Cracking down on acid attacks

Government must make it harder to obtain noxious substances and introduce tougher punishments for those who use them as a weapon, writes Stephen Timms MP

Today I am opening an adjournment debate in parliament on acid attacks. The recent spate of attacks has provoked serious concern among my constituents. We need an effective response from the government, so that the incidence of attacks is reduced and people no longer fear for their safety when walking around the streets. We should make it harder to obtain noxious substances, and introduce tougher punishments for those who use them as a weapon.

I am pleased the home secretary announced a review of the law enforcement and criminal justice response. We need the review to conclude – and lead to effective action – quickly. I welcome her acceptance of my plea for a review of the sentencing guidelines, with a view to tougher and more consistent sentences for those convicted of acid attacks.

In today’s debate, I will urge that the review should lead to two specific changes in the law:

  1. That it should be an offence to carry acid, in the same way that – following a change in the law in 2008 – it is an offence to carry a knife;
  2. That sulphuric acid – commonly used as a drain cleaner – should be reclassified under the Explosive Precursor Regulations 2016 into the higher of the two categories, so that purchase would require a licence, as proposed by the British Retail Consortium.

Acid attacks are particularly abhorrent. Acid is thrown onto the body of the victim – usually the face – often with the intention of permanently disfiguring, maiming or blinding the victim. Highly corrosive substances can burn the skin, often exposing and dissolving the bones below.

The scale of the problem is growing. In the small hours of Friday morning, there were a series of five acid attacks within 90 minutes across Hackney and Islington. Two teenagers have been arrested in relation to the crime. One victim, Jabed Hussain, a 32-year-old delivery driver, said: ‘I felt like somebody put fire on my face. I was just begging for water because at that time it was burning on my face.’

Last month, two cousins were attacked with acid while sitting in a stationary car in Beckton in my constituency. Jameel Mukhtar and Resham Khan – an aspiring model – suffered severe burns, described by the Metropolitan Police as ‘life-changing’. The police are treating the attack as a hate crime, and a suspect has been charged. This horrifying incident has given rise to deep anxiety in our community, especially among women.

Last year, there were over 450 acid attacks in London, up from 261 in 2015. In 2016, almost a third were carried out in Newham. Since 2010, there have been 446 acid attacks in the borough.

Acid is becoming a preferred weapon for criminals. It is easy to obtain, very cheap – available for example in pound shops – and hard to trace back to the perpetrator. According to Metropolitan Police figures, only two of the acid attacks in the last year have been hate crimes, including the one in Beckton. The rest are connected with gang violence and robbery. The relative difficulty of acquiring firearms in the United Kingdom, and tighter restrictions on knives, makes acid potentially less risky for those wanting to commit violent crimes. We need to make it riskier.

The government needs to take immediate action to deter further attacks. I am pleased to have the support of Newham council, and will be working with others to tackle this problem. I hope for an encouraging response from the minister in this evening’s debate.

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Stephen Timms is member of parliament for East Ham. He tweets @StephenCTimms

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