My Lords, my objective in participating in debate on the Bill will be to improve what I think is basically a good Bill and a good direction to go in. I declare an interest as the possessor of various forms of caustic liquids and a large number of knives and other blades. I have owned rifles and shotguns and I am captain of the House of Lords target rifle team.
Here we are looking at the balance between the possession of articles which we may all hope or wish to own at one time or another and the danger which those articles can cause our fellow citizens. It is a matter of balance, examining the detail, taking our time, making a fair judgment and looking at the reality of the risks that some claim, the effectiveness of the measures that others propose and dealing with issues at a level of detail that makes the whole outcome fair and effective, not just arbitrary, so that we arrive in this area of interface between ordinary life and danger at a reasonable set of conclusions.
I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said at the instigation of USDAW. In the Bill, we are putting immense obligations on individual shop workers—often not well-paid or trained people. At the moment, they have similar obligations in relation to alcohol and cigarettes but, frankly, if a kid gets away with a bottle of vodka, the chances of serious harm are quite small. You can rely on ordinary, day-to-day systems: “Yes, I saw their ID and believed it”. Will we be satisfied with that level of protection and practice when it comes to knives? If I turn up as a courier at someone’s gate and accept the identification stating that the person I am handing the package over to is 18, will the courts and the police really be happy if I just say, “I saw it”, or will some kind of process and record be required? The Government owe a serious duty to couriers and shop workers to lay out exactly what procedures they expect their bosses to put in place, so that they can know as they go about their perfectly ordinary business what level of protection they will have if they behave in a specified way.
It is merely a case, I hope, of taking our thinking forward a little and making sure that we encourage the Minister to make statements during Committee on what the Government consider proper practice in these cases so that shop workers and others are protected properly. There are also arguments for making attempting to buy a knife while underage an offence. We have such an offence for alcohol; why has it not reappeared for knives? We need to look at the protection of the people we expect to enforce the Bill effectively. During Committee, or in conversations before then, I also hope that we will get a good deal more detail on what kinds of offences are committed with knives, including what knives are used and where they come from.
The same goes for firearms, on which a useful report was produced. Rifles make up less than 1% of firearm crime at the moment. We talk about regulating them further in the Bill but what kinds of rifles are we talking about, and in what circumstances? Are we dealing with sporting rifles used in domestic arguments or with criminals using rifles obtained from communities that hold rifles legally? Are we dealing with people importing rifles of different specifications? Frankly, trying to use a bolt-action rifle in a crime is a pretty daffy thing to do: it is extremely hard to aim them straight and they are hard to manoeuvre in close quarters. If you were going to use a gun of that size, you would use a shotgun, at least for effect if you do not aim straight. We need a real understanding of what is going on out there: where the dangers lie, where they are concentrated and where we should concentrate preventive measures. At the moment, we do not have the data we should to understand whether the Government’s measures will be effective.
We ought to examine the definitions in the Bill too. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, Clause 6 defines a corrosive substance as something,
“capable of burning human skin”.
Ice, fertiliser, cement, laundry detergent—all sorts of things—can burn human skin if you leave them on for long enough. The definition ought to include duration, for example if a substance burns the skin within a minute or some other relatively short timescale. Otherwise, people will not know what they are allowed to carry in public under the extent of the Bill.
Schedule 1 contains a list of corrosives, but it is a very short one. Where are bromic acid, iodic acid, perchloric acid, triflic acid, lime, hydrogen peroxide and the numerous hydroxides, all of which are available caustic chemicals? Why this shortlist, which does not even contain the obvious examples? For example, hydrogen peroxide is easy to come by, even in relatively high concentrations. The list does not seem right to me. It is easy to have a more extensive list. People cannot invent new examples of these chemicals, by and large. It is an established list, mostly of inorganic chemicals. Let us get the full list in the Bill so that we do not have eternally to come back and extend it.
When it comes to knives, the established definition of a “bladed product”—with which I am comfortable, by and large—is used earlier in the Bill. However, a different definition appears in Clause 19. A bladed product means an article that,
“is or has a blade, and … is capable of causing a serious injury to a person which involves cutting that person’s skin”.
That could apply to a safety razor. The established definition of a blade specifically excludes safety razors in a careful sort of way. You are allowed to wander about with a safety razor as long as it falls within certain specifications, but this definition includes safety razors. It also includes lawnmowers, food processors, scissors and an awful lot of other things that you would expect to have such as steak knives and saws. It covers any kind of steel blade for which there are innumerable reasons for people to want to order over the internet. You are producing quite a wide and undefined definition that will require many people to think carefully about where the boundaries of the law actually lie in terms of labelling their products and the processes they use to get them out to the public. We ought to be clear about where the boundaries are in this area.
Why is a stiletto not included in this definition, although it is under the existing definition? That talks explicitly about pointed objects that are designed to stick into people but here the Bill talks just about bladed objects. It is not clear to my mind that we have got the definition right. This is something that a lot of people are going to have to interact with, so it should be absolutely clear and fair.
I am quite comforted by what is set out but I would like to go into further detail about how we are going to deal with knives ordered from foreign websites and what mechanisms will be put in place to deal with something that appears in a brown paper parcel saying that the contents are worth less than £19.95. It can simply wander in. How are we going to pick these packages up? I can see that we can catch Amazon and eBay—or at least Amazon—but are we really dealing with the myriad suppliers who on the internet or are we just taking the online trade in knives and shoving it offshore to no benefit to ourselves?
I turn to rifles—again, this is a matter of going into the detail. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, has a great deal of experience in this area while my experience is merely practical. It is very hard to use a lever-action rifle to achieve rapid fire and you would have to practise a lot. I am not referring to MARS rifles. If you are practising a lot, presumably you will be part of a registered gun club and thus within the controls over ownership, so that becomes important. Suggestions have been made about storing these things separately and there are concerns about whether we are implementing properly the 2016 Act. All of these issues need to be looked at over the course of the Bill’s passage so that we draw the right line between firearms that we are happy for people to possess under particular circumstances and those which we think no one should possess. There is no absolute line on these things so it has to be drawn with care and consideration. More time and more information would be welcome. My personal suggestion is that since we are considering what to do with high-powered rifles, we should include MARS and lever-action rifles and take one consistent decision across the whole of the blurred line we have at the moment for what is acceptable.
I look forward very much to the debates on this Bill and I hope that we will end up improving it. I am absolutely delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has shown such liberal principles in his defence of the rights of people when faced with charges under this legislation. I shall be behind him if he presses amendments on that theme. We are criminalising people who we have no business criminalising and there is no justification for pushing the burden of proof that far in so many circumstances—and certainly not when it amounts, as the noble Lord illustrates, to children carrying a can of detergent home. That is not the sort of thing where the burden of proof should be tilted against the citizen.