Offensive Weapons Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:57 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 4:57 pm, 7th January 2019

My Lords, I was brought up in India with my late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, who served as an army officer and rose to become commander-in-chief of the central army. From a young age we were exposed to firearms. I was exposed to live shelling at a very young age. Throughout this, my father always imposed on my brother and me how dangerous firearms are. In fact, when he gave me my first airgun he said, “Son, even an airgun can be lethal”. When he gave me my first Swiss army knife, he said, “This is a dangerous weapon”, and sure enough, a few days later, I cut my hand when closing the knife. All guns and knives can be offensive weapons.

The Bill concerns the increasing number of violent offences that we see coming out every day. The statistics show that this is the case, and I thank the House of Lords Library briefing team and Russell Taylor for their excellent briefing. The intention of the Bill is to strengthen the law to help to tackle violent crimes, particularly those involving knives, firearms and corrosive substances such as acid. The statistics show that the number of police-recorded offences involving knives and sharp instruments are going up, as is the number of admissions to hospitals in England for assaults involving sharp instruments. The number of homicides has increased, following a long decline.

I commend a lot of the measures in the Bill, including the area dealing with the sale and delivery of corrosive products and the possession of corrosive substances. It talks about the sale and delivery of bladed weapons. The Minister spoke about the online sale of knives. Clauses 17 to 19 would make a remote sale an offence in certain circumstances. The Explanatory Notes to the Bill state that, for the purposes of this offence, a bladed product is defined as,

“articles which have a blade and which are capable of causing serious injury to a person’s skin by cutting”— like my penknife. There are 400 million knives in the UK; virtually every one of them is capable of causing injury. Where does one draw the line between knives used violently and knives for everyday use in kitchens and by chefs for cooking? Of course, the Bill talks about the prohibition of certain firearms; when it was first introduced, rifles,

“from which a shot, bullet or other missile, with kinetic energy of more than 13,600 joules at the muzzle of the weapon, can be discharged”,

were to be prohibited—this included .50 calibre rifles. This has now been removed because of a government amendment.

On Second Reading, Sajid Javid said:

“The Bill will help to make all our communities safer by helping to get dangerous weapons off our streets. As Home Secretary, I will be relentless in ensuring that our streets remain safe”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/18; col. 927.]

As Home Secretary, he is rightly making the security of the country’s citizens the Government’s number one priority. In the Labour response, the shadow Minister for Policing, Louise Haigh, brought up the issue of police numbers and the cuts in spending, believing these issues were significantly contributing factors in the growth of violent crime—I will come to that later.

Then, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Conservative MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Shooting and Conservation, argued that, instead of focusing on banning such firearms, rules should be tightened regarding their storage, with licence decisions potentially contingent on police approval of secure storage arrangements. He stressed that this would be better for public safety than the “disproportionate” measures set out in the Bill, and said:

“They target some of the most law-abiding people in the country and they will not make this country any safer, because the criminal will use a different weapon of choice”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/18; cols. 951-52.]

Of course, the government amendment means that these weapons have been taken out of the prohibited list.

In his excellent speech, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, spoke from his great experience as a former Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary-General of NATO, and as somebody who lived in Dunblane. He spoke about the use of .50 calibre weapons as sniper rifles, and gave his view. The other view was given by Jonathan Djanogly, the Conservative MP who is chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council or BSSC. He thanked the Government for listening, and stressed that he wants to engage with them. He explained:

“The proposal in the Bill to ban firearms with a muzzle velocity of more than 13,600 J, including .50 calibre guns, was not, under any interpretation of the facts, going to help the fight against crime. The guns are very expensive, costing around £20,000 each. There are therefore very few in number, with only 150 or so in private hands. They are extremely bulky, heavy at 30 lb and slow to load, with large, hand-loaded ammunition. In fact, one could hardly find a firearm less likely to be used in a crime. They are simply too big. That is probably why they have never been used in a crime in this jurisdiction”,

with the exception that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, spoke about. Other firearms are equally dangerous and, as Jonathan Djanogly said, .50 calibre rifles could be adapted to avoid the prohibition. He said:

“The irony is that .50 calibre firearms could have their barrels shortened, thus taking them beneath the maximum velocity. The 13,600 J limit is entirely arbitrary, and many owners and manufacturers could simply adapt their guns down to the new limit. The NCA refers to recent seizures of guns, including fully automatic weapons, as showing that crime groups are seeking more powerful weapons, but the .50 calibre is not automatic and there is no evidence of crime gangs ever having wanted to use it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/11/18; cols. 283-84.]

He also said that people should have the right to engage in shooting sports.

The Minister spoke of the risks posed by firearms and target shooting. In its briefing, the BASC talks about the confusion in advice to Ministers; there is confusion about calibre, and machine guns are confused with rifles. It talks about maximum range versus effective range. It cites an example:

“There is no relationship between .50 calibre rifles and the 2017 shootings in Las Vegas. The rifles used in the Las Vegas shootings were .223 and .308, smaller than .50 calibre and not covered by the Offensive Weapons Bill. They were semi-automatics, illegal in the UK, turned into virtually automatic rifles by the use of a ‘bump stock’”,

which we are banning. The BASC continues:

“There is no evidence that bump stocks have been used in the UK and the Offensive Weapons Bill seeks to ban them—with the support of the shooting associations”.

Then there is the issue of lever release rifles and manually actuated release systems—LR and MARS. One has to bear in mind the effect that the proposed ban on this type of rifle will have on sports shooters who have disabilities and injuries, who are unable to operate the other rifle actions, such as bolt action or straight pull. Lever release rifles are very inclusive and enable disabled and injured shooters to carry on with their sport and hobby. Statistically, firearm owners are the most law-abiding citizens in the UK. No crime has ever been committed with a lever release rifle. The criminals’ weapon of choice is an illegally obtained shotgun or handgun. Handgun crime has risen to the point that the Bill has come forward, even though handguns are already legal.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is my captain as captain of the House of Lords shooting team, of which I have been a member for years. We shoot in the Vizianagram trophy at Bisley. What Wimbledon is to tennis and Lord’s is to cricket, Bisley is the headquarters of world shooting. When we have our match against the other place, the Oxford and Cambridge annual varsity match also takes place.

There has been concern from the shooting community about this Bill. Shooting is a global, Olympic sport. As things stand, shooting has not been included in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. Is the Minister aware of this? I brought this up with Matt Hancock, the current Health Secretary, who was at that time Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He assured me that the Government were very supportive of shooting being included in the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. I have had representations from the president of the National Rifle Association of India, who is now also vice-president of the International Shooting Sport Federation, his Highness Raninder Singh, expressing his concerns. India and Britain win many medals in shooting in the Commonwealth Games. It is an inclusive sport for all ages—people shoot over the age of 50—competed by small countries in the Commonwealth. The Falkland Islands put forward a big shooting team. Will the Minister assure us that the Government are making every effort to include shooting in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022?

At Third Reading the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, acknowledged that the Bill had raised some difficult issues regarding proportionality, but stressed his belief that the right balance had been struck. He said:

“We recognise, for instance, that knives, corrosives and firearms are not in themselves offensive weapons, and that they have many lawful and legitimate uses in people’s everyday lives. That means that a balance needs to be struck between protecting the public and ensuring that legitimate activities are in no way unduly affected. I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/18; col. 367.]

That is what we will debate in Committee.

I want to conclude by going to the most important issue in all this: the rise of violent crime. We had a debate on violent crime in November. I started my contribution then by telling the House about my older daughter, who was so scared by stories of things happening to her friends that she became scared to walk home from the tube station to our house. I said:

“What is our country coming to?”—[Official Report, 29/11/18; col. 793.]

Now, sadly, just few days ago, in broad daylight in the middle of the day on a train, what happened to the Pomeroy family in front of a 14 year-old boy?

This Bill is necessary, but on its own it is useless. The number of police in London has fallen below 30,000 for the first time in 15 years. Cressida Dick, who is a very capable Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said that a lack of resources was a factor in homicides reaching a 10-year high. Does the Minister agree? The police are defending a new initiative of moped ramming, a tactical contact initiative they are now using to try to tackle the situation. There are more and more accusations that the Government are losing control in the fight against crime. Offences have risen by 14% while the numbers of officers have plummeted to record lows. I spoke earlier about the surge in knife crime.

The big issue is that the number of police officers has fallen to 121,929, the lowest figure since records began 22 years ago. On top of that, there has been a drop in neighbourhood policing. I do not see neighbourhood police officers any more, but I used to see them walking or cycling around every day. Overall funding has fallen by 18%, taking inflation into account, compared with an increase in funding of 31% between 2000-01 and 2010-11. Of course, we know who became Home Secretary then: our current Prime Minister. Direct government funding has fallen by 25% over the same period. There were 40,000 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument—a 16% increase. These figures are corroborated by records of National Health Service hospital admissions resulting from the crimes which I have spoken about. With 1.1 million violent crimes recorded—an increase of 21%—the rising trend has simply continued. The police are under so much pressure.

This has to be looked at in another context as well. Is our criminal justice system good enough to cope with this? Rory Stewart, the Justice Minister, said that:

“Knife crime is horrifying—it causes catastrophic damage to families with tragic consequences”.

Noble Lords have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, about her own tragic personal experience.

The situation is awful. Scotland Yard is a global brand and has historically been respected around the world. The Bill is crucial, but it can be effective only if we increase our police officers and neighbourhood policing, double our number of armed police officers, and continue to make the nation’s security the number one priority of any Government.