The Violent Crime Reduction Bill has been working its way through Parliament. Lynne Featherstone has led for the Liberal Democrats on the bill in the House of Commons. In this article she explains what the party’s line has been and why
There is a limit to what legislation can achieve – this Bill deals with the symptoms of the dreadful malaise that stalks (mainly) our young people – some of whom drink to oblivion and some of whom in believe that carrying a weapon makes you cool. So we should be realistic about the limits of legislation to change the world. But that said, the Liberal Democrats are right behind the Government on the overall aims of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill (not too often you can say that!). I may well have been very critical of some of the detail – and am very critical of the way they may use the new powers – but drink-fuelled problems and gun and knife crime need tackling.
Drink Banning Orders – introduced by the Bill – are a bit akin to parents grounding their children: a short sharp punishment which would stop them from being able to go to their favourite pub or club for a couple of months. Orders will enable the police and local authorities to stop an individual coming into a certain area because of their “criminal or disorderly behaviour”.
The trouble, as ever, with Labour legislation is that it is overweening and undefined – it could easily be abused. The bill uses the term “disorder”. One Labour MP seemed to think that running down a street and calling to a friend would be enough to constitute disorder! This is very broad and open to abuse. Labour has listened a little to critics – including a welcome concession that you can’t be jailed simply for breaking a drink banning order. Even this Labour Government realised that to end up with a five year prison sentence for skipping down the street drunk and shouting might be seen as a little over the top! But there are still plenty of other concerns left.
As for Alcohol Disorder Zones (ADZs) – these are areas that can be designated by a local authority and the police where there are large amounts of trouble from drinking establishments. The idea is that establishments within the zone to be designated have an opportunity to put forward a voluntary action plan, and if it works the zone isn’t imposed. But if it fails, it is – and imposition includes the power to charge establishments for extra policing or whatever.
Given we agree with the principle of the “polluter” pays this is ok in principle, but good landlords are treated the same as bad in the plans (and if the bad don’t play ball, the good have to pay the bill too), there are perverse incentives for local authorities to view this as a way of raising money, designating an area will stigmatise it (or even worse, glorifying it for some?), and many, many other arguments of detail.
The Government seem not to be interested in anything other than sloganeering that “we serve the lawful and that this legislation is targeted on the lawless”. Well yes – statement of the bleeding obvious in terms of what everyone wants as an outcome. But slogans aren’t the same as effective action. We already have so much legislation that the Government is not using properly regarding drinking and alcohol. It is already illegal to sell drink to the drunk (they virtually never prosecute). Local Authorities can revoke licenses (they rarely do). And there are the brand new powers for the police to shut down premises. But saying we want a new law gets cheap publicity points in a way that working to use existing laws properly don’t!
The other parts of the Bill are mainly about weapons. Basically the Bill, quite rightly, seeks to address the rise in knife crime and the use of imitation weapons along with some new limits on legal weapons.
During the course of the passage of the Bill we sought to address the rise in knife crime. We tabled an amendment that would have imposed an equal sentence on carrying a knife as a gun. You are equally dead if murdered by a knife as a gun – so we are seeking parity of sentence (and the increase in gun sentences does seem to have had an impact). Unfortunately, Labour voted against increasing the charge for carrying a knife – something to remind the public about in our leaflets!
Labour also have a measure in the Bill which raises the age from 16 to 18 for purchasing or selling a knife. But there is no description as to what sort of knife – which leaves the unsatisfactory position of being able to get married and have children at 16 but not buy cutlery!
So the Bill, supported by both Lib Dems and Tories, now goes on its way to the Lords. The measures will curb some of the excesses we all hope – but we all know that deep down this Bill just doesn’t begin to address what lies beneath: what is the root cause of the disaffection of our young people so that they drink themselves stupid and aspire to carrying weapons? That is the nut we have to really crack.
This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat News.