JACK McConnell went on the offensive against Scotland’s growing knife culture yesterday, announcing a series of tough measures he hopes will stem the "scandalously high" human toll from knife crime, particularly in Glasgow.
The First Minister said he would introduce sweeping new powers, allowing the police to arrest anyone found carrying a knife. He announced longer sentences for knife-related offences and said he would introduce major restrictions on the sale and possession of knives and blades.
The sale of all swords will be outlawed in Scotland, nobody under the age of 18 will be allowed to buy a knife of any sort, and retailers who want to sell non-domestic knives will have to be licensed and monitored.
The First Minister said Scotland had a responsibility to tackle the "scandalously high" level of knife crime in "our own time and our own way" and as soon as possible.
His changes go far beyond anything previously proposed in Britain and signal the Scottish Executive’s determination to take action on a problem that is escalating out of control in some parts of urban Scotland.
Knife crime is a particular problem in Glasgow, which has the worst murder rate in Britain, at 58.7 murders per million people - twice as high as London, where the rate stands at 26 per million.
Half of all homicides in Scotland as a whole and in Glasgow are caused by knives or other sharp instruments, according to the latest figures, and ministers believe they have to do something to stop the trend.
Mr McConnell announced his plans at a press conference in Edinburgh almost three years to the day after he succeeded Henry McLeish as First Minister.
Mr McConnell said: "It is my very strong view, and it is a view shared by the Cabinet, that far too many young men, particularly in Scotland, view the carrying or using of knives or offensive weapons as an acceptable practice. It is not acceptable. The law in Scotland must be clear, the system must protect innocent victims and the culture of Scotland, particularly in our cities, in relation to knives and violent crime, must change."
He added: "The sale of swords in Scotland today is fundamentally wrong. There can be no reason for people buying swords off the street for use or to have in their homes."
The Executive’s proposals are:
A licensing scheme for the sale of non-domestic knives and similar objects. This would require all shops selling non-domestic knives to be registered and licensed. Any retailer caught breaking the law would have its licence revoked.
Increasing the minimum purchasing age for knives from 16 to 18.
Banning the sale of swords. While the sale of swords would be outlawed under the proposals, the Executive has no plans to ban swords being kept in private homes. There would, however, be a ban on the possession of a sword in a public place.
Giving the police the ability to arrest anyone found carrying a knife. At the moment police can only arrest people if they prove they are carrying a knife, have grounds for believing a crime is going to be committed and a third reason such as breach of the peace. The Executive intends to sweep away all these conditions, allowing unconditional arrests to be made.
Doubling the sentence for possessing a knife or offensive weapon from two years to four.
Officials were quick to point out that Mr McConnell’s proposals wouldl not affect anybody wearing a sgian dubh, which is already exempt from anti-knife legislation because it is part of Scotland’s national dress.
The First Minister conceded that all the new measures might not be in force for a couple of years because of the need to have a public consultation, then put the policies through parliament.
Mr McConnell said police would use existing powers such as stop-and-search to tackle knife crime.
He added: "We believe the police should have the power of arrest on suspicion of carrying a knife or offensive weapon.
"We need to shift the balance of power here in the law in favour of those victims who far too often - particularly in Glasgow city centre but in a number of other parts of Scotland too - find themselves in hospital on Friday or Saturday night as a result of what appears to be the casual incident of a passer-by."