There has been a recent spate of attacks on members of the public in London by criminals throwing acid at their victims.
The incidents have prompted calls for, variously: heavier penalties for those carrying out such crimes, tighter restrictions on the sale of caustic liquids and the introduction of a new offence of using corrosive substances as weapons.
The response is a paradigm for the reaction to the sudden emergence or re-emergence of a hazard into the public consciousness. But some of the solutions that suggest themselves immediately to such problems are likely to be more effective than others.
The first of the three proposals seems sensible if there is evidence that acid attackers have been sentenced too leniently to date. The current consultation by the Sentencing Council advocates increasing the tariff for gross negligence manslaughter by those who owe a duty of care because courts are currently handing out shorter prison terms for it than for other kinds of unlawful killing.
Restricting corrosives at point of supply – the second suggested remedy – also has its merits. Public access to equipment or materials that can have malign as well as benign uses is often controlled. In most Western countries our individual freedom to buy guns and some knife types is strictly curbed. The US is the exception and pays for its citizens’ personal liberty with a rate of homicidal shootings seven times that of the highest-ranked European country.
The question is how much convenience we are willing to sacrifice for the collective good. There are few domestic uses for concentrated sulphuric acid, but heavy restrictions on sales of bleach or sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) would almost certainly cause a backlash.
The third option, framing a new offence specific to acid attacks, should give us pause. Current law allows attackers using corrosives to be charged with grievous bodily harm and in some circumstances just carrying acid could attract a charge of possession of an offensive weapon under the Prevention of Crime Act.
The latest increase in violence involving acid is not, in itself, evidence that these powers aren’t sufficient.
Recent accidents involving tower cranes have led to some calls to reinstate the Notification of Conventional Tower Crane Regulations 2010. But those regulations were repealed because they had been introduced in reaction to an earlier clutch of crane accidents, but without any expectation by the regulators that they would result in safety improvements.
Legislation enacted with the main purpose that the government will satisfy the public demand to “do something” simply clogs the statute books.
More important than new laws, surely, is robust enforcement of the ones we have already that forbid us deliberately or negligently harm others.
Redirecting our attention to enforcement and pressing for the adequate funding of the enforcers that necessitates, whether it is the police or the safety and health regulators, should be our priority.