Parliament isn’t known for its speed. The passage of a Bill through the House of Commons and the Lords can take months, even years, as it makes it way through first readings, second readings, committee stages, report stages and third readings. It’s a wonder that anything actually becomes law.
But the Offensive Weapons Bill, designed to clamp down on people carrying dangerous weapons such as corrosive substances and knives, has hit an unusual number of obstacles. With tensions running high over the Government’s plans for Brexit, a scheduled reading of the Bill in mid-October was abandoned at the eleventh hour. Critics said that ministers’ fears of a rebellion over a proposed ban on certain high-powered rifles had prompted the Bill’s withdrawal.
It’s not the first time this has happened. The plans had already been delayed by a week for similar reasons, not least a suggestion that the Prime Minister wants to keep Brexiteers on side. But experts, including senior trading standards officers, agree that legislation to tackle acid and knife attacks is well overdue.
Brandon Cook, CTSI lead officer for age-restricted sales, says: “It’s high time that there is some control over corrosive substances. Clearly, it’s not just about people under the age of 18 that are a problem, although it’s important that something is done there. If we’ve got other age-restricted products then why wouldn’t we also want to control a substance that could be used as a weapon? Clearly that’s the next step.”
The full measures of the Offensive Weapons Bill are thorough and detailed. They include the creation of a new criminal offence of selling – both online and offline – a corrosive substance to someone aged under 18. Contained within the Bill is a list of products, both acids and alkalis, that constitute corrosive substances, as well as outlawed concentration levels.
There are also new criminal offences for possessing a corrosive substance in a public place, dispatching bladed and corrosive products sold online to residential addresses – except in specific circumstances – possessing weapons such as knuckledusters and death stars, and there’s an extension of existing offences of possessing a bladed or offensive weapon on school premises.
The resources issue
Trish Burls, TS Manager for Croydon and London lead for knives, explains the implications for trading standards officers. “The proposals are to make certain corrosive substances age-restricted as well as prohibiting their delivery to a residential address, the same proposal as for knives. It will also be an offence for a delivery company to deliver corrosive substances or knives to a person under 18 where an agreement is in place for the delivery of such products and the seller is non-UK-based. It will bring in a whole new area of age-restricted products, but it’s complicated to say the least. There will undoubtedly be a significant impact on resources for trading standards – training ourselves, educating businesses including delivery companies – an area of business that we won’t necessarily have engaged with up to now in any depth at all, and then carrying out necessary enforcement to ensure understanding and compliance.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Burls says that the Offensive Weapons Bill is absolutely needed. “In relation to corrosives there is currently no defined piece of law which prohibits the sale of such products to young people. Corrosive attacks in London are becoming commonplace; it’s the weapon of choice in some areas. While making the products age-restricted won’t solve the problem, it will go towards making the substances more difficult to get hold of by young people. We’re currently relying on a voluntary agreement by retailers not to sell to under-18s.
“Similarly, knife crime rates are currently at a seven-year high in London. While it’s clear that some knives are taken from the kitchen drawer, we also know that some are purchased, both from high street shops and online. The Bill goes some way towards addressing online sales. This won’t be a panacea to all violent crime but it will hopefully go some way towards contributing to a reduction in attacks.”
Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham, knows more than most about the scale of the problem. According to statistics from the Metropolitan Police, his borough has the largest number of acid attacks, not least a terrible incident last year when two cousins were left with permanent physical and mental damage after acid was thrown through the window of their car.
In the wake of that appalling violent act, Timms called on the Government to do a number of things to address what had been a rapid rise in acid attacks. “The key thing I wanted the Government to do was to make it an offence to carry acid in the street in exactly the same way that it’s long been an offence to carry a knife in the street. And this Bill does that, so I’m pleased. I would have liked for it to happen a bit quicker but I am very pleased it is happening.”
Taking it further
But Timms, who was on the parliamentary committee scrutinising the Offensive Weapons Bill, wants more to be done. “I think the Government should be going further in a number of respects. One of them is directly relevant to trading standards officers. I tabled an amendment in discussion with the Trading Standards Institute in committee calling on the Government to give trading standards officers powers to enforce measures that are in the Bill. Unfortunately, the ministers declined to do that. So I’m going to try again when the Bill comes back to the Commons on report stage.”
Trading standards officers concur that enforcement of the new legislation could be difficult. “We all need more resources,” says Burls. “This is going to be another duty to add to a long list. We’ve asked for enforcement powers to be included as they weren’t originally. Challenges will include training needs, identifying retailers who sell knives and corrosives – remember we don’t know who is out there as there is currently no requirement for a business to register the fact that they sell either product and so we can only target, for education and enforcement, those that we know about. These are summary-only cases and therefore time limits are short for the institution of legal proceedings. Any repeat offences out of the six-month time limit won’t be included in a case.”
While the specifics of the challenges before trading standards aren’t yet clear, what is certain, as Burls points out, is the need for more resources. It’s well known that local authorities have lost a huge number of tools at their disposal in recent years, including around 50% of their departments in the past decade, and the picture isn’t getting any better. They are continuing to lose staff and budgets.
Cook says: “I guess there will be an expectation for trading Standards at local level to do some enforcement. That’s what the ministers will be looking for. They’ll want trading standards to do something which shows them that something is happening. Our problem at local level will be resources. So as regards priorities, it will be about the local intelligence picture. It’s working with partners such as the police to determine whether individual areas have got an acid problem or a corrosive substance problem. And, if there is an issue, that’s where resources can be poor. The resources only go so far. And this is the same with knives. It’s about identifying what the picture is in your locality and then dealing with those priorities. I suspect that we’ll see a different picture across the country according to what the problem is.”
The impact for businesses
Peter Stonely, CTSI lead officer for civil law, agrees. “There is clearly a need for this legislation after recent events involving the use of corrosive substances in crimes, but it does place another burden upon stretched trading standards resources. This is also quite a comprehensive set of controls over the sale of corrosive substances as it does not just cover underage sales but also deliveries to residential premises, and it also places responsibilities on delivery services. It is inevitable that this will also lead to requests from SMEs for advice, who won’t have legal departments to help them out, thereby placing further demands on trading standards.”
He adds: “In terms of the basics of an offence and a defence for underage sales I am sure that trading standards will be able to enforce the legislation. There may be greater challenges with regard to some of the other offences with regard to the sale of corrosive substances.”
As for whether the Bill, in its current format, goes far enough, the general consensus is that it doesn’t, including the aforementioned issue of enforcement powers. But there are other concerns.
“The Bill doesn’t address the issue of non-UK-based sellers, obviously,” says Burls. “Instead, any delivery companies who know that they are delivering knives will be culpable. We know that weapons that are currently banned in the UK are available online from abroad and can be ordered at the click of a button. And we would like to see knives/blades inaccessible to customers, be it in a locked cabinet or behind the counter.”
At present, other than a moral responsibility, there’s nothing to prevent a retailer from selling sulphuric acid to a ten-year-old. Once the legislation is enacted, whenever that is, it’s possible that some retailers may choose to remove certain things from their shelves entirely, as Cook explains.
“One way around it for a number of businesses would be to not sell the products at all. So, if you were going to sell something with a corrosive substance in it which has a worthwhile use – maybe to take limescale off your taps or something – you just sell it in a concentration that doesn’t mean that the law kicks in. Which actually would make it safer for everybody because over-18s wouldn’t be able to buy it from there either.”
To read the latest on amendments to the Offensive Weapons Bill, click here.