Newham has been called the acid attack capital of Britain. It is not a title I embrace, but since 2010, there have been 415 corrosive substance attacks in the borough. Acid attacks are clearly a growing problem. Across London, the number of recorded crimes involving acid increased by 16 per cent in the past year alone, with 446 incidents reported to the end of June.
Horrific crimes like these are often associated with revenge violence, a twisted idea of masculine honour – and abusive relationships.
However, most of the evidence suggests that the recent rise has different roots. Some of those who have fallen victim to acid attacks appear to have been specifically targeted as part of an ongoing cycle of gang violence, as it can be carried unnoticed through a knife arch. Many others have been attacked as part of opportunistic street robberies, most notably of mopeds and scooters. Stolen bikes are often used in further crimes.
Both victims and suspects tend to be young men, with some suspects significantly younger than 18. It is clear that the police are linking more and more suspects to known gangs. Use of corrosive weapons is a new tactic for these groups, but may not be radically different to the use of knives, which are all too familiar in our cities.
Whatever the root cause, the most practical and immediate thing we can do to tackle this problem is to restrict and monitor access to corrosives. Put simply, use of acid as a weapon of convenience is likely to drop, if that convenience is removed.
Regulation of corrosive substances occurs under the Poisons Act 1972, a law that was completely rewritten as part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s Deregulation Act in 2015, part of their ‘bonfire of red tape’. Their changes removed the requirement for suppliers of scheduled poisons to have a licence from the local authority, it abolished the expert advisory body known as the Poisons Board and replaced all with a system of Home Office licences (individual licensing) for users of the most dangerous poisons.
The introduction of individual licensing was not a bad idea, but its potential was snuffed out by the Tory zeal for deregulation. Many corrosive chemicals were not included on the list of substances that require a licence.
The result is that very dangerous chemicals have been left easily and cheaply available to potential attackers and abusers. Substances not requiring a licence include solutions of sulphuric acid with concentrations higher than 90 per cent and toxic agents like hydrofluoric acid, which can kill even by accident: exposure on as little as two per cent of a person’s skin can cause a cardiac arrest. Alkaline corrosives like sodium hydroxide and ammonia are also freely available and cause deep and life-changing burns.
We need, at the very least, to require individual licensing for a much wider range of dangerous corrosives, but there are several other straightforward reforms that the government needs to consider.
Access to these chemicals must be restricted to adults and there is good reason to make it a crime to supply children with the most dangerous corrosive chemicals other than in safe, well-regulated environments, such as schools and colleges.
On an operational level, the Metropolitan Police has begun to supply frontline teams with water and pH kits, to improve their response to corrosive injuries. We need to ensure that all first responders have access to specially-formulated rinses, like Diphoterine, to provide immediate assistance to victims.
The Crown Prosecution Service has made encouraging statements about its ability to take those who use these substances as weapons off our streets, but serious concerns remain. Many police officers I speak with are convinced that there need to be new, clearer offences enacted, to close all loopholes in the law and demonstrate that society’s disapprobation of this new trend is totally unambiguous. Carrying acid in public without good reason has to be a serious crime, just like carrying a knife.
Finally, the Sentencing Council needs to ensure that penalties are consistent, and proportionate to the awful damage these crimes inflict. The government should request a review to make this happen. It is reassuring that the CPS will now seek stronger sentences, but unless guidance for judges changes accordingly, outcomes may not improve.
These changes are all within the power of politicians, responsive to the emerging face of this rising problem and proportionate. The government should act now".
Lyn Brown is member of parliament for West Ham. She tweets at @lynbrownmp