HL Deb 14 December 1995 vol 567 cc1374-6

3.26 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make it illegal throughout the United Kingdom to carry dangerous knives, as is already the case under Scottish law.?

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, it is already an offence in England and Wales to carry a knife, other than a small folding pocket knife, in public without good reason or lawful authority. The Scottish offence is almost identical.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but in the reports of very tragic incidents which we all deeply regret, including the most recent one involving Dr Sharpey-Schafer, I have heard the police comment that in this country the carrying of a knife is not in itself an offence and that the police have to be able to prove intent. I have also heard that when people are arrested for entirely different offences and empty their pockets in a police station, dangerous knives appear regularly among their possessions, yet the police are unable to charge because they would not be able to convict without proving intent. Is that the case?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there are two offences. First, there is the Section 139 offence under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 whereby carrying a knife, other than a small folding penknife, in public without good reason or lawful authority is an offence. Secondly, there is a higher level offence if it can be proved that the weapon was carried with intent to cause injury. That is an even more serious offence. As I understand it, the proposal for change, supported by the police, is that both offences should be arrestable without a warrant and that the sentence for the lower level offence should be increased.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I have heard it said that the Scottish regime has changed in recent years and with very beneficial results. Can my noble friend confirm that, or is it incorrect?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there are two aspects to the Scottish provisions. First, the powers in Scotland are almost identical to those in England, but there is only one sentence covering both offences—up to two years' imprisonment. In England and Wales at the moment there is a lower level offence with a maximum sentence of a £1,000 fine. There is also a more serious offence relating to intent to use the weapon where the sentence is up to two years' imprisonment. The intention is to increase the sentence for the lower level offence. There is very little between them. The other aspect of the Scottish system is that it has been more successfully applied, I understand, than that in England and Wales. I know that there is scope for the police here to apply the law in the way in which the law is applied in Scotland.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we on these Benches share the distress and concern expressed at the recent tragedy in Maida Vale and that if any parliamentary action is required to deal with that concern either in the form of legislation or in terms of sentencing, the Government will have our entire support?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I very much welcome that. This is one of the issues that brings all parties together. I believe that whatever we can do in the form of strengthening the law and strengthening sentences, we should do.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when the Scottish legislation was being considered in Parliament a few years ago, opposition came from civil liberties groups concerned about selective use by the police of their powers of search? Does my noble friend agree that that consideration is clearly outweighed by what has happened in recent serious and tragic incidents?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree absolutely with my noble friend. I would remind him that it was only last year in the Criminal Justice Act that powers of stop and search were strengthened. Consideration of the protection of the public far outweighs the inconvenience of being stopped and searched for what might be a lethal offensive weapon.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is not the use of knives one minor component of the vast problem of the growing propensity to resort to violence? Instead of reacting in a knee-jerk way to one incident, however tragic, should we not be considering, by the appointment of a Royal Commission, for example, the general problem of violence in our society and its etiology?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, first, this is not reacting in a knee-jerk way. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary was already discussing with the police ways of strengthening the law in this regard. The work was already under way when that very tragic murder occurred. The scope for strengthening the lower level sentence is important. We must do as much as we possibly can to stop the incidence of carrying knives. What is worrying about the evidence we have so far is that younger people are resorting to carrying knives. We want to do what we can to ensure that that does not happen and to give the police the power that they need to stop, to search, and to ensure that they deter people from carrying these weapons.

Lord Elton

My Lords, did I understand my noble friend to say that both the offences of carrying dangerous knives, which she described, are not arrestable without a warrant? If so, can she be assured that many of us think it ludicrous that a policeman would have to obtain a warrant after finding someone carrying such a knife and that we would co-operate in changing the law in that respect?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there are some conditions under which the police can arrest without a warrant, but they have to be certain that they can prove they had good reason to do so. We are relaxing things somewhat to allow the police to make a judgment as to whether they should arrest on sight. As I understand it, that would be one of the proposals in the Bill. I know that the police will find that enormously helpful.