HL Deb 30 April 1959 vol 215 cc1194-206

3.8 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. It was only yesterday that I made my maiden speech in your Lordships' House, and I earnestly hope that your Lordships will extend to me as generous a patience to-day as was given to me then. I consider it a privilege to submit this Bill, which has been sponsored in another place by the Member for North-West Leicester, Mr. Barnett Janner, and I sincerely hope that it will meet with your Lordships' general approval.

The purpose of the Bill is set out in the Long Title and its single operative clause; and I believe that it is clearly indicated that the intention is to ban the making, disposing and importation of flick knives and flick guns. These dangerous instruments have blades concealed in handles, from which they are ejected by the pressure of a button in the handle or a trigger attached to the handle. They flash out, or are thrust out, with frightening speed, and are held fixed by a device as soon as they are opened.

It is not perhaps inappropriate that someone like myself, who was born and bred in Sheffield, should introduce a measure designed to remove the stigma which has become attached to the word "knife". Sheffield is a city which holds, and deservedly holds, the reputation of producing the finest steel and steel products in the world, and in most countries there is a demand for Sheffield cutlery and knives. But Sheffield makes these goods for domestic and legitimate purposes, and I am glad to say that as recently as Monday I was told that there is no evidence whatsoever that any of these horrible instruments are manufactured in Sheffield. Those flick knives that I have seen were manufactured in Germany and Italy, and accordingly the Bill seeks, inter alia, to ban their importation.

It has been suggested that flick knives are essential to certain trades, but this contention has not been borne out by any evidence. Indeed, information has been received from representatives of some of the bodies concerned denying that this is so.

I am particularly distressed by the fashion or cult which has grown up among our children and young people who seem to regard these instruments of violence as being an essential part of their dress. They seem to think it smart and clever to carry these knives, and appear to get some extraordinary thrill from the actual flicking open of the blade.

I should like to read to your Lordships an extract from a letter received from a Leicester cinema manager which stresses these points. He says: Many of the managers on my own district have taken flick knives away from children entering our Saturday morning matinees, and these have been of all shapes and sizes. The children are proud of these weapons, which in some cases have been given to them by their parents as presents. The letter also says: We have also had considerable trouble with the Teddy boy element, who also use similar weapons for ripping cinema seats, which is becoming a grave problem in the industry to-day. In our country the use of cold steel for attack has hitherto been regarded as un-British, unsportsmanlike and contemptible as indeed it is. The very fact that youngsters carry around these knives so nonchalantly is dangerous in itself, because it creates an outlook on the part of the youth of this country that it is the proper and natural thing to do.

May I give two examples of this? The first concerns a story which is told by a secretary of her young eight-year-old nephew. She said: He recently received a belated Christmas present from an uncle in the U.S.A. I was there when he opened the parcel, and when he saw it was a knife, he exclaimed ' A flick knife ! ' Actually it was a handsome pen knife. … He immediately 'flicked it' to open it. His mother explained to him that it was a penknife used primarily for sharpening pencils, and she showed him the proper way to open it. However, she was curious to know where his knowledge of flick knives came from, and he explained quite innocently that a boy in his form carried a knife that opened that way. The second example concerns an employee in the office building of Mr. Janner. Only yesterday, apparently, this employee told Mr. Janner that his brother arrived home and found his two boys, aged seven and five, with two enormous flick knives. He was horrified and immediately took them away from the boys. But no amount of persuasion could get them to tell him from where they had got them.

I would submit that the danger of these weapons lies in the fact that they can be held in the hand, unopened and unseen, and then, by the pressing of a button can suddenly and dramatically become an extremely lethal weapon. It is obvious that this weapon holds a particular fascination for quite a number of young people in this country, and I feel that the public should be protected from these individuals and from the weapon itself. So strong is the anxiety in this country about these knives that many organisations, such as the Council of the Magistrates' Association, the National Association of Boys' Clubs, the National Association of Women's Clubs, the National Association of Youth Leaders and Organisers, and the Association of Municipal Corporations have passed resolutions supporting this Bill; and a vast number of letters have been sent to Mr. Janner from all parts of the country urging its speedy passage. This campaign has also received the wholehearted support of the National and Provincial Press, in particular the Daily Mirror, which has been running a public-spirited campaign against flick knives and other forms of dangerous weapons. I should also like to mention the Leicester newspapers, which have supported Mr. Janner in his efforts from the very beginning.

I should like to conclude by reading an extract from a dramatic letter from Mr. William Gibson, of Princebridge, Darlington, which so vividly and clearly illustrates the desirability of this measure. He says: The incidence of crimes involving personal violence, and even death, through stabbing with flick knives and the like, in the hands of irresponsible youths and certain foreigners, when alone, and more often in gangs, prompts me to solicit your influence and that of any association within reach of your good offices, to so secure that such offensive weapons arc not imported nor manufactured and distributed for sale in this country. The knives in question have no real practical use except the wicked purpose I have indicated—that of stabbing. The law has already provided severe penalties for persons carrying, or in possession of offensive weapons, but left untouched the dealer who exposes for sale, or sells them. The purchaser who has completed the buying of an offensive knife in a shop is within the law, but once outside, in a public place and in certain circumstances, it would appear he is committing an offence against the law, and then comes the possibility of a sorrowful and maybe tragic sequel … My motive in writing this appeal springs from a heart still grieving the loss of my only son, age 21 years, who in June of this year was killed by being stabbed with such a knife as I have described. Nothing we can do can bring him back, that truth is obvious; but it seems to me some legislation at national level is demanded to protect the public and to combat this modern menace of recent origin, which is so un-British in character—meantime, many parents up and down the country remain worried and anxious. Alone I can do so little—can you help please? This legislation banning the flick knife is essentially preventive in nature. It acts upon the offender before the fatal or other irreparable mischief is done. I hope that I have shown your Lordships that this Bill will play a useful part in curtailing armed assault, particularly among the youth of this country. May I again appeal to the House to give the Bill its support on this Second Reading, and a speedy passage through all its stages. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Morris of Ken wood.)

3.20 p.m.


My Lords. I should like to begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Ken-wood, on going to work so quickly after making his maiden speech yesterday, and particularly on the clarity and eloquence he has displayed in introducing this Bill; I think he has done a very good job on it.

The carrying of offensive weapons, particularly by young people, has caused concern for many years, and that was a point which came out again strongly in the recent and very interesting debate on crime which we had, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham. Indeed, it was this concern which led Parliament in 1953, when my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack was Home Secretary, to pass the Prevention of Crime Act. Your Lordships know the provisions of the Act. Under its provisions it is an offence to be in possession of an offensive weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. And an offensive weapon is defined as any article made or adapted for use for causing injury … or intended … for such use. There are, in fact, large numbers of articles which may be used for offensive purposes. They include, of course, all kinds of knives and many other things which have a legitimate use. and some of the most formidable weapons have so far turned out to be either home made or very highly improvised. The definition in the 1953 Aot covers genuine weapons, such as stilettos and knuckle-dusters. It covers any article made for some quite legitimate purpose but adapted simply for use as a weapon, and any article which, though innocent in itself, is capable of being carried for an offensive purposes. Indeed (though I do not suppose your Lordships have ever thought of it), even the humble umbrella, which so many of your Lordships carry, used in the right way in the wrong hands, can inflict a fearsome amount of damage.

Her Majesty's Government thought, in 1953 and since, that it was better to legislate for the use of offensive weapons generally in this way, rather than attempt to impose controls on particular kinds of weapons. The Act has made a valuable addition to police powers, and it has been thought best to rely on it to deal with the particular problem of the flick knife among all the other weapons. It was also thought that controls on the manufacture, sale or import of any particular weapon would be somewhat difficult to enforce.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Kenwood, however, has put forward the view that the special danger of the flick knife lies in its peculiar, perhaps glamorous, attraction for young people. They carry them, as he pointed out to be in the fashion, and not with any—or certainly no primary—serious intention of using them for offensive purposes: but they may be tempted to use them in circumstances where young people gather together and for one reason or another tempers may become heated. He has made the case that this difficulty can be met only by cutting off the sources of supply of flick knives, and that is what the Bill sets out to do. If your Lordships decide that the Bill will serve a useful purpose in this way, Her Majesty's Government see no reason to object to its provisions or the way in which it is drafted. When the Bill was introduced in another place some small Amendments, designed to enable it to achieve its objects more effectively, were suggested to the honourable Members who were promoting the Bill, and were accepted by them and have been written into it.

The point I feel I must make is that your Lordships should not overestimate the contribution which restrictive legislation of this type can make to the reduction of crimes of violence. I quoted some figures in the debate on crime the other day; I will briefly mention them again. In the Metropolitan Police District in 1958 there were 2,857 people who were concerned in crimes of violence or being in possession of offensive weapons, and of those only 65 were armed with flick knives.

There is another difficulty which I must briefly mention, and that is the question of the complete enforceability of the Bill: I am referring particularly to the ban on imports. Obviously, from the trade or wholesale point of view, the ban on imports would be quite effective; but it will still be possible for individuals to buy flick knives on the Continent and bring them back in their pockets. I certainly could not say, and your Lordships could hardly expect, that the Customs officers would be able to ensure a complete ban on importation of flick knives in that way; although, of course, if any were drawn to their notice, if, for example, they found one wrapped up in the folds of a dressing gown, it would be seized. Even if this Bill does succeed to a considerable extent in cutting off the supplies of these knives, we must remember that there are a great many other weapons at the disposal of those who are determined to use a weapon. But with those few words of what I have seriously regarded as necessary warning, I would leave it to your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading if it commends itself.

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Kenwood, both on the outstanding maiden speech which he made yesterday and on his equally outstanding speech in introducing this Bill to-day. It is given to few noble Lords to have the privilege of making a maiden speech one day and to follow that up by introducing a Bill the next. I think the last occasion when something of that kind happened in this House was when the noble and learned Viscount made his maiden speech and introduced a complicated measure at the same time. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Kenwood, has not quite reached that stage yet, but of course he is not yet Lord Chancellor—perhaps he may be in the near future.

The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, I thought, rather damned the Bill with faint praise. Obviously, neither he nor the Government are 100 per cent. enthusiastically in favour of it. He has been good enough to say that the House may have a free vote on the matter. That is a precedent for which we are grateful and to which we may refer on another occasion. I hope that the House will take advantage of this freedom to give the Bill every possible support. Even taking the case that the noble Lord made, of 2,857 prosecutions for crimes of violence, in which only 65 involved the use of flick knives, one could hope that 65 crimes would have been avoided and 65 fewer people injured as a result.


May I interrupt the noble Lord on that point? I am sorry to do so. I should much dislike it to be thought that I would not agree with him completely in what he has said about avoiding 65 crimes. The point I was trying to make is that the flick knife has received such tremendous publicity that there seems to be a feeling it is in very wide use among people who use it for offensive purposes. I was trying to make the point that the effect of banning it on the number of such crimes should not be overestimated.


Nobody would imagine that this Bill is of itself going to eliminate crimes of violence among young people. Of course not. But it is hoped that it will make a reasonable contribution; and I think that as such we should welcome it.

I was going to ask in what sort of numbers these knives are being imported. I do not know whether any figures are available, but it is certainly most gratifying to learn—I take it that the noble Lord, Lard Chesham, does not disagree with the statement of Lord Morris of Kenwood—that none of these knives, so far as we know, is manufactured in this country. I have had the opportunity of seeing them. I must confess that they are rather attractive-looking articles, and would certainly be attractive to young people, apart from their dangerous potentialities as weapons; and perhaps the fact that they are such attractive-looking weapons is all the more reason why they should be prohibited.

I am glad to find that anybody who gives such a weapon to another person will be committing an offence. One of the most dreadful things a parent can do is to encourage a child in the use of a weapon of this kind. In future, if this Bill becomes law, parents who present their children with weapons of this kind will be equally guilty of an offence. I feel that this Bill could, with profit, be looked at again in Committee. There are one or two points we might discuss, though I shall not trouble the House with them at this moment. I am not sure whether the importation clause is strong enough, but we can have a closer look at that. I hope that the House will give this Bill a unanimous Second Reading, and will show its complete distaste for the use of weapons of this kind among children.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join in the general approval which has been voiced in regard to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Kenwood, and to congratulate him on moving the Second Reading of this Bill. which I support without very great enthusiasm. My feelings are based largely on the speech of the Minister who pointed out the Bill's shortcomings and how this most unfortunate and unpleasant business of flick knives has, possibly, been spot-lighted a little beyond its merit. It is a fact that the Bill will not necessarily wipe out the problem, because naturally those who indulge in this form of weapon will not be totally deterred by legislation. I think we must be careful therefore, to keep our sense of proportion, and to remember that it is natural for all small boys, and less small boys, to feel some affection for these weapons.

It is natural that, when you have an article, you wish to use it. Your Lordships may recollect, perhaps, playing with a wooden sword which caused great pleasure; but a sword painted with silver paint gave even greater pleasure. Similarly, if in the parents' garage there is a brand new car, there is a temptation to take it out and have a ride in it. Therefore, there is a natural temptation to use these most unpleasant weapons. Cowboys and pirates and weapons—toy weapons—are natural to young people, though I do not say that they are another sort of peril and that we should restrict the use of such harmless toys.

I suggest that the excessive thuggery at the moment is due to three separate causes, for which we all have some responsibility. Of course, the young people that we find engaging in these things are the children of those who served in the war, or who were contemporaries of those serving in the war, where commando fighting activities had a certain attraction. If any of your Lordships ever went through a course of stiletto using or silent killing, or other unconventional methods of attack, he will remember that it had an attraction; but those who, perhaps, were of more senior years and had a little more responsibility always had a pang of conscience when these methods were used. It seems to me that the parents of this present generation are not actually to blame, but are responsible for their own children and for passing on a degree of responsibility to the next generation of parents. There is a risk, I think, that, even now, parents of this and the next generation of young people are tempted not to take enough trouble to educate their children in this respect.

This idea of unpleasant weapons is no new manifestation. It is due to a spirit of adventurous enterprise. I think we can be happy in the knowledge that there are various youth movements, such as that started fifty-one years ago by the father of the noble Lord, Lord Baden-Powell, who I am glad to see in his place, and going on to-day where adventure and enterprise can be directed into channels of leadership and responsibility and cooperation. I think we must see that the energies of young people should be guided in that sort of way, and that we should not take measures to suppress them.

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to support all that has been said in favour of the Bill, in particular by my noble friend the Deputy Leader on our side of the House. I should like to join in the hearty congratulations to the noble Lord who explained this Bill and recommended it, as it seemed to me, in an altogether model fashion. I should like also to thank the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, at any rate for withdrawing Government opposition. It would be hard to say whether he supported the Bill. He seems to be the only person in the House who, at the moment, is unable to decide whether or not he is in favour of the Bill. At any rate, he left it to us, and I thank him for that, because at an earlier stage the attitude of the Government was less forthcoming. I am grateful for that progress.

I need not say more about this Bill, except to echo what has been said already by my noble friend Lord Silkin. I agree with the Minister that the effect of the Bill should not be overestimated. Obviously, this is a small part of the task to be accomplished, but it will help to mobilise public opinion against these terrible practices. I therefore join in supporting the Bill, in congratulating the noble Lord, and in thanking the Minister for the progress in the Government's attitude towards it.

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad to be able to remember that I am the only noble Lord present who voted against the Prevention of Crime Bill in your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may be permitted to say that I, too, support this Bill. I think you can hardly blame boys who are given flick knives for being pleased at having them in their possession. I can still remember my pleasure when I was given my first Norwegian knife. I thoroughly echo what the noble Lord, Lord Rea, has said.

There is one point which troubles me a good deal—it has troubled me in the past. It was touched on gently by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Kenwood, though not by any other noble Lord here. Most of your Lordships go home in good time, in taxicabs or in your own motor cars, or in buses. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Kenwood, said that steel was contrary to British feeling. I have asked before, and I ask again—nobody has yet given me an answer—what is an old man like myself to do if, when walking home across a common or in a deserted street, he is attacked by a bruiser who can slay him with one blow?


My Lords. may I interrupt the noble Lord? The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, has, I understand, suggested that an umbrella used in the right way would be equally successful.


My Lords, I have never taken lessons with an umbrella. This question has never been answered. An old man whose lungs are gone and whose muscles are flabby ought to have the means of defending himself from attack. It is no use saying that he can call a policeman. Before he has finished calling he will be dead, and the policeman will be a long way away. I think that question ought to be answered, although it is no reason for opposing this Bill.


May I suggest that if the noble Lord does not think that steel is un-English he might provide himself with a suit of armour?

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Kenwood, has done a definite service in bringing forward this small measure this afternoon. Despite the doubts which the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, seems to have about its adequacy, there is no doubt that, for the limited purpose for which it has been introduced, the Bill ought to prove effective. In passing, I would commend the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Kenwood, not only for introducing the Bill but also for the brevity with which he did so—an example which might be followed with advantage by many of the seniors here.

It is perfectly true, as he said, that the use of cold steel in this country is a modern and most unpleasant development. It was hardly ever heard of before the last war, for even the razor gangs that used to infest Glasgow, the race courses in the South and what may loosely be called the Soho area of London very seldom caused the death of their victims. In fact they were anxious not to do so. Very nasty mutilations were inflicted, but death was not caused. But the use of really lethal weapons, which can cause immediate death, in a street brawl is a new and most unpleasant phenomenon, and anything which can be done to reduce the likelihood of any further occurrence of this kind is entirely commendable.

My real reason for getting to my feet this afternoon is to draw attention to what seems, at first sight (I hope it is not), to be an omission from the Bill. Clause 1 (2) says: The importation of any such knife … is hereby prohibited, but no provision seems to be made for any penalties for someone who tries to bring such knives into the country. Provision is made for justifiably heavy penalties upon anyone who manufactures, sells or hires or offers for sale or hire, or lends or gives these weapons, but so far as can see, someone returning from the Continent might bring in a gross of these horrible weapons and nothing could be done, except that the Customs would be able to confiscate them and, presumably, destroy them. I should like an assurance that some penalty can be applied to a person who tries to introduce these weapons. As the Bill stands, possession of these weapons is not an offence. A man may be found by the Customs to have a large number of them, yet under the Bill there seems to be no penalty which can be applied. However, I most heartily commend the Bill, and I should like to see some slight Amendment made to it for the purpose of which I have spoken.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, I should like just to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, for his kind personal remarks. I would assure the noble Lords, Lord Chesham and Lord Rea, that in spite of all the publicity which has been given to these flick knives, the promoters of this Bill do not pretend that it is a sweeping measure. Nevertheless, I am sure your Lordships will agree with me that any measure which can contribute in some small way to the prevention of crime is a useful Bill. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, for his comments on the question of imports, and I would tell him that this point is under consideration. I now trust and hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.