|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The Government have achieved considerable success in recent years in reducing violent crime. The British Crime Survey shows that, since 1997, violent crime has fallen by 34 per cent. While that is clearly excellent news, it is no reason to assume that more should not be done.
29 Mar 2006 : Column 809
We know, for example, that according to the British Crime Survey just under half of all violent crime is believed to be alcohol related. Many of us will have witnessed in our own towns and city centres the disorder that often accompanies binge drinking. While much of this behaviour often amounts to relatively low-level offences, it can too frequently lead to serious, violent incidents.
We also know that trends in violent crimes involving weapons will always be influenced by the availability of those weapons. That is why we must be constantly alert to shifts in criminal behaviour, and look to see what they tell us about the effectiveness of the legislative framework.
This Bill recognises that there are areas of violent crime in which more can be done to assist the police and local authorities in making our communities safer. We are introducing new powers to challenge unacceptable behaviour, punish those who commit violent acts and stop weapons getting into the hands of those who would misuse them.
The Bill benefited from much considered and helpful debate in the other place. The Government have been keen throughout to listen to arguments, respond to concerns and improve the Bill where we can. I am sure that this constructive approach will continue in your Lordships' House, and I look forward to some lively and instructive debate in the coming weeks, although I must confess that I hope it will be slightly less lively than that which we have just enjoyed.
Part 1 introduces a range of innovative measures to tackle the problems associated with alcohol-related violence and disorder, which unfortunately is a highly visible part of the night-time economy. Most people drink responsibly, but the effect caused by those who do not is disproportionately damaging. In too many of our towns and cities, law-abiding citizens feel unable to enjoy a night out in safety. The British Crime Survey shows that nearly one in five of all violent incidents occur in or around pubs and clubs. That is a significant proportion, and much of it will be as a result of binge drinking.
Responsibility for ending a culture in which people frequently drink to excess must ultimately lie with the individual. To hold individuals to account for their actions, we seek to introduce through the Bill a new civil order: the drinking banning order. It will be available to protect communities from the criminal or disorderly behaviour of an individual while they are under the influence of alcohol. Through this order, a court will be able to impose whatever prohibitions it believes necessary to protect others from this type of behaviour.
The aim of the drinking banning order is really quite simple: we want to discourage unacceptable, alcohol-fuelled behaviour, and punish such behaviour when it occurs. In doing so, we want to protect innocent people from the harm caused by those who misuse alcohol.
29 Mar 2006 : Column 810
Your Lordships may be aware that when the Bill was in the other place, the Government undertook to consider the parallels with interventions to provide education and support to drink-driving offenders and whether similar interventions might be developed for those who are subject to drinking banning orders. I can confirm that we will bring forward amendments about that in Committee in this House. Those amendments will enable the courts to reduce the duration of a drinking banning order if individuals agree to undertake a course designed specifically to address their misuse of alcohol and their resultant behaviour, and then satisfactorily complete this course. I know from many of our debates that this House takes seriously the need to break the cycle of alcohol abuse.
The Bill also provides a new power for the police to prevent alcohol-related disorder by issuing to an individual aged 16 or over a direction to leave a locality. If the presence of an individual in a particular place is likely to cause or contribute to alcohol-related crime or disorder, a police constable may issue that person with a direction to leave the locality and prohibit their return for up to 48 hours.
Noble Lords will, I hope, be pleased to see that we have included an explicit necessity test in this provision, which ensures that this power can be used only where it is imperative for the police to intervene in a situation to prevent disorder or violence occurring or escalating. These measures focus on the individual and provide new tools for the police and local authorities to use in tackling unacceptable behaviour. However, it is clear that the alcohol industry and licensed premises also have an important role to play in tackling alcohol-related violence and disorder. We very much welcome the steps that the trade has taken to raise operating standards. The alcohol industry has published a comprehensive statement of principles and standards for the retail of alcohol, and is working on how these can be embedded across the board. Locally, initiatives such as the "Best Bar None" accreditation scheme, which was first launched in Manchester, are rewarding the best-run premises and encouraging good practice. But there is more to be done to improve the performance of pubs, clubs and off-licences, and the new powers in the Licensing Act 2003 are a key part of this.
As I have said, a lot of alcohol-related violence and disorder in town and city centres takes place at night, in the streets around pubs and clubs rather than inside them. It is often difficult to blame a particular pub, club or off-licence for this disorder, but that does not mean that premises can deny all responsibility for it. We want the industry to take collective responsibility for the problem. The Bill therefore proposes a new power for the police and local authorities to designate alcohol disorder zones where there is a significant problem with alcohol-related disorder. Let me reassure noble Lords that alcohol disorder zones will be a measure of last resort. The key focus of the alcohol disorder zones provision is on the action-planning stage. Bringing licensed premises together to implement the action plan, whose steps are intended to
29 Mar 2006 : Column 811
reduce the risk of alcohol-related crime occurring in the first place, is the real benefit here. It is prevention, rather than simply cure.
The action plan will be tailored to provide solutions to specific local problems. Typically, this could include taking steps to raise the standard of management in premises, or seeking voluntary contributions towards additional services for the night-time economy, such as taxi marshals to prevent the flare-ups often seen as people queue for taxis at the end of a long night out. The decision to move to formal designation, where necessary, will be reviewed after three months. We foresee very few areas moving beyond the action-planning stage. Much of the detail of the administration of alcohol disorder zones will be in secondary legislation. Noble Lords will, I hope, be pleased to learn that following the helpful recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, we will table an amendment in Committee to make these regulations subject to the affirmative procedure of both Houses of Parliament.
The Bill also introduces provisions, which supplement existing arrangements in the Licensing Act 2003, to expedite reviews of premises' licences in the case of serious crime and disorder. Under this provision, the licensing authority can act much more quickly to take steps to tackle problem premises in serious cases.
Finally on alcohol, the Bill introduces a new offence of persistently selling alcohol to children. It gives the police and trading standards officers the power to serve a closure notice on licensed premises, banning the sale of alcohol for up to 48 hours, if alcohol has been sold to children three times in a three-month period. That new offence will create a powerful deterrent by ensuring that sanctions are directed against the business, not just the individuals making the sales. I hope that noble Lords will be pleased to learn that we have accepted the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and will table an amendment in Committee to ensure that any increase in the maximum fine available for this offence will also be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
In Part 2 we will bring forward another range of important measures, this time designed to tackle aspects of violent crime involving weapons, particularly the misuse of air weapons, imitation firearms and knives. As noble Lords are only too well aware, there is already a range of legislation which makes it an offence to possess a prohibited firearm or to carry knives and other weapons in public without reasonable excuse. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment for unlawful possession of a prohibited firearm. In the 12 months to September 2005, there was a 38 per cent reduction in fatal injuries caused by firearms other than air weapons.
However, offenders may seek to escape prosecution by passing a weapon to another person to hide it for them. Clearly, we need to address this. That is why we
29 Mar 2006 : Column 812
will introduce a new offence of using someone to mind a weapon. This will make it an offence to use a person to hide or carry a knife or firearm. The measure includes a requirement for the courts to take into account the age of the person used to hide or carry the weapon when considering sentencing. If the offender is aged 18 or over and the person used to mind a weapon is not, that must be regarded as an aggravating factor which will affect the length of the sentence handed down.
Another area of real public concern is the misuse of air guns, either as a result of sheer recklessness or out of ignorance of safe practice. It is true that the number of air weapon crimes in 200405 was down from the previous year, but we are still looking at a total of 11,825 recorded crimes. That is simply not acceptable, particularly when a closer look at those statistics reveals a total of 1,358 slight injuries and 143 serious injuries in the past year alone. Those statistics tend to obscure real personal tragedies such as the deaths of a two-year-old toddler, Andrew Morton, in Glasgow, and 12 year-old Alex Cole, in Doncaster. Our hearts go out to their families and friends, who have had to cope with those tragic events.
We already have a wide range of controls regulating the use of air weapons and it is important that they are enforced. But we need to go further and take action at source to control who can sell air weapons. That is why we will make it an offence to sell air weapons by way of trade or business without being registered with the police as a firearms dealer. Sales will also be subject to a requirement for all weapons to be handed over on a face-to-face basis, which will ensure that ages can be checked and address the risk of under-age purchases through the internet or mail order. We will also raise the minimum age for possessing an air weapon from 17 to 18: we believe that much of the misuse is attributed to young people. They will, of course, still be able to use air weapons under supervision.
Making sure that ammunition is not easily obtained is an important element in tackling gun crime, and we are aware that some criminals try to escape prosecution by holding ammunition in its component form, rather than assembled rounds. Ammunition is essentially useless without a primer and we see no reason why people should be able to buy primers unless they have a genuine reason for possessing them. We are therefore introducing a requirement that primers are sold only to those who hold an appropriate firearms certificate. We are similarly looking to restrict the purchase and sale of ammunition loading presses.
On Clauses 32 to 37, we were never under any illusion that defining a realistic imitation firearm would be easy, but we simply could not allow the situation to continue where they were increasingly used to commit crime or to cause fear on the streets. The statistics are frightening, the reality even more so.
Imitation firearms were used in 3,333 crimes in 200304, an increase of 55 per cent on the previous yearand that on top of previous rises of 18 per cent and 46 per cent. If we exclude air weapons offences, this represents nearly one-third of all firearms crime.
29 Mar 2006 : Column 813
This is all the more worrying when we consider that over 80 per cent of these offences were violence against the person. I hope we can all agree that being threatened with a realistic imitation can be just as traumatic as the real thing.
We are therefore proposing to make it an offence to manufacture, import or sell a realistic imitation firearm, by which we mean an imitation of so realistic an appearance as to make it indistinguishable for all practical purposes from a real firearm. We understand the need for objectivity if this law is to be properly enforced, which is why we have tightened up during the passage of the Bill the process governing what can and cannot be regarded as a realistic imitation.
The definition specifically excludes deactivated firearms and imitations of antiques, as well as any imitations which are antiques in their own right. I know that some collectors of real antique firearms are concerned that we have used 1870 as a reference point when there is no fixed date for antiques in the firearms Acts. I should explain that this date was chosen because it was only after then that the manufacture of a particular type of breech-loading firearm became widespread. I am happy to put on the record that we see this date as having relevance only to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill; it has no effect on the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968 which deal with the status of real antique firearms. I hope that noble Lords opposite will derive a certain degree of pleasure from what I have said on that point today.
We believe that, taken together, these measures will go a long way towards capping off the future supply of realistic imitation firearms used to threaten, intimidate or rob, while still allowing certain legitimate uses to continue. Quite apart from the need to impose more stringent restrictions on realistic imitation firearms, we also need to ensure that other imitations are not capable of misuse. It is for this reason that we are seeking a power to make regulations requiring them to conform to specifications.
Too often we hear of police armed response units being called out to deal with incidents of people seen brandishing guns, only for them to find that it is youngsters messing around, with little appreciation of the consequences and the risk of being shot in the confusion of the moment. It would be sensible, therefore, to introduce a minimum age for the purchase of any imitation firearm, and we propose to set this at 18. And lest anyone think it is okay to mess about in public with an imitation gun of any description, the Bill increases the maximum penalty for possessing an imitation firearm in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse from six months to 12 months.
Part 2 also contains measures to deal with those who carry knives and other offensive weapons with the intention of causing harm to others. We fully support the work of the police in tackling knife crime. There are many dedicated, intelligence-led operations going on up and down the country, such as Operation Blunt in London, and we are preparing, in partnership with
29 Mar 2006 : Column 814
the Association of Chief Police Officers, for a nationwide knife amnesty, which will run from 24 May until the end of June.
The Government also recognise the important part played by communities in addressing knife crime. We have this year put £2 million from recycled criminal assets into projects working against gun and knife crimes and issues involving gangs across England and Wales. However, we believe that more needs to be done to help prevent young people, in particular, getting hold of knives. It is currently an offence to sell a knife to a person under the age of 16; Clause 38 increases the age to 18.
The Bill also introduces a power for head teachers in state and independent schools in England and Walesif the Assembly wishes to commence the power thereto search any pupils or their possessions if it is suspected that they are carrying a weapon such as a knife. On the whole, schools are orderly and well managed and most pupils never carry a knife. This proposal is directed at the very few young people who ignore the law and take an illegal knife on to school premises. The Bill also provides an equivalent power in relation to further education institutions and attendance centres for young people.
Part 3 deals with a range of issues, including football-related disorder, sexual offences and mobile phones. The football World Cup and the measures being taken to prevent English troublemakers travelling to the tournament have received a good deal of publicity in recent weeks. It is an area where a great deal has been achieved, but there can be no grounds for complacency. The Bill introduces measures extending the ticket-touting laws to cover the sale of unauthorised tickets on the internet and makes permanent and fine-tunes the banning order arrangements introduced by the Football Disorder Act 2000.
The Bill also introduces measures to ensure that we remain able to take effective action against those who pose a risk of serious sexual harm to our communities. These include amending the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to restore the power to order the forfeiture and detention of vehicles used by those engaged in the inhumane trade of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
Noble Lords will know that the Bill is part of a very full agenda of the Government's work to build on our success in reducing violent crime. It complements our citizen-focused approach to neighbourhood policing by giving communities the powers they need to respond quickly and creatively to local problems, in particular alcohol-related violence and disorder. But it also recognises that tough action needs to be taken to prevent those more serious violent crimes involving weapons. That is why we are making weapons harder to get hold of and making sure that there are appropriately stiff penalties in place for those who break the law.
I apologise for taking a little longer than I would normally, but I hope that these helpful indications of how we will progress this matter will leave noble Lords
29 Mar 2006 : Column 815
less troubled than they would otherwise have been, and that they can therefore, perhaps, make shorter contributions. I commend the Bill to the House.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|