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Mr. Coaker: As the law stands at the moment, if there had been a shooting or a violent altercation involving knives, and the police did not think that another incident of that nature was likely in the locality, they would not be able to use their section 60 powers. Under the new proposals, if the House agrees to them, the police would be able to react to the situation and to stop and search people or vehicles in an area, without reasonable suspicion, in order to try to locate the weapon or to apprehend the perpetrators of the crime. That would be a measured and proportionate response, given the safeguards that already exist under section 60 relating to the rank of the officer and the shortness of the time in which the
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power has to be used—namely, 24 hours, or 48 hours if a superintendent agrees to it. Many people would be surprised that, in those limited circumstances, that power is not already available to the police. What we are saying is that section 60 exists to prevent future gun crime, while the new provisions are about reacting to something that has already taken place.

James Brokenshire rose—

Mr. Cox rose—

Mr. Coaker: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Hornchurch first.

James Brokenshire: I should like to refer the Minister to section 60(1)(b), which gives the authorisation that he has described in circumstances in which a relevant police officer reasonably believes that a person is carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons in any locality in his police area without good reason. Obviously the police do not feel that they are covered by that provision, but surely when a violent incident has already taken place and there is a suspicion that someone is in possession of such a weapon, the section 60(1)(b) powers would apply to give the necessary authorisation.

Mr. Coaker: That is not the view of the police, who are pleased that we are filling this gap and who support the new clause.

Mr. Cox: My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) has, to some extent, anticipated the point that I was going to make. If there has been a serious violent incident involving a weapon, that would be a pretty good ground for a police officer who came upon the scene fairly quickly to conclude that someone was carrying that weapon in the immediate vicinity. Under section 60, he could therefore make the appropriate declaration and exercise the power. May I put it to the Minister that the difference might be that the Government are now proposing an oral approval for the exercise of such powers, whereas approval has been required in writing up to now?

Mr. Coaker: That is certainly one change. Both the existing scenarios will require written authorisation and will not be able to be subject to an oral authorisation, but in circumstances involving the reaction to an incident that has taken place, the approval would be able to be given orally and followed up by written authorisation.

Another situation in which this proposal might apply could involve the police believing that a weapon such as a knife had been passed on to someone else. The police might not be searching for the perpetrator, whom people might already have identified. Eye witnesses might have said that the person in blue jeans and a red jumper had done it, but he might have passed the weapon on to someone else. In those circumstances, the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion of others would be a useful addition to the police’s powers to locate the weapon.

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James Brokenshire: I want to seek clarification from the Minister on the question of oral authorisation that he has identified as being necessary. Section 60(9) states that any

and that it

That wording suggests that it is possible to give an oral authorisation and to record it in writing later. That seems to be the oral authorisation that the Minister is describing. Does he therefore agree that these circumstances are already covered by section 60(9), or is he receiving different advice on this?

6.15 pm

Mr. Coaker: I am receiving different advice, in the sense that, in the new scenario involving a reaction to an event that has taken place, speed will be of the essence. We shall need to be very careful indeed about requiring oral, rather than written, authorisation. That is why we are not proposing to change the requirement for written authorisation in circumstances involving prevention in relation to the two scenarios that already exist.

As I have said, I am sure that hon. Members will agree that this extended power will provide the police with a useful additional tool in the fight against crime involving knives, guns and other weapons. Amendment No. 85 provides that the new clause should extend to England and Wales. We will work with the Scotland Office to consider how equivalent legislation should be taken forward in respect of firearms in Scotland, as the subject matter of the firearms legislation that includes search powers is reserved. However, the policing of offensive weapons, including knives and bladed instruments, is devolved. Amendment No. 86 amends the long title of the Bill to reflect the addition of this clause on stop-and-search powers.

New clause 8 concerns police powers of stop and search for knives, guns and other offensive weapons. It would repeal section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and create a new clause in this Bill that would largely replicate it, with some changes to the way in which the powers it contains may be exercised. It is not clear to me why this approach has been taken of repealing and recreating, rather than amending, section 60.

Section 60 provides the police with powers to authorise the stopping and searching of persons for knives and offensive weapons—which, in England and Wales, would include firearms intended to cause injury—without requiring reasonable suspicion that the person is carrying such a weapon, in a locality where a serious violence incident is anticipated or where the police believe that persons are carrying weapons.

The new clause proposes some changes to section 60 in its current form: to lower the rank of the police officer who may make an authorisation—a sergeant would be able to make an authorisation for six hours, an inspector for 24; to add two additional considerations that must be taken into account when extending the period of the authorisation; and to allow for an authorisation to be made orally, rather than in writing,
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in the first instance. There are also some less significant technical changes to the application of the powers, and to some definitions contained in the clauses.

The purpose of the new clause seems to be to increase the operational flexibility with which the police can make use of these powers, by ensuring that officers can respond to intelligence more proactively, and quickly make an authorisation under section 60 to prevent a violent incident from occurring. I have sympathy for the objectives of the new clause, and I agree that we should ensure the police have all the powers they need to tackle weapon-enabled crime, and that they should be able to make the most effective use of these powers operationally.

As I have said, I commend the hon. Members for Hornchurch and for Taunton (Mr. Browne) for their measured approach, following the concerns expressed on both sides when a related amendment was removed from the Bill in Committee. In my view, however, the changes to the existing section 60 do not amount to very much, and add little of substance to the existing powers. The amendment that I have tabled to section 60 will increase the flexibility with which the power can be exercised in circumstances where a serious violent incident has occurred, by allowing for an authorisation to be made orally. I do not propose to change the other safeguards concerning the rank of the officer who may make an authorisation, and its duration, as I feel that they are important to ensure that the powers are used in a proportionate way.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I understand that these powers would last for a certain number of hours after being invoked, but how big an area would they cover?

Mr. Coaker: That would be a matter for the police to determine, though one would expect it be in a reasonably confined area. Whatever the size of the area, however, one key consideration is to ensure that police talk to and gain the confidence of the community. We want them to take the community with them in using these powers. I and other hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, have spoken to the police and want to ensure that the powers are used proportionately. It is important for the police to discuss with the local community what they are doing and why they are doing it. The police and the local community will be able to solve the problem together.

Our proposals address the gap where existing powers do not apply when a serious violent incident has occurred, no further incident is anticipated and public order is not necessarily threatened by the carrying of weapons en masse. The Government new clause will extend the powers so that an authorisation under section 60 could be made in this scenario to assist the police in locating the weapon and apprehending the offender who used it, following a serious violent incident.

New clauses 8 and 9 both address similar purposes, but I hope that hon. Members will agree that the Government new clause is more substantial and has
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greater purpose in that it effectively fills the gap that I have described. It will be more useful to the police, who have said that they welcome it, and it will be more effective at tackling gun and knife crime. I respectfully ask the hon. Member for Hornchurch not to press new clause 8. I also want to make it clear that we intend to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the police and other stakeholders. We intend to continue to keep our policy under review to ensure that the police have all the powers they need to tackle gun and knife crime, and we intend to revisit this matter if it becomes clear that further changes are required in order to meet the common objective of reducing knife and gun crime on our streets to the lowest possible level.

James Brokenshire: There can be little doubt about the appalling consequences of violent crime and the need for appropriate measures, such as stop and search, to help prevent it from happening. The headlines this year have been dominated all too frequently with news of victims of gun and knife-related violence. What has been particularly disturbing has been the age of the victims of these tragedies. The Minister made reference to a number of cases and I share with him strong feelings of condolence for the families and disturbance about the issues that these cases highlight. The murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was shot on his way home from football training in Croxteth, shocked the entire country. It put into sharp focus the urgent need to face up to violent crime and deal with gang culture, which acts like a cancer, destroying the lives of individuals, families and communities in too many of our communities across the country.

In 1998-99, 864 people were injured or killed using a gun; whereas by 2005-06, the number had increased to 3,821—a fourfold increase. A study by the centre for crime and justice studies at King’s college, London found that attacks in which a knife was used in a successful mugging have risen from 25,500 in 2005 to 64,000 in the year running up to April 2007. Home Office research has shown that firearms are on sale in the criminal underworld for as little as £50, with polling commissioned by Policy Exchange indicating that nearly one in eight men know someone who has or has had an illegal firearm and that nearly a fifth of men say they would be able to acquire an illegal firearm. As for knives, according to a poll conducted for the Youth Justice Board in 2004, 28 per cent. of young people in mainstream schools had carried a knife in the last year.

In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Superintendent Leroy Logan, deputy borough commander in Hackney, described a situation of

The Committee also heard of the escalation of violence from young people, with one young person saying:

The clear indication is that there is a growing prevalence of offensive weapons in our community and, sadly, a willingness among some to use them. Some have even described the possession of guns as a “fashion accessory”. The situation is compounded by new routes of supply through the sale of weapons over
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the internet, for example, underlining the need for us to make our borders less porous and more secure. That is why it is right, in the context of the Bill, to consider the scope, adequacy and fitness for purpose of the current law relating to stop and search as part of wider measures to combat violent crime and the underlying causes of offending.

During the Bill’s passage through the other place, Lord Marlesford successfully moved an amendment introducing a right for a police constable to seal off an area and to search people and vehicles for firearms by whatever means he considers appropriate, if he has reason to believe that people may be carrying firearms.

The noble Lord said that the purpose of the amendment was to give the police

In Committee, however, the Government removed Lord Marlesford’s amendment, following which I made it clear that we would reflect on the proposal, which we have now done.

The two main existing statutory powers of stop and search are found in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. There are also additional provisions in the Firearms Act 1968 and the Terrorism Act 2000. Section 1 of PACE allows a police officer to stop and search a person in a public place for offensive weapons and other items. However, the power applies only where that police officer has “reasonable suspicion” that he or she will find such items. Those terms are further clarified in the codes of practice that sit alongside PACE.

Under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, to which the Government new clause relates, an officer of inspector rank and above has the right to authorise officers to stop and search people and vehicles within a specific locality for a period of up to 24 hours if they “reasonably believe” that crimes of serious violence may occur or that someone is carrying an offensive weapon. That authorisation can be extended by a further 24 hours with the consent of an officer of superintendent rank or above. It is important to note that this power may be exercised without the requirement of reasonable suspicion that would otherwise be needed under PACE.

We believe that there is a need to make an important change to the powers under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. We propose to create a new right for officers of the full rank of sergeant to authorise the stop and search of pedestrians and vehicles in a specific area for a period of up to six hours, if they reasonably believe either that incidents of serious violence may occur or that people are carrying guns, knives or other offensive weapons in that area. That authorisation could be extended to a maximum of 48 hours by further direction of an officer of the rank of superintendent or above. In addition, an officer of the rank of inspector or above would have an initial authorisation of 24 hours, capable of extension to 48 hours. New clause 8 gives effect to that.

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6.30 pm

The new measure has three intended purposes. It is intended to add a new preventive power to law enforcement, to help stamp out possession of illegal weapons and prevent violent crime from happening; to give police at operational level more flexibility to respond to intelligence and potentially fast-moving situations; and to underline the importance of community policing, anchored by the police sergeant, and help develop confidence within the neighbourhoods and areas served by the local teams.

We believe that this is a practical, common-sense change that will help the police to combat gun and knife crime within local communities. It is supported by the Police Federation. It is all about strengthening community policing on the ground, where the beat or neighbourhood sergeant has a key role. The sergeant is likely to have a closer connection with local issues and local people, and we think that that should be recognised within the framework, constraints and protection of the existing stop-and-search power under section 60. The new clause also underlines the importance of community-based solutions as part of wider measures to tackle violent crime and social breakdown.

We believe that a six-hour authorisation for sergeants is appropriate and proportionate to give greater assurance to the public in the fight to stamp out illegal weapons on the street. We believe that it can help to make a difference in preventing serious violent incidents, and that it contrasts with the approach of a Government who remain in denial about the extent and nature of the problem.

As the Minister said, the Government believe that their new clause 9 will fill a small gap. Although—as our interventions have demonstrated—we do not oppose the proposed changes in principle, it is difficult to see that they will add very much. The Government argue that the changes are needed to help police to recover and apprehend the assailant when a serious act of violence has taken place but there is no belief that further such acts will take place, and that they provide the potential for an oral authorisation invoking the section 60 power. However, authorisation under section 60 can already be invoked if there is a reasonable belief that persons are carrying offensive weapons in the stop-and-search area. If the new power is to enable officers to try to get hold of the weapon following a serious incident and catch the perpetrator in possession of it, officers must have the reasonable belief that someone is carrying an offensive weapon in that area. That means that the second limb of section 60 could be applied. As for oral authorisation, as I have said, section 60(9) already contemplates that an authorisation may be recorded in writing later when the giving of a written authorisation is not practicable, and as such it already envisages an oral authorisation. However, if it is felt that clarification of the law is helpful, we will take that into account.

Mr. Coaker: The oral authorisation in section 60 applies only to the extension of an authorisation, not to the original authorisation.

James Brokenshire: That is not clear from the wording of section 60(9), but, as I have said, I am happy to take on board any clarifications that are considered helpful. My general point is that I am not persuaded by the Minister’s argument that the proposal in new clause 9 is as significant as he has suggested.

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