My Lords, I first pay my respects to the family of Mr Pomeroy and to his young son, who witnessed his father’s murder. I welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling violent crime, both legislatively, via the Offensive Weapons Bill, and with the preventive measures outlined in the Serious Violence Strategy published in June last year. None the less, while its provisions are to be applauded, I fear that the Bill may be a missed opportunity in focusing so narrowly on the weapons themselves, rather than on the symptoms of why individuals are drawn to carry them in the very first place. For instance, surely this legislation would be an apt vehicle for introducing a specific offence of inducing a child or vulnerable person to carry out such a criminal activity.
I have spoken previously about the scourge of vulnerable children being groomed to carry drugs around the country—“county lines”, as it is known in police language. Sadly, we know all too well that violent gangs’ funds are capitalised by these acts, and the gangs really like the vulnerability of these young people. Children are certainly not doing this off their own bat, yet their vulnerabilities are the enablers for these violent gangs, who use a promise of money beyond their wildest dreams to induce young people to deal these drugs and carry offensive, lethal weapons, in the sadly mistaken belief that this will shield them from any harm. Other than the high bar of evidence set by the Modern Slavery Act, this coercion and intimidation will be considered as an aggravating factor only at the point of sentencing. In my many conversations with police and agencies working in communities up and down our country to divert children from criminal activity, this is pointed to as a very real gap in our statutory provisions. We should surely use the opportunity presented by the Bill to plug that vital gap.
I am also troubled by the lack of action against those who turn a blind eye to the glamorising of serious violence and criminal lifestyles. I include in this the tech companies behind social media, as well as the radio stations that host and play tracks, aimed at teenagers, which speak carelessly about the carrying of these lethal weapons as a status symbol or badge of honour. I have worked with agencies that inform me that their intelligence has to keep constantly on top of this. The weapons are cool and essential accessories; before leaving the house the teenager thinks, “Phone, wallet ... oh, blade”. Yet their weapon may be the one that takes away their life or that of somebody else where they live. It is hard not to think that we are fighting a losing battle if we are trying to ban the carrying of ninja stars on our streets, yet any self-respecting six year-old knows that a ninja star is the weapon of choice of their favourite Lego Ninjago character, Zane. Have we not just had family celebrations for Christmas?
As a mother myself, I know full well what gang violence looks and feels like. I ask noble Lords to type “gravity knife” into Google. The second YouTube video that comes up is entitled “Cool Gravity Knives”. This is not an Xbox or PlayStation game; this is the everyday reality that we face. Offensive weapons are in our homes. Worse, I fear, is that they are being normalised and people are becoming desensitised; they are nothing to be feared. I hold my hands up and am the first to admit that such weapons are not my area of expertise. Yet, sadly, they have an impact on many families up and down the country. As noble Lords would expect, as Victims’ Commissioner it is for me to remind your Lordships that behind the rising numbers in homicides, knife crime, robbery and gun crime are individual people and families, left bereft and taken to the edge by their grief and unbearable loss. This loss also causes rival gangs to go out and get revenge. The reality is that going through our criminal justice system becomes as traumatic as the crime itself.
My noble friend the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe there was an attempt in the other place to introduce an amendment creating an independent advocate for victims of incidents involving offensive weapons. Such a person would be professionally trained and could explain the process, as well as the true meaning of sentencing. The advocate could refer victims to those able to provide practical support and make sure that they have the assistance they need and, what is more, are entitled to expect. More importantly, they could prevent these victims feeling as though they are on a criminal justice conveyor belt, being passed from one agency to another, having to repeat their traumatic story as they meet another usually well-meaning but unacquainted face. Independent advocates can provide a victim-centric service, providing support that will pay vast dividends in helping those bereaved families to rebuild their lives and move forward—to cope and recover.
I want to see the Bill providing for victims. They are not just a crime statistic; they are human beings and families suffering unbearable pain and loss. They must be given better emotional support and guidance to steer them through every step of the justice system so that they can recover from the crime and live their normal lives. Victims constantly tell me that they feel their status in the criminal justice system is not comparable to that of the offender. I look forward to working with the Minister as the Bill progresses. I will continue to push the Government to ensure that victims, whose lives may be devastatingly transformed by the crime committed against them, are afforded the rights they so justly deserve. It saddens me to stand here today knowing that it is 12 years since I lost my husband to gang crime. They had no weapons but hands and feet, yet we are discussing the corrupt and vicious goings-on in communities and it saddens me that we are not helping young people aspire to better things. Money is one thing. Respect is one thing. But taking a life and a family losing a child is hard to bear every day and into the future.