Amendment 91

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

Alert me about debates like this

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

91: After Clause 26, insert the following new Clause—“Kirpans(1) The Criminal Justice Act 1988 is amended as follows.(2) After section 141A, insert—“141B KirpansFor the purposes of section 139, 139A, 141 or 141A it shall be lawful for a person to possess a Kirpan for religious, ceremonial, sporting or historical reasons.””Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would ensure that the Kirpan, a mandatory article of faith for a Sikh, possessed for religious, ceremonial, sporting or historical reasons is exempt from provisions relating to the possession of offensive weapons under the relevant sections of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

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)

My Lords, Amendment 91, tabled in my name and with the support of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, seeks to place on the face of the Bill a provision to exempt the kirpan from the provisions relating to the possession of offences weapons under the Criminal Justice Act 1988. I raised this issue in Committee, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, for meeting me and a number of other noble Lords from all sides of the House, along with representatives of the Sikh community, including the noble Lord, Lord Singh. It was very much appreciated by everybody present.

There is no question but that the Sikh community is fully behind the intention of the Bill to tighten the law on offensive weapons. We are all appalled by the toll that knife crime is taking on young lives; even today we are seeing more tragic events on the news. The Government have responded to the very reasonable requests of the Sikh community on an issue in the Commons, but my intention with this amendment is to go further. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, raised the issue at Second Reading, and I supported him. It came up again in Committee, and many noble Lords spoke then.

For practising Sikhs, observance of their faith requires adherence to the “five Ks”, one of which is to wear a kirpan. Larger kirpans are used on many religious occasions, such as Sikh wedding ceremonies. I think it is fair to say that noble Lords in all parties, and on the Cross Benches, would be concerned if restrictions in this Bill had unintended consequences for the Sikh community as they observe and practise their faith, or caused upset or concern when a member of the community used a kirpan for ceremonial, sporting or historical reasons. The status quo is not adequate, as it provides a defence of religious reasons only if a person is charged with a criminal offence. It does not cover other reasons such as ceremonial, historical or sporting events, where kirpans are offered as gifts to dignitaries.

The status quo provides a defence only if a person is charged. My amendment will provide an exemption for the possession of a kirpan. It will provide a specific reference in the law, which Sikhs have been calling for. Sikhs are members of a law-abiding community that makes a wonderful contribution to the United Kingdom. The community still faces difficulties in workplaces, education and leisure with the issue of kirpans. This amendment will provide great assistance to Sikhs and will educate all of us about the kirpan. I beg to move.

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

My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment, which I fully support. One of the Minister’s main arguments against granting exemption to the Sikh community was that the Government could not single out one particular community—the Sikhs—for an exemption. In that case, I ask the Minister: what other communities have made representations to the Home Office for exemption under the Act?

Photo of Lord Singh of Wimbledon Lord Singh of Wimbledon Crossbench 4:45 pm, 4th March 2019

My Lords, Sikhs are asking for nothing more than respect for their religious and cultural practices and requirements. The main majority of the community is catered for in this Bill—regarding sporting activities, films, television, historical enactments and so on.

Photo of Lord Suri Lord Suri Conservative

My Lords, the description of the kirpan given by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was absolutely correct: it is a religious requirement which has been known to British Governments and the British people since the two World Wars. In the Army, there was a Sikh batch of religious people who used to have a ceremonial sword in front of the holy book. There is nothing wrong with that; it is used purely for religious purposes and I think would be good if this amendment were accepted.

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 grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his amendment. It deals with an issue which we discussed at length in Committee and which was the subject of a very productive round table on 13 February, attended by members of the Sikh community, the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy, Lord Paddick and Lord Singh, and my noble friend Lord Suri. I was also grateful to have a separate discussion with my noble friend Lady Verma. I have provided a fact sheet to noble Lords, setting out the current position under the offensive weapons legislation in relation to kirpans, and I would happily place a copy in the Library of the House.

The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, seeks to ensure that Sikhs are not prosecuted for possessing a kirpan and to allow the gifting of large kirpans by Sikhs to non-Sikhs. The amendment would therefore exempt kirpans from the offences of possessing a bladed or sharply pointed article in a public place or school and further education premises, and from the offence of possessing an offensive weapon under Section 141A of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. I believe that the intention is also to exempt kirpans from the offence of supplying an offensive weapon under Section 141 of the 1988 Act—albeit the current amendment only references possession. The exemption would apply where the kirpan is possessed for,

“religious, ceremonial, sporting or historical reasons”.

My main issue with the amendment is that it refers to kirpans but does not define them. Kirpans vary considerably in size and shape, the only common factor being their association with the Sikh faith. This is why the existing defences of possession and supply for “religious reasons” work so well—they define by reference to purpose. It would not be workable to have an exemption for kirpans without saying what they are, otherwise everyone caught in possession of a knife or sword could claim that it was a kirpan and that they possessed it for,

“religious, ceremonial, sporting or historical reasons”.

The police and the CPS would have to prove otherwise, in effect having to prove that the item was not a kirpan, the person was not a Sikh, or that the person was not possessing it for sporting, ceremonial or other reasons, rather than the defendant proving or showing that they have a defence for possessing the weapon.

I appreciate that the intent behind the amendment is to deal with the issue of the gifting of kirpans, because there is already a defence for religious reasons under Sections 139, 139A, 141 and 141A of the 1988 Act, and there is already a defence for sporting purposes under Sections 141 and 141A of that Act. The Government are sympathetic to the need to find a solution to the issue of the Sikh cultural practice of gifting a kirpan. Within government, we are continuing to look actively at this issue and to meet the noble Lord, Lord Singh, and others to make sure that we come to the right solution. I am very hopeful that something can be done in this area and that it will be possible to bring forward a suitable government-drafted amendment at Third Reading.

I also note that as drafted, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, does not render the supply of a kirpan—that is, the act of gifting—lawful; it exempts only possession. This is one issue which we will need to consider further, ahead of the next stage. In the usual way, noble Lords will understand that I cannot give a cast-iron guarantee that the Government will be able to support a more targeted amendment at Third Reading. However, we will make our intentions clear in advance so that, if necessary, the noble Lord can bring back this amendment or some variant of it. But on the basis—

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

May I just finish before the noble Lord comes in? On the basis that we want to work with noble Lords to find an equitable solution, I hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment at this stage. The answer to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about what other communities came forward, is: none.

Photo of Lord Singh of Wimbledon Lord Singh of Wimbledon Crossbench

My Lords, much is being made of the definition of a kirpan. It was said in a meeting with Home Office people that a kirpan is simply a Punjabi word for a sword, and that there is no other need for a definition as it is nothing very different. This has been said again and again, yet the definition is being used as a reason for delay and further consideration, which completely confuses me.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative

Before my noble friend the Minister sits down, can she give us any examples of how the current legislation allowing for religious reasons has worked out? Have there been cases where it has been cited, and was it effective?

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

My Lords, following exactly from that point, the Minister has relied on the wording “for religious reasons”, which would be substituted in the Bill by “in religious ceremonies”. By saying that the Government will continue to work on this, is she in fact suggesting that that is inadequate? While I understand the concerns, it seems to me that there is a lot in support of what she has been saying about the use of that phrase.

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

I am trying to say that we are trying to come to a workable solution, particularly for the Sikh community. On the question of other legislation, what immediately springs to my mind is that there was of course the exemption for Sikhs on mopeds who were wearing a turban. So we are, I hope, trying to reach a solution that will work for the Sikh community.

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)

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for that response. All through this debate, she has always engaged positively with all sides of the House and with the Sikh community, whose members I know are very grateful for that. I am delighted at this stage to withdraw the amendment and I look forward to the solution which I hope will be brought back at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 91 withdrawn.

Clause 28: Payments in respect of surrendered offensive weapons