Violent Crime Reduction Bill

The critical parts of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill are proposals brought forward by the Government to deal with alcohol-fuelled disorder and the rise of weapons (use and carrying) on our streets.

I am right behind the Government on the overall aims. I may well be critical of some of the detail – and am very critical of the way they may use the new powers – but drinking and gun and knife crime need tackling. I also think that this legislation (as ever) just 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.

However, one of the key point of the Bill is Drink Banning Orders. They 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. The grounds for dishing one our are problematic – as one Labour MP seemed to think that running down a street and calling to a friend would be enough to constitute disorder. There was no definition of disorder – but in the end the proposals try and target behaviour which by ‘normal’ standards would be unacceptable but not criminal. Difficult – but we will see how it works. It will need close monitoring.

Another proposal is that – in areas where there are lots of establishments serving alcohol – a local authority or a police chief can impose an Alcohol Disorder Zone (ADZ). This will be a defined area where all the establishments where alcohol is a prime reason for their existence will have to pay extra for policing.

The idea is good – but the difficulty in this part of the legislation is that well-behaved good landlords with model establishments will have to pay too. The Government as a consequence of opposition concerns has promised a variable charging scheme – so that culpability is relative to charge. But so far we have seen nothing concrete.

Also the Government has refused to cap the charge that can be made – so businesses don’t know how much they may be in for. I think there may be some real unjust actions as a consequence of ADZs. For instance – each area has an opportunity to put together an 8-week action plan. If the plan is also agreed by the Local Authority and the police they will then have 8 weeks to take the actions and demonstrate that they do not need to have such a zone imposed.

However, take the example of a good landlord within the action plan area who does everything asked of him by the plan, spends money, puts in lighting, hires more door staff – whatever required by the agreed plan. If others don’t do what is required the local authority will still impose the plan and the good landlord will have to stomp up despite doing everything that was asked of him. That is bound to breed resentment and become a disincentive to good behaviour.

The other part of the Bill is 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. LibDems support the Government on this – and during the course of the passage of the Bill we have sought to address the rise in knife crime to give it parity to gun crime. The 7-year sentence on carrying a gun has seemingly produced a drop in gun crime.

We table an amendment that will impose 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. Unfortunately, Labour voted against increasing the charge for carrying a knife. They have a measure in the Bill that 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!

Imitation guns have become a real problem – but the whole of the re-enactment brigade and airsoft players (a game) are up in arms (so to speak) in case their pastimes are inhibited. All of us on the Bill across all parties have been trying to bend over backwards to ensure that the games can continue but that the mischief of imitation weapons is ended.

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.

Airsoft update

First off – several people have asked who my staff talked to in the airsoft community who said they’d be willing to go along with the ends of airsoft guns being painted – e.g. dayglow orange. It was the people at

Second – I take the point that guns operating above 1 joule aren’t automatically lethal – and there’s clearly a lot of debate about the merits of 1 joule safety limit versus other limits. I’m listening carefully to these views and also passing them on to my colleague John Thurso who’s leading for the Lib Dems on this issue.

Airsoft update

Thanks for all the feedback about my earlier blog entry on airsoft. I’m following up the various points people made (and don’t worry, I’m not wanting all the guns to be painted pink!) – and will cover this further in my blog in a few days time.

Airsoft guns

Three sessions (extended) of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill in committee – non-stop pleasure today! Broken only by lunch with ITV execs who are trying to get to know me. It was very pleasant and spent some time discussing the X factor – which I have to say is fabulous!

In committee we ranged through imitation guns, air weapons, knives, searching pupils and so on. I thought I did quite well during what was a long day. Even Hazel Blears looked bleary at the end of the last session, which terminated at 9 at night – as did I probably.

In terms of imitation guns, I think the show-stopper was around airsoft. For those who haven’t a clue what this is – as I didn’t only a short time ago – it is a game played with pellets by adults who shoot each other with imitation weapons. The speed or power is measured in ‘joules’. As I understood it, one joule is regarded as lethal. The Tories put down an amendment suggested that up to 4 joules should be allowed. The logic of which I still don’t understand.

However, the show-stopper was that I had asked my researcher to phone AirSoft and see if they minded if their weapons were painted with a day-glow orange ring around the muzzle so that they would be obviously not for real. They said no probs – basically. Hazel thought that was extremely helpful – and I surmised that – despite the mountain of lobbying mail we had all received from airsoft players – no one from Government had talked direct to the relevant organisations.

Imitation arms are a menace – and whilst you don’t want to catch out re-enactment societies, plays etc – I totally support the increased penalties and crack down on the sale and manufacturer of such arms.

[UPDATE: Thanks for all various feedback on this topic; see my latter blog posting.]

Another really good amendment of ours (if I say so myself) was about the searching of pupils for knives. The Bill will allow supervised and senior teachers, never alone, to search a pupil for knives. This is now prevalent in our schools and much preferable in my view to having a metal detector as you walk into school. However, the Government had completely left out Further Education colleges where lots and lots of youngsters under 18 now attend for a variety of courses. So they graciously acknowledged that this was the case – and hopefully will come back with their version of our amendment at Report Stage. Report Stage is when the same, but reduced process we have just been through in Committee comes to the floor of the Commons for all to have their say. It then goes straight into 3rd Reading – and either it passes or not.

So we finished around 9pm at the end of three sessions today. Glad to be to it and through it. The first is the worst. It wasn’t bad – but being the first time I had led a Bill through a committee it was very challenging as I was unfamiliar with the processes – which in Parliament are bizarre – as well as concerned to make sure that I got all the right amendments down and argued them properly. One thing I don’t yet understand – and maybe never will – is why the Tories write out speeches on every point and burble on for very long periods adding nothing whatever to the point. Perhaps it is because they were all lawyers and are used to charging by the hour!