My Lords, the Minister mentioned the tragic stabbing to death of a father on a suburban train last week, and of course our thoughts are with all those affected by such a tragedy. However, the fact is that young people in our inner cities are dying from knife crime almost every day of the week, and that is the real tragedy that the Government should be highlighting.
This Bill has a familiar ring to it. Again, the Government, wanting to be seen to be responding to the crisis of violence on our streets, resort to legislation and imprisonment rather than investing to tackle violent crime, investing to bring about long-term changes in behaviour, and taking immediate steps to save young people’s lives by properly investing in policing. And the reason? To avoid raising the taxes of those who can most afford to make a contribution.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. Violence stems from inequality and poverty, from failing to invest in children and young people, from creating a vacuum that used to be occupied by community policing and youth services and has now been filled by criminal gangs. The Government’s serious violence plan—it does not deserve the title “strategy”—is in fact a patchwork of unco-ordinated and underfunded initiatives, however well intentioned, that lack the real money and real leadership that could really make a difference, and this legislation is yet another piece of that inadequate and ineffective patchwork.
A very good piece of legislation that deals with offensive weapons is already on the statute book. The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 states:
“Any person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, the proof whereof shall lie on him, has with him in any public place any offensive weapon shall be guilty of an offence”.
This was the staple of my days as a constable on the beat. There were two types of offensive weapon. There were items such as daggers that were made to cause injury to people—made offensive weapons—but the majority had more than one use; for example, a kitchen knife which, when carried to a fight, was an intended offensive weapon. It was therefore straightforward. The chef on his way to work did not commit an offence when carrying a kitchen knife, whereas the gang member on his way to confront a rival gang did.
In 1988, Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act shifted the burden against the innocent, introducing an offence of having in a public place any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed. From what I can see, this is the origin of the shift that we discussed at some length in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill: a shift away from whether someone commits an offence, subject to whether they have lawful authority or reasonable excuse, to an absolute offence where,
“it shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence to prove that he had good reason or lawful authority”.
This Bill creates new offences of, for example: selling a corrosive product to a person under the age of 18, having a corrosive substance in a public place and delivering a bladed product to residential premises or a locker—no matter whether every precaution has been taken to ensure dangerous items do not get into the hands of children. It is a defence for someone charged with any of these offences to prove that they took all reasonable steps to avoid this happening. However, unlike the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, there is no reference to Section 118 of the Terrorism Act, which noble Lords will recall places the burden of proof on the prosecution and says:
“If the person adduces evidence which is sufficient to raise an issue with respect to the matter, the court or jury shall assume that the defence is satisfied unless the prosecution proves beyond reasonable doubt that it is not”.
Presumably, this means that the man carrying his drain-unblocking fluid home from the supermarket commits an offence, for which he has a defence if charged; it is only then that he will have the opportunity to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he has a blocked drain at home. I do not want to get into arguments at this stage of the Bill around necessity and proportionality when the police use their powers of arrest. Suffice to say that I will again challenge this type of approach, particularly when we are confronted with cases such as that of the couple arrested over the recent drone incident at Gatwick Airport. Legislation should be worded so that, if someone has lawful authority or reasonable excuse, as in the 1953 Act, they do not commit an offence—not that they have a defence once they have been charged.
I understand that Acid Survivors Trust International blames lack of tight controls on acid sales or,
“legislation specific to acid attacks”,
for the rise in the number of attacks, but this needs to be put into perspective. Acid attacks have increased from 228 recorded crimes in 2012 to 601 attacks in 2016. In 2017 there were 39,598 offences involving a knife or pointed instrument; the number of acid-related offences is tiny. Corrosive substances carried with the intention of causing injury, for example in a spray or a squeezable washing-up liquid bottle, are offensive weapons under the 1953 Act and causing an injury using acid is clearly a serious assault. Notwithstanding ASTI’s concerns, one has to ask whether the Government are doing something that will be effective by introducing this legislation, or whether they just want to be seen to be doing something. In many other areas, the Government claim that self-regulation is preferable, that legislation is unnecessary, and one has to ask these questions here.
The Bill potentially puts further strain on an overcrowded and therefore ineffective prison service. Underage selling of corrosive products potentially carries a sentence of 51 weeks in prison, possession in a public place carries up to 12 months on a first offence and a compulsory four-month or six-month sentence for a second offence, removing the discretion of judges once again. There is only one thing worse than unnecessarily adding to an overcrowded prison system and that is short sentences that destroy social ties, take away people’s jobs and are not long enough to allow education, training and rehabilitation.
What happened in the other place? The only change, under pressure from Conservative Back-Benchers, was that the Government went against the advice of the police and caved in to the wealthy and privileged who wanted to keep their high-powered rifles.
We acknowledge that criminalising the sale of corrosive substances, making it a specific offence to carry corrosive substances in public and restricting online sales of knives sends a message, but messaging is the argument that the Government usually use to oppose the creation of new offences, not to create them. We on these Benches need a lot of convincing that this legislation as drafted has a useful part to play in containing the epidemic of violence on our streets. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, has said, the Bill is a missed opportunity.