Examination of Witnesses

Offensive Weapons Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Chief Inspector Emma Burroughs gave evidence.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South 2:28 pm, 19th July 2018

We will now hear oral evidence from Thames Valley police. We have until 3 o’clock for this session. If the bell rings for a Division in the Chamber we might have to go out for 15 minutes and then come back and conclude. I hope that it will be after the evidence session, but we cannot be sure. Would you please introduce yourself?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Good afternoon. My name is Chief Inspector Emma Burroughs, and I am a serving police officer for Thames Valley police, based in the Reading police area.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q Thank you for coming to give evidence. Reading is a particular recipient of county lines. Could you describe to the Committee the current picture of serious violence that you are encountering in Reading, what kinds of offensive weapons you are encountering, the demographics of the offenders, and how you are currently responding to it?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

In Reading, given the large train station and the accessibility, we have seen almost a 250% increase. We are talking extreme numbers, where we are seeing two or three county lines coming together and almost having what we would call a bit of turf war—so, an area where they all want to supply their drugs. As that demand increases, they have to change their tactics to see how they can be the dominant gang. That has resulted in the need to arm themselves with knives.

We have seen an increase in open fighting in Reading. That is not in alleyways or places that are obscure to the public; it can be in the main shopping areas of Reading at 4 o’clock in the afternoon where you have children catching buses home from school and people shopping. There seems to be no concern about what they are doing. They are very driven by their task.

That comes back to their age group. The majority of people who we are dealing with at the moment range from those as young as 12 years old to 16 or 18-year-olds, who are being tasked by the top-level people in a certain area to go to areas such as Reading and deal a certain amount of drugs, then to return to hand over a phone and what cash they have made, and then to wait—almost on a shift basis—for the next individuals. Because of that threat, we have seen an increase, in using our stop-search powers, of those arming themselves with knives, or of offences where robberies and so on have taken place and they have been in possession of knives.

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Yes. The figures have gone from 52 to about 280 at the last count—they are the rolling 12-month numbers. We have seen the number of offences or stop checks where people have a weapon increase.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q What kind of knives are they using? What kind of knives are you finding?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

We have what I would call a kitchen knife or a bread-carving knife, up to flick knives. We are now seeing more and more of the new zombie knives, which are serrated with the circles. They seem to be more prevalent among what they are arming themselves with.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q So the measures in the Bill will help you to respond to that?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Absolutely, in particular for the zombie knives, which are now mentioned for stop and search.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q In Reading, I understand that you are adopting a trauma-informed response to the issue. Could you describe how that works for the Committee?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

As with everything the police are trying to do at the moment, it is that preventive element—that early intervention. Why do so many young people now feel the need to arm themselves? We are trying to backtrack through their lives and adverse childhood experiences—I do not know if that is common terminology for everyone. Why are they behaving like this? What has happened in their previous life to make them behave like that? Are they a looked-after child? What traumas have they suffered? What level of violence have they suffered? What sort of home life have they suffered? We are trying to see if we can get in at a much earlier part of their lives, potentially when they have initially been made a looked-after child, to try to deter them away from this and give them the support elements.

We have success stories at Reading we have intervened with county lines boys, understood where they are with their issues and managed to rehouse them and get them back into education. Some have gone into foster homes, some into care homes, to get that stability back to help them to address the trauma that they have suffered, which reached a point at which they could not cope and therefore resorted to working for county lines.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q Are there any barriers that you face in taking that approach? Is there anything that we can help with in Parliament that would enable you to do even more of that?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

The issue we have in Reading is that there seem to be a number of spaces in looked-after children’s homes, so we have quite a lot of children who come from, for example, Croydon and Lambeth. Then it gets into, “We’re Reading social care or Reading social services, and that’s Lambeth,” and that poor child gets mixed up in the politics of, “We only look after Reading.”

For us, it would be about greater working relationships, so it does not matter where they initially lived or have gone missing from, we will actually look at the individual and say what is best for that young child—forget the boundaries and different financial implications if you house a looked-after child from Lambeth in Reading. That is the bit that we find a challenge at times—the dialogue and the information sharing.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q Is it children in the looked-after system that you are mostly dealing with?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Mostly, yes.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q We heard this morning, but it gets said quite often, that knife crime is cyclical. Why would knife crime be cyclical and what do you think are the main factors that have driven the recent increase in violent crime?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Whether it is the lower availability of firearms that we are hearing about through intelligence reports, or from some of the work we do with schools, where I know that it is described as the social norm that every child must now arm themselves, so whether it is that they feel it is the right thing to do—or the media attention. Reference has been made to the new—it is not new, but it seems to be fairly new for a number of children—“Fortnite” game that people may be familiar with, which talks a lot about the weapons. Those of you who know about the game will know that you can stab someone in it, and you do not bleed and you do not die. That is why, when we interview children and ask why they have knives, some say it is fine and that nothing will happen. We have dealt with domestic incidents involving a mother and child, in which they have re-enacted “Fortnite” because they think it will be fine. We not only have the social media films, potentially, but we have online gaming.

It is cyclical. I recall two or three years ago when we had a real push on knife arches. You could not get into schools or licensed premises unless you went through a knife arch, which would pick the knife up. Those are perhaps not being regularly tactically used. We may need to look to licensed premises to reintroduce those. However, it seems they feel that, because of the threat of violence against each other, that is the only way they can arm themselves.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Q Do you think school-based police officers, or police officers allocated to schools, would help the response to the problem?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Definitely. We employ that at Reading. It is about early engagement with a child who is either beginning to truant, whose behaviour is changing or who has a lack of interest in education. It is also that visible presence and being able to hear about, after maybe seeing a bullying incident in the playground, what is actually behind it and what is the level of violence. We recently had two 14-year-olds who unfortunately used knives that they had taken from their home economics class to threaten each other and to cause injury, because that was the next level that they felt they needed to go to, because of what was happening in their bullying cycle.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Clearly the Bill seeks to address and tackle the issue around offensive weapons and the sale and possession of knives. Do you have any information about how these young people—they are predominantly young people in county lines—are getting the knives? In other words, are they buying them themselves, or is an adult buying them for themQ ?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

It is probably mixed. Some of them openly buy them themselves. A lot are ordered through the internet. We know that vulnerable adults are, if you like, employed by county liners to purchase them on behalf of children. There is a variety of measures. As with everything, we will never prevent it, but some of the Bill’s recommendations will make it slightly harder to happen. They will have to be more creative, which sometimes puts people off, because it becomes a bit too much work.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q Could you quantify what sort of effect you think the Bill will have?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

It will very much be preventive as to what we can actually do to stop knives getting out and about. There will be greater, tighter controls on the sale. Having listened to the previous witnesses, it will actually make it difficult; they will be behind the locked cabinet, if needs be. They will not be able to readily buy them over the internet and have them delivered to their home address.

Also, the Bill will give further stop-and-search powers. Yes, that power exists, but the Bill will open it more to knives and will have that element. The only other thing—I cannot remember the specific clause—is that it will make being threatening with offensive weapons an offence, which is a bit broader, because sometimes you struggle with what substantive events have occurred.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q It may be that these young people —schoolchildren, very often—travel into Reading, and a 250% increase is huge. As they travel in, in possession of a knife, what sort of resources do you have at the travel hubs in Reading to stop them and to deal with it at that point? Is this something you have looked at?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

We work very closely with British Transport Police. The issue is that, for a stop and search, you have to have the relevant grounds. A lot of the time, there is very little intelligence. It is more that, after there has been an incident or a coming together, they are subsequently stop-checked. Only last week we used the section 60 powers because there was information that two gangs were going to come together. Unfortunately, while that prevents the fight from taking place, it does not prevent the stage before, when they initially come into that area with knives. Unless the train station has stringent checks, like security at an airport, for people coming in and out of Reading train station, that is not prevented.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q So you have not conducted any pilots to concentrate on these travel hubs?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

No, not at the moment.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q What sort of drugs are these young people carrying across county lines?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

At the moment we are predominantly finding class A—heroin and cocaine. There is some cannabis, but we would probably say that that is more the lower level—what we call local dealers, within Reading. It is predominantly opiates and cocaine at the other end.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q Do you have any sort of media targeting the people who would be using drugs such as heroin or cocaine to let them know that young people who are being abused are bringing it to them?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Yes, we do. We have quite a strong media strategy at the moment on not only the dangers, but the vulnerability involved in getting them in the first place.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q Is that message getting through?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

It is probably too early to tell. We are working closely with a community safety partnership to understand that we need to get that messaging out. We have a couple of charities in the Reading area for people who self-refer for drug and alcohol abuse, but it has only been since around April, so we cannot gauge the benefits at this time.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

Q Coming back to stop-and-search, can you just outline what changes have happened in your stop-and-search over the last two, three or four years? How have you approached it?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

We obviously had the guidance that we had to ensure the grounds were there, but for an area such as Reading that has not had a significant impact, because of the visibility of individuals who meet the profile. We have had clear intelligence that they have come to Reading to deal and we have had information from a phone, so for us, the grounds have been sufficient, but I know there have been concerns over whether we are complying legislatively on stop-and-search. In Reading, we have continued the level of stop-and-search, primarily because it is very evident, but I know that in other areas of Thames Valley police, where it is not, there has been a decline in stop-and-search with confidence.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

Q Are there any more changes that could be made, such as regulations or guidance, to tackle what you were just describing to Mary Robinson— tackling them at a wider perimeter, rather than their coming in toward a fight and then you doing the stop-and-search?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

We do a lot of work with education on the preventive element, to ensure that people know the dangers, to try to identify those children that we think are being exploited for that reason, and to put in the interventions on the trauma side of it, as has already been mentioned. Are we seeing any signs? Accessibility is a main factor, but having the intelligence picture to work up that chain and prevent the drugs from coming in in the first place is a huge issue, given that the demand is clearly there from people wanting to buy the drugs.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

Q In the briefing we have here, it says you are particularly interested in the new powers that are given to police officers to deal with acid attacks on individuals. In what way are you interested in that?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

In the areas where we have a very stringent approach—what we call the knife arches, the checks and the engagement—the acids would not be picked up. Not that you could detect them in that way, but it is allowing the stop-and-search to identify those issues, seize the substances and have a substantive offence. As we know with many legislative things, our criminals can be one step ahead of us. If there are increased restrictions on knives, what would their next tool be? It will help us to have that very early testing, the ability to seize items that we suspect are acids, and for it to be part of the stop-and-search if they are found in possession of them.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

Q You talked about zombie knives. Is there a particular profile of people or groups that are escalating to zombie knives, machetes and the like?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Not at the moment. We have seen them in all age groups, from the young individuals right up to some of our local street robbers—local criminals—who are arming themselves; those are people in the mid-40s age range. At the moment I would not say there is a clear profile. It is just that a knife that, potentially, we did not see six months ago is now being seized and found in house searches.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

Q Finally, you talked about the game “Fortnite”. Are you doing anything about demonstrating the actual consequences, with graphic stuff?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Very much so—within education, to say, “If you do stab someone, they will be seriously injured.”

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Yes. It is definitely within education. I know there is a lot going on regarding the impact of the addiction and mental health elements. I know a hospital near us has seen children come through who have been classed as having an addiction, so it is working through from the mental health element. If you mention mental health to parents, it clearly sets different alarm bells ringing when they understand that. We have had conversations with numerous parents over some behaviour issues that we have been called to, which are classed as a domestic, but when you have chatted to them and understood it is because they have asked their child to get off “Fortnite”, then you talk to them about addictions. There is education through a different route.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

Q That presumably includes the non-gang stuff. We heard the other day how 75% of the people St Giles Trust was working with are non-gang. Would that include them?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Yes. What is a normal family? But yes.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Labour, Portsmouth South

It is clear from the evidence sessions that it is important to liaise not only with the pupil referral units, but generally with schools. Do you think there is more we can do to engage schools, specifically and strategically, through the crime and disorder reduction partnershipsQ ?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

On a personal note, in Reading, we have monthly headteacher meetings where this is very much on the agenda. From my personal experience, we have a good partnership working arrangement with schools, because of the trauma approach we take in Reading, but I would not say that is consistent—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Chief Inspector, you were at the beginning of an answer to a question from Mr Morgan. Would you like to pick up where you were?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Yes. I was talking about schools and where I am currently working, while reflecting that I have worked in other areas of Thames Valley police, Slough and south Buckinghamshire, and we did not have the same engagement from schools. To some extent, some schools did not even want a visible police presence in their schools. I was reflecting back to when the Prevent agenda was introduced and every school had to do Prevent training. Yes, it is a different element, but because it was going to happen for the same need, such as the knowledge of weapons and the impact, we should come out to schools and have that engagement from them.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Labour, Portsmouth South

Q Strategically through CDRPs, is there value there where more could be done?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Absolutely. Once again, if things are very clear, it is the strategic body to drive it and ensure accountability.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Labour, Portsmouth South

Q My other question was how confident are you that the duties in the Bill will actually help to reduce crime?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

Trying to be optimistic, at the end of the day we are never going to totally resolve the issue, but we have got to try to make life harder and put ownership back on the various bodies that are involved, whether that is retail, education or the police. It is preventive, and it will all help. I cannot quantify, but I think anything where we have greater powers, greater opportunities and greater seizure powers can only be beneficial to what we are trying to achieve.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

You made some comments earlier about “Fortnite” that concerned me. Unfortunately, we are hearing a lot about that here in Parliament. You mentioned that parents are probably buying weapons for children, as well, whether intentionally or unintentionally. That does raise the question about the online world and parental responsibility. As it relates to age verification online, do you see problems in that area? Children are meant to be 12 years old before they play “Fortnite” but you are probably seeing much younger children being exposed to violence. Then there is the age verification as it relates to buying products that they probably should not be buying at a certain age. Do you see that online world being problematic? I am not trying to put words in your mouth, but you have alluded to some difficulties thereQ .

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

We can only educate on the difficulties. I have talked about incidents where officers have attended, and then we have talked about the area from a problem-solving point of view. There are some sites where parents have left their credit card details and the children can just log on. I would not say Amazon, because I am not sure you could—I am sure you could buy a knife off there, but once people’s credit card details are stored, parents need to be careful with password protection. We ask, “How on earth was this ordered?” and they say, “Well, they’ve got access to my account. I just let them log on and buy whatever they want. I did’t realise it was going to be a weapon.” Likewise with the downloading of games, they say, “I didn’t realise—I just allowed it.” It is the element of parents’ trust of their children. Actually, they could prevent it.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

Q Do you think there is sufficient awareness among parents of how to turn those verifications and approvals on and off?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

No, definitely not. I know that Thames Valley Police, and I am sure other police forces, have done a big media drive to talk about how you protect and put in restrictions. The generation in our mid-40s to 50s did not have it in our education at that point. Our children, who do, are far more educated on that system than we are. It is about whether people have been brought along with that, but we are really trying to give guidance. There was a big Facebook media campaign to say, “This is how you put those restrictions on,” to support them.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Can I follow up on a couple of questions that you were asked earlier about acid attacks and corrosive substances? In your experience, who is carrying or even using acids and corrosive substances? In particular, do you tend to find that it is adults—18 or over—or is it sometimes also under-18s?Q

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

We find it is under-18s. I think we have had one incident—I am talking only about Reading at the moment; I am not certain of the whole Thames Valley figures—where an assault has taken place with an acid, but we have seized items where liquid has been transferred to a drinks bottle, and it has been subsequently tested and found to be acidic.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Q In relation to under-18s, do you have any knowledge about where they get the substances from? Do they just buy them themselves in a shop, or are they are being supplied from somewhere else?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

The ones we have been told about so far bought them themselves from shops. They used a bleach, or a particular cleaning product—I think there was an oven cleaner that was a very strong corrosive substance, which was subsequently used.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Q The Bill will create a new offence of selling a corrosive substance to a person under 18, but not of supplying. You could still supply without consideration a corrosive substance to somebody under 18. Does that cause you any concern or, given the evidence that just gave, do you think that prohibiting sales should be enough in itself?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

I would hope that the sale in itself should be the initial restriction, but it depends to what extent. If you look from household bleaches right up to the last thing we heard about, which was this oven cleaner, they are readily accessible. It is about how the restriction works—whether it is like alcohol, which obviously has to be age verified, but then you have the issue that if they know that that check is there, they will steal it by other means.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Q Are you happy enough that the age is set at 18? You would not argue for a higher age limit?

Chief Inspector Burroughs:

From the evidence we have so far, it is much more under-18s. I would say, from the evidence base we have at the moment, that 18 is a suitable age.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

That brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions. I thank Chief Inspector Burroughs for her evidence today, and all our previous witnesses as well. That brings us to the end of the oral evidence sessions on the Bill. The Committee will meet again to begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill at 4.30 pm on my 66th birthday, Tuesday 4 September, but I will not be in the Chair on that occasion.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till Tuesday 4 September at half-past Four o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

OWB 68 Ben Freeston

OWB 69 Matt Szafran

OWB 70 University of London Rifle Club

OWB 71 National Crime Agency

OWB 72 Joshua Collins

OWB 73 Steven W Kendrick

OWB 74 Mike Dunstan

OWB 75 Mrs Helen Whicher

OWB 76 Simon Duffy

OWB 77 Egginton Bros Ltd.

OWB 78 David R Johnson

OWB 79 Christopher Ashbolt: Mora Distribution Limited

OWB 80 British Shooting Sports Council

OWB 81 Martin R Cook

OWB 82 Mr M B Jenvey

OWB 83 Adrian Hale, Honorary Treasurer, Blackpool & Fylde Fullbore Pistol & Rifle Club

OWB 84 Jonathan Watson

OWB 85 Charles Murton, Deputy Chairman, SLG Bisley

OWB 86 Mr C W R Phillips

OWB 87 Nigel Newby

OWB 88 Raymond Mears, Founder and CEO, Woodlore Wilderness Bushcraft & Tracking

OWB 89 Keith Rayner

OWB 90 Stephen Hills

OWB 91 CART (Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team)

OWB 92 Whitby & Co

OWB 93 Angela Wigley

OWB 94 Bruce Bollington, Managing Director of Lorax Ltd, trading as Heinnie Haynes

OWB 95 The Fifty Calibre Shooters Association of the United Kingdom

OWB 96 Dr Tom Walker

OWB 97 Taylors Eye Witness Ltd

OWB 98 Andrew Mercer, Chief Executive, National Rifle Association, Bisley Camp, Brookwood, Surrey

OWB 99 John L Harvey