Amber Rudd’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester contained news acid attack survivors and campaigners have been waiting for since July. Rudd announced her intention to introduce a new offence for carrying acid in a public place, equivalent to that of being in possession of a knife, with increased prison sentences. Also proposed was the banning of the majority of corrosive acids for sale to under 18s and the sale of sulphuric acid will also be reduced significantly with those wishing to purchase, finding it increasingly difficult.
However, is it time to ask why such an announcement had to wait until October? A brief glance at the UK Parliament’s diary shows the Commons in recess from the end of July through to the start of September, followed by a three-week break for conference season.
Essentially, then, no official parliamentary business is undertaken from early summer to the middle of October. It is time now, to review parliamentary recess and the impact it has on changes to laws and policy.
It was back in July that the Home Office announced a new action plan to tackle the sharp increase in acid attacks, particularly in London, that became increasingly reported in the mainstream media. A review was planned, to look at new guidance for the prosecution of perpetrators of attacks, strengthening the hands of the court to apply the 1972 Poisons Act and increase the power judges have to employ stronger sentences.
Amber Rudd described acid attacks as ‘horrific crimes which have a devastating effect on victims’ whilst promising that new guidelines would create ‘sentences that reflect the seriousness of the offences and victims are given the immediate support they need’.
Meanwhile, in the House of Commons debate on the topic, Labour’s Stephen Timms MP called for the possession of acid to be equated with that of carrying a knife, and argued for licensing of sulphuric acid.
Furthermore, an online petition called for Amber Rudd to “Prohibit the purchase of acid to those without a licence”. The petition raised north of 500,000 signatories, illustrating public desire for action to be taken on acid attacks.
Why then, with such a strong promise of action, did acid attack survivors have to wait until October to hear the plans proposed? The first indication that the shortage of parliamentary time would impact the governments strategy on acid attacks was evidenced in the Commons debate in July, when Sarah Newton MP stated:
‘We are working on this with great urgency. We are about to go into recess, but I want to reassure the right honourable Member for East Ham that when Parliament gets back in September I will make sure that I update colleagues’, later adding; ‘I cannot commit myself tonight to a particular time by which we will complete the work.’
Throughout the summer, further examples of acid attacks occurred, causing more individuals and families great physical and emotional damage. One such incident happened in September when six people were hospitalised in East London with serious burn injuries from an acid attack, some two months after action was first announced.
It is of course foolish to presume that government grinds to a halt, that the civil service puts up its feet, and policy makers take a three month trip to the South of France. What is clear though, is that new legislation and directives cannot be introduced, and even the announcements of which are delayed whilst parliament is in recess.
In the case of acid attacks this has meant a delay in introducing crucial changes that may well prevent injuries, physically and mentally to victims. Furthermore, it has served to illustrate the need for parliament to reduce the recess times, and act in a more flexible way for the good of society. Whilst everyone would accept that parliament needs to be more family friendly and representative of society, it is simply not acceptable to take such long recess breaks.
It can only be hoped that acid attacks will decrease in frequency, and that government policy and law change will enable the judiciary to enforce tough sentences on those that perpetrate heinous acts with acid. However, a thorough examination of the impact of parliamentary recess needs to be undertaken without delay to make sure important parliamentary matters are prioritised over holidays.