Today I am going to address the corrosive substances provisions of the Bill and welcome the progress that has been made. Had I realised the direction that the debate was going to take, I would have sought to speak for longer and to discuss the wider concerns that have been raised today. I have been seeking a Westminster Hall debate on those wider issues, and if any other Members wanted to join me in trying to secure a debate in the dying days of this term, I would be delighted.
Last year, there were 85 attacks using corrosive substances in Newham and 468 in the whole of London. In the five years since the start of 2012, the number of acid attacks in London has increased by some 600%, and my constituency is something of a hotspot. This time last year, the fear in my constituency about acid attacks was palpable. I heard about constituents of all ages and backgrounds who were afraid to leave their homes because the perception was that these acid attacks were random. It was a crisis, and it needed a strong response from Government. I called for that, as did my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, and I am happy to see that many of the specific measures I called for are in the Bill.
Most importantly, the Bill takes a step forward in recognising that corrosives are just as dangerous as knives. They can do just as much harm physically and emotionally, so they should receive the same kind of legal and police response. The introduction of a clear and specific offence of possession of a corrosive substance in public should make the job of the police and the courts easier in catching and prosecuting those who carry acid as a weapon.
The ban on the sale of corrosive products to children is also very welcome. Although I accept the arguments for the age restriction of 18, I join colleagues in asking whether a higher age restriction might be appropriate. I also think that the Bill Committee should look closely at the broader issue of supply, and not just sale. Would it be better to introduce an offence of supplying a child with acid in an unsafe way, not just selling in exchange for money, which I suggested last year? It is important to get this right because some acid attacks, I am told, are revenge, punishments or even initiation rites for junior members of criminally run gangs. If an older man gives acid to a child and tells them to commit an offence or an attack, will the act of giving be covered by an offence in the Bill? Can we prosecute the man who has given the acid to the child as effectively as we would if he had taken money for it? Personally, I think that that is a higher offence than those of unwitting sale or of not taking a salesperson’s responsibilities as seriously as the law demands.
Over the past year, I have raised several concerns about online sales of corrosive products. At this time last year, people could buy 96%—I stress, 96%—concentrated sulphuric acid in large bottles from Amazon for about five quid each, with no checks. There is still a requirement for online sellers, like all sellers, to monitor suspicious purchases under the Poisons Act 1972, but the Government have failed to convince me that they can implement or enforce this online, so I welcome the ban on home deliveries of corrosive products. I think that that will take us where we need to be. I hope that it will indirectly ban these sales, because if we cannot make online sales safe, they simply have to be stopped to protect communities.
This Bill is a step forward. It will help to ensure that sellers of these products have face-to-face contact with buyers and can ask them questions. There is really no other way that the law could work. It was always a bit of a joke to suggest that online sellers could monitor suspicious purchases, and I think we got that message across in our debate before Christmas.
I hope this change will make suspicious transaction reporting more workable, but putting a greater emphasis on reporting by retailers only increases the need for proper guidance and for the Home Office to monitor and enforce the legal requirement. Retailers have to understand that there is a real chance that the Government will take action against them if they fail. In written questions, I have asked Home Office Ministers whether the Department has a programme of test purchases, but—bless them—I keep being given vague answers to my questions. I would like to hear about this issue from the Minister today, or if she wants, she could write to me about it.