HL Deb 22 April 2004 vol 660 cc433-9

2.37 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15 March be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 introduced an order-making power to ban the manufacture, sale and importation of specified offensive weapons. Today, in an effort further to improve airline and public safety, we are seeking to add the category of stealth knives and truncheons to the schedule to the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988.

Before I get too far into the discussion on the order, I must apologise to your Lordships' House for an error in the Explanatory Memorandum that accompanied the order. The memorandum refers to the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. That reference should not be there. It should be recorded, however, that there is a link between this order and the Prevention of Crime Act, which I shall explain shortly.

Currently, the offensive weapons order prohibits 15 weapons, including sword sticks, push daggers, death stars, butterfly knives and disguised knives. The manufacture, sale, hire and import of flick knives and gravity knives are already banned under the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959.

Adding the weapons, stealth knives and truncheons, to the order will have the effect of making it an offence for a person to manufacture, sell, hire, offer for sale or hire, expose or have in their possession for the purpose of sale or hire, or lend or give to any other person, or to import, a stealth knife or truncheon. A person would be liable on summary conviction to a maximum term of six months' imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding the sum of £5,000.

The order does not create an offence of simple possession. However, the design and construction of stealth knives and truncheons is such that their possession in public, without lawful authority, or reasonable excuse, may be unlawful under Section 1(1) of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. That section makes it an offence for a person to have an offensive weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. An offensive weapon is defined in Section 1(4) of that Act as meaning, any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person, or intended by the person having it with him for such use by him, or by some other person". In the case of DPP v Hynde (1988) the court took notice of the fact that an item was unlawful under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, in deciding it was clearly meant for causing injury. Furthermore, in the case of Houghton v Chief Constable of Greater Manchester (1986), it was held that a truncheon is an offensive weapon per se. In addition, for the possession of stealth knives, Section 139(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 creates an offence for a person to have with him in public a sharply pointed article or an article having a blade without good reason or lawful authority.

Therefore I seek to reassure the House that legislation exists to deal with the possession of such items in public and what we are seeking to address with the order is their manufacture, sale and import.

In 2002, in the light of the events of 11 September, the concern of the airport industry and our wish to ensure effective levels of airline security, we added disguised knives to the offensive weapons order. They had no legitimate purpose and were manufactured simply to evade detection and provide those so minded with a convenient means of carrying a deadly weapon. We now intend to do the same with stealth knives.

Stealth knives are non-metallic hunting or stiletto knives, made of a range of materials, such as nylon zytel or high impact plastic. Although they look like conventional knives, they are difficult to detect because they are non-metallic. We recognise that there are legitimate uses for non-metallic knives; that is why the definition of a stealth knife includes an exemption for knives designed for domestic use or for use in the processing, preparation or consumption of food or as a toy. One company that sells stealth knives claims in publicity material that, these knives are made of a super strong nylon composite that is almost as hard as steel. They can be driven through plywood like a nail. They are completely undetectable when passing through metal detectors". Although the knives present a general threat because of their portability and concealability, they pose a particular risk to airline security as their material is difficult to detect, especially by metal detectors. The Government consider it a priority to legislate to prohibit the manufacture, sale, hire and importation of these knives.

Ministers have also received a number of representations from both Members of Parliament and the police about truncheons being sold to criminals and used for unlawful purposes. Telescopic truncheons are already included on the offensive weapons order 1988 list, but we intend to add straight, side-handled and friction-lock truncheons to the order. I should emphasise that these weapons can cause serious injuries should they end up in the wrong hands.

Truncheons, both side-handled and friction-lock batons, are used by the police as an important piece of self-defence equipment. The order will not affect the police's ability to carry and use such equipment. The police, and those manufacturing and supplying otherwise prohibited weapons to the police, have a defence under Section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 for importing, manufacturing or possessing these items. This is because they are carrying out functions on behalf of the Crown for the purposes of that Act.

Although legislation is already in place making it illegal to carry offensive weapons and most knives in public, there is nothing to prevent the sale, import or manufacture of stealth knives and truncheons. Currently an individual can walk into a shop or log onto the Internet and get hold of these weapons with comparative ease. That is why we now intend to take action to reduce the number of stealth knives and truncheons.

Although we are not aware of the numbers of stealth knives and truncheons in circulation, we know they are freely available and used in the Commission of crime. That shows the willingness of certain manufacturers to produce such weapons and provide the public with a wide range of concealed weapons. The Police Superintendents' Association called for restrictions on the sale of truncheons following evidence of their use by criminals, in some cases resulting in serious injury.

It is worth noting that in 2002–03 Her Majesty's Customs and Excise seized 1,983 offensive weapons at airports, sea ports and from the postal system, giving a strong indication of the willingness of a significant number of people to equip themselves with and attempt to bring dangerous weapons into the country.

As those weapons are easily available we believe that it is of the utmost importance to prevent their sale, manufacture and import, cutting off their supply as far as possible and reducing the number in circulation. By legislating to ban the manufacture, sale and import of stealth knives and truncheons, public safety will be improved, not only at airports and on board aircraft but also at places such as nightclubs, sports grounds, courts, pubs and other public places where individuals may try to evade security and carry these weapons for criminal purposes.

Prohibiting the manufacture, sale and import of stealth knives and truncheons is a matter of both airline and public security and safety. This measure will have clear benefits for airlines and the public. It is the most effective measure that we can take to stop the supply of wholly unacceptable and dangerous weapons which have no legitimate purpose and reduce the possibility of them ending up in the hands of those intent on criminal activity. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we introduce these measures and bring them fully into force. I urge that the Motion be supported. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15 March be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, we on this side entirely support the measures, which are designed to make the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act more effective. We are up against continual ingenuity on the part of suppliers and manufacturers of such weapons. The Minister has outlined the dangers, particularly in the port context but also domestically in nightclubs and so on.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, from these Benches we support the Government's aims in introducing the order. It is for all our safety: on airlines, in clubs and restaurants, and of course particularly in the Houses of Parliament. We should not only keep up with technological development but, where possible, the law should pre-empt it—although we are not doing that in this case; we are following on behind.

We must remember that the people who carry such weapons are up to no good. Nylon zytel and high impact plastic knives are specifically manufactured to avoid detection, so it is right that they should be put beyond the law. I understand that the Government want to cut the supply chain by banning their manufacture and selling, as this order does. But what are they doing about all the weapons washing around in the system? Unless someone carries these weapons in public, they are still not committing an offence. However, their very existence in somebody's cupboard creates a threat to society.

Will there be an amnesty for weapons already in existence? The order comes into force in only one month. Will there be compensation for shops who have stock of such weapons? If not, the shopkeepers may try to sell them off at half price, thereby going completely contrary to the Government's intention of having fewer of these things around in the system.

The debate in another place on the order on Tuesday revealed a great deal of concern about the definitions. Surely the point is not that an item is a knife or spike but that it is a blade or point, capable of inflicting considerable injury or threatening to do so. In the debate in another place there was an enormous amount of concern about that issue and particularly about the definition of a straight, side-handled or friction-lock truncheon, sometimes known as a baton, mentioned in the order.

Although the side-handle and the friction-lock versions are clear, as I see it the problem lies with the definition of a straight truncheon. There are numerous sticks used for martial arts, for walking in the hills, and so on, that might fall foul of this definition. It is really not good enough to tell a martial arts expert or a hill walker that the courts will decide whether they are committing an offence when they carry a staff or stick. They need clear guidance from the statute before inadvertently breaking the law and coming up before the courts.

My other question is about antiques and toys. I understand that antique police batons are sold in large numbers and, if they were made more than 100 years before the offence, they are excluded from the 1953 Act that bans possession of an offensive weapon. However, there are many collectable police truncheons that were made in the 1930s. Can the Minister clarify the circumstances in which it would be lawful to possess such a thing? The other concern is toys. How are they defined, and how can a parent know that he or she is not buying a toy truncheon that will fall foul of this order? Unless the Government clarify that point, it could be that every nursery teacher in the country will become a criminal.

In another place, the Minister reassured the committee that under the 1988 Act it is already an offence to possess a pointed or bladed weapon that is not a folding knife, with a blade of 3.5 inches or more. However, a folding stealth knife with a blade of 3.2 inches is a fairly lethal weapon. I wonder whether the Minister can explain how the law, as amended by this order, protects the public from those knives. A weapon with a blade of any length, which was specifically manufactured to avoid detection, should be clearly made unlawful as to its manufacture, sale, possession, carrying and use—although use is already illegal. Why did the Government not simply lift the definition of those weapons from the 1988 Act and add, which is made of material not readily detectable by apparatus used for detecting metal", rather than tying themselves in the sort of knots that were asked about on Tuesday in another place?

I am not trying to be less than supportive of the Government's laudable aims—I am just trying to get it right. I absolutely concur with the Government's aims, but I fear that, unless we get some very clear answers, we may find ourselves back in this Chamber before very long to put things right, because this order is not very well drafted.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords. I am grateful for the support that I have had, even if I am slightly less grateful for some of the questions—although I am sure that those questions have been asked and responses invited for the best of motives. I listened carefully to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.

It would be fair to say, on reflection, that definition issues are not easy in this case. The noble Baroness has come up with some words of her own, and I am sure that they are valid as expressed. I believe that we should be honest and say that finding a definition, especially for a stealth knife, was problematic, and advice had to be taken.

We wanted a definition that specifically covered non-metallic knives not used for domestic use or for use in the processing, preparation or consumption of food or as a toy. It was decided that we should adopt the approach that we did, and we decided to keep the definition of a baton as simple as possible. That is the explanation and background to that question. We may well have to look at these matters again, from time to time. There is a history to defining offensive weapons that goes back some 50 years.

The noble Baroness asked a number of other questions relating to antiques and martial arts weapons, to which I shall respond as best I can. With regard to martial arts enthusiasts, it will in the end be for the courts to decide whether an item falls within a definition of a straight-side handled or friction-lock truncheon. The intention, broadly, is for long staffs and walking sticks not to be caught, and, accordingly, the definition applies to truncheons alone. Reference is made to the word "baton" as truncheons are occasionally described in that way.

As for antiques, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988 provides that it is not an offence to sell, hire, offer for sale or hire, or to expose or have in one's possession for the purpose of sale, hire, lending or giving to another person, or to import any of the weapons detailed in the order that are antiques. Antiques are defined for the purposes of the order as something that has been manufactured more than 100 years before the date of an offence alleged to have been committed in respect of that weapon under subsection (1) of Section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

The noble Baroness also asked about compensation. Our view is that it is incumbent on the Government to take action to deal with that problem, but we do not therefore believe that compensation is payable in these circumstances. I should add that we have not faced great swathes of pressure on that point, although consultation has been somewhat limited because of the importance of bringing the order forward.

The toys definition applies to a stealth knife but not to a truncheon. The noble Baroness may also have raised the issue of a stealth knife in a folding pocket format. In any regard, I shall make this simple point. The legislation attempts to deal with an offence of having without good reason or lawful authority any article that has a blade or is sharply pointed. That is covered by Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Folding pocket knives are excluded from the offence if the cutting edge of the blade exceeds 3 inches. The legislation that we are dealing with derives from Section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, and the offence created thereunder. Accordingly, if a stealth knife was manufactured that had a folding blade, it would still be unlawful under this order.

Finally, it is just worth saying that there will always be definition problems with regard to these issues. We appreciate that and have done our best to come up with something workable, which captures those weapons of concern. These are clearly weapons of concern, particularly in the wake of 9/11. For those reasons, I hope that your Lordships will be entirely happy with the order. While we seek at all times to cover all angles, it is not possible to be absolutely precise on every occasion, but we believe that we have done the best possible job that we can. For those reasons, I hope that your Lordships' House will approve the order this afternoon.

On Question, Motion agreed to.