Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab):
Every hon. Member has said that tackling violent crime and intimidatory antisocial behaviour is a priority for
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our constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) was right when he said that people want to know not just that we are concerned about such things, but what we are going to do about them. The Bill is an important step along the road in tackling alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour.
I want to address part 2. The link between replica firearms and violent crime is clear. The statistics have been mentioned and are widely available. We must tackle that problem and do something about replica firearms. Although the Bill will probably contribute to that, I share some of the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). I hope that the Committee will consider the problems of definition, because they could give us problems. It is only right that the Bill covers possible exemptions, but jumping too far one way will drive a coach and horses through our legislation while jumping too far the other way will outlaw collectors' items. We need to consider that in detail.
I want to concentrate on selling guns and knives. My hon. Friend made a good point about internet sales. I have concerns about holes in existing legislation and its implementation as it relates to existing retail outlets. According to the Knives Act 1997,
"A person is guilty of an offence if he markets a knife in a way which . . . indicates, or suggests, that it is suitable for combat; or . . . is otherwise likely to stimulate or encourage violent behaviour involving the use of the knife as a weapon."
That is relatively clear. Looking at some of the retail outlets in my constituency and other places, however, I find it difficult to relate what is on sale, and how it is marketed and advertised, to that legislation.
A market stall in my constituency is called Guns and Knives, and it is a bit like the ad that says "It does what it says on the tin", because it has an array of everything from crossbows to ninja knives, to all kinds of blades and BB guns. Today it advertised an Uzi sub-machine gun at cut price, although I do not know whether it was a replica or BB gun. I am not suggesting that the retailer is breaking the law or selling knives to children. The evidence is that he is not. It is also true to say that he has signs up saying "For collectors' use only".
However, residents are concerned about how the products are marketed and the fact that they are in their face when they walk past the stall. In fact, they are so concerned that when the local Labour party organised a petition a month or two ago on the marketing of guns and knives in the open, people queued up to sign it. There was no doubt about the concern. I pay tribute to my constituent, Lucy Seymour-Smith, who brought the petition together and presented it to the local council, which is considering it. I am pleased to say that the local paper, the Birmingham Evening Mail, has taken up the problem and did a fairly major piece on the stall. It has raised some of the concerns felt by my constituents. The article brought out the suggestion that a blade from the stall was used in a violent incident not far from the constituency.
There is a problem with how knives are marketed. Bearing in mind what the 1997 Act says about blades not being marketed in a way that suggests they are used for
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combat, it is significant that another shop in my constituency is called Combat. It sells things to do with legitimate martial artskendo and forms of unarmed martial artsbut there are also various forms weapons or imitation weapons in the window. I am not suggesting that the trader does not draw a distinction between selling equipment for kendo and having a Samurai sword purely for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps he does. If we are trying to counter the culture of violence, we need to be a lot firmer and more focused on breaking the link between legitimate martial arts and the glorification of violence that is all too often associated with the marketing of imitation guns, blades, crossbows and so on.
Where blades are concerned, it is not just a case of new legislation; the issue is one of enforcement. However, retailers have a responsibility not simply to put up a sign saying "For collectors' use only" and then to market and advertise the items in a way that runs counter to the message that that sign gives. If they advertised their goods on television or in the press, they would be covered by an Advertising Standards Authority code of practice that would severely limit the way in which they did so. Yes, it is a system of self-regulation, but there are ASA rules. However, a retailer selling from a market stall or a shop can put what they want, how they want it, in their shop window as long as they can point to their sign saying "For collectors' use only". They are under little obligation to adopt reasonable standards and to market their items in a way that indicates that they are for collectors' use, rather than in a way that glorifies violence. There is a link between the way in which such items are marketed and the culture of violence that can lead to people seeing guns or knives as attractive fashion accessories and, further down the line, to the committing of violent crimes.
As well as giving the Bill its Second Reading and examining it in detail in Committee, I ask the House to think about how we can be more proactive about ensuring that the provisions of existing lawin particular the Knives Actare enforced. Ministers should also consider negotiating and drawing up with the retail trade a code of practice similar to the ones relating to print and electronic media, so that there is some oomph behind the legislation. In that way, police and trading standards officers will have an extra tool to use when they visit retail premises. We must have some means of ensuring that marketing to the legitimate collectorthe person who wants to have a ceremonial dagger on their wall, for exampleis not used as a cover for the glorification of violence and weapons.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con):
I congratulate those hon. Members who have made their maiden speech today. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) demonstrated an impressive love of her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) showed all the abilities of his two immediate predecessors, both of whom advanced swiftly to the Front Bench. I am sure that he will do the same. I note that, like many other members of the new intake of Conservative MPs, my hon. Friend referred to Sir John Betjeman: if many hon. Members in the next Parliament follow that example, in addition to a tribute
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to one's predecessors and a guide to one's constituency, a reference to Sir John Betjeman in a maiden speech will become one of the conventions of the House.
This is not my maiden speech, but I shall say a word or two about my constituency. South-West Hertfordshire is a green and pleasant landa largely prosperous area containing a number of strong communities. Yet, like many other areas mentioned in today's debate, it suffers from violent crime and antisocial behaviour. This week, my local newspaper mentioned a mugging in Rickmansworth and a shooting in South Oxhey. This time last week, an incident occurred in the road where I live in Chorleywood, which was described as one of the happiest places in Britain only a year ago, but which suffers from antisocial behaviour.
Often where antisocial behaviour is prevalent, a place feels no longer under the control of the authorities and violent crime can arise. My local newspaper also mentioned the neighbouring constituency, Watford, where violent crime increased by 38 per cent. on last year's figures. We have heard many references to statistics: the Government tend to refer to the British crime survey and Conservative Members to recorded crime figures, and conclusions differ according to which figures are used. However, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) rightly said that there is among the public a perception and a real fear of violent crime and antisocial behaviourhence the Bill, no doubt.
The Bill appears to me to comprise a modest set of proposals, to none of which I strongly object. Like many other hon. Members, I have been contacted by airsofters concerned about its impact, so I welcome the assurance that a way forward will be sought that accommodates concerns about replica weapons but maintains airsofting. Such an approach is desirable and I shall support those efforts. However, as I said, there is little in the Bill to which Conservative Members fundamentally object. There is great concern about drunken behaviour, which I see throughout my constituency, in Tring, Berkhamsted, Rickmansworth and Chorleywood. All suffer from that problem and, although I doubt that any of them would fall within an alcohol disorder zone, any measure that might change the culture relating to alcohol would be welcome.
Considering the broader question of how to reduce violent crime, I do not believe that the Bill will make a substantial difference, and I doubt that many hon. Members think it will. Some of the offences will be useful for the authorities' efforts to assert law and order, but there is little that will be greatly helpful. If our aim is to reduce violent crime, we should be paying more attention to international comparisons, in particular the example of New York. During the 1990s, violent crime in New York fell by 60 per cent. and there are clear lessons for us to learn from that city and the policies followed there.
First, we should implement a policy of high-visibility policing. That means reducing the bureaucracy with which the police have to deal, with the result that they spend a lot of time in the station. We also have to increase police numbers; that worked well in New York, which has much greater density of policing than a comparable city such as London. We should set out tough sanctions, whether imprisonment or some other
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measure. My local police are concerned that when youths are convicted of antisocial behaviour offences, nothing happens to them to prevent their going out and offending againindeed, their first experience of the criminal justice process emboldens them to commit further crimes, because they feel that the authorities can do nothing to them.
We need more community policinga point on which there is consensus across the House. Calls for more community policing are not uniquely Conservative, but we need police who are known within their area and who have good contacts. They should be based there, and should not be hauled off to large cities or towns, as happens to the police in Berkhamsted and Tring, who are hauled off to Watford on Friday and Saturday evenings as a matter of course.
How do we bring all those proposals together? There is a clear distinction to be made between arrangements in New York and in this country, where local accountability is entirely lacking. Police authorities are regarded as having little importance and are not thought to represent fully the views of local people. My constituents are frustrated that there is nothing that they can say or do to influence the police in their area. Rightly or wrongly, the police are often regarded as distant and out of touch. The people of Britain need greater control over the police in their locality, which is why many of us advocate the establishment of directly elected police commissioners or, to use a more catchy word, sheriffs. The police need to be in contact with the communities that they serve, but at the moment there is distance between the people and the police, who do not necessarily respond to ordinary people's priorities. Giving them another piece of legislation with which to enforce their presence may be helpful, but until we change fundamentally the culture of our criminal justice system to make it more responsive to local public opinion I fear that we will continue to face violent crime at record levels.