My Lords, after repeated delays in the other place, I am pleased that today we have the opportunity to debate this much needed legislation at Second Reading. My Front-Bench colleagues in the other place have made it clear that efforts to tackle the sale and possession of acid and the growing knife crime epidemic would be welcomed by these Benches so, although lacking in some areas, the Bill and its limited measures have the support of the Opposition. Needless to say, we will seek to amend the Bill at later stages, but with our support for the legislation assured, I hope the Minister will engage constructively with our efforts to improve it.
We should not underestimate the challenges ahead in making our communities safer. In the 12 months leading to March 2018, England and Wales saw a 16% increase in knife crime. In total, there were 40,000 offences—the highest number since 2011. That rise is backed up by NHS hospitals in England, which recorded a 7% increase in admissions for assault by a sharp object, while the Office for National Statistics confirmed that this represents a “real change” in incident numbers. While some communities have been worse impacted than others, the issue of county lines is seeing gang violence and serious crime find a way into towns across the UK.
The issue is not isolated, nor is it contained. With surging crime and falling charge rates, the Bill is a missed opportunity to address the wider issues leading to this surge. If we are to turn back the tide and guarantee safer communities, we must begin by equipping the police to best offer their protection. Aside from Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland, this Government have cut police numbers more than any other developed country. We have lost 21,000 police officers, over 18,000 police staff, and around 7,000 community support officers. If the Government are to put the police on the front foot to tackle violent crime, they must first build the front line back up.
In addressing the factors behind serious crime, the Government should also consider the need for greater early intervention, which the Bill fails to tackle. Time and again, the precursors to articles in the press about violent crime are the same tragic stories of vulnerability, abandonment and exploitation. The reduction in youth workers, the neglect of children leaving care and the cutting of local government funding used to provide support have only spurred on the problem. As public services are stripped back by cuts, the same patterns emerge of individuals in need of help instead turning to crime. The Government must do more to protect the most vulnerable in society, and it is disappointing that the Bill has not been used to meet calls to tackle these root causes.
In the past, we have heard reassuring comments by the Secretary of State recognising the importance of early intervention, but that has not been reflected in the actions of the Home Office; nor has it been reflected further across Whitehall. The reality is that spending on crime prevention by local authorities has been cut in half since 2010. In real terms, £1 billion has been taken from children’s services since 2012 and £2.7 billion from school budgets since 2015. There can be no doubt that this has contributed to wider societal problems, which have fuelled violence and crime. The Government must commit to greater social cohesion and early intervention, and it is a shame that the Bill has not been used to do so.
The Government also need to make more concerted efforts specifically to overcome gang violence, and the omission of steps to do so in the Bill is disappointing. It has been estimated by the Children’s Commissioner that around 70,000 of those aged under 25 are involved in gang networks, yet the fund for ending gang violence and exploitation has been given only £300,000 as part of the Government’s flagship strategy. We also need to see further efforts to combat county lines—an issue which has seen greater prominence since the introduction of the Bill. I am concerned that the Government do not understand the urgency with which the public want to see this issue sorted. Repeated concerns have been raised over the lack of prosecutions despite significant media attention. In October, I was pleased to see an announcement of the first county lines prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act. I hope this House can explore whether further measures can be introduced at later stages best to equip police forces to put an end to the misery caused.
I am further disappointed that for the victims of crime, again the Bill offers little. In the Conservative Party manifestos of 2015 and 2017, pledges were made to legislate for the rights of victims, who are too often left in the dark by the criminal justice system. There is no sign of this in the Bill or across the Government’s wider agenda. We have heard calls for safer staffing levels in the ambulance service and the NHS to protect those who become victims of the weapons the Bill hopes to tackle, yet there is no sign of provisions to improve the situation, either in the Bill or across the Government’s wider agenda. In legislating for safer communities and to tackle violent crime, the voices of victims must be front and centre, yet those voices have again been ignored by this Government.
Moving on from what is omitted from the Bill to how measures can be strengthened, I am sure noble Lords will recognise that firearms regulations in the UK are among the world’s strongest, and the provisions in the Bill to complement and strengthen them will, I hope, be welcomed across this House. However, as restrictions have developed and extended in recent decades, we must recognise how criminals have adapted to restricted supplies, including by repurposing obsolete firearms and through the increasing trend of legally held firearms being stolen from certificate holders. These loopholes allowing gun ownership are, in the word of some of the most senior counterterror officers in the UK, “glaring”. Of course, we must also be alert to the threat of higher-calibre weapons, and it is greatly disappointing that, despite overwhelming evidence of the danger, supported by the police, the Government have succumbed to their own Back-Benchers and removed these provisions. The police have made clear that they have no known protection against these rifles. There can be no justification for any individual owning one. We will confront this issue in the later stages of the Bill, and I hope the Minister will recognise the strength of feeling across both Houses, not just from a narrow wing of her party.
The measures relating to corrosives are, again, welcome but do not go far enough. The disturbing trend of individuals using these substances to cause harm has created great concern following high-profile incidents across the UK, and it is right that the Government are seeking to restrict their possession. Unfortunately, the Bill falls short of fully recognising the danger they can cause and leaves their restriction on a lesser pedestal than other weapons. The Bill also fails to acknowledge the spate of so-called fake acid attacks where individuals have been threatened with a non-corrosive substance in a manner which gives cause to believe it is indeed a corrosive substance. We cannot allow individuals to capitalise on fear without consequences. We must tackle this threat head on with the severity it deserves.
Finally, I come to knife crime and the Bill’s provisions relating to bladed weapons. The measures relating to remote sales are particularly welcome, as are those for residential premises but, as I mentioned, we must adapt to changing threats and consider the other ways in which weapons are obtained for violent crime. There are different purchasing platforms and different weapons that we must understand, and I look forward to the House considering measures to confront them. There are also questions to be asked about why higher education premises have not been recognised on the same level as further education premises in the prohibition of possession, and there is cause to believe that these have not been fully answered in the other House.
I will touch briefly on an issue that USDAW, the shop workers’ union, has campaigned on extensively. As the House will be aware, the Bill creates a number of statutory duties for shop workers who sell objects that can be used as weapons. We can expect those performing these duties in shops to encounter individuals who choose to threaten or, worse, attack them for acting responsibly. We must ensure that shop workers have the utmost protection under the law, and I hope the House will consider how this can be provided for in the Bill. Unfortunately, efforts to amend the Bill to reflect such protection were resisted by the Government during the Bill’s passage through the Commons, and I hope Ministers will be prepared to better engage on this issue during its passage through this House.
Earlier, I told the House that the Opposition will not stand in the way of the passage of this legislation. Our issues with the Bill are largely to do with what has been omitted rather than what has been included, and I urge the House to look beyond the narrow measures currently contained in the Bill and to consider the greater causes behind serious violent crime. The spike in incidents that we have seen in recent years will not be cancelled out until we look beyond the face of the crime and consider how front-line police cuts, the neglect of youth services and the abandonment of early intervention have contributed to a melting pot that has allowed violent crime to emerge as an epidemic.
In finishing, I briefly remind the House and the Government of the UK’s restrictions on the availability of weapons, which are among the most respected in the world and testify to cross-party efforts under Governments of all colours. Therefore, I sincerely hope that, as the Bill progresses through the House, the Government will take heed of precedent and reflect concerns raised by both sides of this House.