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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) (Amendment No. 2) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Joan Walley
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Carswell, Mr. Douglas (Harwich) (Con)
Clarke, Mr. Kenneth (Rushcliffe) (Con)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Cohen, Harry (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
Mullin, Mr. Chris (Sunderland, South) (Lab)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Smith, Mr. Andrew (Oxford, East) (Lab)
Richard Ward, Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
MacShane, Mr. Denis (Rotherham) (Lab)

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 7 July 2008

[Joan Walley in the Chair]

Draft Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) (Amendment No. 2) Order 2008

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) (Amendment No. 2) Order 2008.
I wish you and members of the Committee a good afternoon, Ms Walley. I think this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship—I do not remember any other time—and it is great privilege and pleasure to do so.
The Criminal Justice Act 1988 introduced an order-making power to ban the manufacture, sale and importation of specified offensive weapons. Currently, offensive weapons orders prohibit 18 weapons, including swordsticks, knuckledusters, disguised knives and batons. On 6 April 2008, samurai swords were banned when swords with curved blades of 50 cm or more were added to the list of offensive weapons by order, to address concerns of public safety.
In a parliamentary debate on 17 March 2008, I gave an undertaking, not least to the hon. Member for Hornchurch, to listen to representations from groups that were concerned that their legitimate activities had been affected by that ban, and the order acts on that. Collectors expressed their concerns that the ban unfairly impacted on valuable curved military swords from the first and second world wars. I was also lobbied by makers of high-quality swords, who told me that they sell handcrafted curved swords worth £1,000 to £8,000 for export.
The Government’s intention was not to disadvantage craftsmanship or to stop the trade in swords of historical and cultural significance, but to ban the cheap, readily available samurai swords that have been used in violent crimes, including murders. I met collectors and manufacturers in April 2008 and asked my officials to work with them to explore ways in which to protect their legitimate use of curved swords without impacting adversely on the overall effectiveness of the ban. The order will make small changes that are agreeable to, and address the concerns of, stakeholders, but that do not have an impact on the effectiveness of the ban. The changes are minor in detail but significant in effect. They focus on broadening the current defence to any curved sword made before 1954, rather than those made only in Japan, and to any curved sword made after 1954 according to traditional methods of making swords by hand, rather than those made according to such methods only in Japan.
For thoroughness, the order will allow swords for use in religious ceremonies. We have had only minimal lobbying on that, but the Department for Communities and Local Government has told me that curved swords, as perhaps we all know, are an integral part of Sikh wedding ceremonies, and we have no wish to hinder such activities.
I cannot offer a definitive view on whether the new defences will cover swords used in any particular folk or sword dance and therefore whether they will be banned under the new legislation. Groups that think they will be affected should seek advice. However, I should emphasise that the ban applies only to swords with curved blades, and not swords with straight blades, which are perhaps more likely to be used in such dances.
I have also been asked whether there are any plans to add a specific defence for swords used in belly dancing. There are no such plans, but section 43 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 introduced a defence for those who supply offensive weapons for TV, theatrical performances and film productions. The measure provides those companies and individuals who sell and hire offensive weapons for film, television and theatrical productions with a defence from prosecution. I should add that the measure came into force on 6 April 2008, and suggest that individuals contact the trade union for artists and performers, Equity, for advice on whether they are covered.
Even if the sale of swords used in folk, sword and belly dancing were banned, possession would not be affected, and individuals should be able to use their swords in such activities as before. The changes are in line with the Government fulfilling their undertaking, which was provided during parliamentary debates on the original order, to listen to representations from groups that believe that their legitimate use of swords has been unfairly impacted on. Three or four members of this Committee were involved in that debate and I hope that they take note of what I just said.
To digress for a moment: Committees are not able to amend orders, but if someone makes a good point in a debate, it is incumbent on the Government to return to Parliament with another measure. I have said that of a number of orders that I have brought to the House.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): First, I acknowledge the point that the Minister has made. I served on the Committee that considered the previous order and I welcome the fact that we are here again, acting on suggestions made during that debate. Secondly, what discussions has the Minister had with manufacturers of swords for the Army, particularly the one or two companies that advertise in the officer cadet magazines at Sandhurst, for example?
Mr. Coaker: Perhaps I shall answer the hon. Gentleman’s question when I respond to the debate and have received advice on whom specifically we have talked to, because we have talked to a number of different manufacturers.
The amendments would not weaken the ban or have an adverse impact on the intention behind the ban to target the cheaply available replica samurai swords used in violent crime. The Association of Chief Police Officers supports the amendments. I therefore urge the Committee to support the order.
4.36 pm
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Ms Walley, and to welcome other members of the Committee.
I recognise what the Minister said about returning to the Committee with the order before us as a result of points and issues highlighted in the debate on the original order on 17 March 2008. This comes in the context of significant concern about the increase in knife crime, highlighted starkly at the weekend by the number of accident and emergency admissions in which knife crime was a factor.
The Chairman: Order. We are specifically discussing the order before us.
James Brokenshire: Thank you for that advice, Ms Walley; I will be steered by you. The only reason for highlighting the concern about the increase in knife crime was to underline the importance of measures being taken to deal with this very serious issue, which affects so many of our constituents and communities.
As the Minister highlighted, the order is intended to deal with samurai swords and, in particular, the cheap imports of Chinese swords, which have been linked with violent gang crime. I note that on 17 March he said that in the past four years there had been 10 murders involving samurai swords. I have had some experience of that in my constituency, not, I hasten to add, that anyone has lost their life, but there have been some quite significant attacks involving those lethal weapons. The Minister underlined the connection that the Home Office and ACPO have highlighted. I am referring to the number of young criminals for whom samurai swords are a weapon of choice in their criminal activity. We must be clear that this is intended to be only a narrow measure, affecting those particular weapons, and that sadly, as we know from information provided by, for example, the Metropolitan police, most knife crimes are committed using weapons that can be found in the kitchen drawer, rather than the weapons under discussion.
However, I recognise the approach that the Minister and the Home Office are taking in seeking to limit the ability of those very dangerous weapons to get into the hands of those who would wish to cause harm or to use them for other criminal activity. I note that the Minister has returned to the Committee to deal with the legitimate concerns expressed when the original order was introduced about the fact that its scope appeared to go far beyond that which it was intended to cover—samurai swords—and extended to a number of other swords. As he said at the time, the reason for that was to try to achieve a definition that would provide sufficient certainty to make the provisions meaningful. However, there are still concerns among collectors, as well as among those who seek to own these weapons as historical artefacts or for other legitimate purposes, and I think that he will accept that there are legitimate reasons for holding these quite expensive historical swords.
The Minister emphasised that the definition of the swords that will be captured by the order refers to a curved blade, but I am advised by swordsmiths that virtually all swords have some element of curvature, even if it is just at the tip. There is therefore concern among those in the trade who manufacture these expensive weapons—the Minister alluded to the craftsmanship that goes into them—about the fact that the breadth of the original order, as amended by this order, still gives rise to doubts and questions.
The order would limit the provisions introduced on 17 March by allowing the defence that the weapon
“was made before 1954 or was made at any other time according to traditional methods of making swords by hand.”
That follows on from the approach taken in the original order. It referred to Japanese swords, but the current order takes out that qualification. As the Minister said, the provisions apply to all swords, whatever location they may be manufactured in or sourced from. Will he also explain the relevance of 1954 in this context? Are the provisions intended to cover historical artefacts dating from before that time?
As regards swords made by hand, I heard what the Minister said about the high-end expensive swords that are used for military and other purposes. Although most of the swords that are manufactured today may follow traditional designs, they are manufactured by machine, not by hand. The swords that are presented to soldiers as part of the passing-out ceremony at Sandhurst and other military academies are made by machine, not by hand.
The Minister said that he would return to the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, but he will remember that my hon. Friend raised the issue of what happens to family heirlooms in the previous Committee. A family heirloom might ultimately need to be sold, and I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify for service personnel and their families the important question of what they are permitted to do with swords received following training. Will it be possible to sell them as heirlooms on the death of a family member? The Minister said clearly that they could be passed down from one generation to another, and it is important that we clarify the important issue of whether they can be sold or realised.
I recognise that it is always difficult to provide perfect definitions. However, although we might intend to capture samurai swords—or to come as close as we can to capturing what would be regarded as samurai swords—in legislation, I still question the scope and nature of the definition, even as it is amended. Is the definition now wide enough to allow the antiques arms trade to operate and to give the families of service personnel certainty?
The Minister will recall that we discussed the ambit of the law and the provisions in the earlier Committee. In particular, we noted that the provisions applied only to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not to Scotland. At the time, he said that he had considered the issue, but that he would proceed with the provisions because he did not want to hold them back. In subsequent correspondence with me, he said:
“Regarding discussions with the Scottish Executive, my officials had a positive meeting with their officials on 24 April identifying short-term and long-term solutions to ensuring there is a UK-wide ban.”
Will he update the Committee on those discussions? Given that the order does not extend to Scotland, do the Government intend to create a UK-wide ban? Again, the point has been made that manufacturers in Scotland will not be subject to the order or to the restrictions that it will impose.
“I would have thought that sporting activity or re-enactment defence would capture this. Such groups would be advised to take legal advice if they have any doubts as to whether they are captured by the defences.”
The Minister will understand that the practice of martial arts is inextricably linked with the potential use of swords. I know that he has considered the matter carefully, but I wonder what representations he has received from those groups. If he is saying that they should take legal advice, that leaves a slight concern in my mind. There seems to be an element of doubt as to whether martial arts would be captured under the exemption of sporting activity. I therefore wonder why he feels that it is not necessary to make further changes in relation to that particular aspect.
Has the Minister received further representations from the historical re-enactments groups, which expressed some concern over whether the insurance provisions would be applicable to them and whether that would allow them to conduct re-enactments? Again, I note that no exemption or further amendment is proposed. Will he confirm the Government’s thinking on that?
The order covers the sale or resale, manufacture or import of swords for ceremonial purposes in the context of religious activity. When the first order was being considered, the Minister said:
“We are not aware that any religious uses will be caught by these regulations. Simple possession is not affected and therefore we do not believe that anyone wearing something for religious purposes would be affected.”—[Official Report, First Delegated Legislation Committee, 17 March 2008; c. 12.]
I note that the Minister has had further discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government, which highlighted the fact that concern had been expressed. Will he explain what happened to change his mind about introducing the changes in the draft order?
The Opposition are concerned to ensure that the police, law enforcement agencies and the courts have the appropriate rules and regulations necessary to clamp down on the appalling scourge of knife crime. We recognise that the restrictions may have a part to play in that context. However, we are concerned to ensure that we capture things appropriately, and that if the order is intended to cover samurai swords, the Government need to consider the matter extremely carefully to ensure that the definitions and defences properly reflect that.
Concern has clearly been expressed by a number of groups about what the Minister would regard as legitimate purposes. I urge him again to consider the issue carefully. I am not entirely convinced that we have yet got to the end point in the framing of the regulations and the law that sits behind them. Therefore I will listen carefully to the Minister’s reply. He has shown that he is open-minded on the matter and has come forward with amendments in the past, and I hope that he will continue to be open-minded in ensuring that we get the law right for the benefit of police and communities, to provide certainty and protection and to ensure that those whose activities are legitimate are not unfairly penalised.
4.50 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): I feel a little short-changed: the Government Whips communicated with me in far away Kazakhstan that my attendance was required to discuss knives—of course, in Kazakhstan they know a thing or two about the use of knives to conquer their enemies, but that is by way of an aside—but the order is incredibly narrow.
You got in with a pre-emptive strike, Ms Walley, to prevent the debate from broadening into issues that many of us feel are very important. My disappointment relates to my hope that the measure would give the Government an opportunity to broaden what they have been doing or are intending to do, yet despite the order’s narrowness there are one or two matters that, if they are not of concern, require further amplification.
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Prepared 8 July 2008