HC Deb 26 January 1996 vol 270 cc589-618

Order for Second Reading read.

12.11 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Frances Lawrence, the widow of murdered headmaster Philip Laurence, made a very true statement when she said: "A knife is an inanimate object, and it needs a human being to invest it with murderous properties." Her husband was brutally stabbed to death before Christmas outside the gates of his school, when he bravely intervened to protect a pupil from a violent attack. The letter sent by his eight-year-old son Lucien to Santa Claus asking for his father back for Christmas was one of the saddest things that I had ever read.

But we also think of John Killick, the security guard who was stabbed to death in Scunthorpe last December. We think of pensioner Frank Dempsey, who died after being stabbed in the throat, and of the frenzied slaughter of Imtiaz Begum and her three children with a nine-inch kitchen knife. That happened only last weekend. I have boundless admiration for WPC Jill Spencer, who disarmed the attacker. Every act of mindless brutality produces a double tragedy—the loss of a life, and the distraught family that that person leaves behind.

I first came into contact with a family struck by such a tragedy in 1987, when I was a parliamentary candidate in Bethnal Green and Stepney. There I met Bill and Valerie Dennison, whose 17-year-old son John had been stabbed to death. He was a model son, liked by all, good at sport and with everything to live for. He became another innocent victim of mindless violence, and his death nearly destroyed his parents. Closer to home, only last Sunday my 20-year-old research assistant Jay Therell was the victim of an attempted knifepoint robbery in Paddington. The weapon was a flick knife.

Above all, we should remember the price that the police pay when trying to protect the rest of us while we are going about our business. It is a humbling experience to talk—as I have—to officers who have been viciously stabbed; they deserve all the protection that is going. We should include in the roll of honour Sergeant Derek Robertson, the father of two children who was stabbed to death after being called to the scene of a robbery at a sub-post office in Croydon in 1994. In that year, more than 1,000 police officers in England and Wales were seriously assaulted and injured.

Police officers who are in contact with the problem are in no doubt that it is getting worse. Worryingly, research suggests that the problem is at its worst among males in their mid-teens. A 15-year-old is currently being held facing charges in relation to Mr. Lawrence's death.

In the year to April 1995, 2,550 offences of violence against the person in the Metropolitan police force area involved knives or other sharp instruments. That compares with 2,332 during the preceding 12 months. In Sutton, which is hardly an area notorious for violence, there have been two stabbings and one knifepoint robbery, and two 13-year-old boys were found carrying knives in the past month alone.

Prosecutions for the offence of carrying a knife in public with intent to use it rose sharply, from nearly 1,000 to 3,367, between 1993 and 1994. Those figures may show only the tip of the iceberg, because knife carriers almost always carry their knives concealed. Of the 677 people who were murdered in this country in 1994, 236 were stabbed. In London, 41 per cent. of all murders involved knives or other sharp instruments. The number of people who have been injured by knives probably runs into thousands.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Of the horrific number who died under the knife, as it were, how many of the assailants were not known to the victim and how many were so-called domestic murders?

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my hon.Friend for his interesting question. I regret that, at this time, I cannot give precise answers, but perhaps I shall be able to do so later. It is worth looking into that matter.

It is salutary to note that the knives amnesty, which ended on Sunday, binned 38,000 knives across England and Wales. That was a worthwhile exercise, which I hope will be repeated. In Sutton, there was a haul of 100 serious weapons, which included carving knives, bayonets and machetes. Other weapons included knuckledusters, throwing stars, cut-throat razors and a gruesome array of flick knives, lock knives, and stiletto-type knives that are known as widow makers make us realise how enormously important and valuable are such amnesties.

Scotland had a successful amnesty called Operation Blade, from which Strathclyde police had a haul of 4,569 knives. Such amnesties should be encouraged, because, although some people will maintain that the binned knives were probably not from criminals, who are we to know or guess? However, it is certain that the binning of those 38,000 knives means that 38,000 people are less likely to become victims of knife attacks. We owe it to Mr. Lawrence, Sergeant Robertson and all the other good, decent people who, one way or another, are the victims of stabbings to take tough measures against those who, for whatever twisted reasons, carry knives and are prepared to use them.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

It is a humbling experience to note the incidents mentioned by the hon. Lady, and the fact that police officers in ordinary community roles often face danger and actual injury. It may be helpful for the hon. Lady to be aware of our support for the measures in her Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has long urged, and to be aware also of my hon. Friend's offer to assist the Home Secretary in ensuring that these measures have a swift passage through the House. I hope that that is of some assistance to the hon. Lady in considering the way that the debate proceeds.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind message, and I enormously appreciate his party's support. It is a wonderful example of where society can together work for a great and common good and it is deeply valued.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

Although my hon. Friend welcomes the Labour party's support, has she noticed that, apart from its spokesman, there are no Labour Members in the Chamber?

Lady Olga Maitland

I am disappointed about that, but I am sure that the Labour party will work to our benefit. It says that we will genuinely together, but it would have been nice if more supporters had been on the Labour Benches.

It is worth noting the words of Cardinal Hume at Mr. Lawrence's memorial service earlier this week. He pointed out that violence cannot be separated from family life and the serious commitment of the marriage bond. Police report to me that the vast majority of the teenagers they arrest come from chaotic family backgrounds.

If for no other reason, I urge couples who plan to separate to think carefully about the effects that separation might have on their children, because no doubt exists that children with two parents—together, committed, living in one household, who know exactly where their children are, what they are doing and what they are carrying—are much less likely to end up in the sort of trouble that we have discussed today.

Many people have asked me whether there should be a ban on the sale of knives to youngsters. I have great sympathy with that, and I hope that, following further consultations, it might be brought within the scope of the Bill. I tell the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) that many discussions have already taken place on that score between myself, the Home Office and parties outside. Such a ban would be a deterrent to some young people. Certainly it would make it more difficult to obtain the more vicious-looking knives, although I concede that, in truth, they can still turn to the kitchen drawer.

Such a ban, however, would send a powerful message of disapproval of such weapons. The more disreputable shops selling knives tell me that they will sell knives without thinking twice. The respectable ones will always quiz people carefully about their age. Often, they will sell them knives only if they are accompanied by an adult.

It should be remembered that there is already a ban on the sale of 16 types of knives and other offensive weapons. The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 bans flick knives and gravity knives. An order made under section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 bans a range of bladed and other offensive weaponry.

None the less, a ban on the sale of knives to young people is worth pursuing. Even as I was coming into the Chamber, the Police Federation sent a message saying that such a ban would send the right message.

Mr. Michael

I am pleased to hear the hon. Lady's comments. That is again the sort of thing which, if there is agreement across the House, should be dealt with quickly. Does she agree that the same should apply to advertising of some of these items? I refer to advertising not of ordinary knives or things that are used in sport, but of weapons that are referred to as "Rambo sidearms". Such advertising sends a horrendous message to young people who read it. If it is possible to have co-operation across the House, and in particular from Ministers at the Home Office, about knives, does she agree that it would be a good idea to speed control of such advertising through the House as well?

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important matter. He has my wholehearted sympathy. I feel strongly about the whole question of advertising and the easy availability of commando and survival knives.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on her initiative in bringing forward this Bill. However, a high proportion of knife misuse involves kitchen knives, so, for a sales ban to be effective, it would have to include banning the sale of kitchen knives to those under, say, 16. Is there not a strong case for identity cards, so that people could prove that they were over the age of 16, or whatever is deemed to be the appropriate age? Will she bear that in mind in her discussions with the authorities?

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his remarks, with which I agree. An identity card would remove doubt for retailers, and make it easier for them to follow the law. When I meet my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, we will discuss that point in some detail.

I find the whole question of advertising worrying I have been looking at some of the advertisements in mail order catalogues. They contain language that could probably incite immature youngsters to buy knives. It includes such phrases as "Razor sharp stainless steel", "Nearly half a foot long when opened", and "Belt sheath keeps knife neat, safe, ready for action". One advertisement refers to a "viper knife". Another says, "Thumb-flick action, stylish". Yet another says, "Birds of prey—imagine a fantasy battle knife" and "commando dagger", which at £9.95 is described as "excellent value".

Mr. Fabricant

Although I share my hon. Friend's concern, I need some reassurance. I, like many others, carry a penknife. Would it be illegal under her Bill?

Lady Olga Maitland

No. A penknife that is less than 3 in long, especially if folded, is safe and can be carried in public without fear. Of course, if it were being carried in a threatening way—

Mr. Fabricant

Like this?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must close his knife and put it away immediately.

Lady Olga Maitland

I want to continue dealing with the important point raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, which we should discuss further in Committee. Should we, indeed, extend the ban to include, for example, Rambo and combat knives? I cannot imagine that they have any legitimate use; I would not use them to cut up onions.

There is a difficulty with legal definition. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary wants to examine whether there can be a clear distinction in law so that those knives can be banned outright.

There are doubts about the strength of self-regulation in the advertising industry, but I am assured that the Advertising Standards Authority will investigate any advertisement that does offend, and will take action. It maintains that such action is effective. The ASA tells me that it receives relatively few complaints on the subject, and I gather that it has received only a dozen in the past few years. It may be that the fact that the ASA has received so few complaints does not necessarily reflect the number of people who are concerned about the issue.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for dealing seriously with this point. I raised the issue during a debate on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and the Minister referred then to the powers of the ASA. When my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) raised the issue with the ASA, it became clear that it was unable to take the sort of action that the hon. Lady, other hon. Members and I would want to see.

The problem is clearly that the ASA is unable to be pro-active. The association should see adverts such as those to which I and the hon. Lady have referred as the sort of thing that the public would want removed from the pages of magazines. The ASA should not need lots of letters of complaint to stimulate it into action in this area.

Lady Olga Maitland

One point that the hon. Gentleman and I have overlooked is that the ASA has recently undertaken a review of weapons advertisements in the printed media. Perhaps he and I could have a word with the authority to see what progress has been made in this regard.

To strengthen the House's determination to look carefully at a ban on the sale of knives, I shall read a letter from a headmaster to his local Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight): Yesterday I gave this term's haul of weapons to the police for destruction. This included 3 air pistols, 7 knives, a large catapult and two screwdrivers; one of which was used to stab another boy in the chest during a fight in November…Please, please, please support Lady Olga Maitland's bill and urge your colleagues to curb the sales of these weapons, which have no obvious purpose other than to appear offensive. It would also be helpful to ban the display of knives too, as many youngsters are enthralled by such displays. Another illustration of the importance of the matter is that the son of one of my constituents was recently threatened on a train by a 16-year-old with a knife. The boy is just 11 years old.

There are other examples: a 15-year-old pupil in Tyne and Wear, stabbed in the back after becoming caught up in a feud between his fellow pupils and a gang from a neighbouring school—in other words, his peer group; a 14-year-old, knifed in the leg during a playground argument in Birmingham; a 15-year-old boy, stabbed several times in Liverpool; a 14-year-old boy, knifed three times outside a school in east London; a 14-year-old girl, stabbed in the chest when a petty row at a comprehensive school in Cardiff exploded into violence.

All these are examples of young people who have somehow obtained knives are using them on each other. A ban on the sale of knives would go some way to dealing with the problem. I could carry on for some time on the subject of—

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

On the problem of young people carrying knives, many years ago, when I was in the scout movement, I carried a sheath knife to whittle sticks, skin rabbits, or whatever scouts did in those days. Will members of respectable organisations, such as the scout movement, or perhaps Army cadets, who may well carry a bayonet or something in the course of their activities, be affected by the Bill; or would the fact they are members of such highly respectable organisations constitute a "lawful authority" or "reasonable excuse"?

Lady Olga Maitland

I can reassure my hon. Friend. Such people would be covered by having a "lawful authority" or "reasonable excuse". The Bill applies to people who are clearly carrying knives without a lawful excuse. There is an enormous gulf between the two, and I would not want members of the public to fear that the Bill will interfere with the legitimate carrying of knives.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth mentioned banning the sale of knives. I have here some newspaper coverage from which we should take heart. It shows that many shop owners are calling for a clear ban on the sale of knives to youngsters, because it would make their lives easier. Both The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have carried out extensive investigations in that regard.

Illicit knife-carrying is an unmitigated evil, but I recognise that some people may have a good reason to carry a knife, and their position is fully safeguarded under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. To clarify the matter, it is a defence to prove that one has a good reason or a "lawful authority" to carry a knife.

Perhaps a man needs one for his work. He may be a carpenter with a bag of tools containing a knife, or a carpet layer. He may be carrying a knife because he is on the way to his allotment to cut cabbages. Men carry knives for religious reasons, such as Sikhs, who carry ceremonial daggers, or as part of national dress—for example, a Scotsman in full Highland dress, bearing a skean dhu.

Interestingly, I received a letter from English Heritage, which pointed out that its members have a legitimate reason for carrying knives when historic battles are re-enacted. English Heritage is anxious that, when members and followers are dressed in full traditional historic costume, carrying a variety of knives and blades, it might be misunderstood and construed as a criminal act. The letter mentions that, when police officers stop participants, the fact that the knives are intended as part of a re-enactment of an old battle and that they are safe after all needs a bit of explaining.

Mr. Fabricant

Is my hon. Friend aware that there were no arrests in Staffordshire in 1988–89 for offences concerning knives, which is reassuring, because, as she will be aware, every year the Civil war battles are re-enacted in Lichfield and knives are carried?

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. It is a good illustration of the fact that knives can be carried in a legitimate context.

We must arrest the culture of carrying and using knives. We must ensure that the police and the courts have effective powers to deal with the evil of carrying knives, which I regard with the same seriousness as carrying guns. We have to break the trend. There is already a range of legislation to cover that, but I trust that the Offensive Weapons Bill will strengthen it at certain vital points.

First, the Bill will make it easier for police to arrest people carrying knives. The police find it intensely frustrating when they find a person carrying a knife without good reason and all that they can do is to issue a formal warning, a caution or, at best, a summons. Curiously, a police officer can arrest a suspected burglar carrying stolen property, but not a man with a knife that can kill. The police will find that the Bill will give them the power to arrest such people on the spot.

The Bill will give the police full powers to arrest people carrying knives or offensive weapons such as flick knives, coshes or knuckledusters without a good reason. I know from talking to the police that they very much want this power, which will allow them to be more proactive and demonstrates the seriousness of the offence.

In dealing with juveniles, the police will be able to insist that a responsible adult comes to collect him or her. Personally, I would make it mandatory for both parents to come to the police station and be made fully responsible for the actions of their child.

The penalties I propose, which are fully supported by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, reflect the gravity of the offence. First, carrying a knife or blade without good reason carries a maximum penalty of a fine of only £5,000 under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, but in Scotland it is two years gaol, a fine or both. I propose to bring our law into line with that of Scotland.

Secondly, carrying an offensive weapon such as a cosh or knuckleduster with the intention of causing injury currently carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison. As that is a much more serious offence, it deserves a stiffer penalty. I therefore propose that the maximum penalty under section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 be increased to four years, or a fine, or both. That will apply to Scotland as well.

It is important to mention that the increase in penalties for knife carrying will also apply to Northern Ireland. From my recent discussions with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, I can report that the problem of knives is making its appearance as drug and street crime develop. As a Unionist and a firm believer that Ulster is a part of the British Isles, I think that it is entirely appropriate for their needs to be dealt with in this Bill rather than in a separate, later one.

I was glad to learn that RUC officers already have the powers of arrest that the Bill proposes to introduce in England and Wales. My Bill, in its introduced form, will extend the two-year imprisonment penalty for knife carrying to Northern Ireland. I intend that it should be amended in Committee to extend to the Province the four-year imprisonment penalty for carrying an offensive weapon.

Powers of summary arrest and the introduction of much tougher penalties will send a clear message to thugs and bullies. If people carry knives without a good reason, they will get the full punishment they deserve. Serious crimes deserve serious punishments. It is time that we wiped the smirks off the faces of the hooligans who make other people's lives such absolute misery. Public opinion is firmly behind these measures, and the police want them. Once they are law, it will be for the courts as well as the police to use them to the full whenever the circumstances allow.

I urge parents to keep a more watchful eye on their children and to be tough if they find that their son is carrying a knife. Take it from him; warn him of the dangers. I am grateful to the Opposition for supporting the Bill, and for the support that I have received from the Association of Chief Police Officers and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I commend the Bill to the House.

12.44 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate, which is important in terms of my constituency because Philip Lawrence was my constituent and his family—his widow, children and mother—remain my constituents.

I apologise to the House in advance for leaving the debate early because my former vicar will be enthroned as Bishop of London this afternoon in St. Paul's cathedral. I therefore ask for the indulgence of the House to allow me to be with him on this special day.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) has made a powerful and compelling case and I congratulate her on her initiative in introducing the Bill. I know how much it means to the Lawrence family and the whole nation.

I was in teaching for 23 years and had the pleasure ultimately of becoming deputy headmaster of a comprehensive school in King's Cross attended by 1,100 boys. Thereafter, I was deputy head and sometimes acting head of a mixed comprehensive school of 2,200 pupils in Lewisham. Children who subsequently went to Oxford and Cambridge universities were educated alongside those who would not succeed in that way. Trouble sometimes erupted outside the school but rarely inside. Like Philip Lawrence, I stood outside my school every day and I am amazed to think of what I did in my time. Without a thought, I disarmed boys of knives, huge sticks and other weapons, and I sorted out youths who had come to cause trouble outside the school. Many schoolmasters and head and deputy head teachers do that every day, and have done so for a long time.

Sadly, there now seems to be much more premeditated evil behaviour from a small minority of young people and others outside schools and elsewhere in our community. Earlier this month, I had a meeting with Superintendent Smythe, who is in charge of policing in a substantial part of my constituency. We discussed burglary and the good work that the police are doing. Superintendent Smythe and his officers, with the co-operation of the community, have reduced many forms of crime, including burglary and some crimes of violence. Another aspect of crime that we discussed was the problem that sometimes arises when children come out of schools. In my experience, the children coming out of school rarely cause the problem; it arises when people come to interfere with them, and all teachers must watch that carefully. Someone from another school or some ne'er-do-well from another area may come to pick a quarrel with a boy, and serious trouble can erupt quickly.

The problem for the school is that it is not suitable to invite the police along as a routine. It is not fair on the police, and it does not help the school to have a policeman standing outside the premises, as that creates its own difficulties. Schools themselves must deal with those problems and, most of the time, it works well when senior staff ensure that pupils leave in an orderly manner, do not provoke bystanders and do not accept provocation from people who have come to cause trouble.

Now and then there can be deep trouble. The Friday after I met Superintendent Smythe, there was trouble outside a school, not in my constituency but not far away. Rival youths aged 15 had a most ghastly set-to—one drew a knife on the other, stabbed him and killed him. That was only a few days ago, and once again it brought home to me the appalling violence that some 15-year-old boys can cause one another. A suspect for that murder has been arrested and awaits trial, so I cannot say much more about it.

Although I give my hon. Friend my warmest support for the Bill that she has introduced with such zest, it is clear that society must tackle the root causes. We shall not achieve much by simply seeking to chop off the trouble. Schools should provide proper moral and religious education. I believe passionately that children must be taught the difference between right and wrong and know why it is wrong to violate their neighbours. They must be told, "Your neighbour is made in the image of God. He or she is sacred, just as you are, and to attack him or her with violence is to attack a child of God." They should be told that it is wrong, wicked and evil, and that it should not happen. Children need to understand that.

I could not understand the concern expressed a few days ago by inspectors and others concerned with schools who were worrying about how to produce a moral code that children could be taught and accept. I see no basic difficulty in that. The ten commandments say it all. If every child understood the ten commandments and the moral behind them, that would be a very good start. I would like every child in education to know the ten commandments.

My hon. Friend calls for a ban on the sale of knives to young people below the age of 18 and says how difficult that would be. She is so right. It would not be easy to stop children going to Sainsbury and other stores and buying a set of knives. It should be considered and perhaps it should be tried, but it would not be easy. Therefore, we have to seek to deal with the carrying of knives. The Bill does that, and my hon. Friend has produced some answers.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive remarks. He mentioned the difficulty of young people going into stores to purchase knives. If stores had a clear ruling that there should be no sale of knives to young people below whatever age we agree, it would not be a matter for debate. The position becomes difficult when the matter is fudged and there are too many alternatives. If it were clear that there would be no sale of knives to young people, if a young person took some kitchen knives to a checkout, the sales girl would have to say no.

Mr. Greenway

I could go along with that. One would have to define young people as those below the age of 18 and they would have to carry identity cards to prove their age, but my hon. Friend would have to achieve that measure by persuasion, and it would not be easy. Although the basic concept behind the Bill is sound and right, its implementation would not be so easy, desirable though it might be.

Clause 1 tackles the subject very well. It would make it an offence to carry a knife or an article with a blade or point, and people could be stopped without warrant, searched and dealt with on the spot. That would go a long way towards solving the problem. There was ghastly period in my time in teaching when flick knives were carried and it was legal to carry them. It was even more dangerous than the present situation. Young people and others could, by simply pressing the knife handle, be capable of inflicting great harm from a long blade. Flick knives were successfully banned. If a person is caught carrying one, he faces an enormous penalty. However, if a parliamentary question were tabled on the last time someone was prosecuted and convicted for carrying a flick knife, I am sure that the answer would be that it was some time ago. We have enacted legislation against flick knives, and my hon. Friend's Bill will enhance and improve law and order.

I want to say a word about my great constituent Philip Lawrence, who was person of the year in 1995, with nearly 24,000 votes across the land. That was a huge response by the people of our country to his courage. My early-day motion 191 was well supported on both sides of the House. It commended Philip Lawrence's courage and extended sympathy to his family. Unfortunately, that early-day motion was suspended under the sub judice rule, because charges have been brought in relation to Philip's murder.

I want to put on record my tribute to Philip's widow, Frances, and to his four children for their great courage in the way that they have borne that terrible death. It is one thing for a husband and father to die, but to die by murder is something that hon. Members will probably only properly understand if they are unfortunate enough to encounter such a tragedy in others. Philip Lawrence's family have been wonderfully dignified and the country was hugely moved, not least by the memorial service for Philip at Westminster cathedral last Monday. I include Philip's remarkable mother, who is 87, in my tribute. I spent some time with the Lawrence family the day after his death and since, and I know how wonderfully staunch they have been from the first moment.

I conducted examinations at St. George's school in Westminster, where Philip was headmaster, over several years, so I know the community and everything that the school has sought to do over the years. If the Bill had already been on the statute book, that murder might not have happened—who knows? The effect of that murder was to send the community reeling and to disorientate it. That was the effect of the other murder that I mentioned. Murder by knife is such a sudden thing. It may be premeditated, but not always. The damage to those who commit such murders and who are the victims of it, and to the community, is lasting. It is therefore especially incumbent on the House to support my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam and find a way to tighten up the law in the way that the Lawrence family and all of us wish.

I had the honour, with the Abbot of Ealing, Laurence Soper of the Order of St. Benedict, to found the Philip Lawrence memorial fund, on the day after Philip Lawrence's murder. By last Monday, £104,000 had been donated to that fund, mostly in small donations of £5 or £10. From that evil, wicked act, great good has come. The abbot and I have had thousands of letters, as has Frances Lawrence. People have written to say that they could send only £2, £3 or £5, but they sent it with their love for the family, their love for our country and their hopes and determination that we will stand up to lawlessness in the brave way that Philip Lawrence did. That is so worth the saying, and if the Bill helps to achieve that it will achieve a great deal. It may do so. At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned the dedication of the teaching profession. I doubt if there is any good teacher who would not do today what Philip Lawrence did on the fatal day on 8 December 1995, and stand up to trouble outside his or her school in defence of a member of the school. However, those teachers would not expect to suffer murder as a result.

I wish to ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether the Home Office will consider my suggestion that people convicted of offences near a school should be doubly punished. That happens in other countries. For example, in New York, when a violent offence is committed within a reasonable radius of a school, the punishment is doubled. That has given substantial support to the teaching profession, heads of schools and those seeking to protect schools from invasion or the sort of violence that Philip Lawrence and others have suffered. I hope that that suggestion will be seriously considered.

I can do no better to conclude my remarks than quote a bidding prayer that 13-year-old Unity Lawrence—Philip and Frances's daughter—wrote and read at Philip's memorial service last Monday. Think of her situation—a small girl before a congregation of 2,500 under those circumstances. She said: Heavenly Father, bless those who dedicate their lives to teaching. Jesus, the greatest teacher of all, came to earth to teach us to love and respect each other. May his ideals inspire and his values endure.

1.2 pm

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

As I mentioned in my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), the Bill has the support of the Labour party. The hon. Lady was right to refer to individual cases, especially the murder of Philip Lawrence, which have shocked and horrified the nation and stimulated widespread public demands for action.

However, the dangers have been around for a long time. Debates in Committee on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 revealed some of the dangers and the need for action. It is unfortunate that we so often seem to trail behind events. For that reason, I congratulate the hon. Lady on taking the initiative and ensuring that this issue is before the House in this Session and has not been left as a promise for the future. The Home Secretary should have acted himself, but at least he is supporting the Bill, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the shadow Home Secretary.

This is the second occasion in succession that I have spoken in the Chamber in a cross-party spirit. It might become a habit if we carry on like this. There can certainly be few topics that are more suitable for cross-party consensus—a clear and united message from the House.

The Bill rightly includes the offence of carrying an offensive weapon within the offences that entitle police officers to exercise the power of arrest. The absence of that power has been a curious anomaly, and provision for it is a welcome change in the law. Increases in penalties are important also because they give the courts additional power to sentence.

Increased penalties send a message of support to the police and to the public, who fear or are at risk of injury. They also send a clear warning, not only to those who perhaps go out intending to become involved in violence but to those who have got into the habit of carrying a knife. One of the greatest dangers is tolerance of carrying a knife and the idea that one does so for self-defence. The danger is always there that, if the item is carried, it will be used, and that the type of fatal incident that we have seen on too many occasions becomes almost inevitable. Violence may be inflicted not intentionally by those who carry knives—that lack of intent is bad enough—but almost by accident.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. Does he agree with me that we are trying to tackle the macho knife culture in which young people carry knives so that they feel big, masculine and one of the boys? They are drawn into that culture by peer group pressure. We hope that, if we make knives difficult to get hold of and pass stiff penalties, they will drop that habit. There is a playground practice of keeping up with the lads.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. There is no simple way to tackle this type of problem—one cannot suddenly turn off the tap and say that people's behaviour must change. One must tackle it by every means possible. The hon. Lady is right that we need the legislation and that a message should be sent by the House of Commons. We also need, however, the day-to-day work of so many people, unsung and unrecognised, whether they are teachers, police officers, youth officers or members of a family and the community.

One of the more difficult things that we must do is to turn the tide, from a vicious circle that allows such things to happen and tolerates violent advertisements and behaviour, into one that encourages more positive behaviour.

That change cannot be accomplished by edict of the House. We can send our message, but it must be done with the support of the individuals throughout the country who contribute their little bit to giving their local community a more positive culture. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has made that point because it removes the idea that a piece of legislation can be a magic wand that produces results overnight. The scope of the Bill, which the hon. Lady, with becoming modesty, said is limited, is a start in the right direction. It recognises that the developments that we have seen during recent years are unacceptable. There is common ground between us on that.

I refer to the approach that has been taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn. He has clearly expressed to the Home Secretary the Opposition's wish to be constructive and supportive in passing measures in the House to toughen the law and to support the police in a crackdown on the carrying of knives. Last year, when he made the appeal to give the police the power of arrest, he also expressed concern—shared by the hon. Lady—about the number of convictions for certain offences, which is worryingly small. In 1994, there were 5,419 prosecutions for possession of an offensive weapon, but the conviction rate was only 61 per cent. of that number. There were 3,366 prosecutions for possession of an open blade, but the conviction rate was only 74 per cent. We need to put across clearer messages. We hope that the number of convictions will be reduced because the carrying of weapons is reduced. That would be a good result, and that clear message must be sent.

Last month my hon. Friend and Councillor Angela Smith visited Wickford police station in Essex. The police told him that they were finding an increasing link between drugs and knives and they showed him a small arsenal of weapons that had been seized in a single raid on a drug dealer. The items included a machete and a number of large daggers, none of which had any day-to-day lawful use. Those sorts of weapons—to which the hon. Lady referred in her speech—must be removed from our streets.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has been increase in the number of knifepoint robberies? Knives are being used to intimidate and to terrorise ordinary, law-abiding citizens. That is a new turn of events and it is another reason why we must tackle the legislation energetically.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Lady is correct: we must highlight not only violence but the fear of violence and the use of threats.

I turn now to the issue of mail-order advertisements— I am pleased that the hon. Lady recognised their importance. It is most disturbing that knives called "Rambo Sidearm" and "Rambo Shortsword" are readily available to people of any age by mail order. During the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill two years ago, the Opposition suggested that those sorts of advertisements should be regulated properly by the House of Commons. The Government responded that the Advertising Standards Authority has sufficient powers to ensure that the advertisements neither condone nor incite violent behaviour.

When we raised those important issues, I must admit that I was not entirely convinced by Ministers' responses on the subject. However, at least our debating point was recognised. The then Minister of State, Home Office commented: The British code of advertising practice includes special provisions on the advertising of weapons so that advertisements for weapons, such as knives, neither condone nor incite violent behaviour. Where advertisements are found to contravene the codes, the Advertising Standards Authority can take steps to rectify the situation as appropriate". I have referred to one or two knives. The "SAS shoulder holster knife"—which was among the sample advertisements that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn sent to the Advertising Standards Authority—was depicted alongside Nazi memorabilia and a replica assault rifle called "Arnie's Uzi". My hon. Friend provided those items to the Advertising Standards Authority, and the hon. Lady referred to examples of the same sorts of advertisements.

In view of the debates about advertising which took place two years ago, it is somewhat worrying that the response to my hon. Friend's approach to the Advertising Standards Authority is less than inspiring. The council of the ASA debated the issues earlier this month and it appears to have taken no action since the debates in this place. Those debates do not appear to have stimulated the concern and activity that one might have expected. In his reply to my hon. Friend, the chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority says: There are two principal questions for the Advertising Standards Authority; first, can we ban such advertisements altogether; and, second, is there any provision in our Codes which enable us to regulate what they contain? As I explained in my previous letters, the answer to the first of these is 'No'. Therefore, the authority does not have the power to implement the sort of ban that the hon. Lady and I would like to see. The chairman continues: Any ban must be a question for Parliament. The answer to the second question is 'Yes' but it is important to bear in mind that the very act of advertising such weapons, their appearance and any minimum description, might be seen by some people 'to condone or incite violent behaviour'. If, however, the ASA were to make that assumption, any ruling would be the equivalent to a ban. Descriptions such as those to which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and I have referred, and the juxtaposition of items in the advertisements, suggest that precisely such action should be taken. It is clear from that letter that the Advertising Standards Authority does not possess the power and freedom to act that were implied in the Minister's reply two years ago.

Mr. Fabricant

I share the hon. Gentleman's views about the Advertising Standards Authority. Will he, however, pay tribute to the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority, which rigorously uphold the ban?

Mr. Michael

I am happy to do that. When authorities are using the powers available to them, that is welcome. My point about the Advertising Standards Authority is that if, on investigation, we find that it has not exactly been proactive on the issue, and has not the powers to act even if it wished to, that is—as the chairman of the authority suggested—a matter for Parliament. If we can proceed in the spirit of today's debate, it may be possible—as the hon. Lady suggested—to agree amendments to the Bill.

The Advertising Standards Authority points out that millions of advertisements are published each year in a huge range of publications. That is true, but the authority implies that complaints from the general public are the grounds on which it should take action. Clearly, the general public do not look for advertisements for knives and other weapons; every member of the public to whom I have spoken is horrified that such advertisements are allowed. Those who will see them are people who are fascinated by violence or weapons.

The question raised by the authority is whether the very act of advertising might be seen as condoning or inciting violent behaviour. If so, it says, that will be a matter for Parliament. It seems that the ball is in our court, and I hope that we as Members of Parliament, and the Minister as a representative of the Government, will accept the responsibility.

When we debated the matter two years ago, the Minister said: The advertisement of weapons by post is not the problem. The mischief lies with those who seek to obtain unauthorised weapons by whatever means."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 15 March 1994; c. 1356.] That is true, but temptation can encourage undesirable behaviour. Let me give an example. When I took a group of youngsters to Germany on an exchange visit, I was horrified to find when we returned to our minibus that one of them was showing his friends a knife with an extremely long blade. I said, "Where on earth did that come from?" He had walked straight into a shop and bought it, because it was advertised. No questions had been asked, but there is no doubt that that young lad had no legitimate reason for having the knife.

We went back to the shop, and after some discussion the knife was taken back and the youngster's money refunded. I suspect, however, that at home he would not have gone into a shop of that kind, because he would have known that someone would ask questions. I am worried about places that people can enter anonymously—certainly in a large city—without the fear that others will ask questions. It is even more horrifying to think that young people could reply to advertisements and be able, impersonally and without scrutiny, to obtain such weapons.

As the Minister said, we should be worried about those who seek such weapons, but it behoves us to try to prevent their being available. We should end the encouragement, or tolerance, of availability of weapons that appear to incite violence. We have suggested four possible measures. The first is a ban on the sale of knives to people under a specified age. Perhaps 16 is a safe age but there could be a feeling that the age should be rather higher than that, possibly 18. However, there are complications with such definitions. We need to explore those issues to reach an effective conclusion, simply because that would close some doors.

As the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), who is not in his place, rightly suggested, one can do a great deal of violence with a bread knife. However, I do not think that an advertisement for a knife that is to be used for cutting bread encourages a macho image. It does not give rise to the same intolerance, the feeling that such weapons are around in society, that is engendered by advertisements for weapons that are clearly intended for violent purposes. That is an important matter.

The second element is the advertisement of knives, and the third is the proscription of military style knives and swords, martial arts weapons and deactivated and replica guns under section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The other item was a warning label on all knives that are covered by section 139 of that Act. Should we not give an explicit warning that society does not expect such items to be carried and used?

In the context of the intervention by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, other measures need to be taken to help to break the knife culture which has affected parts of our society and which puts the police and public at risk. I agree that young people will use bread knives or screwdrivers, but so will adults who are inclined to violence. Some people will always be violent in any society, however perfect and stringent its laws. We must have the legislation and the action that are needed to tackle such people, and we must reduce the temptation or encouragement to others to be drawn into violent behaviour of any sort. We are obliged to do that, and we shall certainly seek to assist in the endeavour upon which the hon. Lady has launched us with her Bill.

We hope that good will on both sides will lead to some of those measures being included in the Bill. However, I make it absolutely clear that we do not wish to place obstacles in the way of the Bill or to push amendments, however desirable, if they would delay or endanger the legislation. If the Bill has to have additional elements, they must be introduced by agreement and consensus throughout the House, which will allow us to move more quickly than appeared possible a short time ago. If there are difficulties, they must not be allowed to delay the Bill in any way.

If some elements need further time the Home Secretary will have our assistance and encouragement in presenting measures at another time. The Bill provides a clear opportunity, and if it is possible to take it by agreement we should not allow the chance to pass. We must go as far as is possible. As I have said, we need to reduce the environment of violence in which the carrying of knives and their use can be tolerated.

I worked with young people for many years before entering the House. We neglect the positive side of young people and their potential for good at our peril. Just two years ago, the Prince's Trust published a report prepared by the accountancy firm of Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte. That report demonstrated that positive work with young people is cost-effective in preventing crime. It looked at crime in terms of its cost to society, but, of course, the wider cost to society cannot be measured so easily and it is an even greater threat to people's security and ability to enjoy their lives in the peace that they have a right to expect.

The message of that Prince's Trust report was very much that the devil makes work for idle hands and that prevention is better than cure. We need to remove temptations and reduce encouragement. We need to change the present situation, in which all too often "Lord of the Flies" is the parable for our times—except that instead of a desert island, our young people are abandoned on the streets of our inner cities and, sadly, in small towns and villages as well. We need to provide positive encouragement to bring out the good in young people, to discourage the bad and to create a positive environment. Those things need to be done to supplement and complement the legislative action that the hon. Lady asks us to take by introducing the Bill.

I therefore support the Bill. I hope that the Home Secretary will do three things—and that we will have a positive response on them from the Minister—first, support the Bill in a speedy passage through the House; secondly, join in the cross-party consensus to take the Bill further with some of the measures that I and the hon. Lady have referred to; and, thirdly, take the initiative to provide support and encouragement across all Government Departments to support people at the sharp end at a local level: the police, local authorities, youth workers, teachers, local residents and those who work in many of our public services. It is the combination and partnership of all of us in society—at central Government level in Parliament and in such roles at local level—that will succeed in changing the culture, which certainly needs to change.

1.25 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

The Bill is timely, relevant and balanced. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on introducing it today, and on the excellent way in which she presented it.

It is timely because it comes soon after the tragic killing of Philip Lawrence, which has been mentioned, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) in a moving speech. The Bill also comes after a number of highly publicised knifing cases—sometimes bringing death, sometimes serious injury—including those of police officers. The whole nation's conscience has been jarred by those acts of crime, so the Bill also responds to a public demand for action. The Bill also comes at a time when the use of knives in crime has reached a high level, and when the sale of knives ensures that they still proliferate.

The Bill is relevant not just because it is a reaction to immediate popular concern, but because it comes in the wake of considerable examination of the problem of knife crime by the Home Office. I commend my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for their work in driving both study and action in the right direction to ensure that legislative steps are taken to deal with knife crime.

The Bill also responds to the concerns of the police force and chief police officers, who have been aware of this mounting problem, and who have rightly called for action. It is also relevant because statistics show that, in the past 10 years, knife crime has increased and is still a serious problem.

. Taking murders in London, for example, about 74 of the 162 murders in the last year for which figures are available were caused by knives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam has said, knives have played a part in about one third of total crimes of violence against the person, which shows the extent of the problem.

Another way of illustrating that point is to consider the national homicide figures. In 1994, the last year for which figures are available, 236 of the total number of homicides were stabbings. If we compare that with the other causes of death, we will find how much greater is the proportion caused by knives and pointed instruments. There were 111 deaths caused by being hit or kicked—the next category–106 stranglings, 63 shootings, 56 coshings and 23 poisonings. That shows the magnitude of the problem.

This is a balanced Bill. It is necessary to balance the need of society to protect the innocent against crime with the legitimate right of ordinary individuals to use instruments that, in other hands, could be deadly. The Bill is balanced in that respect. We would be wise to remember the complete lack of balance in the gun laws in the United States, where there is a direct correlation between the number of deaths and injuries caused by firearms and the availability of those weapons. Luckily, that has never happened in this country, because of our strict laws in that respect.

The Bill is balanced because it brings penalties and police powers more into line with what is needed. It does that in a sensitive way; it does not go over the top. It is important to keep the array of penalties and powers in line with those in other areas of the criminal law. To give the power of arrest to the police when they find people carrying weapons in public is relevant. To double the penalty for unlawfully carrying weapons is commendable.

The Bill is also balanced as a deterrent. Of course, deterrence is about balance. A person intent on crime has to balance the rewards from carrying out that crime with the penalties that might follow. The Bill will send out a strong message to those who are tempted to buy and carry knives that there is a severe penalty for doing so, because society rightly will not tolerate it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam was right to raise a legal question about the sale of knives to under–16s. I hope that we can include in the Bill a much stricter regulation to control that. Where knives exist and can be purchased, inevitably they will be carried; where they are carried, inevitably there will be crime and a risk to innocent people.

I want to give an example of the availability of knives and pointed instruments and the balance between holding them legitimately and using them illegitimately. This morning, I went around my house and made an inventory of my armoury. I did not realise I had one until I did this.

I found that I had in my possession three swords, a sharp grafting knife, another extremely sharp garden knife, two Stanley knives, a bread knife, about six other sharp kitchen knives, four surgical scalpels, five chisels and a number of other sharp and vicious instruments. I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have not brought any of them with me today. I never take them out of the house.

I keep and use those instruments for legitimate purposes, most of which are obvious. However, in case one is not obvious I should explain that I hold surgical scalpels because they are useful for cutting pieces out of newspapers. I like to keep a collection of reports on what I have said, so that in my more lonely hours I can stare at them.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

What about the swords?

Mr. Merchant

Two of the three swords are Sikh scimitars, which were presented to me—one of them is engraved—for work with the Sikh community. A friend of mine, who happens to be an expert on knives, was fascinated by the swords and took one away because he wanted to know what metal they were made of and whether they could be sharpened. I allowed him to do it, and he came back and told me that not only was it blunt—as I knew—but that it could not be sharpened. The quality of the metal was so poor that the sword would snap if any attempt was made, and that reassured me. My third sword is an historical sword, which, I am glad to say, is also completely blunt and unusable.

I shall end by illustrating the difference between holding such weapons and using them. There would be cause for question if I were suddenly to be seen in the high street of Beckenham with my loins girded, waving in my hand one of my swords, or if I were to appear at the door of the prospective Labour candidate in my constituency, holding in my hand a scalpel. That shows the difference between the legitimate possession of weapons that could be and are dangerous, and their illegitimate carrying and use.

It is very important that the balance is maintained and—if I may make a pun—sharpened by the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam on promoting it. It is slightly overdue, but I hope that it will form a part of the Government's very commendable tough stand against crime. I hope that the Bill will have a swift and successful passage through the House.

1.35 pm
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn)

May I start by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for leaving the Chamber during this short debate? A number of villages in my constituency have had no electricity for the past four days, and they needed me to get involved to help them out.

It is important that we send the right message from the House on this issue. It is important that we make it clear to those who would carry weapons with the intention of harming or endangering anyone that we will enact laws that will make them pay a high price for doing so. The second most popular subjects of letters in my constituency post bag are matters related to crime and to law and order.

The Bill is very important, as it addresses some of the problems we face. The public need to be reassured that Parliament is going to take the issue very seriously. A number of hon. Members have referred to the tragic death of Philip Lawrence, and no one who witnessed the scenes on television or read in the newspapers of his terrible death could fail to be moved. The great trauma that these incidents cause to families and communities can be almost too great to measure.

My eldest daughter and son-in-law were mugged at knifepoint during a trip to Paris. My daughter, rather foolishly, chased after the mugger and demanded that the purse, which belonged to her mother, be returned to her, even if the mugger kept the money. The trauma and distress that that caused was immense for them and for the whole family.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) was asked about exemptions for people who lawfully carry knives—such as scouts—and said that provisions would be made for them. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) referred to the fact that he keeps scalpels in his house to enable him to take cuttings from newspapers.

I wonder whether it will be possible in Committee to highlight the fact that there are many safe and sharp cutting edges that cannot be used in an offensive manner. My second son, who is a student, has a part-time job at a cash-and-carry firm, and he carries a knife to open packages and so on. I am in possession of a very neat little plastic-covered instrument with a fine blade that can cut open all sorts of packages. I commend that instrument to the hon. Member for Beckenham as a much safer way to take cuttings from newspapers.

Perhaps that matter might be explored in Committee. We need an opportunity to show those companies and organisations which legitimately need staff to carry knives that they might find a safer method of doing so.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the real point is that there is a difference between people carrying something lawfully in the circumstances that he has described and people who have no good reason to be carrying a knife? For example, a person walking into a shopping centre with a knife in his jacket, which is open, clearly has no lawful reason or good excuse to be carrying that knife. That is quite different from someone who is going about their normal business or taking part in a hobby or some other activity. We are concerned about people carrying knives without a good excuse.

Mr. Touhig

Yes, I agree. We should provide for people who lawfully carry knives and weapons of that nature. I fully understand that. I was trying to point out that perhaps we should highlight the fact that there are safer ways to open packaging and so forth than with a sharp and dangerous blade, which could be used offensively. I hope that that will come out in Committee.

I warmly welcome the measure. If it is speedily enacted, it will be welcomed by the people I represent, and by people throughout the country.

1.39 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) for bringing this Bill before the House. It is not the first time that she has brought legislation on law and order before us. She was successful with her Prisoners (Return to Custody) Act 1995.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) spoke movingly and compassionately about Philip Lawrence, and said how important it was for us to transmit the right moral code to children. That is a role for parents as well as for teachers. My hon. Friend also mentioned the 10 commandments, and asked how many people can recite them, which is a reasonable question. I suspect that it is not many.

The spokesman for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), mentioned the Advertising Standards Authority, and he was right to say that it has not played a proactive role in preventing irresponsible advertising. I have been particularly disturbed to see advertising for Rambo knives and so forth, which are available by mail order.

I am also concerned that, while such knives are not generally or easily available in shops here—clearly there are instances in which they are available—they can easily be obtained on the continent. A few months ago, when walking in Rouen and Dieppe—the latter is easily accessible from Newhaven and Rouen is a quick train journey from Dieppe—I noticed how easy it is to obtain knives and guns.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department can comment on the controls at border posts, particularly at ports, to ensure that knives—and, indeed, guns, although those do not come within the remit of this Bill—cannot easily be imported, perhaps unwittingly, by individuals attracted by some of the bright displays in the stores.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) mentioned his Stanley knives and swords.I am pleased to hear that those are blunt and would self-destruct if sharpened. In the wrong hands, knives can be a dangerous weapon, whereas in the right hands they are useful tools.

I seek reassurance that the Bill is broad enough to include screwdrivers. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North mentioned the case of a schoolboy who had been attacked with a screwdriver. Judging from reports in the press, that is a growing trend. It also shows that the police must use discretion, as they usually do, when determining whether a tool is a tool or will he used as a weapon.

We know that Commissioner Bill Taylor, the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers, welcomes the Bill. On the "Today" programme on Radio 4 on 13 December, he said: We think these measures, that is essentially giving us a very clear power of arrest and indeed looking again at the sentences, this will reflect the concern that people have and the gravity with which society regards these offences and these are sensible steps and we support them". It is good that the measures appear before the House.

While this Bill has been brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, it follows on from tough legislation from the Home Office introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister. We have benefited in Lichfield from a grant of just under £100,000 for closed circuit television. We have additional police officers on Britain's streets. The Criminal Justice Act means that Britain is leading the world in the use of DNA technology to supplement fingerprinting. We have stop-and-search laws to anticipate violence, as well as laws on aggravated trespass. That shows the Government's clear commitment to law and order.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth mentioned the Advertising Standards Authority. In an intervention, I said that the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority have been exercising effective control to stop the advertising of knives and associated weapons on television and radio.

The Opposition spokesman was right to say that, even if the Advertising Standards Authority wanted to impose a ban, it could not enforce one except through the voluntary assent of its members, because it would have no force in law. Such bans exist under the Broadcasting Act 1990 and will be continued under the Broadcasting Bill which is currently in another place. For the sake of consistency and common sense, if the sort of bans currently in place under the Broadcasting Act are not in this Bill, they could be introduced in Committee. That would create no new precedent, and would reflect, to judge from today's debate, the will of the House.

As I have said, I am concerned about the sale of such weapons in Europe. I have already asked the Minister whether there can be controls to ensure that knives are not imported from Europe. Is there any possibility of the Home Office making representations at the Council of Ministers? Will my hon. Friend the Minister speak to his counterparts in the European Union about whether similar bans could be put in place throughout Europe?

The problems in the United Kingdom with the use of knives exist, too, in other parts of Europe. If Britain is introducing ground-breaking legislation, and it is ground-breaking legislation for Europe, I would like similar laws to be introduced in the rest of Europe. Otherwise, such weapons will be imported.

The Labour party has called for greater restrictions on the sale of knives. I welcome that. It has already been pointed out that hon. Members will still need to use kitchen knives and axes in their homes and gardens. Farmers will need machetes to cut down trees and scrub. Discretion will always have to be used.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam was able to reassure me on the use of penknives. I promise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not to bring out my penknife again, having received your strict admonition not to do so in the Chamber.

I am pleased, however, that the use of penknives will continue to be legal unless one uses them in a threatening manner. I understand that 3 inches is the maximum legal length for a blade. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will keep that measurement and not turn it into a complicated decimalised restriction of three times 2.54 cm. I do not know why the legal limit is 3 inches, because a 2-inch blade can do a lot of damage as well.

Three inches is also the legal limit in many states of the United States. If you will forgive my indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it strikes me as incredible that this country goes out of its way to metricate everything, whereas the United States, which is capable of sending satellites round the earth as well as unmanned missions to Mars, Venus and, most recently, Jupiter, operates happily with miles, feet and inches, pounds weight, and gallons, although the last are exactly seven eighths of an imperial gallon, for reasons that I shall not bore the House with now.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will keep the legal limit at 3 inches. The law should remain flexible enough so that a police officer can arrest someone for using a penknife blade shorter than 3 inches if it is used in a threatening manner.

The use of knives in homicides is a growing trend, but statistics show that the trend is not even. For example, in 1994, which is the most recent year for which figures for England and Wales are available, 677 murders were committed, of which 236 involved sharp instruments. I have before me a schedule from 1985 onwards, which shows that the number of murders in this country is not necessarily rising. It is an uneven but nevertheless consistently high rate. In 1994 in England and Wales, 35 per cent. of murders involved sharp instruments.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam pointed out, Scotland already has legislation in place. The reason may be that, last year, there was a huge increase, with 52 per cent. of all murders involving the use of knives. It thus becomes clear that this Bill must be introduced quickly.

I welcome the fact that both main parties in the House support the Bill. Despite occasions like Question Time, when television and radio focus on the adversarial nature of politics in this place, when it is in the nation's interest to introduce legislation or discuss important matters, there is often co-operation between the parties. I hope that that, too, will occasionally be transmitted to the viewing public. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.53 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on her good fortune in the ballot and the fact that she chose to use it for such a good purpose. Like other hon. Members, I wholeheartedly support the Bill.

It is important to explain what the Bill seeks to achieve because, since its publication, one or two myths have attached themselves to it. It is said that the Bill seeks to go much further than my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam intends, and that it somehow attacks civil liberties. As my hon. Friend said, English Heritage has raised concerns that it could no longer organise tournaments or historic battle replicas without its officials being arrested. That is nonsense, and it was never the intention of the Bill. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) that his black Swiss army knife, which is most unusual, might be made illegal. His only worry should be that it appears to have a heart on the back of the blade, which might show that it was a free gift from Guinness; I hope that he has declared it in the Register of Members' Interests, or he will be in trouble with the Privileges Committee.

There are some dubious matters that we need to address. Earlier today, I spoke to a world-famous explorer. He is concerned that the ceremonial parang that was given to him by a Malayan chieftain would be subject to confiscation. It is important to destroy those myths. If they were true, if our own Serjeant at Arms were to walk out with his sword he would get nicked by one of the police officers as soon as he left the precincts of the Palace. However, I am quite sure that he is safe to continue his ancient duty.

Some concerns about the Bill have appeared in the press. One example is an article that appeared in Shooting Times and Country Magazine last week. Its readership includes fishermen and those who shoot. They have a legitimate use for knives and are concerned that any decision by the House may affect their perfectly legitimate use of such weapons.

The shooting community is always somewhat alarmed about knee-jerk reactions from Governments in the wake of tragedies such as the death of the headmaster. As a consequence of the massacre at Hungerford, when a deranged man, who was armed with a kalashnikov and had been given a licence to possess a weapon, killed so many people, there are now onerous restrictions on how those in the shooting world store and look after their weapons.

Once again the article has got it wrong. It states: The police could use this new power to harass anyone". That is clearly not the case. There is a case for concern that anyone stopped by a policeman and found to be in possession of a knife has to show good cause for having that knife. When that was put into law, which I suspect was in 1984, there was considerable concern that the onus of innocence would be on the accused and not on the prosecution.

Lady Olga Maitland

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are strict rules governing the circumstances in which the police may conduct a stop and search? They cannot stop people because they do not like the colour of their eyes, their long hair or the fact they may be wearing torn jeans. They may not stop somebody because he or she is known to have previous convictions. They must act only on receiving information that a certain individual is carrying a knife. There is no question of returning to the old and much disliked sus laws.

Mr. Atkinson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that the police have strict codes, and I am certain that they will enforce them rigorously. However, certain cases have been mentioned, such as that of a farm worker who was arrested because he went into a pub after work with a knife in his bag. He was eventually acquitted on trial. There was also the case of the Scottish motorist who carried a knife in his car because there were many deer on the road in that part of Scotland and he was continually finding wounded deer that he needed to dispatch immediately. When he was stopped by a policeman, that explanation was not accepted. A certain amount of good sense by the police is required to ensure that the Bill does not attack personal liberty.

On the advertising and mail order of weapons, I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). However, I have a natural reluctance to start banning anything, and if we ban advertising we shall move slightly in the direction of attacking the freedom of the press.

Mr. Fabricant

Following that argument, would my hon. Friend reverse some of the rules in the Broadcasting Act 1990 and permit the advertising of knives on radio and television? Would he permit the advertising of cigarettes on radio and television, as that is currently banned?

Mr. Atkinson

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are considerable restrictions on the broadcast media but not on the print media, which have a long history of freedom. I was making the point that a ban on advertising or on a particular form of mail order would be difficult and complicated to effect. There may be virtues in the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but, if he tried to hitch it to the Bill, there would be a danger of causing undue delay to the Bill's progress.

Mr. Michael

I made it clear that it was not our intention to delay the Bill, but I welcome the hon. Lady's wish to have such a provision in it. The issue has been around a long time. Advertisements of the kind to which hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have referred are unacceptable. As voluntary regulation has not succeeded, surely we should extend a control on the broadcast media that is regarded as reasonable and sensible and make it a hardly intrusive control on the printed media.

Mr. Atkinson

That idea would lead the Bill into difficult and complicated territory. If the Bill becomes a vehicle to impose a new form of censorship on the press, I suspect that it will progress more slowly. The Bill is simple and good as it is. I hope that it will serve as a deterrent, particularly as it increases fines.

Mr. Michael

Will the hon. Gentleman describe the nature of the threat that he makes? Does he mean that a ban on unacceptable advertisements would lead him to undertaking wrecking action? What is he getting at?

Mr. Atkinson

I do not intend to engage in any wrecking action. I am trying to tell the hon. Gentleman that the idea of introducing a form of censorship into press advertising is new and would open up a large issue, which would have to be seriously debated. I share the hon. Gentleman's offence at such advertisements, and I hope that the Advertising Standards Authority and others will take the message from the House that those advertisements are desperately unpopular. I urge my hon. Friend not to permit such amendments in Committee. If the Bill is kept simple, I am sure that it will travel swiftly to a satisfactory conclusion.

2.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

I add my congratulations to those given to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on the way in which she has brought the Bill before the House. Discussions between my hon. Friend, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, our officials and me have been extremely positive and constructive. I am pleased that we have been able to reach this Second Reading as a result of the work done between us.

The carrying of knives is a real problem, recently highlighted by Philip Lawrence's death. I was moved by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who knows only too well the effect of that tragedy on his constituents and constituency, and particularly on people who were close to Philip Lawrence as members of his family or as beneficiaries of his considerate and excellent teaching over the years.

All of us—parents, politicians and the police—must play our part in tackling the problem. Parents must teach their children from a very early age the difference between right and wrong, as hon. Members have said today. Carrying knives for no good reason is plainly and definitely wrong. Politicians must ensure that the police and the courts have the powers that they need to catch and punish those who will not obey the law, and the police and the courts must ensure that they use those powers to the full, when necessary.

The Bill will strengthen the powers of both police and the courts. It will send a clear message to the thugs and the bullies who carry knives. It is a statement: "Your crimes will not pay. You will be caught, and you will be punished."

I am very pleased by the success of the recent knife amnesty, which has been assisted by the Daily Mirror and fully supported by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and by me. More than 38,000 articles were handed in. The amnesty has been especially successful when forces have worked closely with their local media.

The police are not simply measuring the success of the initiative by the number of knives handed in. They also believe that the amnesty has helped to change attitudes. They hear anecdotes about knife sellers being more careful to whom they sell their knives. In one case, a dealer has stopped selling knives altogether.

The police have been impressed by the range of knives handed in. The majority of articles were not knives of the kitchen variety. Machetes, flick knives, gravity knives and at least one Samurai sword have been handed in. In addition, a number of replica firearms and the magazine from an automatic weapon have been handed in. That is encouraging, but in terms of a carrot-and-stick approach, the amnesty is clearly a carrot.

Since taking office, the Government have taken firm action on a range of law and order issues. In our projected White Paper, we intend to put before the House even tougher policies on sentencing and bringing criminals to hook. We took firm action on the problem of knife carrying in the Criminal Justice Act 1988, in which we banned 14 weapons, including sword sticks. We had already banned flick knives and gravity knives.

I have listened with interest to hon. Members who have suggested that we should have specific lists of weapons that should be banned. It was interesting to hear the story about a screwdriver from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant). The definition of a knife under our law is a bladed or sharply pointed article. Therefore, in some circumstances, items that would not immediately be recognisable as knives could come under our penalties and our legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire also referred to border posts. Our Customs and Excise officers are always vigilant and, although we cannot ban the importation of items that are legal in this country, we can and do prevent the arrival on our shores—as far as we are able—of those items that are banned here.

The Government have also made it clear that we would consider adding further items to the banned list of weapons. I share hon. Members' abhorrence of Rambo survival knives, commando daggers and the like. Those items have no place in a civilised society. I am sure, however, that the House will understand that it is genuinely difficult to compile a fully definitive list of items to ban. In many cases, it is very difficult to come up with a legal definition of them that would not also encompass ordinary kitchen knives. However, I can assure the House that we are continuing to examine that possibility.

I have noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said about the sale of knives to children. We are seriously considering proposals that would ban the sale of knives to youngsters. If the proposals are workable, they could perhaps be included in Committee. That would be a major change and would require careful consideration; but, frankly, young children do not need razor-sharp kitchen knives or commando-style daggers, and it is very hard to justify why they should be able to buy them.

Some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), have spoken about the issue of advertisements. I urge anyone with a complaint about knife advertisements to take them up with the Advertising Standards Authority. I am glad to note that the ASA took exception to the use of the words "ready for action" in an advertisement, and had them withdrawn. Advertising regulation is, of course, done on a self-regulatory basis, but if it can be effective in cases such as the one I have cited, I have some confidence that it will be in other cases that, quite reasonably, cause concern.

I suspect that insufficient use is made of the ASA in relation to knife advertisements. I note with interest that the ASA investigates advertising without having received a complaint so that it can ensure that the British code of advertising is observed. It will do so if there is public concern about a certain issue, and considerable public concern has been expressed about knives.

One advertisement has been brought to my attention which causes me some concern. The ASA is aware of it, and I hope that it will take action. The wording of the advertisement includes the following: A well balanced weapon with a wicked double-edged 7" blade, made with one thing in mind. That is the nature of the wording of the advertisement. If anything, that wording is more objectionable than the words "ready for action". I should be extremely concerned if the ASA were unable to take action in such a case.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful to the Minister for the thoughtful way in which he has responded to this part of the debate. My concern is the ASA's clear statement that it does not have the power to act in the way that he, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and I wish that it would. Does that statement not make it absolutely clear that it cannot act authoritatively, which we wish it to do, until legislation gives it that power?

Mr. Kirkhope

That is a matter for further discussion and debate. That power is not specifically related to the Bill, and it may not be appropriate that it should be. However, I am expressing my concern to the hon. Gentleman about one element of the issue in relation to the ASA.

There are many knives and other sharp instruments that have a legitimate, everyday use, such as machetes, carving knives and butcher's hooks. It would clearly he difficult to ban the sale of those, but we must ensure that people who use or carry them illegally are punished. Ultimately, it is not the knife that wreaks havoc but the hand that wields it. The police tell us that the majority of the knives that are carried and used in stabbings are domestic knives. Apparently, Stanley knives are much favoured by young thugs, and carving knives are used in a depressingly high number of stabbings.

It is an offence under section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 to carry an offensive weapon in public. Offensive weapons include knives, but the prosecution must prove that the accused intended to use the knife to cause injury. Of course, that may not always be possible. That is why the Government introduced a lesser offence under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 of carrying a knife in public without good cause. In those cases, the prosecution does not have to prove intent.

The penalties for the two offences reflect their differing gravity. Where intent can he proved, the maximum penalty is two years in prison or a fine. Where intent cannot he proved, the maximum penalty is only a £1,000 fine.

By coincidence, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary wrote to the Association of Chief Police Officers a few days before the tragic death of Philip Lawrence, asking if it believed that the penalty should be increased. In light of events that weekend, the association replied very speedily, agreeing that the time had come to increase the penalties. Illicit knife carrying—even when there is no evidence that the carrier intended to use his knife to cause injury—is a very serious offence. Knife-carrying yobs must be sent the clear message that they may end up in prison.

My hon. Friend's Bill will increase the maximum penalty for that offence to two years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both. Carrying an offensive weapon in public with intent to cause harm remains the more serious of the two offences and I agree with my hon. Friend that the maximum penalty in that case should be increased to reflect that fact. That is why the Bill raises the penalty to four years in prison or a fine, or both.

As I said earlier, many people carry knives for perfectly legitimate reasons. Carpenters may need to carry Stanley knives and saws, farmers may carry machetes, and ordinary men and women who have bought kitchen knives need to get them home. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) said, those who are engaged in legitimate sporting activities—such as fisherman—may also have good reason to carry knives. I am sure that the legislation introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam is not designed to affect them.

Knives are also worn for religious reasons—such as the kirpans worn by Sikhs—or as part of a national costume. For example, the Scotsman carries his skean dhu in his kilt stocking—as we have seen quite a lot in the past few days. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham need have no fears about the wonderful tournaments that are held in his constituency and elsewhere by English Heritage.

Those people's position will not change. The innocent have nothing to fear from the legislation, but the guilty will have plenty to worry about. Anyone who is charged with carrying a knife in public will still have the defence that he had good reason or lawful authority for having the knife on his person. There are specific defences in relation to work, religion and national costume, as I mentioned. However, the onus is on the knife-carrier to prove his defence. It is right that, when there is any doubt, the courts should have the final say.

I congratulate the police service on the work it does catching criminals. The police have also made it clear that they would welcome the specific power of arrest without warrant in the case of offences of carrying an offensive weapon or knife in public. At present, the police must obtain a warrant, which is simply not practical in most cases. They may be lucky and find that the particular circumstances of the case allow them to use other powers of arrest that do not apply specifically to those offences, but that is too unpredictable. The police need clear powers of arrest.

The Bill will provide a clear power of arrest for those offences, which means that, rather than being sent on his way with a summons, the knife-carrier is likely to be taken to the police station. Importantly, it will also enable the police to investigate in a formal setting whether other more serious offences have been committed. In practice, the police will be more able to establish whether a knife-carrier intended to use his knife to cause injury and whether, as a result, a prosecution under the more serious of the two offences dealing with that activity would be appropriate.

Hon. Members have referred to the ACPO crime committee chairman, Commissioner Bill Taylor, and his remarks on the "Today" programme. It is perfectly clear that the police support such measures and it is clear that the people of this country support them also. I have, I hope, made it clear that the Government support and will assist the legislation, and I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth has expressed his support.

The wholehearted backing of the Bill will send a clear message out into the community: people who illegally carry knives deserve to be caught and punished—and they will be. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.19 pm
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I travelled through the snow that afflicted Kent this morning in order to support the Bill. I am one of its sponsors, because I believe that the carrying of offensive weapons is a continuing problem that must be tackled. Some of us, indeed, would argue that it is getting worse. I welcome provisions to strengthen the powers that the police need to arrest without a warrant those suspected of carrying knives, and the introduction of heavier penalties.

The Kent county constabulary has gone to the lengths of purchasing stab-proof vests for officers, some of whom have gone further and obtained their own private equipment. In north-west Kent alone during the past year, the police have had to process 26 offenders, and there must have been cases of the use or carrying of other offensive weapons.

Just before Christmas, the police encountered a man attacking another with a machete at Dartford railway station, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), who is also a sponsor of the Bill. It turned out to be simply a case of the criminal fraternity sorting out their own problems. It may be thought that they deserved it, but any members of the public who were in the area would have been at considerable risk as well. The carrying of such dangerous weapons seems to be increasing.

I had some anxieties about the Bill. What about law-abiding people? For instance, there is a religious requirement for devout Sikhs to carry the kirpan, a short sword. The Bill does not deal with that, however, because devout Sikhs are law-abiding. Similarly, it has long been traditional for scouts who engage in woodcraft to carry and use sheath knives, and other similar knives. The scouts, however, are a responsible organisation, and have not worn the sheath knives in public for many years. The holding of them is subject to secure conditions: the knives are taken to camp, for example, where they are used in accordance with the strict regulations for which the scouts have always been well known. In this Bill we are talking not about law-abiding people, but about hot-headed youngsters who think it clever to carry and, indeed, use offensive weapons.

I strongly support the idea of banning sales of offensive weapons to those under 18, and I was encouraged by what my hon. Friend the Minister said about that. We are making progress, not least with the amnesty in regard to the return of weapons. In my constituency, a rather heavy container was taken from Gravesend police station to the Kent county constabulary headquarters in Maidstone; it was full of offensive weapons.

I look forward to the Bill's progress and hope that the House will be able to deal firmly with the upsurge in the carrying of offensive weapons.

2.24 pm
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

I apologise to the House for arriving late: my attendance at surgery went on for some time. I support the Bill because it deals with a problem that concerns a large number of people. It has been brought to the fore by the tragic death of Mr. Lawrence, but it deals with part of a problem that has been around for a long time. I used to live in Glasgow, and I remember standing at a bus stop in Sauchiehall street on a Saturday night and being able to guarantee that not one knife but two, three or four would be seen by 10 o'clock. There is a great problem and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on her success in the ballot and on her wisdom in presenting such a Bill.

2.25 pm
Lady Olga Maitland

I am grateful to all those hon. Members who have spoken in support of the Bill. What I have heard leaves me in no doubt about its great importance. I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), for expressing his interest and his determination seriously to consider proposals banning the sale of knives to youngsters. As he knows, I have privately been pressing him to do that. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) shares my wish to ban such sales.

Knifings have been growing, and a knife culture has been developing in the playground. Children from the age of 12 to 15 are buying knives because they find them attractive in the shops. They are more fun than a kitchen knife and some shopkeepers have no scruples about making money. Those facts lead to widespread tragedies. I hope that dealing with those issues will be an important part of the Bill.

Powers of arrest are crucial. It is frustrating to the police to stop a young person whom they have reason to suspect is carrying a knife for no good reason only to find that they are impotent to deal with that serious matter. The legislation must incorporate heavy penalties that will convey the clear message to all the thugs and hooligans that if they carry a knife without a good reason they will face gaol. That is a serious penalty, but society wants to see justice and it is important to have sentences that reflect society's concern.

We need to ensure that a young person who carries a knife without a good reason will no longer get away with it. He will face a sentence of up to two years, but if he is carrying a knife and it can be shown that he intends to use it, he could face four years in gaol. Such powers are crucial and will change the culture of our society. I hope that we shall concentrate on the background of such young people and try to give them greater stability in their lives. They need secure homes, caring parents and schools.

Teachers, people in the world outside and political parties are all working towards one end—to create a society in which law abiding people can walk on the streets without fearing for their lives, and without the fear of suffering injury or intimidation or of being robbed at knife point. All that must stop, and I am grateful to hon. Members for helping to bring that about.

I look forward to the opportunity of discussing the Bill in Committee where we can explore the ideas that we have been debating. I hope that the resulting legislation will benefit this country as a whole.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).