My Lords, I am pleased to be able to contribute to today’s Second Reading debate on this welcome and very necessary Bill. Violence in all forms is unacceptable, particularly when dangerous and offensive weapons are involved. Such violence gives rise to serious harm and has a traumatic impact on individuals and their families. There is a serious likelihood that in an environment where individuals carry and use weapons, this will contribute to an increase in weapons carried by others, who will feel the need to defend themselves from unlawful violence or to protect a criminal enterprise and the proceeds of that enterprise.
The Bill has been widely welcomed as being overdue and very necessary. In a changing environment the Bill provides a set of norms and makes it very clear what is not acceptable in a civilised society. I was most interested to hear the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Bethell, as I share his interest in crimes associated with acid attacks. The Campaign for Social Justice has collected evidence in relation to corrosive substances, to identify current attitudes and evolving norms and codes of behaviour. Its work involved networks of victims and self-identified at-risk groups. It received 236 responses to a short survey, some of the highlights of which showed some very surprising and concerning information. Some 78% were in fear of being subject to an acid attack; 78% said there were areas where they would not go for fear of being attacked with acid or a knife; 89% felt that the Government were not taking the issue seriously; 75% believed that the police were not taking the issue seriously; 89% believed that police should routinely test substances being carried by suspects; 94% wanted to see tougher penalties for those carrying acid; 73% believed that carrying acid should be treated more severely than carrying a knife; and 90% believed that we should tackle the root causes behind such crimes. As many speakers today have recognised, behind these crimes are things that we need seriously to address.
Additionally, a charity working with the CSJ provided information that some of those at greatest risk of being involved in serious youth violence—as an offender or a victim—reported that acid is easier to conceal than a knife; for example, by transporting it in a water bottle. Acid can be used at a greater distance than knives or other points or blades. Acid causes serious and potentially lifelong injuries but is unlikely to result in death. An individual can use acid more effectively than a knife against a group of individuals at once. Acid is often readily accessible. Corrosive substances can often be found under the kitchen sink, or equally easily as bleach on a supermarket shelf.
It is welcome that the Bill makes it an offence to sell a corrosive product to persons under 18 or for a seller to deliver to a residential premises when the sale is made remotely. However, I do not believe that all violent attacks involving corrosive products have been committed by someone under 18. Extending the age to 21 is something we should consider. The Bill provides law enforcement officers with appropriate investigative and enforcement powers in relation to the offence of possessing a corrosive substance in a public place. It will be vital for the Home Office to give appropriate support to police forces most affected by the rise in acid attacks, and to equip front-line officers with testing kits. The kit will need to allow for the routine testing of substances carried by suspected offenders or those who might be at risk of carrying acid in preference to other weapons. The Bill should send a clear signal and curtail the growth in this offence, and sentencing should be more severe. The sale of corrosive substances should be subject to the same standards of checks as those for the sale of knives. To change behaviour, there needs to be an increased risk of detection. The testing equipment needs to be low-cost and available to the majority of front-line police officers.
The Bill is an important strand of the Government’s serious violent crime strategy. The strategy is being led by the Home Office, but there needs to be work across all government departments and agencies. Tackling serious violent crime requires multiagency partnerships across education, health, social services, housing, law enforcement and local government. Most importantly, it requires a strong emphasis on and investment in early intervention. For the Bill and the serious violence strategy to be successful, sufficient resources for all agencies with an essential role must be made available.