Parking (Code of Practice) Bill (First sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mr Adrian Bailey
† Brennan, Kevin (Cardiff West) (Lab)
† Double, Steve (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
† Doughty, Stephen (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Fovargue, Yvonne (Makerfield) (Lab)
† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
† Hollinrake, Kevin (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
† Hughes, Eddie (Walsall North) (Con)
Jones, Graham P. (Hyndburn) (Lab)
† Knight, Sir Greg (East Yorkshire) (Con)
Lefroy, Jeremy (Stafford) (Con)
Perkins, Toby (Chesterfield) (Lab)
Pound, Stephen (Ealing North) (Lab)
† Selous, Andrew (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
† Sunak, Rishi (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government)
† Watling, Giles (Clacton) (Con)
Wishart, Pete (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)
Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 19 July 2018
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
Parking (Code of Practice) Bill
Good morning and welcome to the Public Bill Committee for the Parking (Code of Practice) Bill. I have a couple of preliminary announcements. Can Members please switch their electronic devices off or to silent? I remind Members that teas and coffees are not allowed during the sitting. We will now begin the line-by-line consideration of the Bill.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 2 to 11 stand part.
Mr Bailey, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to see you in the Chair. I have a soft spot for the part of the country that you represent, not least because it made some of the classiest and most desirable cars ever made. My favourite car of all time is the Jensen Interceptor, which was of course made in West Bromwich, so it is appropriate that you are in the Chair today.
I also thank all Committee members, who are not conscripts forced to be here by the Whips, but are here because they have an interest in the subject we are considering. I am most grateful to them. I also place on the record my gratitude to the hon. Member for Makerfield, who is leading on the Bill for the official Opposition. She has apologised for not being here today due to other commitments, but she has made it clear that she fully supports what I am trying to achieve with the Bill. I am most obliged to her for that.
The heart of the Bill is clause 1. It requires the Government to create a new mandatory code of practice across the private parking sector, which will end the inconsistent and unfair treatment of British motorists by rogue parking operators. It is important that motorists know when they enter a car park that they are entering into a contract that is reasonable, transparent and involves a consistent process. Poor signage, unreasonable terms, exorbitant fines, aggressive demands for payment and an opaque appeals process have no place in 21st-century Britain. In short, self-regulation has not worked, which is why the Bill is necessary.
It is necessary because of incidents that have happened to motorists like Mr O’Keefe, who was driving on a private industrial estate looking for a particular retail outlet. He could not find where he wanted to go, so he stopped for 15 seconds in a lay-by to check his satellite navigation settings. He was caught by a passing security van equipped with a camera, and a week later he received a ticket for £100 for stopping in breach of a sign situated further back on the road, which he later realised he had passed at 30 mph. The parking company agrees with his version events—it does not dispute the facts—but is still pursuing him, and he continues to receive threatening letters.
Even homeowners have been hit, like the residents of a Salford block of flats who in just one month had more than 200 tickets issued to them for parking in their own car parks. They were given one day’s notice to display their newly issued permits. The firm responsible posted warning letters through residents’ mailboxes just one day before the introduction of the new scheme. However, many residents were away—some at work, some on holiday—and, despite having a right to park there, their cars were ticketed.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is my very good friend, for introducing the Bill and for giving those examples. Often when such problems occur—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has faced similar problems—people write to their Member of Parliament. I wrote to one particular company, New Generation Parking, which never bothered to even reply to me, as a Member of Parliament. That kind of arrogance has to stop. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree, as I think he did on Second Reading, that the Minister should make sure that a requirement to respond to Members is in the code of practice?
I would hope that the code of practice would lead to every parking organisation behaving in a business-like and proper manner, and treating motorists fairly. One of the reasons that the Bill does not set out the code of practice is to allow wide consultation and to take into account points such as that just made by the hon. Gentleman, who is my honourable Friend. It is important that we have the widest possible consultation to ensure that the code of practice, when it is crystallised, formulated and produced by the Minister, is as wide and as comprehensive as possible.
If I could mention one other case, a pensioner mis-keyed her number plate into an automated machine when paying for her parking and got one digit wrong. On returning to her car, she discovered that the innocent mistake had resulted in a ticket. On appeal, she was able to point out that it was an honest mistake. She was also able to prove that no other car on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database had the registration number that she had keyed in. The parking company still demanded payment. In my view, the Bill is sorely needed.
As well as examples of poor practice, does my right hon. Friend agree that there are some examples of good practice? I returned to my car last week at the car park I use when I come to London every week and, for the second time, I saw that a parking ticket was stuck to my window. I realised what I had done: I had forgotten to pay the fee when I left for London the previous Monday. I opened the plastic wrapper of the parking ticket and instead of being a parking ticket, it had a note inside saying, “Did you forget?”. So there are examples where people do the right thing. They realised that I was a regular customer of theirs.
I am grateful for that example. My hon. Friend clearly has an unknown admirer, because I doubt that happens on many occasions.
The advisory code of practice is currently being formulated. I am grateful to the Minister, because after the House gave the Bill an unopposed Second Reading, he immediately started consulting on what should be in the code of practice. I have been to some of those consultation sessions to listen to what other people are saying. The code, although not yet ready for publication, is coming along very well indeed.
A summary on the code is available and has been distributed to Members. I will refer to a few aspects of it. There will be obligations on the operators of private car parks in the code, which will include the type of “equipment and technology used”, “clear signage”,
“clear and accessible displays of the terms and conditions”,
and the requirement that there be a transaction period and a grace period.
We need to ensure that a motorist has a choice before committing him or herself to park in a particular car park. With the advent of CCTV cameras, in some cases what happens is that a vehicle registration plate is recorded upon the motorist entering the car park. The motorist then sees the terms that apply to the car park and decides not to park there, but gets a ticket because the car was seen going in and coming out. That cannot be right. There must be a grace period of five or 10 minutes—perhaps even longer in a multi-storey car park—which would allow the motorist to change his or her mind.
I give way first of all to Scarborough and Whitby.
Thank you. I myself witnessed a situation in Haworth. There was a notorious parking firm operating using clamps, which have now been outlawed. In that case, a couple who had parked their car went to a nearby shop to enact a small transaction in order to get some change. In that short time, they were blocked in by the parking company vehicle and clamped. They can no longer clamp, but these scoundrels are reverting to other methods, which my right hon. Friend’s Bill will prevent.
That is indeed the case. I am moving down the coast; I am now going to Clacton.
I want to pick up on the notice of free parking, which my right hon. Friend brought up. In a particular scam in Clacton last year, some 400 tickets were issued in Ravensdale car park, which had a very large sign that said, “Free parking”. In very small print, hidden round the back, were the terms and conditions that nobody saw. People expected that they would be able to park for free. It was a scam; some 400 tickets were issued and many were challenged. A certain local councillor, Councillor Richard Everett, was very strong in fighting those tickets and got a lot of money back for people, so it is worth fighting. I support the Bill, because this must never happen again.
That is just the sort of case that I would expect the code of practice to cover. I now move inland to South West Bedfordshire.
We had a similar case in Dunstable to the one my right hon. Friend described. The Quadrant car park in the middle of Dunstable was, on some occasions, completely full. Cars that came in, tried to find a parking space and, on seeing no space, drove out again were being issued with tickets. I managed to get that issue resolved after communicating with the company. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that sort of thing should not happen and causes unnecessary distress?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am grateful to him for giving that example.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing forward the Bill. I had a similar experience to the hon. Member for Cardiff West, who highlighted the fact that these parking firms rarely engage with MPs. It was only after I named and shamed the parking company in the House that it started to respond to me.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons the Bill is important is the impact this issue has on tourism? As the MP representing Newquay, every week I get letters from tourists who come to Newquay, only to find a fine waiting on their doorstep when they get home. They then write and complain to me, as the MP, saying that they will never come to Newquay again because of the way they have been treated. These measures, therefore, are important in supporting our tourism industry and ensuring that people feel welcome to come to places such as Newquay.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I can concur, as I too represent a tourist area.
To elaborate on the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, the proper functioning of a car park in a friendly, courteous and correct manner is essential to the health of our town centres. If people are scarred by receiving tickets, they will not come and shop, and keep our town centres going and our small businesses in business.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Turning to the rest of the Bill, clause 3 requires the Secretary of State to review the code from time to time, which I think is necessary, because just as new rules are introduced, new loopholes are found by those who wish to get around the regulations that apply to them. Clause 4 requires the code, when it is finalised, to be published. Clause 5 gives details of the effects of the parking code. I am pleased that it makes it clear that the parking code itself will be admissible in any court proceedings. If a parking company takes a motorist to court and it is then revealed that it failed to follow the statutory code of practice, I would expect the courts properly to take that into account.
Over 19 million journeys every day end at a parking space. This is an issue that affects all voters, regardless of geography, class or age. The Bill seeks to introduce transparency and fairness.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. It is a pleasure to be here with other members of the Committee today. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, who has done so much work to bring the Bill forward. I am pleased to support him in his effort.
This matter has long been of concern to me. I have looked with interest at all the clauses of the Bill and the draft code that the Minister helpfully sent out. I hope that we can engage with him over the coming weeks and months to ensure that the code is as robust and tough as possible, and that the Bill provides the review that is necessary, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to ensure that further loopholes are not found and that companies do not seek to avoid the code.
My constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth, which neighbours that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West, has a huge number of apartment units and is one of the most densely populated constituencies in Wales. There are many multiple apartment blocks that have large parking areas outside and parking is at a premium. Understandably, some restrictions are needed to ensure that the rightful owners or renters of parking spaces—or their visitors—can benefit from the exclusive use of their space.
However, that population density and those parking arrangements have been severely abused by several parking companies. I can say from the many letters that I have received from constituents, and from my own experiences, that the current situation cannot continue. I was fined for parking in my own space. Letters were sent to me and I appealed. There was no reply to me then or on a second occasion. I received no further information about the matter. I made it clear that I was the legal user of that space and was entitled to use it, and I gave my address and stated that I was appealing the fine. My permit, I think, had slipped slightly to the side of a window and could not be seen by the operator.
Only months later did I discover that multiple legal letters from solicitors’ firms and so on had been sent to a previous address of mine that had been secured from the DVLA—a key issue at the heart of the Bill. Essentially, I was being taken to court for parking in my own space, unbeknown to me, because I did not receive any of the correspondence until the landlord of the place where I had been living sent me the pile of letters. Too many of my neighbours and too many of my constituents have had very similar experiences—some of them to the extent where, on a point of principle, they have refused to pay the fines and refused to engage with the solicitors’ letters. Some have even found themselves on shows like “Can’t pay? We’ll Take it Away!”—all for parking in their own space.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned solicitors’ letters. Does he applaud the provision in the Bill that parking companies should not send letters that look like they have come from a solicitor when they are just from the parking company?
I applaud the fact that the Bill addresses that issue, and indeed I will discuss the issue of solicitors shortly.
There are other areas where the activities of such companies are a huge problem. I have had many complaints from taxi drivers in my constituency, who are regularly harassed and prosecuted when, for example, they are parked in a supermarket car park in one of the out-of-town shopping areas in my constituency, waiting to pick up an elderly constituent with their shopping.
The other area is hospital parking, and I want to single out one company for some pretty shady practices. That is ParkingEye, about which I have received multiple complaints regarding multiple hospitals from people with serious medical conditions, NHS staff and others who have been caught. I have a letter here from a constituent who was a medical student working in the oncology department at University Hospital Llandough in my constituency, who had applied for a permit. There had been some mistake with the email address so, unbeknown to her, she ended up with huge fines from that company and no recourse. My team and I have engaged on behalf of many constituents to try and get their fines overturned, but sometimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West said, the companies do not even respond. We cannot get through to them. It is not possible to get a straight answer from them. I very much hope that the code of practice will address those issues.
On ParkingEye and hospital parking, at St David’s Hospital in my constituency, where parking is free, patients are nevertheless required to fill in the vehicle registration number on a computer screen in reception, and even when assisted by the receptionist they have received parking notices because the system is not working properly. There have been dozens and dozens of cases like that in my constituency casework.
Indeed. Among others, I have details with me of the case of a constituent who had travelled to St David’s Hospital in my hon. Friend’s constituency, as many of my constituents do, and been caught up in exactly that situation.
I mentioned that I wanted to talk about solicitors’ firms. It is very clear to me that there is collusion between parking companies and solicitors’ firms—so-called roboclaims companies. They are often set up adjacently and involve the same directors and personnel. Incidentally, the same personnel get involved in the so-called appeals bodies. I hope the Minister looks closely at that. What discussions has he had with the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority?
Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that it appears that achieving a certain level of fines is part of many parking firms’ business plans? Without collecting fines, those businesses would not be viable.
Absolutely; that is exactly the point. Essentially, it is a money-making enterprise that takes advantage of motorists up and down the country. They operate in a very business-like fashion, which is why I call them roboclaims companies. A lot of the operation is automated. Fines are issues and the companies assume that a certain number of people will pay them. The rest are automatically referred into a legal process involving bailiffs and others, and all the companies are interconnected.
The companies are jamming up parts of our legal system. A number of cases were being processed by Northampton Crown court. When people tried to contact the court to get information about their case, they were unable to get through on the phone lines because there were so many cases.
What discussions is the Minister having with the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which I met a few months ago to raise concerns about a number of named companies, and which has advised me that it is looking at the practices of those firms and whether they are operating in an appropriate way?
One individual who wrote to me about this said:
“I now pretty much know exactly how the parking companies and in particular the IPC have been running this scam for the past 5 years. Basically both of the appeals processes are a complete and utter sham, (and part of that sham is Gladstones Solicitors itself).”
I should be clear that that is Gladstones Solicitors in Knutsford—other companies might have a similar name. The letter continues:
“The appeals process at Excel/VCS is run by a team of minimum wage office workers with no legal knowledge or experience whatsoever, who are given 6 minutes to read an appeal, and 12 minutes to reply. Most of these replies are obviously cut and pasted from existing templated replies (sometimes referring to issues which are not part of the motorists appeal), with a few lines added in to make it look specific to your claim. The IAS (Independent Appeals Service) which the IPC offers as a second chance appeals service is also very similar, cut and paste answers, dubious legal statements etc… It is claimed by the head of the appeals service (retired Judge Bryn Holloway) that this is a completely independent fair process, it is not.”
The letter mentions two individuals—Will Hurley and Bryn Holloway—and concludes:
“This is a typical example of the clear collusion between the IPC, their members and the IAS…all to the detriment of the motorist”.
When the Minister is putting the code of practice together, I urge him to consider on a cross-Government basis what we can do about roboclaims companies and solicitors’ firms that profit, often in shady ways, off the back of people who are just going about their daily lives and business.
Will the Minister say more about information? A number of examples have been given. Far too often, individuals entering car parks do not see the notices and requirements. Visitors to residential parking places often have no clear information about how to park. Somebody came to the block where I live to do emergency boiler repair work—it needed to be carried out immediately to avoid serious damage—and returned to their van to find that they had been fined. I know of people on emergency medical appointments and carers who have been caught up. It is not appropriate and we need to look at what discretion can be applied in such cases. We also need to look at the information provided at entry.
Lastly, will the Minister say something about the devolution aspect? We are dealing with the DVLA. The Bill makes it clear that it applies to England, Wales and Scotland, but obviously some of these matters cross into devolved Administration territory. I am sure that there would be warm support for a unified approach across the United Kingdom, but what conversations has he had with the Welsh Government and others about how the measure can be applied? People cross borders and travel around the country. Solicitors and the DVLA are obviously UK Government matters, but transport and highways issues are often devolved, and Wales has a different local government system.
The hon. Gentleman has made the very good point that it should be the norm that a motorist can read the sign listing the terms and conditions before entering the car park, but does he agree with this point? On some occasions that will not be possible, such as when the car park is in a conservation area, and that is why the transaction period is necessary—because where a motorist does have to enter a car park to see what the terms are, they should also be able to go out again without incurring a fee or fine.
I completely agree. Indeed, I am aware of individuals having been fined just for spending two minutes in a car park and coming out—perhaps they just made a wrong turn. That is of course an absurd situation, so I wholeheartedly support the measures in the Bill. I have looked at the draft code of practice. There are a couple of areas where I would like to make suggestions to the Minister offline, and perhaps the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, about how we could tighten it up even further. I hope that the Minister will be able to have conversations with us going forward, but I commend the Bill and very much hope that we can deal with these awful companies and their associated legal agents and ensure a fair deal for motorists and residents up and down the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I, too, commend the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire on his success in getting the Bill this far. My Licensing of Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill was parked just after his at Second Reading. He avoided the chop; I did not. But there is no bitterness: this is an extremely important Bill.
I will say to the Government that it is three years since the consultation document “Parking reform: tackling unfair practices” was published. It has been a long wait. I think that really the Government should have responded and introduced legislation, but in the absence of a Government who are able to deal with the pressing problems of the day, I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has introduced this Bill. I agree with much that is in it.
It is important to state at the outset that huge numbers of people drive every day—I think the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the figure of 19 million cars on the road every day—and the vast majority of people manage to find somewhere to park and do it successfully, and many in the industry work very professionally and very well. There is sometimes a danger in these debates that we hear only of the awful experiences. They are awful, but the vast majority of people, and the vast majority of people in the industry, are doing their best to make the system work successfully, so it really is the rogues that we are trying to deal with here.
I think that the number of people who get a parking charge notice each year is between 1% and 1.5%. Obviously, it is never good to get one, but we do need a regulated system. There is no such thing as free parking; there are always costs associated with it.
I also pay tribute to the advice that I have had, over the few years I have been following this issue closely, from the British Parking Association, which is a reputable organisation trying to achieve decent standards and a proper outcome for members. It has been looking for this kind of code for many years, and I very much hope that we will be able to get it on the statute book as soon as possible, because the longer we go on in the current situation, the greater the number of people who will suffer.
I have one major query for the Minister. The point has been raised with me by many people in the industry. At the heart of this is the information that the DVLA passes to operators; the major sanction through this measure will be to stop rogue operators getting that information. Unfortunately, that will not solve the entire problem. That does not mean that we should not do it, but we need to be aware; we should not raise expectations too high, because I am afraid that the real rogues will carry on. They will just stick one of these things on people’s windscreens and they will not even need the information from the DVLA. I am told that some 30% of people just pay up, because they are intimidated.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that because of the very large amounts of money that can be involved in such scams—a company called Smart Parking was involved in one such scam on my patch, in Clacton—organised crime can get involved, which can be intimidating? This is not that much different from the old Denver boot that used to be put on vehicles some time ago, indiscriminately across the country.
I am grateful for the intervention. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. At the bottom end of this, we are dealing with some very difficult people, and I am afraid that their not having access to DVLA information will not stop them trying to extort in this kind of way. That is one of the things on which I hope the Minister will have something to say. It is not an easy problem to resolve, because this is a complex area of contract law. The question is always, how will we enforce the Bill’s provisions? If they are not enforced, passing the legislation makes us feel better, but it does not necessarily resolve the problem on the ground. My thinking is that we have to get to a point where motorists have confidence that they can ignore some of these intimidating tactics. In my view, that is the only way that we will be able to get around it.
The hon. Gentleman mentions ignoring intimidating letters. Of course, if the company does not have access to DVLA information, which if it does not abide by the code of practice it will not, it will not know the owner of the car. A person may or may not respond to the ticket put on the window, but the company will not be able to follow it up with letters.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but the problem is that about 30% are intimidated. That is the problem, and the point I am making is that until we can give people confidence, we will need a very strong message and very clear designation. I do not know whether the Minister has given any thought to how we might go about that, but it is certainly where I would like to go with it ultimately. Until we do that, the numbers will remain significant, and I fear we will still get complaints in our postbags about the practice.
With that caveat, I think that the proposals are a significant step forward. I am sure that they will get support across the House, and the sooner we see them in legislation the better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I do not want to detain the Committee for long, but I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire on introducing the Bill, and more generally on his work to highlight this issue, which affects millions of people every day.
I was pleased to speak on behalf of the Government in support of the Bill on Second Reading. I pay tribute to all hon. Members for the important contributions they have made, both today and on Second Reading, highlighting the unfair practices that are being carried out every day, affecting their constituents. We heard then, and we heard again today, that Members are doing their absolute best to stand up for their constituents and to highlight these practices, which need to be stamped out. Indeed, that is what the Bill is designed to address.
I will turn briefly to some of the specific questions raised by hon. Members, but first I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, who, in a previous guise as a Transport Minister, himself took steps to tighten up practices in the parking industry. Those steps have already been mentioned today, and he was far too modest to take any credit for them, but we should pay tribute to him for tightening up the rules regarding the unfair use of automatic number plate recognition and clamping.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth spoke passionately today, as he did on Second Reading, about the issues affecting his constituents. I am pleased to say that in general, all the issues that he raised are likely to be covered by the new code of practice. I would be delighted to meet him when we return from the recess to discuss any further points in more detail, but he spoke well on Second Reading about threatening solicitors’ letters. What he said stayed with me, and I am determined to ensure that the code of practice has specific guidance on that point, which affects so many people.
I appreciate what the Minister has said. What discussions has he had, or will he have, with the Ministry of Justice and the SRA? Just to convey the scale of this, another firm that I mentioned, called BW Legal, regularly issues 10,000 county court judgments a month, and is known to have issued 28,000 in one month. A significant proportionate of them relate to parking. They are jamming up our court system, and are often totally unjustified.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I am pleased to tell him that we will engage directly with the MOJ and the SRA. To date, I do not believe that we have done so, but we will happily do that. He makes a very good point about the impact on the court system. More broadly, on the point that he raised on Second Reading and today about county court judgments and, in his personal experience, letters going to previous addresses, I am relatively confident that we can address that in the code of practice by including some clauses about reasonable efforts by parking operators to find a more up-to-date address.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the appeals process, which of course should be independent. I am pleased to tell him that, as part of the code of practice in the Bill, it will be scrutinised, funded through the levy. That will ensure independent scrutiny of the appeals process, as well as the associations and operators, to ensure that appeals are working not in the manner that he highlighted, but in one that is fair to those who need to avail themselves of such a process. He talked about information, which many other hon. Members talked about, and of course the code of practice will outline the information that should be standardised on tickets and signage, so that there is good practice and consistency across the industry.
On the devolved Administrations, I am pleased to tell Committee members that the Welsh and Scottish Governments are represented on the working group that has been engaged in developing the code of practice, and are in extensive dialogue with the team in my Department, to ensure uniformity of execution of the Bill and to confirm that all the various matters have been put in place as required.
I have an update for the Committee. The explanatory notes are out-of-date with regard to the legislative consent motion. Originally, the advice from the Scottish Government was that that would not be required, but that advice changed and they believe that they require it. That motion has now been passed, so I am pleased to say that the Bill will have force in Wales and Scotland, and that all legal requirements have been satisfied in that regard.
I pay tribute to the experience of the hon. Member for Cambridge in transport matters. He has spent a considerable time in the House weighing in on such issues, so it is a pleasure to have his experience on the Committee. I will touch briefly on the issues he raised. He made a good point about rogue operators. I am confident that not having access to the DVLA will deal with the vast majority of problems that hon. Members have mentioned, because the lifeblood of trying to extort money from people is having access to their details.
By standardising tickets, complaints processes, fees and lots of other things, the code of practice will offer us the opportunity to educate the British public when the Bill has passed. From that point forward, one will be able to say to the people of the United Kingdom, “This is what tickets should look like. These are the various things that you should expect to see on them”— whether that is a kitemark or something else. In that way, through consumer education, we will hopefully ensure that they will be able to check for some kind of mark or language that would not be on rogue parking tickets. By bringing everything together in a standard way, that education process can happen in a way that it cannot today. I hope that that will deal with most of those issues.
I am also happy to look at the law that already exists to tackle people who are doing things that are presumably illegal, such as trespassing or interfering with other people’s private property. As I said, however, the huge opportunity comes from the code of practice, which standardises behaviour and practical things such as the information contained on signage and tickets, so that we can get to the point where people know what to look for on a parking ticket.
Does the Minister agree that one reason why people often fall into those traps is that local authorities are generally very straightforward and honest with people in their parking areas, and offer free parking that is free? For example, in Scarborough, all parking is free for tourists after 6 o’clock.
I am sure everyone watching the Committee will have heard that advertisement to visit my right hon. Friend’s constituency. Near to my own as it is, I also encourage them to visit the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors.
While we are on the subject of Yorkshire, as well as putting on record my thanks to APCOA Parking at York railway station for letting me off my parking ticket, I ask the Minister to join me in recognising the fantastic efforts of Malton Estate. It owns private car parks in the centre of Malton and gives two hours of free parking throughout the day. That has incentivised more shoppers to come into the town, and is one of the reasons why Malton is now Yorkshire’s food capital.
I pay tribute to the car parking practices in Malton that my hon. Friend describes. It is evidence of what my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire said, which is that good, honest and fair car parking is vital for the health and wellbeing of our town centres and high streets. We all want to see it encouraged across our constituencies.
I will resist the temptation to advertise the delights of Cardiff, although they are great and many. We are all grateful to the Minister for sending us the draft advisory code of practice summary in advance of the sitting. Paragraph 12(b), which covers complaints handling, states:
“There should be a requirement to issue an acknowledgement or full response to a complaint in a timely manner”.
Does he agree that if a parking company failed to respond to correspondence on such a matter from a Member, and if that wording is included in the final code, it would, in effect, be in breach of the code of practice?
I should have mentioned that the code of practice includes the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised both on Second Reading and in Committee. This is just a summary of the code of practice. The details, including timescales and exactly what will be required, will be fleshed out. However, in broad brushes, he is right: the code of practice is there to be adhered to. Parking operators will be audited as to whether they are adhering to it, partly by the trade association that they belong to and partly by an independent scrutiny body that will be funded by the levy. There will be sufficient scrutiny of operators’ behaviour in this regard, and replying to correspondence will be one factor considered when their behaviour is evaluated.
The Minister is being very generous with his time. I have one specific question about paragraph 4 of the draft code of practice summary, which covers clear signage and surface markings. We have talked about clear signage, but surface markings are also important. For example, at the entrance to blocks of flats in Cardiff there is often a barrier. However, around Cardiff City’s football stadium—they are in the premier league this season; many people will be coming to watch—it is not often clear where the public road ends and private land begins. Football fans are often caught out, suddenly finding themselves on private land on the boundary between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West.
It is in my constituency.
The stadium is in my hon. Friend’s constituency; the road where many people park is not. People often get caught out without realising that they are on private land, because no clear boundary is indicated between the public highway and the private land. Will the Minister look at that issue?
I do not want to get drawn into that intra-Cardiff debate; I will leave the hon. Gentlemen to conclude that after the Committee. I am happy to look into the issue that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentions. Cardiff is wonderful and is represented here in force, but I think Yorkshire is slightly more represented. Yorkshire Members remind everyone to visit the delights of Yorkshire over this summer.
In conclusion, I thank Committee members for their constructive comments, this morning and on Second Reading. I look forward to working with not only my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire but all Committee members to bring this important piece of legislation on to the statute book as soon as possible, so that we can start to right the wrongs that so many of our constituents have had to endure. This is a fantastic example of Members from all parties working together to solve a practical problem that will make a meaningful difference to people’s everyday lives.
I commend the Bill to the Committee.
I thank all colleagues who have contributed to the debate. Each has brought to bear some of their and their constituents’ experiences of unfair practices, which emphasises that the Bill is overdue and necessary. I also thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, who cannot be here because of other proceedings but who has indicated his support on behalf of the Scottish National party, so the Bill really does have all-party support. I thank the Minister for his diligence, help and assistance.
I commend the Bill to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.
May I thank you, on behalf of the Committee, for your superb chairing of our proceedings, Mr Bailey? I also thank you for your comments before the Committee started that, if you were not chairing it, you would like to be a Committee member, because you support what we are trying to do. I am most grateful for that. However, I accept that the Chair is totally impartial.
I know that my friend, the right hon. Gentleman, would also like to thank the Clerks, the Doorkeepers and everybody else responsible for looking after us during this lengthy proceeding.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.
Offensive Weapons Bill (Fourth 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
Tony Dale, Head of Research, USDAW
Doug Russell, Health and Safety Officer, USDAW
Chief Inspector Emma Burroughs, Thames Valley Police
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 19 July 2018
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Offensive Weapons Bill
Examination of Witnesses
Tony Dale and Doug Russell gave evidence.
We will continue by hearing oral evidence from the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. We have until 2.30 pm for this panel. Welcome to our witnesses. For the record, could you introduce yourselves?
Tony Dale: Thank you very much for the invites. My name is Tony Dale, and I am the head of research at USDAW.
Doug Russell: My name is Doug Russell, and I am the national health and safety officer for USDAW.
If you wish to take your jackets off, because it is very hot in here, please do.
Tony Dale: We have a number of points to make. Basically, we are very supportive of the principles behind the Bill. Our union represents 436,000 members, a large number of them in low-paid jobs. We have members who live on working-class estates and who see the damage done by the growing knife culture and acid attacks, so we are supportive of the aims, but with any age-restricted sales legislation, it is often our members who are expected to police it. It is our members who have to stop people and ask them for proof of age or to deny people sales, be that of knives, alcohol or a range of other products. As a result, our members are being placed more and more on the frontline. I think it is right to have extended legislation on this, but it will be our members who will be placed on the frontline and will face abuse and, at times, violence.
Tony Dale: Last year, we did quite an extensive survey, of just over 3,600 shop workers among our members. Some 67% of the shop workers interviewed said that they had been abused in the past year, 42% said they had been threatened, and growing number of people had actually been assaulted. The numbers are significant, and we are speaking out. We have over 300,000 shop workers in membership, so we are dealing with a significant number of people. Abuse and violence against shop workers is at a significant level and, interestingly, it is on the increase. We have been running the survey for quite a number of years and we have gradually seen it increase. The abuse figure increased from 53% the year before to 67%.
Doug Russell: To put that in context for this discussion, 30% of them reported that the trigger for the violence or abuse was dealing with age-restricted products and having to ask somebody for identification because they might be under age. It is clearly a significant problem in terms of the numbers. Last year, we and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents commissioned a survey with a group called Under Age Sales, and based on that there are probably about 6,000 incidents a day of people facing abuse or threats from challenges associated with age-restricted products.
Doug Russell: It is one of the biggest factors. And it is not just us: the Association of Convenience Stores, the British Retail Consortium and everyone else who has done research in this area says it is up there as the first or second main cause of violence.
Tony Dale: We need to change the culture. There seems to be a culture among a small element of the shopping public that you can have a go at shop workers—you can abuse them and threaten them.
One of the important things in the Bill is about extending restrictions on the sale of knives. It is currently not an offence for somebody under 18 to attempt to purchase a knife. Knives are age-restricted, so it is an offence for a shop worker to sell that knife to the individual, but it is not an offence for the individual under 18 to attempt to buy it. They can attempt to buy a knife one morning, and if that does not work they can come back in the afternoon and try again. That is a contradiction we would look to deal with.
If we are, quite rightly, to look at restricting the sales of products and have more age restrictions on the sale of products, we need to look at increasing the protection of shop workers who are on the frontline of trying to police that. We have been campaigning for it to be a specific offence to intimidate or assault a worker enforcing the age restrictions covered by this Bill and other legislation.
It is a two-pronged approach. First, it should be an offence for the under-18 youth to attempt to buy age-restricted products, and secondly the shop worker should have specific protection from violence and abuse while carrying out the legal obligations under the Bill and other legislation on age-related restrictions.
Doug Russell: There has always been an argument that existing legislation covers all forms of assault. There are some aggravating factors listed in the sentencing guidelines under the assault legislation, one of which includes, if I remember rightly, assaulting a public servant who is in the course of serving the public at the time of the assault. The trouble is, that is one of 19 aggravating factors attached to the sentencing guidelines and there are 11 mitigating factors to be taken into account as well—and that is only when it gets as far as a court and a judge or magistrate is interested in bringing sentencing at the end of the process. In practice, we are told by our members—this is backed up by retail employers—that many cases do not get as far as the courts, so they do not get the chance to apply those sentencing guidelines. Even when they do, those guidelines are not applied as effectively as they should be and the sentences passed are not strict enough to reflect the damage done to the shop worker.
Doug Russell: There are three things: it would help to clarify the law, make sentencing a simpler process and hopefully encourage more prosecutions to take place. This is all stuff that would have to be discussed with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice. If those two work together and we see people getting more of the sentences they deserve for physically attacking or seriously threatening somebody in that situation, I think it would have a deterrent effect in the long run as well.
Tony Dale: There would be a publicity impact as well. If it was a specific offence to assault a shop worker involved in policing age-restricted sales, retailers could advertise that—they could put up zero-tolerance, respect for shop workers posters, notices and so on. While many members of the public think certain people are more protected and should not be abused, quite rightly, such as the police and firefighters, it seems that shop workers are open to abuse—they are fair game.
I think all workers in public-facing businesses should get additional protection. In the context of the Bill there is an opportunity. By widening the range of products that will be subject to age-restricted sales, such as corrosive substances, there will be an opportunity to say, “We will do three things. First, it will be an offence to sell it to someone under 18. Secondly, it should be an offence for somebody under 18 to attempt to buy it. Thirdly, we will give special protection to shop workers who are denying asale to someone under 18.” It seems to me that that is a consistent approach.
“Attempt to purchase corrosive substances and knives underage.”
That should be criminalised. You have talked about that, but we heard in evidence this morning and previously concern about criminalising younger people, who are sometimes forced to make decisions that they would not necessarily take by themselves, perhaps by being goaded or pushed into a place. Could you speak to that a little bit?
Doug Russell: I am aware of that argument. It is one that we have had with various people over the years. Part of the problem is that the law in this area is a bit confused and confusing. In England and Wales, if you are under 18 it is illegal to try to purchase alcohol, and it is illegal to purchase a firearm or an air rifle. The latter is of particular relevance to the Offensive Weapons Bill: obviously, the restriction on firearms and air rifles is because they can be used as an offensive weapon. In Scotland, it is also an offence to try to purchase tobacco products if you are under 18, because in Scotland they had that debate and they decided that they wanted to send a clear message out to young people that society considers it wrong to take up smoking. Therefore, they made that a penalty, as well.
It is a question of the messaging you are giving to young people, which is crucially important. It would be better if there was more consistency across more of those age-restricted products, to make it clear that it is an offence to try to buy. Otherwise, as Tony said, you will end up in a situation where a young person intent on buying this stuff for the wrong reasons just goes around and tries it on in various different stores until they find somebody who, for whatever reason, gives in and gives them the product.
Doug Russell: If you talk to trading standards people in Scotland, they say the impact has been that the ban on selling and buying cigarettes for under 18s has been more successful in Scotland than in England and Wales. The number of test purchases they have done that have gone wrong has gone down substantially, and they believe that the number of underage people who are buying these products has gone down substantially as well, so they think it has had a positive impact.
Doug Russell: They are told it is illegal to buy as well as to sell. That is the crucial thing.
Doug Russell: It is a question of making it quite clear, which is to do with the seriousness of the offence and the sentencing that would follow from that offence. The emergency workers Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment has got some interesting ideas on how that would work in practice. The point is that if the assault quite clearly happens as a result of somebody trying to enforce the law by asking for ID and refusing a sale to somebody who might be underage, that should attract a stiffer penalty.
Doug Russell: Yes.
Tony Dale: Most of the members we represent work for large retailers, so the training does take place. One of the big problems that we have is that it is an extremely difficult bit of legislation to police. Guessing the age of many young people, and where they stand in the spectrum from 16 to 30 or whatever, can often be extremely difficult. Sometimes just being good at your job or attempting to do your job thoroughly can lead to a reaction from customers. I have been behind people in a queue who have been asked for ID for buying alcohol, and the person reacted quite strongly, saying it was ridiculous, that they were 28, and who on earth would challenge them? That person was just doing their job.
Quite often, those situations are quite difficult to train for. The task facing shop workers is very difficult, because it is not just the task of stopping the sale to people under 18. It is also the more difficult one of identifying who is under 18. I think training has taken place to the extent that it can, but you are talking about quite difficult levels of managing conflict. I think even the best-trained police negotiator would have difficulty sometimes in dealing with those situations.
Doug Russell: One of the findings from the research that we commissioned with the National Federation of Retail Newsagents was that when shop workers were asked what the main reason was that they would be reluctant to ask somebody to provide proof of age when they thought they should be doing so was the fear of violence. They feared that they would get abused or threatened, or even worse, if they challenged somebody. Ironically, that has actually been made more difficult by the training, because the training that is widely implemented now is the Think 25 policy. If you think somebody looks like they might be under 25, you should be asking them for proof of age, because that gives the seller a bit of a buffer to protect them against unintentionally selling to somebody who is under 18. Of course, that means lots of people who you are challenging for ID are going to be old enough to legally buy the product and if they happen not to have ID on them at the time, that is the kind of situation that Tony was describing where they can kick off. Legislation to back up the fact that you have got to do that, and that if it does go wrong, society will look after you, is quite an important message to send to shop workers.
Tony Dale: One other point is that in that sort of conflict situation, we are expecting shop workers to police the situation. They are in a position of authority, and if they sell the product to somebody under 18, they will be committing an offence. We need to do more as a society to say that those shop workers are in a position of authority. Creating a specific offence of attempting to assault a shop worker who is trying to carry out that check would be entirely legitimate.
Doug Russell: Yes is the answer to that, but it is very difficult to prove. In our surveys, we do not specifically ask about weapons; we just ask about physical attacks, because we have pretty short contact time with the people we are talking to. We have seen physical attacks double over the last year, from 4% to 8%. The British Retail Consortium does an annual retail crime survey and it has also seen a rise in serious assaults, and I think the rise in the use of weapons is reflected in the findings of its survey.
There is also a business victimisation survey done by the Home Office and it has come up with some amazing figures for the increasing use of weapons in attacks. Unfortunately, because the survey is done by statisticians, they keep pointing out the fact that these changes are not statistically significant. I think there has been more than a trebling of incidents, but for whatever reason the Home Office’s statisticians still say it is not statistically significant, which I cannot quite understand, although I am not a statistician. But everybody who collects this evidence has been reporting an increase in the use of weapons in these circumstances.
Tony Dale: When we come to do the written submission, we can definitely look into that and see what information we could find out about it for you.
That would be very helpful. Thank you.
Doug Russell: It would be. Obviously, now big retailers are increasingly going down the route of making it more difficult for customers to get their hand on the product until they have been age-checked and it is a safe transaction. The problem with it, of course, is that all sorts of bladed things are being sold and it is about where you draw the line. Kitchen knives are quite clear, you wouldn’t want somebody to pick a nine-inch blade off the shelf, unpack it from its packaging and then use it as a weapon, which has happened in some of the stores where our members work. However, when it gets down to safety knives, razors and things like that, it does get a bit more complicated. But, yes, we would be in favour of that, certainly.
Tony Dale: That is something the retailers are going towards more often, in the sense of having a range of knives that are behind a counter. Obviously, with the corrosive material there will be a question about other materials, such as bleaches and so on, and we may well need to look at how access to that material is restricted.
However, there is also the issue of the people who are working behind the counters at the cigarette stalls, which would be the age-restricted stalls. That is where an awful lot of abuse takes place. When people are turned away, that is a possible area of conflict as well, and abuse is increasing. Quite often, behind those counters you only have one or two people on their own, isolated from the rest of the store, so that has its own problems as well.
Tony Dale: If it was mandated to be removed into?
Either under lock and key, or behind the counter—whatever.
Tony Dale: I think we would welcome that, because there is an issue that you have dangerous weapons. You could have knives or corrosive materials, and so on, easily available on the store floor, which brings its own problems. I also think that if there are age-restricted products, to have those clearly marked and identified and away from the shop floor brings with it an increased recognition that they are age-restricted products, and sometimes at the moment there is not that recognition.
Doug Russell: No, we represent the workers only.
Just the workers. One of the things I noticed when I went round last year—one of the issues, I suppose, for retailers—is that the more difficult you make it for someone to access the product, to feel the product, or whatever, the less likely they are to buy it. So you have the defence aspect. You want to protect your workers. You want to ensure that people are not just swiping the knives to use them then, which is the whole point of the Bill in the first place, but you do not want to get in the way of businesses selling something because it is on open display. How do you get that balance?
Doug Russell: It would be a different selling relationship, wouldn’t it? A lot of these products—things like knives and bladed weapons, for example—are sold in DIY outlets. It would be a move away from the big B&Q-style warehouse, where everything is out on display and you wander around lost trying to find what you are looking for until you find the right thing, and you can never find an assistant to ask for help when you need it. It would make it much more of a human interaction.
There would have to be somebody there to deal with the customer who wanted it, and you would probably end up with better customer service, because that person would know what they were talking about, and could advise you on the right thing to buy and check that you were legitimately buying it for the right purpose along the way. That would actually be a better exchange. It need not be bad for businesses; a different model of business would just develop if those restrictions were in place.
Doug Russell: Are you talking about delivery to the customer away from the store?
Yes. What might happen to the people who are actually out and what about if there are unintended consequences?
Doug Russell: I don’t see any. Given the rise in e-commerce and e-shopping, it is a very important issue. For our members who work for Tesco, who work for their .com service, for example, it is already the policy that they cannot deliver to somebody who is underage. There has to be an adult in the house when a delivery is made. That should be the kind of principle employed by everybody in that area.
The trouble is that increasingly the partial delivery service is being hived off to a kind of Uber-economy approach, where the last person who does the delivery from the hub to the individual customer is some private individual who is getting paid so many pence per parcel to do it, and is working effectively as a self-employed person in that circumstance. It is very difficult to train and police them, and make sure that that side of the business is looked after. However, for all the big supermarket that do home deliveries, the staff who do that are trained about age-restricted products, and are expected to abide by the same principles now. It is not a particular problem.
There are no further questions, so thank you Mr Russell and Mr Dale. We will now move on to our final panel of the day.
Examination of Witness
Chief Inspector Emma Burroughs gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from Thames Valley police. We have until 3 o’clock for this session. If the bell rings for a Division in the Chamber we might have to go out for 15 minutes and then come back and conclude. I hope that it will be after the evidence session, but we cannot be sure. Would you please introduce yourself?
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Good afternoon. My name is Chief Inspector Emma Burroughs, and I am a serving police officer for Thames Valley police, based in the Reading police area.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: In Reading, given the large train station and the accessibility, we have seen almost a 250% increase. We are talking extreme numbers, where we are seeing two or three county lines coming together and almost having what we would call a bit of turf war—so, an area where they all want to supply their drugs. As that demand increases, they have to change their tactics to see how they can be the dominant gang. That has resulted in the need to arm themselves with knives.
We have seen an increase in open fighting in Reading. That is not in alleyways or places that are obscure to the public; it can be in the main shopping areas of Reading at 4 o’clock in the afternoon where you have children catching buses home from school and people shopping. There seems to be no concern about what they are doing. They are very driven by their task.
That comes back to their age group. The majority of people who we are dealing with at the moment range from those as young as 12 years old to 16 or 18-year-olds, who are being tasked by the top-level people in a certain area to go to areas such as Reading and deal a certain amount of drugs, then to return to hand over a phone and what cash they have made, and then to wait—almost on a shift basis—for the next individuals. Because of that threat, we have seen an increase, in using our stop-search powers, of those arming themselves with knives, or of offences where robberies and so on have taken place and they have been in possession of knives.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Yes. The figures have gone from 52 to about 280 at the last count—they are the rolling 12-month numbers. We have seen the number of offences or stop checks where people have a weapon increase.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: We have what I would call a kitchen knife or a bread-carving knife, up to flick knives. We are now seeing more and more of the new zombie knives, which are serrated with the circles. They seem to be more prevalent among what they are arming themselves with.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Absolutely, in particular for the zombie knives, which are now mentioned for stop and search.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: As with everything the police are trying to do at the moment, it is that preventive element—that early intervention. Why do so many young people now feel the need to arm themselves? We are trying to backtrack through their lives and adverse childhood experiences—I do not know if that is common terminology for everyone. Why are they behaving like this? What has happened in their previous life to make them behave like that? Are they a looked-after child? What traumas have they suffered? What level of violence have they suffered? What sort of home life have they suffered? We are trying to see if we can get in at a much earlier part of their lives, potentially when they have initially been made a looked-after child, to try to deter them away from this and give them the support elements.
We have success stories at Reading where we have intervened with county lines boys, understood where they are with their issues and managed to rehouse them and get them back into education. Some have gone into foster homes, some into care homes, to get that stability back to help them to address the trauma that they have suffered, which reached a point at which they could not cope and therefore resorted to working for county lines.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: The issue we have in Reading is that there seem to be a number of spaces in looked-after children’s homes, so we have quite a lot of children who come from, for example, Croydon and Lambeth. Then it gets into, “We’re Reading social care or Reading social services, and that’s Lambeth,” and that poor child gets mixed up in the politics of, “We only look after Reading.”
For us, it would be about greater working relationships, so it does not matter where they initially lived or have gone missing from, we will actually look at the individual and say what is best for that young child—forget the boundaries and different financial implications if you house a looked-after child from Lambeth in Reading. That is the bit that we find a challenge at times—the dialogue and the information sharing.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Mostly, yes.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Whether it is the lower availability of firearms that we are hearing about through intelligence reports, or from some of the work we do with schools, where I know that it is described as the social norm that every child must now arm themselves, so whether it is that they feel it is the right thing to do—or the media attention. Reference has been made to the new—it is not new, but it seems to be fairly new for a number of children—“Fortnite” game that people may be familiar with, which talks a lot about the weapons. Those of you who know about the game will know that you can stab someone in it, and you do not bleed and you do not die. That is why, when we interview children and ask why they have knives, some say it is fine and that nothing will happen. We have dealt with domestic incidents involving a mother and child, in which they have re-enacted “Fortnite” because they think it will be fine. We not only have the social media films, potentially, but we have online gaming.
It is cyclical. I recall two or three years ago when we had a real push on knife arches. You could not get into schools or licensed premises unless you went through a knife arch, which would pick the knife up. Those are perhaps not being regularly tactically used. We may need to look to licensed premises to reintroduce those. However, it seems they feel that, because of the threat of violence against each other, that is the only way they can arm themselves.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Definitely. We employ that at Reading. It is about early engagement with a child who is either beginning to truant, whose behaviour is changing or who has a lack of interest in education. It is also that visible presence and being able to hear about, after maybe seeing a bullying incident in the playground, what is actually behind it and what is the level of violence. We recently had two 14-year-olds who unfortunately used knives that they had taken from their home economics class to threaten each other and to cause injury, because that was the next level that they felt they needed to go to, because of what was happening in their bullying cycle.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: It is probably mixed. Some of them openly buy them themselves. A lot are ordered through the internet. We know that vulnerable adults are, if you like, employed by county liners to purchase them on behalf of children. There is a variety of measures. As with everything, we will never prevent it, but some of the Bill’s recommendations will make it slightly harder to happen. They will have to be more creative, which sometimes puts people off, because it becomes a bit too much work.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: It will very much be preventive as to what we can actually do to stop knives getting out and about. There will be greater, tighter controls on the sale. Having listened to the previous witnesses, it will actually make it difficult; they will be behind the locked cabinet, if needs be. They will not be able to readily buy them over the internet and have them delivered to their home address.
Also, the Bill will give further stop-and-search powers. Yes, that power exists, but the Bill will open it more to knives and will have that element. The only other thing—I cannot remember the specific clause—is that it will make being threatening with offensive weapons an offence, which is a bit broader, because sometimes you struggle with what substantive events have occurred.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: We work very closely with British Transport Police. The issue is that, for a stop and search, you have to have the relevant grounds. A lot of the time, there is very little intelligence. It is more that, after there has been an incident or a coming together, they are subsequently stop-checked. Only last week we used the section 60 powers because there was information that two gangs were going to come together. Unfortunately, while that prevents the fight from taking place, it does not prevent the stage before, when they initially come into that area with knives. Unless the train station has stringent checks, like security at an airport, for people coming in and out of Reading train station, that is not prevented.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: No, not at the moment.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: At the moment we are predominantly finding class A—heroin and cocaine. There is some cannabis, but we would probably say that that is more the lower level—what we call local dealers, within Reading. It is predominantly opiates and cocaine at the other end.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Yes, we do. We have quite a strong media strategy at the moment on not only the dangers, but the vulnerability involved in getting them in the first place.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: It is probably too early to tell. We are working closely with a community safety partnership to understand that we need to get that messaging out. We have a couple of charities in the Reading area for people who self-refer for drug and alcohol abuse, but it has only been since around April, so we cannot gauge the benefits at this time.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: We obviously had the guidance that we had to ensure the grounds were there, but for an area such as Reading that has not had a significant impact, because of the visibility of individuals who meet the profile. We have had clear intelligence that they have come to Reading to deal and we have had information from a phone, so for us, the grounds have been sufficient, but I know there have been concerns over whether we are complying legislatively on stop-and-search. In Reading, we have continued the level of stop-and-search, primarily because it is very evident, but I know that in other areas of Thames Valley police, where it is not, there has been a decline in stop-and-search with confidence.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: We do a lot of work with education on the preventive element, to ensure that people know the dangers, to try to identify those children that we think are being exploited for that reason, and to put in the interventions on the trauma side of it, as has already been mentioned. Are we seeing any signs? Accessibility is a main factor, but having the intelligence picture to work up that chain and prevent the drugs from coming in in the first place is a huge issue, given that the demand is clearly there from people wanting to buy the drugs.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: In the areas where we have a very stringent approach—what we call the knife arches, the checks and the engagement—the acids would not be picked up. Not that you could detect them in that way, but it is allowing the stop-and-search to identify those issues, seize the substances and have a substantive offence. As we know with many legislative things, our criminals can be one step ahead of us. If there are increased restrictions on knives, what would their next tool be? It will help us to have that very early testing, the ability to seize items that we suspect are acids, and for it to be part of the stop-and-search if they are found in possession of them.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Not at the moment. We have seen them in all age groups, from the young individuals right up to some of our local street robbers—local criminals—who are arming themselves; those are people in the mid-40s age range. At the moment I would not say there is a clear profile. It is just that a knife that, potentially, we did not see six months ago is now being seized and found in house searches.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Very much so—within education, to say, “If you do stab someone, they will be seriously injured.”
“This is what it is like?”
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Yes. It is definitely within education. I know there is a lot going on regarding the impact of the addiction and mental health elements. I know a hospital near us has seen children come through who have been classed as having an addiction, so it is working through from the mental health element. If you mention mental health to parents, it clearly sets different alarm bells ringing when they understand that. We have had conversations with numerous parents over some behaviour issues that we have been called to, which are classed as a domestic, but when you have chatted to them and understood it is because they have asked their child to get off “Fortnite”, then you talk to them about addictions. There is education through a different route.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Yes. What is a normal family? But yes.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: On a personal note, in Reading, we have monthly headteacher meetings where this is very much on the agenda. From my personal experience, we have a good partnership working arrangement with schools, because of the trauma approach we take in Reading, but I would not say that is consistent—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Chief Inspector, you were at the beginning of an answer to a question from Mr Morgan. Would you like to pick up where you were?
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Yes. I was talking about schools and where I am currently working, while reflecting that I have worked in other areas of Thames Valley police, Slough and south Buckinghamshire, and we did not have the same engagement from schools. To some extent, some schools did not even want a visible police presence in their schools. I was reflecting back to when the Prevent agenda was introduced and every school had to do Prevent training. Yes, it is a different element, but because it was going to happen for the same need, such as the knowledge of weapons and the impact, we should come out to schools and have that engagement from them.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Absolutely. Once again, if things are very clear, it is the strategic body to drive it and ensure accountability.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: Trying to be optimistic, at the end of the day we are never going to totally resolve the issue, but we have got to try to make life harder and put ownership back on the various bodies that are involved, whether that is retail, education or the police. It is preventive, and it will all help. I cannot quantify, but I think anything where we have greater powers, greater opportunities and greater seizure powers can only be beneficial to what we are trying to achieve.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: We can only educate on the difficulties. I have talked about incidents where officers have attended, and then we have talked about the area from a problem-solving point of view. There are some sites where parents have left their credit card details and the children can just log on. I would not say Amazon, because I am not sure you could—I am sure you could buy a knife off there, but once people’s credit card details are stored, parents need to be careful with password protection. We ask, “How on earth was this ordered?” and they say, “Well, they’ve got access to my account. I just let them log on and buy whatever they want. I did’t realise it was going to be a weapon.” Likewise with the downloading of games, they say, “I didn’t realise—I just allowed it.” It is the element of parents’ trust of their children. Actually, they could prevent it.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: No, definitely not. I know that Thames Valley Police, and I am sure other police forces, have done a big media drive to talk about how you protect and put in restrictions. The generation in our mid-40s to 50s did not have it in our education at that point. Our children, who do, are far more educated on that system than we are. It is about whether people have been brought along with that, but we are really trying to give guidance. There was a big Facebook media campaign to say, “This is how you put those restrictions on,” to support them.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: We find it is under-18s. I think we have had one incident—I am talking only about Reading at the moment; I am not certain of the whole Thames Valley figures—where an assault has taken place with an acid, but we have seized items where liquid has been transferred to a drinks bottle, and it has been subsequently tested and found to be acidic.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: The ones we have been told about so far bought them themselves from shops. They used a bleach, or a particular cleaning product—I think there was an oven cleaner that was a very strong corrosive substance, which was subsequently used.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: I would hope that the sale in itself should be the initial restriction, but it depends to what extent. If you look from household bleaches right up to the last thing we heard about, which was this oven cleaner, they are readily accessible. It is about how the restriction works—whether it is like alcohol, which obviously has to be age verified, but then you have the issue that if they know that that check is there, they will steal it by other means.
Chief Inspector Burroughs: From the evidence we have so far, it is much more under-18s. I would say, from the evidence base we have at the moment, that 18 is a suitable age.
That brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions. I thank Chief Inspector Burroughs for her evidence today, and all our previous witnesses as well. That brings us to the end of the oral evidence sessions on the Bill. The Committee will meet again to begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill at 4.30 pm on my 66th birthday, Tuesday 4 September, but I will not be in the Chair on that occasion.
The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).
Adjourned till Tuesday 4 September at half-past Four o’clock.
Written evidence reported to the House
OWB 68 Ben Freeston
OWB 69 Matt Szafran
OWB 70 University of London Rifle Club
OWB 71 National Crime Agency
OWB 72 Joshua Collins
OWB 73 Steven W Kendrick
OWB 74 Mike Dunstan
OWB 75 Mrs Helen Whicher
OWB 76 Simon Duffy
OWB 77 Egginton Bros Ltd.
OWB 78 David R Johnson
OWB 79 Christopher Ashbolt: Mora Distribution Limited
OWB 80 British Shooting Sports Council
OWB 81 Martin R Cook
OWB 82 Mr M B Jenvey
OWB 83 Adrian Hale, Honorary Treasurer, Blackpool & Fylde Fullbore Pistol & Rifle Club
OWB 84 Jonathan Watson
OWB 85 Charles Murton, Deputy Chairman, SLG Bisley
OWB 86 Mr C W R Phillips
OWB 87 Nigel Newby
OWB 88 Raymond Mears, Founder and CEO, Woodlore Wilderness Bushcraft & Tracking
OWB 89 Keith Rayner
OWB 90 Stephen Hills
OWB 91 CART (Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team)
OWB 92 Whitby & Co
OWB 93 Angela Wigley
OWB 94 Bruce Bollington, Managing Director of Lorax Ltd, trading as Heinnie Haynes
OWB 95 The Fifty Calibre Shooters Association of the United Kingdom
OWB 96 Dr Tom Walker
OWB 97 Taylors Eye Witness Ltd
OWB 98 Andrew Mercer, Chief Executive, National Rifle Association, Bisley Camp, Brookwood, Surrey
OWB 99 John L Harvey
Offensive Weapons Bill (Third 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
Bill Harriman, Director of Firearms, The British Association for Shooting and Conservation
Christopher Graffius, Executive Director of Communications & Public Affairs, The British Association for Shooting and Conservation
Baroness Newlove, Victims’ Commissioner
Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 19 July 2018
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Offensive Weapons Bill
Examination of Witnesses
Bill Harriman and Christopher Graffius gave evidence.
Before we continue to take oral evidence, Members, please feel free to take your jackets off, as it is very hot in here. That applies to witnesses, too, if you want to be cooler and more comfortable—the air-conditioning in this building is erratic. I remind Members and all visitors in the Gallery to switch off their mobile phones and other electronic devices or switch them to silent.
We will now resume our oral evidence sessions and hear evidence from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Welcome.
Christopher Graffius: Thank you.
Before I call the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters in the scope of the Bill, and that we must stick to the timings in the programme order agreed by the Committee. For this session, we have until 12 noon. I would be grateful if the witnesses introduced themselves for the record.
Christopher Graffius: I am Christopher Graffius, director of communications and public affairs at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, and I am a keen shooter.
Bill Harriman: Good morning. My name is Bill Harriman. I am director of firearms at BASC. I am also in my own right a forensic firearms examiner, and I am a keen collector of antique firearms.
Christopher Graffius: Yes.
Christopher Graffius: No. I have read it and gone over it in detail, and—I am trying to think how one can say this nicely. One of the problems with rifles that are firing over 10,000 foot-pounds—in particular the .50 calibre, at which this legislation was first aimed—is that very few people have seen one, even fewer have handled one and fewer still have pulled the trigger on one, and there tends to be a lot of myth around them. I am afraid that much of what you were told was either misleading or inaccurate, and often it was quite ridiculous. May I give you some examples?
Christopher Graffius: You were told—I am reading from the minute of the evidence—that the effective range was 6,800 metres. That is a nonsense. If you fired the rifle at 35°, the furthest the bullet could possibly reach might be that, but that is certainly not its effective range. Its effective range is more like 1,500 to 2,000 metres, or less than a third of what you were told. The effective range of a rifle is what an average, competent shot can hit a target at. You must remember that with something like the .50 calibre, out at 1,300 yards, which is less than a mile, the bullet drop can be 24 feet, so you are 24 feet off-target irrespective of what the wind will do to your shot.
You may be aware that the longest-ranged sniper shot in Afghanistan by a British soldier was about 1.5 to 2 miles. That was not done with a .50 calibre; it was done with a .338 Lapua, which would not be affected by the Bill. He missed nine times before he hit. Firing at those extreme ranges is incredibly rare and you have to be incredibly well trained to it; it just does not happen in civilian circumstances. In fact, the range at which a target shooter—a civilian target shooter—would shoot is 1,000 yards. The world championship in .50 calibre is 1,000 yards. You were told twice that.
Christopher Graffius: Well, that is another problem with the evidence that you were given. Your witnesses went to great lengths to talk about things being extreme or military, but you must understand that many rifles that are not affected by the Bill can fire at those ranges, and that virtually every calibre in common civilian use started life as a military calibre. The most common rifle in civilian hands is a .308, which is the same as the 7.62 NATO—and I could go on. Virtually every calibre in civilian use began life as a military calibre, because that is where rifles are developed. They are then changed, given a sporting round and used in hunting or target shooting. That is another very important point.
A lot of what you have been told about the destructive powers of this rifle in military hands is because it is using ammunition that is illegal in this country for civilian use. The text of the Home Secretary’s letter to MPs says that their penetrative powers mean that with the right ammunition, they can penetrate body armour worn by soldiers. In this case, the right ammunition is incendiary and is designed to penetrate such targets. In civilian terms, that is illegal; what they use is target ammunition.
Christopher Graffius: I am not qualified to answer that, because I have never seen a vehicle or a person shot with one of those things. In civilian use, they are used for paper targets.
Christopher Graffius: I am particularly concerned because it will take away a legitimate, lawful and safely conducted sport, at which we do particularly well in the world championships. It also establishes a principle in law, via muzzle energy, which could be used to threaten even more commonly used calibres. That could seriously damage shooting in the future.
Christopher Graffius: Yes, of course we are concerned about that. We want to prevent even one firearm being stolen from a legitimate source. I note their comments about the number stolen, but in terms of the nearly 2 million firearms in civilian hands, 204 is not a great many. That is something we are working on: we work with our members to ensure that they keep their guns securely, we issue advice to them, and we happily work with the police to achieve that aim.
Christopher Graffius: I would advise you to let those who work with the certificate holders work with the police to minimise those thefts.
Christopher Graffius: No, I did not mention that.
Bill Harriman: That was me.
That was you, Mr Harriman. Sorry. Some 30% of the guns used in firearms offences last year were of an obsolete calibre. We discussed that with the National Crime Agency and the National Ballistics Intelligence Service on Tuesday. Do you think the laws relating to antique weapons can be improved to prevent that figure from being so high?
Bill Harriman: At the moment, the Policing and Crime Act 2017 is being implemented. The way to tackle that is not to prosecute based on whether or not something is an antique. That is going to be defined in law for the first time, which I think is very good; it gives a lot of clarity. I do a lot of cases where there is no clarity about whether something is an antique. You then need to go towards the intent of the person who alleges that his firearm is an antique, and then apply the second limb of the law—does he keep as a curiosity or an ornament? If he does not, it then drops into the section in which it would come normally, and in most cases it would be a prohibited weapon, which carries a mandatory five years. The law is being looked at now, and I think it is sound in its basic intent.
Bill Harriman: I can think of none. Intent is very important, although hard to prove, I grant you. It is one thing to say that somebody has something, but it is what they are going to do with it that counts. Off the top of my head, I do not have a problem with that.
Christopher Graffius: I think a very small number. We are probably talking about 150 rifles. The police, who have better records of licences, identified 129, but there will be more rifles than that, and of course that does not include Northern Ireland, which the Bill also covers. I warn the Committee against legislating on the basis that it is only a small amount. These people’s recreations and activities, which they have conducted perfectly safely and in accordance with the law, are important. I would hope that Parliament is here for everyone, and not for the majority over the minority.
Christopher Graffius: I do not accept that they would do more damage than anything else. All rifles in the wrong hands are dangerous. All rifles, even down to the lowly .22, would penetrate the body armour normally issued to police, which is an anti-stab vest. All rifles are dangerous. As I mentioned, that longest sniper shot was not even done with a .50 calibre; it was done with a .338 Lapua, which is not actually covered by the Bill.
Christopher Graffius: I have no issues with the proposals in the Bill on bump stocks; I think you are quite right to do that. When it comes to the energy, though, there is no ballistic relevance to that energy limit. Indeed, it is quite possible that the rifle can be altered so it comes underneath that limit. If you try to legislate by limit, it may be possible to alter the rifle to comply with that.
Bill Harriman: One way I would always go at security is what people refer to as dispersion in separate units. You have the stock and the barrel in one steel cabinet, the bolt somewhere else—preferably in another room—and the ammunition somewhere else. You have to do three things to get the rifle, its component to make it function and the ammunition with which to fire it. I go back to what a Crown court judge said to me in, I think, 1991: security is a series of difficulties presented to a burglar. The more difficulties you present by dispersing things, the better the security is.
Bill Harriman: There are these types of firearms that are licensed by chief constables to certificate holders who have satisfied the good reason test that is enshrined in law and who use them legitimately for target shooting, and I believe that they are favoured by some disabled people because they are slightly easier to use.
Bill Harriman: I think the term “rapid firing” is always a bit difficult to define, because one man’s rapid fire is another’s very slow fire. I go back to the previous comments about bump stocks, which really do push the firing rates up, as far as I am aware. I have to say, though, that I have not actually seen a bump stock in this country, and I believe that when people here wanted to examine one, they had to buy one in. I have not seen one of those, but I have seen these rifles being fired. And while the firing rates might appear to be quite high, I think that the rates are very much lower than, say, those of a military rifle or perhaps a rifle fitted with a bump stock.
Christopher Graffius: My comment would be that when Parliament sets a limit, the industry then seeks to comply with that limit, and that is precisely what has happened with these rifles. I have never seen one of these weapons used, but I would say that anyone who possesses one legally in this country has been determined by a chief constable to be to safe to possess it, and his security is adequate. That is quite a substantial test for any rifle. The owner must also have good reason to possess it, and that may well be a disability.
Christopher Graffius: I would be sorry to see people who have been judged capable of owning these weapons securely and safely having them removed by Parliament, and their recreation lost.
Bill Harriman: May I also say that the good reason test in the legislation is actually quite hard to satisfy and the onus falls on the certificate holder to prove that they have a good reason?
Christopher Graffius: No, I do not think so. I can see no legitimate reason to have those weapons, including for target shooting. I fear what happened in Las Vegas: we have an example there of a bump stock being abused to kill large numbers of people. It is interesting to reflect that that bump stock turned a rifle that was not an automatic rifle into virtually an automatic rifle. If the murderer had been using a .50 calibre, it would have been a bolt action rifle and he would not have fired anything like that number of shots, because the .50 calibres in domestic possession are single-shot rifles.
Okay. Thank you.
Christopher Graffius: It would mean that Britain would not compete internationally, for example, on .50 calibre and it would mean that people would have a legitimate recreation destroyed, and I think that would be a great shame. People get very passionate about their shooting, as I am sure members of the Committee do about their own hobbies, and to have it removed is always a tragedy.
Christopher Graffius: First, I would want to say that you talked about illegal antiques, but no .50 calibre rifle legally held has ever been used in a crime in this country. I know that when that is said, people often refer to the rifle that was used by the IRA to snipe at British soldiers during the troubles. That was illegally imported from America; it was not legally held in this country. That is the first thing I would say.
The next thing I would say is that range is important. There has been an attempt to convince you that these things are somehow extreme, when lots of rifles that the Bill does not affect can shoot at long ranges. Range is not what makes a rifle dangerous. It is putting it in the wrong hands, and the bullet being fired at you.
You ask what else we should do. What we should do is strive to ensure that the licensing system works properly, that customs work efficiently and that illegal weapons are not imported into this country. You are probably aware that only 1% of the firearms used in non-airgun firearms crime are rifles. I am not aware of any prosecution for attempting to import a .50 calibre from overseas. I am not aware of any illegal discharges of .50 calibre. I really think that that is the wrong target.
If you look at illegal firearms crime, 42% of it is done with pistols and those were made illegal two decades ago. The vast bulk of firearms used in illegal crime is the stock that has been there for many years and illegal weapons brought in from overseas. I urge you to look at ways that you can improve our border controls against illegal importation, and police powers and resources to seize illegally held guns.
Christopher Graffius: I am aware of the case, but no one can be sure as to whether it was fired by the criminals. You do not clean a rifle after every shot, so there may be residue in the barrel from the last shot legally taken by the owner. So we do not know whether it was fired.
Christopher Graffius: Well, criminals shorten barrels on lots of long guns. I think they made a mistake in doing it on a .50 calibre, because the noise, the recoil and everything else would have been quite substantial—if they did fire it, but we do not know that.
Bill Harriman: I do not actually think they knew what they had stolen. Having spoken to the man who was unfortunate enough to have his gun stolen from his house, he believes that it was simply opportunist and they stole what they could carry away. They simply grabbed this thing. I think it was abandoned.
Bill Harriman: I think it is illustrative that one was used and it was not the .50 calibre; it was a smaller one. These things are very large. They are not the sort of thing that you can tote around the streets very easily.
Christopher Graffius: Many dangerous weapons from civilian, police and military sources have fallen into criminal hands. That is always worrying, and we must always work to stop it, but the .50 calibre that fell into criminal hands from a legal source was never used in the commission of a crime, and no other .50 calibre has, precisely because it is not well suited to be used in a crime. To give you an example, the average weight of a Steer .50 calibre rifle is 30 lb. My rifle, which is a .308—the same as the NATO rifle—can shoot well over 1,000 yards and weighs 8 lb with the scope.
Bill Harriman: To pick up on that, as a young man, in the days when I was in the Territorial Army, I used to complain bitterly about being made to carry the squad light machine gun, which weighed 22 lb—and that was running around with it.
Christopher Graffius: No, I think we have covered everything, thank you.
Bill Harriman: Thank you.
In which case, Mr Graffius and Mr Harriman, thank you for coming this morning. We will move on to our next witnesses.
Examination of Witnesses
Baroness Newlove and Anne Longfield gave evidence.
Baroness Newlove: I am Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales. I also come at this from a personal perspective, having lost my late husband to gang-related violent crime.
Anne Longfield: I am Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England.
Thank you very much. The acoustics in this room are quite difficult, so could everybody speak up? It is a long way for some of us to hear.
Baroness Newlove: The reason why I am so passionate is that I used to work in the court rooms—I used to take evidence down. When you go the other side, so to speak, and go through something personal, the way that you are treated certainly does not make you feel that the justice system is there to protect you. More importantly, my three daughters witnessed every kick and every punch to their father. They had to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation—he was choking on his own blood—and they were 12, 15 and 18. I then had to turn his life-support machine off, knowing full well that he had just got over stomach cancer, which nearly killed him, so you can imagine the trauma that we went through, and are still going through after 10 years.
I respected the court room, and still do respect it very passionately, but a lot went on around us. My daughters gave evidence and their clothing was removed. My sister took them to a VIPER—Video Identification Parades Electronic Recording—parade, which is just head and shoulder identification shots, and my sister was told to turn around and stand in the corner by defence solicitors. I think it is absolutely appalling. My children were asked to sit on their hands, and told, “Don’t fidget. If you want a break, let the usher know, but you’re not to cry.” Yet the defendants in the dock—aged from 15 to 18—were, I have to say, mollycoddled and coached. We had one adjournment for a dental appointment. In the court room there were no family rooms. It was a very volatile situation.
I didn’t have a vision for this, but when anybody says, “You really don’t know what it’s like,” I can assure you: I am a gobby northerner and I am still going through that criminal justice system. It saddens me today that I have people in my office crying, because of the lack of respect and dignity.
Baroness Newlove: It can come from individuals or non-communication. It can also come from the system itself, where they are expected to behave in a certain manner and they are the last port of call to find out information. Through social media, I have known verdicts in the Royal Courts of Justice before the judgment was supposed to be public. I have three daughters who live in the north and I am having to coach and tell them that it is not what it seems.
I have just been on the radio about a rape case today regarding a victim of social media. She has been trolled and basically told, “I hope you do get raped,” because the case was acquitted, “and I hope you kill yourself.” For me, it is the whole process. It does not help when individuals do not make it easy for you to go and ask questions.
Baroness Newlove: With the victims’ law, I keep challenging, because it has cross-party approval, and it has been in the manifesto twice. For me, it is about the practical issue and not just legislation. Victims do not have legal rights; they have a code of practice. We have been told by legal people that that is up to persuasive guidance. That is not good enough in my eyes and it is not good enough for the victims that I see on a daily basis around the country. I want to ensure, also, that they have the same rights as an offender—not to take away the balance of the rule of law, but to give them the same rights, so that they have the communication, they know somebody they can speak to and they can get the right information. They are not always given the right information.
That is why I want to have a victims’ advocate, not to interfere with the adversarial system. It should be someone who is qualified and paid to do the job. Volunteers do a great job, but—no disrespect—you do not put a volunteer with a defendant in the dock. When they are convicted, you do not put a volunteer with a prisoner.
I am sorry, but if you are really taking victims seriously at this end of the criminal justice system, we need that qualified advocate to build a relationship from beginning to end so that even if they don’t go to court, there is somebody there who will take that pressure away—so that people are not feeling suicidal, as I did. That will also help them to get support and rehabilitation. We always speak about rehabilitation of offenders. What about rehabilitation of victims? They lose their education, welfare and homes, as I did. The issue is not just legislation, but the practical skills. If they need legal aid, I would urge the Secretary of State for Justice to give legal aid where it is necessary. That is a huge issue, I know, but it is a stepping stone and it is a work in progress. A law has to be put in place now to protect the rights of victims.
Baroness Newlove: As you know, police and crime commissioners now have the funding for victim services. Some areas have Victim Support as their agency; others have chosen to go with Citizens Advice or to make their own, such as Vera Baird has done with Victims First, and we have victim hubs along the way. That works fine, if it works well for victims. But some of the victims I have met actually on visits to PCCs have never been involved in the support services. While the police say they do their best, it is quite interesting to listen to victims where the police are not coming out.
For me it is about that advocacy; it is not about signposting and it is not about putting everything on the police’s shoulders. There has to be a professional in place. The framework I am looking at—working with Vera Baird and Martyn Underhill, who is looking at the advocacy role—looks at a court advocate, a mental health advocate and a general advocate. I am looking at a general advocate, who would be there to introduce themselves at the victim’s pace.
Victim Support is under austerity measures. It can work well, but there are gaps and I do not want there to be gaps. They can send volunteers to them, but, while they do a tremendous job and they are all of a set age, I want to have a professional, because it makes you feel that you are being put parallel to the offender.
Baroness Newlove: Yes.
Anne Longfield: This is an area of work that I have undertaken; we have just moved into the second year and have published second-year statistics. I was concerned that there were vulnerable children who were carrying risks that often were invisible. We can see them when they come into contact with the state in care or child protection, but there are a raft of children who are carrying risk that we would all be concerned about if we knew, but who often are invisible. They become visible when they hit the headlines, but at that point, the crisis has already hit.
My analysis team has undertaken an extensive piece of work that looks at severe disadvantage, bringing together data from across public datasets in a comprehensive framework of vulnerability, with 40-odd groups. We are also doing further analysis on where there is multiple disadvantage and around particular family disadvantage. The idea is to get one set of understandings of vulnerability, but also get that to be recognised when look at how we reduce those risks.
We found that, actually, about 2 million children are living in high-risk households—that is, families who either have an addiction to alcohol or drugs, have a parent with severe mental health problems or have experienced domestic violence in the household over the last year. So there is significant risk. We have been quite conservative with these estimates; they do not look in any way to exaggerate.
As you say, of those 2 million, around just more than half a million are in the social services child protection and care system. We think that about 1.5 million are not getting any visible form of support. Some will get troubled families support of some kind, but we think there is a group in there who are not getting the early identification and support that they would benefit from to enable those problems not to escalate.
You mentioned the gangs figure; around 70,000 children self-identify as being in gangs. Of those, 30,000 are 10 to 15-year-olds. Many more know people who are in gangs. We think those statistics demand reference, not only because they are children who need support now, but to better understand the policy response, which needs to be multifaceted and long term and to start from birth.
Anne Longfield: The system we have at the moment does not see a child as a whole. One of my frustrations is that no matter how good a policy intervention in one Department is, it only fixes one set of symptoms; it does not look at the causes overall. Huge amounts of energy and effort—and sometimes distraction, I have to say—get taken up with particular initiatives that are in a health box, school box or crime box. Actually, none of us is as conveniently neat as that.
Human beings are complex; vulnerability affects every aspect of our lives and we know that it comes out in different ways. To really tackle the causes of vulnerability, we believe that there needs to be a joined-up approach nationally but importantly locally, too.
Anne Longfield: A recognition of the flaws in seeing it within segments in Departments is the first step. We also need a recognition of the divisions that are sometimes brought by different slices of money at the local level.
One of the things that I am really keen to look at is how we can maximise the potential of the new multiagency safeguarding arrangements coming into place now. They have got a year to develop their plans. They require the police, CCGs and children’s services all to be at the table. They are much stronger than the previous safeguarding arrangements. The guidance is very clear that the work has to be seen within the context of safeguarding. It is not just about the risk being carried by a child and family, but the wider risks to the community from violence, gangs and the like.
Within that, there is a distinct possibility of looking to a group of agencies that have clear responsibilities in an area. The mechanism has to look in the first instance at a risk assessment and coming up with a plan. Within that, they should be asked to come up with a 10-year plan that will reduce violence and risks in that area, which they can evidence over time. That is not as explicit as I am putting it at the moment, but it is a recommendation that I put forward that we believe would provide a mechanism to start to move beyond the short-term crisis response that so many areas are in.
Anne Longfield: There is now a requirement for schools to work together. It is much more explicit about that. Many schools that contact me are very worried about what they know is happening with the pupils in their schools. I have had some very good examples of schools that are doing positive work. A headteacher from alternative provision in Manchester is doing fantastic work. She believes that half of the pupils in her school are in gangs. She is doing it on her own. She is having to identify the problem, work it out and put forward measures that I think are very strong, but she has not had help or guidance with that.
The message to schools is that it is important that they are involved in this board and this area-wide activity and plan. For those new boards, it is important not only that they are informing schools what they are thinking, but that they are actively engaging with schools as part of the solution.
Anne Longfield: The fact of the matter is that we have not had this data before. I can only do this because I have particular powers that mean I can gather data and datasets from public bodies. I am in a position where I have an overview. My starting point is the child. I cannot say that there is an increase in totality. What we do know is that there are very concerning increases in various groups of vulnerable children. I would certainly say that an increased number of children are being marginalised, and I think the context of that marginalisation is becoming more and more concerning.
The children that have been marginalised are those who have been excluded from school and are outside the mainstream. There is new data today on the annual exclusion figures, which show a 64% increase over the past four years in the number of children excluded from school. It is 17% in the past year. Once they are outside that mainstream, they start to be in a system where they have fewer safeguards around them.
The safety net is gone. Three quarters of the children will be persistently not at school—there will be persistent absence. They are there, identified for those who wish to target them and prey on them. The children who are being pushed out or are falling out of the mainstream are increasingly marginalised. The stats show that. In terms of those that are in custody, 89% have been excluded from school. I could fill the next hour with those stats but I do not really need to because they speak for themselves. I am very happy to share them with you.
That is really shocking. Thank you both so much for giving evidence today. You have both provided really invaluable evidence. I should have said that at the beginning.
I am assuming there is obviously a difference between the qualifications one would need to support victims of a different ages; but really I am trying to get a sense of what kind of person you would be looking for and, also, what their duties would be, in your experience. Would it be explaining what is happening in the court system? Not everyone will know. Would it be administrative help with filling out forms or giving advice on finances? I am trying to get a clearer picture of the case you are making, which I think is a strong case.
Baroness Newlove: Yes, everything you have said is a mixture of what we are looking at as the role; in fact, my team are doing a rapid assessment at the moment.
Would you mind speaking slightly louder? Sorry, I cannot hear; the acoustics are quite bad.
Baroness Newlove: On what I am looking at for a victims’ advocate, one of the reviews I will be doing at the end of the year is a rapid assessment, looking at victims’ advocacy, because it is very important. While I mean a paid professional, I have not fine-tuned that yet; that is why I am working with Vera Baird and Martyn Underhill and looking at the framework of an independent domestic violence adviser or independent sexual violence adviser—because you have got the framework there.
I appreciate that if we are going to start from that basis, the issue will be down to costs, whoever is in government. I do not want to duplicate what we have already got out there, because the roles of IDVAs and ISVAs are very important to the relationship with the victim and also important to empower the families, because it is family members who have got to pick up as well. That is why I think it should be paid.
If they are over 18 it can be a lot easier, but if they are under 18 we have to look at the skillsets, and that is probably why you are looking at youth workers. I know there is some evidence about whether we should make them qualified. I think anybody who comes in front of a child should be qualified, should be accredited; and more importantly the reason why I want to have a victims’ advocate is that there are gaps in victim support agencies—not Victim Support, the organisation: victim support services.
If victims do not feel there is an organisation out there to support them right through, they set up on their own. That is not a bad thing; they come from a good place, but actually nationally and centrally that is a bad thing for them to have to do. We have got no national standards. We have got no accreditation system. It is not very professionalised and you would not put that in front of a young offender, or an offender who is over 18. I am trying to professionalise a system that is basically run, majority, by volunteers and good will.
Money is very tight, so I want to make sure that the money is used wisely. That is why, looking at that—and it follows right through; you have asked us if it is explaining court, if is about finance: it is the whole package. They are signposted at different stages from different organisations. One will say, “Why don’t we do this?” Victim support in some areas do not fill in the criminal injuries compensation; I am actually in the throes of doing a review on a victim’s journey. Some areas do but some areas do not. It is very much a postcode lottery. Each regional area looks at things differently. Lancashire PCC’s victim support service gave a counselling service to victims of terrorism—completely out-of-the-box creativity. I want to ensure that this role is looked at professionally and respected. Also, what it is bringing to the forefront is that independent domestic violence advisers—the court environment do not respect them as a professional. We are losing skilled workers who are essential to people who have been sexually abused and domestic violence victims. That is why we are looking at the role of the ChISVAs, as they are now called—the children and young people’s independent sexual violence advisers—to help the youth. If they are not known as a role now, why are they not? They are literally being taken away out of the courtroom environment. If we have a victim’s advocate who is qualified enough to do that, we can start to have that stepping-stone and better mileage in understanding the victim’s journey. Does that give you a flavour?
Yes; that was very comprehensive, thank you.
Baroness Newlove: Hopefully, a rapid assessment will give us a few more teeth to go forward.
Anne Longfield: One of the things I have put in place over the last couple of years is a measurement of the stability of children in care, because stability is key to ensuring that children can begin to get over and move on from some of their experiences before care and start to build themselves into their journey toward adulthood. Stability is the biggest thing that children have come to me to talk about. It is the thing they say they would benefit from and want most, but it is not there for many of them. We know that placement moves are far too frequent, that school moves are far too frequent, and that most of them experience a constant movement and change of social workers. For too many children in care, all the people who we all know are really important in our lives, the trusted adults who are there to help you and to build relationships with, are constantly changing.
We know there is a particular group of children who are particularly marginalised from the relative—it is relative—stability that most in care will experience. That particular group is children with the most complex needs, who will ping or pinball around the system. It is in their teenage years that they are most likely to be at risk of that. They will be the ones with complex needs; they will be very challenging for schools, foster families and residential homes, but none the less they are put at higher risk by being pinged around and not supported or helped. Essentially, there is a gradation of risks for children in care. The vast majority will be relatively stable—not as stable as I would wish them to be, but compared to the instability of that high-risk group they are not so much in the spotlight.
The issue with that high-risk group, which involves a number of thousands of children, is that we know who they are. I suppose that is part of the message about knowing who the vulnerable children are. We know where they are. There are trigger points and clues within their lives as they grow up that things are going very wrong. That starts very early on. Talk to most early years workers, and they will be able to tell you the children they believe have carried the highest risks. It goes into school. It emerges often in teenage years, when they may be excluded from school, especially as they get into the midpoint within secondary school. Then they are in a pupil referral unit, alternative provision, custody or care.
Those children are almost going down a funnel toward a crisis point. At every point there are trigger points where interventions could help to bring down those risks and prevent children from graduating to that next dreadful stage. There is not a system in place that is established and consistent enough, in any real way, to enable us to identify those children and have the help in place to prevent those risks escalating and to treat those difficulties. The issue we really need to understand is that many of those things are preventable and treatable, and knowing that, my argument is that we must.
We also know—although it is not all about money—that because the funding in local authorities is very tight at the moment, half of all the money that goes into children’s services budgets is going on the 72,000 children in care. If you add in those on child protection plans, it is three quarters, which means that there has been a 60% drop-off for youth services and Sure Start, which are where many of those children and families are picked up and helped. There is a context that this is happening within, which is why it needs to be flipped on its end, in my view, in terms of a proactive determination to reduce risk and intervene early.
Before we take any more questions, may I suggest that some questions should be about the actual Bill? We have had some general discussions so far, and I have been very tolerant, but it is probably time to focus on the Bill.
Anne Longfield: I do not want to veer off too much, but the intervention will clearly be different at different ages, so you would not have the same intervention with a two-year-old who was at risk because of family factors as you would with a fifteen-year-old who had already been in custody once and was in danger of reoffending. There would be different interventions.
In the longer term, there is much work that needs to be done with families in the early years, which can reduce those risks and help to give children the resilience and the external support to grow up in a stable environment. As children are going into school, much can be done to build their skills with extra support, support within the classroom and added support around the school, along with help for families.
When you get to the point where children are at a distinct risk as a group, when they are excluded from school, there is very difficult behaviour and they are getting into trouble with the law and the like, and when there is the kind of violence we have seen in communities, you are talking about specific interventions that draw together agencies. There is an element of disruption—you disrupt the pattern and have trusted adults there who can start to talk about the different narratives and look at activities that disrupt.
You are looking at interventions at the age of seven and eight within primary schools that, again, offer different narratives and help children to develop their own sense of confidence and self-belief. The confidence, self-belief and resilience to be able to say no and walk away from being in a gang—frankly, a lot of kids will say they do not feel they have any choice, because the violence is so extreme and the organisation is so forensic—start early, at the end of primary school.
It is breaking a cycle. I was shocked to find out—I know that I am forever joining the dots and there is always something new to find out—that in a young offenders institution I visited lately for 16 and 17-year-old boys, a fifth of them were already parents and had babies. That is why I talk about that constant life cycle and being able to intervene at different points.
Essentially, you have to make it the day job of every agency that comes into contact with them, so the relevant people are around to help. This is not about putting everything on teachers and making them the last people standing on this. It’s really about being able to understand who can identify who those kids are, who can help and what you can do. By the time you are talking about prevention—last-chance prevention almost—you are talking about significant help to bring mental health problems down. You are talking about real help to look at options, resilience, confidence building, self-belief, respect, relationships, and all of the things that so many of those children will not have had from their own family circumstances, or indeed as they go through school, because a lot of these children will not have been in school since primary school.
Anne Longfield: Of course. There is a strong educational element. On the kind of work I was talking about in relation to seven and eight-year-olds, what I have seen happening in a very positive way has been in the final years of primary school with ex-probation officers who have gone into schools and actually talked to children in a relatively grown-up way about violence and the impact of your actions, and they have talked about being able to understand and have some empathy with those that you will have an impact on. Who will be affected if you attack someone? Family; community; and not just on one day, but forever.
All the evidence shows that the final year of primary school is a really powerful moment to put in alternative narratives, not only about what is good, what is cool and what is the thing to be, but about building empathetic skills and resilience skills. In a workshop that I was in, they started on a Monday and said, “What do you think is the best weapon you have?”, and of course everyone said the most powerful weapon: a knife, a gun, whatever. By the Friday, after five sessions, they said, “Your brain.” Having a sense of agency, using your brain and knowing some tactics to get out of difficult situations was what they felt they gained from. The kids were overwhelmed by it and thought it was fantastic.
Baroness Newlove: A victims’ law would make victims feel they have legal rights. The majority of victims, or most victims that I see, believe they have no legal rights when they listen to the courtroom system. Sadly, I met some victims who had lost their daughter to murder. They felt the system was very much offender-focused and all about the rights of the offender. They felt that the police and the defence had to abide by the offender rules in the courtroom. That is why I believe that if we have legal rights for victims, they will feel that they are very much part of the process and will not feel that their loved ones are just a piece of evidence.
As my daughter said when she was 18 and gave evidence, her father was on a map and he was Man A. She has never forgotten that. That is the whole point. I appreciate, Chair, you want to go back to legislation, but in this legislation there is no wording about victims. Although I welcome the Bill, it is about the crime. We are talking about offenders and how we can make the message sterner, but there is no information or wording about the victim. If you are serious about both, you must ensure that that is looked at. If you look at offenders as victims as well, they need to know that they can be protected from going down the criminal path.
Baroness Newlove: I have done this work now for 10 years. Before I became a baroness in the House of Lords, I went and did my homework. I have been into prisons and youth offender institutions, and I have also worked with medics on first aid. I have spoken to young gangs about knife crimes, and 10 years ago it was about how they cut the person. It was the designer cut—it was a weapon of message. Now we are seeing that weapons have got even worse, with the shape of them. They are absolutely appalling.
Talking to victims of knife crime, they feel that there are two sides. Why are they carrying a weapon? To feel protected—yet they kill another human being. It does not add up for them. Also, if they live in an area where there is high knife crime—I have met families in Hackney who have lost family members from that—they do not understand why they have the ability to get hold of a knife in the first instance.
They also believe that we need to educate them. I met a very good group of medics who carried out first aid for young people who were in gangs—this was in a youth offending centre. Young people have this thought that if they just stab someone once they will not die—it is just a warning. Actually, as the consultant said, you can die from a wound in your big toe. I thought then—this was seven years ago, and I know we are talking about medics now for the programme—that that was a good idea. They were not only teaching them first aid so they could help their friend in the gang, and get them to A&E, but getting to understand their language. When they come into A&E they freeze up, and they could be a pure victim stuck in a gang environment. That has always hit home for me.
I am delighted that we are looking at medics, but more importantly, if we are looking at education to stop this, victims say, “Why are we not educating them more about the graphic detail?” They will go on an Xbox and think it is great to shoot and knife people, but it is not life—you can pause. Unfortunately, in life somebody will be injured. In education, it is very important that we bring first aid back into our classrooms as mandatory. First aid helped my daughters to help their father. Helping these gangs with more creative first aid will educate them, and make them feel that they have some tools.
Also, if these are pupil referral units—PRUs, as we say—why are we paying so much money to these individuals to then shove them in a room? They probably do not have academic skills but have practical skills to use a knife in a practical way to get a job. I get really infuriated when I have been round and seen victim services helping these families to cook, to wash and to raise their family in the best way, and the schools feel it is quite right to send their PRUs to them, but not to pay them the premium money that the school gets. That is where victims keep asking me, “Why are we not doing enough on early intervention to stop that?” I think it is commendable of victims’ families—the people who have lost somebody —to help people.
Baroness Newlove: What worries me with acid attacks is that medics have said that they do not want to report them. They are very scared, and the offender finds it the easiest weapon, as such. They are not born with this weapon, but this liquid seems to be easy. We have to pull out of that and highlight the horrible acid attacks and what they do, and be stronger on sentencing as well. Liquid is quite easy to throw, but is devastatingly effective on victims. The system they go through is more life threatening than anything.
Anne Longfield: On an attempt to purchase?
Anne Longfield: I want to do anything possible to reduce the violence, both from children and on children, but I do not want to criminalise them. I want to do as much as possible to intelligently act on these triggers, but I know that when we criminalise children there is one path. We know that over the last two or three years, there has been a doubling of children, under 18, who are in prison because of knife crime. Once they are in there, we know that 68% reoffend, so there is one route. My position is firmly on preventing that from happening, and using that as a trigger.
Anne Longfield: I do not think it would be an effective solution to what I want to see.
Anne Longfield: I do believe there is a link between children being marginalised and outside school and an increased risk of being involved in violence and knife crime. There has been a huge increase in the last five years—a significant increase of 64%. When children get into PRUs, they cost us a lot more—£30,000 a year, which is six times as much a place—so on social and economic grounds this is completely unsustainable. They often have a twilight timetable, which means a couple of hours here and there, which means they are getting all the benefits of contact with those who wish to get in contact with them and none of the benefits of stability from any kind of provision.
The first thing is to reduce the number of children who are falling out of school. In my view, mainstream schooling should be mainstream. Some areas have done very good things to keep children in schools, and the default needs to go back to keeping kids in schools. The kind of things you see in some of the best alternative provision—some is good—are about close relationships with parents, agreed ways of walking to school, agreed leaving times, phone calls if they are not there, and extra support, one-on-one tuition and the like. All of those things. That could be delivered within a school context, but of course a lot of schools think they do not have the incentives for that because they will not be judged on it, which is why there must be a change in what we look at in terms of judgment around schools.
Keeping children in school is really important, as is increasing the quality of the provision of those out of school and being clear about the purpose of them being there, and—it sounds ridiculous—having a much greater focus on the kids’ outcomes when they are there. This is not a warehousing exercise for children who are a bit difficult and too difficult and complex for a school; it is about children’s futures. That just does not work in the PRU system. It is set up to fail, and if you end up in that situation it only goes one way. You had the St Giles Trust here the other day, which is well respected, and it says that 100% of the children and young people it works with on county lines come from PRUs. Clearly 100% is a lot—it is a big figure—but we get the sense of scale in that.
The headteacher who wrote to me had a whole raft of things in place across her alternative provision. She had training for teachers, a whole school approach, relationships with family members and specific activities in the classroom to bring down the rhetoric and language around gangs, because there is a whole language around street violence that breeds violence, and a whole way of looking at things, showing that retribution is not the only way forward, teaching young people life skills that will take them away from violence rather than towards it. I have yet to visit that place, but that is a good example of where a school knows there is a problem and is proactively doing very good, responsible things.
In different areas there is a hotch-potch in responses. In some areas the police will look to scrabble a bit of money together—often only a few hundred pounds—to put on sessions and workshops in schools, but sometimes they find it difficult to get that money. They are often working with the police and crime commissioners, but again there are limited funds. They are often not well set up to start working with feeder schools for hotspot secondaries. All that is new territory for a lot of police forces. That is why a longer-term collaborative approach is the way forward. There is not a magic bullet for this, and we cannot police or legislate our way out of it. Although that is clearly important, this has to be a long-term process that looks at an alternative approach for those children and recognises where help is needed.
Baroness Newlove: Unfortunately, my role and my budget only allow me to go to Wales, so I cannot say I have seen them personally, but my team are looking at rapid assessment. That is why it is important to see where it works well with support. I could not say without evidence and without having looked at it, and of course doing that takes a lot of resources, but at the end of the day, if we cannot get it right here, we have to look elsewhere. This is about humanity at the end of the day.
Baroness Newlove: There will be places. The USA has victim advocates, but there are different county lines and county issues there. That is why I am looking forward to rapid assessment, which we looked at in “What works”—the international evidence assessment of the four pillars. I think it will be on the basis of that that we look at the support mechanisms right through. I can always send you that report when it is available.
Anne Longfield: There are certainly urban hotspots in terms of violence, and clearly London is one of those, but we have seen over the last few years that that is increasingly affecting every area of the country—perhaps not the extreme violence and murder that we have seen in London, but certainly things like county lines. At one point, that largely involved drugs being exported from urban areas to coastal towns and the like; now, every police force in the country says they have county lines in their area. The strong message from that is that none of us should think it is something that happens just over here or in particular communities—in urban areas that are the most disadvantaged. The prevalence may be higher there, but this actually happens in every area now. We know from the NCA that there are more than 1,000 county lines around the country.
Any of us would be shocked by the viciousness and tenacity of that business model, which is based on extreme violence. Young people who live in areas where it happens sometimes say, “I’ve got no choice. Joining isn’t a lifestyle choice to me—I can’t see any other way. I don’t have the protection of a family. I don’t have the kind of consistency at home that gives me the safety net and the resilience to be able to fight this.” They want to belong. They want to be protected. Someone from St Giles said the other day, “Kids pick up knives like you might pick up car keys before you leave the house.” It is on that level of normality. We need to understand that and then act in a very determined way to ensure that it does not remain normal going forward. It cannot be right.
Again, there are reachable, teachable moments, but this is a concern for anyone—every police force in every area of the country—because the business model is very determined and it acts very deftly, so if there is a blockage here, it will go a different way. County lines, which are based on violence and coercion, now work in a way that recruits young people from a local community, and they are the ones who go out to sell and deliver the drugs, and report back to a base, sometimes hourly, with photos to show how they have been doing. That should be a concern for all of us, which is why I talked about the new safeguarding arrangements. They are in every area and they have a consistent responsibility and requirement to pull those agencies together. They all have to write a plan based on what they know the risks are, and we should be explicit about violence and knife crime as part of that plan.
Anne Longfield: Certainly many agencies now look at young people up to the age of 25. We know that 18 is often quite an arbitrary age, because children are still developing. In terms of mental health, for instance, most of the mental health care that is most effective looks at under 25s, so—
Anne Longfield: We are working on the basis of 18. I do not have any opposition to 18. I just put before you the fact that 18 is not always the most effective age in terms of improving outcomes for children and their communities.
Baroness Newlove: I think it will send a message to victims of acid attacks. At the moment, people use acid to injure people, and it is an easy thing to do, because there is no custodial sentence for it. We have to make it clear, but we also have to look at the sentencing. It is a life-changing injury, which costs a lot to the state in healthcare, so we have to have a good sentence. The whole Bill has to mean what it says on the tin, and that is why this is important, but the sentencing guidelines have to follow through. We already have knife crime legislation and it does not have that effect.
“when the offence was committed, the person…was aged 16 or over”?
Are you content with that provision? Is it appropriate?
Anne Longfield: Again, for 16 and 18-year-olds the response needs to reflect the age of the young person. If they are criminalised at that stage, they will only go down one track. I would prefer a way that triggers a response. I am not looking to be soft on people who are perpetrating crimes in any way, but if we are looking for an effective response, it has to be robust about that.
Baroness Newlove: Can I add to that? I know somebody else who has gone through it. If you have an offender who is 16, or under 18 years old, a victim who is 18 years old is seen not as a child but as an adult, and they will then get an adult provision. We are messing around with ages here. There is no clarity for victims of that age. That is my worry—that it will not have the right effect for victims to feel supported.
Baroness Newlove: I do not have any evidence to produce on that. That is not my area, so I would not like to add anything.
Anne Longfield: No, the young people I talk to are not as involved in this area. I do not have particular evidence to offer.
So not a particularly strong view either way on those provisions. Thank you.
Anne Longfield: Where do I start? My starting point will always be prevention. I do not want kids to be in prison; I want them to be elsewhere and I do everything I can not to have them there. While they are in there, I acknowledge that some young people say it is the first time that they have felt safe. Those who work with them say that when they know that the average time they are in custody will be 14 weeks, all they can do is stabilise and move on. I want to have a system that can respond to individuals, so my instinct is not to go down the mandatory minimum sentences route but to look at individual cases.
Baroness Newlove: As Victims’ Commissioner, I have to say that victims tell me they want mandatory; only then will it be effective.
Baroness Newlove: It was across the party for a victims law to be produced in the manifesto, but I am independent as the Victims Commissioner. It is something I keep speaking about.
Baroness Newlove: Yes, that was in the manifesto.
Are there any more questions about the Bill? No. In that case, I thank the witnesses for coming. It has been a very useful session.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Paul Maynard.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.