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Bishops oppose giving police power to search people for knives

14 January 2022

New orders intended to tackle ‘habitual carrying of weapons’


A knife-disposal bin in the grounds of St John at Hackney, east London

A knife-disposal bin in the grounds of St John at Hackney, east London

NEW orders enabling police officers to search people to ascertain whether they have a knife or other offensive weapon will not be rolled out without the agreement of Parliament, under amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill successfully supported by bishops in the House of Lords on Monday.

The Government argues that Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs) will enable police to take a “more assertive and proactive approach” to tackling the “habitual carrying of weapons by a number of offenders”, giving the police an automatic right to search such offenders “on a suspicionless basis”. Offences involving knives or sharp instruments increased by 84 per cent between the year to June 2014 and the year to June 2020.

A court will be able to make an SVRO, in response to an application from the prosecution, when an adult is convicted of any offence in which a knife or offensive weapon has been involved.

It could also make an SVRO if satisfied that a bladed article or offensive weapon was used by another person in the commission of the offence, and the offender “knew or ought to have known that this would be the case”, or if another person who committed the offence had such a weapon on them when the offence was committed, and the offender “knew or ought to have known that this would be the case”. The orders will be piloted in the Sussex, Thames Valley, Merseyside, and West Midlands police forces.

Concerns have been raised in both Houses of Parliament. Speaking during the report stage of the Bill on Monday, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, warned that “an individual could . . . commit a road-traffic offence while driving home from a church picnic, with their used cutlery on the passenger seat next to them, and the prosecution could ask for an SVRO.”

He also expressed concern that by including in the order those who “knew or ought to have known” that a third party had possession of a weapon, the legislation was likely to “disproportionately affect women and girls, who may well know or suspect that a partner or family member may be carrying a weapon but are far too vulnerable to be able to extricate themselves from a situation where violence involving such weapons may be committed by others”.

Lord Sentamu recalled being stopped and searched “a number of times” when he was a vicar in Tulse Hill, south London, and when he was Bishop of Stepney. Stop-and-search had “gone wrong”, he suggested, because police were not abiding by the requirement to conduct searches on “reasonable grounds”: “they just assume, and it creates difficulty within the community.”

AlamyThe Knife Angel, a sculpture composed of knives, outside Barrow-In-Furness Town Hall, in Cumbria, on Sunday. It is intended to show the harm caused by knife crime

Peers passed three amendments preventing SVROs’ being introduced beyond the pilot until a report on the pilot had been laid before Parliament and both Houses had agreed to its rollout. They also passed an amendment setting out in detail the evidence that must be included in the report.

Responding to the debate, the Home Officer Minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, emphasised that a court “must consider it necessary to make the SVRO in order to protect the public or prevent reoffending”, and said that the church-picnic example was unlikely to meet the threshold.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, spoke in support of an amendment proposing the establishment of a women’s justice board, along the lines of the Youth Justice Board. “Women are caught up in a criminal justice system that has been designed around men, and there needs to be a gendered lens,” she said.

Peers rejected the amendment, after the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, argued that, “unlike children in the criminal justice system, there is no separate legal framework for women.” The Government’s female-offender strategy set out “a comprehensive programme of work to respond to the needs of women in, or at risk of, contact with the criminal justice system”, he argued.

Bishop Treweek has previously complained that the strategy has been “very slow to be implemented” (News, 1 October 2021).

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