Offensive Weapons Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Kwasi KwartengMain Page: Kwasi Kwarteng (Conservative - Spelthorne)
Department Debates - View all Kwasi Kwarteng's debates with the Home Office
Legislation Debates - View all Kwasi Kwarteng's contributions to the Offensive Weapons Act 2019
It is welcome when any police force recruits additional police officers. I do not have to hand the number of officers that Essex has lost since 2010, but I imagine that it is significantly more than 150.
Let us look at the Home Office research on the drivers of trends in violent crime. Neighbourhood policing was certainly mentioned; social media was acknowledged to have played a role, as were changes to the drug market, as the Home Secretary mentioned, particularly in respect of the purity of crack cocaine. They are all factors in the spate of recent murders, but one of the most important factors that the analysis showed was that a larger cohort of young people are now particularly vulnerable to involvement in violent crime because of significant increases in the numbers of homeless children, children in care and children excluded from school. Just 2% of the general population have been excluded from school, compared with 49% of the prison population. As much as this Bill is, and should be, about taking offensive weapons off our streets, the issues around serious violent crime are also a story of vulnerability.
The Children’s Commissioner has shown that 70,000 under-25-year-olds are currently feared to be part of gang networks. The unavoidable conclusion is that, for a growing, precarious and highly vulnerable cohort of children, the structures and safety nets that are there to protect them are failing.
Behind this tragic spate of violence is a story of missed opportunities to intervene as services retreat; of children without a place to call home shunted between temporary accommodation, with their parents at the mercy of private landlords; of patterns of truancy and expulsions; and of troubled families ignored until the moment of crisis hits. The most despicable criminals are exploiting the space where well-run and effective early intervention, prevention and diversion strategies once existed.
As the Children’s Commissioner notes, the pursuit of young children is now
“a systematic and well-rehearsed business model.”
The Home Secretary himself highlighted the importance of early intervention in tackling violence when he told “The Andrew Marr Show” that we must deal with the root causes, but the £20 million a year we spend on early intervention and prevention has to be seen in the context of the £387 million cut from youth services, the £1 billion cut from children’s services, and the £2.7 billion cut from school budgets since 2015. For most communities, the funding provided by the serious violence strategy will not make any difference at all. How can it even begin to plug the gap?
We know what happens when early intervention disappears. A groundbreaking report 18 years ago by the Audit Commission described the path of a young boy called James who found himself at the hard end of the criminal justice system before the last Labour Government’s progressive efforts to address the root causes of crime through early intervention:
“Starting at the age of five, his mother persistently requested help in managing his behaviour and addressing his learning difficulties. Despite formal assessments at an early age for special educational needs, no educational help was forthcoming until he reached the age of eight and even then no efforts were made to address his behaviour problems in the home. By the age of ten, he had his first brush with the law but several requests for a learning mentor came to nothing and his attendance at school began to suffer. By now he was falling behind his peers and getting into trouble at school, at home and in his…neighbourhood…
Within a year James was serving an intensive community supervision order and…only then did the authorities acknowledge that the family had multiple problems and needed a full assessment. A meeting of professionals was arranged but no one directly involved with James, other than his Head Teacher, attended, no social worker was allocated and none of the plans that were drawn up to help James were implemented. Within a short space of time, he was sent to a Secure Training Centre and on release…no services were received by James or his family. He was back in custody within a few months.”
How many Jameses have we come across in our constituencies? How many mothers like James’s have we met in our surgeries? The pattern described here could just as well be attributed to a young man I had been seeking to help over the past year but whose life was tragically ended just last month. He was stabbed to death in my constituency, and another 15-year-old charged with his murder.
It very much feels as though we have learned these lessons before and are now repeating the same mistakes.
The Mayor of London has put £150 million into recruiting additional police officers. I appreciate the serious concerns in London but this is a national problem, as I have made clear and as the Home Secretary has acknowledged. This is not a London-only problem. Indeed, the increase in violence in London is actually lower than in other parts of the country, which is why a national solution is required. It is politically easy to pass the blame on to the Mayor of London, but it simply is not the case that that is the only solution.
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My hon. Friend makes a really potent and timely point; I was about to demonstrate why these weapons have never been implicated in any crime. There was one incident when one was stolen; the barrel was chopped down but the gun was quickly recovered and never implicated in a crime. There has been only one other incident: more than 20 years ago, a .50 calibre weapon was stolen in Northern Ireland and used in the troubles and then, again, recovered.
Instances of such weapons being likely to fall into the wrong hands are incredibly rare. Even if they did, they are most unlikely ever to be used by a criminal, as I shall try to persuade the House. They are as long as the span of my arms and incredibly heavy and bulky. They demand a great deal of effort between shots. They are simply not the criminal’s weapon of choice. The weapon of choice of a criminal is likely to be something gained from the dark web or the underground. It is likely to be a sawn-off shotgun, or a revolver or pistol of some sort. These really heavy, clunky weapons are simply not the weapon of choice of the criminal. In the one instance I suspect my hon. Friend the Minister will cite in her summing up, a criminal stole it, realised what they had got hold of and that it was not suitable to be used in a crime, and chucked it over a hedge.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and it is very sad, when people gain pleasure from using these rifles, that the Government want to effectively ban them. The muzzle energy will effectively mean a ban on the .5 calibre. The only reason the Government are banning them is that they happen to be one of the largest calibres. The police and the other authorities are saying that because they are so large they must be dangerous. I have to tell the House that any rifle is dangerous in the wrong hands and used in the wrong way. A .22, the very smallest rifle, is lethal at over a mile if it is fired straight at somebody. All rifles need to be handled with great care and held in very secure conditions.
In summing up, the Government will, I think, cite some evidence as to why these rifles need to be banned. They will cite the one that was stolen and chucked over the hedge with the barrel chopped off, they will cite the fact that one was used in the troubles in Northern Ireland, and they will cite the fact that more high-powered weapons are being seized by customs at our borders. But this has nothing to do with .5 calibre weapons. It has everything to do with illegal weapons, the sort of weapons of choice that, sadly, the criminal and the terrorist will use, but not these particular weapons.
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I thank you for that, because otherwise I would have something to say and that would not be helpful to you. I am just trying to be constructive. We are on Second Reading of a Bill, and I am allowing latitude, but Members must focus on the Bill.
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Whether it is the Mayor of London or any police and crime commissioner, I feel that they could all do certain things to tackle knife crime, including better community engagement, better use of stop and search, and the provision of preventive initiatives.
There are several parts of the Bill which I have some concerns about. I am never convinced that attaining the age of 18 should allow an individual to engage in any particular kind of behaviour or activity, whether that is drinking, voting, fighting in the armed forces or buying bleach. I therefore have some concerns about the age of 18 with regard to the provisions in the Bill. It is my understanding that the Home Office does not regularly collect data on the age of those engaging in acid attacks, but information collected from 39 forces showed that only one in five acid attacks was committed by a person under the age of 18. This leads to questions about whether the person who has purchased the substances is over or under the age of 18. I hope the Minister will take up this issue and legislate on it.
While preparing for this debate, I had a look on the internet to see how easy it is to purchase a knife online—for example, on eBay. I was pleasantly surprised to find that flick knives, gravity knives and zombie knives are not readily available. However, kitchen knives are, so the provision in the Bill that seeks to ban knives being sent through the post does not seem to be a very effective use of the legislation, given that most knives used in crime usually come from kitchen drawers.
I would also like some detail on the proposal to make the possession of a knife on a further education premises an offence. As has been mentioned, there are some scenarios where this is permissible. In the case of training, gamekeepers, chefs, cooks, hairdressers, electricians, builders and carpenters all require a bladed instrument, so in many respects these people will have to be excluded from the provisions.
The Bill seeks to ban the .5 calibre rifles that many Members have spoken about today, but these are legally held weapons. The owners have been vetted. They have been through a process where they have been judged to be not only competent but safe to own a gun. Many of them also regularly attend a club. I therefore have to ask, what does this have to do with violent crime? The owners have exemplary records and are among the most law-abiding people in this country, so why are they being victimised when they have nothing to do with violence, particularly in cities such as London?
The reason I am very interested in knife crime is that I witnessed someone being stabbed in 1990. It was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) said, quite an experience. It certainly had an impact on me. I was actually photographing at the time, and was pleased that I managed to take a picture of the perpetrator. He was subsequently convicted, but would not have been if not for my picture. My recollection of the person who fell into my arms with a big hole in his back will certainly never leave me.
We are approaching 80 murders within the capital this year. I conclude by mentioning two people, who were both my constituents. Back in the winter in Mill Hill, Vijay Patel was punched, hit his head and died; and Raul Nicolaie was stabbed to death in his house. I believe that this legislation will ensure that such tragedies do not occur in the future. I appeal to the Minister: if there is to be any legacy from this legislation, let this be her legacy, because the legacy of the Mayor of London currently is one of a lost generation.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. As he knows, the Bill has been drafted in such a way as to refer not to .5 calibre rounds, but to 13,600 joules of energy. The reason for doing that is to include other weapons, including .357 Lapua Magnum rifles, but that cannot account for the people who use home loads and lower the velocity of the round. The Bill is about whether the rifle is capable of firing it. People do use home loads, and they lower the capacity, the velocity and energy. The Bill does not account for that at all.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has put his finger on an interesting point. Clause 28(2) references “any rifle” from which a shot of more than 13,600 joules can be fired. The Bill is drafted much wider than just .5 calibre weapons.
Prior to the debate, we were furnished with a huge number of statistics, and those statistics make stark and appalling reading, because behind every one of them is a real life that has been lost, a family that has been destroyed or a person left with life-changing disfigurement and injury. In 2017—a particularly bad year—we saw a 22% increase in offences involving knives, an 11% increase in firearms offences and a near tripling of recorded corrosive substance attacks. Within a few miles of where we sit, in the city of London, we have seen more than 70 murders just this year.
I am pleased that a good proportion of the Bill is devoted to putting on a statutory footing many of the voluntary commitments that retailers have given over the last couple of years, and I know that many local authorities have worked with local traders to implement codes of practice regarding knife and corrosive substance sales. I am also pleased that the Bill extends to internet business-to-consumer sales, which is long overdue.
Clauses 12 to 27 contain expansive measures to restrict and control the supply and ownership of bladed items. That has been mentioned at length this afternoon, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes). We need a complete prohibition of these things called zombie knives, which are particularly fearsome and have no value in what they look like. They are not like 18th-century samurai swords; they have one sole purpose. They have cutting, serrated edges and are deemed and bought to be threatening and offensive.
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, not just for the concise and clear points he made in his contribution but for the poetry that he always brings to our debates.
My hon. Friends the Members for Solihull and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) also made the point about social media. That is why the Home Office serious violence strategy is funding the social media hub pilot, which will give the Metropolitan police the powers they need to work with social media companies to bring those videos down. I have seen drill videos; they are horrific and they need to stop.
The measures on the possession of offensive weapons give the police the powers they need to act when people have flick knives, zombie knives and other offensive weapons that have absolutely no place in our homes.
A number of colleagues mentioned clause 28, which is on high-energy rifles. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said at the start of the debate that we will listen to colleagues’ concerns. I reiterate that this is not an attack on rural sports; it is a response to the threat assessment of the National Crime Agency and the police.
Given the strong concerns expressed, I will take a moment to explain how clause 28 came into being. For those who are not familiar with such weapons, they are very large and heavy firearms that can shoot very large distances. One example I have been given is that they can shoot the distance between London Bridge and Trafalgar Square—some 3,500 metres. I can share with the House the fact that there has been a recent increase in seizures at the United Kingdom border of higher-powered weaponry and ordnance. The assessment is that those weapons were destined for the criminal marketplace, and that the criminal marketplace is showing a growing demand for more powerful weaponry.
I will finish my point if I may.
That is the background against which we are operating. Having received such an assessment, we must consider it with great care. We have a duty to consider it and to protect the public. I gently correct the suggestion that such high-energy rifles have not been used in crime. As the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) said, high-energy rifles were used in the 1990s during the troubles to kill people who were charged with securing Northern Ireland. We are listening, and, as I hope colleagues saw, I sat through the vast majority of the debate. Those and other issues will be addressed in the conversations that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and all the ministerial team will have with colleagues on both sides of the House.
I must pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who has devoted a great deal of time and energy not just to the Bill but to protecting our young people and tackling serious violence.