HL Deb 05 June 1996 vol 572 cc1342-52

9.48 p.m.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill amounts to a further critical step on society's road to confronting the evil of knife carrying and the use of knives which has grown up in a culture of the glamorising of violence generally, not least among the immature and in particular the under-sixteens. Indeed, only today the Evening Standard carried a headline regarding schoolboy muggers involved in a cowardly attack on a woman of 72. It was not a knife attack, but it was an attack. That is the culture of violence that we are talking about.

The crux of the Bill is to make evil-intentioned knife carrying legally offensive and, at the same time, enable the police to arrest anyone carrying a knife without good, sufficient and innocent reason, whether in public or on school premises. At first sight that may seem fairly simple. But we have to fit this into the format of existing law and ensure first, that the police have the power of immediate arrest; and, secondly, make the punishment of crime, which could well mean gaol, really effective. Two principal Acts bear pretty comprehensively on this area. They are the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Tonight's Bill would build on both but amend them. The Bill proposes clear measures to deal with a clear evil. Police officers who are in contact with those carrying knives have no doubt that there is a growing knife culture among young people. We must do everything we can to face up to that, which is what the Bill does.

In a worsening trend, the number of convictions for carrying a knife in public without good reason under Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act shows a rise in England and Wales from 1,853 in 1993 to 2,502 in 1994. That is a considerable increase. Recorded offences of violence against the person involving a sharp instrument continued to rise in the Metropolitan Police force area. Indeed, between April 1995 and February this year—the latest period for which we have figures—there were 2,664 such offences, as against 2,550 in the previous year. Such offences, as a percentage of all offences of violence in the Metropolitan Police force area, rose from 6 per cent. to nearly 8 per cent. That is a serious rise indeed.

The Bill was initiated in another place—where it had an extensive Committee stage—by the honourable Member for Sutton and Cheam, following the fatal stabbing of headmaster Philip Lawrence. That painfully focused society's attention on the menace of illicit knife carrying and generated calls for strong measures. But the Bill is no mere knee-jerk reaction. As introduced in another place by my daughter, to whom should go credit for an imaginative initiative, to say nothing of a whole mountain of related research, it is based on proposals that were already under consideration by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, in consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers whose views on the practicalities of handling this measure are important.

These proposals may be found in the Bill at Clauses 1 to 3, which build directly on the existing legislation; namely, the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. It may be helpful if I describe the legislation already bearing on knives and offensive weapons.

Controlling the availability of knives is full of problems. Ideally of course we would like any controls which would prevent knives from getting into the wrong hands. But knives have many legitimate uses and can be found in every kitchen and every garden shed. Therefore the Bill addresses this problem with a bold measure to prevent the sale of knives to people under 16. That measure is contained in Clause 6, to which I shall refer presently.

The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 already bans the sale and importation of flick knives and gravity knives. Another 14 articles, of a truly lurid character—a long and gruesome catalogue—were also banned under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, Section 141. I ask noble Lords to prepare themselves to hear a grim list. These include a thing called the belt buckle knife which has a buckle which incorporates or conceals a knife. There is a butterfly knife which has a blade enclosed by a handle designed to split down the middle—without using a spring—to reveal the blade. Then there is a Death Start—a nasty name in itself—which is a hard plate having three or more sharp radiating points, and is designed to be thrown. Then there is a footclaw which comprises a bar of metal or other hard material with protruding spikes which is strapped to the foot. Then there is a handclaw, which is the same sort of thing but is worn around the hand. There is also the knuckleduster which comprises a band of metal or hard material and is worn around the fingers. There is a knife, which I take it comes from South-East Asia, which is called a Kasuri Gama. It comprises a length of rope, wire, cord or chain attached at one end to a sickle—at the end of a rope. There is also a Kyoketsu Shoge which is similar but is attached to a hooked knife. Then there is a push dagger which comprises a knife where the handle fits within the user's clenched fist while the blade protrudes from between two fingers.

The catalogue illustrates the depth and the antisocial wickedness of the whole revolting culture thrown up by glamorising violence, but because of the difficulty of controlling the availability of knives which may lie innocently enough in any kitchen or garden shed the Bill focuses on the act of carrying any of those items in public or in a school.

Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 makes it an offence to carry an offensive weapon in public without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. A knife can be regarded as an offensive weapon where the prosecution can prove that the carrier intended to use it to cause injury. In practice, of course, there are many knife-carrying cases where it is not possible to prove such an intention. That is why the Government introduced in Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 the actual offence of carrying a knife in public. Under this provision it is not necessary to prove intent. To protect the position of people who carry knives for a legitimate reason there are a variety of defences open to anyone so charged. That is the background against which I shall try to describe the proposals in the Bill before us.

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 some offences are arrestable—that is to say, an officer may exercise the power of summary arrest where he has reasonable grounds for suspecting a person to be committing such an offence rather than just standing on the street. That is especially pertinent where the police are trying to establish whether a knife carrier intended to use his knife to cause injury, in which case he would be committing the more serious of the two offences to which I have referred.

Clauses 2 and 3 increase the maximum penalties available for the two offences of carrying an offensive weapon or knife in public. Clause 3 will increase the maximum penalties available for the two offences of carrying an offensive weapon or knife in public. Clause 3 will thus increase the maximum penalty available under Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 from the present derisory level of a level 3 fine, set at £1,000, on summary conviction to the maximum available which is six months' imprisonment or a £5,000 fine, or both, and on indictment to two years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both. That is more like it for an offence of this kind. It will enable the courts to impose a suitably severe sentence.

However, where an offence does not fall within the arrestable character unless certain conditions apply, an officer has to take the suspect's details and allow him to go on his way, to receive a summons later if appropriate. That, broadly, is the position as of now.

The mere carrying of an offensive weapon or a knife are not arrestable offences currently. Clause 1 of the Bill will amend Section 24 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to add those two to the list of arrestable offences. Clause 1 will also add the offence of carrying an offensive weapon or knife on school premises, which is proposed in Clause 4. It is pretty clear why. Carrying a knife or offensive weapon in public or on school premises is indeed a serious matter. It is partly to reflect this that these offences should be made arrestable.

There are also good operational reasons for having a power of summary arrest. It is easier to interview someone about other offences which may be associated with the carriage of an offensive weapon or knife in a formal setting, for instance, at the police station, where that is needed. It will also bring the law of England and Wales into line with that for Scotland which has had this penalty for a knife-carrying offence since 1993.

The offence of carrying an offensive weapon under Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 is more serious than that of carrying a knife under Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. That is because where a knife carrier is prosecuted under the former offence, it is necessary to prove that he intended to cause injury. That is the difference and the difficulty. It follows that the maximum penalty for carrying an offensive weapon should be substantially higher than that for simple knife carrying. It is currently set, on summary conviction, at the maximum available and, on indictment, two years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both.

To maintain a proper differentiation between the penalties available for the two related offences, Clause 2 proposes to increase the maximum penalty to four years' imprisonment or a fine, or both. I have emphasised the relevance of the offensive weapon-carrying offence or the intent to cause injury by the person carrying it because that is our main concern here. But the offence also impacts on other offensive weapons. Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 defines an offensive weapon as: any article made or adapted for causing injury". It also impacts on the carriage of any prima facie offensive weapon such as a flick knife, a swordstick or knuckleduster.

Clause 4 is the first of two major proposals added to the Bill by government amendment in another place. The death of Philip Lawrence and the Dunblane tragedy have focused attention on school security. To consider this, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education set up a working party comprising representatives of a wide range of interested parties.

At an early stage it became clear that one necessary change was to extend to school premises the offences of carrying an offensive weapon or knife. It is, I am afraid, a reflection of what the police service believes to be a developing knife-carrying culture among the young that we should address this in relation to schools.

Clause 4 is a sensible measure to overcome the ridiculous anomaly under which someone commits the offence of carrying a knife or offensive weapon in public at one moment yet ceases to be guilty of the same offence the moment he steps through the school gates. Clause 4 will also give police officers the necessary associated powers of entry to school premises, plus the power to search for and seize any such article. This is in line with their existing powers.

The clause recognises that there will be cases where having a knife on school premises is perfectly legitimate and provides a variety of defences which are the same as those available for the existing offence in public, except that the further defence of having the article for educational purposes is added. Clause 5 proposes a technical amendment to Scottish legislation on offensive weapon carrying.

Finally, I come to Clause 6 which proposes to make it an offence to sell knives and a variety of other articles to people under 16. This proposal, which, as I said earlier, was added by means of a government amendment in another place, is perhaps the most imaginative part of the Bill. There are two ways of attacking knife carrying: one is through giving the police and courts effective powers to deal with the act of carrying. These will be strengthened by the Bill. The other is through preventing or controlling availability of articles which can be used to cause injury.

There is a range of articles, the sale of which is prohibited. I have already given a list of some of them. I know that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is prepared to add further to the list as necessary.

We cannot, we would all accept, simply ban the sale of all knives. We must look at what is possible. I am assured that it is not possible just to add to the prohibited list the types of knives which many of us find offensive. I have in mind such things as the following articles which have been brought to my attention. Something called the "skulletto" has a short double-edged blade with serrations, with a handle fashioned in the shape of a skull and crossbones. Another which is called the "double cobra boot knife" has a handle fashioned in the shape of two intertwined snakes and is said to be convenient for carrying in a boot. Those knives and a good many others have no legitimate use and simply pander to the immature and the violent. Many of us would like them banned altogether.

The trouble is that much of what we find offensive resides in the names or even the ornamentation given to the articles which, though lurid or unpleasant, are not capable of being defined in law. When all is said and done, those articles in all their essentials are no different from knives which have legitimate uses. If it were otherwise, we could seriously consider banning them too. That is why the Government propose in Clause 6 the radical step of banning the sale of knives to people under 16. They concluded that 16 was the right age limit only after anxious consideration. They decided that the age should not be raised above that. They took account of advice from the police service that a higher age limit would be hard to enforce, especially since people can set up home by themselves at the age of 16 and therefore have perfectly legitimate reasons for buying kitchen knives and so on.

The definition of articles to be covered by the ban has been agonised over in the drafting. One problem was to arrive at a definition which retailers will find workable. On the other hand, the aim has been not to draw the definition so wide that it will include many articles which do not present real danger. For example, we do not want to include carpenters' and mechanics' tools and items of that sort.

The proposed definition nonetheless includes various articles that do not present a danger. Some of those "accidental" inclusions we can live with. The definition will include dinner knives. Drafting legislation to exclude these would be exceedingly messy given, for example, that we would not want to exclude steak knives. Here, we must take the line that removing the total freedom of people under the age of 15 to buy their own cutlery is a small price to pay for a workable definition.

Certain articles are covered by the definition but can be excluded without blurring the clarity of the offence. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has announced his intention to exclude from the ban small folding pocket knives and disposable razor blades. Clause 6 will enable him to do this by order. It will be necessary for retailers, including mail order traders, to exercise due diligence in establishing the age of a prospective purchaser. That is only right.

The Bill will strengthen, and add to, the existing law on offensive weapon and knife carrying in a way that promises to be effective in helping both the police and the courts to do their job and in reinforcing the message for those who need to hear that such activity is simply unacceptable in our society.

As some noble Lords will be aware, honourable Members on all sides in another place gave the Bill a positive reception. It is easy to see why. I hope that your Lordships will share this view, bearing in mind that the parliamentary timetable is such that a difficult Committee stage and a possible group of amendments could mean the Bill will be lost altogether. It had a good Committee stage in another place which went on at considerable length. I hope that the House will share this view. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Earl of Lauderdale.)

The Earl of Balfour

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make one short comment at this stage. When I was at sea, a sailor was expected to carry a knife. But if he ever misbehaved with that knife, or even threatened to misbehave, the mate of the ship would break off the point of the knife using a vice. I wonder whether the Government will consider allowing the police to do the same with anybody they think is misbehaving in any way with a knife or particularly something with a point on the end. I have no wish to defeat the Bill. The idea is good. However, I thought it worthwhile to raise that point.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his intervention. That is a matter for the Minister to answer.

10.8 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, as the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, said, the Bill received a Second Reading in another place on 26th January and reflected deep public concern, particularly following the fatal stabbing of Philip Lawrence. We can all understand such immediate reaction to tragic events. But equally, as the House knows very well, there is always a danger of going too far. What Parliament ought to do is listen to public opinion but not be dictated to by it. Notwithstanding that, this is a useful Bill and I hope it will go some way to reducing violence on our streets.

Parliament should hesitate about any legislation which extends arrest without warrant and the powers of entry on suspicion. But, again, the powers that are in the Bill are justified in this case. I do not believe that we can expect too much in terms of results from the Bill. The prevention of crime depends primarily on resources available to the police and how they are used. Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill as an acceptable measure.

Perhaps I can add one further word. As the noble Earl said, the Bill was discussed at considerable length at the various stages in another place and in the course of those continuing debates references were made to the Advertising Standards Authority, of which I am chairman. Perhaps I may change my hat and move in spirit to the Cross-Benches for a brief moment and say this, though I doubt whether there will be any uncertainty about the matter in this House.

The Advertising Standards Authority has an important role in maintaining acceptable standards in the non-broadcasting media, and that would include acceptable standards in advertising offensive weapons. It works to a code designed to represent the public interest and broadly to reflect changes in it. But it has no power to ban advertising and should not have such powers. What is or is not legal must be a matter for Parliament alone. I mention that because it should be borne in mind. I am sure the Advertising Standards Authority, if called upon, will carry out its proper duty in that respect. For those who may be interested, the Advertising Standards Authority conducted a piece of research earlier this year on weapons advertising. If any Member of your Lordships' House would like a copy of that, I can arrange for it to be made available.

I welcome the Bill. I hope it will have a speedy passage and make some contribution at least to a problem that we all recognise and which is certainly much identified in the public mind.

10.12 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, as the wholly inadequate substitute for my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey I am happy to say that we on these Benches or, rather, I on this Bench, having carefully considered it, am fully in support of the Bill which may well make a serious contribution to reducing the level of violent crime in this country.

The honourable Member for Sutton and Cheam, who I believe is not unknown to the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, in introducing the Bill's Second Reading in another place, immediately drew attention to the words of Frances Lawrence, the widow of the murdered headmaster, when she said: A knife is an inanimate object, and it needs a human being to invest it with murderous properties". How right she was, remembering that her husband had recently been stabbed to death outside the gates of his school when he bravely intervened to try to protect one of his pupils from a violent attack. She went on to mention the case of John Killick of Scunthorpe, a security guard who was stabbed to death last December. She drew attention to the pensioner Frank Dempsey who died after being stabbed in the throat, and also to Imtiaz Begum and her three children who were killed with a nine-inch kitchen knife. They were stabbed to death with an ordinary kitchen knife.

The honourable Member reminded us of the specific figures: of the 677 people who were the victims of murder in this country in 1994, 236 were stabbed. In London 41 per cent. of the crimes of murder involved knives or other sharp instruments and the number of people mutilated, injured or wounded by knives probably runs into many thousands.

The proposals which the Bill makes are sensible, they are clear, and they are sufficient, in every sense but one, to which I will return. The arrest without warrant for offences of carrying offensive weapons is a very necessary reform. Clauses 2 and 3, which increase the penalties, are a proper deterrent in my view. The offence of having an article with a blade or point on school premises is sadly an essential improvement to the law as we now have it, although it seems so sad that it should, in a sense, be closing the stable door after the horse has gone. The sale of knives and articles with a blade or point to persons under 16 is a long overdue restriction for which we should all be grateful.

My honourable friend Mr. Alun Michael made it clear at all the Bill's stages in another place that the Bill has the entire support of the Labour Party. He drew particular attention to the need that the law should be changed to allow the police the power of arrest for the offence of carrying an offensive weapon, although he took the liberty to point out that that was first urged by Jack Straw in 1995. The Labour Party also tried to include a ban on the advertising of offensive weapons, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, drew attention. It was rejected in another place by the Government as flawed and impracticable. We see what they meant but we are not convinced.

We would suggest that amendment would be desirable if it were not for the fact that an amendment puts into danger the timetable of the Bill. It may be that no amendments can be allowed; otherwise the Bill will fall in the Commons on 12th July, and that would be tiresome and regrettable. But if a way could be found to control advertising offensive weapons of the kind the noble Earl has read out to us, which are of no possible use in a kitchen or anywhere else and are simply means of mutilating other people, this would improve the legislation and remove what is unquestionably a temptation and often an incitement to violent crime.

With that having been said, we support the Second Reading, and we shall assist the Bill in its progress through your Lordships' House in every way that we can. So I can say to the noble Baroness the Minister, "It's a fair cop, guy, and we'll come quietly".

10.18 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may first of all say that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, is no poor substitute for his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. We have enjoyed his spirited defence of the Bill and his support for it.

This has been a brief but important debate. As my noble friend Lord Lauderdale has indicated, the Bill as introduced was closely based upon proposals which were previously under consideration between my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the Association of Chief Police Officers, and which therefore naturally have the full support of the Government.

Other proposals were added to the Bill as a result of government amendments, to deal with knife carrying in schools and the sale of knives to people under the age of 16.

The menace of knife carrying, which has been addressed by all who have spoken in the debate, particularly by young people, is one which deserves to be combated with the strongest possible measures. This is what the Bill aims to do. The Government are grateful to my noble friend Lord Lauderdale for agreeing to take forward this important measure and for the support which all of the proposals in the Bill have received on all sides of the House.

It has been made clear during the passage of the Bill that some examples of weapons advertised in the printed media are a cause for concern. Here I must recognise the position that is held by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. The Advertising Standards Authority seeks to ensure that advertisers comply with a code which, among other matters, states that advertisements should not contain anything which might condone or encourage violent or anti-social behaviour. The code is, I believe, right—and I believe that the Advertising Standards Authority exercises the right degree of sensitivity in judging whether advertisements are in breach of the code. We nonetheless need to explore whether more can be done. I take the spirit of what the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, had to say on the subject. It has been discussed in some detail in the other place, where a Home Office Minister has said that he will discuss with the Advertising Standards Authority its approach, its sanctions and the discipline that it brings to the advertising industry. We should now await the outcome of those discussions.

However, I believe that we need to be realistic about what can be achieved in further controls on advertising. In the first place, in general the Advertising Standards Authority is successful in ensuring that the code is adhered to. In the course of its recent survey of advertisements for guns and weapons, it has come across a small number of cases in which the advertising of weapons is questionable. It is pursuing its criticisms with those concerned. We need to see the outcome of its efforts in those particular cases.

It has been implied that the ASA's effectiveness is hampered by the fact that it is not applying statutory controls to advertising. In fact, the reverse is true. I give the example of the offence that it takes at the use of the title, "Knives, Knives, Knives" in a knives' advertisement. I doubt very much whether any statutory control could be devised which would come anywhere near exercising that sensitivity of judgment let alone applying it. If, of course, the advertisement incites a person to commit a criminal offence, the advertiser himself is committing an offence under existing law. Introducing a lower level of incitement in relation to the printed media is very problematic. But as I say, we must await the outcome of the Minister's discussions with the Advertising Standards Authority before we can usefully take this discussion further, but I take very seriously the point that has been made.

In reply to the point made by my noble friend Lord Balfour, we would say that in any of the kinds of circumstances described by him it would be far better that the police confiscate the knife. They have the power to do so. That is obviously a much better solution.

I believe that precedent has been established by this Bill, having been introduced so ably in another place by the honourable Member for Sutton and Cheam, who is not a million miles away from me at this moment and who is the daughter of my noble friend Lord Lauderdale. The proposals in the Bill represent important protective measures and I hope that it will be given a Second Reading.

10.22 p.m.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, in rising to thank my noble friend the Minister for her helpful lead and encouragement on this Bill, I first apologise to the House for my speech which was a sheer gabble. I read it fast because my medical bedtime is in fact nine o'clock. If it is found tomorrow morning that someone has been bludgeoned, not with a knife, but with a rolling pin, that will be the penalty I have paid for being late home. That is why I read my speech at such speed and in such a gabble. I apologise to noble Lords.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. I had it in mind to say something about the Advertising Standards Authority. He is the chairman, and he took the trouble to be here and to sit late. I thank him and, through him, his office, for the 1,000 words of wisdom on this subject which I managed to condense to about 50 for my own purposes. I did not use them all in the end because time was getting short. I ask the noble Lord to thank his office for the trouble it went to in order to give me the information.

I thank my noble friend Lord Balfour. The whole object of the Bill is to stop people carrying these knives in the first place. He is a wise man. I had a friend who was in America and who was involved in a fight with a man who had a knife. I am glad that my noble friend is with us. My friend broke off the point of the knife that was threatening him and thank God that he did.

I thank noble Lords for their attention and kindness at this late hour. At the risk of possibly misquoting Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps I may say: My object all sublime I shall achieve in time— To let the punishment fit the crime— The punishment fit the crime". That is what we want. I commend the Bill to the House.

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