Things have changed since I patrolled the streets of London as a Metropolitan Police Special Constable in 2008. My work as a Special was the daily routine of community policing: patrolling estates in North Kensington, getting to know local residents and businesses, stop & search, traffic duties, with the occasional excitement of a foot chase.
The experience was valuable as a glimpse into the challenges police officers face day-in, day-out. I saw how the job could be immensely difficult and immensely rewarding.
Back then, the concept of acid regularly being used as an offensive weapon on our streets would have seemed nightmarish and almost dystopian, even to the veteran regular officers I worked alongside.
To my distress, London is now living that nightmare.
Data I obtained from the Met Police shows that in the ten years from 2008 to 2018, acid attacks in London increased by 430 per cent, from 59 cases to 313.
It is impossible to overstate the horror of acid attacks. Victims are left with life-changing physical injuries often requiring years of specialist treatment. The mental scars are far deeper and longer lasting. Survivors talk of battling anxiety, loneliness, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Acid Survivors Trust states that ‘the path to recovery is long, complex and very painful at both a physical and mental level’ – exactly what the criminals who carry out these attacks intend.
It was with dismay that I learnt my home borough of Kingston – otherwise one of the safest in London – is among the worst in the city for violent offences involving the use of corrosive substances against a person; in other words, acid attacks.
My research shows a precipitous increase in these offences in Kingston, from three in 2015 to 13 last year – down from a worrying 20 in 2018. This makes us the joint fifth worst borough in the city. As recently as 2018 we were the second worst borough in London. This will likely come as shocking news for Kingston residents.
For context, neighbouring Richmond had five offences in 2019 and only one in 2018. Sutton had three in 2018 and 2019. Hounslow only had one in 2019.
There is clearly a serious local problem in Kingston. However, in response to my question, the Metropolitan Police advised that there is no specific local plan in place to tackle the issue; something that is surely urgently required and which I am now calling for.
Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats, who run Kingston Council and hold both Parliamentary seats covering the borough, show no signs of understanding that this problem even exists.
At their party conference in 2019 they adopted a policy opposing mandatory prison sentences for those caught carrying acid. ‘Misguided’ doesn’t begin to describe how badly wrong this policy is.
Acid is an offensive weapon – it is carried solely to maim, disfigure, and terrorise its victims. It is not carried for self-defence. Those who carry it have made the decision to cause great mental and physical harm. They must be punished for that decision.
Ed Davey, Member of Parliament for Kingston & Surbiton and LibDem leadership candidate, doubled down on his party’s policy. In a series of tabled amendments to the Offensive Weapons Bill 2019 he sought to reduce the penalties for selling acid to youths and attempted to eliminate mandatory prison sentences for second convictions of carrying corrosive substances.
The Lib Dem London Mayoral candidate, herself a Kingston resident, is yet to disown this approach, which could hardly be less suited to addressing London’s violent crime epidemic.
While a nasty acid problem developed in his own back yard, Ed Davey sought to water down the law. I am curious to understand whether, in formulating his party’s policy on sentencing for acid offences, Ed Davey either knew a problem existed in his own constituency and chose not to mention it, or was entirely unaware that Kingston has become one of the worst boroughs in our city for violent acid offences.
To me it is obvious: if you choose to carry acid, you must go to prison.
We absolutely need to have a searching debate about how that time in prison is best used to ensure that criminals are rehabilitated and given the support they need to lead productive, lawful lives, but this does not change the basic fact that for a justice system to work and to be respected, actions must have consequences – and those who choose to carry acid must face the consequences of their actions.
The only candidate in the Mayoral race with a sensible approach is Shaun Bailey. He grew up on the same estates in North Kensington I patrolled as a Special Constable. He has seen violent crime first-hand and he is the only candidate I trust to deal with these problems in an informed manner.
In vivid contrast to the Liberal Democrats, Bailey recognises the gravity of these crimes and wants to make life harder for the criminals, not give them an easy ride. He is calling for those caught carrying acid to be imprisoned on the first offence, not the second. He will take a zero-tolerance approach to gang activity. Bailey is a crime-fighting youth worker who is best-placed to work with the government to secure a good deal for London.
Bailey will also address why outcomes for these offences are so poor: in 2018 barely more than ten per cent of these offences had positive outcomes (i.e. a charge or caution) whereas in almost half of all cases, no suspect was even identified. It is a poor record and one that has fallen consistently from 2010, when there was a positive outcome in 40 per cent of cases.
The Liberal Democrats, now something of an irrelevance both nationally and in London, cannot be expected to take a serious approach to tackling crime in our city.
I was shocked when I learnt the scale of the acid attack problem in Kingston and how bad it is here relative to the rest of London. It is a problem that absolutely cannot be ignored.
I will make it a personal mission on the London Assembly to understand how this problem has developed and why Kingston is so much worse than other areas of London. The Metropolitan Police needs to investigate how our otherwise safe borough came to be blighted with this problem and – crucially – we need a local strategy to get these figures down to zero.
Originally published on ConservativeHome.