Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Offensive Weapons Bill

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

5 Jun 1996 : Column 1343

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

5 Jun 1996 : Column 1344

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

5 Jun 1996 : Column 1345

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.

5 Jun 1996 : Column 1346

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

5 Jun 1996 : Column 1347

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.)

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page