Offensive Weapons Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:11 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative 5:11 pm, 7th January 2019

My Lords, I welcome the Bill and will talk about the provisions relating to corrosive substances and acid attacks. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Scar Free Foundation, a medical research charity that seeks to find a cure for scarring. Through this work, I have had first-hand experience of talking to victims of acid attacks, the effects of which are utterly devastating and very often a severe, lifelong sentence. Victims may suffer blinding, permanent scarring of the body and face, and acute social and psychological difficulties from the disfigurement and pain. It is worthwhile that the Bill puts such a significant focus on dealing with this issue. It is absolutely shocking that the UK has one of the world’s highest rates of recorded acid attacks per capita. According to Acid Survivors Trust International, there were 228 attacks in 2012, rising to 941 in 2017.

This issue deserves our attention and I pay tribute to the Home Secretary and the Home Office for moving quickly. However, there is a fear that simply toughening sentences and strengthening legal definitions are not enough to make a change on this issue, and are potentially distracting. Acid attacks happen all over the world, and there is a pattern of behaviour by Governments in different countries. Parliaments instinctively reach for the rulebook to address these horrendous crimes, but the story of legislation on acid attacks around the world is not encouraging. In the national and regional legislatures of the countries that are most affected, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Cambodia, you will see passionate politicians trying to make a difference by introducing frightening-sounding new laws. But these have little effect on the cultural and social causes of the problem. The police and the judges seem incapable of stopping this crime, and the suffering continues.

I do not deny that there is a huge amount of support for the measures in the Bill, and they certainly have my support. However, there is a concern that we could make the same mistakes as Parliaments in other countries. If noble Lords think that Britain is in some way exceptional, I will give a couple of examples of what I mean. A recent FOI request to the Civil Nuclear Constabulary revealed that, to date, not one individual had been caught in possession of a corrosive substance as a suspected offensive weapon.

Secondly, of the 2,078 acid attacks recorded in the UK between 2011 and 2016, only 414 resulted in a charge being brought. The Bill will do much to close loopholes, but if we are to have any chance of reducing these horrible crimes, we cannot stop at legislation. We need to see acid attacks in the context of street theft, gang retribution, hate crime, domestic abuse and so-called honour-based violence. Each of these has complex causes and solutions. Having a more sophisticated approach to dealing with them was the subject of the excellent crime debate led by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in November, which supported the use of a sophisticated, multiagency, public health-style approach to crime prevention. I recommend that these be applied here.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, how can we be sure that that the charges and measures introduced by the Bill are anything more than virtue signalling and will actually generate prosecutions? For instance, there are the costs of implementing an inspection regime or the forensic challenges of establishing a provable audit trail back to the retailer. How does the Minister envisage measuring how the selling of corrosive substances will actually lead to convictions? I appeal to the Minister not to allow the Home Office and all the relevant agencies of the state to be distracted by this useful legislation from the bigger battle to reduce this horrific crime wave.