Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 12th January 2022.
Baroness Chapman of Darlington:
Moved by Baroness Chapman of Darlington
104D: After Clause 172, insert the following new Clause—“Offence of destroying or damaging life-saving equipment (1) The Criminal Damage Act 1971 is amended as follows. (2) In section 1(2), at the end of paragraph (b), insert “or(c) intending to destroy or damage any property which is considered life-saving equipment, including life-belts, life jackets and defibrillators.””
My Lords, I rise to move the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby on life-saving equipment. It deals with a specific issue in relation to criminal damage: the effect of vandalism on safety equipment.
Noble Lords who were present in Committee will have heard my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton speak about the death a young man from Rotherham, Sam Haycock. His parents, Simon and Gaynor Haycock, went to see their MP, Sarah Champion, who moved an amendment in the other place. Sam went swimming in Ulley reservoir in Rotherham in May 2021. He was leaving school that day and was just 16 years old. He was helping a friend who was in trouble in the water. At this reservoir in Rotherham—I believe that this is not unique to it—there was a throw line with a lifebelt attached to it that you can throw into the water to help someone in trouble. The problem was that it was kept in a locked cupboard and, to access it, you need to phone 999 and get a PIN from the police. Obviously, this takes time, and when someone is in distress in the water, you do not have time. The delay in getting the throw line might well, and in this case did, have tragic consequences. It is behind a locked door with a PIN to prevent vandalism of the safety equipment.
In regional media, I have found several similar instances where life-saving equipment has been vandalised. One was at Salford Quays. Manchester Council felt it lacked the ability to prevent and deal with this, so it has taken to using public space protection orders to try to deal with the issue. There was also a case in Uckfield in Sussex where a defibrillator was rendered unusable by vandals. These acts clearly cause costly damage but, most importantly, they also pose a very clear risk to life and can be shown to have cost lives in some instances.
The amendment is very straightforward: it proposes that it is made a specific offence to intend
“to destroy or damage any property which is considered life-saving equipment, including life-belts, life jackets and defibrillators.”
In terms of criminal damage, the value of what is damaged may be relatively minimal in the case of a lifebelt and a throw line, compared to other criminal damage offences. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said in Committee, it would already be an offence to vandalise such equipment, but it matters a great deal that the law should indicate that this is something regarded with particular hostility because of the cost to life, including that of Simon and Gaynor’s precious son, Sam.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the noble Baroness in moving her amendment. This might not be something that we want to send back to the Commons today, but I hope that my noble friend the Minister will tell us what he will do about this problem, because of the effects so ably described by the noble Baroness.
I promise that this is the last time that I will speak—this evening; there will be other times. I rise to support this amendment, obviously, and also to troll the Government. Amendment 104D, which they obviously do not support, shows the huge inconsistency that the new statues statute will create. If the Government do not accept this amendment, it is hard to justify the whole plan to bring in a severe criminal penalty for toppling the statue of a slaver. To penalise that but not the destroying of life-saving equipment seems to me very strange, so I would like the Minister to explain that discrepancy to me.
It just shows me that the Government are still in the coloniser mindset. Between 2 million and 4 million enslaved African people died being shipped to America, with no criminal punishment to the slavers. It was just money—they had lots of money—and that is why the Colston statue was standing where it was standing. Somehow, toppling the statue of a slaver is what gets the harsher penalty. The Minister has got to make that make sense.
My Lords, the effect of Amendment 104D would be to increase the maximum sentence for criminal damage with intent to destroy life-saving equipment from 10 years’ imprisonment to life imprisonment. I listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, and her harrowing accounts of the vandalising of life-saving equipment and the damage and consequences of that. I also listened to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and it is very clearly necessary that the Government make it clear how they will respond to the issue of vandalising life-saving equipment.
The behaviour comprising the offence is extremely serious because it carries the risk that life will be endangered by the damage caused. However, if I may adopt a slightly lawyerly approach to the amendment, I question whether it is necessary. The scheme of the Criminal Damage Act, as amended, is that under Section 4 an offence of criminal damage generally carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. However, Section 1(2)(b) of that legislation states that where the offence is arson or, as stated, is committed by a person
“intending by the destruction or damage to endanger the life of another or being reckless as to whether the life of another would be thereby endangered”,
the maximum sentence is increased to life imprisonment. That is the combined effect of that subsection and subsection (4).
I understand that the intention of the noble Baroness in moving the amendment on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would be to cover criminal damage to life-saving equipment with the intention of endangering life. However, given that by Section 1(2)(b) the offence is committed where a person commits criminal damage recklessly as well as intentionally in relation to endangering life—which means where the offender deliberately takes a risk that the damage he causes may endanger the life of another—I cannot at the moment see that such behaviour does not cover intentionally destroying or damaging life-saving equipment without lawful excuse. Nor can I at the moment see how, in the absence of such an intention or recklessness as to life being endangered, a maximum sentence in excess of 10 years would be justified on normal principles.
Consequently, I await hearing from the Minister with interest. He may or may not accept the slightly lawyerly approach that I put, but I hope that he will give some reassurance about how the Government propose to respond to the problem of vandalising life-saving equipment.
My Lords, this amendment was debated just a few weeks ago when the Government set out why we believed it was unnecessary, given the scope of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. I will come back in a moment to what the noble Lord, Lord Marks, called a lawyerly point.
However, it is right first to remind ourselves, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, did, of the very real consequences of this sort of behaviour. On the death of Sam Haycock in Ulley reservoir, can one begin to imagine what his parents Simon and Gaynor went through and are, no doubt, continuing to go through? One only has to say it to try to grasp to enormity of that. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, used the word “harrowing”. That is spot on. This relates to the appalling behaviour of the people vandalise equipment, which results in the requirement of having to make a telephone call to get hold of a life ring, defibrillator or whatever life-saving equipment it happens to be.
I turn to the legal position, as I am afraid we have to, given that we are considering an amendment to a Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, is correct. I explained that it is already an offence intentionally or recklessly to damage or destroy property, including life-saving equipment. Section 1(2) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 makes a specific provision for an aggravated offence of criminal damage where the defendant intends to endanger life or is reckless about such endangerment. To that extent, it goes beyond the scope of the amendment, which relates only to intention and does not include recklessness. As the noble Lord said, that offence already attracts the possibility of life imprisonment.
Of course, I understand that part of the reason why it is proposed to add a specific offence is to put beyond doubt that the law will punish those who damage and destroy vital life-saving equipment, whether they intend to do so or are reckless as to the risk. The concern was raised in Committee that it is not well known that causing damage to life-saving equipment means that Section 1(2) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 could be in play and therefore carry a potential life sentence. However, if the concern is that that is not well known, I would question whether it would make a real difference if this Bill were amended essentially to repeat that point of law. The ordinary citizen, particularly the people who carry out this appalling behaviour, is still as unlikely to understand or perhaps care about the consequences and penalties associated with the crime. Therefore, I suggest that the ultimate problem here is not a question of a gap in legislation or a lacuna in the criminal law but people knowing what the law is and bringing home to people the likely criminal consequences of their actions.
In response to my noble friend Lord Attlee, as I suggested in Committee, if the law is not enough of a deterrent, we must focus on those responsible for water safety, health and safety, and law enforcement to come together to find out what is not working and identify workable solutions that might include sign- posting more clearly on the equipment the consequences of damaging that equipment. That might be a way forward. However, I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Chapmen, that these are abhorrent acts of criminal damage that should be prosecuted. The sentence must fit the crime. There is a potential maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, put the question: why are the Government making destroying statues a criminal offence if destroying life-saving equipment is not a criminal offence? The problem with that question is that destroying life-saving equipment is a criminal offence. So far as statues are concerned, the next instalment is due on Monday, so I will leave the matter for then.
However, so far as today is concerned, while sharing very much the sympathies behind the amendment, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw it.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he had to say and I do understand that creating a new offence or separate provision may not have the desired effect of reducing these horrendous instances. It is right that we want to stop that happening and I welcome his comments about working together, perhaps with local authorities and police forces, to do more creative things to try to prevent this. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 104D withdrawn.