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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment would ensure that those engaged in airsoft activities could continue to do so in their current form. It would give them a defence to the offence of using a realistic imitation firearm. It would enable them to continue their sport only following regulations to be set out by the Secretary of State. The Government could thereby ensure that the sport was carried out only under safe and regulated conditions and that those weapons would not be available to those who might want to use them for illegal purposes.

When I spoke to an amendment in Committee on 22 May at col. 623, the Minister said that the Government rejected it and that they believed that there was no compelling reason for airsofters to use realistic imitations. That is the very point at which airsofters and the Government diverge in their understanding of the sport. Airsofters have said to me that it is vital in skirmishing that they should be able to use realistic imitation weapons. In Committee, I put on record a detailed description of what constitutes the activity of airsoft. As this is Report, I shall certainly not go through that detail again, but I am very much aware that the activity is not well known to Members of Parliament in either House, so it took some while for a head of steam to work up and for noble Lords and Members of another place properly to appreciate how important the activity is to a substantial number of people in the United Kingdom.

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On 21 May, Mr Ken Elston, chairman of the United Kingdom Airsoft Site Governing Body, wrote a full submission to the Home Secretary, explaining why the exemption was necessary to save the sport. The response to that submission came from Mr Keith Bottomley of the Home Office firearms section, SC1. The letter is undated, but he restated the position set out by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in Committee, as follows:

The letter states that the Government see no real reason why airsofters cannot,

It is quite a brief letter in response to a very well argued two and a half-page submission to the Home Office. Mr Elston has subsequently written to me to make the following cogent point: it remains a mystery to airsofters that groups who make only a limited use of airsoft equipment, such as historical battleground re-enactors, can qualify for exemption in the Bill, while the very people who are the recognised and legitimate users of airsoft equipment—airsoft players, who are members of registered clubs and who meet on a regular basis on registered, well regulated sites away from the general public under the auspices of a governing body—cannot.

Prior to the Bill, airsofters were led to believethat the exemption clause was there to ensure that legitimate users would not be affected. The idea that translucent, brightly coloured weapons could be acceptable as an alternative or be in any way appropriate is, frankly, ridiculous. Photographs have been presented to me showing what the use of such translucent weapons would look like and it would not make it an activity in which people would want to continue to take part.

Airsofters do not want their sport of skirmishing reduced to a childish game with bright yellow plastic weapons. That is how they put their view. For airsofters, it is and, they hope, will always remain an adult activity for the serious and committed participant. The activity used to be known as airsoft skirmishing, but due to the registration office accepting that the word “skirmishing” is protected and owned by the paintball company, airsoft has tended to alter the title of its game, but it remains an adult activity in which the realism of the equipment and weapons plays an essential part.

There is also concern that the Government's provisions could end up assisting criminals and putting the police in danger. If a criminal were to decide to spray a real firearm fluorescent yellow so that it looked like an airsoft weapon, which the Government will allow to be used, that could place an armed officer in an invidious position. A moment of hesitation could cost the officer his or her life. Airsofters remain convinced that it is important to have clear legislation that provides a simple and workable exemption for genuine airsofters, so that they can carry on with their activity in the same responsible manner as they always have in the past. My amendment is designed to achieve that objective.

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I am aware that since I tabled this amendment way back in May, the Minister, Mr McNulty, has had meetings during the summer with the bodies representing airsofters. I am aware from discussion since then and letters written to me that the Government have been prepared to make a significant change in their stance—but not as far as writing something in the Bill, which we always believe is preferable. There may be a way to resolve the impasse between the airsofters and the Government that is acceptable to airsofters. In particular, I am aware of a letter written by Mr Tony McNulty on 19 September to Mr Tim Wyborn of the Association of British Airsoft, setting out just such an offer. If in his response, the Minister is able to indicate where the Government might move their position towards, I may be able to withdraw the amendment later. For the moment, I beg to move.

7 pm

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, in order to know what we are talking about, I have been trying to ask surreptitiously what airsoft is. Answers range from hairspray to some other thing. Someone has just said that it is a squeezy toy that sells for $109.99. What is it? Is it some sort of paintball game? We cannot really judge this amendment if we do not know what it is.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, because my noble friend is asking me a question before I sit down—as ever, she is within the rules of Report—I shall, with the leave of the House, briefly explain. I will not repeat the full description that I gave in Committee. My noble friend highlights a difficulty; many people immediately think of paintball when they hear the word “airsoft”. That is what really annoys airsofters because nothing, they say, could be further from paintball. Airsofters engage in skirmishing whereby they enact battle scenes. They are not re-enactors, but dress in fatigues and use black plastic realistic copies of firearms. Those copies can fire a bullet, but at such a low velocity that, if I aimed at the Minister from across the Dispatch Box—of course, I would never consider doing so—he would not feel any great discomfort, if I managed to hit him. Given my only previous attempt to learn how to use a handgun, I am sure that I would miss.

In skirmishing, one deploys great ability in feinting and carrying out battle moves. It is very good training. I am told by airsofters that ex-soldiers, members of the Territorial Army and police officers often participate in it as a way of honing their skills—this is its importance—by taking part in an activity that, if one were in the Army and live ammunition was being used, could result in an unpleasant outcome for one or other of the participants. With airsoft, however, it is a matter of practising skirmishing. I hope that that rather abridged and at times flippant explanation—it was not intended to be flippant—might help my noble friend. I shall also ensure that airsofters send her further and better particulars. You never know—she might take part.

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I owe a debt of thanks to the noble Baroness; I knew nothing about airsofting before similar amendments were tabled in Committee. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, will know a great deal more as a consequence of this debate. I feel the thud of wodges of paper landing on her doormat as we speak. Indeed, I am sure that we will all be bombarded—perhaps bombarded is the wrong term; rather, advised—by airsofters on what brilliant games can be played with the kit they use.

The amendment has been perfectly explained as a defence for the sport of airsoft against the new offence in Clause 34 of manufacturing, importing or selling realistic imitation firearms. This point was made earlier in our consideration of the Bill. The Association of British Airsoft visited the Minister in the summer, as the noble Baroness said, to press its case in defence of its sport. I can inform the House that, after careful consideration, the Government have agreed to provide such a defence. We will not do so in the Bill, however, but through the regulation-making powers in Clause 34, because I argue, as I often do on these occasions, that that provides greater flexibility in specifying exactly who will benefit from the defence and how it should work. I believe that Home Office officials will meet the association later this month to discuss the important details. Using regulations also enables us to fine-tune the arrangements, which might be necessary given that airsoft is not a long-established pursuit. No doubt it is one of those things that evolves over time.

Amendment No. 35 would provide a defence for airsoft in the Bill, but we believe that it is better to put it into regulation. Furthermore, the amendment refers to airsoft being organised by persons “in such manner” as the Secretary of State may specify. However, the real issue is agreeing arrangements to ensure that only genuine airsoft players can benefit from the defence. It is therefore more a question of “who” than “how”.

I hope the noble Baroness will welcome the Government’s decision to provide a defence for airsoft and that, having heard what I have to say on this subject, she will happily withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. Mr Tim Wyborn said in advance of today that, if the Minister could put those words on record, airsofters could accept his offer of an exemption through regulations, although obviously that was the second-best option. I agree with the association that exemptions are always better in a Bill rather than in secondary legislation, in which one must prove that one is an honest person and a real airsofter.

I am grateful, too, for the indication that the talks towards the end of October will go ahead. As one can imagine, airsofters have not taken part in parliamentary proceedings before, and have got on with their own business relatively quietly and very honestly and legitimately. They have had no reason to be within the ambit of parliamentary affairs and were concerned that if the matters were not put clearly on

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record, they might not get the exemption later on when the regulations were formed. The Minister has made that offer clearly, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 36 [Meaning of “realistic imitation firearm”]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved AmendmentNo. 36:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment and those grouped with it are minor and technical amendments to clarify errors in the drafting of Clause 36 and Schedules 2 and 5. It is not necessary for me to trouble the House with precise details of these errors. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved AmendmentNo. 37:

(a) section 139(6)(b) (maximum penalty for offence of having knife etc. in public place); (b) section 139A(5)(a)(ii) (maximum penalty for offence of having knife etc. or offensive weapon on school premises).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these amendments are rather more substantial and relate to issues helpfully raised by the Opposition in Committee and before. I should say for the record how much I share the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, about knife crime and how grateful I am to her for tabling her amendments at this stage of the Bill and at an earlier stage. There is a shared commitment and determination to ensure that those carrying a knife in a public place without good reason or good cause or without lawful authority receive appropriate sentences.

Protection of the public is one of the key priorities of this Government. Knife crime is a major cause of public concern and fear. For these reasons, we are proposing an increase in the maximum penalty for this offence from two years’ imprisonment or a fine or both, to four years’ imprisonment or a fine or both. Our amendment goes further and proposes the same increase in the maximum sentence for the offence of having a blade or point in a school without good reason. This is part of our wider package of measures to reduce knife crime in line with our manifesto commitment,

All noble Lords will be concerned about knife crime, and I hope they will welcome the amendment as evidence of the Government’s commitment to this

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issue. We must ensure that courts have sufficient powers to deal appropriately with the illegal possession of knives as a way of preventing further offences. Let me explain why the Government propose increasing these maximum sentences to four years. Raising the maximum sentence to four years is consistent with the different, although related, offence of possessing an offensive weapon under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, for which the penalty is four years’ imprisonment. It also ensures that our penalties are as severe as those in Scotland, where the penalty for this offence was recently increased to four years. Maximum penalties generally should be proportionate, indicate the relative seriousness of the crime, and allow for proper punishment of the most serious instances of the offence including repeat offences. As the noble Baroness has herself proposed an amendment to increase the penalty for the offence of possession of a knife in a public place to four years, I trust that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment in favour of the Government’s amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I have no objection to this amendment, but the public must be getting increasingly confused. What are the real chances of courts passing these maximum sentences when the Lord Chief Justice is doing his level best to persuade the courts to pass shorter sentences?

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, the system works in this way. There is a generally accepted level for the standard penalty for carrying a knife. If your Lordships double the maximum, the standard penalty will automatically increase. The judges who pass the sentence will look at the fact that Parliament has spoken in this way and will increase the penalty. That is the way to proceed: it is not by passing minimum sentences. The judiciary respond when maximum sentences are increased: I think that we all dislike the imposition of minimum sentences. We support the increase in these penalties. It is an increasing problem, particularly on school premises. Having been involved in the Philip Lawrence case concerning the unhappy death of a headmaster, I am well aware of the nature of the problem.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I support government Amendments Nos. 37 and 49 and I shall speak to my Amendment No. 38. It is right that one should increase the maximum sentence for the,

without good reason from two to four years. I hope that it may provide a stronger deterrent to those who might consider carrying a knife in a public place. I also hope that it will send a message to the victims of crime that Parliament has expressed its will that such an offence should be treated with the utmost gravity. The need for such an amendment becomes all the more apparent when one considers the sentencing powers of the courts in relation to a similar offence—possession of an offensive weapon—under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. That offence carries a maximum penalty of four years. Given the

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rise in knife crime, we felt that the time had come to consider whether the offence of carrying a bladed article merited a greater sentence as a maximum than that available under the 1953 Act.

In Committee, the Minister said that he shared my concern about the incidence of knife crime but that the Government’s view was that the best way to deal with sentencing was through the Sentencing Guidelines Council. He indicated that the forthcoming Sentencing Guidelines Council guideline on assaults would,

and that the sentence should be increased to reflect that.

At that stage, I had tabled a probing amendment for Committee which would increase the maximum penalty to five years. I reflected on the Minister’s response and, of course, I naturally value the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. But I remained of the view that it was the right time to signal disquiet about the increasing use of knives by increasing the maximum sentence that might be available to the courts. Since then, I am afraid the reports of knife crime have continued to alarm me and other Members of this House. It is on the increase. Recent reports have suggested that in some parts of the country it has risen by as much as 90 per cent inthe past two years. Perhaps the most worrying trend is the increase in the carriage and use of knives by young people, including, from a personal viewpoint, reports that carriage of knives by young girls is as widespread as by young men.

On 25 May, I therefore tabled a series of amendments to give the Government a “pick-and-mix” opportunity to say whether they would raise the maximum sentence to three, four or five years. Of course, I was pleased to read in the newspapers this summer that the Home Secretary was minded to accept my amendment and set it at four years. I thought that perhaps for this one occasion the Government would manage to accept an opposition amendment. But, nae, they found a way of saying, yet again, that they agreed with me, but that my amendment was defective. This Government are so resourceful when it comes to wriggling out of saying that the Conservative Party has got something right. So they found a way of ensuring that their amendment comes forward. However, I agree with them. It is right not only to raise the maximum penalty to four years but also to ensure that penalties—I give way to my noble friend.

7.15 pm

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it would be rather absurd to leave the sentence at only two years’ imprisonment when the Government are apparently minded to have a sentence of two years’ imprisonment for riding a bicycle without a bell?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, as ever, my noble friend is 100 per cent right: how could he ever be otherwise? I certainly saw some criticism in the

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press about the Government’s amendment and, by implication, my amendment, by those who said that increasing the maximum penalty would do no good at all. I agree and there will obviously have to be other measures as well. So it is against the background of other measures that we proposed too that I would agree with this. In addition, I criticised the “red-topping”, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, would say, of the knife amnesty that took place earlier this year. Perhaps the Minister might be able to tell the House how successful that has been. When I tabled Written Questions in the summer, I was told that it was too soon for the Government to have the relevant statistics from the police forces. If the numbers of the great success do not come readily to mind, perhaps he might write to me to let me know what happened. However, in the spirit of ensuring that we have a range of measures to deter people from carrying knives and, possibly, using them, I support the Government’s amendment and will not move mine.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we have a measure of agreement on the appropriate maximum sentence. I paid tribute to the noble Baroness at the beginning of this short debate. When she made her case at a previous stage, I thought that I had indicated a degree of personal sympathy and that the Government should reflect on the position. As the noble Baroness said, there was a further review ofthe sentencing provision for possession of knives during the summer, which is why we thought that there was scope to provide a wider range of sentencing powers for courts to address individuals possessing knives in public and in schools.

This is not the first time that the Government have acted. There are a number of legislative and, for that matter, non-legislative government initiatives to combat knife crime. Previously, we had concerns that increasing the maximum penalty for the offence could be disproportionate, but in view of the concerns raised during the passage of the Bill, we further reflected on the situation during the summer and concluded that increasing the maximum penalty would provide a useful tool to tackle knife crime.

We also had a debate earlier today on knife crime. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, took exception to the age at which someone can be sold a knife being changed. Young people, aged 16 and 17, will not be able to buy a knife. A new offence of using someone to mind a knife or a gun is created to ensure that people who hand knives or guns to, for example, younger siblings for them to look after, cannot escape the effect of the law.

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