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Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, as ever, I thank the Minister for her explanation of the Bill. We always seem to be on a treadmill with Home Office Bills—as one goes, another one comes along.

Crime statistics are trotted out by the Government to paint a picture of a Britain where crime is reducing, but we know that British Crime Survey figures are systematically flawed; they are not comprehensive and they omit murder, sexual offences and crimes against people under the age of 16 altogether. In the case of violent crime, they are contradicted by the recorded crime figures and by everyone's everyday experience. According to the international crime victimisation survey, Britain has the second highest levels of criminality in the industrialised world.

At one end of the spectrum, we read of the appalling crimes of violence where law-abiding people are attacked as they walk home after a night out or unsuspectingly answer the door of their home to robbers. At the other end, we hear stories of fines being dished out to people who drop their junk mail into street litter bins or of ASBOs being imposed on those who are a suicide risk.

We could argue the toss over the accuracy of crime figures until the end of this Government, but in the spirit of being constructive about this modest Bill, which tinkers at the edges of violent crime, I shall concentrate on the proposals in the Bill and our response to them.

I have to observe that the Government obviously see no urgency about the Bill. Otherwise, why would they leave it mouldering on the shelf for so long? It had its Second Reading in another place on 20 June last year and its First Reading in this House on 15 November last year. Nineteen weeks have passed since the Bill reached this House. It is interesting to learn a little today of what I hope has been rather more progress by the Government in that time, particularly on drafting regulations. I welcome the moves that the noble Baroness announced today, particularly in accepting the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the other matters to which she referred.

I would be grateful if the Minister could also tell us what progress the Government have made with regard to the policy detail of the alcohol disorder zone regulations. I note in particular a letter written by her right honourable friend Hazel Blears to my honourable friend Humfrey Malins on 10 November last year, which stated:


 
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Will we have a sight of those before Committee and, if not, why not? Perhaps they might even be available today. As I have said in debates on previous Bills, I live in hope—always the optimist.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for referring to amendments that the Government will bring forward in Committee with regard to the treatment of those who have alcohol disorder-related problems. We will look at those with great care, but the principle is of course to be welcomed.

What progress have the Government made on their plans to consult those businesses that will be penalised by the introduction of the alcohol disorder zones? What progress have they made on consultation with those who have an interest in legislation on air guns and imitation firearms? Will further amendments be brought forward in Committee to improve the Bill as a result?

There are many parts of the Bill that we can support outright. Others we will support only subject to the important caveat of making sure that they are both fair and effective in their scope and application. We welcome the greater powers to be given to courts to allow them to ban individuals from drinking in pubs and clubs in a defined area for a given length of time. There is no doubt that local authorities need powers to control local drinking hotspots, and giving courts the chance to focus on serial disorderly drinkers who populate such places should, we hope, be of some help.

There are a few issues that we will need to examine carefully in Committee to make sure that the scheme works better. It seems odd that licensees who control their premises impeccably should have to pay for the cost of dealing with the disorder caused by others who may not even be licensees. We will want to examine whether it is possible to give the local authority a measure of discretion in how it imposes charges on local businesses.

We want to examine whether the Bill treats consultation in the right way. It does not at the moment, for example, seem to specify that businessmen and women from our ethnic communities should be included formally in the consultation process. We shall table amendments in Committee to address that issue.

We support the proposals to create the offence of using an accomplice to conceal weapons. There is evidence that a number of cases are not prosecuted for lack of a weapon, so the provision may well help to convict more criminals.

We on the Front Bench support the extension of the age limit for the purchase of air guns. I anticipate that those on my Back Benches who have long experience of the needs of rural areas may take an alternative view. I recognise fully that the lawful use of guns is an essential part of many areas of rural life and the rural economy. While this Bill is well intentioned, my noble friends will want to ensure that it will not prejudice the interests of those whose livelihoods are based in the rural community.
 
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We agree with the Government that there is a problem with replica firearms, which can be used to terrorise the public. They make life difficult and downright dangerous for the police, and they can lead to tragedy. However, the age-old problem of definition plagues this part of the Bill. I welcomed the Minister's further explanation of the term "antique". I and others will look carefully at her assurances regarding Clause 34(8), which relates to realistic imitation firearms pre-dating 1870.

I always take very seriously assurances that are given at the Dispatch Box. Due to a domestic circumstance, I take them perhaps even more seriously this week than I might have done a week or so ago. As the Minister knows, my husband is a practising lawyer. He brought to my attention an exchange of views between the noble Baroness and me a little while ago during the passage of the Extradition Act. He showed me a recent decision by the Court of Appeal on the matter of habeas corpus. A categorical assurance about habeas corpus given to me by the Minister in response to an amendment was deemed by the Court of Appeal to be a clarification of the law, and it made a decision in an extradition case based on her assurance. So I take those matters seriously. We will need to see whether the definition that she has provided today goes far enough. I hope that it does.

Other aspects of the definition of "realistic imitation firearm" also cause a problem. The Government made some sensible progress in another place, but we will need to examine further whether their objectives are fully met without causing the honest person to lose the opportunity to carry out his legal pastime, particularly those who engage in airsoft activities. I confess that, before this Bill came along, I had never heard of airsoft. When I did, I mistakenly thought that it was rather like paintball. I am grateful to the Association of British Airsoft for its careful briefing on this matter and for the time that it has taken with me. I now appreciate that the amendments which the Government passed in another place may not have had quite the beneficial effect that they intended and that the future of airsoft is still under threat.

In addition, it seems that the new defences to the offence of possessing an imitation firearm do not fully cover historical re-enactors and those who run private museums and galleries. We will table amendments which examine that matter further. I understand that Hazel Blears is still in contact with some of the organisations that are interested in this part of the Bill—for example, the Association of British Airsoft. That is a constructive approach, and I hope that we will be able to make further progress in this House as a result.

We are puzzled that the Government have still failed to carry out their commitment to establish a firearms committee of experts. We shall table an amendment which asks them to justify their inaction.

The Bill deals also with weapons of a different kind: knives. There has been a sharp increase in knife killings since 1988 and the number of offences has gone up
 
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by 17 per cent. That clearly has to be tackled, but how? One does not prevent a crime by banning the weapons with which it is committed, although one may be able to limit its incidence and its effects. Rather, one prevents crime by detecting it, punishing it and, in the case of violent crime, keeping those responsible out of circulation and in prison for the safety of the public. We question whether the Government have had any great success on that.

It is now proposed to increase the age at which knives can be bought legally. Somebody will be able to marry at 16, but not buy a knife to use in their kitchen. There is no reason to believe that the new offence will be effective. There is no shortage of knives in circulation and, with or without the Bill, there is unlikely to be a shortage in the future. A MORI poll in 2004 revealed that a quarter of children aged between 12 and 16 admitted to carrying a knife. Almost one in five of them said that they had attacked someone intending to do injury. That is a horrific statistic. If we want to reduce knife crime, we should focus on those who use the knives, not only on those who buy them.

We support provisions throughout Part 3 of the Bill, as they tidy up a range of measures, from those tackling football disorder to others that strengthen the law on trafficking for sexual exploitation. During my first trawl through the Bill, I considered that the drafting did not require improvement. So this may be a first in my time speaking on home affairs since 2002, in that I shall not table any amendments to clauses in a part of a government Bill. I celebrate that—and the Minister may be rather relieved.

Finally, there are a couple of measures that I shall seek to add to the Bill, which we hope the Government may find useful. They are put forward in a constructive spirit, and I shall table the new clauses tomorrow to make provision for them. The first is for a new criminal offence of "happy slapping". Noble Lords will be all too aware from press reports that there has been much concern about the prevalence of a new sort of activity among people who have ready access to a mobile phone that takes still or video pictures and who use that phone to record a criminal event—usually a group kicking, beating or raping an individual. The pictures are then transmitted to others on the basis that they can all have a good laugh at the victim and applaud the criminal. That is a despicable way in which to behave.

The new offence that I hope to introduce would make it illegal for any person intentionally to make an audio or visual recording of a criminal offence for the purpose of obtaining gratification for himself or another. I stressed the words "intentionally", "purpose" and "gratification" for the very simple purpose of explaining that I believe that in that way I would ensure that those who record criminal events for the purposes of prosecuting the same are not caught by my proposed offence. I am thinking not only of the police or journalists, but also of the quick-thinking members of the public who took pictures in London of the consequences of the July bombings, for example. They are to be praised and would not fall foul of my proposed offence.
 
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My second proposal addresses the needs of those of our Olympians who excel at shooting events. At present, it is almost impossible for those who wish to participate in the pistol events to train properly without heavy financial burdens and the need to travel outside UK jurisdiction, which act as disincentives. We think it right that we work with the Government to introduce measures that would enable our shooting sportsmen and women to equip and train themselves in the UK for the Olympics when they are held in London in 2012. My noble friend Lord Glentoran will lead us on these matters. I shall give a little support, but he will do the redoubtable work on it.

We shall seek to allow a person to have an authorised pistol, subject to several very severe conditions, giving the Secretary of State some very strong backstop powers. It will be vital to ensure that there is strict control so that the ownership and use of single-shot pistols is restricted to those who are training to take part in the Olympics in London. We must ensure that there is a time limit, so that sportspeople do not benefit from the relaxation of existing rules until 1 January 2010—that date might ring in the Minister's ears after our recent vote. That is two years in advance of the London Olympics. It is a date of my own choosing, unlike the one in the matter on which we have just voted. If the Government can find another and better way by which they can guarantee that our participants in the London Olympics will be able to practise within the UK, I shall be happy to discuss it with them.

Overall, this is a well intentioned Bill, but one that merely tinkers at the edges of what we really need—a significant reduction in violent crime. Nevertheless, like the Minister, we look forward to a constructive and lively, if perhaps not too lively, time in Committee.

6.38 pm


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