Amendment 81

Offensive Weapons Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 4th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Moved by Lord Lucas

81: Clause 20, page 19, line 24, at end insert—( ) The Secretary of State must, before the coming into force of sections 18 and 19, publish guidance as to how the definition in subsection (1) may be interpreted.Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, following the Minister's remarks at Committee stage (28 January, HL Deb, col 160GC), is intended to ensure that guidance will be issued, so that those responsible for designing and carrying out sales and dispatch procedures will be able to judge whether a particular item (for instance, a food processor) falls under it.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 3:45 pm, 4th March 2019

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for substituting for me in my absence on the first day on Report. She obtained for me a very useful answer to the question that underlies this amendment, which is: how is someone going to know? I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister would make it clear that the Government understand how important it is to get this guidance clear. Big retailers are going to have to decide whether something is a bladed product or not: they need to be able to take that decision with certainty. A reputable UK retailer does not want to find itself on the wrong side of this legislation. It will have to make these decisions every day in relation to items of kitchen equipment which they might ship, and they need to do it properly. It is really up to the Government to get this right. I would be grateful for an assurance that the Government understand this and will use the provisions in Amendment 106 to achieve that effect. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration)

My Lords, is not really possible to substitute for the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but I was happy to introduce some of his amendments, as my noble friend did, on our first day on Report. We have Amendments 82 and 86 in this group. Amendment 86 also requests guidance on articles that are not bladed products for the purposes of the Bill—in other words, a negative approach. Amendment 82 would provide that the term does not,

“include a product intended for domestic use which incorporates a blade if the product does not function without the blade”.

I could go off down a separate avenue about the range of experiences that we draw on in this Chamber: I could not have begun to talk about sheep shearing; the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, might want to talk about food processors—I do not know. Clause 20 defines “bladed product” for the purpose of the clauses dealing with delivery to residential premises. Of course, I am not taking issue with the overall approach of my noble friend, but, as the Government have been resisting, this is to look at the detail.

The definition excludes all sorts of things, some of which I have never heard of: flick-knives, gravity knives, knuckle-dusters, death stars and other weapons whose sale and importation is already prohibited, as well as items excluded from the prohibition on the sale of bladed articles to those under 18. I think it is appropriate to pause here, while thanking the Government for providing Keeling schedules, to say that it is really not immediately obvious what is within Clause 18—in other words, what products it will be an offence to deliver to residential premises. There was a degree of confusion when this was debated in the Public Bill Committee in the Commons. We have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, about the distinction between a pointed article and an article with a cutting edge, but it seems to me that that must depend on how the items are used. Surely, with something that is pointed, if you pull it down against somebody’s skin it is likely to cut the skin.

In our view, it ought to be clear which items make delivery to residential premises an offence. Apart from its substance, the clause’s complexity and its dependence on orders made under other legislation—more accurately, the exclusion of items that are the subject of such orders—is not in the tradition of well-written Acts of Parliament. One cannot employ the defence of reasonable precautions and all due diligence when there is an issue with the definition.

I have occasionally bought art materials online for delivery at home. Go on to any art materials website and you will find a range of palette knives and craft knives, some of which would fall foul of the definition. Not everyone paints, does craft work or shears sheep—but everybody eats, which is why I picked domestic kitchen items. They are relevant to many people’s lives, as they buy them either for themselves or for others, for instance from a wedding gift list.

Other noble Lords may have received a letter from John Lewis representatives—whom the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and I met a couple of weeks ago—who expressed concern that the definition would prohibit them selling and delivering to a residential address a wide range of everyday kitchen products containing blades, such as food processors and scissors. They described to us the careful age-verification steps they take in respect of sales in store, but said:

“Online sales at John Lewis and partners are a key part of our business strategy and account for over 40% of our total sales … Around 50% of these online sales are delivered direct to customers’ homes. Any restriction on our ability to continue to sell and deliver products, such as food processors, online would negatively … impact our business. We do not believe this is the intention of the Government”— nor do I—

“and nor do we believe that this would do anything to help address the issue of knife crime”.

We agree. This amendment is not intended as a plug for John Lewis; rather, it seeks clarity and a common-sense outcome in which businesses do not regard more items than is necessary as outlawed from home delivery.

The British Retail Consortium supports the three amendments in this group. In Committee and earlier on Report, we sought to address the issue through the amendments to which my noble friend referred. I appreciate that Amendment 82 only scrapes the surface of the issue, but I wanted to highlight the point.

As we know, under government amendment 106, the Secretary of State “may”—that is the term used—issue guidance. The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, says “must”; Amendment 86, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Paddick, says “shall”. No doubt we will be told that “may” means “will”, or other close synonyms, but guidance cannot override legislation, so it is essential to get that right. Of course, guidance will be produced by the Executive without parliamentary approval and it can be changed without approval. So at least we should hear from the Dispatch Box—I look forward to the Minister’s explanation—what consultation on the guidance the Government intend to undertake. Clearly, it should be thorough. I suspect that the Government have also had a bit of difficulty in pinning down a definition—otherwise we would have one. That simply demonstrates how important this issue is.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, we having been discussing this issue in the Digital Policy Alliance’s age verification and internet safety working group. Being clear on definitions is absolutely essential.

The Minister said in the previous debate about pointed items that it will be up to the courts to decide. Who can afford that? How can people afford to go that far? That is the trouble. The natural reaction of business will be to be overly cautious. That will close down entire avenues of business and inhibit normal people’s ability to carry on with their normal lives. A lack of clarity will cause so much trouble and you will get an awful lot of flak in the papers. I suggest that this group of amendments be taken together so that we can sort something out and produce absolutely clear guidance. We are trying to legislate for only a few outrageous incidents. The trouble is that regulations never prevent what they seek to prohibit. You cannot stop all of this by regulation. Let us make reasonable regulations, which allow normal people to continue with their normal lives. Given that, clarity in the definitions is absolutely essential.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has raised the question of pointed articles possibly being used by troubled people to cause injury. I should like further confirmation of my reading of the Keeling schedule that we were offered. I took great comfort from that. The part of the 1988 Act to do with supplying knives and blades to people aged under 18 refers to,

“a blade which is sharply pointed and which is made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person”.

That, to my mind, rules out an ordinary pointed article. You would have to prove that it had been used or adapted to cause injury.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for these amendments. My noble friend has been clever about weaving back into last week’s debate on statutory guidance and the one that we have just had on the trusted trader scheme.

I can see that Amendments 81 and 82 attempt to provide further clarity for manufacturers and suppliers of kitchen utensils and to limit the impact of Clause 18 on such companies. As noble Lords will know, I met representatives of some knife manufacturers in Sheffield and I heard at first hand their concerns about this provision. Amendment 81 seeks to assist manufacturers, retailers and others by providing for statutory guidance on which items are covered by the definition of a bladed product. Amendment 82 clearly goes further and excludes from that definition any product “intended for domestic use” that requires a blade to function. As I understand it, the intention is that items such as food processors, and perhaps bread knives and steak knives, could be sent to residential premises if they have been sold remotely. Food processors and similar items are clearly not the sort of things that can be used as offensive weapons and it is not intended that they will be covered by the prohibition on arranging delivery to a residential premises or a locker. Products such as table knives are also excluded from the definition of bladed products because they are not capable of causing serious injury by cutting a person’s skin.

I turn to the wording of Amendment 82. The term “intended for domestic use” perhaps lacks clarity. Although most people would accept that kitchen knives are intended for domestic use, there may be some doubt as to whether hobby knives, camping knives and DIY tools can also be said to be intended for domestic use. I worry that amending the definition in this way could lead to sellers of fairly nasty knives marketing them as purely for domestic use to get around the delivery prohibition. That said, if a prosecution was brought for this offence, it would be for the seller to show that the product did not fall within the scope of the offence as it was intended for domestic use. The approach in Amendment 82 is therefore not without risks and there may be issues around defining what is meant by “domestic purposes”. However, I agree with my noble friend that this is certainly an area where guidance for retailers and others will be beneficial and it is our intention to provide such guidance, exercising the power conferred by Amendment 106, which we debated last week.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

Why is it thought that guidance is less likely to lead people to seek to evade the purposes of this legislation than putting a definition in the scope of the Bill itself?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 4:00 pm, 4th March 2019

If I understand the noble Lord’s question, he is asking whether guidance is less likely to make people abide by the law and why we do not just put it in the Bill. I am struggling to answer that question.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

The Minister has expressed concern—she may well be right—that, if the Bill were amended to make clear what is and is not covered, there is a risk that sellers would seek to use that definition to try to get around the contents of the Bill. Given that she says that these matters will be dealt with by guidance, is there not the same risk? Would it not be better to define in the Bill what the Bill covers and does not cover, not least because guidance will not bind the courts? It is for the courts to interpret. The problems of uncertainty will inevitably arise if the Government rely purely on guidance. That is the point.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I stick by the point that people will use the list in the Bill to try to get around the law, and therefore guidance is helpful. It is helpful both to the retailers who will be selling items but also to the courts in interpreting the legislation. Of course, the difficulty in this legislation is that knives have myriad uses, which in many ways is why this has been quite a difficult Bill to take through.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration)

My Lords, given the problems with the Bill itself, I make a point so that at least Hansard is accurate on this. The Minister talked about using terminology such as I have used to allow retailers to sell knives online and deliver them to domestic premises—she talked about bread knives and steak knives. This wording would require the product to function only with a blade. That clearly would not apply to a bread knife; if it does, every knife can function only with a blade. I am not suggesting that the precise detail of this amendment be included in the Bill, but this all goes to show that if we resist being specific here, we risk causing more problems, not fewer. If I did not say so before, nothing I have said seeks to undermine in any way what my noble friend Lord Paddick said about his overarching approach, which we should be following.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

It comes back to the noble Baroness’s point about consultation. In developing the guidance, we must and will engage with business and organisations such as the BRC. The intention is that it will be developed with them. We could have a circular argument here about whether things should be directly specified in the Bill or how helpful the guidance will be in helping retailers and the criminal justice system, but guidance generally will help the Government keep pace with developments.

Amendment 86 is similar to Amendment 81 and again seeks to require the Secretary of State to issue guidance. We have already debated government Amendment 106, which will enable the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers and the Northern Ireland Justice Department to issue statutory guidance on certain parts of the Bill, including those dealing with offences of remote sale and delivery of knives. We intend that there should be guidance to retailers on what items are prohibited from dispatch to residential premises or a locker under Clause 18. I think the government amendment is adequate to cover this.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I apologise for persisting but the Minister referred to table knives being excluded from this prohibition. The table knife that I was given to eat my roast beef with in a restaurant yesterday could cause serious harm to an individual by cutting. Is it or is it not therefore a table knife? This will inevitably lead to a decision by major retailers such as John Lewis not to deliver any knife of any description to residential premises for fear, as the Minister said, that if there is a prosecution the supplier will have to provide a defence in court to the offence. Not many suppliers will be prepared to take that risk.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I do not think that John Lewis currently delivers table knives or any type of bladed products to residential premises. As it stands, John Lewis does not deliver knives; people have to pick them up or buy them in the shop.

I appreciate the noble Lord’s point about table knives. That is why this legislation is difficult. In many ways it will be for the courts to determine in what context the knife is being used. I am not denying what the noble Lord says.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing)

When this discussion is over I invite the Minister to read Hansard and to reflect on the debate—it is distressing. We are talking about table knives, steak knives and knives to shear sheep and so on when we have a serious problem on our hands in this country with knife crime. This Bill completely misses the point. People have been murdered over the weekend and it is frustrating that this legislation completely misses the point.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, we are not missing the point: we are trying to get a balance between people selling products which can be used for perfectly legitimate purposes and those seeking to abuse these products in order to do harm to people. One of the attacks at the weekend took place round the corner from me. I fully have in mind the danger that knives can cause but we are trying to get the balance right.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

I appreciate the difficulties the Government are having in trying to get this clause right. I go back to the first amendment we debated today and the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and I that we are disadvantaging British sellers relative to overseas sellers for no advantage to the peace of the realm. If someone wants to get a knife, all they have to do is order it from Holland and then it can be delivered to their house. It really matters whether we focus this prohibition on British sellers widely or narrowly, and the way the clause is drawn at the moment is capable of wide interpretation.

The guidance will have to be good and clear. I agree that it will not have the force of the law but it will have an effect on police officers, I hope, in deciding whether to launch a complaint or a prosecution. It will have an effect on the CPS, and it will certainly have an effect if it is reported in a newspaper that there has been a prosecution. It will be the prosecution that is laughed at, rather than the retailer condemned, if the guidance makes it clear that something should be allowed. It matters in relation to large items such as food processors; if they and all the rest of one’s wedding gifts cannot be delivered to one’s home address, people will go somewhere else, which would be abroad. It is a big enough item to make such a decision about and it is not obvious why it should be prohibited, whereas we can all accept that we should have to jump through a few hoops when obtaining a knife because they are dangerous and we must behave ourselves. I hope that the Government will draft the guidance with the interests of British traders at heart.

I am grateful for my noble friend’s reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 81 withdrawn.

Amendments 82 to 86 not moved.

Clause 21: Delivery of bladed articles to persons under 18

Amendment 87 not moved.