Ninth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 17 June 2002
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Criminal Justice Act 1988
(Offensive Weapons) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Wills): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 2002.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I am sure that, under your sagacious chairmanship, we shall deal expeditiously with the order.
The Criminal Justice Act 1988 introduced the power to ban the manufacture, sale and importation of specified offensive weapons. Today, in a direct response to the concerns of the airports industry, and in an effort to improve public safety, we shall add the category of disguised knives to the schedule of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order, resulting in their prohibition.
In December last year, a journalist made a return air journey from London to Manchester. Having passed through security at both airports, he smuggled three disguised knives on board each flight—a four-inch blade hidden in a comb handle, a three-inch stiletto blade hidden in a working ball pen, and a miniature cleaver. None of the knives was detected and there is no doubt that, in the wrong hands, they could have been used to deadly effect. As the journalist said,
''All clearly could be used easily to cut a victim's throat''.
Although we do not condone the journalist's actions, the point was well made about the existence of disguised knives—knives deliberately manufactured to be portable, concealable and to look like everyday innocent items—and the real danger that they present for airline and airport security.
Following the article's publication, the chief executive of the British Airports Authority wrote to Ministers underlining the dangers of disguised knives and the challenge that they present to airline security. He called for urgent action to be taken against the supply and sale of disguised knives. In the wake of 11 September, the airport industry's concern and our wish to ensure effective levels of airline security, we have taken the view that disguised knives are unacceptable. They have no legitimate purpose. They are manufactured simply to evade detection and to provide those so minded with a convenient means of carrying a deadly weapon. I see no reason why an individual should want or need a four-inch blade hidden in a comb handle—except to use it as a weapon to injure or to inflict worse harm.
Although legislation is already in place that makes it illegal to carry offensive weapons and most knives in public, there is nothing to stop the sale, import or manufacture of such particularly dangerous disguised
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knives. Currently, an individual can walk into a shop or log on to the internet and obtain a disguised knife with ease. We are not certain about the number of disguised knives that are in circulation, but we know that they are freely available. There is a wide variety of disguised knives, such as lipstick knives, mascara knives, telephone knives, comb knives, brush knives and lighter knives, to name but a few. That shows the willingness of certain manufacturers to produce such knives and to provide the public with a wide range of concealed weapons. Last year, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise seized more than 2,000 offensive weapons at airports, seaports and in the postal system. That demonstrates strongly the willingness of a significant number of people to equip themselves with such dangerous weapons and attempt to bring them into the country.
As those dangerous weapons are easily available, we believe that it is of the utmost importance to stop their sale, manufacture and import, to cut off their supply as far as possible and reduce the number in circulation. To achieve that, we are seeking to add disguised knives to the existing offensive weapons order of 1988, which will make it an offence to sell, manufacture or import disguised knives, and give police and Customs and Excise the necessary powers to take action against those who seek to trade in disguised knives or import them into the country. At present, the offensive weapons order prohibits 14 weapons, including sword-sticks, push daggers, death stars and butterfly knives.
By our legislating to ban the sale and import of disguised knives, public safety will be improved not only at airports and on board aircraft, but at places such as night clubs, sports grounds and courts where individuals may try to evade security and carry them for criminal purposes. We place high importance on public and airline safety, so we have sought to introduce the measure quickly. Consequently, we have not consulted widely about it, as that process would have unnecessarily delayed the banning of such dangerous weapons. A delay would not be advisable. However, four weeks ago we notified the main trade associations and we have not heard back from them. We have no reason to believe that they would object to the measure.
In seeking to ban disguised knives, the Home Office has worked closely with colleagues from other Departments, the Association of Chief Police Officers and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, all of which fully support the measure and accept the need for urgency. Scottish Ministers are in full agreement that disguised knives present an unacceptable risk to airline and public safety, and they have lent their support for the measure in order to ensure the effectiveness of a UK-wide import ban. The Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee passed a parallel measure on 11 June, and that now awaits parliamentary approval.
Prohibiting the sale, manufacture and import of disguised knives is a matter of public and airline safety. This is the most important measure that we can take to stop the supply of those wholly unacceptable and dangerous weapons, which have no legitimate purpose. It is of the utmost importance that we bring
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the measure into force as a matter of urgency, and I therefore hope that the Committee will support it.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I add my words of welcome to those of the Minister, Mr. Benton. I also welcome the Minister to what I suspect may be his first Standing Committee, although I am not sure. So many relate to home affairs that I may have missed his first, which may have been dealt with by another member of the Opposition team.
The Minister can be reassured that we will support the order. As his description shows, the use made of concealed knives is well established; the events of 11 September demonstrated that amply. Clearly, a four-inch blade concealed in an everyday item has no purpose other than that of being a concealed weapon. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I flag up one slight concern, on which he may be able to reassure me. We live in a society in which carrying knives has become an ill-regarded activity, but we must accept that there is a category of knife—the humble old penknife—that has several perfectly legitimate uses. People frequently carry penknives; indeed, I usually have one in my pocket. Its blade is not four inches long, and it is quite useful for opening letters, cutting string and a variety of other things.
Before I came to the House this afternoon, I was looking in my own home at some of the more historical items that have been produced, some of which may date back to the end of the 19th century or the early 20th century. Small penknives incorporated in items were manufactured in the past without any thought of them being used as weapons. That fact is amply demonstrated by the extreme shortness of the blades that usually come out of them. I have a slight concern about whether such items would be caught by the provisions in their absoluteness.
One item that I was looking at when at home was made from two coins that had been split and put together. A very short penknife and scissors had been mounted in it. The blade was not concealed and would probably escape being categorised as such. It would be unfortunate if a perfectly respectable gentlemen walking down the street carrying such an item fell foul of the law. That is clearly not what the Minister and the Government intend, and we all know what he is talking about, but I ask him to consider such cases.
That concern does not incline me to object to the order; I appreciate its urgency and necessity. I am in complete agreement with the Minister on the cases that he is talking about, but we should have a moment of caution, lest the measure ends up catching every category of blade, even the smallest. Some such blades may have been devised as cigar cutters, and those might be said to fall under the group in the provision, although I hope that they would not. However, I should be grateful for reassurance on that point.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I welcome you, Mr. Benton, to the Chair. We meet frequently on Committees such as this, and I presume that you may have drawn the short straw this
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afternoon, as you are also labouring under the Finance Bill.
I am particularly keen to welcome the new Minister. I am delighted that such a competent and able Minister is still in the Government.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Mr. Burnett: During the suspension, the Minister showed me some of the surgical and knife-like devices that he has on his person, which, he hastened to point out, were not his personal property; he had them for the purposes of example. We understand the reason for the measure, but we should like some clarification. Where is the offence committed, and what exactly is the offence?
The Minister's officials might understand that the notes that we receive are not as clear as they might be. That is why I shall probe slightly further into the order. What about, for example, sporting knives? Fishing knives are often longer than three inches.
Will the Minister elaborate on the offence itself, how it is committed and how the innocent possession, manufacture and sale of items such as scissors and sporting knives are protected? I am rather an old fogey, and I always wet shave. In Edinburgh, the razor blade in my overnight hand baggage came up on the X-ray machine and was confiscated. If I were an even older fogey, I might have a cut-throat razor, which would come up on the machine and would probably, rightly, be confiscated. Perhaps the Minister will discuss how items that are rightly confiscated from people's baggage at the airport can be returned swiftly and simply to an innocent holder. That is, perhaps, a permutation on the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).
I would welcome more detail about the offence itself and where it is committed. In addition, we do not want unnecessarily to penalise our manufacturers and people who sell such items in the United Kingdom. It seems that someone can buy a knuckle-duster from abroad and bring it into this country, should anyone want to buy such a ghastly thing, and they would not commit an offence. A little more elaboration would be welcome.