mainstream education.
Coming from a family of teachers, I am not saying it is just about putting more responsibility on classroom teachers and headteachers but it is looking at resources. It is looking at how we support these young people outside of the classroom. There needs to be a clear approach from health colleagues in how they support this. There is advocacy and championing of a hospital-based violence intervention programme from clinicians on the shop floor; from Mr Martin Griffiths or Dr Emer Sutherland or Dr Asif Rahman, to name a few clinical champions in London hospitals.
There is funding in kind in ensuring that there is space for youth workers, caseworkers to be embedded in those hospitals, but there is no financial resource coming from the top down. As I have advocated, this needs to be an approach that is not just about knife crime or gangs or just about corrosive substances. This needs to be moving down to looking at a foundational approach to all forms of violence. There is a very clear example model for us to take a closer look at in the way that sexual assault referral centres are commissioned. Those are clearly accepted to be commissioned jointly by criminal justice and NHS England. That is one form of special commissioning from NHS England, where it jointly match-funds with its justice colleagues. That is an example that could be looked at in match funding in order to find the resource that we need to ensure that we can work with the victims.
We only have a few minutes left and four people still wish to ask questions. If we have quick questions and brief answers, we will get everybody in; otherwise, we will not be able to, as we have an absolute cut-off on the time. I call Mary Robinson.
One clear link struck me—that between school exclusion and young people becoming involved in county lines. It is a clear marker, which says to me that it is a clear point for intervention. At the point of school exclusion—the education side of things may have failed for whatever reason, and young people may have troubled family backgrounds—are the interventions robust enough? Are they strong enough? What needs to be done? Given that we are seeing county lines moving out into other regions and other areas, which may not have the experience of London, can we take the learning experience and do something there quickly in terms of interventions?
Rob Owen: This is something I feel very strongly about. We are failed by the Department of Health and Social Care. It does not fund any of the trauma work—MOPAC does. Surgeons beg for funding, but they do not get it. The NHS has a major role to play. Sadly, education is really letting these kids down. If you get a kid from school, they do not go missing for a day or two—they sometimes go missing for two weeks. The parents are often worried about reporting that to social services because, first, they do not trust social services, and secondly, they do not want to engage with social services.
The kid comes back from disappearing and doing county lines for a couple of weeks and they are supposed to have an interview, but the kid does not want to say anything to the person doing the interview and the school does not quite know what to do, so nothing gets done. If you go missing from school for two weeks, that should be an absolute beacon of need—come on! That is where we need intensive intervention. It is not just working with that young child; it is working with their family and their siblings.
At the moment, the sad thing is that people do not want to spend money on that preventive stuff. The cost of investigating one murder is £1 million a year. What we are talking about is tens of thousands of pounds to have caseworkers in the hospitals or working with the kids who have been excluded from school, to be able to stop several murders a year. We have got it all wrong. We need to invest up front, so that there are intensive caseworkers about who can prevent things down the line. At the moment, the analogy is that we are putting an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff when we could just build a fence along the top. That is where it really goes wrong.
Patrick Green: The issue is partly that a school’s clear goal is academic achievement. The young people we are most concerned about are those who have really poor aspirations. They just want to make money, but have no idea how to do that. In terms of the safeguarding element, schools and education need to look at building the person. You do not need to have full academic achievement to go on in life. Many people do really well not doing as well in education. That is what is missed, and it is missed very early on.
John put the point really well about the level of support needed for young people when they have been excluded from school—it is an environmental issue; it is not just one thing. That is what is missing. We probably do not know enough about the schools that are doing really well in this area. All we know is that the level of exclusions is getting worse.
Jaf Shah: Can I come in on that?
Can we move on? We are not going to get everybody in otherwise.
Rob Owen: I think “Scared Straight” was a disaster. It is not something in which we believe in any way, shape or form. It was targeted at the wrong people. If you want evidence then please go to our website. It features people like PwC, Pro Bono Economics and Frontier Economics, who can demonstrate that using ex-offenders with that client group reduces reoffending rates by a further 40%. I would be pleased to talk you through it. There are robust evaluations on the St Giles Trust and our SOS work. We pride ourselves on this.
Rob Owen: Using people’s lived experiences to work with complicated young people has a massive impact on reducing their reoffending rates. I would love you to read through the reports; they are all on our website.
Patrick Green: Generally our experiences are positive. We see good relationships being built up between young people and the police officer, and the level of trust builds up. The caveat is that it depends on the police officer. Some are really good at this work, and then it works really well. You need a police officer who understands youth work and how complex that is, rather than just a police officer.
Jaf Shah: I suspect that it is quite common, so it would be a big concern. I will, if I may, briefly divert back to the point we have all been making around the public health approach and make an economic case for that: we conducted an economic impact assessment of acid attacks in the UK for six years. Acid attacks alone cost £350 million over six years. If we include knife crime and gun crime then we are looking at costs far in excess of £1 billion. That is an economic case to make a long-term public health approach a viable way of dealing with the problem.
Rob Owen: There is slowly, slowly beginning to be some work. The platforms they use are well known; it mainly involves two or three platforms. The Home Office are trying to engage with the issue, but there is still a lot of resistance from them. Often it is hidden, and is not obvious. The youngsters know where to go to find it, but not many others do. It is about starting to get to gritty levels where someone can flag it and it gets taken off instantly, with the process being speeded up. There are small amounts of funding going in and it is beginning to happen, but obviously it is not enough.
That brings us to the end of the time allotted for this first panel. I thank all four of you for coming this morning; your evidence has been very useful and will help with deliberations when we consider the Bill.
Examination of Witnesses
Andrew Penhale, Trish Burls and Ben Richards gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from the Crown Prosecution Service, the London Borough of Croydon and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. We have until 11.25 am for this session. Would you like to introduce yourself briefly?
Andrew Penhale: My name is Andrew Penhale, I am the chief Crown prosecutor for the north-east of England. In common with many chiefs, I have a legal lead area, which is knife crime, gang crime, firearms and corrosive substances.
Ben Richards: Good morning. My name is Ben Richards, I am from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. I am here as a double act with Trish. My background is doing our workforce survey for the last few years, so I offer the national perspective, while Trish has the more legislative perspective.
Trish Burls: Good morning. I am Trish Burls, I am the manager of Croydon trading standards and the London lead for trading standards in relation to knife test purchasing, alongside the Metropolitan police.
Andrew Penhale: It probably has not been adequately dealt with as it should be. Part of the work we have been doing in conjunction with trading standards and the Metropolitan police has been to look at measures to deal with online companies that sell knives without putting checks in place. The obvious check for a standard retailer is that you can ask for ID when somebody comes to pick it up. Responsible retailers will do that. Online, that is a little more difficult. There is a declaration, and if a credit card is used, that may to some extent offer a guarantee that somebody is 18, but of course, people can lie. Online retailers do not always put in place the checks that they should. There have been test purchases made and companies have been given warnings. There are current test purchase investigations underway.
The Bill changes the picture because it imposes concrete obligations on retailers to check the age of the purchaser and to ensure that the items are delivered only to somebody who is 18. That is a completely different picture from what we have had before. It also requires the packaging to be marked up accordingly so that it is clear to the deliverer, who may be completely different from the retailer. The Bill imposes a series of obligations that are really needed, because at the moment the online picture is not one where the checks are adequate.
Andrew Penhale: That is true. The trouble is in establishing that all due diligence and checks are put in place. That is quite clear when you have got a retailer like Sainsbury’s, for instance, with a face-to-face transaction, because they can ask the question. It is a bit more complicated in the online sphere. How do you carry out a check? Without improved measures there is not really a position. The law has not kept up with technology, and as a result the Bill is really needed to resolve that.
Trish Burls: I think we should make a distinction. The police take prosecutions through the CPS route, whereas local trading standards departments take them through their local authority’s prosecution route. As far as I am aware, trading standards have not taken any online prosecutions. The onus of a prosecution will fall on a local team’s budget. The work we have done up to now has been alongside the police.
The new measures are welcome. However, it is important to say that we are missing a set of statutory powers in the Bill, which will not necessarily aid trading standards in carrying out much more work in that area.
Andrew Penhale: Again, it is important and needed. There is this gap with online provision, and it is really important that that is duplicated from knives. It is exactly the same problem: there needs to be a verification process to ensure that they are delivered to people 18 or over.
Ben Richards: We mirror the importance of this, and we understand that. As Trish has touched on, the issues are within statutory duties and resources to be able to take on duties on top of those already being carried out.
Trish Burls: We have powers within much of the rest of the legislation that we enforce that allow us to do things such as enter premises and seize documentation and goods in relation to an inquiry we are carrying out if we suspect that an offence has taken place. The Bill does not contain any powers for trading standards officers, whereas police powers would obviously come from the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
Andrew Penhale: Gosh, that is a broader question than I had anticipated. We have resource. I cannot answer the question of whether we have sufficient to do our jobs as a whole; that is a bigger question that I guess the director would have to answer. We are resourced how we are resourced, and we are dealing with the crimes presented to us. We are certainly not not prosecuting because we lack resources to do the job.
We prosecute in accordance with a code, and whether cases meet the code because they are not evidentially sufficient is another matter. We can only prosecute those cases that do meet the right standard. In a very short answer to your question, we are not not prosecuting because we lack the resources to do so.
Andrew Penhale: There are a number of cases that collapsed where decisions were made that should not have been made because of a lack of consideration of wider evidence. That is not necessarily a resource issue; that is a decision-making issue.
Can I gently suggest that we ask questions specifically about the Bill?
I understand your point, I am just gently suggesting that we focus on the Bill.
Andrew Penhale: By the nature of their being mandatory, there is not a great deal of judicial discretion. In relation to some offences, they are there for a reason that Parliament has decided, which is to signify the importance of dealing with knife crime and firearms robustly. There are other offences where mandatory sentencing is imposed. Essentially, Parliament has made that decision. It is not really for the Crown Prosecution Service to say whether or not that is the right thing; we have got to implement what Parliament requires us to.
Andrew Penhale: First, I think it is really important that the victims’ views in the criminal justice system are taken into account. The Crown Prosecution Service has a victim’s right to review system, which requires us to go back and explain our decisions, but also to review them where the victim disagrees. That process is already well established. Whether there is a place for a separate advocate is, again, for a wider debate rather than for the Crown Prosecution Service.
Trish Burls: We have local responsible retailer agreements on knives, which echoes the Home Office’s established voluntary agreement on the storage and sale of knives. These are local; it is not national. There are no regulations that prohibit the way in which a knife is displayed, whether that is via a shop doorway or for open access. We rely very much at the moment on retailers’ good will and common sense.
Trish Burls: On the whole, very well. The vast majority of retailers—both bricks-and-mortar and online—are law-abiding, very decent people who want to make this law work and want to make the place safer. It is an unusual retailer that will not abide by that, although we do have one or two who refuse to put their knives behind the scenes.
Trish Burls: All our knife retailers in Croydon have been visited. Together with a member of the police, they have signed a formal agreement whereby they agree to store their knives safely and not to sell to under-18s. As I said, that is a voluntary agreement; we cannot force them to put them behind the scenes.
Trish Burls: Up to now, corrosive substances have not been enforced at all by our team. There is going to be a large resource issue that will no doubt have an impact. I am sure that Ben will be able to tell you about that in a moment. We anticipate as a local team—the Croydon team—that before this becomes law we will roll out a very similar agreement, whereby we try to raise awareness and educate, so that people are aware of it before it becomes law. We will roll out a responsible retailer agreement on acids pretty much along the same lines as the one on knives. Then, when it becomes law, the requirements are hopefully already embedded in people’s minds.
Trish Burls: Absolutely.
Ben Richards: What I would say is that some areas are very different depending on what their local priorities are. Some areas will not have those voluntary agreements in place. Likewise, as the changes come in, there will not be that preparation for taking action in their local area, because it will not be seen as a priority at all. It is the decision of each local authority to make those preparations how they see fit.
Andrew Penhale: The trouble is, what constitutes a supply? A mother buying bleach for a son who is 17 and moved into his own flat would constitute a supply. Once you move into the domestic setting it becomes rather difficult to police in a neat way. There are offences that could be committed if, for instance, somebody purchased a corrosive substance with a view to an offence being committed. You would need wider evidence of that, but we could prosecute that now.
Andrew Penhale: It would seem a bit odd to make it an arrestable offence to supply in a perfectly innocent way. I understand the point you are making; I just think the practicalities of drafting would be quite difficult. I think there are sufficient powers. You would have to prove that there was a degree of knowledge or belief that a criminal offence was going to be committed. If, for instance, somebody provided bleach for a domestic purpose, clearly an offence would not be committed. The evidential hurdle would be to prove a knowledge or belief that an offence was going to be committed. I think we could prosecute for that already. There are offences under the Serious Crime Act 2015, for instance, that allow us to prosecute offences of incitement or assistance in the commission of an offence. The hurdles are evidential rather than legal ones.
Andrew Penhale: I think it does go far enough. The difficulty is where you impose the obligation. These days, the delivery companies are often people who are completely unconnected with the retail function; they are just paid on a job to deliver to x number of people in a certain amount of time. I think the requirement for due diligence on their part is really important. Whether that should go further, I am not sure.
Andrew Penhale: I think that is an additional measure to capture those occasions when, obviously, the retailers have not gone through that due diligence because they are operating internationally, so it is then required on delivery. The difficulty is, of course, that if they do not know what it is, they would not have committed the offence. We cannot impose obligations on international companies. That is an additional element, which is an important obligation on them, but whether it has sufficient weight is debatable, because they might not know what they are delivering.
Andrew Penhale: I might have to come back to you on that. It is an interesting point. Various measures have been specifically drafted to allow handmade products and things like that. On whether there are wider concerns in the CPS, I would like to come back to you, if I may.
Trish Burls: I would certainly like to come in on the residential premises one. The definition of residential premises could cause a problem for businesses and enforcers alike, in that residential premises have been defined in the Bill as places purely for residential use—no business use at all. These days, increasingly, many people work from home or have businesses registered at home and so on, so businesses might find that difficult to comply with and enforcers might find it difficult to enforce against.
Trish Burls: In terms of age-restricted products in general, do you mean?
Trish Burls: We enforce a range of products already—alcohol, tobacco, fireworks, butane and knives, obviously—and trading standards advocates age check 25 or age check 21, a system whereby a retailer is encouraged and advised to check someone’s age if they look under 25 so as to give the retailers a big gap between 18 and 25, and to get them into the habit of asking for the appropriate identification at that point.
Levels of compliance have got much better in recent years, in part because of the fact that age-restricted products are high on the agenda for trading standards to keep children safe. Most trading standards departments do regular checks on this through test purchasing—almost a double band of checks as well. In Croydon we offer a lot of education to traders—we offer free-of-charge trader training sessions for them so as they aware of the law in that area—and we will check that they are complying by carrying out test purchasing, using young people.
Overall, I feel that the age of 18 is challenged a lot more now. Certainly our rates of failure, in terms of test purchases carried through by a young person’s purchase of an age-restricted product, are lower than they used to be.
Trish Burls: I do not know, is the simple answer, I am afraid. I would guesstimate that when advice and education go first there will be a high degree of compliance among retailers, because awareness is raised. As I said before, it is an unusual retailer who will deliberately sell an age-restricted product into the hands of a young person, but I am afraid I do not know.
Ben Richards: We do not have any concrete figures. The only thing we would say is that obviously consistency will be the issue. Some areas are very proactive with their business communities, reaching out with advice and guidance. Some are less so, because of resource constraints. That will be an issue with the delivery of the obligation.
Trish Burls: I think exactly that. At the moment, this is still a new area for them. I would anticipate that there would probably be a low level of compliance if you were to go out now and carry out a series of test purchases on acid-related products, simply through lack of awareness and lack of training. Certainly, some work needs to be done before this becomes law to educate to prevent sales.
I call Nigel Huddleston, and this will be the last question.
Andrew Penhale: First, let me deal with some numbers. At the moment, we bring very few prosecutions for threatening with an offensive weapon, whereas we bring quite a number of prosecutions for possession. The difference in numbers is vast. To illustrate, I think last year there were about 9,000 prosecutions for possession whereas only about 600 for threatening. One of the difficulties is that the test requires us not only to show that the person who has an offensive weapon is using it in a threatening way, but that there is also a risk of immediate serious violence—the test is the risk and immediacy of that violence.
The Bill is designed to change that test to shift the evidential burden on to the reasonable belief of a member of the public or reasonable person and their expectation of a risk of serious violence. Rather than having a test that can essentially be objected to, because, for instance, there might not be a proximity and therefore no immediate risk, when the people witnessing the threatening behaviour feel a sense of immediate risk, even though they may not be immediately proximate, that offence would now be captured. So it would capture a degree of behaviour that is not currently captured, and, obviously, it is a more serious offence than simply possessing an offensive weapon. I hope I have explained that clearly.
That brings us to the end of our oral evidence session. The Committee will continue to take oral evidence this afternoon from 2 pm. I thank our witnesses on behalf of the Committee for their evidence and ask the Government Whip to move the adjournment.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Paul Maynard)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Offensive Weapons Bill (Second sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Mike Gapes, †James Gray
† Atkins, Victoria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Foster, Kevin (Torbay) (Con)
† Foxcroft, Vicky (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
† Haigh, Louise (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab)
† Huddleston, Nigel (Mid Worcestershire) (Con)
† Jones, Sarah (Croydon Central) (Lab)
† Maclean, Rachel (Redditch) (Con)
† McDonald, Stuart C. (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
† Maynard, Paul (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Morgan, Stephen (Portsmouth South) (Lab)
† Morris, James (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con)
† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)
† Robinson, Mary (Cheadle) (Con)
† Scully, Paul (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)
† Siddiq, Tulip (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
† Smyth, Karin (Bristol South) (Lab)
† Timms, Stephen (East Ham) (Lab)
Mike Everett, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Detective Chief Superintendent Jo Chilton, Head, National Ballistics Intelligence Service
Gregg Taylor, NABIS Ballistics Expert and Central Hub Manager, National Ballistics Intelligence Service
Assistant Chief Constable Dave Orford, National policing lead on firearms, National Police Chiefs Council
Mark Groothuis, Operation Endeavour, Counter-Terrorism Policing, Metropolitan Police
Christopher Lynn, Senior Firearms and Explosives Officer, National Crime Agency
Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton, NPCC lead on acid attacks, National Police Chiefs Council
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball, NPCC lead on knife crime, National Police Chiefs Council
Vin Vara, Past President, British Independent Retailers Association
Graham Wynn, Assistant Director for Consumer, Competition and Regulatory Affairs, British Retail Consortium
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 17 July 2018
[James Gray in the Chair]
Offensive Weapons Bill
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
Detective Chief Superintendent Jo Chilton, Gregg Taylor, Assistant Chief Constable Dave Orford, Mark Groothuis and Christopher Lynn gave evidence.
Before I go on, I advise the panel that we will extend the session to half-past 3, for the simple reason that we have a Division then. Rather than start the new panel at 3.15 pm, we will continue with you until half-past 3, assuming that you are still being asked intelligent questions. We will add on enough time at the end of the day to make up for the change to our programme.
May I welcome the National Crime Agency, the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for firearms and explosives licensing, and the Metropolitan Police? Perhaps, for the record, you would be kind enough to introduce yourselves.
Mark Groothuis: I am Mark Groothuis. I work for Operation Endeavour, which is counter-terrorism policing in the Met. I am the national firearms licensing liaison officer for counter-terrorism policing.
Christopher Lynn: I am Christopher Lynn. I am a senior firearms and explosives officer with the National Crime Agency, and I work in the national firearms threat centre and the expert evidence group.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: I am Jo Chilton. I am a detective chief superintendent and head of the National Ballistics Intelligence Service.
Gregg Taylor: I am Gregg Taylor. I am a forensic scientist for the National Ballistics Intelligence Service.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: Good afternoon. I am Dave Orford and I am assistant chief constable in Durham constabulary and the National Police Chiefs Council lead for firearms licensing.
Many thanks. Colleagues, who would like to take the lead on these matters? Minister, do you have questions of a useful nature?
Christopher Lynn: Yes, thank you, Minister—[Interruption.]
Don’t worry. That musical guitar thing merely means that the speaker in the main Chamber has changed. Why we do that I don’t know, but we always have done.
Christopher Lynn: The Bill deals with high-energy rifles that exceed 13,600 J of muzzle energy. On the capabilities of those rifles, there are shooting sports that deal with extreme-ranged weapons, and they fire at screen targets to register an extreme group at a range of about 2,000 yards. A lot of that sport has grown around weapons that originally had a military application. The most commonly encountered firearm on the domestic firearm certificate is chambered for the .50 Browning cartridge, which was developed between the wars for military applications.
We have engaged with and met the Ministry of Defence to take an objective look at the power of these weapons, and it has adopted two of those .50 rifles for anti-structure use in an MOD context. In order to get an idea of the power, we have identified that one of the MOD’s user requirements for these weapons is for it to immobilise a light or medium-size vehicle or truck at 1,800 metres. These weapons have an enormous energy, and we would support the view that they are inappropriately energetic for a sporting application. The sport seeks to register a hit on a screen or electronic target at 2,000 metres, and the NCA’s position is that there is no justification for a weapon of such excessive power to have such an effect.
Christopher Lynn: I am not a Londoner, so I am not sure if I can—I am sorry, Minister. The MOD has a requirement out to 1,800 metres and 2,000 metres, but the .50 Browning round—the prohibition would not deal only with that cartridge—is effective out to 6,800 metres, according to MOD data. That is 6.8 km, which is an enormous range.
Christopher Lynn: I think that might be a question for my colleague.
Mark Groothuis: According to the national firearms licensing management system, where firearms licensing in England and Wales is held for the police, I can identify approximately 129 weapons that would be affected by the prohibition, should it come in. There will be more in the trade. We do not have a picture of how many are held by firearms dealers, so it will be more than that. Certainly, on firearms certificates, a minimum of 129.
Mark Groothuis: Certainly, there is no example of their being used in crime recently. We have to go back to the troubles in Northern Ireland, when there was a suggestion that the .50 was being used to snipe members of the armed forces. So, we are going back to the ’80s. Other than that, there is no suggestion that legally held .50 rifles have been used in crime.
Mark Groothuis: The threat, as I see it, is that we see an increasing trend of legally held firearms being stolen from certificate holders. The number of guns being stolen is going up. I can give you some statistics, if you like. So far this year, on the national firearms licensing management system, we have got 39 rifles stolen, all of a different range of calibres—none of them .50—and 165 shotguns have been stolen. Again, we are seeing an increase in the use of firearms in crime—mainly shotguns, as they are the volume guns that are being stolen, but there have been examples of rifles coming into use by criminals. They are using them in possibly gang-related shootings.
Mark Groothuis: It is simply a question, I suppose, of removing the risk. In having licences for these hugely powerful guns in the community there is always a risk that they will be stolen. Most, in fact all, of these guns are being kept in private domestic circumstances. If I am a firearms certificate holder and I have got a .50 rifle for long-range target shooting, I will keep it at home.
Although we could say, “Let’s increase the security,” there is only so much you can do to protect these sorts of premises. There are no club armouries for these sorts of guns; they are all kept at home. It is whether we wish to take the risk of these things being stolen. There was one stolen in July 2016, together with ammunition, along with four other rifles that were stolen. One of those was actually used in crime—in a shooting. The .50 was ultimately recovered and, in fact, it had had its barrel sawn off.
That does show that maybe the crime gangs—the criminals—do have an appetite to use these guns if they are stolen. My concern is that, if one of these guns were to be stolen, again with the ammunition, and if it were to get into terrorist hands, it could be very difficult to fight against or to protect against. There is very little—nothing, as far as I know—that the police service have that could go up against a .50 in the way of body armour or even protected vehicles.
It is just a risk you have to make a decision on. Because of the nature of the sport—it is just long-range target shooting; there is no quarry shooting involved in this—do we want to take that chance?
I think the witness is about to explain.
Gregg Taylor: Essentially, it is a manually activated release system. With the cycle of a semi-automatic rifle, you would normally chamber a round, and it would fire and then recycle itself, ready to be fired again with another pull of the trigger. What the manually activated release system does is to hold the bolt back temporarily, so the firer essentially has to pull the trigger twice. It is building a delay system into the mechanism. The Firearms Act 1968 would then classify that rifle as a section 1 rifle rather than a section 5 prohibited self-loading rifle. It has been designed to get around the UK firearms legislation—so it can be classified as section 1 rather than a prohibited weapon. What the mechanism does, if you fire one of these weapons, is to give you quite a high rate of fire, nearly equivalent to a regular self-loading rifle, with a simple double pull of the trigger.
Gregg Taylor: Within the shooting community, if you have difficulty operating, say, a bolt-action rifle, I can see that something that would self-load might be an option for you, but the risk these weapons pose, and the fact that they were specifically designed to get around UK legislation, start to question the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which came in specifically to ban self-loading rifles other than .22 calibre. There may be other options for disabled shooters. Again, it comes down to the risk that these weapons pose.
Gregg Taylor: A bump stock is an additional grip mechanism that is attached to a regular self-loading weapon. What that does, when you attach the bump stock, is to allow you, essentially, to have a simulated full auto weapon. It is another device that has been specifically designed to turn a regular self-loading rifle into something more akin to a full auto. There are videos online that you can watch, and the rate of fire is extreme. Given the risk they pose to public safety, I think it is correct that they are in this Bill.
Gregg Taylor: In the US, yes, with the Las Vegas shooting. I think 12 out of the 14 weapons that were used in, or recovered from, that event had the bump stocks attached. We are all aware of the rate of fire and the number of people who were killed in that event.
Mark Groothuis: It includes two other calibres: 14.5 mm and 20 mm. If the prohibition went ahead at 13,600 J, it would capture not only the .50, but larger and more powerful calibres as well. I believe the 14.5 mm firearms are effectively Soviet anti-tank weapons and the 20 many might be a bespoke-built firearm. Most of them are from a military background.
Mark Groothuis: May I hand over to Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton?
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: What I can say, from the statistics we look at, is that the increase in firearms lost or stolen last year, compared with the previous year, was 26%. There were 430 stolen from licensed premises. Because serial numbers and so on get erased, we cannot 100% say what ends up in the criminal market, but when we have looked at firearms recovered from policing, we recover just over 1,000 a year that have not been used in crime or are just recovered. About 30% of those tend to come from licensed premises as the result of a burglary or theft, but it is very difficult to sit and say what is actually used in crime, because the serial numbers and so on are eroded.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: The ones we are looking at are shotguns and rifles. The .50 calibre that Mark spoke about earlier was stolen in 2016 and recovered in 2017, and there was evidence that it had been fired and had been stolen at the time that the .308 rifle had been stolen, along with eight others. The .308 had been used to shoot three people and the .50 calibre one was recovered in a bag on wasteland, which is a modus operandi for offenders to store firearms, so they are not caught with them in their properties. That one had not actually been discharged in crime.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: Predominantly, but we do see commercial properties affected; I am aware of one in my own area, from which 40-odd firearms were stolen. But they tend to be domestic premises.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: That is one of the things that we have been working with the shooting community about: making sure of people’s social media; have they got stickers in their vehicles? Do they get regular post deliveries of magazines? Do they go to a club regularly, and can they be identified? There are lots of reasons and obviously it is one of the intelligence pieces that we are trying to work on, to improve our understanding.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: From the Jo Cox murder? It was stolen from a vehicle, and it was then cut down and used, with tragic consequences.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: I think the challenge with firearms licensing legislation is that it builds on a lot of previous legislation and some stated cases as well, and our experience of working with this practically is that there will probably already be people looking at this Bill and trying to think of ways round it, unfortunately. There will also be people who possess some of these items who are looking at other parts of legislation, to see if they would provide an exemption for them to still possess the firearm. Very often the proof is actually putting it to test.
We can apply a lot of expertise and, from the firearms licensing perspective, it is quite simple for licensing managers to interpret the legislation and apply it, but very often and for some time afterwards, once legislation hits the ground we still find little cracks and nuances in it. The advantage we have is that there is a national working group, and it covers Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. We try to apply consistency in some of the decisions that are made, and police forces now are a lot more robust in challenging and saying no, and in effect putting a case through the judicial process to determine whether it was appropriate for that decision to be made.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: When we look at the statistics that we collect nationally, the number of deactivated firearms that have been reactivated is very small; converted and modified is different. That is converted as in Baikal firearms, which get converted from forward-venting gas blank-firing firearms to fire live rounds. The deactivated and reactivated firearms are a small issue, compared with modified and converted firearms.
As for antique firearms and obsolete calibre firearms, last year I think they counted for about 20% of the revolvers used in crime, and at the moment we have information with Ministers to look at the obsolete calibre list, to see what is relevant and what needs to be considered to be removed.
Gregg Taylor: I would just add that antique revolvers have never been decommissioned in any way that has deactivated them, so they are in full working order. Antique weapons are subject to exemption under section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 if they are held as a curiosity or ornament, but obviously the gun itself is in full working order.
Gregg Taylor: They are not subject to any licence.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: Anyone can buy them. As we have seen in recent operations, people can buy them, or multiples of them, and the threat we have from crime now is that people are manufacturing ammunition to fit them.
Gregg Taylor: The ammunition is the issue. There are people out there who go to great lengths to make the ammunition to fit these obsolete calibres. As I have said, the gun itself is in full working order but is exempt as an antique under the Firearms Act.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: NABIS collects data only on firearms that have been used in criminal offences. We do not collect data on the firearms that are held. With antique firearms, there are no restrictions, so there is no way of knowing how many people have an antique firearm. We look only at the criminal use of firearms.
In terms of the criminal use of firearms, from 1 April last year to 31 March this year—our performance year—there was a slight decrease in firearms discharges, compared with the previous year. However, from 2012, we are still high compared with previous years. In the last quarter of this performance year, from 1 April to the end of June, we have had 150 discharges, resulting in nine fatalities, compared with three fatalities from January to March, so at the moment we are seeing an increase in firearms offences.
Mark Groothuis: These are the statistics as of 31 March 2018 and as produced by the Home Office. There were 157,581 firearms certificates, covering 577,547 weapons on firearms certificates. There were 567,047 shotgun certificates, covering 1,359,368 shotguns; that is on a shotgun certificate.
Mark Groothuis: There are standard conditions on both a firearm and a shotgun certificate that require you to store, if it is a section 1 rifle, the weapon and ammunition securely so as to ensure there is no unauthorised access to it. If it is a shotgun, you just keep the shotgun secured; there is no requirement in law to keep shotgun ammunition secure. I should say, however, that that is the only place where you will find a requirement to store guns securely. There is nothing in the Firearms Act that actually refers to the security of firearms. It is purely in the rules that set out the design of firearm and shotgun certificates that you get a requirement for security, and that is as far as it goes. There is a security handbook, which is currently being reviewed, but it is at the discretion of the chief officer of police—whoever has the jurisdiction you reside in—to decide whether you have met the requirements to keep a gun secure so as to ensure there is no unauthorised access to it.
Mark Groothuis: Yes, generally. Again, there is nothing in law that sets out what security is. We do have the Home Office security guidance, and there is a British standard for approved gun cabinets—BS 7558. If you said to me, “I want to apply for a shotgun certificate,” I would point you in the direction of a BS 7558 cabinet. Those cabinets are readily available online. If you were coming to me for a section 1 firearm—say, a rifle—and ammunition, I would want the ammunition stored securely and separately, but there is no requirement to store shotgun ammunition securely or away from the gun.
Mark Groothuis: I think it is very difficult, because this is not statutory at the moment. One way forward might be to make it statutory. Then it is a question of trust. All firearms licensing is based on trusting the individual to store the firearm away securely. We do find sometimes when guns are stolen that they were not secure. The person has come home; they have been shooting. They may have left the gun out to dry and not put it away, and it is stolen. That is a breach of the conditions of the certificate. Again, it can be difficult to get to the bottom of what actually happened and how the gun was stolen.
Mark Groothuis: You can be fined, although I don’t know the scale of the fines off the top of my head.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: Summary only.
Mark Groothuis: Yes, it is only a summary offence, so it is normally just a fine.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: We worked with the Law Commission and we provided evidence about the threat from obsolete calibre firearms in criminal hands. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 came into effect last year, and there is now an ongoing piece of work looking at removing certain firearms from the obsolete calibre list if Ministers make that decision. That would make it illegal to hold antique or obsolete calibre firearms that are currently used in crimes, unlike now, when anyone can hold them if they are not a prohibited person.
One outcome of our work with the Law Commission was to recommend the full codification of firearms legislation. Unfortunately, that has not come into effect because the legislation is complex. The definition of antique firearms and parts in the obsolete calibre list were brought in last year under the Policing and Crime Act. We are now waiting for decisions as to what will or will not be removed from that list. That is already in train; we are just waiting for outcomes, which I am told will not come before the summer recess.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: Yes, definitely, as well as an ongoing review of the obsolete calibre list, so that, as and when ballistics experts identify trends in the criminal use of firearms, we can put evidence forward so that those can be removed and the public can be kept safe.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: As I say, you do not have to record them and you can pay for them in cash, so there is no record. You can take scrap metal, but you cannot get cash for it. There is an audit trail for scrap metal, but not for antique firearms. Anyone who is not a prohibited person can buy them and we would not know.
Gregg Taylor: In the Paul Edmunds case, it was impossible to know how many guns he was actually bringing in and transferring to criminals because there was no requirement to record the seal numbers. He also brought in guns and claimed that they were antiques, and were therefore exempt, but in actual fact they were not; they were being wrongly described. He was fooling the authorities to get the guns into the country in the first place.
The ammunition was actually key to that case. As I said, guns are exempt from the Firearms Act if they are kept as a curiosity or an ornament. If ammunition is made to fit the gun, that is when it reverts back to being a prohibited weapon, so the making of the ammunition is key. That is what we see in criminal use right now. People out there make ammunition to fit these obsolete guns, and there are no restrictions on the components of the ammunition. It is only when the ammunition is made as a whole round that it becomes licensable, but the actual components, and the sourcing of them, can be done freely on the internet.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: Why it is—?
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: We tend to see the metropolitan forces as the main ones having gun crime problems. It is a complex issue. I know from my previous role, before I was head of NABIS, having run the communities against guns, gangs and knives programme, that it is very complex and is a serious violence issue. Guns are just one factor.
Also, do you think the definition in the law is drawn tightly enough? Clearly, bump stocks are being developed to get round the law on automatic weaponry in the United States and here. Do you think the definition is tight enough to prevent some sort of modification that has the same effect as the bump stock, but is not a bump stock?
Christopher Lynn: To answer your questions chronologically, because of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which prohibited full-bore self-loading rifles, the impact in the UK is limited, although we still have .22 rimfire self-loading rifles on section 1 firearm certificates. We are aware of at least two designs of bump stocks in the States that would be compatible with certain patterns of .22 rimfire self-loading rifles that are legal here, so there is some carry over, although it is very much more limited.
In terms of definitions, I was involved in a definition, and we went to the Patent Office to try to identify how the items were patented and described in the patenting, but it is always a competition on the wording. You think you have wording that is robust, and then there are some other means of getting around that. I have spent 23 years in the firearms world and throughout that time it has always been a competition of exploring the letter of the law and sometimes undermining the spirit of the law.
Christopher Lynn: We have consulted quite widely on it—the National Firearms Centre—and there has been a lot of input around it. I am sure we would be willing to have any suggestions that could be addressed, but I am not sure that there is an absolute gold standard catch-all. That is my position.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: The use of air weapons is captured by the Office for National Statistics around firearms offences. It is not something that NABIS captures, because they do not fall within our criteria.
Sorry, can you say that again? They do not require—
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: The use of air weapons is not captured by NABIS, but they are captured under the Office for National Statistics in the wider use of air weapons. They are not offensive weapons that we see in NABIS or collate statistics on. I am not sure we can answer that question.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: It is not something on which, at the moment, we have an evidential picture to put either way.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: We have replied to the NPCC consultation, and it is a bit like with some of the aspects in this Bill. I think a lot of it comes down to community tolerance, public tolerance and the tolerance of Parliament. There are a lot of arguments in relation to air weapon risks and dangers. If you look at what happened when Scotland changed its legislation, more than 20,000 weapons were surrendered for a population of 4 million. As with the antiques, we have no idea exactly how many air weapons are in the rest of England and Wales, but extrapolating that number from Scotland would indicate that there is a significant number out there. I think it is a matter for Parliament and its tolerance of risk.
From a licensing perspective, were those weapons to be placed on certificate for England and Wales, that would place a significant burden on firearm licensing departments, which are already processing more requirements and checks in order to ensure that the right people have what we have already established is a significant number of shotguns and firearms.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: In terms of the criminal use of firearms, we obviously see quite a broad range of firearms used. We see firearms that we class as being of UK origin, which have been here since the war days and were here when the legislation was changed, and we see firearms that are smuggled in from abroad and used in crime. We see quite a mix around the criminal use of firearms. I do not have a breakdown to give you, but it is quite a mixed picture, and it changes daily.
In terms of resources—I can speak only for the National Ballistics Intelligence Service—I have just secured an uplift in resources from the National Police Chiefs Council, so we are actually growing to cope with the increasing challenge of the criminal use of firearms.
Gregg Taylor: I would only add what I have already mentioned about ammunition. Again, guns are useless without ammunition, so ammunition is the key to some of the problems we see. There is a lack of control and legislation around purchasing and acquiring ammunition components. People can freely acquire all the equipment they need to make ammunition; the offence kicks in only once you have made a round.
Gregg Taylor: Yes. Obviously, this is focusing on particular weaknesses and threats around certain firearms, but in my area of work—I see criminal use of firearms day in, day out—ammunition is a massive key, and it is not part of the Bill.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: On your question about resourcing, on the legal side it is a matter for local chief constables to decide—with their police and crime commissioners, obviously—what resources they put into their firearms licensing departments. There are steps to go through in the issuing of a shotgun or a firearms certificate. As time goes on, those steps tend to increase because of external scrutiny, cases that have taken place and our access to information. One of the largest challenges we have at the moment is accessing medical records for people who apply. GPs’ responses to their local police forces are very patchy, so that is a significant administrative burden.
There are quite a lot of steps to go through to actually acquire your firearm or shotgun, and then there is the renewal process that goes with that. Those administrative processes happen day in, day out in all your local police forces. As is often the case in this sort of area of business, it is very often only when something goes wrong or is examined by a coroner that we start to learn lessons, but we are constantly improving in this space. As we improve, the requirements tend to be extended because we look into more things. At the moment, we are working with Dorset police on how far we should go into people’s family histories—how far we should interview people and go into those depths. There is an amount of proportionality to be put into it as well.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: If you are an initial applicant, no. You have to wait until you have been issued the certificate before you can go to a dealer and say, “I’ve been authorised to purchase the following firearms,” and carry out your transaction.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: Yes, in essence. There are various protections, but it is that cycle over a five-year period.
Mark Groothuis: Could I just clarify something in relation to ammunition and component parts? There is a restriction on the sale of primers, which are one of the main component parts of ammunition. If you want to buy primers, you should be producing a firearms certificate or shotgun certificate, to show that the type of primer that you are requiring is suitable for use in the type of gun you have. In relation to the powder that is used in the ammunition—we refer to that as shooter’s powder—there are restrictions on the side of shooter’s powder. Retailers of shooter’s powder should be looking to see that the person buying it is the holder of a firearms certificate, a shotgun certificate, a temporary permit or a visitor’s permit, or is a firearms dealer. It is difficult to tell whether that is happening.
In respect of the ammunition, as Gregg has said, I think we need to go further, in so much as we find people with the primers. The possession of a primer is not an offence. Possession of the cartridge case is not an offence. Possession of bullet heads is not an offence. With the question of the powder, there probably is an offence, but it is one of those offences hidden in the explosives regulations and it is difficult to actually prosecute. If we had a new offence for possession of component parts with intent to manufacture, that would assist us greatly. We do not have that at the moment.
Gregg Taylor: If I can just add to that, there are some types of ammunition—one of those mentioned is shotgun ammunition, possession of which is actually exempt—which we have seen historically in criminal use. People will utilise the components of things like blanks and shotgun cartridges, which are exempt. Even though the sell and purchase of primers may be controlled to some degree, there are other ways around sourcing these key components, via things such as shotgun cartridges and blanks, and utilising the propellants from those as well.
Mark Groothuis: It is actually relatively easy to obtain shotgun ammunition. If you want to purchase it, you must produce a shotgun certificate, but I can give shotgun ammunition to a person who is 18 or above without a shotgun certificate. In theory anyone in this room could possess up to 15 kg net explosive quantity of shotgun cartridges, which is a huge quantity—probably in excess of 10,000 rounds—with no certification at all. The controls around shotgun ammunition are particularly loose. The control is there to purchase, but not to be given. As Gregg has said, if you have shotgun ammunition, you can take the shooter’s powder out of it and use it for other purposes.
Gregg Taylor: I keep mentioning the word “antique”, but I could literally find one on the internet tonight and buy one from a dealer. I will have a fully working firearm in my hand within 24 hours. The issue, as I have said, is finding the ammunition or making the ammunition to fit. As you have just discussed, there are ways around that. Again, you can buy all the components on the internet.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: Two weeks ago I held the national annual criminal use of firearms conference. I invited a guest speaker, who is a former gang member, who has been convicted and sentenced for firearms offences. He came and gave a presentation. His view was that it is very easy to obtain firearms and ammunitions. He thought he could go and obtain them, no problem at all. From a street perspective—for a criminal, or someone who is aware of that world—the perspective was that it is very easy.
Christopher Lynn: I think it is about exploiting opportunities, and criminality is very good at identifying and exploiting weaknesses. That is why we see a lot of conversion of signal/alarm pistols, which are lawful in a lot of European member states, but unlawful in the UK. The criminal perception is that they can convert these, and we have seen many examples of conversion of those sorts of things. Those involved exploit the conditional exemption on antique firearms. They are looking for weaknesses, really. With the uplift in the use of shotguns, the presumption is that that is a theft issue. We have talked about the ease of acquisition of shotgun cartridges and ammunition, which is an exploitation of vulnerability.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: In terms of the five-year possession feedback from my colleagues, I don’t hear anyone saying it hasn’t been, but I am aware that there is a piece of work at the moment by the Sentencing Council to look at sentencing guidelines for all firearms offences. We have been involved in that consultation process to look at the wider firearms offences.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: I do not have any evidence to present to you here that that is the case. We are still seeing an increase, at the moment, in the criminal use of firearms. However, although we have an increase at the moment, we are still significantly down from 2005. As I said, what we see fluctuates—from things that are here in the UK and things that are smuggled in.
Mark Groothuis: I have no statistics around that, but, from over 40 years’ experience, I would say very few.
Mark Groothuis: Possibly a lack of resources, training and understanding of the Firearms Act.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: Combined with priorities in the local force and, potentially, the Crown Prosecution Service taking a view that it might not be in the public interest, in that if somebody has lost their certificate because they have been shown not to be fit and proper in relation to the security, then that may be perceived as “punishment enough”.
Mark Groothuis: Yes, they may do, and there are exemptions within the Act that allow non-certificate holders to participate in such shooting. It just seems odd—or certainly weak, from my point of view—that it is so easy, as a matter of law, to hand over a very large quantity of ammunition to someone who has had no vetting or background checks. It puts so much shotgun ammunition into the public domain.
Mark Groothuis: The volume is a concern, yes—the fact that it is just so easy to transfer shotgun ammunition. You shouldn’t be transferring shotgun ammunition to a prohibited person, but how do you know whether the person you are standing next to is prohibited or not? They could be prohibited by virtue of a suspended sentence or a custodial sentence. You would probably know about the custodial sentence if you are a close friend, but there might be someone who has got a suspended sentence, and they may be prohibited. I would also ask how some people who have got suspended sentences know they are prohibited because, as far as I know, there is no mechanism for educating them on that at the moment.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: We are just over 10 people, and different forces will have different requirements. One thing that surprises a lot of people outside of this world is that the size of the force does not necessarily indicate the amount of work involved. North Yorkshire police is a small force but has a significant amount of firearms licensing and will have a bigger department, commensurably. That very often goes with the rural side of policing. As you have heard from the statistics, shotguns are a lot more prevalent than firearms.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: I could not tell you what it used to be in 2008, but it certainly was subject to a lot of closer scrutiny. Generally, in forces, you will have a mixed economy team between police officers and police staff. That is where a lot of the savings have been made. So you have police staff members rather than warranted officers doing a lot of the inquiries.
We have now seen that start to change in a number of forces, with the work that is being done with NABIS, the National Firearms Centre and the NCA. We are getting better sharing of the criminal intelligence and the indicators that would show whether somebody is not approaching the use of their certificate and their firearms appropriately. That is coming to the fore more with firearms dealers. The same teams are inspecting firearms dealers, and we have the lessons from the Edmunds case. While, again, this is anecdotal—you made the comment about sentencing—there was significant feedback from the Gun Trade Association to me personally that the sentencing in relation to the Edmunds case had sent a ripple around firearms dealers. This is certainly an area where we are now working a lot closer with the operational side of policing and firearms licensing than we ever have done before.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: I think David Orford will answer that. I do not have anything to do with the licensing side—I deal with the criminal side.
Assistant Chief Constable Orford: I would not say that there is increased pressure per se, but the volume does place an increased demand. Forces have to look at the breadth of their information systems and what is proportionate. Some forces have moved to telephone renewals, and in certain circumstances that might be absolutely appropriate. If you have held a shotgun certificate for 30 years and there has been no issue on any of your certification at all—our information systems are a lot better than they were 30 years ago—then it is probably appropriate that you receive a telephone renewal, because you get a better service and you are a more satisfied customer. It means we can move our resources on to the people where we should actually be lifting up a few more stones. Previously, we would apply a one-size-fits-all approach.
When I was a beat officer, I was the one who used to get the firearms inquiries, with no training and no requirements. It was an automatic assumption: “You are a police officer, and therefore you will know.” It would consist of trying to pull the cabinet off the wall. That was the limit of my firearms inquiry knowledge then. Now, we have the College of Policing training programme coming online, we have continuing professional development, and we have closer working with the operational side of policing and much better access to information systems. Forces are having to flex and adapt, but it would be fair to say that the increased volume and numbers in terms of the types of checks has put quite a bit of pressure on them.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: As part of the criminal use of firearms portfolio, we have an independent advisory group. At our last meeting a few weeks ago, there was quite a discussion on serious violence. The members of the independent advisory group feel that there is quite a lot to be done around tackling serious violence—they may be the people we could point you in the direction of for their views. They come from a wide background, whether it is youth work, academia, community safety or working in schools. They have quite a few views and suggestions around the prevention side of things.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: One of the key issues the independent advisory group were discussing was the lack of consistency. Programmes start, things dwindle as offences drop, and then it is like a cycle, with things increasing and interventions being put in place. It is very much about getting in there at early ages in schools. We spoke to the ex-offender that came to present at the CUF conferences. He was saying, “Get to them at age 10 and 11.” In terms of that prevention work and those life choices, I know there are good packages out there that can be delivered to educate people and try that Prevent side.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: We have carried out national surrenders to try to get people to surrender firearms, and they are quite successful. The last national surrender, which was part of the Prevent tactic, was in November last year, and we saw a 74% increase in firearms surrendered by the public across England and Wales. There are those sorts of preventive measures, but my experience with serious and organised crime investigations is that if offenders have firearms and ammunition, that is a commodity that they can either sell on or trade, or that they want to keep for their own business. We do have national tactics such as surrenders, and we try to encourage people to hand firearms in.
Christopher Lynn: I presume you are talking about measures aimed at targeting populations rather than the commodity itself—is that the case? These measures are largely threat reduction and vulnerability reduction measures in their own right. I would be talking outside my expertise if I talked about people management and criminality.
Detective Chief Superintendent Chilton: In terms of intelligence, we act—whether that is the police in the National Crime Agency or Border Force—to take firearms out of hands on the street. That intelligence-led activity takes place, but the wider Prevent programme is to try to stop people getting into gun violence in the first place.
Are you content, Vicky?
Unless there are further questions from other colleagues, let me say thank you very much to our panel. Your evidence has been extremely useful and will add a lot to the understanding and intelligence that the Committee applies to the Bill during its detailed consideration.
Christopher Lynn: I just want to clarify some of the material that I provided earlier about high muzzle energy rifles. You may hear, quite rightly, from the shooting community that the MOD has access to a specialist natures of ammunition, such as exotic armour-piercing ammunition, that provide for their target effects—taking out vehicles and so on. The quote that I took from the user requirement required a system that can immobilise a vehicle with all UK in-service .50 calibre ammunition. That is not the exotic stuff; that is standard ball ammunition. It is enormously powerful, even with standard ammunition that is not of a specialist nature.
Thank you for your clarification—that is very useful. I thank you all very much for your evidence. The next panel are here, so I think we will crack on, if we may. I thank you for your efforts.
Examination of Witnesses
Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball gave evidence.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: Good afternoon. I am Duncan Ball, Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Met, and I am the National Police Chiefs Council lead for knife crime, gang crime and county lines.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: Good afternoon. My name is Rachel Kearton. I am the Assistant Chief Constable at Suffolk constabulary and the National Police Chiefs Council lead for corrosive substances.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: Knife crime as a whole is hugely challenging, not just for police but the public sector and voluntary organisations in general. One thing we have been able to do, particularly over previous years, in addition to enforcement is to look at the retail sector within the high street. That is certainly a more traditional area for policing and other agencies to operate in.
One particular challenge we found over the past two or three years is the availability of knives and the access that young people in particular have to knives online. Although it is not a completely ungoverned space, clearly the opportunities are there for young people in particular to get hold of knives that they perhaps would not be able to across the normal shop counter. They are quite prevalent; one look through the internet will show the huge array of knives on sale.
We do quite a lot of regular test purchase operations, both with the police and trading standards. There are quite a number of fails, which mean in a shop sale context that the retailers are selling knives to under-18-year-olds, we also see that as a quite significant area as well online. We do see a number of cases where children, young people, are getting knives online. Certainly from a policing perspective, there is a real need to try to put some regulation and legislation around that, to try to restrict that access.
There is one point I would like to make. Because knife crime is so complex for so many different measures that we have to put in place, we certainly recognise that there is not a one size fits all; there is no one solution. In terms of marginal gains, every opportunity that we have to limit access and prevent the sale of knives to young people, particularly people under 18, is certainly an opportunity we would look to take hold of.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: You will be aware, Minister, that we ran Operation Sceptre earlier in the year, so we had all 43 forces, plus British Transport police, involved in that. That was a national knife crime week of action. We looked at a whole range of activities, from the most important part, clearly, of engagement with schools and prevention activity, through to test purchase operations with retailers, which I have just mentioned. It also included other preventive measures, such as weapons sweeps, so trying to remove knives from playgrounds and parks, where young children have ready access to them.
There was also a very strong enforcement message. Clearly, when people are using knives, we would rather they were not doing that in the first place. We had a strong enforcement drive, particularly round those who continually carry knives and use them with impunity. We see on a regular basis the absolute tragedy—we have seen a number of murders in London and nationally this year—that each of those crimes represents.
That was our week of national action but underlying that there is the daily work that goes on within forces, local communities and neighbourhood policing to reach out to young people in the prevention work that we do. There is also really robust enforcement around those people who do not choose to put their knives down and those who are obviously causing significant violence and harm to communities.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: There has been a lot of activity in the last 12 months on what can be done to moderate the use of corrosive substances and to make sure that they are in the right hands and are used for legitimate purposes. One point I would like to make is that the substances used are often legitimate household goods, which brings a number of difficulties and challenges around their control. However, the data return shows that they are being used by young people, and similar constraints on sale to under-18s will work alongside and in tandem with constraints on the sale of knives and other objects to help to control young people’s access to these substances, the use of which can cause significant psychological and physical harm.
On access and use in public places, the onus has previously been on police officers to identify those liquids, which is a challenge in itself; they have often been decanted into other containers and are not held in their original sales vessels. The onus is also on the police officer not only to say that something is a corrosive substance—it may just be a clear liquid—but that there is intent to use it for grievous bodily harm or in an offensive attack. This change will put the requirement on the individual on the street to explain the circumstances in which they are in possession of these corrosive substances.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: A lot of work has been put into a preventive strategy in the last 12 months, working very closely with the British Retail Consortium, which represents 170 or more retailers across the country. That activity has included voluntary agreements with those retailers to restrict sales to individuals that they have concerns about, communication to young people through education projects, and multi-agency work to emphasise the impact that these attacks can have. I again emphasise that psychological and physical impact, which I believe—based on the research done in recent months—has not been fully understood by a lot of our young people.
One example I want to highlight is Project Diffuse, which has been carried out by the Metropolitan police—working with the Institute of Licensing and the Security Industry Authority—in the context of nightclubs and licensed premises. It engages security personnel in the identification of liquids before they enter an entertainment premises and in taking appropriate action to remove substances that may cause harm. A lot is being done around prevention to address this emerging problem.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: I will start with knife crime. There are obviously huge challenges in the knife crime picture at the moment. We have seen a 20% increase in knife crime nationally in the last calendar year. It is a hugely complex issue and there are a huge number of contributory factors.
One real issue with younger people coming through at the moment is their frame of reference and how they view knives. It could be argued that there is a social acceptance in some circles of the legitimacy of carrying knives. We can look at, for example, the impact of social media; people being anaesthetised to violence and sexual violence on the internet; pornography, which is readily available to young children; or video games. All those things end up anaesthetising them and with a certain acceptance of that sort of violence, or a predisposition to violent activity. They also play into a potential fear of crime in young people in particular; that is certainly something we hear from young children. We know that a lot of children or young people do not go out carrying a knife specifically to use it, but they will carry it for self-protection. The more that knife crime happens, the greater the risk of young people perceiving that the issue is worse than it is, and therefore going out with a knife and continuing to arm themselves.
There are some challenges with availability of diversion services for young people on knife crime. With austerity in general it is important that money is focused toward the right areas, and we have certainly seen some good initiatives for doing that. More than that, though, we see the rise in knife crime as being quite cyclical. If you look back over the years, it tends to rise and fall, and what is important in stemming that rise is recognising that it requires a whole systems approach.
Everybody has a part to play; it is not enforcement, because realistically, by the time the police get involved and somebody has actually picked up a knife it is perhaps too late. It is a multi-faceted challenge, and the answer is not one particular channel, but all agencies, charities and communities working across the sectors bearing down on that. The way I view knife crime is that every particular stabbing could, but for the skill of a surgeon’s knife, end up in murder and absolute tragedy.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: From the point of view of corrosive substance attacks, they are an emerging crime and I believe we were previously not fully aware of the extent. Recording practices in the police is one area that I have been concentrating on in the last 12 months. As you are probably aware, there is not a specific offence in the sense of delivering that acid in a form of attack, so it has been recorded as grievous bodily harm. Part of my work is looking into which of those have been a consequence of an acid attack. My data goes back to an increase from 2015, in the region of 400 offences per annum, to 700 nationally across England and Wales. Compared with knife crime, it is significantly smaller.
Taking your question more broadly on the increase in violence as a whole, and talking as somebody who oversees local policing in an area of the UK, when I talk to youngsters there is a decreasing sense of hope. A number of teenagers feel that there is no hope for them. In personal conversations that I have had, mid-teens have said that they have reached a point where it is too late for them. There is almost a sense of hopelessness, which I would relate to the comments previously made by my colleague on diversion activities. The concentration of some of the youth offending schemes has been on mid-teens. I believe there is a requirement for us to look at a younger age range—work that is being undertaken in Suffolk, my home county.
As with all these complex issues, there are a number of impact factors, but the approach to social media and understanding the position of violence, what is acceptable, the impact and the increase, and, from a police perspective, understanding some of the data, are all important in order to be able to take preventive action.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: We know that sale is made illegal by the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The Bill will bring in a defence around that, which applies particularly to online sales. Where you attribute responsibility or culpability will always be a challenge with those platforms. From an evidential perspective, you will need to prove a sale from the point of delivery all the way back to where there is knowledge, or at least recklessness in terms of people being aware. Such platforms will always present challenges compared with over-the-counter sales, where you have a direct relationship. As I said earlier, the Bill is not the be-all and end-all, but the way I view it is that it is preventive, because sellers may look at it and say, “It’s illegal if I’m not able to rely on that particular defence,” and we will have the opportunity to tackle online retailers, which we did not have before.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: It would be covered by possession of a bladed article. If it is a made offensive weapon, it could fall under the previous legislation too, but clearly you would need the mens rea—the mindset—to prove its intended use as well. My personal view is that they should not be for sale, full stop, because they do not serve a purpose.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: Absolutely. If I may expand on that, the first thing I would say is that we have done a lot of work with retailers. There are a huge number of responsible retailers out there, who take their responsibilities very seriously. They do lock knives in cabinets and put blister packaging around them. The big companies—the ones you would expect—do very well at that. Some of the challenges we have concern some of the smaller independent retailers—but not all of them. My view is that if a young person cannot walk into a shop and get fireworks, why should they be able to walk into a shop and pick up a knife? Look at the relative harm that is caused by knives and fireworks. I just think it is quite disproportionate that there are not opportunities to put knives in a point of sale where they cannot be reached.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: I actually think we might be seeing a slowing of the escalation, and I believe some of that is a consequence of the social inacceptance of carrying acid. We have talked about trends, and I have talked about the low numbers we have previously seen. There are a number of reasons for the increase. I recognise some of it as a consequence of better reporting by police officers about what they are finding. Another reason is that I have encouraged a lot more victims to come forward to report crimes that occur. However, last year’s figures were in the region of 700 and this year’s—it is difficult to understand whether they are precise—indicate in the region of 800, which is not the escalation seen two years ago.
You ask about social acceptability. I have emphasised through the communications strategy and the prevention strategy the psychological impact as much as the physical impact of some of these offences. Some offenders say—we have received feedback anecdotally—they did not realise it would have quite the effect it did. We are talking about a lot of young people—not all young people—using something they have never seen the impact of and they have never known anybody who has done this before; it is something they have tried out.
Time will tell. A piece of qualitative research is under way by the University of Leicester, talking to offenders about why they used and chose that mode of attack. I hope that when that reports at the end of the summer, I will have a better understanding of some of those reasons why, and we can then form the strategy around that.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: I do. There is a huge opportunity to feed in now, early on. There is a good multi-agency strategy, with all the emergency services working well together alongside retailers and other interested partners. This is the opportunity we have to nip this one in the bud before it escalates even further.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: Another group of partners I have not mentioned yet are the manufacturers who provide the substances to the retailers, and they are looking to see whether they can separate some of the chemicals out into less harmful components that, when brought together, have a chemical reaction, to deliver the necessary legitimate requirement of that product.
Retailers have been working to advise people in the retail consortium on storage and sales, with voluntary restrictions on who they sell to and questioning on the purpose for the sale. However, the important element is that these are legitimate products and there is a commercial reason why they are being sold. Everybody in the room probably has some of them at home, so a big part of this is prevention and education: how we keep these products safe and what the purposes are for which they are used.
I think there is about to be a Division. Stephen Timms, you may start, but I think you will be interrupted.
I want to ask you about the corrosive substance aspects of the Bill. I am a bit puzzled about why there are two different definitions of a corrosive substance in the Bill. One is the list in schedule 1 and the other is in clause 5, which defines it as something
“capable of burning…skin by corrosion”
From a policing point of view, which is the more useful definition? [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
If it is agreeable to the Committee, I think we should take another 10 minutes or so of evidence from our current panel—perhaps a quarter of an hour, depending on how it goes—and then move on to the third panel of the retailers, aiming to wrap up by 5 o’clock. There are more votes at 5 o’clock and I cannot see any point in going away for more votes and coming back. We will need to constrain ourselves a little bit in order to get things dealt with by 5 o’clock.
“‘corrosive substance’ means a substance which is capable of burning human skin by corrosion”.
From a policing point of view and arresting people carrying out these crimes, which is the better definition for you to work with?
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: It depends on the policing function and the offence being considered at the time. The first is very specific; it defines the corrosive content of a liquid that is being sold. In that instance, if the offence was the sale to somebody under the age of 18—so we are considering the retailer as having committed the offence—it would be necessary to know the content of that specific substance, whatever it might be: the drain cleaner, the bleach, the product. In terms of operational policing, I suppose the most likely place for most police officers in terms of interaction would be out on the street in a public place. Those offences are likely to come to light through local intelligence, through a stop and search driven by those reasonable grounds to believe that somebody is going to commit an offence and to be able to identify that liquid, which we know from previous offences is often decanted into a container that is completely different from the original one. It is important to be able to seize that liquid and take it back for a degree of analysis, which is the second definition around whether it is capable of burning skin—in other words, is it offensive. Part of that police officer’s requirement would be to identify the malicious intent of holding that liquid in a public place.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: I would not confess to being the best chemist in the room. I have learned a lot about the content of chemical substances, but that is the list that I have been advised on and has been put forward. They are the most harmful, but also the most prevalent substances that have been used in previous offences.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: I believe there is a requirement to consider the context of that liquid. As was said earlier, the very stark differences between knives and corrosive substances are that corrosive substances will be in all our properties at home in domestic circumstances. They will be present in schools. The question then is, why is it there and what is the intent in having that liquid there? I can see potential difficulties about identifying in an educational setting the difference between having something that is there for a legitimate purpose and having something that is going to be used, or is intended to be used as an offensive weapon. That is a challenge.
If one is in a public place, I believe it is harder to say that it is being owned for or carried for a legitimate purpose, especially if it is concealed and within the context of other information that supports the hypothesis that it may be used for an offensive weapon.
I would like to raise another issue. It struck me for a while that there is a bit of uncertainty about the number of acid attacks taking place because we have not focused very much on them. They have risen very suddenly over the last few years. The figure you gave us earlier sounded a little different from the figure that Mr Shah from the Acid Survivors Trust gave us. Can you tell us the state of play on producing reliable, accepted numbers on how many acid attacks there are?
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: Mr Jaf Shah and I have communicated quite a lot over numbers. He receives his information from different sources and has been one of the very useful supportive partners trying to encourage those who are victims of this particular crime to come forward and report what is happening. As with many offensive assaults against victims, there is an understanding by the police that we do not always have a true record because, for various reasons, people do not want to come forward and report to us. An area of policing strategy has been to focus on information sharing between health professionals. For example, we would see a victim go to A&E rather than come to the police service, and it would be for us to try and gather that data and share that information so that we can have the most accurate information possible.
In 2015, the data return that was carried out on behalf of the National Police Chiefs Council by the Home Office was 408. In 2016, the number was 700 and the most recent number, which is based on the last six months of last year but extrapolated to an annual figure, came back at 800, so there is a slight increase. It is important to understand how much of that is an increase in offensive incidents and how much is better recording practice by the police service alongside more confidence among victims to come forward and, potentially, more awareness of and use of such offensive attacks.
There is also the question whether that 800 figure is a true and accurate record, or whether some people are still going to A&E and not coming forward to report to the police service. There will always be some difference in reported figures, but they indicate a trend and I am having further analytical work carried out to identify any indicators that will help us understand this offence better.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: Yes. For the future, I have been able to gain some agreement from the Home Office that offences of corrosive substance attacks will form part of the annual data return to the Home Office. All 43 forces across England and Wales will be mandatorily required to report their instances to the Home Office on an annual basis.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: The issue of sentencing is quite complex. We recently saw the two-strikes legislation, and we have seen an increase in sentencing from that. On the question of mandatory sentencing, I would probably draw a distinction between someone who is potentially a first-time offender, where it is necessary to look at the circumstances behind an arrest and a potential conviction, and someone who we would call a habitual knife carrier, who carries knives regularly and has multiple convictions. My view is that we need a stringent sentencing regime, certainly for those who habitually carry knives and have previous convictions. I think it is entirely appropriate to have a robust position in terms of the two strikes.
Let me bring this back to some of my earlier comments about why a young person might pick up a knife. They might do so not because they are going out to use one, but because they are in fear of crime—it might be for self-defence. That does not make it right to carry one, but there is a balance between getting really robust sentencing and not criminalising young people for the wrong reasons.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: I think it does send a robust message. I would question whether it is accepted across the spectrum. Again, it is not one size fits all—it might be a very robust deterrent for certain people but not more broadly. I guess it comes back to whether you can prevent it from happening in the first place. One of the things that needs to be actively considered alongside sentencing is what other opportunities there are, for example, to channel young people into diversionary activities and remove their need to carry knives in future.
“in such a way that there is an immediate risk of serious physical harm to that other person”
“in such a way that a reasonable person…who was exposed to the same threat as”
“would think that there was an immediate risk of physical harm”.
In a sense, it defines that threat in a slightly broader way.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: Yes. Sorry, I am with you now in terms of threat. Yes, it definitely provides further opportunities. The current definition can be quite limiting, but this gives other opportunities to prove ability, so I wholeheartedly support that area.
I can fit in two more before we wrap up at 4.30 pm.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: Yes—it is very similar to the licensing laws we have for alcohol purchases. I presume it would depend on the circumstances as well. There would be that criminal possession in a public place, potentially. It is a very valid question.
The issue behind it for me is to try to emphasise that we do not want young people to be buying this with intent, or for any reason. We want to manage the use of offensive weapons rather than to over-legislate. For me, it is more important to try to get that understanding that this is something that needs to be sold legitimately as a commercially viable product to the right people, who will then use it for the right purposes, rather than something that can then be misused with that malicious intent as an offensive weapon, than it is to rely on heavy legislation as the only answer to preventing this crime.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: Controls are in place for corrosive substances to take into account that a lot of sales are now online and that there is that opportunity to purchase. That needs to have restrictions, such as a requirement to take reasonable precautions that the person buying is of an appropriate age. The requirement is on the seller to prove that—whether online or through a premises. There must also be appropriate packaging that makes it clear that it is a corrosive substance, that it is harmful and contains something likely to cause harm, and that it must be delivered to someone responsible above the required age, not just handed over to a child on delivery.
Assistant Chief Constable Kearton: My understanding is that that delivery has to be passed to a responsible person of an appropriate age. I would not say that leaving it on the front doorstep or in a back shed would be handing it to someone of an appropriate age.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: It is an interesting point, particularly when you look at the responsibility on the seller in terms of the supply of knives. One of the biggest challenges is from suppliers overseas—websites—which we have no governance or control over. So I am particularly pleased that responsibility for that is placed—under clause 18, I think it is—on the delivery company to ensure that it is carrying out the right checks. There is a responsibility on those delivery companies in those circumstances, and presumably in terms of the contracts they would have with the companies that are selling, to ensure that they know what is in those packages.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ball: It would be beneficial as well. The main responsibility is on the retailer to meet those particular conditions with what they are actually selling. Obviously, responsible retailers would have appropriate contracts with the delivery company. I guess, in the circumstances you describe, when the issue is about the delivery driver not delivering these things, something along those lines would potentially be of benefit.
I want a good half-hour to hear from retailers, so, very briefly and lastly, Stephen Morgan.