At the moment, many of our constituents seem to think the only thing we are discussing in this place is yet more Brexit, so it is with great pleasure that I am here to speak about something so important, unfortunately, to the daily lives of many of our constituents.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of 16 to 18-year-olds in my constituency. Colleagues will know that that can sometimes be quite a challenging group of constituents to please. When I told them that one of the things we were working on in Westminster was a new law that would make it so much more challenging to buy and sell dangerous knives—zombie knives and the like—on the internet, they stood up and clapped, because it is so near the top of their list of concerns and of their agenda for how to keep themselves safe when they are out on the streets. They have been shocked, as we all have been shocked, by the rise in violent crime across the country. When violent crime increases, it is, unfortunately, very often our young people who suffer. I believe that it is the first job of politicians to try to keep our constituents safe, and that is why I welcome the Bill.
We have discussed the sale of knives online, stopping them being sent to residential addresses, and if they are legal sales—in other words, sales of a permitted bladed article to someone over the age of 18—making sure that those who receive them provide identification. I welcome the parts of the Bill that make it illegal to possess the most offensive weapons in private as well as in public, including zombie knives and knuckledusters. New clause 16, moved today, will make the offence of threatening with an offensive weapon in a private place part of the Bill. This new offence of making it unlawful to have offensive weapons in private means that, when the police find a zombie knife in a private place or someone’s home—as members of Chelmsford police have—they can arrest and charge the owner with the proposed offence and remove the weapon from the owner.
I am extremely pleased that the Bill extends the current offence of possessing such bladed articles or offensive weapons on school premises to cover all further education premises in England and Wales as well as schools. As I have said, it is this group of 16 to 18-year-olds in my constituency who have campaigned very hard since my election for stronger laws against this type of crime and for stronger action against this type of weapon.
In Essex, we have the highest number of violent incidents relating to urban street gangs and county lines in the whole of the east of England, but we have a police and crime commissioner who is committed to reducing that. While violent crime across the country has increased by 12%, the police and crime commissioner in my own county—the police, fire and crime commissioner; she has now taken on the fire commissioner role as well—told us just last Friday night that it has increased by 3% to 4% in Essex. That is lower than the national rise, but it is still increasing.
Thanks to Ministers listening to the pleas from Essex police, we will now have 150 additional police officers on the streets in Essex, because we have been able to increase the police precept. Essex MPs were united in asking for the increase in the police precept. I am sure the Minister will be very glad to hear that a whole tranche of those new Essex police officers will hold their passing-out parade on Friday afternoon. We are very proud to see that decision actually turning into reality.
At the end of the summer, I spent a day and a night on patrol with my local police. While I have the Minister’s attention, I will mention some other items that I would like her to consider. The officers in my district alone did 172 stop and searches last month. They said that the power to stop and search is vital for tackling county lines and getting on top of the increase in violent crime. Stop and searches quite often result in the seizure of offensive weapons, such as the ones we have been discussing.
My local police are also running Operation Showman to tackle drug use and supply. It has been really successful at targeting the people at the top of the drugs gangs, and a number of arrests have been made. The police would like to see stronger sentencing when they find those people. They can arrest and re-arrest them, but sometimes the sentences are not as strong as they would like. They would also like stronger stop-and-search powers, especially in cases where they smell cannabis, because it is unclear what they can do at the moment, but that is often linked to other gang-related activity.
There is particular concern about vulnerable young people being targeted by gangs and used as drugs mules. The police have asked me to draw this to the Minister’s attention. Sometimes the police, the youth offending programmes and the Crown Prosecution Service will decide to put a curfew on a young person to safeguard them, because the gangs will be unable to exploit them by asking them to go out at night and get involved in violent crime, which is linked to the violent weapons we are discussing today. Of course the young person—we are talking about 14-year-olds—will not say publicly that they want the curfew, but they know that it will protect them. However, when the case gets to court, the magistrate has decided on occasion to overturn the curfew because they think the young person has human rights and should be allowed out after 10 o’clock at night. There does not seem to be a process that allows the police, the youth offending programmes and the CPS to pass that intelligence on to the magistrate before sentencing, so how can we improve the dialogue to ensure that all the information is taking into consideration to safeguard these vulnerable young people?
In the Women and Equalities Committee, we have been looking at sexual harassment, especially in public places and at night. One of our report’s recommendations is to encourage more parts of the country to consider purple flag schemes for busy city centres. In my constituency, we are very proud of our purple flag team, who recently won the national award for best Pubwatch scheme. The scheme brings together pub and nightclub owners. My constituency has a very busy nightlife. Indeed, I spent the Saturday before last following the bouncers in five different nightclubs to see the work they do.
Most of those clubs run a scheme that allows absolutely no drugs and has strong co-ordination so that anyone suspected of being involved in drugs or violence is banned, and the ban goes across all the pubs and clubs in the scheme. It has resulted in a 35% drop in night-time violence. It is hugely innovative. The scheme has also introduced acid attack kits to ensure that all those working in the clubs can take swift action if someone is attacked with acid. That is a very innovative, and it has definitely meant that those visiting the clubs and the club owners feel much better prepared.
On a recent visit to my local mosque, I was very taken by the fact that the young people, both boys and girls, were telling me how concerned they were by the rise in acid attacks. I am absolutely delighted that the Bill introduces additional restrictions on carrying dangerous corrosive products. The young people I spoke to, both in schools and in the mosque, were absolutely delighted to hear about this piece of work. New clause 17, which will allow searches for such corrosive substances in schools or further education premises, will also help. I am therefore delighted to support the Bill, which I believe is a very important step forward in reassuring our young people and keeping them safe.