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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates
Violent Crime Reduction Bill

Violent Crime Reduction Bill




 
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Standing Committee B

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

Mr. Eric Forth

†Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
†Blears, Hazel (Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety)
†Brennan, Kevin (Cardiff, West) (Lab)
†Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
†Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)
†Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
†Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
†Hosie, Stewart (Dundee, East) (SNP)
†Jones, Mr. Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
†Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
†Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Woking) (Con)
†McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
†Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
†Prisk, Mr. Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
†Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
†Thurso, John (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
†Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
†Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Geoffrey Farrar, Sarah Hartwell-Naguib, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee


 
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Thursday 13 October 2005

[Mr. Eric Forth in the Chair]

Violent Crime Reduction Bill

9 am

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. I also remind the Committee that adequate notice should be given of all amendments, and that my co-Chairman and I will not as a general rule call starred amendments. I now come to the ritualistic warning: would all Members, and anyone else in the Room, ensure that mobile telephones, pagers and so on are switched off.

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): I beg to move,

    That—

    (1) during proceedings on the Violent Crime Reduction Bill the Standing Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.00 a.m. on Thursday 13th October) meet—

      (a) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 18th October;

      (b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 20th October;

      (c) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 25th October; and

    (2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order namely Clauses 1 to 23; Clauses 24 to 37; Schedule 1; Clause 38; Schedule 2; Clauses 39 to 44; Schedule 3; Clause 45; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 7.00 p.m. on Tuesday 25th October.

I welcome all members of the Committee. I am particularly delighted to have the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Forth, and that of Mr. Benton, your co-Chairman. I am also pleased to have had discussions with the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) about the programme motion, as I want to ensure that we have sufficient time for the Bill to be properly scrutinised. Some important provisions in the Bill will have a real impact on the public, especially those concerning alcohol. It also includes a large section dealing with the regulation of firearms, which deals with some technical issues, and I am keen that those technical matters should be properly pursued and scrutinised; some measures dealing with use of knives are very important to our constituents.

Although the Bill is relatively short in contrast to some—I hope that that commends it to you, Mr. Forth—its provisions deal with some significant issues. It is about trying to reduce violent crime. We have a good record on reducing violent crime, but there is much more to do. In particular, the impact of alcohol is significant. We estimate that up to half of all violent crime is linked to alcohol, so the provisions that we shall discuss this morning are of great importance.

We have made provision in our timetable for an extra sitting should it prove necessary, and I am certainly keen to be flexible in that regard. I am sure
 
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that we can make good progress, and that all members of the Committee will want to press on and ensure that we get through all the amendments and new clauses. I hope that the Committee’s proceedings will be smart and brisk, but also to the point, so that we can explore some of the significant and important issues in the Bill.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I join the Minister in offering you a warm welcome to Chair, Mr Forth. I know that you and your colleague will conduct our proceedings with your usual mixture of charm and efficiency. I also welcome the Minister, and my hon. Friends. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) will keep me in good order. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) is extremely experienced in these matters, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) has tabled a number of amendments, to which he will speak in due course.

The Minister was right to say that the Bill deals with big issues. That prompts me to express the hope that Government Back Benchers will make a substantial contribution. I think you will agree, Mr. Forth, that over the years they have tended not say much in Standing Committee, but they ought to contribute more to our debates, because the sort of problems that we all face, and which the Bill attempts to deal with, are rife in their constituencies, too. We certainly need a full debate.

I particularly welcome the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, who represents the Liberal Democrats, because the opening amendments are hers. I know that she will want to tell us a little more about her party’s policy. Hansard shows that on 25 January 2003, in a debate on the Licensing Act 2003, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) confirmed that it was his party’s policy that alcohol should be sold to persons who had reached the age of 16, rather than 18. We would like to hear some justification for that, and we look forward to hearing the hon. Lady’s arguments in that connection. Some of us think that policy unwise.

We have a difficulty with the timing. As we all know, the Bill, which contains about 45 clauses and some schedules, was published some months ago. That is what received a Second Reading. Over the summer each of us tried to make a calculation about how long would be appropriate in Committee for such a Bill, but the problem is that the scene changes day by day, and the Government have tabled 60 or more amendments to their own Bill. That suggests that they have been hasty, and such practice is becoming commonplace. I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree that when the Government table amendments to their own Bills just before Committee, that is not a practice that we can support.

I remember vividly, in Committees on Bills on criminal justice and identity cards, that in the debates on the clauses we were faced with completely different matter from what was in the Bill on Second Reading. The time that we have agreed may need to be expanded considerably.


 
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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my interest in finding out from the Government whether there is any prospect of further Government amendments being tabled in Committee, and, if that is the case, whether we can have the earliest possible sight of them?

Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He knows, as we all do, the Government’s tendency to produce further amendments during the passage of such Bills in Committee. I should like the Minister, in response to my few words this morning, to give an undertaking that no more amendments or new clauses will be introduced in Committee. That would help us considerably, because we must prepare for the various debates.

On the other hand, if the Minister cannot give us that undertaking, she may be able to say to us at this early stage—the early stage being the important point—that she has some further amendments, and tell us what subject they will be on, so that we shall be at least somewhat prepared. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments.

It could be said that the Government have set out with the best intentions—but the Opposition feel that in many ways the Bill is irrelevant, and that many powers already exist under the law to deal with the mischief to which the Minister has referred. That is a subject for later debate.

There are some contentious areas of the Bill, however. The Minister rightly points out that it is more or less split into three parts. The first, lengthy part deals with drinking banning orders and alcohol disorder zones. I look forward to hearing some observations from Government Back Benchers about excessive drinking. I dare say that in your constituency, Mr. Forth, as well as in mine and in many others, there is deep concern about the volume of binge drinking, and the violence that results from it. For now I simply lay that down as a general thought; I shall deal with the subject in detail later. It is arguable that the clauses that deal with alcohol-related matters alone could take up at least three quarters of the time that we have for the Bill.

There is also the contentious issue of firearms. I know for certain that all members of the Committee, including you, Mr. Forth, will have received a huge postbag from constituents and from others throughout the country, who, if I may say so in the simplest of terms, are all law-abiding decent citizens who fear the impact of the Bill and the firearms provisions on what they properly perceive as their lawful hobby. We must steer a line between trying to punish the criminals in our community, and not punishing those who pursue lawful and perfectly decent hobbies. I hope that the Minister will help us.

The provisions that relate to knives are a third critical element of the Bill, and could take us well beyond the time allotted, which is why I have my doubts about the programme motion. It is commonplace to read in the newspapers of youngsters carrying bladed articles. There are some horrifying figures, to which we will refer when the matter comes up in our discussion of the Bill, on the alarming
 
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number of youngsters who carry knives on school premises. That must concern us all. We want to get that area absolutely right, and ensure that we are at one on it—although I fear that we may not be.

I have hit on three contentious areas, yet how many sittings do we have? We have today, which will get us under way with a helpful debate on clause 1, the sittings next week, and a little time the week after. Will that be enough? I venture to suggest that it will not. A further reason why that will not be enough time is that, as all colleagues will have noticed, many of the clauses refer to regulations that can be made by the Home Secretary. I wrote to the Minister on that topic in August with a request that we should know about the regulations at an early stage—if not before the Committee, certainly during its course—so that we could debate them. There are several clauses that state that the Home Secretary may make regulations in connection with certain matters. Our debate could seem almost meaningless if we were discussing a general principle without having seen all the regulations. That is another area that could take us into extra time.

We will not vote against the motion, because last night the Minister and her Front-Bench colleague were extremely courteous and said that they had no intention of imposing knives on us or of stifling proper debate. As you know better than any of us, Mr. Forth, the point of a Standing Committee has always been to scrutinise a Bill line by line. That is what I hope that we will be able to do, and if that means that we have to sit all night one night—many of us are used to such sittings—we have no problems with that. Alternatively, we could sit for an extra three or four weeks. We may be ignored, because there are other matters outside this Committee that appear to be attracting the attention of the press in relation to politics generally. However, it does not matter much if we are ignored, because we do not want flash newspaper headlines; we want proper scrutiny of the Bill, line by line. Our only purpose in being here is to amend the Bill to make it better.

When the Minister responds and comments on the request that I made earlier, I hope that she will undertake to look constructively at all the amendments. Sometimes Ministers do not accept Opposition amendments on principle, because they take the view that it is not their job to do so—but in a Committee such as this, that would not be helpful. I have read all the amendments very carefully and, frankly, I think that there are many from all sides that deserve the most serious consideration by the Government. Will the Minister promise to keep a completely open mind and to accept amendments if the arguments are well made? I look to her colleagues in that connection.

Those are my opening observations on the motion. I look forward to our deliberations. I have my doubts about the time available to us, but I certainly appreciate the constructive and courteous approach that the Minister has taken so far, and we will not vote against the motion.


 
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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Forth. This is the first time that I have led for the Liberal Democrats on a Committee, and I hope that I will serve under your chairmanship on many more occasions. We had an excellent debate on Second Reading, and as the hon. Member for Woking said, a huge number of amendments have been tabled. I hope that we can have a vigorous and robust debate on the subjects about which, as he rightly said, there are concerns.

9.15 am

We intend to create firm legislation to tackle the twin evils of excessive alcohol consumption and inappropriate access to, or use of, weapons. We are determined to contribute to the quality of the legislation on an issue that is so important to every Member of this House who has constituents—and we all have. We need to ensure that the legislation is workable and enforceable, so that nifty lawyers cannot weave their way around it; I apologise to hon. Members—and, indeed, learned Members—if they are in that profession.

I look forward to debating the Bill in Committee, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). I hope that the seven scheduled sittings will prove to be adequate. Like the hon. Member for Woking, I am concerned about the amount of time that has been allocated to the Committee, but I was reassured last night by the Minister’s suggestion that, provided that we make progress, there will be no knives and that there will be a relatively relaxed attitude to extension, as necessary.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I, too, am delighted to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Forth, and I look forward to your expertise on the rules, which is well known to all hon. Members.

Moving on from that perhaps gratuitous remark, I shall pick up the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking. The Committee is, in essence, about scrutiny. We are concerned not with any day-to-day publicity, but with the quality of the law. That quality rests on two things, to which the Minister referred: sufficient time in Committee to deal with the 45 clauses and the variety of schedules attached to them, and sufficient time for organisations outside the Committee and the House to be able to respond to the legislation and inform us, so that we can improve it.

There is a danger, which you will understand, Mr. Forth, in presenting us with more Government amendments than there are clauses—as my hon. Friend said, there are already more than 60 amendments—less than a fortnight before we are due to consider the legislation. How are we to perform our task, and how are the outside organisations, which will be trying to catch up and ensure that they understand the changes in the Minister’s thoughts, to inform our debate?


 
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I am not clear whether the amendments from the Home Office are evidence of an oversight or errors in the legislation. I am sure that the Minister will clarify whether there was an oversight or an error each time she presents an amendment to the Committee, but it would be helpful if she could tell us in this debate the reasons behind these belated amendments. We note the programme proposed by the Government as a whole, and my hon. Friend is right to say that we have some concerns. We do not want to be unco-operative, but we want to ensure that people understand that we are here to get the legislation right, so will the Minister give us the reasons for those belated amendments?

The use of the word “knives” in relation to programming is particularly inappropriate, given the Bill’s content, but will the Minister put on record the fact that the Government do not intend to timetable—that is a better word—this set of deliberations, so that we can have confidence in any discussions that might need to take place?

Lastly, will the Minister assure us that she and her colleagues are willing to review our progress continually? I am more than happy to co-operate—it is important that we do—and we approach the programme motion with that view. With those thoughts, I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Clappison: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time today, Mr. Forth. I very much look forward to that experience, as I am sure all members of the Committee do. You will be aware that matters relating to criminal justice and crime are often debated constructively, with give and take on both sides. Therefore, I begin by welcoming the remarks from both sides of the Committee about the timing. I agree with the comments of my hon. Friends, and also welcome those of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. I agree with the Minister’s comments about the need to take seriously the abuse of alcohol, firearms and knives. As she said, those technical issues will take up a lot of the Committee’s time.

I make a plea to the Minister for flexibility on timing, and reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford about the need to keep that matter under review. I have tabled a new clause on an issue that is of interest to many of my constituents, and I am extremely anxious that it should be debated, as they will want to know that Parliament takes time to consider the serious issues related to protecting public servants.

Mr. Malins: I apologise to my hon. Friend for not referring to his new clause before. I am sure that I speak for the whole Committee when I say that it raises vital issues in relation to public services, and I congratulate him on tabling it; it needs a full debate.

Mr. Clappison: Those issues are of interest to my constituents, who know that I am raising them in the House. People involved in the emergency services, the health service, teaching and public transport would all be protected by the new clause, and I would be extremely embarrassed to go back to them and say that
 
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Parliament did not have time to consider the subject properly. I am sure that they would be disappointed, as would many others, not just my constituents. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of public service workers and members of their families who will want to know that we have taken the time to consider the issue properly. I hope that the Minister and the Government are prepared to be flexible about time and will keep it under review as the Committee proceeds, so as to ensure that we have sufficient time to do those important issues justice.

Hazel Blears: I certainly intend to conduct our deliberations—with all members of the Committee, I hope—without opposing measures just for the sake of it. That cuts both ways. I want practical and workable legislation that does the job that we want it to do. There is a fair degree of unanimity regarding the problems that we are trying to attack, such as binge drinking and the misuse of guns and knives. Those issues affect all our constituents, so this business is important. I shall not oppose amendments for the sake of it, and I urge Members on both sides to take the same approach. We may get some useful additions to the Bill; that is how legislation should proceed.

Mr. Clappison: I welcome the Minister’s comments about taking a constructive approach to amendments. If she sees merit in an amendment, will she be prepared to take it away, reflect on it and come back with something on Report?

Hazel Blears: Yes, although of course, I cannot anticipate the debate. If issues are raised that I think worthy of consideration, I am sure that that can be done, but I do not want to pre-empt our discussions. I am sure that hon. Members will have a whole range of different views.

I recognise that late amendments are difficult, not just for members of the Committee but for external organisations. It is important that such organisations should be able to set out their views and have an input. We have done our best to ensure that our amendments have been tabled, but there has been a huge amount of consultation over the summer, particularly about firearms, to try to ensure that we get the legislation right.

I expect that we have all had many letters in our postbags from people involved in historical re-enactment groups, and in the sport of airsoft. I have certainly had a range of correspondence, and we have been in detailed consultation. We are trying to address a mischief—I will not go into the detail—about the misuse of imitations, but the area is complex. My apologies to the Committee on the issue of firearms, but we have flagged up that there will be some new amendments about the definition of realistic imitations so that we focus on the mischief that we are trying to address without catch-all definitions that impinge on the law-abiding majority.

The principle of the Bill and all its provisions is to protect the law-abiding majority of citizens in this country from the lawless behaviour of the
 
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irresponsible minority. That principle runs through all the provisions, and so it is clearly important to get it right.

Mr. Prisk: Unfortunately, a couple of the e-mails that the Minister’s office sent to me did not initially have the attachments containing the amendments, and we tried to catch up. For clarity’s sake, can she confirm the number of amendments, so that I can be sure that I have the total number?

Hazel Blears: I am told that there are 47 so far; if the hon. Gentleman has that number, he is up to date. If he has any less, I shall ensure that he gets a full set.

We have also flagged up our intention to consider the possibility of amendments on the subject of the sale of air weapons through registered firearms dealers. That will clearly be a matter for debate.

There will be some amendments related to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, because of an urgent problem in connection with transitional provisions arising from a court case that has been decided in a particular way. There was no option but to table amendments. When Members hear the details of the amendments, they will agree that the present position is not one that any of us would support. That is why those amendments are late.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The Minister mentioned the possibility of tabling amendments concerning the sale of air weapons and regulating dealers’ premises. Amendments have already been tabled that will allow us to discuss the sale, provision and hire of air weapons and ammunition. Would it not have been more helpful if the amendments had been brought before the Committee first, rather than our hearing about them through the good offices of BBC Radio Scotland, in a story that has been running over the past two days? This is a serious matter, and it would have been rather more helpful if the Committee had had the opportunity to consider the amendments, or at least to have understood that they would be tabled, before a story began to appear on the wires of Radio Scotland.

Hazel Blears: The Government have given an indication of how seriously we take such issues. Hon. Members know that over the summer there was intensive dialogue with members of the Scottish Executive, who clearly have a particular interest in this subject—but it is not an exclusive interest, as hon. Members from all over the country have raised such issues. In correspondence with Members, I have given as early an indication as I could of the Government’s intention. I have no doubt that we will have a constructive debate.

Two other areas require amendment. We intend to raise the age limit for possession of crossbows to bring it in line with that for knives and guns, which involves fairly straightforward amendments. Secondly, we have amendments to make in connection with offensive weapons. Again, we want to try to make sure that when we outlaw offensive weapons we do not prevent law-abiding people from practising martial arts or other sporting activities. We want to get the balance
 
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right. The Bill is about punishing the lawless minority and protecting the law-abiding majority. An amendment could involve exemptions for sports and martial arts training.

Mr. Malins: The Minister knows, of course, that carrying an offensive weapon in a public place is an offence anyway. Enforcement is the name of the game; many of us think that that is the crucial problem.

Hazel Blears: I have no doubt that we will debate the balance between enforcement and banning manufacture, importation and sale. I believe that we need to do both, and I am sure that that will be a common thread throughout our discussion.

I am happy to be flexible. The points raised about public servants by the hon. Member for Hertsmere are important. We should protect people who are serving the public, and I am sure that we will debate that issue. As I have said, we have had discussions with the Front Benchers who represent the two main Opposition parties and agreed a programme motion. We offered an extra sitting, but that offer has not been taken up; Members appear to be happy with the programme motion as it stands.

I hope that we will make significant and brisk progress in examining the issues before us. I look forward to the debate, and to contributions from all hon. Members who raise issues that their constituents regard as important in their daily lives.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

    That—

    (1) during proceedings on the Violent Crime Reduction Bill the Standing Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.00 a.m. on Thursday 13th October) meet—

      (a) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 18th October;

      (b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 20th October;

      (c) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 25th October; and

    (2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order namely Clauses 1 to 23; Clauses 24 to 37; Schedule 1; Clause 38; Schedule 2; Clauses 39 to 44; Schedule 3; Clause 45; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 7.00 p.m. on Tuesday 25th October.

 
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