Offensive Weapons Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:40 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 3:40 pm, 7th January 2019

My Lords, I shall concentrate in my contribution on the possible impact of the Bill on children under the age of 18, an aspect that received less than full attention during its passage through the other place. However, I exclude Sir Ed Davey MP from any criticism for that, a number of whose resisted amendments I shall support if they are tabled by his party. However, before making that contribution, I thank Russell Taylor for his extremely comprehensive and helpful Library Briefing.

I submit to the Minister that, despite the Bill generally receiving cross-party support in the other place, there are two reasons why this House should not be invited to undertake any further stages beyond Second Reading until they have been resolved. First, I have never before come across a Bill about which the two members of the Cabinet most affected appear to be at odds over one of its main provisions. In an interview published in the Times on 26 May 2018, the Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke, expressed his desire for there to be a limitation on the use of short prison sentences of less than 12 months, because of their ineffectiveness in reducing reoffending. As he knows better than anyone, our overcrowded and understaffed prison system finds it difficult enough to occupy longer-term prisoners, let alone being able to do anything with and for short-term ones, and the youth justice system is in particularly dire straits—the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported in 2017 that none of the institutions in which young offenders were held was safe. Yet the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, is proposing mandatory sentences of less than 12 months for a number of additional offences created by his Bill.

Why does this matter? It matters for two separate reasons. First, some argue that harsher punishments such as mandatory minimum custodial sentences will deter people, particularly children, from committing crime. There is no evidence to support this contention. Indeed, in support of the Justice Secretary’s desire, the quarterly criminal justice statistics from the Ministry of Justice, published in June 2018, show that the number of children convicted of possession or threatening offences involving knives or offensive weapons has risen since the introduction of mandatory minimum custodial sentences in 2015. A number also argue that locking up those who carry out crimes will reduce the level of crime on the streets. Home Office research proves the expensive unreality of this argument, showing that a 15% increase in child custody numbers is needed to obtain a 1% decrease in crime.

Secondly, mandatory sentences remove judicial discretion. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that custody should only be used as a last resort. The Sentencing Council’s guidelines emphasise the need to look closely at a child’s particular circumstances when sentencing, taking into consideration their background circumstances, vulnerability and developmental age, as well as their chronological one. Removing judicial discretion works against these guidelines. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that this issue must be sorted out before the House is asked to make further progress on the Bill.

The second reason why further progress should be postponed is that the Government announced on Report in the other place that they had decided that a consultation on firearms proposals was needed. That has not taken place. In her opening statement, the Minister gave us no details of when it will be launched. Like other noble Lords, I have been lobbied by a number of firearms specialists on various points of dispute with the Bill’s terms, but in view of the promised consultation I do not propose to consider the firearms clauses, nor should the House be asked to.

No Government responsible for the protection of the public can afford to ignore the mounting public concern about the rise in knife crime and the recent spate of acid attacks in some inner-city areas, but they should be careful that, in their populist rush to be seen to take a hard line with offenders, they do not create problems by not thinking through the implications of what they are proposing. In this connection, I am reminded of the words of Archbishop William Temple, who said in 1934 that the essence of punishment is that it is the reaction of the community against a constituent member. This community has three interests to consider: the maintenance of its own life and order, upon which the welfare of all its members depends; the interests of individual members generally; and the interests of the offending member. Wrong is done if any of these three is neglected.

In their Serious Violence Strategy, launched in April 2018, the Government emphasised the importance of tackling violent crime through a variety of measures, including law enforcement, but also partnerships across a number of sectors such as education, health, social services, housing, youth and victim services—an approach widely welcomed by those working at the coalface.

Like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and the Prison Reform Trust for their very helpful and relevant briefings, on which I shall, unashamedly, draw. I am also grateful for a detailed briefing from Junior Smart, a former offender and winner of the Longford Prize, who works with gangs in the East End of London for the St Giles Trust. As he did, I shall discuss knives first.

The sad fact, as reported by Junior and his fellow workers, is that the main reason why young people carry weapons is for fear of being killed. Living in areas affected by serious violence can feel like growing up in a conflict zone, and a fact that needs to be appreciated and understood is that many young people freely admit that they would much rather be caught by the police while carrying a weapon than by their rivals or enemies without one. In other words, they feel like victims as well as perpetrators. Criminalising already disadvantaged young people further can have disturbing consequences, among which are: the risk of driving further inequalities and bias, damaging already fragile community relations; and driving a further rift between disadvantaged young people and authority, when many people, such as the Mayor of London and charities such as the St Giles Trust, are focused on building bridges between the two.

Short prison sentences disrupt a young person’s life in terms of housing, employment and family relationships, while not providing them with meaningful access to rehabilitation support, as all the evidence shows. A criminal record will affect a young person’s life prospects. Here I must declare an interest, in that I have been trying, without success, to persuade the Government to amend the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 through a Private Member’s Bill. At present, progress is stalled until the Supreme Court gives a judgment on a government appeal following defeats in the High Court and Appeals Court. Criminal records have been an issue for far too long.

The Mayor of London is leading a public health approach to tackling the complex causes of serious violence in London. In September last year, he announced the setting up of a violence reduction unit, bringing together police, health, criminal justice and local government. His knife crime strategy uses this approach to strengthen and empower communities to help them make a difference, working with schools, Ofsted and mental health providers—including major trauma centres —and making use of social media outlets, to address the root causes of the problem. Junior Smart, welcoming this approach, advocates the use of more individuals like him, with first-hand experience of the problem, in delivering solutions. Young people already entrenched in serious violence need patient, persistent and under- standing help to enable them to overcome barriers and realise positive change. Legislation including mandatory short prison sentences will not help a generation of young people growing up in a culture of fear.

Moving on to corrosive substances, Clause 6 creates a new offence of possessing a corrosive substance in a public place, for which Clause 8 imposes an “appropriate custodial sentence” of less than 12 months—for both adults and children—for two or more possession offences. A corrosive substance is merely defined as a substance,

“capable of burning human skin by corrosion’, and nowhere is there a comprehensive list of what these substances are. Many household products, such as bleach, contain low levels of harmful corrosive substances. The Bill creates a situation where a child could legally be sent to buy a household product without realising that it is illegal for them to possess it in public. Furthermore, the Federation of Small Businesses, which supports the aims of the legislation, points out that the way in which Schedule 1 is worded leaves small businesses in doubt as to what products are or are not subject to the Bill, including such items as car batteries. The federation has asked the Home Office whether the administrative burdens brought about by age verification requirements can be mitigated. Will the Minister please tell the House what is being done about this?

The impact of the Bill on black and minority ethnic young people cannot be ignored, not least because they are more often subject to stop and search procedures that are already the cause of strained relations between BAME children and the police.

To conclude, violent crime is clearly a serious problem and violent behaviour needs to be prevented and stopped, but as far as children are concerned many are the victims of violence, and the creation of new offences and sanctions is unlikely to alter this view. The law currently mandates minimum sentences of four-month detention and training orders on 16 and 17-year olds who are convicted of two or more possession offences, or one of threatening a person in public. This conviction threshold should remain until there is sufficient evidence that lowering it will be effective in tackling violent crime, or until the public health approach, advocated both by the Government in their Serious Violence Strategy and by the Mayor of London and others, has been properly resourced and tested throughout the country. Until then, I think that further processing of the Bill should be suspended.