HC Deb 21 January 1959 vol 598 cc202-5

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law in relation to the making and disposing of flick knives and other dangerous weapons. It is now about four years since I first raised this subject here, then by way of Questions. An increasing number of murders and stabbings with flick knives and similar weapons have taken place since then, and I have frequently endeavoured to rouse the Home Office out of its complacency, unfortunately, without success. The dangerous situation created in consequence of the inaction by the Home Secretary in this respect has been frequently commented upon by judges, magistrates, social workers and others.

For example, Mr. Justice Streatfeild, as far back as 14th November, 1957, at the York Assizes, said: What an invention of the devil is the flick knife, which unhappily so often features in crimes of violence in this country often committed by young people. Personally I don't agree that there is any room for thankfulness or self-congratulation or complacency in that these articles are manufactured abroad. The fact is that they are used over here all too frequently. He went on: Time was within my memory when the use of cold steel at an argument was regarded with contempt and described as being un-English, but unfortunately, as time has gone on, we can no longer point the finger of scorn and contempt upon certain foreign races of whom we used to think it was very typical. It is now the unhappy fact that very often it is our country men who use them. I don't know how you feel about it, but one would have thought it was high time that Parliament considered either making the sale of these articles in this country altogether illegal or, at any rate, that they should be controlled by strict licence as firearms, or other dangerous weapons, because they are dangerous weapons and they should not be procurable by people who only want them to cut string. The West London Magistrate, Mr. Barraclough, in a case heard on 3rd November, 1958, said: It is absolutely scandalous that these things can be purchased by young men. Mr. Justice Salmon also said: The flick knife now appears to be regarded by teenagers as a badge of manhood. A responsible journalist employed by the Star,who made inquiries quite recently, stated: A youth of 17 in a street only a few yards from the spot in Holloway, where the policeman died, told me today: 'We carry knives for protection from other gangs. But many of the lads carry them for bravado'. And this from a schoolboy of 14 in the same district: ' Many of the lads in our school have flick knives'. As a police sergeant said: 'It's the fashion. A certain class of youngster thinks it's big to be able to flash a knife'".? I have received support for my efforts to deal with this menace from a considerable number of individuals and public bodies, national and provincial newspapers in general and from the papers circulating in my constituency, the Leicester Mailand the Leicester Mercury,which have constantly expressed concern about the present position.

I remind the Home Secretary that the Association of Municipal Corporations, which has a comprehensive membership, has recently requested him to introduce legislation similar to that which prevails in the State of New York, in the United States, a matter to which I drew his attention several years ago. A similar request has come from the Women's Group of Public Welfare and Standing Conferences of Women's Organisations, which consists of representatives from 46 national women's organisations and other voluntary organisations with a large women membership.

It also includes representatives of all three political parties, of the Churches— Anglican, Roman Catholic, Free Church, and Jewish—and a wide variety of social service organisations. Recently such organisations as women's Co-operative organisations in various towns and the National Association of Youth Leaders and Organisers have given support to the idea of dealing with this very serious position.

I have just returned from the United States, where I made some inquiries about the legislation which prevails in the State of New York. I have tried to direct the attention of the Government to this legislation before. According to the American authorities it is effective, and most of the fears which have been expressed in the replies to Questions given in this House with regard to the ineffectiveness of these Measures because of the use of these instruments by tradesmen are very much exaggerated; indeed, the American legislation reads as follows: a person who offers, sells, loans, leases or gives to any person any knife which has a blade which opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in the handle of the knife, hereinafter referred to as a switchblade knife; a person who offers, sells, loans, leases or gives to any person any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force and which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever, or other device, hereinafter referred to as a gravity knife; … is guilty of a misdemeanour. The question whether certain trades have to use these shocking instruments for certain purposes has been investigated by the American authorities, and at one time the legislation incorporated a provision exempting people who used these knives for trade purposes. But it has been found that that provision was not necessary and it has been removed. I think that the only way in which a person can now own one of these weapons is by being specifically licensed to do so. I am also told that shops have now stopped exhibiting these weapons, and that only those who are prepared to have proceedings taken against them still retain them.

I have received a letter, a part of which I think it would be useful to read, from a man whose son was killed by one of these weapons. He is a Mr. Gibson, who makes this appeal: The incidence of crimes involving personal violence, and even death through stabbing with 'flick knives' and the like, in the hands of irresponsible youths and certain foreigners, when alone, and more often in gangs, prompts me to solicit your influence and that of any association within reach of your good offices, to so secure, that such offensive weapons are not imported nor manufactured and distributed for sale in this country. The knives in question have no real practical use except the wicked purpose I have indicated —that of stabbing. The law has already provided severe penalties for persons carrying…offensive weapons, but left untouched the dealer who exposes for sale or sells them. He concludes by saying: …my motive in writing this appeal springs from a heart still grieving the loss of my only son. aged 21 years, who in June of this year was killed by being stabbed by such a knife as I have described"— that was in 1957— Nothing we can do can bring him back, that truth is obvious; but it seems to me some legislation at national level is demanded to protect the public and to combat this modern menace of recent origin, which is so un-British in character—meantime, many parents up and down the country remain worried and anxious. There is much that I could say, but it will have to be left for a later stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Janner, Mr. Chapman, Mr. Sydney Irving, Mr. Prentice, Mr. Wade, Mr. Eric Johnson, Mr. George Jeger, Mr. Marcus Lipton, and Miss Joan Vickers.